I’ve been tagged! Marian Allen posted about her writing process over at her blog, and tagged me to write about mine. So here goes:
First off, the process is a little different for every project. Of course, everything starts with an idea, whether it’s for a character, a storyline, a scenario, a pivotal scene, a setting, or a conflict. Generally, I’ve got a ton of random ideas floating around in my head at any given moment. While I’m doing other stuff, my brain is constantly fiddling around with these ideas and trying to connect them in interesting ways. At some point (seems like it’s usually when I’m either in the shower or about to fall asleep), my brain succeeds in coming up with something cool for me, and I know it’s time to start putting stuff on paper.
Generally, I don’t do a whole lot of planning, per se, but I do make notes of the pieces as they come together. If anything particularly complicated comes up, I’ll outline as much as I need to in order to keep things straight while I’m working on that section of the story. If nothing complicated comes up, I generally just write in the direction I want things to go, let the characters take the lead, and see how things turn out. If I get stuck, I might outline, I might cut a scene (I have a “scrap” file for anything I cut, in case I need it later), I might use a subplot point to push things forward, or, if all else fails, I just do something awful to the main character and force them to deal with it. (That’s partly a good way to move things forward, partly a good way to ramp up the conflict, and partly a sadistic way for me to take out my frustration on my character for not cooperating).
When writing short stories, I usually have a specific concept and/or conflict I want to explore, and the characters come about from thinking through what kinds of people that concept or conflict would involve. Short stories also involve a lot of staring at the screen and cursing and fighting the urge to bang my head on a desk, because pacing and balancing enough/not too much conflict is brutal for me on a short story scale. With a novel, I tend to have an easy time weaving plot and character together so that each drives the other forward in a way that’s unique to both those specific characters and that specific storyline. Most of what makes that possible is establishing strong but flexible characters early on in the process – once I know what my characters’ first instincts would be, but also what they’re capable of doing that isn’t in line with their normal behavior, it’s easy to let them guide the action, but it’s also easy to throw in plot points that are beyond their control and have them respond in ways that are both true to the character and helpful in advancing the story.
How do I create strong characters that feel real enough to work with this way? That’s a hard question, because the answers are vague and overly simplistic… I could say, I make them up, and it would be true, but I’d sound like I was being snotty – even though I’m really not! I could say, I try to look at them as people I’d have to figure out in real life, and that would be true, too, but it isn’t enough…it’s not just my attitude toward characters in general that makes a particular character really pop out in my imagination, or it would always be easy to do (and it isn’t, with 90% of all the characters that occur to me). I could say, I come up with a character who has the right personality for the kind of story I want, and that’s definitely the case, but also not enough to flesh out a 3-dimensional character that a reader (or I) would be interested in knowing better. For example, with The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a book about someone determined to come back from a really cool afterlife in spite of all obstacles (I did have specific scenes in mind for the Underworld, the mini-climaxes, and the final outcome before I was even sure who the main character would be), and I knew it was a book about someone who needed to get back to their partner. I thought it would be too cliche to have the husband be in the wrong (let’s face it, ladies, sometimes we’re jerks, too) and have to do all kinds of feats and action-hero stuff to get home to apologize to his wife, so I went with a female narrator. I knew I wanted someone skeptical and funny to keep the book feeling modern and upbeat in spite of the focus on death. I wanted to keep myself from exploring a billion possible plot lines in a really cool setting, so in order to stay focused I wanted (a) first person narration and (b) a single-minded narrator. In order for anyone to willingly go through everything Erica would have to go through just to apologize – to leave behind the security of being invulnerable and having all her needs met, and go back to being mortal and vulnerable – and for her to be up to the task, I knew she needed to be (a) tough as nails, (b) fiercely loyal, (c) stubborn, and (d) clever. Now, this gives you, as a writer, a list of traits: skeptical, funny, single-minded, tough, loyal, stubborn, clever, and (given the need to apologize) probably impulsive.
A list of traits does not a character make. But you think about this character – this person – the way you might wonder about a new acquaintance. You know this person is tough and stubborn, and you wonder why. What have they had to deal with, or who did they admire and look up to who was that way? This person is impulsive, and you know that’s caused them trouble already – how are they going to deal with situations where they have to restrain themselves (or should restrain themselves) and what will happen if they can’t? She’s single-minded – does she miss things that you’d expect her to notice (given that she’s clever)? See, questions like this start to fill in the character’s background, family and friend influences, regrets, potential for making things worse on themselves, and how their traits play off of one another or augment each other. More like a real person, less like a list. And the process is the same for secondary and cameo characters, although generally not as in-depth or detailed as for the main character(s).
That’s about as organized an explanation of my process as I can come up with! Oh, and WRITE YOUR ROUGH DRAFT AS A WRITER, NOT AS AN EDITOR! You can edit once you’ve got the story on paper (or screen)!