A story starts small. Something pops into your head and waves a little ‘potential story’ flag. There’s not much to it. It’s like a seed, dry and brown, hard to tell what it might turn into. But, like a seed, it’s full of potential if you treat it the right way.
It could be anything, this seed:
Who lives in that house?
What if there were a school for witches and wizards?
If the world were perfect, what would people complain about?
Why are my glasses never where I left them?
So what do you do with one of these ideas? Me, I leave it alone. I ignore it. A good idea will keep coming back to you. And every time it comes back, it’s a little bigger, a little stronger. I’ll find myself it asking questions, what-if questions mostly, when I’m not quite sleeping and when I walk my dogs, those times when my mind’s adrift.
At last it’s clear that the idea is a goer, a potential story. It has germinated, I suppose, and it’s ready to show its potential. That’s when I start writing things down. I start with everything I know so far, no more than a few sentences. Next, I work out the story’s timescale. Even when I don’t know exactly where the idea is going, it is usually possible to me to tell what portion of the whole I have. So I draw up a plan. Say I imagine that the story will take place over the course of a year. I’ll write a sort of calendar and work out where the bit I already have fits. I ask lots of questions: what happened before this, why did it happen, what happened next, where is it leading? It doesn’t all come at once. Sometimes I have to put the plan to one side and come back to it. Sometimes I have to throw away all I’ve done and work it out a different way.
Now you’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned characters and setting yet, aren’t you? I’ll tell you why. In the past, I’ve written character sheets and planned different settings. But I find that I rarely refer to them, and, when I do, what I’ve written is completely different from what I’d planned. The characters and settings grow best for me when they emerge from my storytelling. By letting them emerge, I find I tell the reader what is necessary and interesting in the places where it is necessary and interesting.
So here I am. I have a plan, chapter by chapter, of the events that will take place in my book. I know the timescale of the story, and I know what roles the characters will play and I also have a good idea what sort of people they are, though I am trying to ignore them at the moment so that they can act as they wish once I start writing. The ending? I have an idea of the ending. I know where the story’s heading, but I’m not 100% sure it will work out the way I’m expecting.
And then I write. And for all the planning, the story seems to grow by itself. Bits appear that weren’t in the plan. Of course they do, because the plan was only a couple of sentences per chapter. Minor characters turn out to be much more important and interesting than I thought. I find myself writing about things that interest me but that I never realised would fit into this book until I started writing. The story swells, fed by all the things I am, the things I’ve experienced and what I’m interested in. Sometimes it dredges things I’ve forgotten from my memory. Sometimes it makes me realise I care about things I hadn’t noticed were important to me. It takes on a life of its own.