The Post – How Do You Take Three Picture Books and Make a Novel?

In writing this post I feel the same amount of confusion and struggle as I did when I was trying to get my head around how to set up the novel. Where do I start? There’s too many thoughts and ideas, too much to wade through or convey. My brain feels overwhelmed and I want to give up and go have hot chocolate at Starbucks instead.

Back then, I was surrounded by papers…drowning actually. I had a binder full of hermit crab story versions from all the different submissions I’d sent out, as well as their rejection letters. I even filed each rejection letter neatly alongside the particular story version sent to that publisher, and the binder was organized in chronological order. That way I could see the not only the history of all the submissions, to whom, and the result, but also, the evolution of the story itself as it changed for each new submission. So in reality, for that one picture book, I had about 20 versions of that story as I tweaked, changed, revised, and resubmitted it.

I had another binder with the multitude of revisions (and rejection letters) for the Max and Jamie un-picture book. Then there was that third short story whose revisions and versions filled, first a folder, then a box. Climbing Mount Everest would have been easier. That journey of a thousand miles seemed shorter than whatever it was going to take to wade through all that stuff and find the story that needed telling. And worst of all, here I was, this very goal-oriented person who lived to finish things fast and cross them off the to-do list. The thought of what this job was going to take to start it, never mind finish it, seemed too daunting to face.

You can drive yourself crazy trying to find the exact perfect place to start or the exact perfect way to work. In fact, I don’t think either exists. As far as getting started, you just have to pick a nipple and get going. It’s like Billy Joel said about the songs in his dreams never matching what he created. Nothing will be as perfect as our dreams and visions. So you can either give up right then because you can’t have perfection, or you swallow your ego and create the best you can. Even the imperfect can move souls. But you still have to write it. Tabitha King, wife of novelist Stephen King, and a critically acclaimed author in her own right, noted in an interview in Writer’s Digest magazine that, “…fiction never turns out the way it’s imagined. Your expectations are never gonna jive. …But that doesn’t mean it’s not a success.” So you put your butt in the chair and start somewhere, working through it all, somehow.

This is where going through Stage 2 helped – you have to know yourself. If you do, you have at least 2 things going for you: 1) you have at least some idea of the questions in your heart that might need to be answered in a book; 2) you have a pretty good idea of how you work best.

How you work defines what your processes and tasks will be. Some writers just sit down and start writing. They write several hundred pages until they finally discover their story and characters. Then they throw away those pages and write the story. A few, like Isaac Asimov, can sit down and organically know where they’re going and just get it right the first time out. And then there’s us plodders. We think, percolate, plan, research ….plod.

Tabitha King said that she likes to research “the living crap out it” before entering the story. Jodi Picoult, best-selling author of 14 novels, said that often she spends more time on research than writing. Why? In her June 2007 column, “This Writer’s Life,” for Writer’s Digest magazine, she said, “…fiction’s a tightrope. I’m supposed to whisk the reader away from his everyday life, but to do that, I need to create characters and situations real enough to entice him to follow. To that end, I’ve found myself living the lives of dozens of people, all in the name of research.” She said that research allows you to write with authority so readers can trust you to get the facts straight, and it gives you the “chance to walk a mile in the shoes of a character that might have lived a life very different from your own.”

I knew I wasn’t Asimov. I also know that to meander aimlessly through hundreds of pages before knowing where I was going, would drive me crazy. I need order, organization, planning, research. You should see how I plan a road trip. After all, my natural tendency was to be General Patton. Generals assess what they’ve got, research their enemy, plan their strategy, then execute the battle. That’s me.

So, first I assessed what I had:

1) I knew now what kind of book it should be – novel.

2) I had LOTS of raw material. I knew the setting, the time of the story-current day – and had some ideas about characters and plot points because I had MANY versions of each story to choose from.

3) I finally knew about what age my own child was inside, 11 or 12. That sort of tells you what age the reader of your book might be. Also, knowing about what ages you and your readers are points you toward what kinds of story questions you can tackle.

At least for me, writing is all about questions and choices. As you ask, you learn something. As you learn, you make a choice about something in the story. Another question comes up, another choice. Before you know it, characters appear, setting, time, places, problems. Others are excluded. The story evolves. So at this point, the question for me became: What is my story about?

I came out of childhood with scars and resentments and issues. So has everyone else. If my own life has depth and there’s more to ME than meets the eye, the same is true of everyone else out there. This means there’s lots of potential for conflict and issues and depth of characters, quirks, oddities, and unexpected twists and turns. No need for clichés, stereotypes and superficial stories when you have some real meat to work with under the surface.

The very story you tell comes out of a choice when answering the questions – Do I write what I know? Or what I want to know about? Sometimes you choose a place or character or issue that you know personally. Sometimes you choose something you have no experience with. You could even choose something that repulses you, but you want to explore it so you can stretch yourself and grow. George C. Scott did that when he portrayed General George S. Patton, Jr. in the 1970 movie, Patton. In this quote from a special features documentary included on that movie’s DVD, one of the former executives at 20th Century Fox, David Brown, spoke of all the issues they had to deal with in making that movie. One was casting an actor for the lead role:

“…of all the critical decisions made for the project, perhaps none was more crucial than the casting of George C. Scott as Patton. George C. Scott was not very fond of General Patton. Why he accepted it was because it was a good script and it was a reach for him as an actor.”

