I’m always interested to hear how people compose. Someone asked me recently after I mentioned I was struggling with the fourth episode of my serial novel, and so I went back and revisited what I had written before.
I start with a basic premise. For FANTASMAGORIA, it was “a real (i.e. non-virtual) world where all the characters of classic pulp fiction and B cinema — gangsters, gunslingers, giant monsters, robots, ninjas, aliens, fairy creatures — actually co-exist.” For THE MINUS FACTION, it was “a non-campy look at what it might really be like for normal people – rather than metahuman princes and titans of industry — to develop extraordinary abilities.”
I write the stories I would want to read, which for me is an engaging and believable plot featuring interesting characters struggling through genuine peril. So after the basic idea, I sketch out some interesting characters. I allow myself the freedom to make them completely over-the-top. One can always scale back later.
This often involves intentionally inverting tropes. for example, with Vernal Wort (whose name is a play on venereal wart), the chip-toothed scoundrel from FANTASMAGORIA, I wanted to twist the classic lycanthrope. Instead of a basically good person turning into an evil monster, I wanted him to be a basically bad person who turned good. [SPOILER: at one point in the story, he contracts a form of lycanthropy where he turns into a unicorn. while in that state, he is, as he complains, “full of pleasant thoughts.”]
Once I have some outrageous characters, I create the central conflict. This derives from their back stories. What do they care about most in the world? What would cause them to lose (or potentially lose) that? What single conflict would bring them all together?
Now I start writing random snippets of dialogue, some of which I will never end up using. I almost always start with dialogue, usually without any attribution or internal monologue. In FANTASMAGORIA, there are four chapters spread throughout the book that are nothing but the back-and-forth words of the same two guys talking. No attribution. No description. Nothing. Just the wordplay. I’ve heard from several folks that that was their favorite part.
Starting with dialogue is a great way to get to know your characters, and at this point I usually end up revising them a little. I then come up with an end. I don’t start writing in earnest without having a satisfying end, something that resolves the central conflict I’ve created. I call it “having something to aim at.” Without it, stories have a tendency to spiral out of control…
Next I want a powerful opening, something to grab the reader and pull them in: immediate high stakes or an immediate mystery. Hugh Howey did an excellent job of the former in his now-famous sci-fi series WOOL, which starts with, “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death;” whereas I used the latter at the beginning of THE MINUS FACTION: “The trick to walking around in someone else’s body is not getting caught.”
After this, I plot backwards. in order to reach the end, what has to happen? How can I raise the stakes? What plausible series of events would intertwine the characters? How would they work together? How would they be opposed?
Finally I come up with what I call “the turn.” This is the point about 4/5 of the way through the book where the rug gets pulled out from everyone. It can be twist in the classic sense, where things turn out to be different than they appeared, but it could also just be where the protagonist has legitimately (hopefully convincingly) given up. It is the moment where all seems lost. Now is the time to kill someone off, someone the readers will probably like.
SHIT JUST GOT REAL, BITCHES!
Of course, actually doing all this this takes months and months. It took me just over a year to produce FANTASMAGORIA, which is my first full-length novel, although I’m getting faster. It only took about nine months to publish as many words of THE MINUS FACTION as there were in the earlier work.
Through it all, I tend not to write chronologically. I go back and forth to different sections and scenes, working the manuscript like a masseuse or a sculptor. In fact, I’ve often said that writing a novel is just like painting except where the canvas is stretched in time instead of space.
I’ve also said that writing a novel is very much like the death of a loved one. After the euphoria of the beginning, where everything is like the young — devoid of substance but rich with possibility — you go through all the classic stages of grief: denial (it’s probably not as bad as it seems), anger (why is it so bad??), bargaining (I’ll give up donuts if I can just fix this plot), depression (I’m a total failure), and acceptance (the manuscript is what it is — time to move on).
So that’s my process. What’s yours?