The End of the Beginning

Writing a novel in the piecemeal way that I do over six plus months really elongates the entire creation process. While I know that many writers have day jobs and have limited time to write every day, I have to imagine that established writers like Wally Lamb, Stephen King, and others move through the process much more quickly than the rest of us. Stephen King has to do so since he’s so prolific. If my writing were brought to life, it’d be like that stop-motion animation without the stops edited out.

I just finished doing the first round of edits of “Origins,” my first science fiction novel. For me, it is a Goliath of a novel at over 100,000 words and eight months in the making. It took me a month to finish the first round of edits, and now, I’ll let it sit and settle for a while before I make any attempt at second-round edits. I’ve sent it out to my beta readers to get their feedback, and I guarantee they’ll find inconsistencies and questionable plot movements because after staring at this project for eight months I know I have missed a few things. That’s the life of a writer – you become so engrossed in a story that you can’t see what’s in front of you.

This isn’t the end of the story, so to speak. It’s just the end of the beginning. Writing the story only starts the process of creating a finished product. The blood, sweat, and tears come in the editing and re-editing. The importance of editing cannot be overstated. I once worked with an excellent editor on several articles I had written for a trade magazine, and she performed miracles on my best efforts. I may have given the articles my own special shine, but she made them sparkle. I only wish she were available to edit my books. I need someone like her to help me get to the finish line of publication.

The problem is that finding a great editor is more art than science. It’s not a matter of looking up names online and picking one. Writing is an intimate experience, and an editor is more than a grammar checker, she is someone who understands the writer and can help him write the best story he can write. When I find an editor, it will be a serious relationship – one that will be critical for my success as a writer. As such, I’ve had several conversations with potential editors. I keep looking for that spark that will let me know I’ve found the right person to entrust with my stories. The next phase of the writing process is the most arduous, and I can’t just take the journey with anyone. For now, I’ll keep on writing, but I know getting to the end of the beginning is not enough.

Character Snapshots

Before I begin writing a novel, I like to write short summaries about each main character. This helps me in two ways: (1) It keeps me consistent throughout the novel and (2) It ensures the story arc works as the plot unfolds. There’s nothing worse than writing a novel and realizing that your character had brown hair in chapter one and blonde hair in chapter seven. It has happened for less primary characters in stories I’ve written. Character snapshots give me something to refer to later on when I’m deep into a novel and may have forgotten what I’d written months ago. When I conceive a novel, I have an idea of how my characters will react throughout the story arc. Their specific personality traits are important to the story, especially as they experience the inevitable transformation, so it’s important to get their personalities just right. Character snapshots help me do that.

It’s important to remember that this is just a starting point. I’m free to change my characters as the novel unfolds, and I often do. When writing Origins, Sanjay began as a grumpy, relatively harmless character, but I came out of the first chapter with new ideas of how he would evolve in the novel. When I change the characters, I always update my snapshots to keep me on point. Sometimes, characters change so much in the course of writing the novel that I end up with inconsistencies in the first draft. My character snapshots, assuming I’ve kept them up-to-date, really save my bacon in these cases. I can go back and refer to them during the editing process and smooth out the rough edges before I declare my work a “first draft.” These snapshots require some investment of time before I begin writing, but I see them as an essential foundation.

The first version of my snapshot is simply a quick description with my initial thoughts on the character. I don’t worry about trying to describe everything. I’ll add and take away from it as I work through the novel. By the end of the writing process, I’ll have a more complete version of the snapshot that I can use in the editing process. One thing I’ve learned in writing novels is that I need to get my ideas on the page quickly including the character snapshots. Worrying about perfection on the rough draft is a recipe for failure. That’s why editing is so crucial – it gives you the opportunity to make it “perfect,” or as perfect as your work is going to be.

Here’s the snapshot for the main character, Grace Garrison, in my latest project:

Grace Garrison is a 16-year-old girl with brown hair and a light complexion. She’s thin and short for her age. She speaks with a soft southern accent that emphasizes her shyness despite having spent her entire life in the spotlight of her grandmother’s ministry. Although she is kind to others, she seems like she doesn’t want to be where she is. On stage in her grandmother’s church, she appears to be on the verge of making a hasty exit. She spends most of her time with her grandmother as she is home-schooled to keep her “away from the unsavory elements of public school.” She has no friends outside of the ministry and has experienced few things far from her grandmother’s purview. Since her parents died when she was a baby, in the same plane crash in which she was the sole survivor, she has no memory of them and only knows them through the stories her grandmother tells her. She keeps a photograph of them together on their wedding day on her nightstand in her bedroom.

