Construction of a Novel: Sleight of Mind

When it comes to novel writing, I’m a pantser. Or at least, I have been in recent years. This brings its own share of challenges and thrills, but one of my favourite things about it is the element of surprise. When I don’t know (or only have a vague idea) what’s going to happen next in my story, I’m frequently surprised by it. And there are times when that surprise truly astonishes me.

There’s a secondary character in my current novel who makes a few brief appearances off-screen (the protagonist never even meets him), and then sort of disappears. He plays an important role, but I wasn’t sure what happens next with him, or even if it was important. I sort of left it open-ended, with no plans to reintroduce him, yet also aware that I should probably go back and tie up those ends properly during edits, as it’s all a bit ambiguous.

And then, yesterday, tens of thousands of words after his last minor appearance, he showed up again, completely out of the blue. I had to seriously question myself to figure out whether he belonged in this section of story, or even if it fit what I’d already written about him. I ran a search for his name and read all my previous references to him, and to my astonishment, his reappearance fit perfectly. I didn’t need to rewrite anything. I didn’t need to shoehorn references in that would later fit with his return… I didn’t need to foreshadow it. Because I already had. It turns out I’d been foreshadowing it almost from his first appearance, and I had no idea. Re-reading the last references I’d made to him, it was almost like I’d gone back in time to write them from this point, knowing where he would end up and just how important he would actually become to the story.

So. Weird. And kind of mindblowing. When my brain conjured him back into the story, it’s almost as if it went ‘ta-da!’ as it did so. Like my subconscious had been performing a long, elaborate magic trick on me, and it was finally revealed.

Amazing. And I still have no idea how it was done.



Every so often, I come across an image that transports me into itself. It’s like the immersion that comes from good writing. The sense of being in a place, feeling it, the warmth, the scents, the sounds it evokes.

I came across one of these today. So beautiful I might have to put it in a story…


The Eight Stages of Story Writing

Well… my eight stages, anyway. I’m pretty certain all writers go through some form of these different states while a work is in progress. For me, these are the ones that invariably occur, and generally in this order.

The first (or even second or third) time you encounter this process, you think it’s just you. You think it’s just this particular story that’s got you on such an emotional rollercoaster. You feel sure Real Writers don’t go through all this unprofessional emotive instability. Then it happens on the next story. And the one after that. And you start to realise it’s a pattern, and it happens every single time. It’s true that some stories garner stronger emotional connections than others, and sometimes the dips on the rollercoaster are less noticeable, but they’re always there. So these are the stages I’ve come to recognise and even embrace, in all their wonderful/frustrating/schizoid glory:

1. Inspiration

This is where it all starts. Sometimes it’s the spark of an idea that sets your mind ablaze and demands you scribble notes down on whatever scrap of paper you happen to have hanging around the bottom of your handbag (I always have a pen. I try to always have paper or a notebook, but ideas don’t care whether you’re prepared or not). Sometimes it’s a slower-burning concept that’s been smouldering in the back of your mind for ages and suddenly comes to life. But either way, this is always an awe-filled moment, even if it’s occasionally the fearful awe of wondering how the hell you’re going to pull this thing off.

2. Cohesion

Now we’re talking. The inspiration has grown legs (and usually, teeth), and suddenly there are protagonists in your head, carrying out the ideas of the previous stage. There’s the shape of a plot. There are secondary characters clamouring for their own fifteen minutes of fame. It’s not just an idea any more. Now it’s a story. Now you have to write, at all costs, and corner this thing into submission before it runs away.

3. Immersion

This is the best bit. This is the beginning of a high that doesn’t culminate until the final sentence of the first draft is in place. This part is the love affair. You’re heady with it, unable to think about anything else, unable to make constructive headway on anything but writing this story. You love your characters. You’ve developed a relationship with them. You want them to succeed, even while you’re throwing deliberate hurdles in their way. (You also love seeing them jump and scramble.) You believe in this plot. You believe in this story, you’re having an absolute blast, and even when a plot snag comes along, you know you can overcome it, because SUDDENLY YOU ARE GOD AND YOU CAN DO ANYTHING.

4. Relief

No matter how awesome that immersive excitement is, getting the final sentence on the page brings the most wondrous sense of relief. You’re higher than a kite, and now you get to breathe again. It’s done. (I mean, it’s not done. It’s nowhere near done, and you know it. But first drafts like to believe they’re finished, even for just a few moments. And you let them have that.) Usually, you read through the completed draft right then and there (depending on how long it is, of course), and you look on what you’ve done and you smile with satisfaction. Phew. Another story complete. Another confirmation that I’m more than just a bag of unrealised ideas.

