last updated: 13 December 2016 (approximate reading time: 6 minutes; 1077 words)
From time to time I get asked the question: How do you go about writing a book? Is it just a case of sitting down and typing?
For me, it isn’t. At least, not in the early stages.
I don’t just sit down and type. First, I outline the entire story and only once I’ve got an outline in place do I start writing. But before I can really get to the outline, I need an idea. Or rather, not so much an idea, but a kernel for the story—a solid foundation. I’m not looking for a vague notion that the book is about something or other—I need a starting point to drag me into the story.
Perhaps I can best illustrate the kind of kernel I need by talking about a notion that I’m kicking around at the moment. This may become a book, but equally, I may just drop the whole thing if it doesn’t keep my attention.
Element One: A Situation
The notion that came to me started with a thought about the outrage of newspapers. Outrage sells. But outrage also leads to pressure for change. “Something must be done!” shout the headlines, and politicians are put under pressure to change the law or to account for failures. And in this mess and confusion, somehow the perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions. We look to address the symptoms, not to cure the causes.
This led to the idea of a government—a politically weak government that was scared of voters—deciding to act, but acting illegally. Instead of changing the law or providing better funding/training for the law enforcement agencies, what would happen if instead, the government assassinated people that were becoming politically embarrassing? Here I wasn’t thinking about mass killing, simply one or two people—a hate preacher, a child abuser whose crimes couldn’t be proved because of the trauma suffered by his victim—being assassinated, and the assassinations dressed up as accidents.
This was where the idea started, but this is not the usual place a story starts for me, and something is missing. It was the starting point from which I found my way into a story, but it was definitely a second, or maybe even a third, issue.
Element Two: Humanity
For me, the primary aspect of any story is the human side. And to describe it as a human side or a human aspect is wrong—for me, the human side is the story. I can tell a story without a situation; I can’t tell a story without humanity. No humanity equates to no interest on my part.
To be interesting, a story needs more than human beings turning up and waving. Those humans need to be at a crossroads—at a decision point in their life—and that decision needs to matter to them in a significant way.
When I looked at the situation of a government-sanctioned program to rid the country of undesirables, there were several obvious places I could work from when looking for the humanity in the story. For instance, I could look at the families of the assassinated individuals. Alternatively, I could look at the people responsible for the assassinations—those making the decisions or those carrying out the orders.
But neither of those ideas interested me and I couldn’t see much of an engaging story flowing from those perspectives.
However, what did pique my interest was the thought about a journalist being given a tip about this program. And when I thought about this journalist, I formed the picture of a thirty-something woman, unmarried—her relationship having ended about a year ago—but with a child.
When I hit upon the mother/child relationship, things started to get interesting for me. Several aspects immediately came to mind:
- The mother wants to support child—she must therefore earn money. The need to earn money requires that she works.
- But this mother wants to do more than simply work—she wants her work to be significant. In part, this significance is for herself—so much of our identity is tied up in the work we do. But in part she wants her work to matter so that she can teach her child by example.
These two aspects are enough for me to throw the character into the mix and see how she handles the information about a government-sponsored assassination program. Her motivations are simple: She wants money and she wants a story that—if it is true—should be exposed, and bringing the story to light would be something she could (in later years) talk with her child about and have pride about what she did.
But there’s another aspect here in that a mother has to look to her personal safety. If she puts her safety in jeopardy, then a consequence may be that she is unable to protect her child, and as a result, she might (reasonably) choose not to pursue the investigation. This is something of a dilemma…and may sink the book; however, it was the idea that came to me.
Will This Be My Next Book?
A novel about a clandestine government program to remove undesirables is not something that compels me. It’s a conspiracy theory and not much more. Sure, it interests, but it doesn’t compel me. And as a story, there are only so many ways the plot can play out, and I’m sure the reader would get to the conclusion a long time before I did.
However, having a character trying to uncover whether there is such a program—or find an alternative explanation for the deaths—interests me more. Take that further, and the notion of a mother feeling compelled to investigate people who may be committing murder gives me something that could be an interesting story, but as I mentioned, I’m not sure whether that aspect would be plausible.
While I found my way to the humanity from the situation, the situation will likely be far less significant—indeed, the situation could get dropped altogether—if the book does get written. Maybe that’s how I get past the plausibility issue…
And as you will have figured by now, there isn’t a simple answer—I really don’t know whether this idea will become a book.
Back to the Original Question
So back to the original question: How do you go about writing a book? In summary—I start with a setup that has the kernel of a human story that grips me. After that, I outline the entire story…but that’s an explanation for another time.