Where To Start … Characters? Storyline? Nathan Walpow Tells Us How He Approaches Writing a New Book

Nathan Walpow

Some writers can envision a book’s plot before they sit down to write it. They can visualize characters and twists and red herrings and dramatic denouements, and arrange them into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I envy these people. I can’t do what they do. I start with the first scene and see what happens. Characters show up willy-nilly; plot twists are as big a surprise to me as they are to the reader. I write and write until I think there’s enough good stuff in the amorphous manuscript for a book. What I’ve got is 30-40% longer than the final product.

Only when this “zero draft” is done does my storytelling side come to life. I look at the pages and pages of manuscript and piece together a narrative. I cut and paste sections wholesale, discard storylines, add what needs adding. Only then do I have a reasonable first draft, approximately the length it needs to be.

Is this a good way to write? Heck, no. I spend weeks on stuff that doesn’t make it into the book. Sometimes I toss it without a regret. Sometimes I’m so attached to a chunk that I save it in a separate file, hoping that someday I’ll find another story it fits into.

I wish I was one of those people who could sit down and say this happens, next this happens, then this happens. But my strength is in my characters, not my plotting. They do a lot of interesting stuff. It’s just that sometimes it takes them a while to get around to it.

Which is all a long way of saying that, for me, sometimes the best story is one I’ve already written. If I know what happens, I can concentrate on letting the characters dictate how it happens. I can tell them, okay, you’ve got X times more space to get thus-and-such done. Go to it.

The first time I did this was a couple of years ago, with my story “Push Comes to Shove.” It’s about a jobber, a professional wrestler who’s there solely to lose. He runs into a new wrestler who’s actually killing people in the ring. Mayhem ensues. It came out in an anthology from my local Sisters in Crime chapter. Then it got picked for the 2001 volume in the Best American Mystery Stories series, and there I was sharing shelf space with Joyce Carol Oates.

For more than a decade, that was it for my unnamed jobber. Then I ran into Paul Bishop at a mystery writing event. Paul had started Fight Card Books, an electronic novella imprint. Mostly boxing stories, but he’d started throwing in some luchadores and mixed martial arts.

I had a brainstorm. I’d expand “Push Comes to Shove” into a novella. My biggest impediment was eliminated. There was no plot to come up with. All I had to do was tell my unnamed protagonist, hey, I want to know more. And he obliged, with backstory and personal life and more details about a pro wrestler’s day-to-day.

I got to expand on his life with his girlfriend. I got to explore his training techniques. I gave him an ex-wrestler uncle and a “mild” case of PTSD. I made him more proactive. I gave him a dog. I fleshed out the bad guy. In a week I went from 4,000 to 25,000 words. With my normal writing process, I’d have written maybe a third that much, and a quarter of that would have been destined for the trashcan.

The e-novella came out, with the title reduced to simply Push. Paul was happy. I was happy. Wrestling fans nationwide were happy.

Meanwhile, Logan happened. The urban vigilante featured in the three novellas in my new book from Down & Out Books The Logan Triad. For the first, I had a contract with another e-novella company. I struggled through writing it as usual. No, worse than usual. When I finished my “zero draft,” I was appalled to discover that it wasn’t going to magically rearrange itself as a cogent narrative. It went nowhere. It made no sense. It was beyond salvage.

I tossed it and began again. And the universe smiled. For once, it gave me a decent, sensible storyline. Two weeks later I had Logan’s Young Guns.

A couple of years later, I wrote Logan Shoots First. This one featured the usual struggle. Write, write, write, frantic cutting and rearrangement, final product.

Then I got fixed up with Down & Out Books. They were willing to put out a volume of three novellas. All I had to do was come up with a third one.

I sat down to write and got stuck. Idea upon idea entranced me for an hour or a day, only to be deemed stupid or worse. Then, once again, a previous story saved the day.

Long before Logan’s Young Guns, I’d been chewing on the idea of an avenger of the innocent, a man who felt it his duty to deal with those who preyed on women and children. The early result was “Daughters,” published in Crimespree Magazine in 2009.

So there I was, struggling to find a storyline. Plod, discard, plod, discard. I thought about bringing back a character from “Daughters.” I struggled through the appropriate opening scenes. I threw them away.

Then, a brainstorm. Why not use the central mystery from “Daughters” in the third novella? Relieved of having to figure out what happened, I could concentrate on how it happened.

I gave it a try. It worked.

Ideas that had been floating around my head found homes. The road trip from the original story expanded. The interaction of a character I brought back from “Daughters” and the ones who populated Logan’s universe provided new insights into all of them. Perhaps most important, a was able to transfer a bunch of backstory from “Daughters” wholesale into the novella that ended up as Logan Gets Caught.

With the pressure off, my plot-invention gene kicked in. It became simple as pie to expand an element that had taken up two paragraphs in the original into a pulpy storyline that filled the whole second half of the novella. I’m happy with what I came up with. I hope you are too.