Monday, December 04, 2006

From Idea to Story

I spent most the weekend outlining a book (and doing a Firefly marathon for another project I'm working on -- it's so very, very pretty on the LCD HDTV screen. And, you know, it was a really, really good show), and that made me think about how much work there is between idea and completed book. Heck, there's a lot of work between idea and plot.

Just about every writer has a story about someone who generously offered to share their story ideas with them -- the old "I have a great idea for a book (or had an interesting life that would make a great book). Why don't I give you my idea, and you write it, and we'll split the profits!" approach. I must run into more generous people, because I haven't yet had someone want part of the proceeds. I'm more likely to get the people who think their life stories would make interesting books, and they want to tell me all about their great idea so I can write it if I ever run out of ideas.

Writers laugh about this because ideas are usually the easy part. I know I have more ideas than I could ever write in my lifetime, and yet the more I write, the more new ideas I get. Not all of these ideas are strong enough to actually sustain a whole book, and sometimes you don't figure that out until you really start working on them. It may take two or three ideas put together, or you may have to eventually force yourself to admit that as much as you love an idea, you won't be able to get a book out of it.

There's also a huge gap between the initial concept and a real story line -- a plot that has things like turning points, increasing tension, character growth arcs, and stuff like that. On the book I'm playing with now, I started with just a vague concept that I could describe in a paragraph, but I had no idea how the story would actually come together. Then after some brainstorming, I had what I thought were my main turning points to create a big-picture plot. This one will also be a romantic comedy (with a few twists), so I had plotted out the romantic subplot. I then started making a rough outline to weave the two together and realized that I still didn't really have a story because there wasn't much tension and there was no sense of anything really being at stake. So then I had to come up with what that was and that totally changed the outline. I spent the whole weekend just working on the outline so I could draft enough of a synopsis to actually sell the book. A whole new level of figuring stuff out will come if I do sell the book and have to write it because the synopsis is a pretty high-level view and doesn't encompass how these scenes actually play out. Then there's the fact that once I start the actual writing, I often realize that the synopsis is wrong, and things go off in a totally different direction. Characters usually become different people on the page than I originally imagined them to be, and the story will change after I "meet" them.

I don't want to use this current idea as an example because I'm still working on it, but the way Enchanted, Inc. came together went a lot like that, except it was an idea I'd played with for more than a year before I started writing. The first spark of an idea had to do with me wanting to read something that was kind of like Harry Potter -- contemporary fantasy that had a lot of humor in it and that used magic as a metaphor for things out of everyday life -- but for grownups. The phrase "Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter" stuck in my head, and I knew the story would kick off with the heroine getting a job offer from a magical company. At first, I thought she'd find out that way that she had undiscovered magical powers, but after a few months of thinking about it, off and on, I decided that was boring because it has been done and done and done. More to be obnoxious than anything else, I inverted that and came up with the idea that she has no magic at all, and that this would be the power she discovers. Over the next year or so, I took out the idea and played with it every so often. I came up with a few things that could happen -- stuff like having a boss who literally turned into an ogre -- but still didn't have a story. I did some research into businesses to see what to use as a model for my magical corporation. At first I was going with something involving finance, and I read books about the House of Morgan and stuff like that, but ended up settling on the software industry. As a victim of the boom and bust (I did high-tech PR), I knew enough about that world to make fun of it, and it did seem to apply to magic pretty well. I inverted things there, too, making my villain be the rogue starting a business in his garage (metaphorically speaking) and the good guys be the solid, old corporation -- because it's usually the opposite in those kinds of stories. I did end up using some of that finance research in Damsel Under Stress, so it wasn't wasted effort.

And that was about all I had when I had a rather fateful conversation with an editor at a conference. She kept asking me questions, and I was making it up as I went along. That was when I decided to actually write this book, and I then had to come up with what the story would really be about. I spent about a week figuring out who my characters would be, then did a big-picture outline, then wandered New York for a couple of days, then revised my outline, and then wrote three chapters and a synopsis. That outline didn't change a lot during the initial draft, but when I got an agent and started making revisions with her, large portions of the book changed significantly -- all the stuff with the frogs showed up, for instance.

Writers often talk about being "plotters" -- that is, people who plan out the plot of their books in advance -- and "pantsers" -- the people who just sit down and write and see where the story takes them. I seem to be the worst of both worlds. I have to plot before I can start writing. If I don't have some kind of roadmap, I'll meander all over the place. But at the same time, I also get inspired along the way and come up with entirely different things, and I take the book apart and put it back together again several times. That's how I seem to struggle with writing a couple of books a year, even though I can write a draft in about six weeks. I manage to write fast and slow at the same time. I'm trying to improve my productivity by planning ahead better, but with each book, I seem to make up more of it as I go. My goal this time around is to do the kind of revision thinking I usually do on the second draft with the first draft (in other words, channel my agent and figure out what she'd say before I send it to her). We'll see if it works. If I could shave just a month or two off the process, that would really help.

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