I’m always taken aback when a non-writer is impressed by the act of writing a novel.
In last week’s post, I wrote about my passion for writing and how, in reality, my devotion to it presents as rather obsessive and possibly a little pathetic.
In that vein, I always imagine that my friends and family are just humouring me when I tell them about my writing life—the more polite equivalent to a pat on the head and a dismissive “that’s nice dear, whatever makes you happy”.
Which is why I tend to keep talk of my writing to a minimum among non-writers, even when they explicitly ask me about it. For writing is a marathon of very long intervals between notable milestones, and I’m a ways off yet from making anyone but me proud of my progress.
(In truth, I tend to keep talk about my writing to a minimum period. One of the reasons I’m a writer at all is due to a general discomfort with speaking, especially about myself.)
But this past week I was out to dinner with a long-time friend and her partner. The two of them just bought a house in the suburbs and have been hard at work on a number of home renovations. My friend’s partner especially has been performing some fairly specialized work on the house.
“He has been doing work on the ducts in the kitchen,” my friend said, which impressed me since her partner doesn’t have a professional background in this sort of thing. I was curious how he learned and so I asked him.
“You just know,” he replied, in all seriousness.
I looked at my friend and then back at him. I’d expected him to speak about courses or workshops he’d taken, or hands-on experience helping out experts in his youth.
“What do you mean ‘you just know’?” I asked. “That sounds like really complicated work. I certainly don’t ‘just know’ how to repair ducts.”
“I don’t ‘just know’ how to repair ducts,” my friend echoed.
“I don’t know,” he said, seemingly unsure of how to explain himself. “How do you write a book? I don’t know how to do that.”
This drew me up short—a question about my writing from a non-writer. My immediate answer was purely on instinct to deflect the focus away from myself.
“To write a book, you start with a character and then ask yourself what they want and what is standing in their way from getting it.”
To that, he just shook his head. “That sounds hard.”
How-to’s and how-you-do’s
He was right—writing a book is hard to someone who doesn’t know how. Hell, it’s hard for those who do know how—hard to do; hard, even, to explain.
A case in point for this latter being that what I told him isn’t really how I start a book at all.
Rather, I’d just parroted something I’d read because conventional wisdom says that’s how you’re supposed to do it. Yet during my long drive home from the suburbs, I gave my writing process some deeper thought.
I discovered that I actually start a novel with the setting, not the character.
This may be a result of the fact that I write historical fiction, where the location of the story, geographically, chronologically, and politically—that is to say, where, when, and amidst what context it takes place—dictates the research that will fuel the story.
I also started with the setting when I wrote fantasy. My first (incomplete, shelved) fantasy novel was set in a world where everyone was called by the translated meaning of their name (i.e. “Janna” means “God is gracious”). This concept came about after a friend and I spent an afternoon looking up the meaning of all our other friends’ names in a baby names book.
Historical and speculative fiction are similar in their use of, if not a wholly secondary world, then a secondary society that’s vastly different than the here and now. But even if I were to write a contemporary story, I feel I would still use this same method.
I’m always endlessly fascinated by how different aspects of place shape people’s lives and the things they consider problems, problems—and a character’s attempts to solve them—being the essence of any story’s plot.
I can’t start a story until I can clearly describe the setting in my head—the weather, the vegetation, the shape of the buildings and what they’re made from. Anything less just feels like a room with blank white walls, inhabited by equally vacant characters.
With some prodding, my friend’s partner did eventually acknowledge that he’s watched a lot of home improvement shows and YouTube videos, and also spent time talking to people who work at hardware stores.
An informal education, in other words, the way most writers are informally trained.
Most writers learn by doing, and through cobbling together their own writing craft curriculum from the boundless availability of how-to guidebooks, workshops, and online writing tips.
The true answer to “How do you write a book?”, I think, comes in learning how you yourself do it. In how to solidify your own process, and to be accepting of it regardless of how it might differ from conventional wisdom or how you otherwise think you should be doing it.
Because there are countless ways to write a book, both today and later down the road as one progresses in their writing career. Nothing is set in stone and no two writers are exactly the same.
So long as your current process is getting the job done, maybe you really can “just know”.
How do you write a book?