I’m not really sure if those who’ve never written a novel can understand how important—how calming—this sense of relief is, so I’d like to share a little about the process.
Either it begins with a “What if?” or a mental image, perhaps a character or a particular theme, but no matter where that first spark comes from, the seeds have been planted. They begin to germinate. What was once a vague thought becomes a limited series of events. Scenes begin to manifest. Characters become more defined. A story slowly begins to form.
Step Two: Development
Some writers skip this step, but it’s an important one for me. This is the time when all those bits of characterization, short scenes, and general ideas first find their way onto the page. For me, it begins as 1) detailed character sketches, a different page for each main character that identifies name, age, sex, occupation, likes/dislikes, recreational activities, social status, personal quirks, and 2) an initial outline of the main plot points that have been haunting me for the past days, weeks, or months. The outline is not detailed, and sometimes it lacks a specific beginning, middle, and end.
Step Three: Page One
No matter how many times I’ve done it in the past, every time I sit down in front of that blank first page, I find myself riddled with reservation, hesitance, and excitement. How will my opening sentence define the rest of this book? Am I approaching it from the appropriate starting point? Do I have it in me to pursue this story to the end (which at this point seems so far away)? Those first words eventually come, however, and page one soon gives way to page two.
Here is where the story must unfold, beginning with a solid foundation and continuing with one layer after the next of structure that must build upon itself. Move too slowly, and the story will stagnate and die; move too quickly, and all I’ll have is a skeleton that may or may not be worth fleshing out. The task feels daunting, moving forward each day with just a little more to show for it. Think of it as tantamount to taking on a mission to build a skyscraper, one brick at a time. At the end of each day, I’ve raised the walls a little higher, and yet the top of that massive building is still so far out of reach that it feels like I’ll never get there—and yet the drive to continue is so overwhelming that I have no choice but to continue.
Step Five: Getting to the End
I’ve developed my ideas, laid the foundation, and finished building the walls. Now all that’s left is the roof. I still need to take my time to make sure what I leave behind is solid, but I’m tired. Images of the finished product have been bouncing through my head like a bucketful of super-balls from hell, and I long for nothing more than to release every last one of them so finally I can rest. So what do I do? I work on that roof nearly day and night, forgetting to eat, foregoing that much-needed shower, setting aside physical health by persevering like a little Energizer bunny until I feel like I might just die. I must finish; at all costs, I must finish.
And then comes that moment that had felt so far away for so long, those final two words: THE END. Now I can relax; I’ve thwarted the insanity once again by emptying my head of all those maddening super-balls that were assaulting my hapless brain. What sweet relief! I walk away from the computer, take a shower. I throw myself into that special circle of hell by editing the damn thing—but it’s okay because my mind once again belongs to me. I’m free.
And then, sooner than I’d like, a new idea hits me, begins to consume my every thought, and I begin the process all over again. As the great Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes.”