This post was written for Melisse Aires' writing process series at melisseaires.blogspot.com
The Question Is the Answer:
How I Approach the Writing Process
Eva Caye, author of the To Be Sinclair series
For 30 years I have searched for philosophical, spiritual, psychological, and practical answers to all the questions that have plagued me about life, and my personal library contains everything from Plato’s Dialogues to NLP. I only truly began writing when I felt I could contribute something to humanity. The purpose of a book is to communicate, so I frequently insert my little life-lessons throughout, such as having my lovely ‘tough’ character Rosita tell a flighty socialite, “What matters is planning to matter.”
Crafting a book is such a huge endeavor, my personal belief is that it should answer a specific question. After all, you cannot simply write the book, expect to send it to a publisher, and go on your merry way. I feel the current estimate that “1/10 of being a successful author is the actual writing” is a generous estimate. If you are going to invest your time in producing a product you want to be associated with for the rest of your life, knowing you will spend untold hours advertising, marketing, interviewing, attending conferences, responding to fan mail, and gathering ideas to fuel further books, then you should pick ideas you think will make a difference. In order to sustain such a life-long dedication to your literary output, you must pick a question that matters greatly to you, and you must use your novel as the answer.
Trust me, don’t feel like these introductory paragraphs mean I insist you get metaphysical and produce strictly philosophical literary works! I do not read vampire or zombie stories for a number of reasons, but I recognize their true value, namely, there are ‘bloodsucking’ creatures out there who take advantage of all of us (ever hear the term ‘fraudsters’ before?), and a huge number of people we deal with in everyday life who might as well be considered ‘undead’ (ever hear the term ‘sheeple’ before?). These are powerful metaphors, and readers look for books which might offer them solutions, no matter how subtle, in how to deal with such unnerving so-called ‘human beings’ in their everyday lives!
Here are the questions I have used so far to produce my series:
What two people could have the strength of love, power, and will to produce the greatest and most benevolent ruling family the galaxy might ever know?
How could a person develop a science fundamental to human galactic expansion that might be too dangerous to teach, demonstrate, or even allow to be known, yet still use it to the benefit of mankind?
What relationship between two people could grow in such power and depth that it causes a sociological phenomenon which demonstrates Service is the greatest potential we have as human beings?
When a person of privilege meets a person of deep understanding, how much can they teach each other while inspiring their society toward similar partnerships?
How can siblings come to terms with the strong expectations of their parents, as well as the expectations they have of each other, yet still strive for individuality with distinct purposes and goals?
What sacrifices must privileged people make to demonstrate their responsibility to their loved ones, their society, and the world at large?
How can a person of absolute privilege be inspired to perfect himself in every possible way, all with the goal of Service to his countrymen?
As you can see, I’m quite the philosopher all told, because I feel questions of great scope are appropriate for books. My short stories answer shorter questions, such as which alien species has observed Earthlings the longest, and why?
To me, what matters is that your story, of whatever length, be used as an attempt to help further your reader’s understanding of its issues, using your imagination as a vehicle to make that learning a pleasant, or rollicking, or erotic, or even terror-filled experience instead of a dry lecture spouting your beliefs. Find the questions that matter to you most in life, and frame your story to answer them.
My first two books originally began as a juxtaposition of two fantasies, namely, who do I want to be? and what would I do if I could do anything at all? The first fantasy was born out of a depressive episode so profound I figured I was already dead, though still ambulatory, and realized the only thing I truly had was my future. That was it; I took the ‘me’ I wanted to be and started conversations with the ‘me’ I used to be, and my first two characters were born.
Start with your main characters, and consider what question their interaction could answer. Extremes are a good device, yet your characters also need significant points in common. Since my question entailed love, power, and will, one character has problems with will; despite being the ruler of the planet, the number of people making demands on him every day weakens his will considerably as he tries to keep the peace. The other character is a lady who intends with all her will to be a scientist in a male-dominant society. She has mental power, he has political power, and neither has ever been remotely in love. The interplay of will, power, and love is behind almost every scene in the book. And, if you remember my original fantasies, one character’s pure dedication to life and humanity pulls the other character out of a deep, dark pit of depression.
Next, your background is the social milieu in which the characters must strive to accomplish their goals. Although I have studied quite a bit of history in my life, I have always loved the pure potential of science fiction, so I set their society some 600 years after the advent of interstellar travel. One of the prequels I am currently writing is on how that particular planet was established, and its question is this: How can wealthy, brilliant investors entice colonists to populate their planet while convincing them of the strengths a monarchy has over other forms of government? It doesn’t matter how much history you use in your novel, but it does matter that you incorporate a number of short, rich descriptions to settle the reader into a recognizable timespace and its concomitant expectations.
Next, your characters must strive for at least one goal. I love using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to figure out their goals, especially when considering the goals of minor characters with whom the protagonists must interact.
You do not necessarily need to describe which level each character is at and the goal toward which they strive, for simple actions can provide plenty of information. In my fourth novel ROYALTY, Crown Prince Zhaiden asks a jeweler, “Do you have anything really unique? That you’ve never made the like of before? Something spectacular?” And the jeweler’s face splits in a wide grin. He’s not only going to be selling his most expensive set of jewelry, assuring his financial security (see Safety) and supporting his family and friends (see Love/belonging), he has just shot to the Esteem category, for selling his opus magnum to the Crown Prince will be an incredible achievement, beyond his hopes and dreams.
Last, the actual writing. You probably already know your strengths, whether they be comedic comebacks, physical comedy, tragic death scenes sparking a need for revenge, or sheer action. I enjoy pushing myself; despite my straightforward sentence structure, borne of writing way too many lesson plans as a teacher and APA papers in college, I incorporate blends of snappy remarks, full-out deadly action, subtle humor, extended metaphors, recurring jokes, and vibrant descriptions to pepper my scenes. I have to do it this way, because the scenes play out so strongly in my mind, I actually wonder at times if I am ‘tapping’ some parallel future dimension. If I try to change the storyline much, the characters won’t let me, acting the scenes out over and over until I get out of bed to change them back so I can finally get some sleep. I envy the people who can be the gods and goddesses of their characters; perhaps someday I will reach that summit, to actually write a story in which I determine all the rules!
Whatever your favorite technique, whether you line up a number of jars with tags for verbs, tragedies, locations, and results, selecting one from each jar, or whether you’re a ‘wing-it’, ‘analyze the classics’, or ‘plan beginning, middle, and outcome’ writer, I feel you must have that original question in mind at all times, and your work must answer that question thoroughly. Despite the success of some books whose authors simply take you on a roller-coaster ride, very few will become as memorable as Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If you can do something like that and start a new fad, good for you! Yet, looking over the literature of the last 100 years, how many fads have come and gone?
If you want staying power in your genre, make it count; answer a question that matters and give it your unique voice. As a result, you will never tire when it comes to promoting your books, for your contribution to literature has utmost meaning to you, a child of your mind, heart, and soul whose impact upon the world springs from that fount of ultimate power: imagination.
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Eva Caye’s To Be Sinclair series currently consists of seven books and one add-on anthology of four novellas. With two prequels underway and scenes for a final book keeping her up at night, she has recently managed to publish her fourth novel, ROYALTY, at Smashwords and Amazon, with hopes they will pay her editor for the rest of the series. Eva lives with her magnificent husband and two lovely mutts in a tiny farmhouse in Louisville, Kentucky.