I spent decades reading fiction before I sat down to write my first novel. One of the things that had always struck me as magical, and even inimitable, was the process by which these authors were actually able to do this – invent a story, write it down, and have it be good enough for a publisher to pay hard money for the rights to shepherd the book to market.
Naively, I believed that the process went like this – think of a story. Specifically, think of a beginning, a middle and end. Think of the characters who will populate the story. Plot the scenes, the arcs, the expositories, the back stories, the surprises, in detail, on little yellow post-its and line the walls with them. Pace around muttering dialog. Re-plot. Lie awake at night linking it all together. Drink a lot of coffee. Then sit down and write from morning until night until a first draft emerges. Then buff and polish, buff and polish, buff and polish.
It was not like that at all. Although, on having done some research on the writing process, it is exactly like that for many authors. But there are numerous other approaches (apparently John Irving starts with the last sentence of the book and reverse engineers the plot, although I suspect that this story might be deeply exaggerated).
In all three novels (third to be published 2014), I began with a character that I found interesting (Jared Borowitz, the grumpy physics professor in Entanglement, Harold Cummings, the imploding retiree in Stepping Out). And each of those characters were scaffolds for me to probe a series of topics that I found interesting. So the other characters, the plot, the arcs and all of the rest simply seemed to coalesce around the unveiling of my primary protagonist in the first chapter. The plot revealed itself in pieces, never all at once, and in all novels I was more than 50% done before I could even glimpse how it ended up.
I also wrote in the gaps (an hour here, thirty minutes there), but I tried to write every day, even if it was only 300 words. And I never wrote for more than 3 hours at a time.
I had my wife (a writer and editor) read the first draft, and was lucky in this respect, because the writer’s proximity to his work causes the most distorted myopia (It is too terrible! It is Nobel quality! No, it is stultifying! Geez, actually not bad! OMG, what rubbish!).
Finally, the whole buff and polish thing? Beware, that can go on forever. I quickly learned to tie a bow around paragraphs and chapters and not to go back. I wanted to publish before I died.