Apr
23
2014
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So you want to be an author…but…

writing_bookEveryone has a novel in them. Or so the saying goes. Friends and colleagues often approach me, often sheepishly, about their desire to write a book, or problems they are having in getting started. Well it’s fantastic news that you want to write a novel! Go for it.

Here are just a few of the questions I’ve been asked. I hope my answers are useful.

1. I have a great book idea but feel it’s been done to death
Most things have been done to death. There is little new under the Sun. There are only so many plots and character types. I’m generalizing, but few ideas are ground-breakingly original. Most are a combination of other ideas assembled in a new way, or from a unique perspective, or with an unexpected twist. Take romances for example, probably the most successful and popular genre ever. There must be hundreds of thousands of books about girl meets boy, girl loses boy, either to find him again or find another, truer love. Tall, dark-haired, emotionally strong, idyllic men feature in most stories, as do plenty of Mr. Darcy’s. There are sweet romances by the dozen, hot steamy affairs, love triangles, unhappy marriages, happy marriages… you name it. If you read this genre, I bet you could name several dozen examples of everything I just listed. So has romance been done to death? Not judging by the thousands of romance books published each year.

Take fantasy: How many books can you name that feature a quest for a powerful magic item, usually one that will save the kingdom or world? Isn’t there always a young farm lad who has a prophesized destiny or secret talent that he learns from an old wizard? Aren’t there always a group of men, elves and dwarves on this quest, and usually one of them is a wizard, one is a knight or paladin and there is some kind of rogue or ninja like character? Sound familiar? Done to death, but extremely popular.

In your own writing, look for ways to make these themes, or tropes, your own. Flip them, modify them, surprise the reader. What if the paladin has fallen from grace? What if the elf finds out that the dwarf killed his brother? What if the magic item is a maguffin, a decoy? Let your imagination run wild – don’t be afraid. Even if it feels cliched and well-worn as you write the first draft, once you get your creative juices flowing you’ll start having all sorts of cool ideas. Try them, run with them. Trust your instincts. Before you know, that quest or romance will be stamped with your own unique ideas and voice. Trust the writing process. I often find that my first drafts lack the depth or originality that I hoped for, but by the time I am ready to rewrite and edit, my head is buzzing with what-if’s, and wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if’s, and the story comes more alive with each draft. I think most authors go through this.

Remember too, that a certain familiarity is what attracts a reader. Why are there so many quest books? Because readers love that plot. Why does the young woman in a romance fall in love with the bad guy against everyone’s advice? Because many readers associate with that issue. Write what people enjoy reading, but make it your own version.

2. How do I start?
Woo, this is a common question and the answer is: anywhere. Trite but true. Writing a novel is an immense and daunting mountain of a task. It’s not surprising that so many budding authors cower at the foot of this obstacle with no idea how to begin. Every journey begins with the first step. Eat an elephant one bite at a time. What these cliches tell us is that any start whatsoever helps us overcome the inertia of our fears. Figure out how you want your story to start and try to write that scene. Don’t worry yet if it is the ideal place to start, or if it even makes sense. Just start writing. OK, what happens next? Then what? Then what? What problem does your protagonist have at the start of your book? Show her trying to deal with that. Perhaps she stumbles. Why? Who or what gets in her way? Who helps her?

Unless you have a firm outline of your story in your head, you just need to start – anywhere – and write whatever comes to you. You might discard these early chapters, but don’t worry about that yet. You have to get your mind into the flow of writing. You have to give it some substance to mull over, some ideas to work with. Trust me, if you just start writing, things will develop. Your mind isn’t used to playing the what-if game yet, so you have to train it. If you find yourself slowing or grinding to a halt, just ask some questions: What would she do next? Should she go down into that cellar or call her friend? What if the lights went out? Keep driving forward. Keep writing. Don’t worry about polish, don’t worry about word choice, just let it flow. Get your ideas down. The first draft is a raw dump of ideas – a giant sandbox for you to play with. Don’t fear the lack of direction. Embrace not being tied down.

3. I want to write so badly but don’t know what to say
There is a misconception about writers that they lounge around coffee shops until the muse strikes them and then they bang out a novel non-stop in a weekend. We wish. I’ve drunk way too much Starbucks waiting for my muse! Maybe she’s a tea drinker. First off, you must have some idea of what you want your book to be about, at least the genre. No? Think about the book you’d most love to read. Maybe it’s like that bestseller by ‘blah blah’ that you wish had ended differently. Why do political thrillers always go to the brink of nuclear war and then make peace, when you’d like to know what would have happened if the nukes went flying? Maybe you lament that there are too many vampire books but not enough about unicorns?

The reality is that most muses only help those who help themselves. Consider my advice for #2 above. It applies in this situation too. If you start writing anything at all, you will likely find your muse peering over your shoulder before too long, whispering you ideas. Alas, too many people never write because: “I’ll write when I’m inspired”. Flip that thought. You’ll be inspired when you write. Writing is a proactive creative process – it requires that you take action. Writers write. Writers make things happen. You wouldn’t think of sitting at home every day and waiting for your future spouse just to ring the doorbell one day. Nor would you expect the Lottery folks to just mail you a check out of the blue. You have to put forth effort to reap the rewards. Trust your subconscious. Start writing anything, even if it’s just a story about a cat walking around the garden. Exercise your creative muscles and then ideas will flow – probably faster than you can get them down!

