Friday, July 20, 2018

The Process: Turning the Idea Into A Bestseller (part 1)

Everyone’s process is different, and the techniques can vary wildly from author to author. The only commonality is the end product – a story. Some people are very methodical, laying down outlines, mapping plot arcs, routing subplots and timelines until the structure for their novel looks like a Chicago subway map. Other authors are guided solely by instincts and a deep understanding of the story. Most everyone else lands somewhere in between those extremes. 

Author Ron Bay Jr. (Lost Highway, The Boat) condensed his process to one simple sentence: “Once I know how the story will start and how it will end, all I need to do is fill in the 80,000 words in between.” He detests outlines, mostly because that is not how he tells stories. And that is ultimately how we develop our process.

The most important part of developing your process is understanding how you will address the issues we have mentioned in this blog. To explain this, I will demonstrate how I apply my process as I create a novel before your very eyes.

I will start with a simple adventure from my life – the point in my high school education where I decided I would go to college. We will call this book, “The Higher Education of James Pressler.” It sounds simple – probably way too simple. The idea for this story is something plenty of people do not care about or take for granted because they went through that adventure without a second thought. Therefore, the first thing I need to address is why this is different, and what immediate challenges make this worth reading.

First -- what sets things into motion, on to the adventure? Lots of people go to college because that's what is supposed to happen. In the case of my family, that was not so. Therefore, my call to action would be the realization that without a degree, life would never get easier. The immediate obstacle would be lack of money. Now we have the groundwork – the adventure does not start with applying to college, but with saving for school while barely making any money. 

At this point, I might have an idea of where I want this story to end – the first day of college would be a pleasant finish. But a story about someone saving money sounds kind of boring. Now I have to consider what is holding the character back, what obstacles will he face, and what might distract the character from his journey.

Setbacks and obstacles can boil down to two categories – external and internal – and each comes with a different package of effects. External problems are beyond the character’s control, and can often be brutal because that's how the world works. Examples from our story would include:
  • A car accident drains all my savings
  • I unexpectedly have to move out on my own
  • The company I work for goes under

These are excellent ways to add conflict to the story because they force a situation that demands a response. They put plans in disarray, they change the route toward the final goal, and can even challenge whether the mission is even worth it. Too many of these, however, and the story can feel like the character has no control over his life and is just a victim pushed around by the world.

Internal setbacks, however, are driven by the character’s own choices, and have to be believable to the reader to be effective. Any choice has to be justified by previous actions, and this is where the author starts thinking about whether a decision needs to be supported by previous actions. This is also usually the first source of rewriting chapters. For my story, the internal struggles can drive the story in many directions:
  • Working extra hours for more money weighs on friendships
  • Self-medicating (alcohol, smoking, pain pills) to address the stress of so much work
  • Making more money challenges whether college is really necessary

While external challenges move the character around, internal decisions show the reader who the character is and what makes him tick. Bad decisions can humanize the character, difficult but necessary choices can win over the reader. Most importantly, the main character owns those actions, for better or worse. And in doing so, the reader is there with him, either agreeing or slapping their forehead in disgust.

When I prepare to write a novel, I know the route from plot point to plot point – I do not map it out before I start. However, as the story develops, things can change – and often do. At that point, I start taking notes and thinking about how the details of each chapter create potential obstacles that compound each other and can make for more engaging writing.

Let’s look at the first external problem listed above – the car accident. I know this part very well -- I lived through it. But now I recognize how the injuries factor into some of the internal challenges (self-medication in particular). This becomes an opportunity to emphasize the chronic pain from the accident and show how it weighs on future decisions. The different obstacles start compounding on each other and pulling away from that main goal – college.

Now, once all these problems are ganging up, I know there’s going to be a lot of tension and conflict. The reader can only wonder, “How will he ever reach his goal? Will he abandon that goal for something less satisfying?” And they will go through page after page, long into the night, wanting to find out what happens.

Oops – I put together so much tension that I forgot to map out what continues the hero’s journey. Right now, the story has me as a pill-popping workaholic who is losing sight of his goal of college, and there's a strong case to just give in and yield to the status quo. Unless a brilliant little bit of writing comes in, this might be a very disappointing book. 

But we are still building our process.

(to be continued)

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