Thursday, September 12, 2019

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

When you have an idea for a book or story, how do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Do you outline?

From Jim

I get ideas for books in different ways. Sometimes it’s a character that comes to me first, other times it’s a setting, or a plot idea. But all of these elements have to bend to fit the overarching theme I have in mind for the book or story. And, in the case of my Ellie Stone books, the theme is ideally tied up in the meaning of the title.

As I’ve discussed here before, the titles of my Ellie Stone books are all common expressions—or parts of expressions–using the word “stone.” 

The title of my first book, STYX & STONE, is obviously a play on the old “Sticks and stones will break my bones...” But its thematic relevance is the infernal reference to the River Styx. Dante and the Divine Comedy are central to the plot. In Western tradition, the Styx is probably the most well-known waterway in the underworld, even if in Dante’s Inferno the Acheron features more prominently. This pun of a title serves to set the dark mood for the book and Ellie.

Some of my titles are more versatile than others, meaning they convey more than the obvious meaning. NO STONE UNTURNED, however, is hardly the most compelling. It connotes thoroughness and persistence, but little more. And STONE COLD DEAD is pretty straightforward. There’s a brutal cold snap that frames the story of a missing schoolgirl. But HEART OF STONE, CAST THE FIRST STONE, and A STONE’S THROW all  at multiple themes within the plots within those books. HEART OF STONE certainly applies to the whirlwind summer romance Ellie embarks upon. But the expression typically means a cruel, or stern nature. CAST THE FIRST STONE, set in 1962 Los Angeles, calls to mind Biblical judgment and the Hollywood film industry at the same time. Finally, A STONE’S THROW does double duty as well, conjuring thrown horse races and the idea of proximity. In this case, the distance between the excitement and glamour of Saratoga Springs during racing season and the mill town in decline where Ellie lives and works. 

I won’t comment on TURN TO STONE, which comes out January 21, 2020, other than to say it’s without a doubt my riskiest title in terms of giving a clue to the denouement. You’re just going to have to read it to figure it out. 

But none of this really tells you how I start writing a book. In the best of all scenarios, I begin with the solution, that clever aha! moment where Ellie figures things out. If I’m lucky, it’s unassailable in its logic and the reader is left satisfied. Then I work backward from there, outlining the plot and fine-tuning the characters along the way. Unfortunately I can’t really give any examples of those “brilliant” solutions here as they would be spoilers. The one time I didn’t outline in advance was for TURN TO STONE, and it proved to be a challenging book to write. I think the biggest problem I encountered was the secondary characters. Some of them were not clearly formed in my mind when I began, so there was a lot of reworking, rewriting, and hand-wringing. I vowed never to neglect to outline again. Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m satisfied with the result. It was simply a different path to the finish line. 

Besides starting with the solution, I spend lots of time thinking about the story and the the setting. Usually a couple of months of staring into space. Then I write down the general plot and start the four-to-six months of writing the the first draft. I work every day, aiming to hit a word count. The average is typically about 800-1,000 words per day. And at the end of a hundred or so days, I have a first draft ready to be revised and revised and revised before it’s finally ready for others to see.

And that’s how I do it. Your results may vary. 


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Start with the solution. That's interesting, James, and it makes sense when your hero is trying to solve a mystery.

Susan C Shea said...

I've always admired your ability to come up with clever and meaningful titles, and it serves as a strong marketing tool for the series. Looking forward to the upcoming book.

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