Sunday, June 20, 2010

Where Do I Start?

If you're thinking about writing a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, you might ask yourself, 'Where do I start?' What comes to mind when you say those words? A character, an image, an event, an incident from your past? At this point in the creative process, it doesn't really matter because over time it will change and develop into something that rises gradually and unexpectedly from your 'writing self.' This writing self or Welf is a Secret Being that's lodged in your subconscious and is in charge of your vision as soon as you make the commitment to start scribbling. Before you've really got your story set in your mind, the Welf lets you meander over ideas, impressions, feelings, and mental pictures of the big book deal. It lets you get warmed up with your myriad imaginative thoughts. The Welf is a patient being, and it allows you the space to be creative before it quietly and surreptiously sneaks into your brain and takes over your pen. Don't be alarmed; you want and need its help, but don't forget, it's a Secret Being; you won't know it exists until you start writing.

Thanks to your writing self, you don't have to worry about where you start, but you need to write something. It's not carved in stone, and the Welf will be making dramatic changes to your ideas anyways, but just get something started in your head that interests you and keeps you connected to the whole process of self-expression.

For instance, a character I remember from my childhood was called Nature Boy. He never made it into a story, but he was one of my 'start characters.' Nature Boy was our town's first jogger. He literally lived in a shack a couple miles from my neighborhood, and every few weeks I'd see him jogging along the road and sidewarks in his hiking boots or sneakers (depending on the season). In his late forties with greying hair surrounding a face beaten and tanned from the sunlight and wind, he wore leather shorts and a heavy cotton shirt in the winter, and a clear, plastic cape when it rained. In warmer temperatures he sported light-weight shorts and a shirt. Jog, jog, jog. Never walking. Always on the move. Recently divorced, he had experienced a kind of breakdown when his wife left him. That was the town's reason for him being 'not quite right in the head.' My father was a newspaper man from Irish farmland who empathized with Nature Boy's desire to live the simple life. He would often visit the man at his shack, rest on an apple box, smoke a cigar, and share a cheese sandwich while discussing the difference between cow's milk and goat's milk. His final visit involved explaining to Nature Boy why the town needed him to move off his property. He was a squatter and the land was being developed into a housing subdivision, so the city council needed him to vacate as soon as possible.

As kids, we never knew he was the first jogger until jogging became popular. We all just thought Nature Boy was cool because he was so different. Harmless and odd, an interesting combination for a young writer who never saw him again after he left his shack, but whose essence stayed and settled in my mind until the day I started my first novel SHADES OF WAR. The Welf took Nature Boy and morphed him into a character named Oscar, an odd but healthy and hardworking miner whose eccentric behavior barely raised an eyebrow among his fellow townsfolk. On his days off, he preferred to dress in women's skirts and silky lingerie.

For me, the image of Nature Boy was a start. You have to start somewhere. After that, trust the scribbling gods to surface and guide you to where you really want to go. In my case, I wasn't really interested in the jogging man; after all, I never met him or spoke to him, but I was fascinated by his determination to do as he pleased. That was the real start of my character.

I had no idea that Nature Boy's individuality had impressed me, but that's the joy of writing: you never know what's inside you, what's trying to come out, but it's such fun to discover your secret life with its resident Secret Being when you put it all down into words.

So, where do you start? Easy. With yourself.

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