"How do you write a story like Gryphon's Heir? Did you know the entire story beforehand? How do you plan it out?" I've been hearing those questions a lot lately, and I don't presume to be an expert --- after all, this is my first novel, although I've been writing prose for most of my life (and we can talk about that sometime, too!). People who know me are aware that my nature may tend towards the organized (well, that's the charitable way of saying it), so it might come as a surprise to hear that writing, for me, is often a surprisingly unstructured experience. I said last week that I know how the story is to end, but I don't know exactly how we're going to get there, and I recall reading something Stephen King said when he was asked how he writes his novels. "One word at a time," was his laconic answer, and while I'm not comparing myself with such an immensely successful author, I understood his response.
I began Gryphon's Heir with imagining a single incident --- a desperate man going through a mysteriously materialized door that shouldn't exist to an entirely unknown reality on the other side. That's all. (Why that came to me can be the subject of yet another talk later on!) That particular incident is now buried about 17 pages in the narrative. (Why? Because, as the story became more and more fleshed out, there obviously had to be more of an introduction. But that's a good lesson for students of writing: start where you are prompted to start. It may not be at what will eventually be the beginning. That's okay.) From there, that incident sparked all kinds of questions that needed answering: who was this man? Why did the door appear to him? Where and to what would it take him? And so on. And after a while, it began to flow as a narrative. Before I knew what was happening, I had a 14,000 word fragment (which may sound like a lot, but isn't, really).
For me, writing is often a great deal like what we all go through each day in real life (but far more interesting than the fairly mundane lives most of us tend to lead). We're faced with interactions with all manner of people, and we have to respond to them with both words and actions. Our responses generate actions and words from those other people, and thus we live our daily lives. That's often how it works in my writing: if Character A takes his sword and lops off a man's head in the middle of a marketplace, how is Character B going to respond to that? And what will Character B say? ("I say, old man, talk about losing one's head.") Sometimes it's no more complicated than that. If you know your characters' inner voices --- which will all be different, because we are all different --- then it really isn't too difficult.
That's not to say I don't plan things out. I have a notebook or six, and will frequently plan out a chain of events that could be anywhere from one to four chapters long. That sometimes produces a curious feeling of relief within me, because I know where things are supposed to be going for a while. Then the writing becomes, as C.S. Lewis once said, like "taking dictation."
But --- and this is one of the coolest parts of writing --- characters are real people for me. Rhiss and Arian and Lowri and Parthalas (and even Maldeus, unfortunately) --- they're more real to me than some actual people I know. And because they're real people, they sometimes act unpredictably. Yes, they do. And every once in a while, they'll take a situation I give them and say, in effect, "Nope. I'm not acting the way you dictate. I'm going to do this instead!" And I'm left sitting there slack-jawed, watching them ride off in a cloud of dust, wondering what the hell just happened. It's wonderful and mystifying and very, very gratifying --- and not quite as weird as it probably sounds.