Writing My Novel: The “Aha!” Moment

academic library I’ve always heard some authors say that they don’t plan out their novels.  That they instead create their characters and their worlds, and then they write what happens to them…as it happens.  That the story tells itself, and they just happen to put it on paper.

Until very recently, I thought that was a load of hokum.

I had never had anything like that happen.  My fiction was generally planned out, and I had to think about every word the characters said, every action they took, and every last detail about the world they lived in.

And then last week, all of a sudden, I had my novel’s first “Aha!” moment when I felt I was no longer a creator but a chronicler of this story.

It Just Kind of…Happened

And there they were, three of my main characters, finishing up a conversation, and setting off to a meeting in the middle of a set of ruins they were exploring.  I thought the chapter had ended, and I was wrapping it up so I could move back to the other half of the story.

And then it happened.  The ground under my main character’s feet gave way, and I saw him plummeting into a hole while his companions had reflex enough to barely jump out of the way.

Now, I know that my protagonist is not dead because I know what happens to him at the end of this book.  But I had no plans for him to fall in a hole, but once it happened, I saw the next few chapters and how they play out, and it honestly makes much more sense  now that he’s fallen through the weakened ground.

It was like a lightbulb went off in my mind with this idea.  I really feel that I had no control over what was happening to these characters.

I could see the characters walking along and the ground giving way, and I had to write it down.  Not because I wanted the story to play out like that but because the story had to play out like that.  There was no choice.  That’s how it happened. No authorial intent in the ‘verse was going to stop that from happening.

I know now the author is not God, not all knowing, seeing, or powerful within the universe of the novel.  The author is more like the yearbook staff, just making sure that every picture is on the right page and lined up right so the full story gets told and nothing gets left out.

A Learning Experience

Another thing  I hear published authors say all the time is that their first novel is a learning experience.  That the lessons they learn in their crappy first novel allow them to write the fantastic second one.

converging linesI see that being the case now.

I have no doubt that after subsequent revisions this novel is going to be pretty good and saleable.  Because I am going to keep looking for “Aha!” Moments like this and running with them.  Because I am going to go back and work very hard on the beginning of my novel so that it coincides with the lessons I’ve learned at the end, such as seeing if my micromanagement took the story somewhere it didn’t need to go.

And when I’m done with that, I’m going to send my novel to a round of beta readers and let the manuscript and their comments sit for around 6 months (until Christmas break, I expect) before I come back for more editing and revision.  And when those are done, and I can finally get my perfectionist, self-loathing hands to let go of it for just a moment…I’ll send queries out to agents.

And then I am going to start a second, unrelated novel (I do have plans for this to be the beginning of a series, or at least a duo) and apply all the things I learned during the process of writing my first one.

While this “Aha!” Moment is certainly not the first lesson I’ve learned while working on this project, I have to admit that it’s the first one that made me feel like a real author.

Have any of you ever had “Aha!” Moments that took you by surprise?

Comments

  1. Kaib

    Thats pretty cool. I’ve never really read much about how authors write their works so I have no experience in it but it sounds pretty neat. I have enjoyed the few books I read that gave a little insignt via notes on the margins or just an extra chapter explaining how some things came out. But anyway, very cool to learn it took a twist you didn’t expect.

    • I’ve read quite a bit about it (Stephen King’s “On Writing” is the best, if you’re interested in the subject at all), but it’s completely different actually being the one writing. I’m finding a lot of little nuances about myself and what the “greats” say their process is like.

      Overall, I’m loving it.

  2. Ian

    I have very little experience writing creative stories, but I think there may be some similarities in writing sermons. The best sermons I have written have an “Aha” moment as I’m writing that I had not seen when I set out to write it. Usually those moments are more of a connection between seemingly unrelated ideas that, when put together, communicate something about God I had never thought of before.

    By the way, if you need one more beta reader, I would love to read your novel.

    • Jennifer

      I was actually going to post a similar comment regarding academic writing. Having taken creative writing courses, I’ve also always heard that you plan every aspect of your character (to the point that, as one professor said, you know what toothpaste he or she would use), and then your story comes from that. Unfortunately, I haven’t invested enough time in creative writing to get into enough of a rhythm to have real “Aha” moments.

      But I certainly know about “Aha” moments in academic writing. I always outline my papers ahead of time, thinking that I know what my paper is going to be before I sit down to churn out my 8-10 or 16-20 pages. I’ll be working through my outline, and I’ll start elaborating on something in my outline or maybe a new idea that hit me as I was writing. I start making more and more connections to this new point, and it’ll suddenly hit me that I’ve found the underlying question beneath the issues I had /thought/ were the basis for my paper. The “Aha” moment was what I lived for as a grad student, when something I was simply trudging through because I had to became something I could make an actual (well, as “actual” as you get in academics) contribution to my field with. One of my favorite comments I received on a paper was that I had found “the nugget of the question at hand,” and it’s only with a great “Aha” moment that I could ever do that. It was never what I planned.

      • I actually don’t get those moments regarding academic writing that often, Jennifer. Maybe it’s the way my brain is wired of how I approach academic projects, but I can’t think of a single time where my writing has reached a point and I was was enlightened by what I was writing any more than I was when I thought out the initial concept. Of course, I write academic papers straight through generally, with very little planning done outside my head, so those Aha! moments might be there, but I just see them as another idea coming that makes the paper click.

