Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Figuring Out The Bones of Your Story With Tess Mallory

"I always fall back on the basics--Who, what, where when and why."

My guest today has worn several hats in her career. She is a former journalist and currently she is a full time writer who has written nine books and counting. Tess also teaches Writing Workshops.

Today she shares some great writing tips to help develop the bones of your story and help in organizing yourself when writing.

Hi Sia and Coffee Readers!

It’s great to be here today * Tess takes a sip of her latte* and I’ve been thinking about what I could share Over Coffee, and what came to mind was all the people over the last few years who have written me and said, “I’ve always wanted to write” and “I have an idea for a story”.

A lot of these folks want me to write their idea into a book. But you know, I could never write their book the way they could, and that’s what I tell them! It always makes me a little sad, because I know most of these people will never even try to write their amazing stories, because the thought of it is too overwhelming.

So, while thinking of this, I decided, hey, I could share some of the ways that I get myself started on a new idea, just on the off chance that some aspiring writers are sitting here with me and Sia around the table sipping lattes. (BTW mine is delicious, and will someone please pass the chocolate chip cookies?)

Writing on the computer can be daunting, even to seasoned writers, so a great idea when getting started is to buy a notebook. Not just any notebook, but a special notebook. I credit my friend the amazing Luann Long with reminding me about this great motivating idea. She buys a special journal or notebook for each book she works on, and uses it to make notes and keep track of the story she’s developing.

I just bought a new notebook, and soon I will start the process! First, I’ll just think about my idea or story for a while, and then I’ll make some decisions. As a former journalist, I always fall back on the basics--Who, what, where when and why. Broken down, that translates into these questions, among others: Who are my characters? What kind of story is this? Where does the story take place? When does the story take place? And most important, Why oh why should my reader care about any of it?

I generally start by writing out an overview of the kind of book or story this is going to be, and what I want to see happen from start to finish. Nothing too detailed. Later I can write a detailed synopsis, or outline, but right now, I get to just ramble on as much as I’d like. It helps to jumpstart my excitement about the story!

Next I think about the characters. I jot down ideas in my handy dandy notebook about them. Who are they? What do they look like? What are their names? Where do they live? When are they alive? Why are they interesting? How do they know each other? When do they meet up? What do they have in common and what do they NOT have in common? What are potential conflicts between them?

I daydream about the setting—where does this story take place? Why is this the best place? I write down possible places, then go on the Internet and look at maps, pictures, place names, countries, etc. Man, has the Internet changed everything about research! I’ve never been to Scotland, but I’ve written six books set there! . (Be aware that in romance, publishers are very fixated on certain countries, and very against others! Go figure.)

If you decide to try this idea, take your notebook with you wherever you go. You never know when inspiration is going to strike!! I get ideas everywhere I go. Maybe I’ll see someone who looks just like I picture my heroine looking! Maybe I hear a voice that sends a chill down my spine. Inspiration is truly everywhere!

Once I’ve gotten some of the “bones” of my story figured out, it’s time to start writing. For aspiring writers, set aside a certain time of day, every day, even if it’s just an hour, or even just thirty minutes. Overwhelmed at the thought? Here are a few more tips:

  • It isn’t necessary to start at the beginning of your book. What is the part of your special story that always comes into your mind? Do you see the guy and girl walking by the ocean? Sitting and having coffee? *Tess remembers her latte and takes another drink. * (Yum!) Whatever that scene is, start there. Write what you “see”.

  • Still having trouble getting started? Start with some dialogue between two of your characters. Some people have an easier time with dialogue than description. Let your characters “talk” to each other for a while. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn about them!

  • Is description your strength? Start with the setting. Describe where some part of the story takes place. The most important thing is to get started!

One big mistake beginning writers make is assuming that the first thing they put down on paper has to be perfect. I promise you, nothing I ever write the first time is perfect! I rewrite much more than I write. Give yourself the freedom to just write and learn as you go, because something really amazing happens during the writing of a first novel.

By the time the end of the book is reached, you have learned so much about what to do or not to do. Enjoy your story, and have fun with it, and it will turn out so much more than you ever believed that it could!

Writing a story or a book is like building a fence, or so Western writer Elmer Kelton once told my father. You dig the holes. You plant the fence posts. You string one wire at a time. Then you test the strength of your work. Sometimes you may have to tear down a few wires and put them up again. Maybe you’ll have to go back and dig out a rotten post. But in the end, ya’ll will have a mighty fine fence, podnur!

Gee, I suddenly morphed into a cowpoke. * smile * What I mean is, eventually the book of your dreams will start piling up, page after page, on your desk beside you, and one day you’ll write those awesome words “The End” and know you’ve done a great job!

