“What if…” That’s the question that’s the gleam in the eye of a writer when they begin writing a novel.
“What if renowned atheist Richard Dawkins lived next door to my mother?”
That was the question that popped into my mind as I read Lee Strobel’s book The Case for a Creator back in the summer of 2009. I wrote a page and a half of what I thought would be a short story… and left it.
Ideas kept coming, however.
- What if the atheist professor had a shameful secret in his past?
- What kind of influence does one solitary, loving, consistent Christian have in this world?
- What is the value of human life, especially when that life has some disability?
Other story threads began to weave themselves into a plot that expanded beyond short story length:
- a teacher in a crisis pregnancy
- a character patterned after my own son with Down Syndrome (what actually does go on in the minds of people with mental disabilities?)
- unique and colourful neighbourhood characters who are impacted by a simple woman who lives biblically.
I’d wanted to write a book since 1971 when I optimistically numbered a stack of pages 1 – 100. (I filled seven of those pages. Years later as I was reading a pioneer story to our kids, I was horrified to recognize what I had written as a child sounded an awful lot like that book I read to them!)
Now here it was in my mind — a novel! All I had to do was write it down. How hard could it be? I’d read books that left me thinking, “I could do better than that.” On my way to publishing this book, I learned a few things.
- Novels are much harder to write than you think. Pacing (the order and timing at which things happen in the novel) is really difficult to get right. Consistency is another critical thing — you can’t, as one astute reader of an early version of my manuscript noticed, have a character buying salt ‘n vinegar chips only to crunch down on nachos a paragraph later.
- The book you read in a couple of days, the writer has sweated over for years, composing, revising, dreaming about, rearranging, proofreading, editing..
- A novel is an invitation to join the writer in a journey to an imaginary world. The author knows and has lived with these characters intimately for a long time before introducing them to you via a book.
- When writers talk about their characters not behaving as they’re supposed to, or the plot taking turns unplanned by the author, it’s not just an affectation. It really happens. Weird. My main character misbehaved early on. I found it almost impossible for me to write for a long period of time directly from the perspective of a super-antagonistic atheist. So I redirected that system of thought to a lesser character and made my main character more of a searcher-of-ideas.
- Truth is stranger than fiction. Real life people are so interesting and many-faceted that no author could make them up. The fiction disclaimer you see in the front of novels (“This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.”) is quite true. But it’s also true that the characters in the novel are composites of real people — a sort of cobbling together of many life experiences and stories all bound together by the plot in the author’s imagination.
- Those typos and little inconsistencies you notice as you read? They’re nothing compared to the mess it started out as. Everyone needs an editor!
- Best places to write? At the public swimming pool while waiting for my son. In the guest room I shared with my youngest son at my daughter’s house, after a day spent with my twin granddaughters. In both those cases, I was away from home, without its demands or responsibilities. And the “white noise” of water or snoring seemed to help block out distractions.
- A patient, encouraging husband is a wonderful thing. He was the one who heard my wails of despair when the word count seemed too small, and cries of joy when it grew by leaps and bounds. And I’ve lost count of the many times he heard me say, “It’s finally done,” only to hear my pen scratching away in the night when a new idea struck me.
Well, it really is done now. Once the cover art is complete, my novel, Lifelines, will be on its way to typesetting and publication. It should be coming out in the new year. I plan to add contact information to my blog, but if you’re interested in reading the book, leave a comment with your email address and I can let you know when it’s ready to order.