The idea for this post came to me while I was in a Valerian root/chamomile tea-induced slumber, and I was half-awake. I wrote the entirety of it in my Idea & Inspiration notebook while snuggling and nursing my toddler, so this could either be totally brilliant or absolutely ridiculous. [Let’s just go with brilliant, though.]
It’s only when I sit and think about the process by which a story is born that I realize it’s not unlike a baby. And, yes, authors do consider their books to be their babies. Even if they have human babies of their own. This is that process.
[Please note that this is my process. Not every author follows these steps.]
Before you ever start writing or planning, you have an idea. It’s shiny and beautiful and perfect. Best of all, it’s untarnished by the imperfections that come from being born. It’s the honeymoon stage of a story’s—and baby’s—life, before you’re elbow-deep in dirty diapers and first drafts. But the seed of inspiration
(and we’re going to breeze right on by these parallels) has taken root, and the idea—like a fetus—will germinate and grow, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly.
And grow it does. The more you think about your idea, the more it takes shape. Now you can recognize features like theme, characters, backstory, conflict, setting, and plot, just as you’d see arms and legs and ears on a sonogram. If you’re really lucky, you’ll notice the small details—your scenes—and you’ll delight over them, just like new parent delights over seeing their baby’s fingers and toes. You’re still pretty naïve at this point, even if you have other books or children. It’s simply the creative nature of things.
Your idea continues to grow and morph into a definitive state—a drabble, short story, novel, or series—and the creative energies explode. Suddenly, you’re realizing you have something viable. The idea starts to fill you, spreading to all the parts of your body and mind, stretching you in ways you didn’t know you could stretch. This continues for some time—it’s not always a concrete measure of time, unlike a pregnancy—until you feel your idea kicking to get out on the page. At this point, you might find yourself writing down some details you think are particularly great, and the idea continues to grow.
That is, until one day you find yourself so consumed by this thing, which has, by now, turned into its own entity, that it can no longer stay inside of you. It’s bursting to come out, to come alive on the page. And one day, that pressure will build so much that you can’t not sit down and write it, just as you can’t help but go into labor. The thing with labor—and writing a story—is that some people have short labors lasting only an hour or two and some people have long labors lasting a day or two, just as some writers birth their story in a month or two and some writers take a year or more. [Actually, the great Stephen King recommends you finish your first draft within three months.] It’s all a process, and every book, just like every child, is different.
And, here’s the sad part of the baby-book analogy, not all ideas are born into stories. Some aren’t viable, and some are abandoned. Some have happier trajectories and are adopted out to other writers who may, or may not, be able to come up with their own ideas.
Have you ever heard about someone who was convinced they were having a girl (or boy), and on delivery day—oops, not what they were expecting? They might have put in all this effort for a child who was one particular gender (hey, boys can have pink, and girls can have blue), but now they’re derailed and feel like they need to start all over. Some stories, just like babies, are misinterpreted in the beginning. You might think you have a short story on your hands, but when you get down into it find out that it’s really a novel. Or vice versa. Which, if you think about it, makes a great case for gender-neutral baby stuff and not getting too caught up in one way of thinking about writing.
All of a sudden, though, almost magically—and by “magic,” I, of course, mean putting in a lot of work and tears—your story is birthed in the form of a first draft where anything is possible. You’ll reread that first draft like you would stare in your newborn’s eyes. It sounds great at first, but then you start to notice little details—the stilted dialogue, flat characters, lack of conflict—and it’s kind of like noticing how squashed your baby’s face is or how cone-shaped their head is. And it’s nothing like the perfect pictures of babies you see in the movies or in pictures, just like your draft isn’t like the published books you see on the bookshelf. But it’s your story, your baby, and you love it anyway. (Especially if you wait at least six weeks before reading your first draft.)
You take the next few drafts to nurture your story and, hopefully, refine it through its tantrums—in the form of characters not bending to your will—and backtalk—in the form of words just not coming out as intended and not-quite-right ideas. After some time, though, and it’s often far longer than the time it took to grow and birth it, your story will find its voice, find its essence, and be ready to strike out on its own in the
vicious world of publication. And just like a parent dropping off their kid at daycare or school for the first time, you’ll want to cry, but you know it’s their time for them to get a little independence.
Maybe in that time you’ll find a few trusted readers, called beta readers, to run your story by them, kind of like a trial run and quite like a play date with toddlers. Your story might be wobbly, just as a toddler teeters before landing on their bum, only to get up and try it all over again, but with some gentle reassurance (and some ruthlessness), your story will become stronger and more ready than ever to explore the world.
One day, when you’re least expecting it, or maybe this time you’ve planned it, another idea will come in your mind, and you’ll nurture it, just like someone nurtures the idea of growing their family by having another child while experiencing baby fever. It seems as though authors and parents alike seem to forget just what it’s like to bring another something in the world and help it grow. (But that’s okay because it’s worth it to start all over again.)
And that’s it! Have your experiences writing and publishing been similar to this process? If you’re a parent, what parallels have you drawn between child-rearing and story writing?