It’s a metaphor that gets used a lot, but I’m going to make an embarrassing confession about its application to novel writing: for the longest time, I didn’t get it.
See, I had approached writing a novel like so:
- Think of an idea
- Start writing chapter 1
- Keep writing until you hit “the end”
- Go back and revise a million times until it works
Was the underside of the iceberg just all the stuff I cut from each draft? I honestly didn’t give it too much thought. I know every writer crafts differently, so I figured this was one of those things that other writers did and maybe it didn’t apply to my process.
Or maybe, in hindsight, I didn’t have enough process yet.
Back in February, a friend gave me a journal as a birthday gift. It took me until April to decide what to do with it, because I refuse to start a journal until I’m sure what I’m going to fill it with. I have a personal journal that’s so thick it’ll take me another two years to finish, so I wanted this one to be for something else.
After reviewers read my novel draft in March, I realized that the story needed to go in some darker directions. I needed the story to be more bleak. And I realized that I wanted to understand my own magic system and characters and setting better than I did.
Suddenly I knew exactly what I needed that extra journal for.
I began with magic-system stuff and progressed to everything. The more I wrote, the more I realized there was to write. I sketched and mapped settings, I jotted down research notes about relevant phenomena, I analyzed the numerology and astrology of every character.
And most importantly, I wrote lots and lots of backstory—pages and pages of situations that happened to my characters in the years preceding the story, down to why they were riding the elementary school bus in third grade and what family circumstances were like for each of them back then (nine years before the story starts). I even ended up writing about things that happened to my character’s parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. I spent the summer fleshing out their lives and having a marvelous time.
The result is over 200 pages of handwritten notes that cover just a small portion of the thinking and processing that went into them.
Now I’m at the point of placing those insights into the story—and the iceberg analogy suddenly makes sense. Because from all that backstory, I’ve been inserting maybe two sentences at a time into the novel itself—details that give it the depth of those extra pages, even though readers won’t see what’s underneath.
With the next novel I work on, you can bet I’ll have a journal from the start.