I begin by imagining something surprising and important, a question whose answer is not clear to me, but seems vital. Questions like: How do we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community, when they’re in conflict? (That became Pigs in Heaven.) How does one make peace with the terrible things one country does to another, when we’ve profited from them but weren’t responsible? (The Poisonwood Bible.) I begin to plot out a story in which characters will face these questions through some conflict or crisis. I write pages and pages of what this novel will be about. Themes, plot, characters. I create life histories for the characters. I list the things I’ll need to research, in order to tell this story. As scenes occur to me, I jot them down without worrying about chronology. The beginning and the resolution will come, once I understand the architecture of the story.
I spend months or years thinking about the shape of a novel and earning the authority to write it. Samuel Johnson wrote, “a man can turn over a whole library to write a single book,” and I would add, you also have to wear out some shoe leather. (See the question about primary and secondary research.) I usually keep a novel cooking on the back burner for a long time, before it moves up front. During this time I accept magazine and newspaper assignments that keep me writing while a novel is in the research and development phase. Once I begin writing the novel in earnest, the early challenge is to find the voice and tone. I throw away hundreds of pages before I find that; my best writing tool is the Delete key. I think of it as writing pages minus-100 to zero of my novel, just a necessary evil. I have to write them all, and pitch them out.
I struggle with confidence, every time. I’m never completely sure I can write another book. Maybe my scope is too grand, my questions too hard, surely readers won’t want to follow me here. A novel is like a cathedral, it knocks you down to size when you enter into it. I falter and fidget and worry it won’t be good enough, and then the day comes when I give myself permission: just write, I tell myself. No one has to see it, you can throw everything away if it’s terrible, we’ll keep it a secret unless or until it becomes wonderful. And then I get to work.