In a former life I was a clinical psychologist. To this day I’m fascinated with the psychology of the writing process. I know that one process doesn’t fit all, but I do know that it’s important to examine and honor what method works best for you.
Here is mine.
1. I START WITH A GOOD IDEA.
For me, the Good Idea is the impetus, the push, the motor, that gets me going.
I haven’t always known that getting the Good Idea was vital. Vital for my own work, in any case. Perhaps I didn’t realize its importance because the so-called good idea often arrives as a mere wisp of a phrase, creating a ping in my heart, or as Robert Frost said, when describing his own good ideas, “a lump in your throat.” And if I try to describe the Good Idea too early, I often can’t explain why it is good. I am usually the only one who understands its goodness possibilities.
I know that other authors have experienced this process.
Consider the following.
A middle grade author kept a journal in which he scribbled phrases and doodled designs. Squeezed among the phrases and doodles was the following phrase: “an eccentric man runs a candy factory.”
Another middle grade author (or not quite; her middle grade novels hadn’t been published yet) was on a train when the vision of a school for young wizards popped into her mind
A weird candy factory and a school for wizards are not necessarily inspiring ideas, or even unique, for that matter. I’m not really certain whether J.K.Rowling was on a train or using another form of transportation. But I’m positive her heart pinged when she got that idea, as did Roald Dahl’s, thinking about candy. Wizard schools and candy factories were good ideas.
I would bet money that many, if not most middle grade novels began that way, as a vague phrase exciting to one person only- the author of the still unwritten story. I often revisit books to try and distill their creators’ good ideas.
You probably know the story outcome of these vague phrases:
two kids hiding inside a museum.
an unhappy gorilla in a cage in a shopping mall
a boy and a girl enjoying an imaginary kingdom among the trees
a girl who is seeking messages in spider webs
O.K., that last one is mine, the impetus for my latest novel FLEABRAIN LOVES FRANNY.
Arriving at a good idea is easier said than done, of course.
Sometimes my good idea arrives as a gift as I wake up in the morning. ‘Cats Have Nine Lives’ was the trite phrase, yet the golden nugget that inspired my novel THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK.
But when my idea store is empty, then I must fill it. The best way to do that is to do what Roald Dahl did: brainstorm. Write down a bunch of ideas, even Very Bad Ones. Doodle. Write. Play the What If game. Write. Anything.
After a while, a surprising phrase usually appears, along with that lump in my throat.
2. I EMBRACE THE CHAOS.
I do not outline at the next step in the process. There is really nothing to outline. All I have is my Good Idea. And I know that this next phase is a series of false starts, new beginnings, cross-outs, scribbles—a big, chaotic mess. But knowing that this will be the case, in other words, honoring my process, has made it all a bit less scary.
I am answering a lot of questions at this point. Who is the girl seeking messages in spider webs? Answer: A friendless girl with polio who wants her own Charlotte, because she so loves the recently published book CHARLOTTE’S WEB.
And will I be writing in first or third person? Whose point of view? Where is the story to be set? Are the desires and conflicts those of a middle grade reader? What is ‘the day that is different’ that will get my story rolling? What prevents my character from getting her heart’s desire? Do I have any idea of the ending?
I usually have to just keep writing, playing around with my story, until I come up with the answers to these questions, and then I may even change my mind. I sigh. I pull my hair. I perspire. I think of the martini at the end of the day. But I continue. This phase is a big mess. But because I have read so many, many novels, and so many, many middle grades, I do have the feeling of story in my bones. I know that the basics of my story will follow the basic rhythm of URGE, BARRIER, STRUGGLE, RESOLUTION, four words I once learned from an essay by the brilliant Katherine Paterson. I just keep forging ahead, very open to surprises, rarely going back, until I come to some sort of ending.
Then it’s time to look at what I’ve got.