4. I don’t understand all this publishing jargon, self publishing and formatting, so I’m scared to start writing
Slow down there, Tex! You’re way putting the horse before the cart. That’s like worrying about replacing your tires on the day you buy a brand new car, or that you might burn your bread before you even make the dough. Put those things out of your mind right now. Plenty of time to learn about such things later. Much later. When you get that far, you’ll wonder why you worried because our distant fears are always more menacing than the reality.

Trust that the writing process works. It has done for generations. Concentrate on writing the book. That’s more than enough to occupy your mind for a while, trust me. Before you finish that first draft, you’ll have gained (one way or another) the knowledge of how to revise and edit it. Long before you grow tired of editing it, you will figure out what publishing route works for you and start to acquire contacts, critique-partners, editors, agents, cover designers, and what have you. But right now, forget all that. None of that matters until you write the best book you can. Don’t rush to get to those later stages. All in good time. Right now, simply concentrate on writing your story.

5. I keep getting stuck when my writing goes wrong and I have to start over
This is usually because you are overthinking your first draft as you write it. It’s very tempting to read over your last page or chapter and wrinkle your nose in disgust. What a pile of poo. Now you feel compelled to go back and fix it, edit it, polish it, change the dialog, etc. The trouble is that now you’ve taken yourself out of the flow of writing and put yourself into editing mode, and it’s too soon for that when you are writing your first draft. Now you’re going to be nervous to continue, because you’re afraid to write more drivel like the chapter you just spent days cleaning up.

Another possibility is that you write yourself into a corner where your plot goes wrong, or your character does something you didn’t plan on, or you just don’t know what happens next, or you changed your mind and have a much better idea than the one you spent hours or days writing. So you go back and rewrite it “the proper way”, fixing your problems. Great! Except that you write a bit further and it happens again. So you go back once more and change it. I’ve known writers spend months and months rewriting the first 40 pages over and over until they get frustrated with the whole writing business. Please don’t let that happen to you!

Here’s the thing… you need to accept that your first draft will be junk. Go on, say it. Accept it. Believe it. You’ll have to one day, so do yourself a favor and accept it now. Almost every successful author will admit that their first drafts are junk. It’s part of the process. You can’t write a polished story out the gate. The purpose of the first draft is to blast down all those wonderful ideas in your head, to lay down the foundation of the scenes, roughly in the right order, with the right characters and getting as much of the plot and dialogue down as you can. It’s a framework. A starting point. Here’s another truth: You will make mistakes. You will write yourself into a corner. You will realize huge holes in your plot. You will write wooden characters, cliched dialogue, use horrible adverbs, write verbose and passive statements.

You have permission to do all of that on your first draft, because it doesn’t matter. No, really, it doesn’t. Editing and rewriting is where the real magic happens, and you can’t reach that stage until you have your story down. All of it down. As best you can. So now you understand why you must not start over on the first draft, just keep going forward. Make notes about things to rewrite, things that are broken, but don’t fix them yet. If you can train yourself to write your first draft in this way, you won’t start over and you won’t get stuck.

6. How do I find time to write? I’m so busy
Some people are lucky enough to be able to write all day, or for hours at a time. From the question, I’m assuming you’re not one of those people. Many new authors are not either. We all have families, day jobs and responsibilities. Writing falls low on the totem pole of things to get done each precious day. But you can write a novel in 30 minutes a day, even 10 minutes a day. Many writers rarely get down more than 500 words a day, but it all adds up. I’ve heard of bestselling authors who write on a bench watching their kid at soccer practice, or while their kids are doing homework. One enterprising guy wrote an entire novel on the subway to and from work. Entirely on his cellphone!

Don’t make the mistake of waiting until “one day” when you have hours to indulge on your novel. That time may never come. I bet you make time for your favorite TV show, or for that cup of Joe at Starbucks, or to walk the dog. So too can you make time for your writing. You have to make it a priority. Squeeze in time where you can, or cut out something you can do without. This may mean making a pact with your family, like “8pm to 9pm is daddy’s writing time. You can have my attention all day except this hour.” These schemes might not be ideal, but they’re infinitely better than the alternative of not writing at all. No one is busy 24 hours a day. Good luck!
 

If you have other questions or want further advice or tips, doesn’t hesitate to contact me. Ask away! I don’t bite.

 

 

Jul
04
2013
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Independence Day for my book!

Today, on the morning of July 4th, my book had its own Independence Day. My book has been freed. What am I prattling on about? Let me step back a week.

Last week I celebrated the completion of the first draft of my new dark fantasy novel. A major milestone, yay! I started preparing and collating my notes for all the changes and improvements to make in the second draft. The second draft is where the book really comes alive.

