Tuesday, February 11, 2014


The one thing I can count on when starting a new manuscript is the feeling I’ve never written a book before. Because each of my stories has to find its own way, and I can always use a refresher course on this thing called writing, I decided to use writing guru Darcy Pattison’s latest book, START YOUR NOVEL, as my guide when drafting a new book during National Novel Writing Month last November.

Darcy opens her book by stating everything a first chapter must accomplish:

  • grab your reader’s attention
  • ground your reader in the setting
  • intrigue the reader with a character
  • give the reader a puzzle to solve
  • set the pace

The first chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book. The first sentence builds on the first page builds on the first chapter. And to grab an editor’s attention, all three must shine.

I consider myself a “plotser” (or “planster”, as Darcy would say) -- someone who doesn’t fully plot a story but also doesn’t fly by the seat of her pants. Darcy says her approach might feel overly rigid to pantsters or too loosey-goosey to plotters. For me, her system feels like the perfect fit.

So you have an idea for a story? Now’s the time to brainstorm possible scenes. Next Darcy suggests studying the “29 Plot Templates” to decide which structure might best tell your story. Will your book be a quest? A story of escape? One about an underdog or forbidden love? “Each plot pattern would require a different set of scenes, emotions, motivations.” The approach you take will affect how you let your possible scenes play out.

Darcy then briefly discusses exploring your protagonist with one key element in mind: your character’s pain. “What is the character most afraid of; what could make the character hurt the most? Of course, you must make your character face this very thing.”

Now you’ve got some possible scenes and a structure for these scenes to unfold. With your character’s pain pinpointed (and the things you know she must face to bring about change), you have the beginnings of your character’s arc.

scene ideas + plot pattern + character arc = the beginnings of your book

Because you’ve not yet committed hours and hours to writing at this point, there is plenty of freedom to play with your ideas: adding scenes, deleting them, changing a character’s motivation or the type of story you’d like to tell. As someone who’s written a few books and many more “trunk manuscripts,” I appreciated this experimental phase. It’s something I need to do more of before my drafting begins.

“The function of a first draft is to find your story. The function of the next few drafts is to find the best way to tell that story.”

To that end, Darcy spends much of her book showing authors how to experiment with different approaches. For example, what type of sentence structure might you use to start your book? Darcy identifies twelve types of opening sentences*, gives examples of each, and then tries each type for her own novel-in-progress. In pushing herself to study her opening from different angles, she’s able to find the best way to tell the story.

As I planned and then drafted my NaNo novel, this book was an invaluable guide. And once I've given it a few months to breathe, I’ll pull Darcy’s revision book, NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS, off my shelf.

What books do you recommend for starting a new piece of writing?

*Here are a few to consider:
  • It was... It is... This is...
  • viewpoint on life
  • mid-action
  • dialogue
  • landscape
  • misleading lines


  1. I think I'm a planster too, Caroline.

    I love both of Darcy Pattison's craft books--and for an excellent story, read her picture book WISDOM, THE MIDWAY ALBATROSS. I marvel how that bird has survived for 62 years!

    1. She's plain wonderful. And such an advocate for authors!

  2. So true, yet so difficult...

  3. Good thoughts! I just realized I'm a "plantster."


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!