Carving a New World

Ah, the holidays. That lovely time when lists begin to dominate my life: holiday shopping lists, menus for family meals, packing lists for shipping and travel, eight million flavors of to do. I’m sure all of you reading this post, in any culture can relate. But there’s one list I’m working on right now that I suspect only the fellow writers among you will fully grok. Here’s what it would look like if I jotted it down on a sticky note:

  1. !!!
  2. Synop
  3. Characters
  4. Plot?
  5. Test Chapter 1
  6. Test Chapter 2
  7. Proof of Concept
  8. R&D (books and stuff)
  9. R&D (practical; February is cheap)
  10. Plot!
  11. Real chapters to 100
  12. Outline
  13. Pitch synop
  14. ???
  15. PROFIT (maybe)
  16. Write
  17. Name might be a good idea
  18. Write some more

This is the to-do list for my next novel. Looking like another duology or trilogy, actually. For the moment I’m calling it the Untitled Magic Seismology Project, or UMSP for short. (Ooh, sounds military.) To translate the above from the Original Noraish into English:

  1. The moment the idea stops being just a vague thought exercise and suddenly captivates me enough to want to write a book. But the idea is only the beginning. (I can generally tell right off whether an idea is short-story length or novel-length.)
  2. Initial synopsis; I write down the general gist of the idea. The final idea is always very, very different.
  3. Usually the characters of a story appear in my head before the idea fully settles, often in a scene. With the Dreamblood books, for example, the first character to pop into my head was Ehiru, the dream-hunting priest, creeping into people’s houses in the dead of the night in search of his quarry. He changed over time, thank Itempas — at first he was sort of a Freudian ninja. But that visual stayed with me, and became his introductory scene in The Killing Moon. (Those of you who have the US version of The Kingdom of Gods have read it; it’s one of the book-end extras.)
  4. I usually have no idea what the book’s plot will be. I imagine where it begins, and where it ends, but how to get from A to Z takes more time to develop. I start the development process by jotting down a very basic sketch of what I want to happen, maybe some key scenes.
  5. Then I write a first chapter. It doesn’t really matter that I have no plot at this stage; basically what I’m trying to get a feel for is the viewpoint character and voice of the story.
  6. I write the first chapter again, usually from a different character’s PoV or in a different person/tense, or with a different style. I keep writing first chapters, in fact, until I find one that feels right.
  7. I don’t always do this, but sometimes I’ll write a short story set in that universe to try and solidify my ideas. Not the same plot, not even the same characters; just playing around with the world. I call this a “proof of concept” story, for lack of a better description — basically I’m testing the worldbuilding to see if it’s complete enough to support a novel yet. Often the act of writing the story helps me catch glaring holes in my worldbuilding. The proof-of-concept story for the Dreamblood books is The Narcomancer. The Inheritance Trilogy’s p-o-c is unpublished, but I just finished “Stone Hunger”, a p-o-c for the UMSP, and I intend to try and publish that.
  8. I should emphasize that this process isn’t linear. Pretty much everything I read lurks in my mind perpetually, tickling thoughts on this or that side. So I did some research on the Yellowstone caldera a few years ago, for a completely different story (one that never got published), and suddenly it’s relevant now. But I’m also doing some present research, like pestering seismologists I know for info on what would happen if (insert scenario).
  9. But there’s one thing books can’t tell me, and no number of Discovery channel specials will either, which is how a volcano smells. How does the movement of the earth feel? From how far away can you feel lava’s heat? So at some point, if I can scrape together enough pennies, I’m going to go look at a volcano up close. If I can, I’ll attempt to poke it with a stick, because I need to know how close the stick can get. The “February is cheaper” is something I learned from my dad, who’s also an artist — he does his research-related travel in February, for the most part, because it’s not tourist season in most parts of the world, and therefore it’s cheaper. In this case, I might be looking at Hawai’i.
  10. This is the point where it actually becomes important for me to have a working, coherent plot. It can change, but there needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  11. This is something I’ve done since I’ve had an agent: I write the first 100 pages. Then I send them to her, and basically go, “¿Que?” And she tells me what she thinks. I usually pair this treatment with…
  12. An outline, and…
  13. A more comprehensive synopsis — the sort of outline and synopsis I would send to a publisher. Often I’ll run that (the outline and synop, not the 100-page treatment) past my writing group first.
  14. Here’s where I’ll decide whether I want to continue working on the project. My agent’s opinion of its possible commercial value aside, I can also at that point get a real sense of what people whose opinions I respect think, and by this point I’ve figured out just what kind of time commitment the thing is going to have. If it’s a single novel, I’ll probably go ahead and write it. That takes less than a year for me. If it’s a trilogy, though, that’s a commitment of several years, and I need to love the concept to put that kind of time into it. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t; projects have died at this stage before, for me. But if I do love it…
  15. I have always written things primarily because I love them and want to see them exist. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d also like to make a little money off it. So about here is where I’d pitch it to my publisher, or multiple publishers, via my agent. I’ve never sold a novel “on spec” before — that is, before it’s written. It’s something I’ve heard that published writers with a track record can do, so it’s something I intend to attempt with my next book. Even if it doesn’t work on spec, though, I’m going to write it. Because I love it and want to see it exist.
  16. Sitting around and waiting on the market is foolish and dangerous. It can take publishers months to decide if they want something. The best way to avoid driving myself crazy is to get ta writin’, so that’s what I’ll do. I usually aim for 1500 words/day.
  17. I suck at naming — as evidenced by the fact that none of the names I’ve come up with for my own novels have actually been used in the published version. I’m OK with that, actually; Orbit’s names are great. I usually solicit my writing group’s opinion on my short story names (case in point: “Non-Zero Probabilities” was named by Paul Berger) because they suck too. Hey, if you know you have a weakness, find smart people to help you with it. I don’t really have to name it at this stage, but it’s helpful to do so, if only so I can label my wordcount meter.
  18. Bake until done. This is leaving out the endstages of novel production: writing group critique, revisions, copyediting, etc. But that’s because the hard part’s over.

