In The Beginning

By J.T. Ellison

Oxymoron of the Week: A Good Problem

Usage: Wow, that’s a good problem to have!

How can a problem be a good thing? By its very nature, problems are just that, issues that create roadbloacks, which in turn need to be overcome. This week, I’ve been facing my own oxymoron, one of those "good problems." I’m getting started on my new book in earnest. I’m writing full-time, which is the good part (thanks, Brett, for that reminder). So, here goes with the problem side of the equation.

How do you write a book?

Because I need to confess… I’ve had a few moments over the past week that make me think I’ve forgotten.

This might sound insane to you readers, but the writers out there know what I’m talking about.

Starting a new book is a bit like climbing out onto an icy ledge in the Himalayas with a 10,000 foot drop-off. The view is beyond description, but there’s the terror of plunging to your death to contend with.

I know I’m not alone when I say I have a hard time getting started on a new book. This is the fourth "new" book I’ve begun, and I’ve had this issue with each one. I forget how to do it. I stutter, and stall, write a few pages and walk away, find a hundred other things that need to be addressed immediately, all the while telling myself, just get this one last thing done, and it’s full-steam ahead in the morning. It’s when I’ve said that for fourteen days in a row when I recognize that I’ve got the yips.

In golf, the yips are most prevalent in putting. Even the most experienced golfer has bouts of the yips — most commonly described as an involuntary movement of the wrist at the last moment in your stroke which makes the put pull or lag. It’s frustrating as hell. It also has pure psychological underpinnings, which sometimes manifest themselves physically. The more stress, the worse your yips.

And just a like a good golfer seeks help for their issues, a good writer sits down and does a mental check, trying to ascertain what’s happening. This isn’t writer’s block, mind you. Writer’s block is much more organic, much deeper. What I’m experiencing is this silly, frustrating feeling that I don’t know how to write a book.

Obviously I do. I’ve written several now. So what’s wrong with me?

I’ve been posing this question to those closest to me this week, with twofold hopes. One — reassurance, the yes, you can do it pep talks. Two — maybe someone could tell me how to fix my yips. I’ve received tons of the former, and none of the latter. So I interviewed myself, starting at the beginning. It took a few days of massive navel-gazing (also known as Facebook Syndrome) to realize the "how" behind my writing.

I dreamed the plot of the first book. The second was based on three separate scenes, full-blown mental vignettes, that popped into my head and stuck there. Strangely enough, one was simply a look between Taylor and Baldwin. I knew I needed that scene, it was vital, and strong, and important to their development. So I wrote the entire book around it. Then came the two others vignettes, and I built around those.

Okay. Now I’m getting somewhere. The third book, based in part on a real-life murder, also had these elemental building blocks, a few key scenes that gave me the tools to build the story around them. I saw them in my mind’s eyes, heard the dialogue, felt the surroundings, and went from there.

With this epiphany, I was able to start thinking about this new book in a different way. It already has a plot, already has a character line-up. The conflict and the resolution are set, the middle is still a bit amorphous, but the basic gist of the story exists. Driving home yesterday, I had one of those vignettes come to me, a scene of dialogue that I realized was coming from this new book. After my self-actualization yesterday evening, I sat down and put it on paper. As I did, a few other scenes popped in.


So now I know how I write a book. I have two or three scenes banging around in my head, they gel and morph, and I write the story around them. This feels like a mess to me, when I look at it on paper. For a structured person, I’m certainly not when it comes to the actual writing of the book. But the relief I felt when I realized the "How" was palpable. I’ve just got one or two things to clear off my plate, and tomorrow it’s full-steam ahead. I’ve conquered my yips.

So let me know I’m not alone. Writers, tell me your "How." And to our readers, what gets you sidetracked from your goals?

Wine of the Week: Cascina Pellerino Langhe Nebbiolo

A Quick, Happy P.S.

