Monday, July 6, 2009

How to: From Idea to Novel

A common question about Talking to the Dead is "where did you come up with the idea for the book?"

My answer is usually something like this:

"My inspiration for Talking to the Dead is difficult to nail down. The novel came in bits and pieces – I’d love to say I was so smart and savvy I had it all planned out, but that’s simply not what happened. In part, the story came out of my experiences as a counselor, sitting with people who were attempting to articulate their pain and distress. It occurred to me that many of the things these people were doing (the behaviors I saw) were often an attempt to accomplish something very different that what they were doing – in other words, behavior didn’t match intentions. It caused me to truly see why Jesus commanded us not to judge others. We simply don’t know what’s going on under the surface.

The second inspiration for the novel came from watching how God was always present in the messy lives of these people who were hurting. He mingles with our humanity. And that is the story I wanted to tell; God in the midst of our messy lives."

(This is the answer that appears on Susan Meissner's blog Edgewise)

It's a good answer in that it is true, and it signifies the genesis of my "ah-ha!" moment that led to the beginning of the book.
What it doesn't answer is: how does inspiration translate into a novel? How do you transform ideas (themes, concepts, messages) into storyline? The answer to THAT is far more complex.

The writing of a novel has a lifespan of it's own. From conception to making the book available for purchase, a book moves from infancy to adulthood in stages. You've heard it said that writing a book is like having a baby - I don't agree. I have two kids and they don't look anything like my books - and writing isn't anywhere near as painful as labor! But there is an analogy that can be drawn on in terms of maturing ideas into words, and words into a manuscript and a manuscript into a book.

The conception comes when singular ideas meld together to become something multi-faceted. This is when your idea about wanting to write a book about redemption and love meets with your "what if?" idea, which then buddy up with ideas for a plot (a what happens idea), and then bump into some characters that can help make the story happen. All great stuff roiling around - but a far cry from a book. One thing I've noticed when I look at new writer's work is they attempt to write a book based solely on this stage of the process. They believe they have all the raw materials they need to write a book, when all they really have is a loose association of potentially good ideas. They try to go from conception to birth - missing critial steps inbetween.

The incubation period of development comes next and it looks a great deal like writing a book - but it isn't. It is a time of growing ideas, concepts, plot, characters, story arch, message, and meaning together. You're writing it out - getting your thoughts down on paper in the form of descprition, dialogue, characterization, movement, plot points, and subtext. In time, the ideas merge, then grow, the seperate into the multi-celled creature that, if done right, will become a book. Some people call this the first draft - and it's here most beginner writers get stuck. Why? Two reasons - lack of understanding of the process of writing, and lack of patience with themselves as artists. A third reason could be that the person isn't really a novelist - that writing for them is best carried out in another format, another medium (non-fiction, articles, newpaper, acedemic, and on and on - there are many, many ways to express yourself through writing).

The incubation period always seems to last forever - it's a time when the singular ideas and themes you had grow toghether to become a very different thing. A solid ball of something substaintial, a story you can tell. You write and re-write, cut scenes, add new ones, revise plot points, develop characters, become surprized by twists even you didn't see coming. This is the making of the story you will tell. It should take time - lots of time. But a word of caution: if you have been working on the same book for the past ten years, you're stuck and it is likely that novel writing isn't going to become more than a hobby for you.

Fattening up the book is the next stage. We're growing now! Filling out the story by making sure we are simply telling they story. This is important no matter what sort of fiction you are writing but is doubly important for those of us writing Christian fiction. We need to ensure that the power of the story is what shines, not the didactic of our message. In this stage we are writing the book for real. We are taking all of our ideas and weaving them skillfully throughout the story - making our message implicit in the story. Not hiding it, but telling it through narrative. This is where we really pull out our tool box and sharpen every skill we have as a writer. This is where we have faith in our story and our ability to tell it. We self-edit, weed out flat language, economize our words, tighten the narrative, fix holes in the plot, speed the pace of the book. We do this all before it goes to the hands of our editor.

The stage that holds the most fasination for writers is the next one - labor, bringing the book to fruition. This is where the book we've incubated and crafted moves to the hands of the editor and the solitary creation becomes a full partnership. This baby isn't coming to term without the steady help of a skilled editor. And there is pain involved which comes in waves called substansive, copy, and proof. Every book is different, and every editoral experience is different (even when an author is working with the same editor - it's a whole new ballgame for every book), but it will always involve changes. Developing underdeveloped aspects of the book, toning down other aspects (melodrama? too much emotion? author agenda? - time to cut them out, tone them down, or pull them out by the roots!), and perfecting story arch, pacing, character development (espcially on secondary and tertiary characters), and fine tuning aspects such as marketability, likeability, uniqueness, and sparkling language.

After substantive editing the pain decreases - the editing is smaller, the choices less likely to cause bleeding. But this is still intensive and requires skilled attention. Word choice, language, spelling, grammar, and other close up issues are addressed in detail at this point. This is done in partnership as well - which is a good thing because it's likely that by now the author has lost most of her perspective about the book. These last steps are important, but are often done in fast succession in order to get the book toghether and meet production timelines.

There are additional steps that happen simultaneously with the writing, editing, and overall crafting of the book - cover, back matter, marketing (yes, you begin marketing your book well before it becomes a fully formed book), bio, endorsements, the list goes on! But it was my intention to focus on the steps of the writing itself in this post.

The learning curve is steep, and the effort at times feels Hurculean, but in time, and with patience and understand of the process on top of mad skills - a book is "born".

I bid you good writing.


Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

Wow - that does make it feel "herculean" to write a novel! :) Great insight, though. I like what you say about "fattening" the idea into a novel.

Steve G said...

And that's one difference between a novel and what should stay as a short story. There has to be enough growth and depth to make a novel. Some books seem to be short stories sssttttrrreeeetttccchhhhheeedddd just to get a full length, and it just doesn't work, eh??!! How do you know the difference in particular?

word verification - tryshm: When someone hands you a drink and says, "tryshm", don't, and take their car keys.

Unknown said...

Koala: I know it sounds so difficult when it is laid out like I've done, all these steps listed one after the other - but I hope I've been able to inspire people to reach farther into their creative selves while trying to craft a novel.

Steve: I've read a few novels that I think would have succeeded better as a short story - but most "bad" novels are just "bad" and wouldn't benefit by being a short fiction work. :)
How do you know if what you are working with is enough material for a novel or not? Great question! I've talked to writers about ideas for novel that were too sweeping, trying to accomplish too much within the limitations of a book. The writer would ask: Is this really two novels?? Answer: No. It's not that you have too much raw materials to fit in one novel - it's that you are approaching the medium of a novel with too broad a brush. The ideas are still incubating - cooking down. You're not ready to start writing a book yet.

PatriciaW said...

Loved Talking to the Dead, and am recommending it especially to people who have either never read Christian fiction or complain about it being pedantic and predictable.

Thanks for shedding light on the writing process. I'm one of those writers whose gotten stuck because I haven't understood the process. The scales have been falling from my eyes of understanding, freeing me to simply write. Then worry about perfecting the story.

Unknown said...

Patricia:Thanks so much for your kind words about Talking to the Dead - and for recommending it to friends! I so appreciate it!! Many blessings to you.

Writing is one of those process things (like all art) that is objective and subjective at the same time. There are "rules" for writing a novel, yet the act itself is decided by the writer only. One thing I'm learning and relearning is to trust the gifts God gave me, and to trust Him to write the books He's given me to write.