This is why I have a hard time answering whenever people ask me what I’m working on now that the Inheritance Trilogy is all done and the Dreamblood books are forthcoming next summer. “My next novel” is the short answer. But in straightforward terms I might be working on a series of worldbuilding wiki entries, or going on a trip that looks like a vacation. (Actually I might enjoy the heck out of it. But I wouldn’t be going if the trip didn’t have a purpose.) I might be writing the same chapter over and over, tens of thousands of words — most of which will never be used in the final work. I might be doing anything but actually writing the novel. But it all matters.

So I’m making a list. I’m checking it twice. I’m starting a process both naughty and — what? Just trying to get into the seasonal spirit.

Anyway, anybody else out there a novelist? Is your process anything like mine?

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17 Responses »

  1. Norah, this is the most detailed “how an author thinks, her process” I have ever read, and certainly describes your process wonderfully.

    I rarely write (except for postings and blogs). However, I’ve gotten two “awesome”s on two things I wrote, years ago…. Both of them, a poem and a very short story, just spewed out of me whole. I had no control. The short story was written on my way to work one morning. (I was driving! Good thing no one else was on the road ;)) I’ve reviewed both of them in this last year, and I’d still not change either of them. (I edit for other people, so I’m not devoid of critique. Lol)

    Apparently, I’m good at your step 8. :)

    Loved The Inheritance Trilogy. I owe you some reading pictures. I’ll catch up to those soon, I hope.

    PS. I’m glad you’re a writer. I enjoy your philosophy on life.

  2. Nora, on bn.com, you are listed as the author of Kingdom of Dust in the blurb. The photo has a different (prob correct) author, but it showed up when I searched under YOUR name. Thought you’d want to know (can you even do something about that?)
    Meran

  3. I really, really, really like your proof of concept. It makes sense and seems like it would be a lot of fun. I find it interesting that you probably wouldn’t use the same characters, but it’s more an exploration of the world. On the face of it, I would think your proof of concept would be more character-focused, but I suppose you already have a good sense of your characters after #6.

