My name is Mike MacDee, and I’m an indie author. I’ve published several books in various ways, and I have several more in the works. I have a large body of work because, with few exceptions, I always finish what I start.
I don’t use black magic or self-help books to make it happen, either. I just follow three simple guidelines.
1 – Outline it Beforehand
How many of you have seen Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining? How long did it take Jack Nicholson to get out of that hedge maze?
Exactly. He didn’t make it out. He could have used a map.
Know who else needs a map? A novelist. A short story author. Fiction writers in general.
The blank page is the greatest enemy of every writer. Besides self-doubt, inflated ego, Amazon arbitrarily deleting your reviews, and left wing nutjobs getting you banned from all your platforms. But all those don’t usually end your project before it starts. Nothing is more soul-crushing that staring into that yawning white void of nothingness and having your mind go completely blank.
Well, maybe the de-platforming thing. But I digress.
This is why planning ahead is so important. Filmmakers don’t just jump into making a movie; they do pre-production first. It’s the same for authors: before you start writing your book, outline the plot and characters. Every time I sit down to write a new short story or novel, I do a brief synopsis to plot out the beginning, middle, and end.
There are a number of reasons why you should do this, but the most important one is that you will iron out any major issues with plot and characters before you even start the writing process. Writing without an outline is like navigating a maze without a map. Don’t be Jack Nicholson.
And believe me, you’d rather not find out the hard way if that maze has no exit. You’d much rather learn your plot doesn’t work two days into the outlining phase, than two years and two-thirds of the way through the first draft.
But your outline isn’t gospel, so don’t treat it as such. You will undoubtedly change it before you finish the story. I can’t tell you how many characters I’ve killed in the course of writing Last of the Ghost Lions that were originally supposed to survive to the end. Sometimes a character’s life is literally getting in the way of plot progression, which makes them expendable.
I’m digressing. The path you’ve plotted out won’t necessarily be the one you end up with, and that is absolutely okay. The outline’s purpose is mainly to get you started.
2 – Begin “In Media Res”
A lot of newbie authors begin their stories with exposition. Don’t. You’re forcing me to do homework before I can have my literary dessert.
I’m not gonna care about your world unless you MAKE me care through the protagonist and the conflict.
If your story is about a little kid surviving in a dystopian world, I don’t care about your setting’s backstory. I care about that kid. Feed me snippets of the setting through the kid’s adventures, but don’t lose focus on the kid.
Richard Stark has a much better method for introducing the reader to a new story.
First line from Firebreak (Richard Stark): “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” WHAM! Stark opens the book by hitting the reader in the face with a baseball bat made of questions. Who is Parker? Why is he killing somebody in the garage? Who’s calling? Hell, whose house is Parker in? Is this HIS garage we’re talking about, or did he just break into some poor bastard’s house? We HAVE to read on to find out more, and we’re loving it because the questions keep mounting, and they’re great questions. With one sentence we’ve been pulled into the action like a trout into a fishing boat.
This is called beginning a story “in media res”. The narrative jumps straight into the middle of the action. If done right, it can be jarring and exciting, and gets the ball rolling for both the author AND the reader.
But maybe starting off with a bang isn’t enough. Maybe we also want the reader to understand what the story is about. At the end of the day, after all the car chases, or awkward dates, or spellcasting classes, or fights with giant monsters, every story is about one thing. A boy’s love for a girl, a war hero coping with guilt. Or maybe we want to establish the central plot device: the threat looming on the horizon, which the hero is constantly reminded of.
In Media Res can help you write an effective prologue, in a way.
3 – Sit Down and Do It
“If you wait for inspiration, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.”
Writing is just like going to the gym. You don’t always feel like going, and some days even dread it. But once you get started, you get into it, and next thing you know, six hours have gone by and you have no idea how you lost track of the time or made so much progress.
That’s really all there is to it. Outline a plan for the narrative; throw the reader (and yourself) into the action; then sit down and crank it out whether you want to or not. The alternative is to sit around waiting to be inspired, and that’s a long wait.
Love this post, Mike. I’ve tried writing fiction several times. I can come up with some terrific, action-filled beginnings, but get stuck about 7 chapters in. I’ve been writing as I go, so it looks like on my next attempt, I need to plot.