Wednesday, February 02, 2011

#WW - How an Idea becomes a Book


This post is logically where we should have started: a blank screen, an idea in your head, and wondering where to start. Unfortunately I started #WW when I was immersed in a deadline and so you got posts that reflected where my mind was at the time. :-)

But that book is handed in, and I'm faced with having to chat with my editor about what is next.

My process of coming up with a new idea isn't much different than it was when I was unpublished, except now I have to run it by my editor and get the thumbs up before launching forward. Editorial tends to have an idea about where they want you to go and so it's imperative they have a first look at what you're planning.

I'm not going to concern myself today with what format that proposal takes, actually. Because it varies. If you're published, you may be locked into a proposal being a synopsis and first three chapters, or perhaps just a synopsis. As a pantser, that puts the fear of God in me. For my last book, I had to write a synopsis before the book was completed for the Art Fact Sheet. The stuff that happened up to the point where I was writing was fine. But the last 1/3 of the synopsis changed, because what I thought would happen didn't. I want to digress for a moment and tell you why - because when I write a synopsis before I've written the story, I write the surface story. But every single time, as I'm writing, something happens where I really delve deeper. The delving deeper is a good thing. I get right at the root of what the problem is which is good for the story. But it's hell on a preliminary synopsis. It goes right back to my post on "What's it really about, anyway?"

Because of that, my proposals to my editor are something we've worked out between us with consideration for what she needs to know to be confident I can pull it off (and it fits what they want) and also consideration for how I work. I am very grateful she is willing to be flexible about it.

But say you're unpublished? Well, for one thing, I've already said finish the damn book. In that case, you've already written the story, can put together a good synopsis and polished chapters.

So forget the proposal. How does an idea become a book? How do you get to that moment where you start putting words on the page?

There are several ways you can go at it and there is no one right way. It is all about how you think and what your process is. Some see the plot first. Some see characters. Some start with a hook and build from there.  Me? I see a world. Setting plays a huge part, because it anchors me, and the characters are part of that. The plot? I have a basic understanding but plot evolves from characters for me. Maybe that's why my synopses skim the surface. I know my characters but I don't REALLY know them until I get into the story and get my hands dirty.

I'm planning my next books now - because it's a duet, I need to see two books, how they'll link, how the first will lead into the second while still standing absolutely alone. Here's my beginning process:

*I've got nothing. Well, wait. Remember that walk-on character? I think she should have her own story. But I don't want to set it where we saw her before. So let's move her.
*What's made her move and where did she go? What is she doing now/what career change has she made to put her in a new place?
*Where am I going to set this town? Where haven't I been before? Made up or real? Made up. Ok...what am I going to call it? How big is it? Affluent? Where do the people work? How does my heroine fit into this place?
*Ok, I know why she's there, decided she doesn't QUITE fit in, because she's an outsider. Not that people aren't friendly, but most of them have a history there that she doesn't.
*Who is the hero? Why is he the WORST person for her and how am I going to throw them together?

At this point, the hero distracts me, and I spend time googling pictures and picture him walking on the scene, etc. I know how I'm going to throw them together, too.  So I have a basic set up: I know who the heroine is, where the story is set, what she's doing there, who the hero is, and how he's going to throw a monkey wrench into her plans.

It's a good start. But it's not nearly enough. Why? Because we're missing something HUGE. Motivations.

And this is the hard work. You have to know their backstory, because as we all know what's happened in the past shapes today's perspectives. Why did she choose the job she did? Why doesn't she want to fall in love? Why does she hide behind her clients rather than living her own life? Why is he so angry? How does he feel about where he is in life? What did he want to do that he didn't? What does he want now, or does he want anything? Has he put his dreams away for good or just for now?

Then there's the conflict you put them in with each other. What's going to keep them apart? I know a lot of the first book is about making flash judgments and then coming to realize how that's wrong. They both think things about the other that aren't true and the layers get peeled back. But what else? Once those layers are peeled all the way back, what's going to be the deal breaker?

To be honest, I don't have this answer yet, but I know it will come. And I'm truly not a plotter. But sorting out WHO my characters are is crucial. I only have a first scene in mind for this story and the rest will come as I go along. But at least with that first scene, I know what the heck they are doing there and who they are.

If you're a plotter, you might want to write out a synopsis now, or I know some people use charts for 3 act form or whatever. Do what works with your process.

Other things that help before you start writing: I cast my characters and that way I have a visual. The visual usually goes out the window after the first few chapters, but that visual anchoring is really great for picturing the opening scene. A lot of times I have a soundtrack, too - a group of songs that speak to me in some way. That put me in the right frame of mind or mood. Sometimes the songs have some great meaning to the story in the lyrics and other times it's just something else that works.

Oh, and I've had to do this for 2 books, since it's a duet. So I also know who the two characters are, how they tie into the first book (walk-on roles), and how the resolution of the first book leads into the conflict of the second.

All in all, I'm pretty excited, which makes me very nervous wondering if my editor is going to like it!

Questions about getting started? Go ahead and post in the comments. :-)


  1. Hi Donna,

    Thanks for the great writing lesson. Will have to read it again and again to fully absorb it! (now you all know how dense I am!)

  2. Anonymous3:12 a.m.

    Hi Donna, thanks for a glimpse into your process. It gives me some ideas how to get a better start on a story. I tend to just start on page one and go at it, which has led to some interesting road blocks.
    Christy a.k.a. ChrissieSue

  3. Thanks Donna - That really helped. I spent all day yesterday getting to know my characters much much better and really getting to grips with why they feel as they do at the beginning of the story. And of course some time on the internet finding some inspiring pics of my gorgeous hero! Today I've been plotting (loosely) and now I'm set to go! Thanks again!