* Tess looks down into her coffee cup and sees that her latte is gone *

Okay, it’s time for me to go and jot some things down in my own bright lime green notebook about some unruly characters that need to tell me more about who they are.

Have a great day and no matter what – Keep Reading! Keep Writing! Love is Timeless!

Tess Mallory is the published author of nine novels, the most recent, Highland Rebel, released March 2009 from Penguin-Putnam. Tess lives in the Texas Hill Country, where she writes full-time, teaches writing workshops, and takes care of assorted pets and children. Tess has written several plays, two musicals, and also many stories for children, published by Highlights for Children magazine. She is a singer/songwriter and wants to be a starship captain when she grows up. Visit her websites at and, which both need work, or at where you can become her MySpace friend. Check her out on facebook, and follow her on twitter!


~Sia McKye~ said...

I want to give a warm welcome to Tess Mallory! I'm so glad you're visiting us Over Coffee and such wonderful tip!!

We have muffins, scones, and for Tess--big Chocolate Chip Cookies--all warm from the oven.

Grab a cup of coffee, latte, tea or caffiene of choice, and sit a spell.

So how do you find the bones of your story? Please share your tips with us.

Tess Mallory said...

YUM!! Thanks Sia, you have all my favorites! Can't wait to hear how other writers work on their stories! :)

(Check out HIGHLAND REBEL in your local bookstore or on! )

Netti said...

*steals a CC Cookie*...

Great post Tess and very well put! I don't write but I tell you, with what you said almost makes me want to run out and get a notebook just to try... I probably won't because I'm just to lazy (well, that and the fact that I really can't write *G*), but I think these are fantastic ideas for aspiring authors, and will definitely be passing them along to our Writers group we host!

Sia, as always I <3 your blog (and you!) ;)

*steals another cookie on the way out*

Margay said...

This is such great advice, I'm going to share it with my older daughter, who has decided to emulate her mother by trying her hand at writing! I am so proud. Anyway, this is great advice for writers of any level, but especially those just starting out, most important, the part where you say the first thing you write doesn't have to be perfect. Thanks, Tess, for sharing your wisdom with us today.


Anonymous said...

Good morning, Tess. Thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom. Sia, thank you for this interview.
I was wondering why I see a Scottish theme so often. Don't get me wrong, Scotland is one of my must visit places and I love reading about it. When it's done well.
Anyhow, this interview is right on time for me. I just started my first story(I hope I have enough to say to make it a novel). The special notebook is a great idea, it took me a long time to be comfortable writing my thoughts on a laptop. School helped with that hangup but there are times when writing in a notebook just seems to flow better. Also, fleshing out the bones of the story is going to help me. I haven't done that, yet and I find that I'm not sure where to go next with the story. Thanks for all the advice it's most helpful.

Dana S

Judi Fennell said...

Dialogue. That's usually the first thing I put in a scene. Just let the characters talk to each other then fill in around them.

I love "listening" to other authors' processes. Makes me feel like I'm not the only crazy person out there with voices in her head. :)

Adina Pelle said...

This is a very interesting post, i wish sometimes i had the easyness others seem to have when building a story but i usually get caught in useless details and follow this Byzantine design that in the end wears me out...
Well, i am learning :)

Tess Mallory said...

Hey everybody!! Pass the cookies! Thanks so much for stopping to have a cup o' coffee and read my blog. I'm thrilled if it's at all helpful to anyone!

Adina -- everyone works differently. More and more I see that each writer has her/his own way of approaching their work, and that's OKAY! :) Go ahead and be all Byzantine on us! :) If it works for ya, that's all that matters.

Judi -- Nope, you aren't the only crazy person. I can vouch for that! ha!

Dana - Hi! Scotland is one of the MOST popular countries to set a romance. I guess because of all of the beauty, dramatic history, and, oh yeah, guys in kilts! hee hee! Thanks for stopping by!

Margay - How old is your daughter? That's awesome. My daughter wants to be a writer too! It's so great to be able to share my writing experience with her. I hope someday we'll write a book together! Maybe you and your daughter will too!

Netti -- Put that cookie back! (snicker) Thanks so much for the kudos and I'm tickled you're going to share this with your writers group. Now, run out and buy that notebook! You never know what untapped talents lay inside of you! ;)

Thanks everyone! Will check in later and have another cookie and stay for a latte! :)

Tess :)

Helen Ginger said...

It's true that by the time you finish the book, you see how you can change things you wrote long ago -- another reason not to spend forever rewriting the opening or the early chapters!

