by Robert Lowell Russell
Every writer has his or her own way of starting a story, so with the caveat that what works for me isn't going to work for everyone, here's how I do it (fair warning, I'm a "pantser").
My stories usually start with a single visual scene in my head, and when I have the scene fixed in my mind, I add a second scene. My job then becomes making sense of the two scenes. It may seem easy to get characters to go from point A to point B, but I often have no idea who my characters are at this stage, and there may be no obvious connections between points A and B.
There are probably certain advantages to starting with characters, then building a world around them. But I like building my world first, then plunking the characters into it and letting them fend for themselves. I also think starting with visual scenes makes it easier to "show" rather than "tell."
With Path of Stones **spoiler alert**, I deconstructed Hansel and Gretel. I started by visualizing a trail of white stones running through a fairy tale forest, then added a scene of a man sitting in a bar, staring at one of the stones in his hand. The challenge was then explaining how the man fit into a story about a couple of kids, and how I got from a fairy tale world to a modern day setting. It was an interesting process. The story started at 1.6K words, ballooned to 6K, was pared to 4K, and was finally condensed to 3K. During the rewriting process, I lost the original bar scene, the Empire State Building, Charles Darwin, Annie Oakley, a sexy witch, and bunch of other stuff.
One advantage of the "plotter" style may be that a writer doesn't end up with as many unusable parts when he or she is finished with a story (Though I tend to recycle my best story fragments. Sexy witches = writing gold!). But I like getting messy, and I like getting weird. My two starting scenes usually serve as corner pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, and with those scenes in my head, I daydream about my story, twisting and turning the middle pieces, deciding what fits and what doesn't. This lets me "work" even when I'm not sitting with an outline in front of a computer, and I've learned to trust my instincts when I write.
However, if you're going to write this way, you need to be able to track a lot of things in your head simultaneously, and make sure you have solid critics reviewing what you write. Our brains work to fill in the gaps of what we perceive, so you need more than one set of eyes to spot the inevitable gaps.
Some final words of advice: bang it out, polish it, fire it off, then cross your fingers. And if you're not having fun, you're probably doing it wrong.
Robert Lowell Russell once aspired to become a history professor, but found working with the real world too constraining. His works in progress, a series of short stories and a novel, incorporate elements of his previous research in Native American history and culture.
For links to more of Rob's stories (or to see him dressed like a ninja) visit his blog.