3. I LOOK AT WHAT I’VE GOT.
I guess you could call this stage of my process the Outline Stage, because I do have all those written words that enable me to create one. I read my story, such as it is, and try to see what I’m trying to say, to tease up the plot, discover some themes. I begin to think about plot in a more definite, concrete way. I don’t like to think too much about plot in Stage 2, preferring to concentrate more on character and feeling and voice. But in Stage 3 I apply various dry formulas of plotting to my story to see what works. I storyboard with index cards and shuffle things around, often sitting on the floor to do this.
Are there holes and gaps among the scenes? Does my story conflict increase steadily in tension to a crisis? Where does the character discover what she needs to learn? How does the ending illustrate this? The process is still messy, but it’s a mess I understand.
4. I START OVER.
This is not as dire as it sounds. Bear in mind that I LOVE this step, because I now know what I have to do next. Revise! And perhaps start over and revise again. And again. The joyous part of my process, for me, is revision. My pages may look chaotic but my mind is clear. I am in control. I know the story I want to tell.
Good ideas are hard to come up with. It’s not easy to embrace and slog through the chaos to reach the more enjoyable stage of revision. Yet studies have shown that it’s true grit and perseverance as much as intelligence and talent that help accomplish challenging projects.
And we middle grade novelists are certainly brave and gritty, right?
Joanne Rocklin is the author of many award-winning middle grade novels. Her website is www.joannerocklin.com. This is her first and only post with From the Mixed-Up Files.
I’m always inspired to hear about your process. I heard you speak in the fall and was inspired by your candor and warmth.
Hilary, thanks for writing. I’m so glad you were inspired! Happy writing!
Joanne, I enjoyed this piece. I just journeyed all the way through these four steps for the first time, and you’ve described them so well.
I like to compare Embracing the Chaos to the first two weeks of a college term at a big state university. The classes I thought I wanted would be full, so I’d attend them (hoping to weasel my way in) and also attend their potential replacements (so I wouldn’t be behind if I had to stay enrolled in them). It was terrifying the first term freshman year, juggling all those potential thought paths (and their accompanying assignments!) — but soon I learned that my schedule always worked out, and usually by the time those first two weeks were up. In the semesters to come, I could embrace the chaos without being afraid that I would be permanently buried under assignments or that my college career would be ruined.
Now, many years later, I am learning the same thing about writing. Learning to trust that I will get through the chaos without ruining anything, except perhaps a ream or two of paper that will end up in the recycling bin.
Mary, what a great analogy! Thank you. In other words, have some “faith” in whatever way you define it, that it will all work out in the end!
Mary, I’m not sure you got my response to your comment…thanks for writing with such an insightful analogy! Happy writing!
Hi, Kristin. “Exploring” is an excellent way of describing it!
Yes, #2 was especially good to see. It’s where I get stuck or lost sometimes, but I need to go through it – I can’t jump straight to outlining without this exploration.
Great post! Yes, you definitely need a good idea. I love Embracing the Chaos. And, I like the ‘day that is different that will get your story rolling.’ I had forgotten about that. My stories usually start out being bare bones and then I go back and add the meat of the story. I love editing.
Hi, Janet. I think everyone goes through this chaotic phase at some point–irrationally thinking they are the only one!
It’s so hard to know if what you think is a good idea will appeal to an agent, an editor, and a child. When you wrote Fleabrain, you needed to do a lot of research about polio and the time period and Pittsburgh. Did you already have some kind of commitment from an editor or agent before doing indepth research?
Thanks for sharing your process, Joanne.
Hi, Mary. Yes, I did have a commitment from my publisher. They were a bit wary about the polio context, but loved the flea idea! But I still had to write the entire book before I got their total approval. But– what I mean by a Good Idea is that it’s a good one TO YOU–so that you have the energy and inspiration to forge ahead, whether you have a contract or not. There’s never a guarantee that your own good idea will be loved by someone else. It’s only you and your work, alone in a room, which is what this writing life is about.
Vicky, thanks so much for your comment! I find that for every new book I write, it’s as if I’ve never done it before, and I have to remind myself about Stage 2!
Thank you for this. I’m slowly wading into a new middle grade novel (my third), but I’m feeling stuck. Your process affirmed me (it’s a lot like mine) and inspired me to push on.