Ideas come from a huge variety of places, from ordinary life, from all around me. It may be something I’ve seen, that gets me wondering, or something I’ve read, that spins me in a new direction. Sometimes it’s just a feeling about a place. The only thing that matters about an idea is that I have to be really, really interested in it. It has to seize my imagination and heart so that I have to explore it.
All my books started differently. I got the idea for My Mother is Weird after reading stories to my kids, and discovering that there were many books about kids having bad days, but none about a kid watching a mother having a bad day. So I thought about it, and thought about it, but nothing fell into place until one day, I was in a hurry to go somewhere, and my daughter was trying to talk to me.
I turned to her in exasperation and said, “Look, Karen, this isn’t a good time, leave me alone. Can’t you see I’ve got horns and claws?”
Karen, who was six at the time, just rolled her eyes and said, “Ah, Mom, you’re weird.”
That did it! Suddenly, I could hear in my head, the voice of a little girl... My mother is so weird. Some mornings, when she wakes up, she has horns and claws... and I knew exactly what she was feeling. So even though I was in a rush, I stopped to jot down the first draft of that story.
A Screaming Kind of Day started out with the character. A conversation with someone, triggered a vibrant young girl, Scully, who leaped into my mind – real, vivid, full of energy and life. She had an intense love of nature, and she knew how to get her own way, by turning off her hearing aids when it suited her. I was fascinated by her, and she just wouldn’t let go, so I knew I had to write a book about her.
A Friend Like Zilla started with a single image in my head, when I was visiting a park with my kids. My daughters were feeding seagulls and I suddenly had an image of two girls, one about ten, the other much older, feeding seagulls together. All I knew about them was that they were great friends. My imagination was seized by the image and feeling and I wanted to know more about them. So I dug in my mind – who were they? What were they doing there? What problems did they have in their lives? Those two girls in my mind’s eye became Nobby and Zilla.
My fantasy novel The Sower of Tales, began because I procrastinate. Yes, procrastinate. One day I was putting off whatever it was I should have been doing, and as I got up to change the wash from the dryer, I thought to myself, somewhat miserably, “I am going to reap what I sow.” And just as I thought that, an image flashed into my head, of an old woman, bending over to sow seeds – and I knew, I just knew, that she was sowing the seeds to tales. A chill went through me. I was fascinated by the image, and with the idea of sowing seeds to tales. I knew I had to write about this. So, being an eternal optimist, I told myself it would be a quick little thing and then I could get on with whatever else I was then working on. I spent some time trying to figure out what the story was about, who the old woman was, and trying to develop characters, and then I wrote it down, as a fable. It was about 60 pages long. But, it didn’t quite work. Not quite. So I worked on it some more, and then some more...and fifteen drafts and several years later, I had a draft that I felt worked, and the book was around 350 pages long.
When I was little, I LOVED Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. That was my absolute all time favourite. A teacher in fourth grade started to read it in class and I was hooked. I had to go out and buy it, I had to find out what was going to happen after Anne banged the slate down on Gilbert’s head, if they would ever be friends. Then I had to read all the sequels. I have beautiful, old copies, with a hard green cover, and the books are worn with much handling and reading. I still enjoy the Anne books – I appreciate the humour in them, and the enormous love of the landscape that is woven through them. I love to re-read books, old favourites – it’s like visiting an old friend.
I also loved Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. In fact, it was Jo in Little Women who inspired me to become a writer.
It usually takes at least six months to a year, and sometimes, several years. That’s from beginning to end, right from when that first idea seizes me.
Once I get an idea I’m really interested in (or when an idea gets me), I have to brainstorm for other ideas that fit. It’s a bit like putting together a puzzle. When I have a sense of what the story is about, I play with it in my head until I know the VOICE of the main character, know what she is like and what she is feeling.
Sometimes this is a quick process, but at other times, it takes months, or longer, for all the pieces to fit together.
When I feel I have the overall shape of the story, and the voice of the main character, I write it down fast. I don’t worry about spelling or grammar or punctuation, I want to capture the heart of the story, the feelings.
After the first draft comes the real work. Now I have to look at the story over and over and over, think about it, make sure it’s the best I can make it and re-write as many times as it takes to polish the story. This includes cutting, condensing, moving things around, expanding on scenes, adding new scenes, as well as re-writing. This can often take months and months, because in order to see where it isn’t working, I have to put the story away for a while, so I can come back to it with fresh eyes.
When the story is done to my satisfaction and accepted by a publisher, there is still more writing involved as my editor will have many more ideas and suggestions on how to make the story better. The best editors point out where a story isn’t working and leave it to the author to find the solutions to correct those problems, so this too can be a lengthy process. I have been lucky enough to work with many fine editors and I very much appreciate how they have helped me to make my books stronger.
At the final stages, I tend to fiddle endlessly, a word here, a word there, just so everything is as smooth as possible, and so that I use the most precise and eloquent words to convey exactly what I want to get across. Sometimes my publisher has to get stern with me and say, “Rachna, that’s it; you can’t make any more changes.” Then they snatch it from my hot little hands and it goes off to press and I can breathe a huge sigh of relief, in-between worrying about a word here, a word there...
I don’t have a favourite. By the time I’ve finished the final endless fine-tuning of a story (see the question and response above) I’m thoroughly relieved to send it off to the printer and to forget about it, until it lands back in my life as a finished book. But by then I’m working on something else, and when I see it again in book form I just feel a distant fondness for it – it’s as though something that needed to be worked through in my head and heart has been worked through and now I can let go.
But I guess if I have a favourite, it has to be the book I’m currently working on, because I have to be deeply interested in it to want to keep writing it, and to spend so much time with the characters. Once it is done, I can let go, and let the next one take centre stage.
Write, write, write. You can dream about writing, read about it, take courses, but the only way to learn, and to develop your own style, is to write. Also, trust yourself. Don’t try and imitate other writers slavishly – because that would not be you. You can learn much about writing from reading good books, such as pacing, the arc of the story, how to build characters, etc, but the unique slant that only you can bring to writing cannot be taught. It must be developed. In other words, you can learn about the craft of writing, but you can’t learn about the art of writing – that has to come from you, and it will develop only if you write, write, write.
My other advice is to relax and enjoy the process and don’t be too hard on yourself. If you can accept that there will be many re-writes, and that you will rarely have a wonderful first draft, and that you will often look at your writing and say, it’s terrible, you will have an easier time because you won’t get too disheartened. Stinky first drafts are just part of the process, so relax and accept it and keep working at it. I don’t know many writers who don’t re-write extensively. Re-writing is how you polish your story, and if you can accept that, you’ll have an easier time, and you’ll waste less energy worrying that you can’t write, and put that energy into what matters – polishing your writing.