(This is part II of a two-part series on how I write. For part I, please click here.)
I need to get three elements worked out before I can start a new book: Detailed descriptions of each new character; a big idea that drives the plot, usually in the form of a question or two that the characters will answer in their thoughts and actions; and an amazing environment for their adventures.
Nature to me is a brilliant and mysterious teacher. A powerful healer. And my greatest inspiration. Since I was a boy, I’ve loved being in the wilderness, marveling at the grand sweep of the not-human world: the river of stars in the night sky, the grand march of a mountain range, or the vast expanse of the open ocean.
And more: Unspoiled nature is one of the few places left in this hyper-networked, noisy civilization we’ve created where we can still experience silence. That kind of silence is among the wellsprings of my creativity. Which I guess is why my characters often find themselves (in both senses of the phrase) in such places in my books!
Once I’ve got these elements lined up, I write that first draft by hand. Then I transfer everything to the computer, which is where I do all the rest of the writing.
While inspiration is a component of writing a book, no successful writer I’ve ever heard of got that way by relying upon inspiration alone. Woody Allen is supposed to have said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” I’ll typically go through seven or eight drafts of a novel, a process that takes some discipline–although the fact that I love my work certainly helps.
It’s in this lengthy revision period that that my characters open up and tell me who they really are: their most profound fears, their greatest hopes, their deepest longings. It’s where the towns, forests, and other places in the story reveal their secrets, as well. It’s important that these all become truly real to me as the writer, because that is what makes them real to you, the reader.
As the novel revisions progress, I usually refine my focus. This means developing the key characters and the main arc of their adventures, without adding much that might dilute the mix and prevent me from finishing the story. I can always jot down a great idea to keep in reserve for a future book.
There’s nearly always a point in the final drafts where a writer gets totally tired of everything about a project, never mind how much he or she loves the people and places in it. If I get to this point, I’ve learned it’s important to find whatever ways I can to complete the book, no matter how exhausted I feel. One key realization I’ve had is that there’s no law that I have to write the story in the “right” order! I can always skip to the ending while it’s fresh and exciting in my mind, and fill in the middle later on.
The amount of time all this takes can vary a lot. For “The Lost Years of Merlin” epic, I researched the legends of Merlin for a year before I even sat down to write. With the “Atlantis Rising” trilogy, as well, it took one year of researching the Atlantis myth before I could begin.