A book has to have a premise*. There has to be a generalized, streamlined description of what the book is about in the writer’s own mind before they can really start writing with intent. This means that whatever wonderful nebulous idea you have at the start will be made concrete, and almost always disappointing compared to the feeling you had about it, when it was nascent and full of potential. This is normal.
*There will almost certainly be exceptions to every ‘rule’ I cite throughout this long and winding trip to the end of November. Let this be the one time I have to acknowledge this. We will be speaking largely in generalities about the novel writing process, or more accurately, my novel writing process. There are nine and sixty ways of doing anything, but pointing that out is not an argument, isn’t interesting.
Not only is this normal, but with every word you write, you are creating more and more limitations on your story, your world, your novel. For a commercial piece of fiction that is intended to have an internal logic, this means every choice you make narrows the field of subsequent choices in front of you. The trick is to work from a premise that offers enough choice to make these limitations interesting.
A premise is different from an idea. A precise explanation of premise that has helped to focus my own thinking is found in Larry Brooks’ http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-books/story-engineering. He also describes the difference between an idea, a concept and a premise here: http://storyfix.com/it%E2%80%99s-free-tip-sunday.
I use some of these basic ideas when constructing the initial premise for my novels. I usually iterate, and end up with a log line, but that takes time, and I don’t have that today. For all these steps, I use my dry erase board. First, I list my ideas:
If you cannot read my handwriting, that says “devil worshippers”, “cult”, “one man against.” You’d be forgiven if you assumed it doesn’t look like much. At this point, it isn’t. The next step takes these meager ingredients, and pulls their flavors out. Cooks them.
I do this by thinking about what the terms actually mean, apart from my initial reactions to them, and how they would work in a story. What does it mean to be a devil worshipper? Will this cult be my heroes, or villains? I turn the ideas around in my head, until I can form questions about them.
Usually I find multiple questions, that evolve until they become something moderately interesting. Here, after 30 minutes of stomping around my house and looking at my cats, is the question that occurred to me for this book:
What if one man were the perfect sacrifice for multiple cults?
Sounds like a decently crappy premise for a highly misguided Marx Brothers movie. This question says hijinks, not horrors. It should be erased from the board, and forgotten forever.
Except there’s something in it I like. Now, I could go on with this question (which, in Brooks’ terms, would be a “concept”) and completely change the kind of book I’m writing. Maybe a satire, where some guy is selling his sacrificeable qualities on eBay to the highest bidding cultist, but some do-gooders buy him and hold onto him to keep him from ending the world in blood and terror at all. Kill joys.
Somebody could, maybe, find something amusing in that premise. It seems kind of boring to me, so I want to modify my concept until it is more suitably horrific. Less overtly fun. But I like the idea of the perfect sacrifice. Maybe somebody bred to be killed, but who is rescued or escapes. That could be backstory, and my novel takes place 20 years later. So I take this part of a premise, and plug it into something more. I add a character to a concept:
Hero Everyman, raised to be the perfect sacrifice, must go back to the cult he escaped to find a twin sister he never knew he had.
This sentence contains enough catalysts to create something that could crystallize into an actual, factual novel. There’s a character, with a backstory which would create an attitude, and a conflict with a goal. From these little seeds, all the aspects of a novel can grow. There are innumerable questions left to answer: why in the world would he care about finding some twin sister he never knew? Why wasn’t she just as perfect a sacrifice as he, and how did this cult survive this long, if they were a kid-killing crew? Answering these questions, you create your story.
It so happens I don’t find those questions, or this premise, particularly interesting. But they are the first major step in the premise I will eventually use…
Which isn’t done yet.
579 words, two pages, in which I introduce my main characters, and give them names that will almost certainly not survive to the end of the first draft. I’m flying semi-blind, without even a complete premise, with the barest of backstory. Which is why I could only do two pages, and those are probably going to be massively rewritten.
This first week will probably be the slowest, as I create the barebones outline that will serve as my blueprint, and determine the form I will use. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the first stages of the outlining process as I go through it, and how many different paradigms exist… which might all be pointing to the same thing.
Today’s Writing Soundtrack: Lord of Illusions soundtrack. (***NERD***)