Friday, January 19, 2018

The Value of First Thoughts

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Last Friday I wrote about the importance of committing to an idea. Today, I'm  going to talk about my first thoughts on a project and why it's so important for me to get them onto the page. I want to make it clear though, that this isn't necessarily STEP #2 for me. As I mentioned in last week's post, committing to an idea isn't something I do lightly and it isn't something I ever do before squirreling around with my narrator's voice and a character or two on the page.

This is all part of STEP #1 for me and at this point I'm little more than a discovery writer. A discovery writer is someone who sits down to write with little or no idea of what they plan to do or where they want their story to go. Another term for a writer like this would be a pantser, so named because this writer writes by the seat of his or her pants.

Of late, I've started to pull away from the term pantser and lean into the term discovery writer. It feels like what I'm doing when I sit down to write. Author Joan Didion said this:

Me too, Joan. Me too. At this point in the process, when an idea seems to have merit, when it entices me, when it disturbs my sleep with unanswered questions, I need to sit down so I can discover what it is I think about the idea.

In many ways, Joan Didion was talking about the bigger picture. She was talking about writing to figure out what you think of the world, and society, and the human condition. But in every stage of writing a book, this quote rings true. If you're like me, you must sit down with your idea and you must write on it to figure out what you think.

At this early stage, the writing is all about my narrator and my protagonist.

The way it works is simple. I pull out my notes. Yes, I have notes. If you haven't read Jill's Wednesday post, you should do that. She talks about making lists for world-building and characterization. I do something similar in the early days of toying with an idea. I'll jot down every idea that pops into my head about a story concept and I'll keep it in a notebook that I haul with me when I run errands or sit in the school parking lot waiting for my kids. It's not fancy. It's just a cheap notebook from Target with ideas arranged in no particular order. But I make sure to keep it at my elbow when I'm sitting down to flesh out my first thoughts.

With that notebook nearby, I'll read through the list and choose some aspect of the story that can easily be translated into a moment. Truly, it does not matter which moment I choose, but I've noticed that I have a tendency to choose a point in time that could feasibly be worked into an opening chapter. Just the way I seem to work.

Once I have my moment selected, I give myself two maybe three minutes to think about it and then I set a timer for fifteen minutes and I don't stop writing until the timer goes off. We call these word sprints and they're immeasurably valuable. They can help you capture your first thoughts on any given subject, moment, or concept. After fifteen minutes of writing, I do one of two things. I either set the timer for another fifteen minutes and keep going, or I allow myself to read back what I've written, typos and all.

I do this as many times as I need to until I can answer these two questions:

Who is my narrator? And do I like my protagonist?

Things I want to discover about my narrator during these early writing sessions:

Point of view: Who is telling my story? Will there be one narrator or several? Is my narrator also the hero of the story (first person) or is someone else describing events as they happen (third person)? If so, is this someone else an all-knowing, all-seeing omniscient narrator? In any case, how much knowledge, experience, education does my narrator have?

Tense: When is my story taking place? Is my story taking place in the past? If so, is it the recent past or the distant past? Maybe my story is taking place in the present?

When I first did this exercise for the book I'm working on now, I hated the way my first thoughts fell onto the page. I didn't like the narrator (omniscent, btw) at all. But what I learned when I read my words back is that I really did like my protagonist (my hero). I liked her story as I was beginning to piece it together in my head, and I wanted to examine it further.

When I came back to the page, I chose a different moment from my notebook to zero in on and I began in first person, present tense. During this fifteen minute sprint, I didn't deviate from first person, present. I stayed with my hero in that moment until the fifteen minutes were up.

When I started the timer over again, I chose another moment from my notebook, an earlier moment in my hero's life, and though I stayed in first person, I switched to past tense.

After those fifteen minutes were up, I realized how much I liked this format, moving back and forth between my hero's current struggle and her past life. It was an eye-opening half hour for me, and though it took two different writing sessions to figure it out, I now know everything I need to know about the point of view and tense of my work-in-progress, and I've discovered that I do really like my protagonist. I want to know more about her. More than that, I think we'll get along well enough for me to allow her to rent space in my head for the better part of a year.

Things I want to discover about my protagonist during these early writing sessions:

Who is the best hero for this story? Sometimes my great story idea revolves around a concept or a set piece or high impact event and I'm not entirely sure who is best suited to tell the story. If you're in this place, you may have many options. If so, you may decide to devote a word sprint or two to each of these characters until you're able to zero in on a hero or two worth following. Yes, you can have multiple heroes, but no, we're not going to dig into that today.

Does my hero have an easily definable goal? My hero does. The story I'm working on is based loosely on a historical event, so I have some idea where my hero is heading. If you're using my word sprint/discovery writing method to flesh these things out, you don't need to focus on this goal during the free write, but having it in mind will help you. If you don't know what your hero's goal is, these word sprints might set you on the road to discovering it.

While these early writing sessions don't always leave me with words worth keeping, they do set the tone for every minute of writing time that will follow. They teach me about my own frame of mind when I enter this world and they begin to evoke emotions in me that will eventually make it onto the page. The story itself starts to take on a flavor, a vibe, a style. And whether or not that flavor, vibe, and style are appealing to me is very important. And with just a handful of writing sprints I'm able to discern if this idea is worth pouring time and creative energy into or if I would be better suited working with another idea altogether.

Tell me, do you use word sprints or free writes early in your writing process, or do you save that for later?


  1. This is an AMAZING idea and I seriously can't wait to try this!! I'm not going to do it for the next two books in my series, just because I already know my MC/POV/etc. from writing the first book. But after that... I'm excited!

  2. I don't usually do a lot of freewriting at the beginning of my writing process, but sometimes I'll do it to discover my characters' motivations. I had to do this during my most recent rewrite of my first book. I didn't have a antagonist motivation AT ALL! It was awful, but I got a lot out of my freewriting sessions. Now he's starting to become a real villain with real motivations. It's super cool to watch!

    This is so enlightening, though. I might have to try a variation on it for future stories. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Free writing in all its forms is incredibly helpful! I totally agree.

  3. Hmm, I've done sort of a character 'interview' when I was still kind of fuzzy on my characters. I more or less just sat down, slipped into their heads, and tried to understand them. I ended up learning quite a bit, and it quickly allowed me to piece together a way to fix my messy beginning.

    1. Ah yes! The character interview. A helpful way to learn details about your characters. The hard part, for me, is hearing my character's voice and the interview has never been particularly helpful in that area. I had to move on to free writing. But I'm so glad you've found a tool that's useful to you. That's what this whole thing is about. Finding useful tools.

  4. I do freewriting like this a lot, especially when I'm stuck. It's such an fun way to come up with ideas and see what works!

  5. What an interesting method. I'd love to try it sometime. It sounds like a great way to discover if you like an idea enough to pursue it. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Shan, I found this fascinating! I love that you do this as you decide if this is the right idea to pursue.