Jodi Picoult noted that she’d grown up happy in the suburbs. Everyone in her family liked each other, there were no dark secrets in the family’s closet, and she worried that she was doomed as a writer before she even got started. “Frankly, I didn’t have enough trauma in my life to write about.” She came to the conclusion she had to alter that “write what you know” rule a bit to “write what could be learned.” Tabitha King said most people assume that “write what you know” means “tart up your autobiography.” Her feeling is you should “know what you write.” All of these things come back to…questions.

But which question do you start with to unlock the answer to “What is my story about?” For my money, if I was allowed only one question, it would be ‘why’? That’s the one I used most heavily in getting this novel going.

Why write this book? Why have these characters and not others? Why does someone do what they do? Buried in the answer to why, is the story of that whole character: flaws, strengths, wishes, dreams, disappointments, crimes, family background, personality traits, likes, dislikes. Ask “why” and you’ve opened the can of worms. Everything is folded into “why?”

People act a certain way. Pretty girls, tomboys, shy ones, party girls. They each have their personality and behaviors. Why? Were they born that way? Did something happen to cause them to act that way? Both? What was it that happened?

Why leads to more questions:

– Where do they live? What’s their environment like? Why are they living in that environment? Are they rich? Poor? Brilliant? Anti-social?

– Who do they live with? Why? Do they get along? Why or why not?

– What’s the story behind the people they live with? Work with? Go to school with? Why do THOSE people act like they do? Who is or isn’t in their lives? What happened to them if someone, say a parent or spouse, is missing?

It’s like spinning a web. You start with one thread, one character. Give that person one trait and ask why. The minute you do, other pieces of the puzzle pop up. You choose a few pieces. More questions come up. Add another trait. Exponentially, the character expands before your eyes. Things you didn’t even know about your character show up on the pages. And so far, you just have the one character.

Now. Want some real complications? Add in another character. The minute you add in another character, the possible choices for how they interact, what they are like, what’s going to happen when those two collide, expands. Then add in a third, a fourth. Add in the environment. Add in the weather, the teacher, the dog down the street, whatever. The minute you add ANYTHING to that one solitary person, you get a reaction. It’s like adding a second chemical into a solution with something else – chances are, you get a reaction. That reaction is based on the properties each chemical brings. And why does a particular chemical have those properties? Because of it’s structure, it’s formation process. So, mix two people together and based on their structure, formation, properties in the form of their birth, environment, personality, etc. you get a reaction.

If you haven’t had enough, add in the question “What if?” What if one character jumps off a bridge and the second one tries to save him and the first one lives but the second one dies? What does that do to the person who tried to kill themself in the first place? Questions multiply the possibilities.

With all these questions and answers, your story seems to be beyond your control, right? It’s not. It’s messy, but that’s good. For right now, you want your right brain to just explode with the possibilities and get it all down. This is still part of the “what have I got” stage. You want to have as many options as possible, as rich a palette of colors as possible, to choose from. Save controlling it for later. Right now just throw all the mosaic stones on the table and see what you’ve got.

You will have to reel in the storyline at some point. Your story will need a road map – the plot, and its soul – the premise. Premise is a one line summary of what the real heart and soul of your story is. Premise may take time but it is percolating in the background as you go through assessing, researching, and planning. It may even change after you put your first stage wild ideas through the research and planning process. But all of this can come later. Right now, just keep throwing things on the pile of “what have you got?”

So how do you do all this? I’ve thrown in all kinds of theoretical process information and questions. But you’re me sitting in that room with these folders and binders of pieces of stories all around you. You’re not sure how to put them together, if to put them together, which characters to keep, create, jettison . . .

I don’t know about anybody else, but the way through all of this for me, was to journal. I have a couple of binders of journaling. Maybe those journals were my “couple hundred pages to find the story” that other authors write then throw away.

I picked a version of each of those three stories and used that as my starting point. If there were scene variations, better wording, or different events in other story versions, I cut and pasted those into my journal or made a “list of possible things to add later” to the version I started with. The point is – I had to pick a version to begin with, then journal from there. I might in the end decide a particular version, scene, person didn’t work. In fact, I know I did. But at least, I had a starting point. You can always add, take away, or start over. But you have to pick that one nipple and just start journaling.

Every day I sat down and did a piece of a scene here, a character description there. I wrote up thoughts about what if you mix these two characters in that setting with this problem – how that might play out? I did sample plot lines. Again and again and again. Dialogue samples. Setting descriptions. List of things to check on. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and made to-do lists.

It’s a messy, imprecise process, but what I was doing was slowly working my way to the soul of the story and its characters. I was pruning. Refining ideas, discarding others. For me, it’s a gut, organic kind of process, like baking bread. You mix up this mess of ingredients, knead it, set it aside. It rises. You come back, push it down. It incubates some more, then you come back and roll it, stretch it, bake it. You eventually end up with a concrete product: a loaf of bread, that you can hold in your hands, see with your eyes, smell with your nose and taste. The same happens with your story and characters. By the end of the journaling, you have this concrete mass of information about the story structure, who’s in it, you may have even answered that one line premise question. The reality is, if you can’t describe your story in a sentence or two, you don’t know the story and need to go back to the journaling. At least I did. Once I could write that sentence or two, it was time to put up the scaffolding. It was time to run all of it through the concrete tests of research and planning. Construction was on the horizon.

Next: The scaffolding – index cards and binders. LOTS of them. And maps. And lists. And books and….

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