In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp explains how her creative process for any new piece starts with a banker’s box. The first thing that goes in the box is Tharp’s goals for the project, written on index cards. They’re often short and to the point: “Tell a story.” “Make dance pay.”
I don’t use banker’s boxes or index cards. But I do always start with one or more goals in mind.
With Nantais, I began with two goals:
- Write a book that will sell;
- Write a book people will read more than once.
These goals are dependent on one another. The books people read more than once are the books that sell. They’re the books people loan to friends, the books they buy a new copy of when the loaned one doesn’t come back, the books they buy as gifts. They’re the books that make us say You have to read this. It changed my life.
These are the two basic goals that underlie everything I write. They’re the two things I look for in every manuscript I review, too.
As Nantais expanded from a few character sketches and half-assed scene descriptions into an outline, a series of chapters, a novel, and then a universe, my goals list expanded too. By the end, it included not only “write a book that will sell” and “write a book people will read more than once,” but also:
- Write about being autistic without writing about autism. Fun fact: Two of the characters you meet in Nantais are actually autistic. Even More Fun Fact: The one who has the most immediately and identifiably autistic experience is not. My goal was to put my reader inside the experience of having to interface autistically with a very non-autistic world – but never to navel-gaze about autism itself.
- Make a self-loathing character sympathetic, perhaps even likeable. I spent the entire drafting process thinking every character in this book was a horrible person. A lot of them are. But the hardest part was making the people most keenly aware of their own horribleness sympathetic – and to make them sympathetic because of that awareness, not in spite of it.
- Build a sci-fi universe palpably different from our own without ever wandering away from the plot. Wow, is worldbuilding an art. And when I started Nantais, it was my greatest weakness. I fully expect to reread the novel in ten years and laugh at my younger self – and yet be pleased that I did the best I could back when I was writing my very first novel.
- Express how dang weird humans are. In both good ways (we want to sympathize with and befriend everything, even though we’re often really bad at it) and bad ways (one word: racism). I grew up on Star Trek, which has always been intensely human-centered; my goal was to step outside that box and look at humanity from the outside – now and then.
The first two goals were with me from the start; the last four arose from the writing process itself.
Now that I’m halfway into the draft of Nahara, the sequel, I’m seeing the story produce its own set of additional goals. (Nahara had three initial goals: sell, read twice, and “avoid the ‘the second book of the trilogy is obviously a placeholder’ trap” – think The Empire Strikes Back, not Catching Fire.) I like this. It lets me see the writing process as something I’m collaborating in, not something I have to control.
Everyone’s still pretty horrible, though.