        I do not, however, agree with your creative writing professor. I think you need to know your characters, yes. And you need to know how they act, think, and feel. But I do not think you need to know the kind of minutae that is entirely irrelevant to the story because, if it is relevant to the story, it will come out, and you will not have thought of it, but the character will have shown you, as an author.

        I’d love to read more of your creative work. Get to it!

    • I would most definitely say there are similarities in writing sermons, though I freely admit to being ignorant of that process. Especially given topics of such personal closeness, those “Aha!” moments are sure to be enlightening and take you by surprise. That kind of epiphany, I think, is how most of the great ideas in the world came about; it was certainly not through careful outlining.

    • But there’s a flow to that communication that can be helped facilitate a much smoother conversation. I won’t lie that the grading/editing part of my job is the worst part. The best part is, as you say, the communication.

  3. Longasc

    Awesome! 🙂 I only know the student’s version of this moment… when writing papers, I did not really know a lot what I would write beforehand.

    Then you sit there and think… you should write something. But you have no idea. You are close to the writer’s block. Dissatisfaction, a near-desperation state ensue.

    Then the next day you sit down and not only write something, you get a whole FLOOD of ideas and rather tire because of lazy fingers than of lack of ideas! 🙂

    Some great authors dictated their wives their ideas… erm forget that. You just married. That would be so wrong. 😉

    • Nah, I’d never be able to dictate anything like that. I’m not as much of a speaker as I am a writer, and not to mention that, but Jennifer’s writing style and mine are polar opposites. We’d end up killing one another. 😉 We support each other and help constantly, but my projects are mine and hers are hers.

  4. I’ve written a lot of short creative stories and most of the time my characters have a lfe of their own. I’ve never planned out a story, it just happens like you said. I just thought I was lazy. I just wrote one today on my Internet thing I write on. It was never planned out, I just let it flow out. I don’t look back either in fear it sucks. I could never write a novel though. I don’t think I have that kind of creativity in me
    .-= Scarybooster´s last blog ..Went to the Store looking for More and only found a Whore that showed me the back Door, Score! =-.

    • I can’t look back, either. I know I’ll have to, but right now, I’m in the part of my process where it would be so easy to go back and fix the things I know are wrong with it, but I need a finished draft before I can do that.

      And no, you’re not lazy. It’s just your writing style.

      And you could. I never thought I could, either, given how complex it has to be. But the breadcrumbing process I found by making myself do just 2k a day or 10k a week is working wonders for me being able to space it out and not be overwhelmed. I say give it a go, SB!

  5. I am happy for you and I am glad you’re enthusiastic about your work. If you’re enthusiastic and full of new ideas, it shows.

    I am one of those people who plan, and who can’t write without a plan. It is impossible for me to just sit and write… and wait for the ideas. But I know one thing- you should never underestimate the power of “Aha!” moment. You don’t really need it, but if you get it in your book, go for it! It will make your revisions a bit tricky, but you should go for it because it’s your subconsciousness telling you what’s the best for the story. In a way, some part of your brain acts like a regular reader who says what’s the best, most exciting, most interesting, etc. to happen- and, more than anything- what makes logical sense. So I’d say, go for it.

    I did have a couple Aha! moments, but the biggest happened a few weeks ago. I am in the process of outlining my novel, but there was, obviously, an idea for a shorter novel in my brain- and I was almost unaware of it. But then suddenly, a few weeks ago, I opened by text processor and started writing- just like that. I was writing, and as I was writing some things just naturally came to my mind, the main character’s family situation, for example. And I was surprised. It was like one huge “Aha!” moment that I certainly didn’t expect.

    And while I was writing, I realized I had the whole story in my head, the story I wasn’t really aware of. Maybe because it’s really not typical for me, this story I mean, it’s more realistic- and/or completely unrealistic because it’s set in the USA, and I know next to nothing about America (news and media being my only source).

    So yes, my common sense told me to just stop it. But I couldn’t. I still don’t know what to do with it. I have these three characters, these young people in my mind, and they all want their stories to be told- I feel like they’re almost pushing me to write about them. I don’t know what to do about it now.

    • I wish I had a good answer to tell you. Other than the best advice I’ve ever heard is to “start at the beginning.”

      Tell one story. Make it perfect. Then tell another. And tell it right. Then tell the other. And so on and so forth. If you have them wanting their stories told, then you should tell them. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t.

      I see breaks in my novel constantly where I can offer up a short story or maybe a novella. I’ll eventually get around to doing that once this monster of a first draft of a first novel is swept away. 😉

  6. prenden2

    Great to hear that the story is growing organically, I’m really looking forward to it!

    I can’t say I know anything about writing a novel, beyond what I’ve read in “On Writing” but it seems to me like you’ve reached the point at which the story begins to tell itself. And surely that can only be a good thing. Keep it up, you’re flying!

    • “On Writing” may be one of the best books I’ve ever read. I really need to read it again as I go through this process because when I read it, I churned out half a dozen short stories within a few weeks. It got me that ramped up and excited about it.