So I was recently asked “How do you go about writing a story or a novel?”

Let me tell you, I hate to think about it too much, almost for fear of the “magic” leaving me. Answering this question is not so much like a magician revealing their tricks as it is the fact that it’s hard to explain the strange alchemy of imagination, writer, and creation and not sound, well, rather silly.

Except to other writers.

For starters, I absolutely hate a blank page. Frankly, it scares me. There are few things more daunting than staring at an empty piece of paper that’s expecting to be filled (I write long hand; it’d be worse for me on a computer screen because then I feel like the blankness is staring back at me). I know a lot of writers who can sit down, stare down that blank page, and just go. I can’t. I have to make do with what meager skills I have and work within them. So I do a lot of prep work so that I never have to face a blank page.

I kind of half-outline. By that I mean that I jot down the idea or theme of the story (title, if I have one). Not on my “official” blank page, but on Post-It Notes and the sort. From there, if I have any scenes in mind, I put those down, and any major, or any, plot points. I like to have an idea of where the story’s going before I can begin. That’s become more important to me because I find that when I do “just go” (or start a story prematurely), I have a lot of trouble ending a story.

I try to put down any ideas for a main character, since s/he’ll be the one through whom the story is propelled. Though again, with rare exception, characters usually come last to me. Part of writing has always been tell the story when it’s ready to be told. I’m still learning when a story’s ready to be told (um, my myriad rejection letters help in this regard).

Then I research. This is my favorite part of the process, I think it’s because I’m trained to be a researcher (that’s why I got into biology in the first place). I think that’s why I gravitate toward historical pieces, since they give me additional reasons to hit the books. It’s usually at this stage that dialogue bits come to me and some characters start to take shape.

Next comes the character sketches. I try to “bio” my characters, especially in my longer works, trying to get their stories down. Not just their physical descriptions and names (I oscillate between agonizing over names to give the characters meaning and randomly picking them from television show credits), but how they know the other characters. Once I have the “cast” finalized, I list their names out. It helps me weed out any alliteration or confusion issues: during an early draft of my first novel, Strange Fruit, a friend listed the character names for me and pointed out that almost all the names began with ‘A’ or ‘J’.

While I’m still at the note stage of the game, I figure out the overall plot and arrange the scenes. I like the scattering of all my notes then, like a jigsaw puzzle, shape them into an outline of a plot and putting which notes with which scene.

Only then, armed with a rough story, scattered bits of dialogue descriptions and turns of phrase, can I then sit down and write. I once likened the process to an artist throwing paint at a canvas then working from there, but that sounded entirely too pretentious. Yet another reason why I hate talking about “my art” as opposed to writing.

Obviously (or maybe not so obviously, but trust me this is true), this process differs from writer-to-writer. You have to figure out what works for you. Find your voice, get comfortable with it, and trust your instincts. No matter how cut and dried this seems, there’s no explaining the magic, the transport to that special place in your unconscious, of words coming out of you and poured onto a page. The exhilaration of being “in the zone”, that special place that’s like a wakeful dreaming; there’s no conveying the thrill of characters coming to life and finding their own voice (or explaining how how you hear voices in your head without being fitted for a strait-jacket).

Or maybe I’m putting too much “meaning” into writing. After all, they’re just stories.

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