Typically, plots of my novels start with a collection of images, moments, vignettes, and other idea snapshots that feel related to me, although I do not always know why. Gradually, I discover the connections as the planning and writing evolve. During that evolution, there will always be ideas that turn out not to fit, after all, and I have to scrap those.
Similarly, my characters start as a pastiche of attitudes, actions, and problems, which may be drawn from people I know, situations I have experienced, or stuff I’ve overheard in passing. (Beware discussing your life while standing in a grocery store line. There may be an eavesdropping writer nearby.) As the book progresses, I inevitably discover that multiple characters have conflicting traits that all belong to me. Real humans tend to be more contradictory than even the most complex of characters. Perhaps on certain levels I use the characters to work through some of my contradictions.
How do you come up with your book titles? Asked this recently, my answer came quickly: At some point I just know what the title is. Which means I’ve been working on it subconsciously. Which makes me realize how essential my subconscious is to the writing process:
- Stuck? Set it aside and come back to it tomorrow. Usually when I wake up I know what to do — my subconscious figured it out.
- Sudden discovery, typically while brushing teeth or gardening, of a plot twist that ramps up the tension and surprise? Thank you subconscious, you are always on the job.
- Realization, as the book nears completion, that details have coalesced into a united theme? My subconscious knew from the beginning what this book was about; the conscious mind is always the last to know.
My principle motivation to write is a desire to connect with other people, but a secondary motivation is to connect with myself and see what will next emerge.
As I write this I find it difficult to say “I figured it out subconsciously” rather than “my subconscious figured it out”. It doesn’t disturb me to feel that I contain these separate entities. Should it?
Browsing unknown books, I’m less likely to choose a novel written by someone young. That has always been true, even back when I was a youngster myself. Certainly, good writing is good writing and age has little to do with plot, or pacing, or style. But when it comes to characterization, experience matters. A writer needs to have been around life’s block a few times in order to write people and their relationships. I seek novels that teach me something about humans – including me. Now that’s not to say that better understanding is a given with age. Cluelessness can be the most persistent of traits.