Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 15: Knowing When To Begin

When do you know when you’re ready to begin? What does that question even mean? Apparently Brandon gets asked it a lot, though, so he posed it for the group. How do you know when that story in your head is ready for you to start writing it? Or maybe, how do you know you’re ready to start writing that story that’s up in your head? Or perhaps, when do you know when in that story in your head you should begin writing it, assuming you’re ready?

Confused yet? If you’re ready to begin listening, we’re ready to begin making more sense.

Writing Prompt: Write an ending, and start your book with it.


27 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 15: Knowing When To Begin”

  1. Just a quick listen, and these caught my attention. First, Howard’s recommendation that you start writing when you have voices yammering in your skull like he does. Second, the little metaphorical drift of “get your feet wet” while you’re waiting for the perfect wave. And of course, if you are having trouble getting started, go visit Howard at Dragon’s Keep and he will punch you in the face and tell you to start writing.

    So — it must be time to start writing.

  2. More jokes than usual in this podcast. Not that I have a problem with it (I always just start a book when I feel like, so I’m not too sure how much this podcast has helped me). But a fun listen.

  3. So Brandon, it’s about keeping promises to the reader is it? How about that first line of Alcatraz and the Evil Librarians…

  4. Crud, I didn’t have these doubts before listening to the podcast… nice timing, by the way, guys. Exactly the part where I am now.
    You talked several times about people who hate writing Act2. So what else can you tell somebody who hates writing Act1 for a change? I think in this project I have difficulties finding the voice of my main char. (1st person)

  5. Wow, it never occurred to me to wonder where to start. Maybe because I so often get ideas for beginnings (I know exactly what C.S. Lewis was talking about when he said the Narnia series started with an image of a lamppost in a forest). But then, I’m mostly a discovery writer/eternal first chapter person. I’ve been experimenting with outlines since listening to this podcast, actually, in hopes that it will help me get more done!

  6. This was an interesting topic. I’ve had similar questions from folks as I give my workshop on writing fiction. Here are some additions to the excellent comments made by our fearless Three.

    In my experience and those of other published writers I know, wanting to start to draft only when you’re ready to begin writing THE draft that will take you clear to the end is going to land you into a bog of dither.

    Here’s why. It’s almost impossible to know if this attempt at the hill is going to work until you make the attempt at the hill. Much of the story creation, even for those who do a lot of the creation in summary/outline form first, still takes place in the drafting. And you never know if something you create while drafting is going to throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing.

    Nobody I know who does a lot of development in the outline/summary form (and I’m one of those) has ever written a satisfactory novel without having to continually modify the original outline or abandon it altogether. David Farland tells a story of getting to the ending of one novel, the ENDING, and only then seeing a new ending that was going to be so much better than the one he planned. Which meant he needed a different beginning. Which meant a rewrite. And so he started the whole freaking story over.

    So if the reality is that every author is going to have hiccups and course changes along the way, then it’s far more important, not to wait for the perfect moment to draft, and draft the story only once, but to just start drafting.

    Writing a novel is like seeing a far off destination that you’ve never been to before and to which there are no roads. You’ve got to make a trail to that destination. So when you set out you may be able to see a path for a mile or so, you may even have tried to get an overview of the terrain, but you must reconcile yourself to the fact that you are going to run into an impassable bog, or a cliff, or killer bees–you’re going to have dead-ends and backtracks.

    No matter what you do, it’s gonna happen. It’s just part of the nature of blazing trails. Even if you scout out possible routes, some of those routes are just not going to work when the wagon train finally gets there.

    This isn’t to say we must all become draft-only writers. There is HUGE value to some of us in having a starting line-up or knowing the ending or having the bare bones of the plot. For myself, I’ve learned I never get very far down any path if I don’t have a number of strong ideas for all the parts of story–character, setting, problem, and plot. But I only learned that by setting off time and time again and each time immediately having to stop.

    And new writers will never learn what they need, as was said, until they just start. To simply start is far more important and useful than trying to wait and identify when you can do it all in one draft.

  7. About promises that are made at the beginning of the first book and carried through.

    Howard the first Schlock strip made a promise that has been kept every day :P

    I think that between the sign on the desk and Schlock it gives you pretty good idea of what to expect.

