One of the things I was always interested in when I first started writing was how other writers went about their craft. How do they come up with an idea and weave it into a 100 000 word tale that captivates and enthralls the reader? I’ve read many books on the subject from professionals and many forum/blog posts from aspiring professionals. Everyone goes about it differently and today I’m going to talk a little about how I do it.
The desk where the magic happens.
The birth of an idea
I’m very lucky in that ideas have never been terribly hard to come by for me. Sometimes an idea pops into my head seemingly out of nowhere and I find I can create a nice story out of it. Other times I’m influenced by an idea or even a setting that I saw in a video game, movie, TV show or book.
A lot of my ideas tend to start with the place first. Perhaps it’s a spooky apartment, or maybe a cold, snowy wasteland. Once I have the setting I then think about what might happen there. Wouldn’t it be cool if this happened? What would happen if this character was there? If this situation were to occur how would people deal with it?
Perhaps the biggest part of coming up with an idea to flesh out is the “what if” stage. I have an idea of the setting, usually I have an idea of the character I want to see there, then I start throwing around a lot of “what if”s. What if this person was put in mortal danger? What if this person had to make a life altering decision? What if something really strange happened to this person, how would they deal with it?
Take for example my short story “The bells of Yichun.” This started with the setting. Ever since I first heard about the atrocities of Unit 731 in World War II I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the subject. From that I got the idea of telling a supernatural twist on the unit. What’s something supernatural that might attack soldiers committing horrific deeds in the name of science in Northern China? My beloved jiangshi, the hopping Chinese zombie vampires. Once the setting and antagonist were in place I thought the idea of telling it in diary form might be a neat twist and thus the idea of a grandchild finding his or her grandfather’s journals was born. This also makes the story more personal and allows me to keep the story flowing without the need for added fluff. It’s a diary. The grandfather is only going to write down the most important details of each day.
Okay, but what about for a longer story, or a full series? How do you come up with the ideas for that? In the exact same way, of course. My idea for “Tale of Yashima” came about because I wanted to put a supernatural twist on the Sengoku Era. This was a huge period in Japanese history full of larger than life characters and social upheavals. But what if there were yokai as well? What then? Well now I have an entire series based around what might happen if yokai were planning a secret attack while the humans were busy destroying each other.
Then there’s my stand alone “The Deliverer.” I first had my setting; a snowy, desolate land full of demons. What would happen if a country was forced to sacrifice a young boy or girl every 10 years so that everyone else could live? How close can I get to this girl who knows she’s going to die and the man who is going to deliver her to that death? What can I explore about the history of this land while these two are experiencing it for the first time whilst simultaneously building a relationship that can only end in one way; death.
Think of a setting, think of some people that might live there, think about an incredible amount of “what if”s. That’s how I come up with my stories.
The shoretrooper, death trooper and Kuchisake Onna that keep me company as I write.
Weaving the thread of an idea into the fabric of a storyline
Wasn’t that sub-heading unnecessarily poetic? But that’s basically what happens next. Once I have my base idea it needs to be fleshed out so it can become an actual story. This is largely a continuation of the “what if”s done by throwing a bunch of challenges at the hero so they can get from A to Z.
I’m a planner. Generally. My short stories tend to start with an idea, I’ll figure out where I want to go and then I fill in the rest as I write. Every now and then I may hit a stumbling block as I’m not sure how to proceed but because I know the ending I just work towards that and it all tends to work out.
Larger stories are another matter entirely. I plan those down to the finest details. I need to or else I won’t know what the hell I’m doing. This starts the same way as a short story. Know the setting, the main character/s and the ending. Then it’s pretty much throwing a bunch of conflicts and roadblocks at the poor hero until they reach their destination. While doing that I’ll think about what I want to explore in the story. What is the theme and how does all of this fit into it? Is there a message I want to tell and if so how can I do it without forcing it down people’s throats? What’s going to help my character grow, and conversely what’s going to knock them down a few pegs so they can hopefully come back stronger than ever?
