I mentioned in my first post that most people feel they have at least one or two good novels in them. This is something you hear all the time, even more so if you've put out a book and talk to people about the process. I have no doubt that many people have ideas or notions that feel ready to bloom, much like a seed may eventually sprout into a tree. Many simply keep this seed in their pocket and allow it to travel around with them while others may actually take the time to sit down, plant the seed, and pour so much water on it at once that the whole thing just washes away from them. For the lucky few whose work sees the first signs of life, I believe that a key skill needed to write a novel, more than any other innate talent one might have, is patience.
Patience is something that most people seem to lack these days. It’s understandable when we have phones that can answer practically any question the second it’s thought up, online stores that can deliver what we want at the click of a button, and we can go out or stay at home and have our meals prepared and brought to us. I can remember more than once, when I was younger, sitting in front of a keyboard and having this great idea that simply wouldn’t come out fully formed and appear on the page in front of me. How dare it refuse me! So, not having it all at once, I would give up or allow myself to become distracted and move on to the next project. I see this same impatience in many of my students who want to get the concepts you're talking about, but can't you just please tell them what it is so they can move on to what's next?
I try to tell them that the real value in education, and in life, is the journey. Once I was older, wiser, and more properly motivated I began to see patience and time as invaluable allies rather than impediments to the process of creation. Rather than rush it all out at once, I did my best just to think about it all. It was at this point that writing not only became much easier, but also relaxing and even therapeutic.
And now, I have a process as a result. I should say at this point, to be extra clear, that this is just the way I go about it. There should be no standard for creativity and I also believe that the very act of creation should be as organic as possible for the person it's coming from. My style is my style and I encourage you to celebrate or create your own. Certainly don't worry about it to the point where you don't create something new and interesting!
Anyway, the first part for me is to have an idea. This can be the hardest part if you aren’t one of the lucky people already carrying that seed with you. Often, I think the more you try to find an idea, the harder it will be to come to you. Instead, you need to let yourself be open to seeing possibilities in ideas anywhere they appear.
In my first post, I talked about how my novel, Battledoors, came to me as a result of a professional development session I was at. I didn’t go there for inspiration nor was I really even looking to write a book at that point. But when the idea came across, I took it in and started really thinking about it. How can I expand on this? What kinds of people would be involved? How do I make this into something unique that hasn’t been seen before? With my second debut novel, Paramnesia, it started with the word itself which is defined as someone who confuses dreams with reality. Just with that, how many of you started to think of ways in which that could evolve as a story? It's a great prompt and I ran with it, using the 'para' in the title to get to something supernatural. It all kind of ran away from there.
And then comes the second part. Once you have your idea, you need to let it grow and expand in your mind. I find the best way for me is to go for a long walk or drive and just think about what kind of story this is going to be. The only downside of this part is that I never bring a pen, pencil, or any kind of recorder, but instead think about the plot details as though they already happened. I go over it again and again and then as soon as I can I put it all down. I've probably lost more ideas than I've saved this way, but it feels a lot less stressful.
The third part is mostly structural. I break down my books into at least three acts with a clear beginning, middle, and end. I think about where I want to start, where I want to go, and where I want to end up. Often, this part is just a series of point form notes that I break down chapter by chapter. I include what I hope will happen and then let it sit.
The fourth part is to start writing but not to care too much about the rest of what it was I just told you to do first. The best comparison I can make to clarify this point is kind of like looking at a road map before you start out driving. You want to have an idea of where you’re going, but you can’t spend too much time looking at the map as you’re driving. One, it’s not safe, and two, you’re likely to miss out on all the things you didn’t expect to see along the way. You want to take in the sights and be open to going off the path should something interesting and unexpected pop up along the way. More than once I’ve been surprised at the direction one of my novels has taken. I’ve actually sat back and been shocked at what a character had done. I didn’t see it coming, but in the moment of writing that’s where things felt like they had to go.
The fifth part is the adjustment. Once these little diversions happen in your work, be open to going and changing the planned route or adjusting accordingly. Using my driving analogy again, when you make a wrong turn and the GPS takes a moment to adjust. No one flips out, you just keep on going until you're back on track (or end up in a lake). Do the same thing with your writing (avoid the lakes). Keep your destinations in mind if you go off course and you’ll always drift back.
Surrounding all of these points is the most important part: patience. There’s no need to rush out a novel. And as I’ll discuss in my next post, once you’re done writing your book if you’re serious about getting it published you might have years to wait anyway. So let yourself and your work breathe. For me, when I’m really going, I write about a chapter a day. Even if I want to keep going, I stop myself at that point. The story and the imagination need to wander. Some days I’ll just go back and make notes on parts three to five. Eventually, however unlikely it all seemed in the beginning, I have a novel sitting in front of me.
In the end, your process will be your own, but hopefully you’ll still find your way to creative satisfaction. Just remember to enjoy yourself or else you’re doing it wrong.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Brian Wilkinson attempts to juggle multiple careers as an author, high school teacher, and librarian. He currently lives in East York, Ontario, with his wife and two children, who served as the inspiration for the main characters in his first novels, Battledoors and Paramnesia. Brian was born and raised in Guelph, Ontario, where he attended the University of Guelph and received a BA in English Literature. He continued his writing career by earning a diploma in Journalism from Humber College, and applied those skills by working as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, the Toronto Star, and EYE Weekly, as well as serving as a co-publisher for the comic news site ComiXfan, and an editor for Humber Etcetera, where he won a Columbia Scholastic writing award for first-person column-writing. He was even lucky enough to realize a lifelong dream by writing for Marvel Comics when he co-wrote X-Men: The 198 Files. Brian feels like he is the luckiest person on Earth. He gets to be a dad, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. Not too bad, huh?