The prospect of beginning a novel can be daunting. There are so many things to be considered: setting, pace, voice, plot, characters. How can a writer contain all of those in her head over the weeks and months of writing an entire book?
One of the most important lessons I've learned from the past twenty years as a writer is that each and every one of us has to respect our own process in accomplishing the enormous task of writing a book. I have a colleague (the fabulous K.W. Jeter) who once shared with me an 80-page outline of a proposed novel. Eighty pages! My role model and mentor, Connie Willis, outlines an entire book in great detail and then write her scenes out of order. The redoubtable Stephen King, in his essential book On Writing, says the only time he tried to outline a novel it was a disaster. (It was Rose Madder, and I have to agree with him that it wasn't a success, though I still acknowledge him as a master wordsmith.) Each of these great writers has his or her own way of doing things, and a list of achievements to prove that it works--for them.
The variety of ways in which a writer gets started on a project fascinates me, and so, as I commence my next book (it will be my seventeenth, if you're keeping track), I've decided to write a short chronicle of my own idiosyncratic process. It varies slightly according to the project, but has remained remarkable consistent through the previous novels. I'm looking forward to looking back, if that makes any sense. When the novel is finished, I can go back over these steps and assess them, see how they fit into the long and rather complex process of writing a book.
The very first step, the obvious one, is conceiving an idea. To me, this is the easiest part, and I suspect it may be for many writers. Certainly if the number of fans who tell me they "have a great idea for a book" is any measure, lots and lots of people find coming up with a concept to be a simple thing. I've always thought the idea is the really fun part, the stage at which anything is possible, and anything can happen. Taking the "great idea" all the way is what this little chronicle is all about!
In the case of my current project, Hearts in Montana, I've had this idea for years. the characters and the story have been growing and deepening for a long time, more or less behind the scenes of other books and stories I've been working on. This idea started in my favorite way, with a title. The same thing happened with my books The Terrorists of Irustan, The Child Goddess, and Airs Beneath the Moon. Mozart's Blood also had a title very early in the development process.
A great title helps to shape the novel, to direct its course. It's always harder, in my view, to name a book later. Those titles can be hard to come by, for me. One of the queens of titles, however, the great Kay Kenyon, is perfectly comfortable coming up with her titles after her book is written. She has created some beauties, such as her recent Prince of Storms. It's a difference in process.
My next step, one I have to take before I go forward, is choosing character names. . But choosing the names of my protagonists is an essential part, for me, of getting to know them, learning what they're about, what their strengths and weaknesses are, how they fit into the world I'll be devloping. Not for me the "placeholder" names some of my colleagues are comfortable with; I have to know.
For Hearts, I sat on my couch for several hours with a phone book and my baby name book, listing possibilities, making notes in a computer file, saying names aloud and trying names side by side to see how they worked together. I knew, for example, that my hero should have a one-syllable, strong, but distinctive name. No Bobs or Jims or Steves. My list, in case you find it interesting, included things like Gil, James, Will, and Wade. I settled on Mack--short, masculine, not too odd, but not common. I created a name I like, Bay, but it didn't suit him, so I've set it aside to use another time. Mack it is. And Veronica, and Ardis, and eleven-year-old Sonya. The horses are Charlie and Belle and Toby and Ramblin' Rose. Knowing their names tells me a lot about them, how they look, how they speak, how they carry themselves. Knowing a character's name creates curiosity in me to know his story, and curiosity is a most useful thing for a writer.
I am, in fact, a collector of names. I'm always quizzing baristas and clerks about the names on their tags, about the pronunciation, the ethnicity, the provenance. I hope I've never embarrassed anyone. If I ask, it's because their particular name is intriguing and attractive to me. I have a lovely pharmacist, for example, whose name is both exotic and musical: Amitris. It worked perfectly for a story set on my fantasy world Nevya, and won a big smile from her when I told her about it.
Setting, for me, is often part of the original concept. In the case of Hearts, it's a horse ranch in the rugged Cabinet Mountains of Montana. The landscape is both beautiful and challenging, and will dictate elements of the plot as well as support the mood and atmosphere I hope to use for my story.
With a setting and a few characters ready to go, I' ready to write my first chapter. Some writers--fine ones, too, like my prolific friend Brenda Cooper--spew words with energy and abandon, thousands of them every day, knowing they'll prune and edit heavily later. This isn't my process. I rarely throw out anything I've written. Of course the price of my particular style of work is a slower pace, but somehow, each year, I seem to finish a book just the same. I've tried, once or twice, to write faster, but it didn't work for me. I write three to five pages a day, as a general rule. It's not a high page count, but it helps if all those pages are keepers.
Now, the work begins. I have an image in my mind, a good starting point which would appeal to me as a reader--a hook, in other words--and I'm off! The outline will come, in case you're curious, but not yet. Not at this stage in my process. Stay tuned for further developments!