Good thing I’ve gotten the yips under control. Yes, the rumors are true, the announcement has been made. I’m thrilled to
let you know that I’ve just signed a new deal with my incredible editor Linda McFall at Mira for three more
Taylor Jackson books. Many thanks to everyone who had a hand in this, especially my wonderful agent, Scott Miller. So to celebrate, I think everyone should head to
the store and buy a copy of BURN ZONE, from one of Taylor’s favorite
authors, James O. Born. BURN ZONE released yesterday, and is the second in the Alex Duarte series.
Trust me, it’s well worth your time. Oh, and Jim is one of my favorites
too, so if Taylor’s endorsement isn’t enough, please accept mine as


21 thoughts on “In The Beginning

  1. billie

    What a great week here at Murderati – I’ve been unable to comment until today, but have read the posts each day and enjoyed every one of them.

    The reason I haven’t been commenting is because last weekend my family went on a ski trip and I stayed home and took care of the farm – and in the quiet of the house, heard very deep rumblings in the editing of my second novel.

    I’ve been in deep ever since, and I’m still walking around seeing pieces of subplot that were put in right from the beginning – these little bits have suddenly joined together and are making the whole book a much more complex and interesting story, with almost a thriller component to it.

    I’d been avoiding these bits, b/c I knew to open them up would involve a lot of research and some travel I’m not sure I can do. But it’s underway now and there’s no turning back.

    JT, this process is much like what you’re describing. Having some integral seeds that spin the rest of the book. I feel like I’m walking in a landscape made of the different layers of this story. Journeying inside the story.

    This kind of developmental editing usually happens to me in May but for whatever reason it’s early this year!

    Congratulations on your sale – a number of folks over at Bksp have been saying the same on a thread just for you – don’t know if you’ve seen it yet!

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Congratulations (again) JT!

    For me, beginnings are easy. I have the idea, I take and run with it, and everything’s great till about the 10,000-15,000 word mark. That’s when the doubt sets in for me. Is this story sustainable to book length? Why can’t I seem to get a handle on my main character? Is this scene too creepy (not in a good way)? Jesus, did I just write something so cliched? Etc.

    This also usually happens again, BTW, at about the midway point.

    How do I get over it? I just keep writing, shackled to the computer like a galley slave at his oar, cranking out just a few painful words a day…and eventually, like Billie’s experience, something clicks and I find the rhythm again. Often it involves throwing away whatever outline I’ve previously done and re-imagining the book entirely.

  3. Bryon Quertermous

    I’m still trying to figure out how I write a book. Like JD, starting a book is the easy part for me, I burn through the beginnings and then when I hit the 100 page mark it starts falling apart and I start having doubts. What it comes down to is that I plunge ahead and then when I do something with the plot that doesn’t work, everything freezes up. I have to go back and figure out where I went wrong then plunge ahead until I screw up the plot again.

    I hate plots. Plots are the root of all evil.

  4. James O. Born

    Thanks for the plug, J.T. I think Mira made a good decision.

    See you next week at the SOuth Carolina Book Festival.


  5. neil nyren

    Congratulations on the deal, JT, and thanks for the mention of Jim’s book. Though I worry about its effect. If Jim hits the big time, some journalist somewhere is going to think he’s clever and write an article titled *The Born Supremacy* — and, really, do we need that?

  6. pari noskin taichert

    JT,What wonderful news! Congratulations.

    On Wednesday night, I interviewed Faye Kellerman, and . . . guess what? After writing 20 books, she says it doesn’t get easier. For her, all that has happened is that she’s gotten better at knowing the “architecture” of the work — but the struggle remains.

    Tony Hillerman says that his beginnings are easy, but it’s those middle 200+ pages that are difficult. He says when he gets stuck, he kills someone.

    Me? I muddle through.But I can tell you that this year I’m realizing the more consistently I write fiction — no matter what form it takes — the more ideas I have, the easier it flows.

  7. Louise Ure

    Congratulations, JT!

    And heh, very funny, Neil.