This is a sneak peak at my planning for “The Deliverer.” I sat down over a few nights and planned this out from start to finish. The first decision I made was that I wanted to tell the story from the POV of both characters. I wanted a chance to get inside both of their heads, experience the world from two very different viewpoints. One is the Deliverer, a man tasked with the duty of leading a young girl to her death. The other is that very girl who has never even been outside her village before. Two people experiencing the world for the first time, two people heading towards the same finish line but with different fates in store. Once that was decided I just split the chapters to alternate between them and thought about what obstacles they’d face along the way. What will help them grow, what will try to hinder them, what will they learn as they explore this land facing death at every turn?
I write using Scrivener and I don’t know how I’d live without it now. This particular setup has the chapter notes on the right while I write the actual chapter on the left. This makes it super easy to refer to my notes while writing because they’re literally right there.
Then there’s my biggest project to date, “Tale of Yashima.” There’s no way this was ever going to be a small tale and thus required extensive research and planning. I’ve spent several years learning whatever I could about the Sengoku Period and the people involved in it. I didn’t want to just retell it though, I wanted to use these people and these battles as a base for my own story. This isn’t just Sengoku Retold. I based my characters on real people from this period – sometimes only very, very loosely – and based a lot of important plot points on certain events from history. The rest I twisted or entirely made up myself, so this involved a metric shitton of planning. But in the end it came down to the same formula. This is where we’re starting, this is where the story ends. What happens to get them from A to Z?
The format here in Scrivener is very similar to “The Deliverer”. This particular screenshot only has one window up but when planning it tends to have both so I can plan and refer to other things at the same time. I started by breaking the story down into slightly smaller chunks, the “seasons” if you want to think in TV terms. Then once I had a rough idea of what was happening each season with each clan I broke those down into smaller pieces. I think of these as like season arcs. Then once those were done I broke them down even smaller into episodes; the chapters. Chapters are based on whoever has the most important viewpoint necessary to move the plot forward at that particular time. I have a “Seasons” folder in the left there where every season has been at least roughly planned from start to finish. I know what’s happening to everybody and when. It’s such a huge story though that I’m still working on the specifics for later season arcs and chapters while I write the earlier stuff.
This story also has an incredible amount of characters and place names. I keep reference sheets of them all in a “Characters” folder that I can easily refer to when I’m writing and update them constantly when finer details are written into the story. This helps me keep track of everything so I’m not suddenly calling someone by an entirely different last name three books later. Which I have done before.
Wrapping it all up with a neat, tidy bow
So I’ve come up with an idea, fleshed it out and now finally finished writing the story. Hooray, we’re done! Except for the part where the story is crap and how did you even make that many typos and why is that character’s name spelled differently three paragraphs later?
I actually don’t mind the editing process so much. The hardest part for me is just getting the words down in the first place. Once that’s done it’s just a matter of tweaking, fixing and rethinking things. It’s much easier to fix something already on the page than it is to create something from nothing. For short stories I don’t usually have to fix very much. In most cases they go out almost exactly how I wrote them first time around. I fix spelling mistakes, weird grammar, repeating words etc but storyline-wise very little changes.
Bigger stories however require a lot more work. Sometimes details change as the story goes on. That means fixing things that happened earlier on, or perhaps things that are going to happen later on. This is why I need to know my endings very clearly before I even start writing. Sometimes an entire scene or even chapter doesn’t work and so it has to go. Another pair of eyes is great at this stage because they can point out all the little things you’ve missed reading the same paragraph a thousand times over, but I also like to let my work sit, either a few days or a few weeks (in some cases I’ve left them a few months) and come back to it myself with fresh eyes.
Then, once I’m finally happy with everything (or perhaps just sick of looking at it anymore) it’s time to release it into the big bad world and hope for the best!
The final word
So that’s a pretty basic look into my writing process from start to finish. Sometimes I can sit down and write a full story within an hour. Other times I can spend months or even years just on planning itself. While the general approach remains the same each story is different and I treat them all accordingly.
How about you guys? Are you planners like me or do you like to fly by the seat of your pants and let the story take you where it wants to go? Let me know in the comments below!