When I sit down to write a book, I usually have no idea what it is going to ultimately be about. I’m a character driven reader and writer, so it doesn’t matter what happens as long it tests my character to the furthest of their abilities and they have to change to succeed. I use a few cheats for this. When an idea first occurs to me I don’t sit down and write it until I know a few things about the world.
I need to know the protagonist, and what they’re trying to do at the start of the story. I need to know what’s immediately stopping them. I don’t need to know how that immediate roadblock ultimately runs into the predominate roadblock, but I trust future writer me to figure that out.
These are the parts of the story I need for my engine that will get me to the point where I (and the character) suddenly understand why the character’s life has been going so downhill so fast. Once all three parts are engaged, what happens next is limited only by my imagination.
I need to know what I’m trying to say, thematically. I’ve gone from thinking theme is the new clothes that the Emperor is/isn’t wearing to understanding that knowing what I’m trying to say on a thematic level should influence every major decision and every outcome so it’s always echoing somewhere in the story. It needs the lightest of touches or it’s going to feel like 2x4shadowing, but whatever the reader has to realize about the theme is what the character finally understands in the moment of their ultimate crisis. Knowing what that is from the start aims the entire story at that point.
And I need to know what it is about the world that is going to be different. Urban fantasy is a good place to start, but what about the setting sets the world at a slight angle from everything that’s come before.
Once I have all those pieces, whatever my character does to solve the problem at hand gives way to an adventure where the protagonist and I figure things out together. Here’s where the train metaphor becomes a harvester of early ideas. The more interesting seeds I cast, the more bountiful the eventual payoff when all these random occurances suddenly make complete sense once I use the theme to connect them in the rewrite. I never know which interesting thing that’s happening in the now of the store becomes the fulcrum of the story, but until I know for sure, it could be any of them.
I love trying to plant as many seeds as possible in the beginning of my work that can be cultivated as the story progresses. The more interesting I can make the world, the more opportunities I give awesome ideas to grow.
It’s why I think the learning has to be in the doing of the skill, and not in the end product. It’s not enough to do that a couple times and have something that doesn’t meander off tangents off cliffs. I still rewrite my drafts at least three times before I think the first draft is really finished. The first edit is practically a rewrite even if structurally, the story doesn’t change. Any great idea is followed, no matter how much work is needed to make it fit.
You learn what you practice, because it’s in the repeated doing that repeatable skills are learned.