As you can see, this isn’t meant to be a compelling screed for a book jacket. The purpose is to formulate the character in my mind and keep me centered on who the character is. I find this approach very useful in my writing, and the Scrivener software I use to compose a novel makes it easy to refer to the character snapshots as I write.

I’m sure there are many ways to compose a novel. Every writer has to find the way that works for him or her. This is just one of the ways I’ve found to help me work through the process of creating a novel. After so many years of fits and starts, it’s something that has helped me get over the hump of finally finishing a novel.

 

The Idea

I never know when inspiration will strike. Just in the last week, story ideas have come to me in the aisles of Barnes & Noble, just before I fell asleep in my bed, and while I was in the shower. Sometimes, I’ll read a news story and an idea will flower in my mind like a Spring awakening. My first novel, The Vanishing, sprung from a sad news article I had read in the New York Times. Reading other novels helps, too. Not only do I learn more about good writing by reading regularly, but ideas often germinate in my head and pop out at odd times.

Luckily, I keep a rather extensive notebook. Actually, it’s an electronic one, a OneNote file that I keep close to me at all times. I can access it on my laptop or my phone or even some random computer that has Internet access. I write down every single idea and a few thoughts behind it to give it context so that I remember it later. Once I record ideas, they often sit there for a long while before I turn them into novels. Some have lingered on the note page for years. The oldest idea in my notebook came to me in January 1997 on a drive from Memphis to Atlanta. I didn’t have OneNote then, so I recorded it in the old school way by etching it into my stone tablet…I mean, writing it in a physical notebook I had back in ancient times. That idea has gone through several iterations as I struggled to learn how to write a novel. I still haven’t finished that novel. Maybe I will someday.

The Vanishing went from idea to novel in a space of six months. I believe I read the article that inspired the story in June 2012, and by the first of July of that year, I had decided it was now or never for me to finally write a novel. Six months later I had completed my first novel, and I haven’t stopped since. I just finished my sixth novel in January.

And there’s plenty more where that came from. I have no shortage of ideas, just the time to transform them into novels. I add ideas to my notebook all the time. Sure, there are some periods where I don’t have anything new to add, but then, I get a tsunami of ideas that just hit me and I type furiously just to keep up with my mind. I love it when that happens, but I don’t worry if it doesn’t. I have so many ideas already that I could keep up my current writing schedule for many years without running out of material.

I don’t remember exactly when I came up with the idea for Grace of God. I do know it’s one of my oldest ideas. I guess I should put a date by my ideas so that I can see how long it takes to go from idea to novel, but does it really matter? Some ideas go through transformations. They may begin life as one thing and end up as another. One idea that has seen its share of evolution is one tentatively called My Father’s Daughter. It’s about a woman who reunites with her terminally ill father after being estranged for many years. Not only does she face the imminent death of her father, but she also has to come to terms with the painful past that has haunted her throughout her adult life. This idea started as an homage to great fathers, but it has since turned into a story about divorce and abandonment and the ripple effect that has on familial generations.

Most of my ideas focus on character transformations of some kind. I like to explore what goes on in a character’s head when they are faced with sometimes extraordinary circumstances. Those are the stories that interest me, and those are the ones I write.

Grace of God found its genesis in a sordid tale of a televangelist gone awry. Deceit. Betrayal. Hypocrisy. All the great elements of a story that make it both intriguing and maddening at the same time. Around the time this story idea came to me, I read an article about a young girl who was the sole survivor of a plane crash. I couldn’t help but think how awful it would be to grow up without parents, but then I put the two ideas together and thought about what would happen if this young girl went to live with her morally-challenged grandmother, a grandmother who was not above using a singular event to her advantage. What would happen? How would it unfold? How would the story read from the young girl’s perspective? These are all the questions I asked as I fleshed out the story, and these are the questions I plan to answer as I write the novel.

This is how a novel starts for me – a hastily typed series of words in an electronic notebook. Oftentimes, I’ll spend weeks or months turning the idea over in my head before I even attempt to outline the story. It’s only when I feel the inspiration is there to turn it into a 80,000-90,000 word novel that I begin to put it together. That’s where I am with Grace of God. Let the journey begin.

 

 

The Making of a Novel

There are no conspiracy theories here. No one wrongly accused. Instead, I’d like to chronicle the birth and life of a novel as I work through my creation process. I’ve written six novels, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. I know what works for me, which may not work for you, but if I can impart anything to help anyone, I feel this is worthwhile. Also, I think it’s fun to see how things are made.

My seventh novel is entitled Grace of God. Let me get this out of the way first: It’s not a Christian novel. I don’t write religious material, but religion does play a central role in the novel, just not as you’d expect given the title. Some may be turned off by the subject matter, especially in the way I shine a light on it, but I think it’s important for writers to hold up a mirror to society and give it a glimpse of how it is perceived, which is what I do in this story.