  8. Hey guys, I love the podcast and would like to suggest a topic: short story writing. Specifically, the market for short fiction, how the form differs from novel writing or poetry, and length. Thanks.

  9. John, for the life of me I can’t figure out how to log in and make comments on your website. I have a Word Press login, but for some reason I just can’t get it to work.

  10. Hmmm… How long would folks say can you spend outlining and pre-writing before you can be diagnosed with World Builders Disease? Say 6 months (because I have this friend, you know) – is that just good prep or does “she” need an intervention/Tayler treatment?

  11. Eliyanna, one way to approach your diagnosis is to determine how many books per year you want to write. Because world-builders disease is only a malady in certain circumstances.

    If you don’t care about output and simply enjoy building worlds, then maybe you’re like Tolkien. He started The Book of Lost Tales in 1917 and didn’t finish THE HOBBIT until 1937 (20 years). He didn’t finish LOTR until 1949 (another 12 years). In this case you are hale and hearty and have many years of enjoyment ahead of you.

    If you DO care about output and want to write one book per year, then I’d suggest you get some drafting treatment immediately. Here’s why: you now have only 26 weeks to finish.

    But wait: take out 4 weeks for vacation, sickness, relatives, and mosquito infestations. You now have 22 weeks.

    Assume you get 2 good hours of writing 6 days a week for 12 hours a week. Assume further that you can get a conservative 500 words of finished product per hour, or 1,000 words in 2 hours. Sure you may be able to write faster than that in any given session, but when you go back and fiddle with it the next day and the next, you have to accout for that.

    At this rate it will take you 17 weeks to finish a 100,000 word novel. And that’s only if you keep your story furnace hot with consistent hours each day.

    But wait: that’s only a FIRST draft. You now need to let it sit a bit. Reread it. Send it out to readers. Then REVISE. You only have 5 weeks to do that!

    Of course, your inputs to the equation might differ. But if your goal is a book a year, you need to get cracking. Most of your development will come as you write. It’s exciting and lovely. Don’t miss it. Get your starting line up written out in the next three days and then take the plunge :)

  12. Wait….so…the voices…in my head are a sign that I should write about them? You mean…I’M NOT CRAZY?! Whoo hoo!
    Well, that makes me feel a lot better. Now that that’s over with, how do you deal with the hiccup of being a hybrid writer. I need to outline, but I can’t outline until chapter one is on paper. I give myself deadlines to counteract this. Anyone else do things differently?

  13. Jake, just don’t tell anyone that your crazy characters are actual voices in your head…or you’ll end up in the loony bin in the cell across from me.

    Nurse: “Internet time is over, it’s back to the padded room we go.”

    Jame: “No! You can’t take me away, I’m talking to my friends! It’s the only human contact I get outside of you monsters!”

  14. Hey Jame; So you’re the one up the hall that makes all the racket. Nice to meet you. Apparently they never let more than one of us “writers” out at a time, so I have never gotten to meet you.

    This was the fastest listen of all the podcasts so far. I listened to it twice in a row at first because I was sure I had to have skipped something it felt so fast, but nope, it was 15 minutes, it just felt like 5.
    Great job guys. You had me laughing and learning through the whole thing.

  15. @ John Brown: I am likely not Tolkien. ;) But I think my blood pressure reached unhealthy levels reading your last post!

    I actually *have* started writing. It’s just that I have a habit of doing a chapter in a few weeks, spending 2-3 weeks world building and retconning (spl?), and then writing the next one. It’s a really slow sort of hybrid process. So I’m better than I sound on word count, I’m at 20K, from the last six months or so of writing, with at least triple that count in story bible. If I didn’t write anything, my writing group would shame me.

    Jumping in on the yammering in the heads of Howard and Jake and the like, I think I have a sort of similar process but it’s more cinematic in nature. I find that when I go to bed at night I close my eyes and run through the scene I’m working on in my head and try to picture it all happening like a movie. At first, it seems like a silent film and I can see the actions and events of what happens but as I keep ‘working’ on it the dialogue and thoughts of my characters become more clear. Then I’m ready to write that scene.

    …is that insane? Or do other people find that works for them too?

