Writing a novel takes a lot of skills. You have to create characters the reader cares about and a fantastic plot full of conflict. Then you must get a lot of other elements right such as pacing, setting, and dialogue. You probably have to research some aspects of your story. And you’ve got to make sure your grammar and punctuation don’t yank the reader out of the world you’re creating.
But there isn’t one right way to do it. As I’ve studied the craft of writing and talked to other writers about their methods, I’ve been struck by how different the process can be for each of us. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the differences often have to do with left brain/right brain issues.
The left side of your brain is the logical side. (A good way to remember this is that they both begin with the letter “L.”) The right side is the more intuitive side.
All of us do use both sides of our brains. But how we approach the writing process has to do with which side is dominant. For me, it’s the logical, left brain side, which means that I want to outline my books before I write them. I want a clear roadmap of where I’m going.
Writers who plunge in and start writing are more right brained. But even when they haven’t worked out the whole plot before they begin, at some point they must figure out the incidents of the story in order to complete the project.
Each of your own books should start with something that fascinates you. Perhaps it’s a character whose story you are burning to tell. Or maybe it’s a brilliant plot twist. Or perhaps it’s an issue ripped from the headlines–like a man plotting mass murder in a movie theater or the governor of a state willing to do anything for money.
For me, a book usually begins with what I think of as a “cool idea.” It can be a character, a plot point or a combination of the two.
Take one of my Decorah Security books, Dark Moon. What if a rich man’s daughter is kidnapped and taken to a slave ship? And what if the only person who can find her is a werewolf?
For my Harlequin Intrigue, More than a Man, I was thinking about a man who had lived for more than 500 years. What would his life be like? What problems would he encounter that would be totally unique? Would he be afraid to love because he knew that he’d always lose his partner?
In Her Baby’s Father, another Harlequin Intrigue coming out this month, I started with the idea of a woman whose lover was murdered, leaving her pregnant. As the book begins, she’s in labor and driving herself to the hospital in a snowstorm. When her car crashes, she knows she’s going to die. But angels send her back in time to the day she met the man she loved, and she’s given a second chance to keep him from being murdered. Can she convince him he’s in danger without making him think she’s crazy because of her odd behavior?
It’s important to remember that the story you are writing is not reality. It’s a world you create. But you must make it look, sound, feel, taste and smell real to the reader. You do that by paying attention to every detail from characters and plot to setting and dialogue. Yet some details are more important than others. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of picking up a book and starting to read–then giving up after a few pages or a few chapters. Why? Probably because you didn’t like the plot or you couldn’t connect with the characters.
Choosing a subject for your book should be the most right brain part of your whole process. You must love the idea of your story. It must turn you on. It must be an idea that you are dying to write. If it isn’t, you’re not going to do a good job. In other words, there’s no use picking an idea because it’s “In.” You see cowboy books are in, so you decide to write one. Only you don’t know a darn thing about ranches, and you hate horses. Trying to write a ranch book would be like jumping into a pit of alligators. Instead, think about the topics that work for you.
Ironically, the idea doesn’t have to be your own. A few years ago I was working on a proposal for a multi-book contract, and the editor had rejected my third synopsis. We had to come up with an alternative, and I asked her if she had any ideas.
She said, “I’ve been thinking. She’s a virgin, and she’s pregnant.”
I said, “I love it. How did it happen?”
She said, “Artificial insemination.”
That was the beginning of Amanda’s Child, one of my own favorite Harlequin Intrigues. From that idea, I built a whole story.
When you think of a story you want to write, do you come up with the plot first or the characters or a cool idea? And do you plunge in or work on an outline before you start to write?
One person who comments can win a CD copy of my Carina Press novella, Dark Magic. But please, if you want to be eligible for a book, include an e-mail address or your Twitter handle so I can contact you easily. If you’d prefer not to make your e-mail address public, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org with Subject: “How Do You Get There from Here?” Blog.
Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick
Book Signing at the 2012 RWA Conference
The whole left brain/right brain thing is fascinating to me as someone whose first career was as a biologist. I was always a little too intuitive to fit in in that world, but now that I write, I'm a little more left-brained than most of my colleagues. Being right in the middle, or close to it at least, means my process is a mix of plotting and free-fall but it works for me. (at least most of the time.)ReplyDelete
And I have Dark Moon, so don't enter me in the contest, ;-)
Great post, Rebecca! I am totally a Lefter. I plot out the entire thing in a notebook first. When I sit down to type, the story is already done, I just have to get it into the document. I love to watch the scenes unfold this way, and I'm still surprised and filled with angst :)ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing your process, and I think the idea of a virgin/prego heroine is hilarious, I have to read that!
PS. I too have Dark Moon already :)
It's about a pricess who thinks she can save her kingdom by being a virgin sacrifice to a dragon. It doesn't turn out the way she expected. Or the way the dragon shifter expected, either.Delete
I realize I have a lot of DARK novels. This one's DARK MAGIC. One of my medieval fantasy novellas.ReplyDelete
I really loved the virgin/prego heroine. Actually, the hero in that book is to die for. One of my best, if I do say so. And a very memorable love scene--since she's reluctant to do it.
