December 19, 2019
As I type this, I'm minutes away from having finished my last pass of revisions on a novel. I sent it off to the editor. I know, of course, that I'm not really done. Editorial notes will come back, and I'll need to revise and fix things. There are always things to fix. That's why a good editor is such a gift. But all the parts that must be worked on in isolation are done. From this point forward, the novel will be a team effort.
Good and Bad
Finishing a book is a bittersweet experience for me. The book has been a lot of work, and I feel good about completing it, and completing it a few days ahead of deadline (which is always wise for deadlines near the holidays. This time of year can be full of surprises). But I've lived with this novel for months from the initial idea to the outline to the writing to the revision. It's been a substantial part of every work day. And I do tend to feel a little lost when a book is done. It's an empty time, and I feel at loose ends. I try to take a couple days away from writing to rest, to read, to recharge, but I'm careful not to take too long. I have another book due soon and an outline soon after that. But for now, I've completed something, and I'll rest.
This rest time is good for looking back at the process of making this book. For me, all my books begin with two things: an idea and the people who will carry this idea on the story journey. Sometimes the characters come to me first. Often the idea comes first. This time, the novel was part of a series so the characters were already set. I simply needed to see how the idea would affect the lives of these very real, very imaginary people. This particular book was work-for-hire and part of a series I didn't create, so the characters were not of my choosing. Because of this, they make me realize some things I would have done differently. For one, I would have made each character different from the others in some way. Characters alike in age, gender, and temperament are rather difficult to bring to life on the page. They want to blend into one another. But I dug deeply into all the details built into the characters to find ways to make them different.
I had a photo of my main character. She was petite and cheery, and I thought she might be a little impulsive and perhaps a bit of a people pleaser. The second character stared out of her photo with the calm assurance of someone who knows what she’s doing. And since she was a seasoned mother and a grandmother, it made sense to make her the one most likely to try to mother people. The third character was a career woman without children. She was the one with the most experience in the endeavor that made the base of the novel. So I decided she might be a leader-type and very efficient. These small focal points gave me a place to plant my characterizations so they wouldn't all sound like the same person. Usually I look for a bit stronger foundation of uniqueness, but it was something I could work with. Still, if I were making a recommendation for someone writing their first book, I'd say, "Make the characters sharply different from one another. The more they contrast, the more interesting their interactions will be.”
In the book I just finished, the women were joined by being old friends and owning a business together. If I were building this from scratch, I likely would still have kept at least one of those. Having something strong that unites characters can be helpful too. Old friends, business partners, family members––all are connected in bonds that aren't easily broken. In these situations, you can throw in a fair bit of conflict knowing the people won't abandon one another. I do the same with my kid characters. They'll be in situations or relationships that they simply cannot walk away from, no matter how much stress I put on them in the plot. That is valuable for two reasons: stress brings out revelations about people, and conflict is interesting on the page (though I'm not a fan of it in real life).
The other thing I need to get started on a book is an idea. An idea is not a plot. Since all of my novels for grown-ups are mysteries, the plot tends to be generally the same. Someone dies (or has died) and something compels my main character to get involved in the investigation. So when I'm looking for a new idea, I'm looking for something unique about a murder or about a motivation for murder or about a motivation for getting involved in an investigation. For example, I wrote a book where renovations uncover a body in the wall of a house. The house has only had one owner and was built by the owner himself. So who is the body in the wall, and who put the body in the wall? And why? I had to make the answer unexpected for the story to be interesting. Another book I wrote had the characters find what looks like a treasure map, only the treasure they eventually discover turns out to be a human skeleton, which was not what they'd hoped for. Bodies don't have to be long dead, but in the cozy mysteries I write, they'll always be fairly free of gore. I once had a character discover the very fresh body in what should have been an empty coffin, but though the body was dead, it was not grisly.
For kids, I don't have a lot of dead bodies. Technically, you can do murder mysteries for kids, but usually the murder must be in the distant past to avoid the mystery being too grisly or horrific on the page. There are books that push the envelope of that a good bit, but for kids (as opposed to teens), it's generally a good idea to avoid having characters run across a recently dead body. Kid mysteries often don't involve murder at all, but some lesser problem like someone missing, something missing or other unexplained, non-grisly problems to solve.
For one kid series I wrote, the original idea came from wanting to combine classic literature with science fiction. What if someone created a virtual reality program that let you play inside books? Logically you'd use classic books, because there would be no conflict with copyright law. But what if the virtual reality program was hacked and the experience in this virtual reality definitely didn't stick to the original plot? A book series grew from that. Another idea that turned into a series started with my love of cryptozoology (the study of animals from legend that might actually exist). I mixed that with my interest in the internet as a platform for young filmmakers and came up with an online television series about hunting down cryptids where the young filmmaker is forced by circumstances to use his little brother and his little brother's friends as crew for his show. The resulting series has done very well for the publisher.
When looking at ideas, always ask yourself if the idea is logical (meaning can you come up with a book where readers will believe this can happen) and whether it is one you will have the energy for (research heavy ideas can take a lot of time in preparation, so you need to be committed to bring a book like that to completion). Ideas don't have to be 100% original. There had been many books about magical young people learning to use their abilities before JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series. There had even been books about wizard schools for kids. So the idea wasn't original or even close to original, but her execution of the idea captured the imagination of readers and delighted millions of kids. Ideas aren't books. They're simply seeds. And whether they'll grow into a book that will offer a reader something amazing is entirely up to the writer.
Therein lies the challenge. Is it one you're up for?
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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