Where Babies Come From

So here I am, at the beginning again. INSIGNIFICANT HOLY is out, and so far the notes have not had an eye toward rewriting, so I just have to keep sending and hope that someday, my prince(ss) of an agent will come. In the meantime, there is life to live.

Having given up on the idea of “Not Writing but Instead Being Sensible” as a beautiful dream I once had, I went through an abbreviated version of my normal end of project doubt. I always think it’s unwise to continue allowing myself this dangerous and time wasting hobby, and try to convince myself to give it up. It’s practically a ritual now: an attack of the “Why am I doing this? What the hell? Am I crazy?” I know that I’m not the only one who has this attack, but I think it happens to different people at different times. Some writers it gets mid-project, some before they start. And some not at all. If I’m going to have it, I’m lucky that it comes at the end, but at the same time, it is FULL OF ASS.

However, when you’re sending out, you’re involved in the least fun part of not being sensible. The only cure for the angst is the fun of a new project.

SO! I’ve now written 3 novels- 2 standard, 1 three-day – and 1 play, and I thought I’d document the process of how I start a new big project.

1) Stewing

Generally I have a few obsessions wandering about in my head at any given time. Opinions, ideas, things for which I would like to receive grant money to study; they usually have some open question or questions, some what if, that I find interesting. Whatever what ifs are most interesting to me right now tend to become part of what I’m working on, although that can go different ways: structure, plot, theme, environment or character. I need to have something(s) to draw a story from. It’s important for me, at least, to understand my current obsessions so that they fit. What am I going to be thinking about anyway – which “whatifs” could I use to make into something interesting?

However. I most importantly need a character. Characters only ever come to me through writing, and that’s really a butt in chair proposition. I need to just write. Writing exercises are a good thing for me: I sometimes write short stories just to see if I can meet someone. I think Insignificant Holy worked because the writing exercise that spawned Verona was the right exercise at the right time. She showed up and grabbed me. 

2) Sketches

Once I have obsessions and character, I have to kick the story around somewhat. This tends to be a combination of things – plotting (which will probably go out the window, but you need to have some idea which way you’re setting out, even if by midday you’re off in a different direction), and writing exercises/snapshots around details of the novel.

I kicked Eureka around for a good year or two before sitting down to write; it was a deeply plotted and considered novel. I was going to write a play, y’see, but it just didn’t come out that way.  My 3 day novel was a combination of character and issue and ended up a very mild mannered soft boil mystery – I was going to do something around the idea of a dispassionate, average, untroubled main character dealing with complex externalities. There was my whatif. I found my character when she was dealing with her husband’s death. I sort of feel that I didn’t do right by her: the novella turned into a soft boil mystery, some of the interesting whatifs died, and she became more of a cartoon of herself.

Well, it was three days.

Anyway, Verona’s story sketched up more quickly, and I think that’s the best plan for me. It tends to keep me honest. I do need a couple sketches and a loose plot, even still. If this goes well, and I keep getting excited, then eventually, I’ll get so far as…

3) Chapter One.

The first chapter for me is the proof. Either it works, or it doesn’t. If I’m not driven to write a second chapter, and instead futz around researching or reading or fretting, the project’s doomed.  I’ve had a few ideas slide back into the story file because they’ve  just not caught – maybe I’ll take the whatifs for a spin at some other time, with some other characters, but if my main character fizzles through chapter 1, she or he isn’t for me.

4) Everything else

There’s another “break point” for a novel for me – my very first attempt was a crime drama back in 2001, with an interesting super villian – and I walked away at 20,000 words. I’ve realized this is significant.

20K is usually about the end of Act 1, in an 80K novel. (I tend to write 80K novels). In the novella, it was sooner. That transition, between Act1 and 2, is where you go from dating a book to committing to it. It’s like the end of your first year of dating someone, when it stops being new and starts being a serious relationship.

I think I’m pretty good at knowing (both in relationships and novels) before the end of the first year/first Act whether something’s working out for me; so if I get to that 20K and things are difficult, I tend to push on.

It’s hard, looking at the long middle space where the real depth is, to feel up to the challenge. I’ve exhausted the thrill of chasing the whatif, and the character is no longer this exciting new stranger here to titillate me. Now, the buckling in is required. I think, as with relationships, having a sense of humour about the thing helps.


So, I’ve started a new project. It’s in step 2 – I’ve got my obsessions lined up, I’m a number of sketches into development, there are at least 2 characters who I can work with, and I’ve got a rough plot. Very plotty sci-fi novel: but I still have to work that first chapter through to see if it works. I’ve been sick this week; will have to get there next.

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