Plotting a novel? I’m about to reveal a novelist’s biggest secret. Come closer. . . promise you won’t tell?
Everybody does it differently.
That’s right. As much fun as it would be to tell you my way is the only way, I’d be taking my life in my hands at my next writer’s conference. Truth is, everybody works a little or a lot differently. On top of that, every book is different, too.
After my last blog some of you questioned me about my method (and I LOVE it when that happens), so I thought I’d share the way I work today and most likely next week, too. Of course the first step, since this blog relates to the last two, was to find another pug photo to share. But how hard is it to find a cute pug?
In the past I’ve blogged frequently about ideas. I’ve talked about how my brainstorming buddies and I begin with an idea and expand it. I’ve talked about the way ideas arrive even when I’m on vacation. I’ve detailed how even a mundane morning can trigger possibilities. Need more? Just search for “ideas” on my blog and you’ll find others, too.
If you don’t believe ideas can be that easy? Here’s a conversation I overheard at breakfast (yes, breakfast) on Thursday morning. It was so amazing, I had to halt my own conversation, ask Proman to quietly sip his coffee for a moment, and write it down.
“I’ve had great success with cadaver knees. They come shrink wrapped.”
Now, just in case you think I was eavesdropping, well, it couldn’t be helped. The man, surrounded by five women, had a robust voice, and conducted a one-sided conversation throughout most the meal. Note, his behavior could be an idea, too, a way to characterize someone on the page. I don’t know anything about this fellow. He could be a renowned doctor providing an impromptu class on knee surgery over omelets and fruit bowls. Or he could be a certain type or person we’ve all experienced, male and female alike, who is only happy when he’s in the limelight. Does the truth matter? Absolutely not. We’re writing fiction.
So now we have the seed of an idea. Let’s use it. While I immediately zoom into science fiction fantasies about bionic body parts, followed by fantasies about Wall Street tycoons selling cadaver leftovers on the black market, I have to discount them. I don’t write science fiction, and Wall Street interests me not at all. While I’d be happy writing a psychological thriller, I would not be happy writing a gory one. So what can I focus on here?
Let’s focus on the man himself. He’s regaling a small audience of colleagues, something he’s clearly comfortable doing. Perhaps he’s a world famous surgeon and his audience is pinching themselves because they are lucky enough to be at a table with him listening to his stories. No one is bored or annoyed. This guy has it all. He’s good looking, smart, successful and revered. Let’s even imagine he’s a great husband and father, and a well-loved philanthropist.
Got that? Now, let’s tear his life to smithereens. Why? Because there’s no story without conflict. Something has to happen to knock this guy off his pedestal or our readers will close the book after the first couple of chapters and take a nap. Nothing is more boring than goodness that’s rewarded over and over and over again.
Let’s look at our target’s life one element at a time, and let’s give him a name. Tyler Ferguson is a world renowned surgeon. Could Tyler get a phone call while he’s still in the restaurant telling him a patient died, and there’s clear evidence he botched the surgery?
Or let’s mess with his reputation and his perfect family. What if Tyler learns that the patient who has just died (not his fault, but still his patient) is actually his son from a long ago affair, and he didn’t know who the boy was when he operated. Now he has to cope with grief over the death of a child he didn’t know existed, his wife’s reaction to the affair, and his children’s disillusionment with their perfect father.
And then, of course, there’s the boy’s mother.
You get the picture, right? We’ve thrown a wrench into his life, and things will never be the same for him.
Since I write family relationship stories, and to simplify here, I’ll vote for version number two, although were I plotting a real book here I wouldn’t:
- Write about hospitals, doctors or cadaver knees because I’m clueless about all three.
- Choose a surgeon as a major character because I think many readers might have a negative reaction to Tyler right at the beginning. Whether it’s true or not, surgeons get a bad rap in popular culture.
- Start a scene with a man regaling a group of women in a public restaurant. Shades of mansplaining.
- Write about infidelity again, having just done so. I would probably wait a long time before trying this theme again.
- Write about a child dying. Nor would any dogs, cats, horses, or earthworms pass away. Not my thing.
If I were plotting this book for real I would do hours of research on cadaver knees and their uses. Hours and hours, and does that sound like fun to you?
Now that we’re clear that you won’t be seeing this story from me any time in the future?
Next week, more on where I’d go from here if I were really writing this novel. This is fun. I hope you think so, too.
Off to find another pug.