    We all get the yips, JT. But what I find interesting is that your writing sounds circular — like you’re not writing your book from page one. Is that right? You write scenes as they come to you and then stitch them all together?

  8. JT Ellison

    Hi All!

    Louise, I’m a walking contradiction. I do write the book from beginning to end, but the innards are swirling in my mind. So the scenes are more mental, solid in my head, and I’ll put them on paper when I think I’ve hit the right moment for it. I’m making it much more complicated than I need to.

    Pari, it’s so good to hear that other writers have this issue. Tess Gerritsen did a post on this a while back, and it made me feel so much better. How was the Kellerman interview? Are you floating still?

    Neil, I think Mr. Born has already become of force of nature and I’m expecting the tsunami any day now. So great to see you here! Thanks for the congrats!

    Bryon, you’re so next! Many congratulations on YOUR recent milestone. A full-length novel is an amazing accomplishment, even if you’re still finishing up. I sprinkle fairy-dust in your direction in the hopes that you get picked up ASAP.

    James O — Can’t wait to see you in SC. I do hope you’ll sign my copy of BURN ZONE… Congrats on your release!!!

    Dusty — I find that when I hit the 25K mark I have these same doubts. Then I hit 30K and it’s suddenly becoming a real book. I guess I should change my name to J.T. Pinocchio — I’m a REAL writer!

    Billie, what an incredibly lovely week! We’ve missed you, that’s for sure. I’m so excited to hear your working on the second book. And that’s it exactly — journeying inside the story. It’s alive to us, and that’s the cool part.

  9. Naomi

    You’ll do fine, JT. For me, getting the voice down is the hardest. And since you’re continuing with the series (and congrats for at least three more!), it won’t be hard for you to ride down the river with Taylor and Baldwin, no matter how turbulent the currents get at times.


  10. JT Ellison

    Hi Naomi! So good to see you!

    That’s the thing about series. Half the battle is done because the characters are already finely-drawn. Then again, keeping the series fresh, adding in new characters that shepherd the story along, is a challenge too. A fun one, but a challenge!

  11. Dana King

    I read David Mamet’s THREE USES OF THE KNIFE this week. In it, he notes the playwright’s Act III lament: I know how it goes; why do I have to write it down?

    Looking at a blank Page 1, knowing I’m 80,000 words from the end, is my most depressing writing task. So, as the Spousal Equivalent has taught me, I eat the elephant one bite at a time. A page today, a page tomorrow, two each on Saturday and Sunday. Check the word count every few days to remind myself of how much has been done, not how much is left. Repeat until finished with Draft 1, which I will be for the current WIP on Sunday.

  12. Allison Brennan

    I agree with Billie. It’s been a fantastic week here. I’ve read Ken’s post twice and sent it to my husband. (As an aside, my daughter desperately wants to move to Ireland. She’s 14. I’ve always wanted to live there. We’re looking at renting a cottage for a summer when the youngest Brennan is 5 or 6.)

    As far as starting . . . I usually start with a premise–just a little nugget of an idea, usually about the crime or villain–and then one of the main characters. As soon as I can *see* the opening scene, I start writing. I write pretty steadily until I hit between pages 150-170. Then I get stuck, rewrite the beginning 2, 3, 4 times, and then everything “clicks” and I write through another 200 or so pages fairly quickly, then I get stuck again and stare at the computer for days until I figure out how it all comes together.

    I HAVE to write linearly. I can’t write scenes ahead of order. And if I have a scene that I think needs to happen stuck in my head, my story inevitably gets screwed up. This happened with PLAYING DEAD and I lost valuable time working towards a scene I thought HAD to be there until I realized it wasn’t working. I will go back and add/delete scenes from the beginning. Even in revisions, I start at page one and do the two steps forward, one step back thing. But I never revise scenes out of order.

