Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Getting Started" by Tim Smith

I recently attended a book festival and experienced a first. A local English teacher had given her class an assignment to talk to the authors then write an essay about what they learned. I’ve had writer wannabe’s pump me for tips before, but these students asked questions that went beyond “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” and “What’s your favorite color?” One of them asked something that had me momentarily fumbling for a good response – “How do you begin writing a story?”

My mind instantly flashed back to the first Creative Writing class I took in high school. The opening line in the textbook still haunts me - “Does the blank page hold terror for you?” Some days the answer is a resounding “Hell, yes!”

This question made me think about how I actually do it. I may read some item in the news or hear a story that sounds interesting, and if I’m sufficiently intrigued I’ll ask myself a question – “What would happen if…?” There’s an anecdote about the creation of the 60’s sitcom Get Smart. When writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry made the pitch, they asked, “What if James Bond and Inspector Clouseau had a child together?” Thus was born bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart.

I once used the “What would happen if…?” tactic to concoct an entire story. Several years ago I had planned a vacation/business trip to Florida with my sig other, but shortly before we were to leave she became unavailable. This became the basis for Mistletoe and Palm Trees, where two strangers end up unexpectedly alone in The Florida Keys at Christmastime. I asked myself “What if this guy went on a planned vacation alone because he’d just broken up with his girlfriend, and he meets a woman who recently split from her fiancĂ©?”

I like to use the “What if” thing when I’m putting together a mystery plot, usually to throw the reader a curve. If it looks as though the finger is pointing toward an obvious conclusion, I’ll think “What if this happened instead?” It keeps things interesting when you’re approaching the “Aha!” moment. I’m proud to say I’ve had readers tell me they were mad at me because things didn’t play out the way they expected. While writing my latest mystery romance, The Bundle, I knew there would be a physical altercation between the villain and the hero, but I decided to throw a curve ball. No, I won’t tell you what it is, but people have told me they were surprised by the twist.

I think a lot of this has to do with my dislike of clichĂ©s. Remember the old private eye shows like Mannix and Peter Gunn? In most episodes there was the required fight scene, where the guy gets the stuffing beat out of him by two or three thugs (sometimes four or five, but who’s counting?). Then he miraculously gets up and runs after them. Get real! If he’s on the receiving end of a savage beating, the last thing he’ll feel like doing is engaging in a foot race. He’s probably thinking about an ice pack, a shot of whiskey and some tender lovin’ from his busty blonde secretary. I busted this myth in one of my thrillers, where the hero gets jumped by three guys then throws up afterward. When the female lead frantically asks if he’s okay, he responds “Of course not. I just got the crap kicked out of me.” After another character offers the opinion “You don’t look so hot,” he says “I don’t feel so hot. It’s a matching set.”

Hey, here’s another “What if…” – what if no one reads this blog???

Tim Smith is an award-winning author of everything from contemporary erotic romance to romantic thrillers. He is also a freelance photographer and works with adults with disabilities. More information about his books and photographs can be found at his website, www.timsmithauthor.com.


Tina Donahue said...

Well, I read your blog, Tim and it's great!

Starting a new novel - all those blank pages - always daunts me no matter how many times I've been pubbed.

I always begin with a lengthy (200 pages or so) outline. It helps quite a bit. I've gone over the story so many times in my mind, it's like a movie playing in my mind and I write down the particulars.

Once I get past those first ten or so pages, I'm pretty good. But those first pages can be absolute misery at times.

Tim Smith said...

Thanks, Tina.

You're right - coming up with the first few lines can often be more painful than a migraine.

Adele Dubois said...

I read your blog post, Tim! :)

There's incredible pressure to produce a gripping first page. We know if our first page lacks a hook, the rest of the story won't matter.


Sarah J. McNeal said...

Terrific blog, Tim--very thought provoking.
I start with an idea that I usually take from my writer's journal. You probably learned about writer's journals in your creatuve writing class way back when. Then I start the "what if" pondering. I usually write my blurb to get the theme in place and then the synopsis first to get down the bones of the story before I ever begin the opening page. If I do get stuck, I write in long hand.
I loved your most interesteing blog, Tim and I wish you every success.

Tim Smith said...

Adele and Sarah, thank you for the responses.

Yeah, those opening paragraphs need to deliver a terrific punch or you can kiss the rest of the book goodbye. I've had the misfortune of reading a few of those when I review for Two Lips - nothing by either of you, by the way -:)

Sarah, you and Tina both brought up something interesting. I may be one of the few writers in the world who doesn't write an outline before I start writing the story. I always have a beginning, middle and end in my head but quite often I'll change courses mid-stream when a better idea hits me.

Fiona McGier said...

Tim-no need to worry that no one will read your blog. As one of the resident members, I read everyone's blog everyday. I don't comment on the ones with trailers because I don't watch TV and feel that it's silly to advertise a book with basically a TV trailer.

And if I don't have anything I feel will add to the discussion, I don't comment.

But your blog was interesting...I'm like you in that I don't write an outline or even a plot-line. I begin writing because the story is playing on endless rewind in my head, and I have to get it out so the next step can begin revealing itself to me. That may not be everyone else's way, but it's how I write.

Thanks for sharing.

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