Straight From Hel

Margay said...

Tess, I have that idea, too! I think it would be cool to write together - hey, if P.C. and Kristen Cast can do it, why can't we? My daughter is 18.

Vivian A said...

Good to hear others don't write sequentially. Scenes pop into my head, sort of like when you you keep wandering through a room while a movie is playing. Snip and pieces that I have to thread together.

Tess I agree with the notebook idea. Though computers have made things easier to move around, the solidity of real paper seems more comfortable in my mind. I don't write on paper, but I do jot tidbits and details down on it.

Thanks for the tips. Oh, everyone loves Scottish tails 'cause they got the sexy beast thing going on.

Vivian A said...

Freudian slip there, tails = tales. Snork!

Anonymous said...

Tess, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the writing process. I like using a spiral bound notebook for book projects as well -- it's highly portable and has let me put long airplane flights to good use. Good tips on getting going. Getting energized about the story is the important thing; editing can (and will) take place later on. Recently I've supplemented the paper notebook with OneNote, a cool software tool which I've written about in my blog.

James Rafferty

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks Tess. I'll be sharing this with my son, just as soon as I finish my coffee and drag him out of bed.

Houston A.W. Knight said...

Very very interesting!

Thank you Tess and Sia for such a wonderful post!'re not alone, they talk to me all the time....


~Sia McKye~ said...

I've used a notebook when I've hit a glitch, when something isn't working right and I'll write out longhand--seems to unlock something and helps the flow for me. I do keep notes on characters, plotlines, time lines and such. Sometimes I use a notebook--depends on where I am when the notion hits me.

Tess Mallory said...

Hi Again everybody! I'm tickled purple (pink is too cliche') that I've had so many comments today! Thanks so much!

Helen --- Oh, man, so true, so true!! For me, writing the initial draft is the hardest part. Rewrites are fun because I've already got the bones of the story and I just need to put the flesh on and the skin and the long hair, muscled chest, abs, hunky face, blue eyes and --uh--well, you know what I mean.
* Tess quickly stuffs a cookie into her mouth *

Margay --- Yes, I think it would be so awesome! My daughter is so busy right now, but I have hopes that in the future we really will do this. She's 30. I told her -- now's the time!! :)) Your daughter is just the right age -- mold her into your image! ha!

Vivian -- ROFL!! Tails!! LOL!! Love it! Now that I think of it, almost the entire last half of Highland Magic was written by writing scenes non sequentially. Instead of Chapter titles in my files, I had stuff like "Quinn seduces Maggie" or "Maggie tells Quinn to take a hike". It taught me that there's not just one right way to write a book! :) I'm going back to using a notebook for notes and I'm amazed at how happy it makes me, and how much it makes me want to work on the idea!

James -- Thanks for the tip on OneNote! I wlll check out your blog! You know, until recently I had forgotten how much I used to actually write in notebooks before I started putting it all into the computer! I'm going back to it, because I need that connection. And you are so right about needing to be energized! If I'm not excited about a story, it's such a miserable experience to try and write it!

Sheila -- *tess takes a long drink of her fresh latte and smacks her lips * Ah, yes, nothing like dragging the son out of bed every morning. I did it regularly for 21 years! Now I call him to make sure he's up for work!! ha! Motherhood never ends. But my son is the best, so I don't mind. I hope your son gets some info here he can use!

Hawk -- love your name! Thanks so much for your comment! I appreciate you stopping by!

*Tess realizes she has foam on her lip, wipes it off*

Well, I've got to run! I'll check back later and see who else stops by! Hope some of you will show up again!


~Sia McKye~ said...

Helen, I agree, there are many times authors spend way too much time on those opening chapters, probably because those first few chapters are what they send on queries. I'm not saying the first couple of chapters aren't important, because they are, but getting the whole thing done first and then editing. I had an author tell me she handles each chapter like the first one--after she finishes the book. She goes back and sharpens each chapter like it was a first one. I've not used that but I saw where she was coming from. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

((((Hawk)))) how are you doing sweetie? Hey, we're crazy ladies that hear voices and you're problems with this? lmao!

Tess Mallory said...

Sia, thanks so much for having me today Over Coffee!! It was a blast! :))


~Sia McKye~ said...

Tess, it was my pleasure. I learned a bit today as well and I loved your article, oh and sweet Mackenzie, too. :-)

Dana Fredsti said...

Tess, I love the fence post analogy! The notebook is a great idea - I recently had a fellow writer pal visiting and she wrote longhand in her notebook (didn't bring her computer) and told me she'd written an entire first draft that way.

Did you save any of those cookies?