I was hoping to get to announce my new adult series today, here on the Dames blog, but I don’t have clearance for that yet (there are good reasons) so instead, I’m going to answer a question left by Peggy in the comments section of Dame Devon’s most recent post.
The question is this: “I’m always curious about process. Do you typically get character first, situation, or …? And how do you grow that into a full story?”
Like many elements of writing fiction, the answer to that question will vary not just from writer to writer, but sometimes from book to book. I know of some writers whose process is the same every single time. I know of others (Vicki Pettersson comes to mind immediately) who say that their process is never the same twice.
My answer is a little bit of both.
For some books, like both Stray (Shifters book 1) and My Soul To Take (Soul Screamers book 1), my initial idea was for a character. Faythe and her tight-knit family of werecats were originally side characters in a book I wrote but never submitted for publication. When I decided I wanted to focus on Faythe for a book of her own, I took her out of that high fantasy world and plopped her down in current-day Texas, then built the rest of her world around her.
The process was very similar for Kaylee, except that she was never a secondary character in a previous book. I went into Soul Screamers knowing I wanted to write about a teen bean sidhe. The rest came out of brainstorming.
For the Unbound series, the world-concept came first. A world where some people have scary abilities and promises can’t be broken. A world divided by the concept of power into the haves and the have-nots. Then I had to populate that world. The original occupant was Kori, a woman whose only way out of the hell she lived in was to damn someone else to serve in her place. Enter Ian, who came with his own obligations and complications, and you have both instant conflict and a complicated love story. But for editorial reasons, Kori’s story was moved into book 2, so I had to populate and write book 1 first. I did that by brainstorming.
Once I have a concept (a character, or a world, or a conflict, etc…) I begin almost every book by brainstorming. This is a chaotic process for me, and sometimes a time-consuming one. During this phase, I often look like I’m not doing any work at all. My everyday tasks take longer, because my mind is in the book, not on the laundry or the dishes. My showers stretch into creative aqua-therapy. Every now and then, I’ll grab the nearest electronic device (phone, ipad, Macbook) and take notes. Often, years later, I find notes for things I didn’t actually use in the book and can no longer make any sense out of what I wrote.
For sequels, the world-building and most of the characters are already in place, so most of the brainstorming process involves weaving together any loose threads from the previous book, while coming up with elements for the main plot of the book in production. At this point, I tend to bounce ideas off of a fellow writer (usually Dame Rinda, my CP) or No. 1 (my husband), who mostly just nods and acts as a sounding board.
For the first book in a series (or a stand-alone, presumably, though I’ve yet to write one of those) the brainstorming is much more involved and usually takes much longer. I have to come up with all the details that weren’t immediately obvious in my initial concept. For Shifters, that involved politics and character conflicts. For Soul Screamers, it involved inventing/personalizing scary monsters and crafting a bad guy who can’t die, and a girl who can’t admit defeat. For Unbound, brainstorming involved very long, very intricate planning of the various Skills, as well as the complicated histories between the characters.
For me, plotting involves writing down all the ideas I’ve brainstormed, then putting them in order and filling in the blanks. And the transitions. Once the ideas are there, the plotting is usually pretty smooth. Usually. But not always.
When I sit down to write, I almost always have most or all of the story plotted. That plot invariably changes during the first draft, but it is a foundation, without which the first draft would take me much, much longer to write.
The only books I wrote without a detailed outline (though I had the brainstormed elements in place) were Stray, My Soul To Take, and Oath Bound. Stray was written very quickly, but because I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote it, it had to go through many, many rounds of revisions.
Writing Oath Bound was like pulling out my own teeth, one by one, with no anesthesia. I will never, ever try it that way again.
The secret project I finished a couple of months ago is my anomaly. It was not plotted. The concept itself changed four times. The setting changed. The time period changed. The secondary characters changed. The world-building changed drastically. The names changed. And the story itself changed. All of that, over a two year period.
The first few chapters of that book were re-written from scratch so many times that they bear no resemblance whatsoever to the final product. But if I hadn’t written them—if I hadn’t let the concept evolve—I wouldn’t have wound up with a book I’m very proud of and very in love with.
Then there are my half-baked ideas. One is a story I really want to write, but my publisher wasn’t interested in the concept, and since writing pays the bills, I had to shelve it to work on stuff that will actually sell. Hopefully. I have not abandoned the idea. But I don’t have time to work on it for free at the moment. Some day, maybe…
The other is an idea that woke me up in the middle of the night. I don’t have many details. Just a set of three characters and the heartbreaking situation they share and the cruel world they live in. I got up at one in the morning a few years ago and typed a couple thousand words of their story on my ipad, with no idea where that story would go. It hasn’t gone anywhere since. But I still think about it. I will write that story, but I don’t know yet when. The problem is that, unlike the other books I’ve written, I know where the relationships are headed, but I have no idea about the main plot. Which tells me that the relationships should be the main plot, but I’m not sure yet how to write that. And so it sits and stews on my mental back burner.
So, I wish I could tell you that there’s one way that a book should develop from a concept into a finished story, or even that there’s one way for every writer. But that’s not true. What I can tell you is that while you’re figuring out your process (or figuring out that you have no process) you will also be gaining invaluable writing experience. We learn as much from our struggles (and sometimes failure) as we do from our triumphs.