It starts with a story-seed that implants in your brain-heart, then swells. Word-counts double, then double again. The tiny buds of subplots become visible. Chapters, characters, and settings develop… A first draft is formed, finessed, and fine-tune, and eventually a book-baby meets the world!
Okay – Is it weird to talk of books like babies? But they are our brain-children, after all. We do love them. And just like real children, they can deeply vary, both in provenance and personality.
For example, the process of creating my second middle grade novel, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, was vastly different from The Someday Birds, my first. To start with, the main characters are quite different. Where Charlie, my first, is contemplative, Stanley, my second child, is sarcastic. Where Charlie is transparent, honest, and direct, Stanley is cagey and self-deprecating. Charlie is tall; Stanley is the tiniest kid at Peavey Middle School of Horrors.
With Charlie, I had total, immersive writing time to devote to him, and not much pressure. I was writing for the sake of writing, and enjoying that first attempt at a novel. Plus, it felt like Charlie was speaking in my ear, his voice was that strong.
Stanley, on the other hand, needed far more coaxing into life. His voice was evasive, and I couldn’t seem to pin his family down. First he had a father; then he didn’t; then he did, once again. His three older brothers became two, then morphed into one. A grandpa arrived for a weekend visit, but ended up moving in and playing a larger role in the story.
To complicate matters, while still in early drafting stage, I had a personal mishap. I fell into a big hole in the sidewalk while running, and snapped both tibia and fibula, so I was wheelchair-bound through much of the time I was writing Stanley.
This was a double-edged twist all right. In that stupid leg cast, there wasn’t much else I could do besides write, which was a plus. But I was uncomfortable. My leg kept me up at night. I’d lay there, listening to the coyotes howling in our canyon… And inevitably, coyotes worked themselves into the storyline, too.
In sum, instead of a preconceived calm trajectory, like Charlie’s story, Stanley’s tale was cobbled together through both serendipitous and unfortunate happenstance. It was a story I fell into, sort of like that hole.
No, hopefully not like that hole!
The only thing that stayed clear from the start was that Stanley’s story had to be about anxiety. I wanted to talk kids through that needling fear that I felt, too, as a child – and still feel, all too often. It’s a hard world out there, and anxiety in children is on the rise. Stanley exists to give voice to what it’s like to deal with that.
To face fear and worry, to face the world and come away maybe a little bit more resilient, is Stanley’s task — the same as Charlie’s was. That’s the big similarity they share as fictional brothers.
Two books, two boys, Stanley and Charlie, arriving into the world so close together… And I’m feeling torn. Will there be sibling rivalry? I mean, Charlie’s still so young! How can I leave him and go devote all my attention to new arrival Stanley? It all feels so soon!
Okay, are these weird feelings, or normal? Veteran writers, please share your advice with me!
And for those writers whose second books, or first books, haven’t yet published, here’s some advice I can share:
Just as in parenting, there is no one single approach to a story. You forge it anew with every book. Every project is different, just like every child is different.
Definitely read lots of books on craft – all the “What to Expect” books on writing. They help! But ultimately, I think you have to just really deeply listen to the heart of your story, and to your characters.
Love them like your children, and hopefully, they’ll tell you what you need to know.
Sally J. Pla is the award-winning author of THE SOMEDAY BIRDS. Her second middle-grade novel, STANLEY WILL PROBABLY BE FINE, came out today, and her first picture book, BENJI, THE BAD DAY, & ME, will release later this year. She’s worked as a journalist and in public education, and now lives with her family near lots of lemon trees in Southern California, where she’s hard at work on the next book.