What story are you dying to tell? What story consumes you? Maybe something happened in your past that you’ve been wanting, for years, to turn into a great yarn — a love affair, a troubled childhood, the death of someone who was close to you. Or, maybe you read something in the newspaper that you’ve never been able to forget and you want, now, to turn it into a novel — the story about a couple of poor kids who discover a huge sum of money and spend weeks trying to find its owner, or the one about a kidnapped child who goes on to lead a happy life after his ordeal is over. Whatever the story might be, it is time, now, to tell it!
The story I was dying to tell was one that I had experienced as a student at UC Berkeley during the Vietnam War. I didn’t write a memoir about that time because I wanted to create my own story out of the experiences I’d had and wanted to include, as characters, people that I hadn’t actually known. Here’s another thing – I knew from the very start that the point of my story would be that the young men of that generation, because of the Draft, had to make life-changing decisions before they were even able to vote, and that none of their choices were good ones. I later learned, after years of painful re-writes, that making a point, moral, political, or otherwise, is not really the best way to start a novel. (I’ll talk about this later).
Where to begin? Here’s what I do, and it has nothing to do with putting pen to paper. I start by lying down on the couch, at a time I know I will not be interrupted for at least an hour (two is better). Then, I close my eyes and pretend that I am watching the movie of my story. When does it begin and where? (not necessarily at the actual beginning — more about this later). Who are the characters in this movie? What is their relationship to one another? What incidents lead up to the climax of the story? How does it end? You won’t be able to answer all of these questions now. The point of telling yourself this story is so that you will begin to feel the flow of it, from beginning to end, to actually see where you want it to go. To own it. To believe that you can actually make it happen. Remember — Seeing is Believing.
The next step is to grab that pen and paper or computer, immediately after watching your movie, and start madly writing about your story in a stream-of-consciousness way. Write down anything you learned from this experience, taking notes in any way that suits you. This is the seed from which your novel will grow. Notice how your story is already veering away from the original one. Maybe the kids who found the money were teenagers, but you’re writing a book for 8-12 year olds. So, you change their ages. The original kids were boys, but you want girls to be the heroes, and on and on. Write down anything that comes into your mind — it doesn’t have to make sense yet. These are just ideas for now. But, if you think you already know what the climax is or the ending, write that down. These things will probably change, but, for now, you’re just trying to get a sense of where you’re going.
Don’t forget to also write down your own feelings about these events that you either witnessed or read about. What specifically drew you to the people involved? Exactly how did you feel about them and why? Answering these questions on paper or on the screen will give you constant reminders, through the writing process, of why you care so much about this story, and the caring is what will give life to your story.