As I mentioned earlier, I really didn’t know what I was doing when I began writing my first novel. By the time I was done, I had developed a pretty good process (one that works for me, that is) which I’m applying to my current projects.
Naturally, it all begins with an idea. But exactly where these ideas originate is hard to say. They may come from the interest I have in a variety of subjects, like the wild west, silent movies, travel and the open road, or linguistics. Sometimes an idea will germinate simply by looking at a genre I find intriguing: speculative fiction, or steam-punk, or the mystery-thriller. Mostly, though, ideas come from observing the world around me – watching the news, reading periodicals, or simply taking a walk. On occasion, I’ll develop an idea from nothing but a phrase or word. That’s a good title for a book, I may think, or what a great opening sentence. From wherever it starts, the seed is then planted in my little brain and left to grow, often unconsciously, into a story concept.
From there, I think a lot about the plot. I like to know where the story begins, where it’s going, and how it ends. This works in hand with developing the characters, though I don’t always have a clear idea who they are until I actually begin physically writing; the action of the plot and how they interact with the other characters brings out details of who they are, and dialogue seems to naturally spring from there. I also do a lot of reading on subjects that I believe will contribute to the richness of the story, give it depth or a certain authenticity.
And then starts a series of outlines, each one progressively more detailed, sort of like using a Google Earth map where you zoom in closer and closer for a better look at where you’re going. This technique might be criticized for creating a story that is too plotted, sterile, predictable, or contrived. But as I begin typing the first draft, I get a better perspective on the best way to communicate what is happening and take steps to make sure it doesn’t seem forced.
The creation of the first draft is a slow, meticulous task for me because I edit and revise as I go; I can’t just spew words onto a page and then go back and sort it all out. The OCD in me insists that every word, sentence and paragraph be just-so before I can move on to the next. While this is painstaking and time consuming, it makes for a nearly finished manuscript that requires little rewriting.
Still, I rewrite, making all kinds of tweaks and changes to bring all the details into something cohesive and readable; for me, it takes a lot of effort to create prose, dialogue and plot that appears effortless. This rewriting happens after I have two or three people give it a read and make critical notes.
What I give little or no consideration to are the elements of motifs and themes. This is what I enjoy most about writing: seeing what emerges once I’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle in place. For instance, the parallel drawn between animals caged in a zoo and humans confined within a quarantined environment behaving unnaturally in “Gospel…” came about entirely on its own; I did not consciously put it there, and yet, it’s become, I believe, one of the book’s defining themes.
So, how do I know when a book is done? When I can’t add or take anything more from it, I guess. It’s done when…um, well…when it’s done.