Where to Begin: A Primer and Writing Challenge

Laurie Faria StolarzAs writers, we know that one of the easier parts of the writing process is coming up with the initial idea. Inspiration is everywhere—it’s just a matter of recognizing a good idea when it comes along.

But once you’ve got the idea, how do you start writing? And once you start writing how do you keep writing? And then there’s the most difficult question of all: How do you finish?

Lucky for us, bestselling author Laurie Faria Stolarz (author of Deadly Little Lessons, the final book in her Touch series) has stopped by Figment to share her outlining process—and share some advice on how you can use this technique in your own writing.

And stay tuned till the end of the post: We have a writer’s challenge for you! Four lucky Figs will have their stories featured on the homepage!

I often get e-mails from aspiring teen writers seeking advice when they’ve hit a roadblock in their works-in-progress. They tell me that they were initially so excited about their stories, but then when they got to a certain point, they lost steam.

So, how do I advise?  I ask them to put their drafting pages aside and answer some questions regarding character and plot.

When I first begin a story, I tend to get really excited about the story’s initial concept.  For example . . .

The girl next door becomes the victim of a stalker whilst falling in love with a hot, mysterious boy who has the potential to kill her (Deadly Little Secret).

Or: A group of teens breaks in to an abandoned mental institution that’s rumored to be haunted to film a documentary (Project 17).

Laurie Faria Stolarz's officeIn my case, fleshing out that initial concept is part of the writing process. Sure, things could change along the way once I start drafting. I may come up with a better idea. I may want to nix one of my characters or combine two characters into one. I may find that the hot mysterious boy is so much more mysterious when he’s rumored to have accidentally killed his ex-girlfriend. But, overall, I find that just having a blueprint gives me a point of reference and if I ever do want to stray from it, I need to justify my rationale for doing so.

Laurie Faria Stolarz's favorite penAnd so, before I begin to draft, I grab a notebook and a really good pen (yes, the quality of a pen matters—you don’t want one that’s too dry or that bleeds on the page). Then, I get away from the computer and start to develop, expand, question, poke holes in, and map out that initial inkling.

So, now let’s get started with your story. Grab a notebook, your favorite pen, and find a comfy place to sit.

Step 1:  Come up with an idea. You want to figure out the driving force of your story. For example, perhaps you want to write about a girl who drops out of high school to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. Or, maybe you prefer writing about a boy who gets involved in a gang and ends up stealing from his parents.

Step 2: Choose the basics of your character, i.e. gender, age, situation in life, whatever helps you picture him or her enough to get your plot going. In the Touch series, Camelia is a 16-year-old aspiring artist (a potter), who secretly dreams of adding some spice to her humdrum life.

Step 3: Introduce your character to an initial action/problem. This is the first event/ problem in the story that pushes the reader forward. For example, maybe your 15-year-old bully of a character learns that her parents are getting divorced and she’ll have to move and start over at a new school. In Deadly Little Secret, Camelia is touched (physically) by Ben, a boy who has the ability to sense the future through touch. When Ben pushes Camelia out of the way of an oncoming car, he senses that her life is in danger—and he may have to save her from more than just this car accident.

Step 4: Decide what your character wants. This drive will influence most if not all of your character’s decisions and actions. It’s your character’s motivation. In Deadly Little Secret, Camelia begins receiving threatening notes and phone calls. She wants to stay out of harm’s way, and therefore needs to decide whether or not to trust Ben (a.k.a. rumored ex-girlfriend killer) enough to help her. Laurie Faria Stolarz's notebook

In Ben’s case, with respect to his motivation, it’s true; his ex-girlfriend tragically died during an accident in which he was present. Throughout the Touch series, he blames himself—and his touch powers—for her death. If only he can help save Camelia’s life, maybe, in some way, he can finally forgive himself.

Step 5: Decide what keeps your character from getting what he or she wants.  There are usually one or more obstacles that keep your character from getting what he or she wants. In the Touch series, Camelia’s obstacles are many: She doesn’t know whether to trust Ben, nor does she know whether to trust herself (self doubt). There’s trouble brewing at home (her aunt tried to commit suicide and her mom’s slipped into depression as a result). Camelia’s sculptures have been disastrous (does she truly have talent or is she kidding herself with her art?) and her grades are dismal. Lastly, Camelia is beginning to develop feelings for Ben (thus muddling her sensibility even more), and meanwhile she fears ending up six-feet under, like Ben’s ex-girlfriend.

If all of that isn’t enough of an obstacle, in Deadly Little Lies and onward in the series, Camelia begins to develop her own touch powers—through her pottery—and starts to see major parallels between herself and her aunt Alexia (who’s currently in a mental institution for hearing voices and multiple suicide attempts). Camelia, who eventually begins to hear voices as well, wonders if she, too, isn’t crazy.

Step 6: Have your character learn a lesson. This lesson is usually a real turning point.  Having learned this lesson, your character can better achieve what he or she wants. In the Touch series, Camelia finally learns to trust her own instincts—both in her life and in her art.

Laurie Faria StolarzStep 7: The Climax. The climax is usually the highest point of tension in the story, the place where most of your action or drama will take place. This may be the point where your character faces his or her biggest obstacle. In Deadly Little Lessons, Camelia figures out the mystery surrounding a missing girl’s abductor and confronts him.

Step 8: The Resolution. The resolution is the tying up of loose ends, including the subplots. (Note: a subplot is any minor plot in the novel. For example, in Deadly Little Games, even though Camelia’s trying to help Adam, whose life is in danger, she’s also having major drama with her boyfriend Ben.) At the end of Deadly Little Games, having helped solved the mystery and confronted the villain, Camelia goes away with a better sense of self. We also learn the outcome of her boyfriend drama.

Now that I’ve taken you though my step-by-step, it’s your turn to give it a try.

Writing Challenge:

Choose one of the steps about (1 through 8) and flesh out an aspect of your story. Entries should be no longer than 250 words. Tag your story StolarzChallenge.

You have until Monday, January 28 at 11:59 p.m. ET to enter your story. Figment editors will read all the entries and we’ll choose four to be featured on the Figment homepage.

What are you waiting for? Start outlining already!

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10 thoughts on “Where to Begin: A Primer and Writing Challenge

  1. This is so weird! Today, I was talking with my friend on how one of these days we should make a map of all of our stories’ subplots and see how they all become resolved (and if they don’t, why not?) and such :DD Nice to know Figment is psychic.

  2. I already knew all this, seeing as I’ve done OYAN… but this is a really helpful article. 🙂
    I remember when I was younger I started tons of stories and never finished them. If I had read something like this, I would have had a lot less problems.

  3. Oh this is good. I have a very vague idea for an awesome action/adventure/dystopia, but am having trouble “fleshing it out”. I’ll probably do all eight steps, and just enter one.

  4. This technique sounds really useful, especially since I’ve looked at a dozen ways to make an outline and haven’t found anything I liked.

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