The Truth About How Novels Are Born


You get an idea.  The perfect character.  The perfect setting.  A page-turning, rip-roaring plot.  You sit down and write it, and it’s pure genius.  That’s how novels are born.  Okay, I’m lying.

I’m going to take you through the birth of the first novel I completed.  So hop into the Delorian, turn on the flux capacitor, and prepare for an interesting ride.

The first novel I ever wrote, which I completed in 2010, started in 2002.  I was sitting in the music department at Barnes & Noble scribbling my story ideas on pieces of paper when I should have been working.  I came up with some characters, a family, and I decided I would write about the parents’ marriage unraveling.  I went home and wrote some starting chapters for their story.  I worked to make them as moody and as literary as possible, in the vein of The Oprah Book Club’s early “affliction literature” stage.  I would write about ten pages and no more before I decided it was a giant pile of garbage, and I would quit.  For some reason, however, the characters stuck with me.

Fast forward to 2007.  I am at Barnes & Noble again, telling my shelver Robin about a disturbing short story I had composed based on a writing prompt from The Writer’s Book of Matches.  When born-again Christians become “saved,” they often say that they have “given their heart to Jesus.”  This sometimes happens en masse at large youth group conferences.  A pastor speaking, bad praise choruses and hundreds of teens charging the stage to give their hearts to Jesus.  My serial killer posed as a counselor at one of these youth group meetings.  The teens would come into a room with him to pray for salvation, and he would cut their hearts out.  Literally.  And then the killer would “give their hearts to Jesus” in some weird post-Aztec human sacrifice thing.  Disturbing?  Definitely.  But I was on the right track.

Move ahead with me to 2008.  I am sitting down in front of my computer, revisiting my “Give Your Heart to Jesus” short story.  I decide that it’s a detective story, and I invent a middle-aged country police officer from Vermont named Jackie Sanderson.  I start writing, decide it’s garbage, and quit.

It is now 2009, and I am trying my first round of National Novel Writing Month.  The characters that I invented in the Barnes & Noble music department make a resurgence.  My story idea is that they tragically lose their baby, and one morning the baby reappears alive in their living room.  I got about 28,000 words into this one before abandoning the process.  Some of the material is not half bad.  I save it on my computer and don’t think much about it.

The Delorian has now arrived in 2010.  I am going through a really low period in my life, and I need an activity that will allow me to stop being so entirely self-centered.  I decide to do National Novel Writing Month again.  The book starts with two people who go to a Vermont cemetery and find a dead body in a pond.  Jackie Sanderson reappears and begins to investigate the mysterious death.  He has a newly invented sidekick, a detective named Corinne.  Then, the family I had written about in my 2009 NaNoWriMo attempt reappears when I discover that the dead body was the mother of the wife.  I did end up writing a great deal about my family of characters, but I did it through the eyes of Jackie and Corinne.  A novel was born.

And that novel was hideous.  Bad.  Awful.  Drivel.  Before it could be anything that I was proud of, it had to be revised.  I went through and rewrote the entire thing over the next couple of months.  It grew from about 50,000 to around 90,000 words.  The quality grew exceedingly better.  I took a deep breath, and I let my husband and my friend Erin read it.  They didn’t think it was garbage.  In fact, they thought that I was really onto something.  They had some criticisms, which I took to heart.  I set the book aside and didn’t do another rewrite until the summer of 2011.

I tell this story to inspire the writers I know who are struggling to get started.  That really crappy chapter that you just wrote or that short story that should be used for toilet paper may just be the beginnings of something special.  Now, my first novel is not going to change anyone’s life.  However, if dreams do come true, then maybe it will be published.  A few people in the world will enjoy reading it over a weekend here and there.

The point of this journey?  That book is mine.  I accomplished one of my lifelong dreams, and no one can take it away from me.  At one of the lowest periods in my life, I did something that made me proud of myself.  I needed to be proud of myself.  Maybe my novel did change someone’s life, after all.  It changed mine.

My wish for would-be writers is that they would just start writing and stop judging their work.  I am starting on my fourth novel idea now, and I am here to tell you that first drafts are usually awful.  The sentences are clunky, and the characters are wooden.  The plot has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese.  Yet somewhere, within those rusty nuts and bolts, you will find a good story.  Let it be born.  You will have the chance to revise it before you show it to someone.

You can read an excerpt of my first novel here.  Maybe someday, it will live on your bookshelf!  The blasted thing took eight years to be born.  It went through many incarnations, and I’m still unsure about the ending.  However, it lives, such as it is.

Here’s hoping that your writing comes to life.

7 thoughts on “The Truth About How Novels Are Born

  1. David Lee says:

    What’s been inspiring has been watching you turn out so much creative material over the last year or year and a half. It’s like the floodgates have opened. Also, watching that material get better and better, tighter and more concise. For someone who dabbles around sorta kinds with a set of story ideas but hasn’t put them down on paper in years, that’s inspiring!

    I never knew about the Altar Call Heart Cutting Out Killer. Not sure whether to be impressed or horrified. 🙂

  2. Erin says:

    I agree with David–it has been inspiring to see what all you’ve written lately. You’ve always been one of the most creative people I’ve known, so it’s cool to see some that creativity get down on paper! I also really appreciate this blog. How ideas get from thought-form to coherent fiction written form has always been a mystery to me.

  3. john says:

    Ideas are one thing, but there has to be a certain amount of talent to go with them. I have loads of ideas but can’t seem to put them into words, or the right words. Dialogue is a bit of a problem (from someone who speaks very little). I’ve had an idea about a forgotten ball field where a supposedly big game was played but nobody knows where it is or even believes it exists, or that the game took place, until a young boy whose Grandfather says he played in the game stumbles upon it. Very much influenced by W. P. Kinsella. I have outlines but that’s it. Years ago I started writing two plays, one about a convenience store robbery that goes wrong, or rather, takes an odd turn, the other about two people stuck in an elevator (semi-autbiographical although I’ve never been stuck in an elevator. More of a What if…) It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with them or even looked at them. Again, dialogue, especially with plays. It’s essential. I’ve also written a children’s book that just needs to be illustrated (the one thing I can do). That I intend to finish. And of course, you know, I’ve written many, many song lyrics. Creativity takes many forms, writing, drawing, acting, music, but it all comes from the same place inside. Some is just harder to tap than others.

  4. Jennifer Hemphill says:

    Congratulations my friend! I am so proud of you. I have started about three novels myself each stopped because of a busy life. I am really looking forward to your literary creation. I definitely want it on my shelf and a signed copy by the author. Congrats again and Merry Christmas!

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