Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows this is tricky. I might not finish. I might get bogged down in the middle and have no clue what to do next. And you’ll get to see me fail in real time! Oh, wait…
Several years ago at a writer’s conference, Poppy Z Brite commented that you don’t learn how to write a novel. You learn how to write this novel (as you're writing it). I’ve written a couple novels since then and agree with her comment.
Where do you begin? With the idea of a story. That sounds logical but I’ve seen people claim they sit down and ‘just write.’ I have no clue how that works. It probably doesn’t. Have an idea of the overall story you want to tell even if you don’t have the specifics, who the main characters are (I suggest you have a solid fix on them), and where you want the story to end so you have a goal to aim for. Sure, there are people who claim to be pantsers –- seat of the pants storytellers who don’t outline—but I’m sure they have an idea of what they want to do when they start. Otherwise it’s like entering a forest without a path, walking for several hours in whatever direction your feet lead, then the sun starts to set and you ask yourself where the hell you are and how to get out. That’s how people end up writing two hundred thousand word novels with no end in sight. That’s not the best use of your precious writing time.
Stephen King, in his fantastic book On Writing, admits he doesn’t know where his stories come from. In the ‘writing is a talent’ versus ‘writing is a craft’ debate, I’m firmly in both camps. However, I believe that the ability to imagine a story is a talent. You either have it or you don’t. If you have it, you understand why Stephen King can’t tell you where stories come from. He can’t, and I can’t. But I can tell you how this novel began for me.
I had a vision. It’s sort of like daydreaming, like a snippet of a movie, but so vivid that I swear I can smell and feel things. These scenes hit me while my mind is wandering. I’ve never sat down and said, ‘I will now imagine something.’ This particular story idea came to me after reading comments by Remittance Girl on the ERWA Writer’s list as the group discussed what defined the erotica genre. She (I’m paraphrasing) said that the central question of erotica is how we (the characters) deal with desire. I mulled over that for a few days and this vision came to me:
(I’m not going to record this in any attempt at pretty prose since this would never go into a story raw. This is the way I would have jotted it down on paper.)
Fog hangs heavily in the air. It condenses on the bare limbs of winter trees and splatters on cobblestones. It’s just before dawn, and even though my vision is in color, it feels like a black and white photograph, like the movie poster from the Exorcist with the priest under the gas lamp in the fog. Street lamps cast cold light on a small train station. A young woman in ratty punkish clothing paces the station platform and stomps her feet to keep warm. She wraps her arms around her waist and mutters to herself. I can’t hear what she says, but she repeats it over and over, so I know she’s losing her mind. At the far end of the station platform, a man appears. He’s been there all along, but she (and I) just noticed him. The young woman is suddenly ravenous and aroused. Her gaze lingers on the groin of the man’s jeans. He’s cold too, with his nose buried in a thick scarf and his hands shoved into the pockets of his thick coat. Just a guy, going to work on the early train. She walks over to him and asks in German, “Want to fuck?” (although I’m convinced that she’s American)
That’s it. That was all I had to go on. It takes five minutes to write down, but in my mind, it was only a ten or twenty second movie. As I do with most of these visions, I immediately asked all the pertinent questions. Who was she? Clearly the main character. Where and when was she? The train station’s architecture said Eastern Europe. The gas lamps, black and white tones, and train travel suggested the past, but her clothes said 1990s to 2000s, so I knew that the story would be set in current times but have a timeless feel. I also knew from the lighting and the fog that the story’s tone would tend gothic and share genre elements with either horror or noir (a term which technically only applies to movies, but you know what I mean) Why is she at the train station? She’s chasing someone. Why was she losing her mind? Hunger. What was she hungry for? Sex.
Where do those answers come from? Imagination. As I’m asking myself these questions I’m filling in details. They may change as I’m writing the story, but these are my characterization, setting and tone starting points. This is also where I ask myself: What is the story about? The answer is one sentence, hopefully under twenty words. I write it on a piece of paper and tape it to the wall above my computer so it’s always there to remind me as I write. I also get a summary idea of the story (which can and will change). This isn’t the same as plot, but it’s similar.
I let my mind run with those answers for a couple days. I sensed a novel in it, but was so caught up in the intensity of the story that I wanted to get something down. Plus, I worried that a story about someone chasing a lover (or lunch, depending on where I went with it) wasn’t a big enough idea for a novel. So I threw myself into writing a short story which ended up on ERWA’s blog in October under the title It’s Lovely. It’s Horrible. (If you missed it, the story has already been picked up by an editor for a vampire anthology even though it’s not what I’d call a vampire story.) Almost every critique on ERWA’s Storytime list stated that the idea was too big for a short story and I needed to expand it to a novel. So that’s what I’m doing.
A note about titles. I either get a great idea for a title off the bat or I struggle. Orbiting in Retrograde – flash of inspiration. She Comes Stars – came from a line in the story. It’s Lovely. It’s Horrible – I settled on only after I mentally shoved bamboo slivers under my fingernails. And believe me, that was the best I could do after some truly awful ideas. That wasn’t the title I wanted to use for a novel so it was back to the bamboo. Desire was my initial title idea since a discussion about desire sparked the story idea, but what the hell does Desire tell the reader? Not much. It could be a great title for another work, but not this one. I flirted with the idea of Consumed for a while but I recognize a yuck title when I see one. I think I was taunting myself with that one. “Pick a better title or you’ll be stuck with this one!” At that point I gave up trying to find a title and forged ahead with the story. You don’t have to have a title. It’s nice to have one, but you can work without one.
A couple chapters into the first draft I stumbled into a title. I’m still trying to decide if it’s The Night Creature or The Night Creatures, and if I’ll drop The, but it strikes me as a good fit. The Night Creature warns you that the work will be dark. It hints at horror. That’s the tone I want to set from the beginning.
Next time I’ll talk about how I decided where to begin the story.