Finding my way in

How do you come up with a whole novel? Do you start with setting, with story, or with something totally different?

For me, it starts with voice. Three years ago, I was chopping onions in my kitchen when I suddenly heard the first two lines of my novel spoken clearly in my head:

I was twelve years old when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.

I made it almost to the end of my front garden…

I had no idea what the plot of the novel would be, or even, yet, which era it was set in (except that it was clearly historical). But with those first two lines, I had my heroine, Kat, and that was exactly what I needed. It was Kat’s irrepressible voice that sucked me straight into her novel and her world, and it’s still sweeping me through the final book in her trilogy, three years later.

The weird thing about publishing, though, is that right now, 8 months before my first Kat novel is published, and almost three years before the third Kat novel will be published, it’s time for me to start thinking about what to write next. And for a long time, I couldn’t work this out at all. Not only was I still obsessed with Kat, but the only other idea I’d had just wasn’t developing the way I wanted it to.

A Jane Austen story told with dragons was the idea I’d had, and it sounded really fun, just the kind of novel I’d love to write…but it just wouldn’t gel for me, after that initial concept. And then finally I realized that I was starting from the wrong angle for me. For someone else, it could have been the right way in – but I wasn’t starting with a character, so I couldn’t find my way in.

So I stepped back. Forget concept…forget setting…if I’m going to write a whole book, I have to love the heroine – and she has to be my way into the piece.  So the real question to ask myself was: who did I really want to spend time with, in the next couple of years? And as I let that question simmer in my subconscious, I thought about another one: who do I want to write for? The answer, for me, is: smart, young teenage girls. That’s my core audience: the kind of girl I used to be.

Those thoughts have been simmering in my subconscious for a couple of weeks now. Then, two nights ago, as I was brushing my teeth, I heard a girl’s voice speaking very clearly in my head. Here’s the thing you have to understand about me, she said. I don’t give up…

Right now my next novel idea is like one of those bubbles that little kids blow through the air: beautiful, iridescent, and intensely fragile. Talking too much about it could puncture that bubble in a moment. But it’s been turning over and over in my head over the past few days, taking on more and more heft as my heroine whispers her secrets into my ear. I know the setting, now; I know the main story “hook”. Of course, there’s still an awful lot I still don’t know…but I’m willing to wait to find out when my heroine is ready to tell me.

What about you guys? How do you find your ways into your novels?

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  1. 1. Tiffany Trent

    Oh, Steph, I didn’t know Kat snuck up on you while you were chopping onions! That is just like her! *grin* And this next one sounds beautiful and wonderful and…I CANNOT WAIT!! Hurry, hurry! ;)

    Thanks for this–it’s a great reminder that often the best way to enter is just to listen. :)

  2. 2. Jenn Reese

    Ooh, I am already loving your next novel, after just one sentence! She sounds like my kind of heroine!

  3. 3. Stephanie Burgis

    Thanks so much, guys! The new novel is nowhere near ready to sit down with (I’m hoping it’ll be ready just about as I’m finishing draft 1 of Kat3) – but I am just bursting with excitement about it. It’s so lovely to get such great feedback about it! *hugs*

  4. 4. green_knight

    I need a character and a situation. And yes, they tend to turn up unannounced, but what usually happens is that I have that, go ‘who the hell is this and how did he get there’ and backtrack. Sometimes a lot.

    (The scene that sparked my WIP is likely to be the climax of a trilogy. I’m somwhere around 90K in book 1). Three or four chapters are common.)

  5. 5. Tim of Angle

    It’s always a single line, usually of dialog, that encapsulates the plot.

    “Your fingerprints were on the gun.”

    “We kill them so that they won’t kill us. It’s just that simple.”

    “We are informed that you have a daughter. You will see to it that she is Retrieved.”

    An elf, a dwarf, and a dragon walked into a bar. The evening went downhill from there.

    The odd thing is, that St John the Theologian, in his Book of Revelation, never mentioned the pigs.

    “A vampire!? What in the name of Christ would I do with a vampire!?”

  6. 6. Aliette de Bodard

    I tend to start out with the worldbuilding. For the Acatl novels, I thought it would be cool to write books in which the Aztec mythology was real, and the universe was always on the verge of running out of kilter. Also, having blood sacrifices be real and effective raised all kinds of neat and dark questions about the meaning of faith (though I was unable to tackle everything I wanted in Book 1 and hope to fill in the holes in the sequels).

    The main character came much later, though I did flesh him out as the research proceeded: he was a simple death-priest at first, and he ended up as High Priest for the Dead because I needed him to flirt with high-level politics as an equal.

  7. 7. Kristan

    I work the same way as you, and it’s wonderful to hear your success story! Hopefully I will be following suit soon. :)

  8. 8. S. Megan Payne

    I have an enormous bank of characters in my head that constantly grows through play with various premises. When I come up with a premise that plays out in a way that compels me and keeps at me, begging me to write it, it usually starts with one or more of those characters and then other characters unique to the story begin to fill things in and the world starts to sprawl in my mind, and a story is born.

  9. 9. Chris Dolley

    I’m with you on voice. Find the right voice and the writing flows, settle for anything less (because I’ve got this really cool world I want to explore now!) and the writing feels forced.

    I have several unfinished books that attest to the above. But, looking on the bright side, all of those unfinished books are part of my ‘spares’ collection that I can rummage through later, extract a character here, a situation there or even a complete world. For me it’s a matter of finding the dream team of the right character in the right situation (usually the wrong situation for them) in the right world.