  16. I have a habit of doing a chapter in a few weeks, spending 2-3 weeks world building and retconning (spl?), and then writing the next one. It’s a really slow sort of hybrid process.

    I don’t know. Sounds like Tolkien to me :)

  17. But I don’t wanna get punched in the face O.O *hides*

    Hee. I’ve been listening to you guys’ podcasts for a long time now, but never got to commenting. I’m one of your biggest fans, I promise ;D I have a bunch of these things on my iPod.

    I’m trying to find the happy medium between outlining and winging it. I have this story I thought up in my freshman year of high school or so titled “Saving A. Miracle”, and the first time I tried to write it, I just went for it without outlining anything, just the ideas in my head. Fail. Maybe six months later I decided to take another go at it, but this time I outlined and outlined and outlined so much that it was boring to write. Fail T-T So, like I said, I’m searching for that happy medium.

    The story I’m focused on right now is called “Time is of the Essence”. It’s giving me a lot of trouble, I’m tellin’ ya. I can’t figure out how to begin it. It’s just such a fantastic story idea that I don’t wanna mess it up. Perhaps I’m being too delicate.

    <3 you guys :D


  18. As a jazz improv instructor, I have to tie into Brandon’s jazz analogy. One thing I tell my students is, if you don’t know all the theory yet, keep it simple. We don’t have to do everything all at once, whether playing jazz or writing. We just need to get going.

    The road block I faced with writing for over twenty years was that I thought I was an outliner. I could never seem to get beyond the first three chapters. NaNoWriMo taught me that I’m a hard-core discovery writer. Now when I start a book, I have no idea how it will end or what the world is like. And that bugs the heck out of the concrete-sequential part of my personality. I’ve also been cursed with the perfectionist gene, but I’ve learned that I have to shut it off, or I’ll get nowhere. I just plow ahead and keep telling myself to “fix it in the mix.”

    I also thought of the famous Stephen Covey analogy: airplanes are off course 90% of the time but they still reach their destination. That sounds like the same percentage of stuff I have to throw away.

  19. Hi Guys,

    I’ve started, and stopped and then started, again, rewrote the first chapter, then the next four. When I got to eight, I changed from first person to third, added and subtracted, created maps wall to wall, diagrams and flow charts, religions and philosophy. Now, 2 years later, and 150,000 words into the novel, it appears that I’ve written only half.

    My main character – there may be others hiding – just had one of those defining moments, where paths diverge, friendships deepen or tear, and things hidden are revealed, leaving only more questions. The questions in turn cause me to deepen the story, meanwhile other stories are writing themselves out in my head – extentions like a giant squid’s tentacles.

    How do you know when one book 1 of a series has been completed, and it is time to move on to number 2? Or, do you just write the series as 1 complete book, and then just break it up afterwards? At this point, I think this first book will be about 250,000 words plus, before I can bring it to a pause or end it suspended.



  20. I am a programmer, not a writer, and while many of these podcasts reminded me of programming, this one is one of the clearest.

    In programming project management terms, the technique of planning perfectly so that one can write the whole story correctly in the first draft is the “Waterfall Method”, and is generally considered ineffective. At the opposite extreme, pure discovery writing is probably called “Hacking” and the results can produce great things fast, or can produce a dreadful inconsistent mess fast, depending on skills and ability. In between are various types of iterative methods, where one plans a bit, then writes a bit, and repeats, being prepared to rewrite existing parts to make it fit together.

    Something I haven’t heard about is anything equivalent to pure prototyping. In literature terms it would be the writing of short pieces to get the feel of characters, scenes, and the world, to see how they can be made to work (if at all), but never incorporating those pieces into the final work. Does anyone do this? Is it any good?

    (Now I am curious what the results of transferring other programming practices would be, like pair programming, or XP. :-P)

  21. I decided about an hour before this podcast to begin writing towards actually finishing something. I have world builders disease to the point of not even being able to make it to the first combat in D&D. I end up sitting around talking to my DM about the world till one or two in the morning. Today, it clicked. My characters formed into voices in my head and I’m starting to write just the immediate actions they take, for the most part ignoring the wider world at the moment. I took five minutes to develop a magic system, but other then that it has been character and conflict.

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