5. Apathy

Aaaand here it comes. You’ve hit the peak of the wave, and naturally you have to come gliding down the other side. A day goes by. Maybe two. You read the draft again, and pick up on typos and errors and words that don’t read quite right. You keep reading it. You keep revising paragraphs and scenes, and gradually your wonderful, amazing, all-consuming story feels stale and worn out. It’s not really the story. It’s the fact that you’ve read it over and over until the shine has completely worn off. You experience a certain numbness to it. It’s done. It’s okay. But you honestly can’t tell if it works any more. Or if it’s any good. Or if maybe it’s not so original after all…

6. Doubt

…or if you’re any good at this writing jaunt anyway. Argh. Why are you even bothering with this? You send the story out for critique, to try and pinpoint the weaknesses (and strengths) you simply cannot see any more. You get critiques from fellow writers. Many of them are complimentary. You’re buoyed by the good things they say. And some of them aren’t so complimentary, and somehow the negative points become far more consuming than the positive ones. Sometimes these points unwittingly strike right at your insecurities. Other times they denigrate something you thought you’d got just right. Either way, you’re at the doubting stage, so no matter how constructively the advice is given, or how many positives they give you at the same time, you’re seriously questioning yourself. Maybe you’ll never be any good at this thing. Maybe you suck.

7. Renewed belief

But, like all the stages, doubt is temporary. It’s actually constructive, if you channel it right. You can use it to improve, to overcome the issues you feel plagued by, and to keep persevering despite the hurdles. Often, you have to let significant time go by before renewing your belief in a story. Some stories take longer than others, but it’s always best to put them aside, let the critiques mull away in your subconscious, go and work on something else, and finally come back to the original story with a clear mind. You go back and read it, and it’s fresh again. You remember what you saw in it in the first place. You can clearly see where the weaknesses are and what needs improving, and you revise those areas. You thank your wonderful critiquers for giving you their invaluable outside perspective, and you know that the changes you’re making are strengthening the story and taking it to the next level. Now it’s a story you can root for again. You fell in love with it, you fell out of love with it, and now you’ve regained your respect for it and value it as a friend.

8. Vindication

It’s ready. You’ve done everything you can to it, revised it to within an inch of its life, and have a piece you’re proud to stamp with your byline. It’s time to start submitting. You research your markets, you aim high, and you send it out there to be judged by slush readers and editors. You get rejections. You know you’ll get rejections, but they’re never fun. Here’s where you can end up on a little merry-go-round, where Doubt crops up again and again. But you don’t listen to Doubt at this stage. If an editor provides constructive feedback (it happens!), you take it and you damned well use it. Either way, you send the story back out again. Over and over and over, if need be. Because one day, one of those editors replies to your submission, and you sigh, expecting rejection by virtue of the odds… and then your whole day lights up because it’s an acceptance. Your belief is vindicated. Someone thinks you’re good enough. Not just okay. Not just pretty good. Worthy, of a place in their publication and of receiving payment for your work.

And that’s what makes the whole rollercoaster worthwhile.

Illuminati Ants Do Not a Story Make

Leaf cutter ant (Atta cephalotes)
Never underestimate these little guys… (Photo credit: grytr;

Most stories begin with a concept. Some begin with characters, basic plots, or even titles, but most start off with a conceptual idea. I think this is especially true of speculative fiction, where the speculative element is often the notion that kicks off the story. But a concept on its own is not a story. No matter how intriguingly described or vividly imagined, a concept without plot is just that.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget this. I frequently have exciting ideas that spark the beginning of a story, but until I find the story that goes with them, they’re just ideas. I might wonder what the world would be like if dinosaurs still roamed, or if cyborgs became a species in their own right, or if the dominant government was secretly controlled by ants. They’re all ideas. They’re all concepts. They’re all typical speculative questions of ‘what if?’… but on their own, none of them are stories.

I can hit on an idea that really grabs me, that I just have to write, but until I find the story that goes with it, it isn’t ready. Some of them are never ready. I have a little black notebook full of them, and the ones that don’t get written are the ones without stories.

The story comes with the characters, and with the concept’s effect on them. Perhaps a frustrated gardener pours boiling water down an anthill, ignorant of the fact that it’s populated by secret government agents monitoring crucial developments in his neighbourhood. He is arrested in the depth of night and hauled to an unknown location in which there is an underground cell with transparent walls, surrounded by earth and an intricate network of ant tunnels, like a giant ant farm. He is interrogated, tortured, placed under ant mind control, and released as an unwitting informer, to spy on his neighbours and report to the ant masters. And… there’s your story.

This is merely the bare bones, of course, but the fleshing out can come later. It’s at this point that you can embrace the concept entirely and wholly integrate it into a story. You now have a character’s head to get into in order to view this weird world from his perspective. There’s conflict in his bewilderment, manipulation, and subsequent betrayal of his community. There will be consequences to consider and an overall change of some sort which will be wrought by the protagonist and his struggle. The initial concept becomes a backdrop… a canvas to work on… a setting with far-reaching consequences that directly affect your characters’ lives, thereby providing the story.

Concepts are great. I love having ideas that spark my imagination. But the eureka moment always comes when I find the story. That’s liftoff. That’s where it really begins.