Ah, I got confused with the DARK theme, my bad!Delete
You've got me hooked! I HAVE to read it now!
Ohmigosh, Ruth, we have to use our brain to write??? Lol. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't! :) Good to see you at conference. I'm a total right brainer! Well, the left brain takes over sometimes when the right brain is being a total spaz. :)ReplyDelete
Yes, great to finally see you in person. We don't HAVE TO do anything. It's just the way it works out for us. For me, it's the logic, and I have to stop and think about the emotions.ReplyDelete
I'm a right-brain writer but in recent years, I've learned to make a deliberate effort to merge the right and the left for the sake of efficiency. Now instead of launching in based upon inspiration (or shortly after I launch in) I make myself stop and write at least a cover copy-style blurb, at most a rough synopsis. My left brain really kicks in during revisions, which is when I make myself focus on the world outside the up-close-and-personal romance.ReplyDelete
Thanks for yet another great article.
whoops. Email emily.ryandavis @ gmail.comDelete
I've tried outlining, but it sucks the joy out of the book for me, so I've compromised with myself. Before each chapter, I write the major players who will appear in the scene and what my goal in the scene needs to be. That helps move things along quite nicely. I'm so jealous of you plotters.ReplyDelete
This is a very interesting post. Really gets you thinking ;)ReplyDelete
Another great blog. I find these so useful. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Whether you are right brained or left brained, you should make an effort to use the skills of the opposite side. I'll talk more about that later.ReplyDelete
Sometimes, an idea I think is wonderful just doesn't work for an editor. For my latest proposal, the editor didn't like several things. Her suggestion was to make one seem like a bad parent. Ugh! No! This was a great blog about left and right brain functions!ReplyDelete
With Indie publishing, you have the option of doing it YOUR way.Delete
I think I'm more right-brained (pantser) when it comes to writing. I have the idea of the plot (my latest through researching my Romanian heritage) and usually end up with "what if?"ReplyDelete
I feel if I try to plot it out/outline I lose something along the way--maybe like Terri said, "it sucks the joy..." out of it for me. Or it could be the fact I love to do writing sprints and see where my brain/muse/and fingers have taken me when I'm done.
I do need to work more on plotting/logical side so I'm looking forward to hearing more about 'working with the opposite side' later.
Thanks Rebecca--always full of great information! :)
Hey Rebbeca I sort of work both ways I think. For the story I have on hold that I am revising for the third time I think I had a sort of a summary based on an idea for the ending.ReplyDelete
For Camp NaNo I had a blurb of an idea. I'm just letting it write it will be one of those that collects dust most likely but I'm having fun with it.
my email is email@example.com
Loni, I need to know where I'm going. The details are always missing until I actually write it.ReplyDelete
Ckcrouch, I just wrote a draft of a book where I pantsed it. I had an outline but it was very sketchy.
I know I'm very weird, but I usually start with an artistic impression, or something about a scene or landscape. It can be walking down a foggy street on a San Francisco night, listening to the fog horn and stepping over homeless people, or it can be standing under the Brooklyn Bridge waiting in line 2 hours for a pizza ... or it can be a country scene. So I'll want to create something that is compelling out of that vibe. I'll be honest, I've only sold short stories with that kick-start, and I struggle with marrying world-building with conflict and pacing. But I still feel that is where the core of my 'voice' is.ReplyDelete
With indie publishing, I think I'll have more of a chance to write for an audience that appreciates, or resonates with, the stuff I see/feel. (And, of course, with continual work on craft, I hope to hit the notes on bringing out the conflict I see inherent in setting. I don't seem to have a problem with character).
I am for sure a plotter, but also need to write myself into a story by 100-150 pages to 'feel' the story!
Finally, it's nice to see your blog, Liz. I've seen you on b'zillion of loops, and even exchanged e-mails with you! (grins).
A very interesting way of getting into a story! Why did you call me Liz?Delete
Fun post! Thank you. So far I've always started out with a plot idea. I'm trying starting with a character this time, though. We'll see how it goes!
I can't say I ever think much about right brain/left brain--think I must rely on them about equally. I definitely agree that being excited about a story idea is critical. Why invest the time on ho-hum when you can work on "oh boy!"ReplyDelete
I guess I thought about left brain/right brain because there is such a dichotomy in the field of popular fiction. Some writers can't work unless they have an outline, and some can't write a book if they've outlined it because they've already told themselves the story. I started wondering WHY and realized that the people like me who are very logical need structure.ReplyDelete
I seem to straddle the right brain/left brain line. I DO outline major plot points--sketchily--because I don't want to paint myself into a corner 200 pages in. Characters, on the other hand, evove for me as I write, just as I want them to evolve for the reader based changes wrought by circumstances throughout the narrative. I know my characters' essential nature before I begin, but not the exquisite details which emerge from the story. I hear Elizabeth George writes detailed bios of her chatacters down what toothpaste they prefer before she even gets started. Every author has a different operational M.O. in the real world and that seems to translate into how they approach the writing process.ReplyDelete
I would say I work a lot like you do. I do have the major incidents of the plot down, but the details are missing. I mean, I might say, "And then they escape from the psychotic killer," and I have no idea how until I get there. And yes the characters evolve as I write. But our books are so very different.Delete