Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Story Behind the Story: Beginning

Sandra Parshall

When I speak to groups of readers, someone usually asks me to describe  my “process” – how I go about writing a book. I can understand why other writers would be interested, but I always want to tell readers that a novel is like sausage: just enjoy it; you don’t want to know how it’s made.

Clearly they do want to know, however, and I’m flattered by their curiosity. I fumble my way through an answer, trying to convey the various stages of creating a mystery, and the shifting states of terror, confusion, elation, disappointment, and satisfaction I experience.

As with any wrenching ordeal, though, the memories tend to fade. When I’m several months removed from that moment in the early part of a book when I considered jumping off a bridge to get out of writing the rest, I’ll recall hitting a rough spot but I might not remember what the precise problem was. I may also forget the days when the writing flowed like clear water and I loved every word I produced. You see, when I reread the manuscript during editing, I can’t tell the difference between the parts that came easily and the parts that I had to pry out of my head with a crowbar.

Some authors keep writing diaries, recording at the end of each day how the writing went, what problems they had, what made them happy and what made them miserable. I don’t do that. When I’ve finished working for the day, I don’t want to write about writing. If I did keep a diary, I wouldn’t share it.

Instead, I’ve decided to do this: for the dubious entertainment of any reader who wants to take the journey with me, I will periodically report on the process of writing my sixth book. This is the first installment of the story behind the story.

My fifth Rachel Goddard novel, Bleeding Through, will be out in September. (Here’s a preliminary version of the cover.) As usual, I finished it with the feeling that I had barely scraped by, that it was a mess and everyone who read it would hate it. I proofread the galley, and while it was a mess in one way (so many typos!), the story seemed surprisingly coherent and I was reasonably happy with it. But, again as usual, I felt sure I could never do it again. I’d hit bottom. I had no more stories in me. I was drained of the inner resources necessary to produce a long made-up tale filled with imaginary people.

That feeling lasted until I settled on the basic concept for a new book. As with all my novels, that concept will provide the surface action, but the hidden story of the characters’ secret motivations and deeds is what matters most. The hidden story will drive the plot.

Where do I get my ideas? That’s another frequent question from readers, and my answer is always, “From the world around me.” That doesn’t mean I look through the newspaper and lift a situation whole and transplant it to a novel. Events in the real world provide inspiration, not blueprints. In the case of Book #6, I was also inspired by my disappointment with a novel by a favorite writer. I thought he wasted a good concept by never taking the story beyond the surface. I didn’t steal his plot, by any means. But it reminded me of a controversy years ago in my own state, and from there I developed a plot I could use.

Any idea has to be tailored to my protagonists, veterinarian Rachel Goddard and Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Bridger, and my rural mountain setting in southwest Virginia. I can’t write a story that could take place anywhere.

Once I knew what Rachel and Tom would be dealing with, I started filling out the cast. Rachel’s friend Joanna McKendrick, who owns a horse farm, will be an important part of this novel, as will the people whose land surrounds hers. As the surface story plays out, the characters’ secrets will be uncovered, and the hidden story will rise to the surface in bits and pieces, gradually forming a complete picture. I have to know what those secrets are before I can write them, but I seldom know everything when I start. I fill in a lot of details during the writing.

Do I outline? Not in a rigid way. I know the ending I’m aiming for. I always know who the killer is, and that keeps me on track. Everything has to lead toward exposure of the villain, but I can’t plan each scene, each chapter, in advance. I also can’t plan the rhythm of the story, the suspenseful highs, the action scenes, the quieter moments. I feel my way along, sensing when the rhythm is off and making adjustments. Alternating between Rachel’s point of view and Tom’s is a great help with that.

I could spend forever in preparation, and the temptation to procrastinate is always present, but eventually I find myself constructing a template for the new book, setting the line spacing, creating the header with page numbers. This time, I settled on a title I love before I started writing (no, I won’t share it quite yet), and I felt a little thrill when I typed it onto the title page.

It was time to begin.


Sheila Connolly said...

My, this sounds familiar (as I teeter on the precipice of a new book, with all of one chapter written and a plot, sort of). It's both scary and exciting.

The question I am asked most often is, "do you write every day?" My answer most often is, "when am I not writing?" Maybe I'm not sitting in front of a keyboard, but I'm always thinking about it, consciously or subconsciously.

As you say, you have only to look around you, and pay attention to people, to find a wealth of stories and details you can use in some way.

Gigi Pandian said...

Thanks for sharing this, Sandy. I love reading about the process other writers use and the story behind the story. Even though I tell myself--and others--that I'm an outliner, my characters generally have other ideas! I look forward to reading these periodic progress reports.

PJ Nunn said...

I love the feeling of how a story starts to jell in my head before it ever comes together enough that I could attempt an outline. Sometimes it starts with a scene here or there. I can't wait to see how it works for you because I already know your characters. I know I'll enjoy the trip!

Dru said...

wow, this is so cool. Thanks for sharing your process with us.

Sandy Cody said...

Interesting. I do many of the same things. The hardest part, for me, is getting those first few paragraphs down. There's nothing more intimidating than a blank page (or computer screen).

Anonymous said...

These are comments worth saving and re-reading daily. Thank you, Sandy. Thelma Straw in Manhattan