I'm off and running--slowly. This is still a very early stage, without a synopsis or a plan. I've written about thirty pages, inching forward, listening to the voices of my characters, setting them challenges, finding their strengths and their weaknesses. A few minor characters have already walked into the story. More importantly, I've steeled myself to give my characters really big problems.
I say "steeled myself", because this is one of the challenges a writer like me has to face. As writers, we all have strengths and weaknesses, just as our characters do. One of my weaknesses is a reluctance to hurt people, even people who exist only in my head or, eventually, on the page I write. A child who has been maimed in a terrible accident is a very hard concept for me to deal with for the coming year, but it's essential to this story. It gives two of the other protagonists very real motivation for their actions, and it provides tension to carry the book forward.
A clever middle-school student once asked me if a story had to have problems. The answer is, without hesitation, Yes! As I told him, without problems there is no story. Without tension, doubt, challenges, crises, there will be no plot, no character development, and worst of all, no reason for a reader to keep reading.
I learned a good deal about making hard choices from Donald Maass's book Writing the Breakout Novel. While Don and I disagree about whether anyone really knows why a book breaks out, he gives excellent advice about being hard on characters. In his chapter, "Stakes", he says: "Push your characters to the edge and you will pull your readers close." I very much want to do that in this book. Well, I want that with every book, but like most writers, I hope that each book I write gets stronger and broadens my readership accordingly.
One of the reasons it works for me not to have a synopsis at this stage is that I'm still feeling my way into the setting, getting to know my characters. That synopsis is coming . . . but not yet. Right now I'm busy meeting people and finding out what their issues are. I'm setting the stakes, and doing my best to raise them as high as I can. It's going well, because already I like these people, and I'm beginning to care about them. I look forward to sitting down to learn more about them, and I think--I hope--that's a good sign.