And this is where I ran into problems over the weekend. I began to find plot flaws, things I hadn’t noticed when writing it. In some places the reader has to make unreasonable intuitive leaps. I found situations where the hero or antagonist does things to make the plot work but that weren’t sensibly inherent to their character, or vice versa, they don’t do things that they ought to have. This usually comes about when you craft a book by plot points and not organically based upon a deep understanding of the relationships between all the characters, and their goals and motivations, internal and external.

Many authors are no doubt nodding their heads at this point, having gone through the same pains between first and second drafts. It’s typical to find such flaws, particularly in a book with a complex plot, but they’re all fixable. For me, the second draft is the most creative and fun (if frustrating) part of writing a book – this is where you mold 90,000+ words into a dramatic, tense and exciting plot.

But… I had another problem. Three secondary characters play a pivotal role in my story. They’re unusual characters, and I’ll give you a quick teaser by saying that at least one of the three is dead. I adored writing these characters and their inclusion is both fun and essential. What’s the problem? They never became embedded in the story at a fundamental level. I don’t like tenuous links

Back to the present day – morning of July 4th. I sat down and made a complete plot line on index cards and highlighted all my plot flaws and issues. I didn’t want to just shore them up; I wanted an over-arching way to fix them. And I found it. I now have a historical subplot that links my three important secondary characters both in the past and the present of the book. From that I systematically fixed my plot flaws in what I believe (read as hope!) is a consistent, organic way.

My book has been freed.

And to serve as the finale fireworks, my efforts this morning also built me a richer, deeper, more satisfying plot, one that should make my second draft significantly better than the first.

Happy 4th everyone!

Mar
10
2013
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First and final draft

EditingSomebody recently asked me how much the final draft differs from the first. Great question! Here is a snippet of the first and final drafts:

 

First Draft

She sat up, her head held high. Alice wasn’t going to win! She thought of Mampalo, and the physiker and the klynaks. They all believed in her, and there was one thing that she was determined to master. But first she had to prove Oban wrong. That wasn’t going to be easy, but she would start now!

When she emerged from the hatch onto the outside deck, there was a strong wind that blasted her with dust. She coughed and turned downwind. The crew worked furiously, reminding her of a nest of hive bugs. They had stowed the canvas awning that had shaded the deck, and men were aloft handing down globe lights, securing ropes, and lashing equipment to ladders and rails.

They seemed oblivious to the dust blowing around them, whipped up into eddies and finding its way into just about everything. Hazy circles, low in the sky, marked the position of both suns shining dimly through the overcast. Storm clouds threatened the aft starboard side of the ship, as if chasing them. Lightning crackled above her, arcing with a bright flash into the dust ocean. Her head began to throb once again.

She jumped in surprise, and then darted amongst the crew to the stairs. She ran up them two at a time, even though the ship pitched heavily. She turned her back on the flying dust, and knocked on Oban’s door.

Upon his command she marched boldly inside and shut the door behind her. The noise of the wind subsided immediately. The rear windows had been fastened shut and the drapes pulled closed, as if such an act could end the storm biting at the ship’s heels.

Oban looked up at her and scowled. “Are you going to annoy me every time you see me?” he said. His eyes flicked to her hands as if expecting a tray. “What do you want now?”

She took a deep breath, and dared look him in his black and purple-blotched eyes. “I want to fix your book, sir. It was my fault that it got wet, and I intend to repair it for you.” His glare and pursed lips drained her courage. Her shoulders dropped, and she almost ran from the room.

 

As Published

She bolted upright and blew all the air out of her lungs. Alice wasn’t going to win. Mampalo and the physiker believed in her, even the Klynaks did. The navigator didn’t, but she would prove him wrong.

She jumped up and headed topside. When she emerged from the hatch, a strong wind blasted her with dust. She coughed and turned downwind. The crew worked furiously like a nest of hive-bugs, as they took down globelights, secured ropes, and lashed equipment to ladders and rails. They wore bandanas against the swirling dust, but their skin was bright red. Sheets of the grey powder lashed over the ship and swept across the deck to pile up in the corners.

Hazy circles marked the position of both suns above the overcast. Inky clouds chased the ship, flickering white as lightning stabbed within them. Thunder crashed, rumbling across the sky like the Gods at war. Her head throbbed.

She clasped one hand across her nose and mouth and ran up the aft stairs two at a time, gripping the rail as the ship pitched. She knocked on the navigator’s door. Upon his command, she marched inside and the wind slammed the door behind her. The howling of the wind subsided. She brushed a thick layer of dust from her clothes. He had fastened the rear windows shut and pulled the drapes, as if doing so could deter the storm biting at the ship’s heels.

His head jerked up. “Are you determined to pester me at every opportunity?” His eyes flicked to her empty hands. “What do you want?”

She met his gaze. “I want to fix your book, sir. I allowed it to get wet, and I intend to make it good.”

 

Several things to notice here:

  • The final draft is less verbose, with much of the filler removed. I hope you’ll agree that it is easier to read
  • The verbs in the final draft are more active, more exciting, e.g. “bolted upright”, rather than “sat up”
  •  The final draft is more dramatic, with greater atmosphere
  • The dialog is snappier

I think this is a good example of how the first draft is meandering and definitely not polished enough for publication.

 

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