How a novel is born

As near as I can figure out, the gestation period for a novel–at least one of mine–is roughly the same as for a human baby. At times, it seems just as uncomfortable, too. (I’m not speaking from personal experience, just observation.) And by gestation period, I don’t mean writing the book, I mean just coming up with a quasi-coherent outline–the story, if you will. (Actually writing the thing can take years.)

For instance, with Eyewall, I didn’t just plop my butt into a chair in front of my iMac one day and start pounding the keyboard, saying to myself: okey-dokey, I’ve got this recon plane stuck in the eye of a hurricane; an outspoken, Dr. House-like tropical weather forecaster; and a family trapped on a coastal island as a cat-5 storm roars toward them. No way.

The story came to life agonizingly slowly, starting with the idea of a trapped Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Obviously, I needed more than that to generate an 80,000-word drama. Bit by bit, month by month, the other pieces came to me–while going on my daily walk, while lying in bed at night before falling asleep, or while eating supper (much to my wife’s ire–You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?)

At some point, enough notions got crammed into my brain or scribbled down on a sheet of paper that I was able to generate a broad outline, a couple of pages, of how I wanted the story to evolve. Then I wrote biographies for my main characters. Both the outline and bios were “living” documents, that is, malleable. I modified them as I get into actually writing the scenes that constituted Eyewall. In effect, a sort of feedback mechanism was at work with the characters driving the story, but at the same time the story demanding alterations to the characters.

I should mention, too, that while I write fiction, I’m compelled to build my novels on fact. That comes from my background in science, I suppose. So in addition to sculpting Eyewall out of a one-line concept, I was simultaneously doing research: on how hurricane hunters operate, on the thermodynamics of tropical storms, and on the mechanics of storm surge. In the case of my current work-in-progress, I’ve had to learn about microbiology and filoviruses.

Well, that’s how the process works for me. It is only piece by agonizing piece that a story comes to life. Even as I’m finishing up my second novel, ideas for a third are rolling around in my head. Some days, I get absolutely stumped–I just don’t know where to go with the story. Then there’s a brief ah-ha moment before I’m stumped again at next turn in the drama.

But curiously enough, even as I sat here typing this blog, another ah-ha light bulb snapped on for a scene in novel number three. A strange business, being a novelist.

My head hurts.

That aside–and just for my writer friends–how are your books born?


  1. Paul Bussard on April 27, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Buzz, you and I are so alike, one (or both) of us should be scared. The only difference I see is that my plot ideas come while I’m driving. Where are you going?, my wife yells, and I realize I’ve missed a turn I should have taken. Who knows what other traffic violations I’ve committed?

    I never intended to write a novel. I was just daydreaming about the wonders of electromagnetism–electrons spiraling through a coil of wire, producing magnetism–when I wondered what you would get if you passed light rays through a coil of optical fiber. Wouldn’t it be neat if you got anti-gravity? You don’t, of course, but the “what if?” question would not go away. I really wanted to know how a person would feel if he made such a discovery and what he would do with it. I created a character and stuck him in a situation. The result was Beyond Hercules, a 70,000-word story in which Duke Wainwright discovers anti-gravity, not knowing the galaxy is patrolled by a derelict weapon which annihilates anyone with anti-gravity technology.

    It would not be fair to say it’s taken me twenty years to write Beyond Hercules. Rather it’s taken that long for me to learn how I should have written the story. Meanwhile, new ideas have come to me and new stories. Now, however, I’ve adopted some of the same writing techniques as you (bios for characters, outlines for plots, etc.) that make the process more productive and enjoyable.

    I, too, am compelled to build my fiction on fact. In the science fiction genre, such writing is called “hard” sci-fi–stories whose science must adhere to the laws as we understand them today. Allowable exceptions are FTL travel, time travel, and a “what if?” question upon which the plot of the story depends (e.g., my anti-gravity idea). Sticking to the facts means we writers have to learn a lot of new technology, but who knows–maybe another story will come as a result.

    The one thing you didn’t mention, which I think we nevertheless share, is our involvement with other writers. While I confess that I have never been able to accept plot ideas from other writers, I enthusiastically welcome their critiques of my writing and their constant inspiration to keep plugging away. You are a prime example of that inspiration–persevering through 100+ rejections before finally achieving your goal. That’s not how novels are born–it’s how they get published. Keep up the good work!

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