  4. How do you tell when your story’s going to be short-story length vs full-length? I’m not a short story writer, so I’m curious.

    Love the “February is cheaper” idea!

  5. The proof-of-concept IS a really cool idea. I’m going to keep that in mind in the future.

    My novel-writing process doesn’t really sound like much in summary; basically I come up with an idea, write it down, and turn it over in my head for a few months or years while writing down characters, settings and scenes as they come to me. Scenes, in fact, are usually the first thing I come up with; I get an idea for a cool setpiece and then I reverse-engineer it, trying to figure out who these characters are and how they ended up in this situation. Most of my plots are assembled from these scene ideas, which often have nothing to do with each other initially, but just kind of click into place.

    Eventually I’ll come up with an overall structure, write a basic outline, and then just start writing. I try to write 1000 words a day and that gets me a rough draft in six months or so. A lot of plot points are improvised along the way. I don’t rewrite anything during this period if I can help it; I just make notes about what I’ll change later and keep writing from the first to the last chapter.

    Then comes the seemingly endless process of revisions and second-guessing, and eventually sending material out to agents (the point I’m at now). This is the sloppiest and most haphazard part of the whole routine for me, but also the most important. They say writing is rewriting, and for me that’s definitely true; I wish I didn’t despise it so much.

  6. Very useful – thanks!

    BTW, the link in #13 is broken. Some kind of WordPress HTML glitch, I guess. It seems to have broken the various parts of the URL out into attributes of the “a” tag for some reason. For anyone trying to sort out the actual URL, it appears to be http://nkjemisin.com/2010/11/the-hundred-thousand-kingdoms-cliffs-notes-version/

  7. Meran,

    Argh. I don’t know what if anything can be done about that B&N thing, but I’ll let Orbit’s publicist know. Thanks for the heads-up.

  8. And of course, I think of more comments I want to make, right after I hit “Submit Comment”…

    I’m currently working on a novel, for the third time in my life – I never finished the first two. But I think this one has a better chance of completion because I’m approaching it in a more serious and disciplined way this time around.

    And one of the things that’s really taken me by surprise in the process has been what you’ve listed as steps 8 & 9. I didn’t really anticipate the amount of research I’d need to do. I thought I was on relatively familiar ground, following the “write what you know” idea, because my story is centred around Celtic mythology, which I’m pretty well-versed in, and a small group of environmental activists in the city I actually live in. But it’s amazing, the number of things that you can find happening to your characters that make you think “Wait, how does that work? What would that be like? Is that even possible? Argh, more research!”

  9. ML, I don’t always have a good sense of the characters, but the proof-of-concept isn’t really intended to figure them out. I’ll get to know them over the course of a whole book. It’s the worldbuilding that’s more critical; I can’t start the story without having a solid sense of that.

  10. Iliadfan,

    Dunno. I just do. There’s a feeling of potential depth with novel ideas that I don’t feel with short stories. Usually the proof-of-concept stories are hard for me to write because there’s just so much to them; they’re difficult to constrain within short story bounds. (Which is why “The Narcomancer” is actually a novelette.) But I don’t have that trouble with short stories that aren’t p-o-cs. I think, in general, my short story ideas tend to be rooted in a concept rather than a setting and characters. So when I thought up “Bittersweet,” even though it was in a setting that could easily have supported a novel, what I wanted to explore was the idea of a severely restricted life — constrained by resources, constrained by space, constrained by rules, whatever. The world was just a playground for me to play in. But with the Inheritance and Dreamblood books, I wanted to play with all the toys — world, characters, everything.

  11. Lynna,

    Fixed! Thanks for the heads up.

  12. I’m an unpublished novelist for now, but your process looks so awesome that I just squee-ed in happiness. I bookmarked this post, the synopsis for Inheritance, and now I’m considering doing a short story of what’s been baking in my head for…18 years now. Good God, my manuscript can vote. Hopefully it’ll be published before it’s old enough to drink. I can’t imagine the mess I’d be in then.

    I’m sure you’ve answered this somewhere, but how long did the Inheritance Trilogy take you to write?

  13. You have no idea how reassuring I find it that you have trouble with titles. My projects tend to live in files named after the main character until very far into the writing process – sometimes until the day before I hit send on the submission. I keep hoping for better suggestions from my editor, but so far it hasn’t happened.

    I’ve got one novel published, and another complete in draft, but I really shouldn’t go back to that one until I finish the sequel to the first novel. Mustn’t keep the readers waiting too long.

    I think I hit many of the stages on your list, although I don’t really have enough experience under my belt to call it a process yet. The proof of concept idea is interesting, and definitely worthy of test driving. Major differences – I don’t have an agent, and I don’t think I’m at the point where I can reasonably commit to a due date on a MS I haven’t written yet. Another is that I tend to use my writing group in the rough draft stage – sometimes literally the day after writing something.

    I’ve never tried rewriting chapter 1 from a different point of view. I don’t think that would work for me. My focus is character-driven, not plot-driven, so changing viewpoint character would make it a completely different story, not just a different approach to telling the story. The closest I’ve come is adding a 2nd viewpoint because there were parts of the story I wanted the readers to know that the primary viewpoint didn’t know, and may not ever know.

  14. Also an unpublished novelist. (Also an un-having-completed-to-actual-completion-even-a-single-novel-yet novelist, but I’m working on fixing that one, at least.) With that caveat, I have to say that I’m quite impressed with the process you follow in your novel writing.

    I consider myself an outline/planner style writer, particularly with regards to worldbuilding, plotting, and characterization. I build myself world-building wikis with notes about history, important people, geography, languages, mythology, and whatever else might interest me about the world, and this is an important preliminary step for me when working on a novel-length project. (I don’t do much of any codified worldbuilding for short stories, but I’ll still do some characterization work, writing backstory vignettes in first person for each major character.)

    But what strikes me about your process and approach is the attention to the prose itself, vis-a-vis the multiple first chapters and the prosaic-format synopsis – neither of which is anything like what I’ve done, as yet. (I’ve also not really analyzed my process in depth like this to see how it works for me.)

    For the book I’m working on, the multiple chapter-ones wouldn’t be a viable tool, at least (but I’m going to have to do the prosaic synopsis). Mainly that’s because the first chapter of this particular project has always been based on an indelible scene that was, in a way, the original inspiration for this project – and that scene can only really be told from one character’s perspective.

  15. I’m 13 and they’ve already had us think about jobs and krap. Yuck. But, I read all the time and I’m thinking about becoming an author. Reading this post has really shown me how great–and busy–the life style of an author can be! You’re my hero and you really inspired me to try writing!

  16. Oh, this is really, amazingly interesting! I’m an aspiring writer, but I’m Japanese and there’s no one around I can talk to about writing in English, how other writers build and grow their ideas. So thank you for posting this!
    FYI, the Japanese version of the title “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” was great! Translating titles are, I think, often tricky, so it’s good to see my favourite book looking cool, really.

  17. I’m not a novelist. I write short stories, both fanfiction and original fiction, mostly under 10,000 words. My process is fairlysimilar to yours. I’m fascinated by the idea of re-writing the first chapter (scene, in my case) over and over until it captures what you’re looking for.

    I definitely write the beginning, then the climax, then work on the resolution and the sticky, sticky middle. Which is fun, when you finally figure out why characters were acting in a certain way.

    I’ve also found, recently, that it’s only after I’ve finished a rough draft and read the entire thing through that I realize what the story’s actually ABOUT. It often requires a few very subtle changes, a little foreshadowing of this important event, a slightly different wording in a description, a sentence of memory from the protagonist’s past, and I’m telling a completely different story with exactly the same plot.

    I’m not even trying to get published, so that makes the synopsis less important.

    Titles are tricky! You want to do three things, in a title:
    1) Invite readers to pick up the book. (Or click the link, in my case.)
    2) Set the stage for the story you’re telling, by creating pre-conceptions that you can either follow or intentionally undermine.
    3) Make a memorable set of words that will be easily associated with the story after people have read it, so that people can find and recommend the story to others.

    No wonder we all have such trouble with titles.