Stumbling Into Story

When I visit schools, I always tell kids about my writing process, and I always say that I’m a plotter: I won’t start writing a book until I know exactly what happens at the beginning, what happens at the end, and a number of details about the scenes in between. I tell kids that at some point early in the drafting process–certainly no more than halfway through the first draft–I outline my story. I tell kids that I can’t sit down, stare at a blank page, and start typing away without knowing what will happen to my characters on that page.

It turns out, though, that I haven’t been telling the complete truth. Not that I’m a liar! The process I’ve just described is, in fact, how I wrote my first four books, and it’s how I’m writing the story I’m working on right now. But that’s not at all how I wrote my upcoming book, THE DOOR AT THE END OF THE WORLD.

It was the middle of 2016. I’d just finished copyedits for THE WORLD’S GREATEST DETECTIVE. My daughter was an infant; I was intensely sleep-deprived and covered in spit-up. I owed my editor a book that was going to be uncomfortably late. And when I finally sat down to begin working on the middle grade fantasy I’d been thinking about for a year or two, I only had to write one page before I knew: the book was not going to work. The idea didn’t excite me. The words weren’t flowing. I wasn’t having fun. This was not the story I needed or wanted to tell.

Now, I can’t remember the exact details, but I think that around this time, I talked with my agent, Sarah. It might have been months earlier; all time runs together when you’re sleep-deprived and covered in spit-up. Anyway, Sarah asked if I had any book ideas in the pipeline, and I told her the truth: I only have one idea at a time. I’m not a writer who has a million stories bubbling up in her brain, just begging to be told. I get passionately excited about one story, and I write it (or try to), and then when it’s at the end of its life cycle (ideally a published book, but sometimes an abandoned computer file stuffed into a folder I’ve optimistically called “Incubating Projects”), I hope that somewhere in my imagination, a green shoot for one more story will sprout. It feels a lot like faith.

But I also told Sarah that I can sometimes prompt these ideas to sprout by assigning a tiny, unconscious part of my brain to work on them. And when the book I’d been planning for a couple years fizzled after only one page, that’s what I knew I had to do. Actually, this time, I needed to assign a much larger and more conscious part of my brain to come up with a new idea. Forget tiny story sprouts that self-seed as if by magic; I needed to visit a story nursery, buy a mature story hosta, and stick that thing in the ground ASAP. “I need a new idea!” I told my husband. “I need a new idea!” I told my baby. “I’m going to take a shower.”

I took a shower.

If you are ever stuck in your creative life, you should take a shower.

(You should shower for other reasons as well, of course.)

Anyway, by the time I got out of the shower, my new story idea had announced itself.

It was a distant relative of the story that hadn’t worked, which had been about a girl who travels to a place so remote that she thinks it’s the end of the world. In the shower, I realized: what if I wrote a fantasy novel about the literal end of the world? The place where our world, the real world, bumps into the next world over? And what if there was a door between the two worlds? You’d need someone to guard the door, of course, or you’d have people constantly stumbling from one world to the next without understanding what they were doing. You’d need a Gatekeeper. And a Gatekeeper’s assistant, a girl who’s trying to learn the ropes….

That was pretty much all I knew after my shower. But I also had a strong sense that this idea was going to work. It felt like a book that would be a joy to write–if only I could figure out what happened next.

I never outlined; I never had the time. When I sat down to write each morning, I didn’t know much about what I’d write that day. I certainly didn’t know what I’d write the next day. For a plotter like me, it should have been terrifying. But this was the book I wanted and needed to write, so I kept on going. And, mostly, it was a sheer delight. When I got to the end of my first draft, despite a few wrong turns, I could tell: it was a book-shaped thing. Somehow, stumbling from blank page to blank page without a map or a flashlight, I’d found my way through the story.

(Then I ended up completely rewriting a good 40% of the book in revisions. But that always happens!)

Now, a couple years later, I can share that THE DOOR AT THE END OF THE WORLD will be published by the crackerjack team at HarperCollins next spring, in April of 2019. I can’t wait for you all to read it. And I really can’t wait to share the cover art with you, so I’ll be posting it here on my website on Monday morning! Stay tuned….

2 Responses to “Stumbling Into Story”

  1. Jane

    What great advice for an aspiring writer! I so admire your brain! Even though I love using words and enjoy crafting sentences, I could never come up with the creative, imaginative stories and characters that you do. But I wholeheartedly agree with your “take a shower” approach. Often throughout my life, if I’ve been working on a project where I can’t figure out what steps to take next, I either take a shower or take a walk (preferably with one or two pups), and some time thereafter, in what I find to be a quite “magical” way, a satisfactory approach has floated to the top of my consciousness. Over the years, the magic has involved writing natural resource reports, law school papers, and legal analyses–very dry stuff indeed. Occasionally, I’ll come up with a poem or a song that way, too. But never a slew of funny, fantastical, beautifully crafted books like yours. The results of your showers couldn’t be more impressive. Hooray for the creative process! [Signed, A Fan]

    • Jane

      I see that my earlier “Ode to Showers” reply didn’t cover your tried-and-true “plotting” approach to novel-writing, which has certainly stood you in good stead for your books other than THE DOOR. Hooray for plotting, too!