People ask writers all the time where they get their ideas. Actually, the idea is the easy part! Most of my writing colleagues agree there are more ideas around than they have time to write. The real work, for them and for me, is in expanding that idea into a real book, with all the breadth and depth and complexity readers expect.
This year, as I began a new novel, I decided to chronicle the process I follow. Every writer has her own process, and it’s important to find your own. It might be interesting, though, to know how one author does it.
My Red Room blog goes into deeper detail about these stages of creation, but here’s a brief outline. If you’re thinking of writing a book or a novel, this might be one way to go about it.
- Usually I have an image in my mind as a starting point. Sometimes it’s a title that intrigues me, or it may be a setting. It may be a single character, or perhaps a historical period. It isn’t much! That’s okay. It’s only the acorn.
- I don’t write a word until I’ve settled on my principal characters’ names. This is my personal idiosyncracy. Character names speak strongly to me about the characters’ personalities, their strengths, their weaknesses, even their station in life. Since my stories are all about character (well, almost all), this is a crucial step for me. I take my time, studying baby name books, phone books, asking people wearing interesting name tags where their name originated and how to pronounce it.
- Next I write the first chunk of the book, usually three chapters, thirty to fifty pages. I “feel” my way into the story, discover what interests me about it, try to learn where the conflict is. If you haven’t done this before, thirty pages might sound like a lot; but if you can set aside an hour a day, you’ll be amazed to discover how quickly the pages pile up—and you will have had some fun, too!
- Now I stop. Make myself stop, though I don’t want to do it! Again, everyone does this differently, but for me, this is the right place to put aside the chapters and concentrate on an outline. I’ve learned (the hard way) that having an outline of my story is the best way to save wasted effort. I hate throwing away words, and if I know where I’m going from the beginning, that means I don’t write nearly as many throw-away scenes. This is my least favorite step, because for an organic writer like me, plotting is agony. But when I get it done, I can return to the fun part!
- As I go further into my story, I find that a critique group, or a single, competent critiquer, is invaluable. I’m beginning to find subplots, complications (always good), add minor characters, enrich my setting. Critiques are not instruction; they’re opinions. They have to be filtered through the writer’s own artistic vision. Some writers don’t want to share anything until they have a completed manuscript, but I find that input from other writers helps me to shape my story and find its “voice”.
- The middle of a novel is the hardest part. Middles—as I explored in an earlier blog post, "The Muddle in the Middle"—bring an author to the reckoning point. Suddenly the brilliant end to your story doesn't seem so accessible. The character arc you were so sure of is not clear after all, and your characters are too passive, or too cold, or too pitiful, or too boring. The setting—there are so many details to be researched! Geography, business, culture, society—this is hard. You persevere, partly out of curiosity and partly out of discipline. An hour a day, remember? It gets done.
It’s worth noting that some writers skip over these tricky parts, and come back to fill them in later. If that works for you, do it! The crucial thing is to keep working, to keep worrying at it until you find the way through.
- Endings are fantastic. I love writing a big climax—which the middle has helped to build—and I love the sort of ending in which the writer gives the reader a glimpse into the characters’ futures. I also love writing THE END. Our tiny acorn is now a full-grown oak tree!
- But—we’re not done. The great Connie Willis says she even rewrites grocery lists, and I follow her example. I don’t speak of a single revision, but a first, a second, and so forth, as many as I think the book needs.
Writing, as a wise man once said, is rewriting. As it happens, this is my favorite part of the job, because the heavy lifting of plot and character development and research is mostly complete. This is the polishing step, the final buff and shine before the manuscript goes out the door. This is our oak tree in full leaf, a finished product.
In another blog post, we’ll take a look at how a book—fiction or nonfiction—makes it into publication. In the meantime, why not start writing yours?