  13. toni

    I have to write sequentially as well. I do tend to have four or five scenes and a couple of whole sequences in mind, though, that cover the arc of the story. It’s pretty necessary for me to have these to begin. I can’t write them ahead of time, though, because there’s going to be too much other stuff that happens that influences all of the nuances, the humor, the set ups, etc.

    I loathe beginnings. I can usually come up with the opening scene, and then immediately, everything sucks. I’ll keep plodding along until I get close to act one turning point and then the energy kicks in and I’ll be fairly okay throughout the rest of it. Then I go back and fix the beginning, and as soon as I do, I realize all of the problems with the rest of the book and then I go stick my head in the oven. (Unfortunately, it’s electric, so it just adds bad hair onto insanity.) I am then too cranky to live with, and I will talk incessantly to anyone who’s breathing about the damned book. (Oh, and just a little FYI — political pollsters get really weirded out when you’re asking them questions about murder weapons.)(Cowards.)

    And then eventually, it is finished and I am happy with it for about two days, (or maybe ten minutes) and then I start realizing all of the nuances that have to be layered in and all of the run on sentences (damn you Faulkner) and all of the heavy handed crap and I start all over again.

    At some point, someone insists that since they paid me for it, I kinda have to turn it in.

  14. j.t. ellison

    Dana, I’m right there with you. That page one thing is torture. I usually can get past that, get twenty or so pages down, then have my yip. I need that Mamet book.

    Allison, you’ve said it so much clearer than I. It’s being able to “see” that opening, those scenes, that make all the difference.

    And if you do the cottage in Ireland, can we all come?

    Toni — I love it. Cowards! Amen to that! I’m glad your oven isn’t gas, sugar.

    Thanks, Brett!

  15. spyscribbler

    I always ponder that question when I’m stuck on a new WIP. Problem is, my methods change. I thought I had my methods down pat. I thought I’d written the same way so many times and for so many years, that it wouldn’t ever change.

    But a few months ago, it changed. Now I write differently. I don’t know how the heck I get words on paper. I don’t even know how I think up stuff. It just sort of happens, one way or another.

  16. j.t. ellison

    Spy, I’m realizing that every book has it’s own unique set of issues. And really, if we didn’t have things to angst over, life wouldn’t be nearly as fun.

    Why do think we change?

  17. Zoe Sharp

    Another wonderful post, JT, and congrats again on the deal. That should help convince you that you really *can* do it!

    I know for me the opening to a book is the bit that causes the most trouble. The jumping-off point for the story. I can’t go forwards until I feel I’ve got that opening line. But quite often I’ll have already written other scenes as they occur to me. If something arrives I’d rather grab it while it’s fresh than try and remember it later.

    And the most difficult bit? The third quarter. For the first half (once you’ve nailed that opening) you’re still building the excitement of the plot, the interaction of the characters, but once you reach the third quarter, you have to start tying up all those threads. Do it too fast, and the ending is telegraphed way too early. Do it too slowly, and there’s the danger of all that lumpy exposition to explain the stray plot strands squeezed in right at the end. And boy, I’m sure we’ve all read a few books where that’s clearly been the case.

    Fun, though, isn’t it?

    And Neil – never mind the Born Supremacy, wait until you get the Born Ultimatum …

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    FABULOUS news, sweetie, and so deserved!!!

    I think you’re right – it can be as simple as a look between characters, but as a writer you KNOW that’s the core of a new story. And then it’s just about letting all the random ideas you’ve been collecting start to move toward that core, like some kind of physics phenomenon I don’t know the name of.

  19. j.t. ellison

    Zoe — thank you. You’re right, there’s so many moments that can derail the story. I just finished Tess Gerritsen’s THE MEPHISTO CLUB, a perfect example of how the suspense build and twist and doesn’t get bogged down. A truly wonderful, inspiring example of the right way to do it.

    X, sweetheart, thank you. It’s always so helpful for me to get these thoughts on paper, and just thinking aloud makes all those little scenes coagulate. It is physics, though meta, at best ; )


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *