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:
- Test Chapter 1
- Test Chapter 2
- Proof of Concept
- R&D (books and stuff)
- R&D (practical; February is cheap)
- Real chapters to 100
- Pitch synop
- PROFIT (maybe)
- Name might be a good idea
- 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:
- 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.)
- Initial synopsis; I write down the general gist of the idea. The final idea is always very, very different.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- An outline, and…
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?