I grew up in the Southern U.S. in the heart of the bible belt where things are not always as they seem. Amidst all the apparent niceties are some pretty ugly realities, and some people, who would have everyone believe they are nothing but a pious soldier on some holy mission, are as about a trustworthy and likable as a smarmy politician. These duplicitous people are often worse than the sins they claim to abhor. That’s the backdrop for this novel.

In my story, Grace, the protagonist, miraculously survives a plane crash when she is just six months old. Unfortunately, the crash kills her parents, so she goes to live with her maternal grandmother, Wilma. Her grandmother is as two-faced and unscrupulous as they come, but she knows how to manipulate people and conspires to take advantage of “Miracle Grace” for her own gain. She builds a ministry empire around her granddaughter’s story becoming ridiculously wealthy and renown around the world. As Grace nears adulthood, she begins to question her grandmother’s motives and doubt her own faith, and as her teenage rebellion unfolds, the world around her is exposed for what it really is.

Every novel I’ve written has an aspect of a message contained within it. The Vanishing tackles the subject of the right to die. All Things Certain confronts the foolishness of homophobia. That Which Binds Us explores the depths of denial and familial bonds. The Weight of Regret takes a hard look at human weaknesses and the choices we make. The Fire Within examines the strength of character and perseverance. Even my off-the-beaten-path science fiction novel is more about the characters than the science as it revels in a power struggle in a competition to survive.

So there’s a message in Grace of God. As I bring this novel to life, I hope you enjoy the ride. You don’t have to agree with me or even like the message, but I hope it makes you think. That’s the one goal I have for every novel I write. Aside from the process, I will be sharing excerpts from the novel here as well. Let’s get started!

 

The Whiteboard

As I edit the rough draft of my latest novel, Origins, I’m also preparing for my next project. I will be doing something different with my new novel here. In addition to sharing excerpts from the novel, I will be taking readers through the whole process of making a novel, at least from my point of view. I’ve always enjoyed “The Making of…” videos that show you behind the scenes of how things are made, and I’m hoping that this experiment will generate some good discussion and feedback. I’m always curious to hear how other authors create their work, so why not put my approach out there for others to see.

While I’m still a couple of weeks away from getting started on actual writing for my next novel (editing the previous one takes time), I’m getting set up to begin. Normally, I scribble all of my notes and outlines in my OneNote notebook and then copy them into Scrivener as I begin the writing process, but this time I’ve decided to put the notes on a whiteboard so that I have some visuals to share as I blog about the process. I’ve already started making notes on my whiteboard, which hangs on the wall opposite of my writing chair. All I have to do is look up from my laptop and see the character list and chapter outline for my new novel (they’re not completely written down yet). The whiteboard will provide a nice focal point as I write in case I wander too far away from the story arc.

My kids, who are 11 and nine and infinitely curious about what goes on in my basement office (my son is shocked that I don’t spend all my time down here playing video games), have both sauntered into my office and stared at the words on the whiteboard. Naturally, they have questions, especially my daughter who is a budding writer in her own right. The first, obvious question arose when she realized that the protagonist in my new novel is named Grace just like her, except this Grace is a 16-year-old. She wanted to know why I named the character after her. I explained that I had this story idea long before she was born and that it has taken me years to get to the point of writing it. I showed her my notebook and the long list of story ideas waiting for me to breathe life into them. Many of these ideas have accumulated over the years. When they come to me, I write them down, but I don’t immediately write the novel. She understood this, and I could see the wheels of creativity turning in her own mind.

My son, who is pragmatic and to-the-point, asked me if I made money from my novels. I laughed and explained that someday I might, but I love writing more than I care about any financial gain that may come from it. He looked confused, so I explained it in terms of video games, and he understood. He loves gaming like I love writing. He’d spend the whole day playing video games if I’d let him, and likewise, I’d do the same with writing, but like he has to go to school to learn and find a practical career path (not video games), I have to go to work to pay the bills.

Both of my kids have asked if they could read one of my books, and I’ve explained that they probably wouldn’t like them since they are not geared toward such a young audience. Generally speaking, kids don’t like literary novels. There are no action sequences or boy wizards. Literary novels often explore the depths of a character to a point that would bore most young readers (hell, even many adult readers). I can’t imagine either of my kids enjoying a Wally Lamb novel as much as I do. Someday, they may enjoy such novels, but I’m guessing now is not the time.

Nevertheless, I like the fact that my whiteboard has started conversations with my kids and piqued their curiosity. I’m excited to share my love of writing and the creation process with my kids and my readers on this blog. It should be a fun journey. Stay tuned!