    The catalyst for Resonance was the idea of having an OCD narrator. I’d never heard of anyone doing that before – this was before Monk. All I had to do was find the situation and the setting to put him in. Both came to me within minutes – the situation from a flash piece I’d written a few years earlier and the setting from an idea I’d had kicking around my head for more than ten years. What amazed me the most was how well they gelled – given the setting and situation the main character couldn’t be anything else but OCD.

    But that’s writing for you.

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    You’ve had an epiphany and we all know how painful that can be.

    After two abortive attemts at righting a spy/thriller and a hardboiled detective, (the 1st left me less than thrilled and the 2nd was more hard-bored than hardboiled) I’m goofing on an erotic-story site that required a submission for membership.

    I banged out (all puns intended) a throw-away, 1500 word story. But the character wasn’t content to languish in the naughy-verse. Further, the character kept repeating Mr. Walter Mosley words of advice, “Writing is supposed to be fun.”

    So I’m now looking for a writer’s group to workshop my first novel, while I’m 1/3 of the way through my second. In stead of a spy or detective, I write a thief’s story. And no, there’s not a line of erotica in the book.

    Now I write without expectations or preconceived plans and the story/characters take me where I’m supposed to go. Sure, I struggle with word economy, plot/continuity issues, and God-knows my spelling sucks, but as long as the story is fun, I’m having fun.

  11. 11. Stephanie Burgis

    I loved reading about all these approaches. Thank you guys!

  12. 12. glenda larke

    I start with a “what if” idea.

    What if maps moved like a GPS, only better? “Havenstar”

    What if there was a fantasy book where there were no forests, no castles, no horses, no wolves…in fact not even a tree or a blade of grass? That was “The Aware”.

    What if magic was an illness? “The Tainted.”

    What if the hero was a pacifist doctor, yet ended up…(ok, won’t say, because it’s a spoiler)…? “Gilfeather”

    And my latest: What if water was so precious possessing it meant possessing wealth, currency, power, social standing… and not having it meant having no rights to anything?
    “The Last Stormlord”

    Once I have the concept, everything else fits into place: the world and who would live in that world.

  13. 13. Elias McClellan

    Here’s one for all. When the ‘word,’ ‘name,’ or ‘situation’ hits and you start backtracking (lookin’ at you Green Knight) how do you know where to break-off one story and begin another? I’m drafting for my first SciFi story and the history/contextualization (is that a word?) is starting to take a life of it’s own. Suggesions aside from write ‘em both? Seriously, I work 2 jobs and hope to soon have a family; time is at a premium.

  14. 14. Donna Carrick

    My point of entry is always a character. He or she stands in front of my mind’s eye holding a story, or at least a strand of a story, a situation that needs to be resolved, and he or she is just the person to deal with it.

    My latest book, “The First Excellence”, (coming out in Sept/09) features a young Chinese-Canadian woman who returns to her birthplace in an attempt to get a handle on her future. I saw her in a dusty grey jacket and a floppy western hat, her long black hair falling down her back in a pony-tail and her blue jeans faded. Her name was Li Fa-ling, and she was a female David Carradine in Kung Fu. She was the future representation of our own daughter, Tammy-Li Ming Hui, who was also born in China.

    My current work (only 3 chapters in) surrounds a futuristic crime-fighter. That’s all I can say for now — too new — but I can see the weariness in his eyes. He’s seen it all, and he’s had enough…

  15. 15. Stephanie Burgis

    Glenda, I love those concepts, and I’m fascinated by the way you can build novels through them – I just can’t and have had to give up trying to approach books from that angle. Funny how differently we all work…

    And Elias, speaking for myself, I’d make a note of your new idea and then set it aside while you finish project #1. (Much like what I’m doing with my new novel idea while I write Book 3 of my trilogy.) It’ll be good for that second idea to have some simmering time, and I bet it’ll be all the better, richer and more developed once you’ve finished a draft of that first project.

  16. 16. glenda larke

    Stephanie, I think one thing suggests another. For example with the “moving map” book – where maps reflected the situation on the ground in real time – my first question after getting the idea was, ok, who would be important in such a world? And the answer was “a mapmaker”. And thus my main character was born – the mapmaker’s daughter who wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps but wasn’t allowed to.

    Each epiphany just asks another question: so why wasn’t she allowed to? And let’s not just make it just because she is a girl… and so it goes on.

    I love starting a totally new book!

  17. 17. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Burgis, Ms. Carrick, and Ms. Larke, I thank you all for your perspectives. I think I get your points (love the visuals) of the singular character holding their stories forth. My initiative in crime has been 3rd person limitted and then in my second book, I’ve expanded to a 2 character-perspective.

    The scifi-story rattling around in my head will be much larger in scale. While I entend to build/write upon the epiphanies as I’m blessed with them, I intend to continually re-focus my initiative on the central character’s story. If other ideas keep coming back, then I hope to recognize them as new paths to explore/stories to tell.

    Thanks, again for your generosity of insight.

  18. 18. Stephanie Burgis

    Donna, I LOVE these lines: “Her name was Li Fa-ling, and she was a female David Carradine in Kung Fu. She was the future representation of our own daughter, Tammy-Li Ming Hui, who was also born in China.”

    Just reading about that makes me want to read the book!

    And Glenda, you’re so right – starting a new book is so much fun. All those endless possibilities….

    Elias, good luck and have fun! :)

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Author Information

Stephanie Burgis

Stephanie Burgis is an American writer who lives in Yorkshire, England, with her husband, fellow writer Patrick Samphire, their son "Mr Darcy", and their crazy-sweet border collie mix, Maya. Her Regency fantasy trilogy for kids, The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson, will be published by Atheneum Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2010, 2011, and 2012, beginning with Book One: A Most Improper Magick. She has also published short stories in a variety of magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Escape Pod. You can find out more, or read/listen to her published stories online, at her website. Visit site.

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