I think there’s still a myth floating around out there that authors open up a Word document, place their hands on the keyboard, and peck away until a perfect, fully formed story comes out.
In this fantasy, writing a novel is a linear process that starts at page one and continues in a fluid flow of words until the end, where plot and character are developed (or completely understood) before the first word goes on the page. Or there’s the belief that everything is made up on the spot, and all of it fits perfectly.
Both fantasies ignore all the unseen work that goes into creating a novel.
So let’s debunk that myth. Here’s my process (or at least the start of my process):
Step One: The Idea
I conjure some bright shiny nugget of story or character out of the ether, and if the image/character/idea sticks around for a few months, I know I have a story idea.
Where the idea comes from is irrelevant and never comes from the same place twice.
I got the idea for the Madison books by imagining the soul of my cat curled up beside me in bed. It was a coping mechanism to block out angry, cyclical thoughts about my then-current job, which I hated. I would picture my cat’s shining white body and it would help me fall to sleep. Then I began to wonder what it would be like to see everyone’s soul, and Madison was born.
I got the idea for Tiny Glitches because I was so late to embrace a cell phone that people treated me as if I lived in a different century. So I wondered what it would be like and if it would be possible to live without electricity in today’s world. I needed a reason to not use electricity, and Eva’s curse was born (along with Eva).
Note that neither of these ideas resemble an actual book. I could have gone anywhere with either of these characters. I was nowhere near ready to sit down to write the book. Which is where Step Two comes in.
Step Two: Brainstorming
I like to be wildly informed about the world and characters I’m going to write about. I’m not the author who wants to go in blind or wants the story to surprise me when I’m writing. Inevitably it will, but I don’t want the whole thing to be a surprise. That just leads to me staring at a blank screen.
Once I have my shiny, irresistible idea, I open up a Word doc and do what I call free writing. I type out my modest idea, and then ask, “What next?”
I use the brainstorming phase to jot down every possible idea I have. Maybe Madison is going to be a half unicorn shifter and her unique blood lets her see the purity of others. Maybe Eva is a time traveler, and her place out of time causes all kinds of fluctuations in the world around her.
I write out everything I think, following plot ideas to absurd places and boring places and been-there, done-that places. I play with character motivations and life histories. I add in everything I might want to see. Should there be leprechauns? Elves? Dryads? What would that mean for my characters?
These Word documents tend 10,000 to 30,000+ words long (even for books that are only 35,000 words long themselves). If I don’t know where the story is going, or if I have a lot of ideas for a story, it’s even longer.
Because of this, I’ve learned to put ideas under headers, so I can search the document easier. (I used to do bulleted lists, one bullet per idea, but that became impossible to find anything in.)
Here’s an example from the Secrets of the Gargoyles free write, when I was trying to figure out why the gargoyles in the park were comatose:
Magic Holding Gargoyles Hostage
They could be lost in links, or lost in magic. Overwhelmed by magic. Rather than fault lines, there could be heavy centers of magic that they’ve fallen into, like Mika fell into the link when she first connected with the full-five. They don’t know how to come back, and they need a guide. Mika could be that guide.
Where would they encounter this extra, overwhelming magic? And why? Would it well out of the nodes in the earth, and it would attract them, then pull them in? It could be magic so raw and pure, there’s no element to it. When they open themselves to it, they fall in because they can’t distinguish between elements, and it’s like being hooked up to an IV of food, where there’s no control over how much they consume. Like an IV that also has a drug in it that pulls them under.
What if it’s a creature? Something that feeds off the gargoyles like a parasite. It pulls them in with a burst of magic, and then it holds them still and feeds off them. It would be invisible or a network. It could be a creature that exists in the magic. It could be a physical creature. Are there any creatures who eat rock? Not naturally. There are other animals who use rocks in their gizzard, but that’s not the same.
As you can see, it’s raw stuff. It’s also not what happened in Secrets, but I had to work through a handful of ideas before I hit upon the one that worked.
For me, the brainstorming phase is the freest part of the process. It’s when anything can happen.
Placing my fingers on the keyboard and not stopping typing is therapeutic and forces my mind to stay on the story and not wander off to what I want to have for lunch or what someone said to me yesterday.
As with all parts of the process, I do this in sprints. For brainstorming, I set a timer for thirty minutes, and try to keep typing the whole time. When the thirty minutes is up, I stand up and move around, refresh my beverage, etc. Then back to it.
That’s how a book begins for me. There’s a lot more to the process, so stay tuned.
Also, if you have any questions, please ask!