Everyone has a different approach to writing. Some of my friends are unabashed “pantsers” (flying by the seats of their pants as they write), while others are plotters. I’m somewhere in between. I like to plot to a certain point, then fly by the seat of my pants, trusting in the process.
What about you?
Last year, I reached the stage that so many authors dream of: signing a three-book deal with a major publisher. In my case, it’s a children’s middlegrade book series called Zoone, which will start coming out with HarperCollins in 2019.
It’s really exciting, but it’s forced me to confront a schedule I’m not used to, essentially having to deliver three books in three years.
Book 1, no problem! It was mostly done anyway. But I took a decidedly different approach to Books 2 and 3.
I’ve written sequels before (four of them, in fact, for my Kendra Kandlestar series) and I find myself facing the same situation: the world is created, the main characters established, and now it’s time to make something that equals—and hopefully surpasses—everything I achieved in Book 1.
A New Approach
The differences with this series is that 1) it just doesn’t involve one made-up world and 2) it doesn’t have one major plot arc stretching over all three books. (An emotional arc, yes, but not a plot one).
This time, I’ve created a multiverse filled with many different worlds. I don’t cover them all in the series, but there are dozens that are mentioned, which has prompted me to become an expert record-keepering, building a “bible” of kingdoms, empires, and lands. This bible lists all the important details of each world: flora, fauna, official symbols and colors, type of money, and of course any specific mentions in any of the books.
In a way, world-building is the easy part for me. Or at least the super-fun part. Plot is always a bit more challenging. This time, I decided to tease the plots out of my world-building.
Inspiration from everywhere
Even before I had a contract, I knew I wanted to do more than one book with these characters and worlds. So, for the past few years, I’ve been collecting lots of inspiration, especially from my travels. At the time, I didn’t worry about where exactly anything would fit; I just focused on recording the things that inspired me.
I took a lot of photos, of course, but more important to my process are the ideas recorded in my various notebooks. I usually like to have one notebook per project, but in the past couple years, I’ve been filling those up and now am in the multiple notebooks stage for this one project.
Hunting for inspiration
Some places I went to intentionally to seek out specific inspiration. For example, Hạ Long Bay in Vietnam was a place I knew that would serve as a model for one of the worlds I wanted to build.
Of course, in today’s world of connectivity, you can browse photos and videos of virtually any place on the planet. But there are some ideas that you can simply only stumble upon by being in a place.
That’s exactly what happened at Hạ Long Bay for me. I knew the limestone cliffs would inspire me, but I hadn’t considered the interractions with the people. To be honest, I didn’t even think there were people (other than tourists) at Hạ Long Bay.
But it was on the second day of our tour when I wandered onto the deck of our boat at the crack of dawn to hear this almost-woeful call: “Something to buy? Something to buy?”
I gazed over the railing and there, appearing out of the mist, was a young girl on a boat full of snacks and sodas.
She was, as I later learned, a Vietnamese boat child. These children live with their families on their junks and traditionally eke out a living by fishing, but now they’ve adapted to the hordes of tourists and add to their income by selling stuff. We were told that many of the children live out their entire lives on the boats. It’s only recently that the government has been making some changes to try and ensure these kids get some formal education.
That whole situation sent a spark flying through my imagination. I remember sitting with my wife afterwards and stopping halfway through a sentence to stare blankly into space (I do that a lot). When she asked what was going on, I replied with one of those countless “What-if” questions that every author asks his or her partner about a plot.
After I asked my question (which, of course, I can’t reveal) I immediately rejected the idea. I knew it would cause A LOT of problems overall to the series. In particular, it would flip something already established in Book 1 completely on its head. As soon as I realized THAT, I knew it was completely the right call to make for the series. Yes, it’s a problem for me to write, it’s a problem for the characters to deal with. So now I’ve got to go that way—it will make the rest story. That initial spark of inspiration has become a lightning bolt. And it would have never have happened if I hadn’t actually gone to Hạ Long Bay.
Inspiration accidentally discovered
There are times when I’m not seeking for inspiration AT ALL. When we went to Hawaii a couple of years ago, it was to seek true R&R, to take a break from our creative but consuming careers, and to switch off.
Thankfully I was clever enough to pack my brainstorming journals. Inspiration walloped me from every direction on that trip, not only in terms of the diverse landscape of the big island of Hawaii, but in terms of the wonderful wildlife.
Time to deliver
So, now I’m in this fun (harrowing?) stage of combing through everything, trying to find some thread of a storyline from this tapestry of setting sketches, character and creature doodles, and ramblings scribbled across all these different notebooks.
There’s not only drawings and words made while in Hawaii and Vietnam, but also Korea, Cambodia, Ireland, and England. I am now seeing a theme in my notebooks: I rarely wrote facts down about each of the places we visited. I was already creating new worlds in my sketches and notes. Those experiences went through my filter and instantly became alternate realities.
It’s still the roughest of brainstorming, but at least there is a lot of fuel for me to dwell upon and to—hopefully—turn into something concrete.
Well, there you have it. Time to do some plotting—and some pantsing.