The Process, Part I

I have received a request to describe in detail the process I use to write one of my novels. While that’s supposed to be the function of this blog, I now realize that, while I’ve discussed different aspects of it here and on other parts of this site, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written a comprehensive-yet-concise account of “how I do it” from beginning to end.

So I’m going to take a crack at it here.

To start off, I’m not sure where the decision to start writing a specific novel comes from. I started Desperate Measures after reading some really bad SF and deciding that yes, even I could write something that bad and get it published. The only thought I had in my head (besides the $2000 advance, which seemed like a fortune to a college student in 1978) was that I could do better than what I’d just read and thrown across the room. Most of my other novels were things that I had been thinking about on and off for quite some time.

I’ve just started blogging about the idea process with Choices. When someone asks me where I get my ideas, the first thing I say is everywhere. The evening news, a chance comment by a colleague, a plot point in someone else’s work that I particularly admired, my own feelings on a myriad of subjects – wherever. Then I say that an idea is usually something that grows, as opposed to popping into your head. Notions are what pop into your head, and it takes a number of notions to equal an idea. As to what number of notions it takes to equal an idea, I cannot say. It seems different every time.

There are also two kinds of ideas. The first are the “Gosh! Wow!” kind that, when you read them on the book cover, make you pick up the book. In Hollywood, they call these “High Concept” ideas:

• A young, idealistic lawyer discovers his practice is a front for the mob.

• A starship crewed by dolphins makes a discovery that could change the way the universe looks at intelligent life.

• Humans genetically engineered for a specific task learn they have become obsolete.

• A headstrong woman will stop at nothing to save the family plantation.

• A real street gang is featured in a television commercial and become more popular than the Beatles.

These ideas, which usually come to authors in a literal flash (those who study creativity call these breakthroughs “white moments”), are not enough to support the novel alone. You need the other kind of ideas to form the structure of the plot. These are the more mundane ones that nobody thinks twice about. It helps to view the white moment idea as the skeleton – all the others are muscle, skin and viscera, the unglamorous stuff that provides locomotion and nourishment.

So the formula so far looks like this. Where a notion is the basic molecular unit of a novel, X notions = 1 idea, and X ideas = The Concept, where The Concept = what makes up a novel (what outsiders call “the idea”).

After pondering different concepts for a time, it becomes evident to me that there’s one ion particular begging for attention. This is a critical part of the creative process, knowing when the idea is ready. In 1994 I had the notion what if a woman from a tabloid magazine got the goods on a Presidential candidate and nobody believed her because she worked for a tabloid? My agent got fired up about it, and at his behest, I dropped everything to write Trust. I even had to send my agent ten copies of the finished manuscript so he could do that multiple submission thing that only agents seem to do successfully.

Only he wasn’t successful. To a person, all of the rejecting editors said that Trust lacked a certain je ne sais quois that kept them from wanting to publish it.

What was it missing? Nobody ever said. I now suspect it was because I wrote Trust before it was fully developed. Instead of X ideas in the structure, it only had W or V or even S ideas.

So a novel tells me it is ready to write. What do I do next?

I sit down and start writing. Not an outline. Not conceptual notes. I start writing with chapter one.

At this point in the project, I have three things, and perhaps a fourth:

1) I know what the book is going to be about.

2) I know what the opening scene is.

3) I know what the closing scene of the book will be.

4) I might have a title.

That’s right, folks. That 500 pages in the middle of the manuscript is this great, uncharted void.

I’ve heard that many writers call their first pass through a novel their exploratory or discovery draft. It’s where they try to get a handle on their characters and the situation they’re in, find the voice for the project, and see if things are generally headed in the direction they wanted to go in.

One of my gifts as a writer is that it doesn’t take me an entire draft to do this. I manage to do it within the 200 pages or so. I would say that all the time I spent pondering the idea meant it was already worked out by a collaboration between my conscious and subconscious, but it’s not entirely the case. I do a lot of experimenting, especially in the first chapter, and as a result, it’s the most rewritten chapter in the book. Not only does it get worked over during the editing process – I do a lot of editing on the fly, going back into what was already written to insert characters, details, clues, etc., that I will need later (thank you, word processing – I don’t know how I’d do it if I was still on a typewriter – yet, I did two-and-a-half novels that way).

(An interesting exception to this rule is the first chapter of Ferman’s Devils. When I sat down to write it, I knew I wanted the book to start with Boddekker meeting the street gang, but I realized there was a lot of information that I needed before I could write that chapter. Remember when I said that the 500 pages in the middle was a great void? So I sat down and started writing the book at the chronological beginning of the story, where Boddekker finds his dream house in Princeton. Four chapters later, the meeting with the Devils was next. Since I now had it all together in my head, I went back to the beginning of the manuscript, made some space, and wrote chapter five as chapter one. In essence, what I had written before became a four chapter flashback.)

As I move from the first chapter into unknown territory, the creative gears kick in and start filling in the considerable blanks. For a while I keep the notes in my head, but at some point I break down and start writing down what’s supposed to happen next. To start with, I type everything in as random notes, but after a while, I put them into some kind of chronological order, then break it into chapters. This is the closest I come to outlining. I’ll deliberately scrimp a little on the details of this part of the story because I’ve already taken a detailed look at the stages my novel go through.

The one thing I should mention is that while I’m writing the novel at one end, another part of me is working out the rest of the book. There are peaks and ebbs in the ongoing outline process, but it’s something I continue to do right up until the day I write the climax and denouement of the novel. Thus, I actually spend almost as much time outlining the book as I do writing it – but instead of doing one and then the other, they run in parallel. You can see by skimming previous blog entries that there are some days when I spend more time on the outline than I do on the page count of the novel itself. I think if you were to ask my wife, she would tell you that I seem especially distracted during the writing of a novel. It’s because I’m mentally working out both the next day’s writing plus where the rest will end up going.

Finally, there comes a day when I write the words “The End” (actually, I prefer “-30-“), meaning that the rough draft is at last completed. It also means that the editing process is soon to begin…

…and I will discuss this tomorrow.

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