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A Story is Born

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I was telling some writer friends that I was starting a new project when someone asked about my “starting process.” It made me chuckle. I don’t know that I have a starting process. But, of course, it got me thinking about beginnings, about the chaos out of which a story is born. 

The thing is that there is no defined “starting point”. But there is a process by which a random thought in my head becomes a book. It’s just that this process is hardly ever linear and often overlaps with other projects. 

For instance, I rarely have a new idea only after finishing the project I’ve been working on. I usually get the new idea at an inconvenient mid-point of the project I’m currently on. You know, when I’m stuck with this hairy scene, and I don’t know what to do with it, and I think maybe this whole writer gig’s up. That’s usually when a new idea (or five) pops into my head. I’ve learned the hard way that this is my resistance to the current project trying to distract me. I note the idea down and keep it for later. 

When plotting or thinking about a longer project (i.e., a book), I’ll usually jot down various scenes, thoughts and character traits on index cards and stick them on my corkboard. I keep the index cards on the board for the duration of the “writing phase”. The writing phase begins when I say, “This plotting thing is ridiculous. I need to start writing”, and lasts until I have a story I’m reasonably satisfied with, which I can let trusted others read. 

When I’ve finished a project (i.e., the story is all present and accounted for, and I’ve sent it to others to look at), I remove the index cards from the corkboard. This step usually comes with a few days of tidying up and feeling like I’m a baby needing care. I’m not entirely sure why. These are days when I bake, watch TV, play stupid random video games and generally appear to the outside world as a lazy bum. 

I may go through my list. You remember: the one that contains all the ideas that tried to distract me from finishing the previous book. I’m usually not ready to start another big project (i.e., a book) at this stage. I’ll write short stories or blog posts to keep my “writing mode” going. I’m not willing to commit to a book just yet, but there’s always an idea that sticks. The one I keep thinking about while I meditate, cook, and listen to a friend telling me a story (sorry). That’s the one I’ll usually end up choosing for the next project. 

It’s important to note the development phase, which happens at various stages when I need a break from other stuff. Usually, my ideas are somewhat random (“What if humans evolved from monkeys instead of apes?” or “What if the little mermaid wanted legs to get ahead rather than to get a man?”). These are not fleshed out. They’re usually just a starting point. If an idea gets me thinking, I’ll start developing characters and hash out the premise. So when I get to the “let’s look at this idea now” point, I have some characters and a premise in mind, and I’ve done some basic research to see if this makes sense.

Then, I read. I read all sorts of things that are tangentially related to the project. For instance, for Heritage, I read several books in Hebrew and English about the conflict and the legal status of houses in Jaffa. I also read some fiction about mixed relationships and the Israeli-Arab experiences. I keep reading relevant books throughout the writing phase, too. For example, I found The Lemon Tree when I was well into writing Heritage, but it helped my confidence that the story I’m telling is plausible and probably informed some of the developments. I also read things that are entirely unrelated because I love reading, and these books sometimes give me new ideas or help shape the project that is being born. 

When I have an initial idea, I don’t know if it’s a book, a short story, or perhaps a film (I never had one, but you never know). Sometimes, I know exactly what I want the story to be. Sometimes, it takes months. I get to stop, restart, scrap the first third of the manuscript, and start again. By the time I get to the “first draft” (that reasonable story I’m willing to let trusted others see), I’ve been through a dozen rewrites and three existential crises. 

I’ve written before about how productivity doesn’t mesh with art. This observation applies particularly to the beginning phase. I don’t know how long it’ll take, so I can’t schedule or plan. And that’s a difficult way to be in a society that judges us by our output (how many words we wrote, how many copies we sold). No wonder my writer friend is looking for a neat process with a beginning, middle and end. But even though stories are neat, life is messy. And writing stories about life is even messier. It takes however long it takes, as my grandmother said about baking biscuits. You pull them out of the oven when they’re ready.  

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