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.




Nerd’s guide to scene design

SceneDesign1A few weeks ago I had to design the huge, climatic scene for my latest book. Doing so had scared me for ages, and it’s amazing how long I can procrastinate for. I wanted every character from the book to play a part, thus tying together all the loose ends in what I hope will be an intensely satisfying finale! Well that’s what we authors tell ourselves, and only hope that our readers agree! :)

If you don’t know by now that I’m a geek and nerd, then you aren’t paying much attention are you? heh. As an anal engineer, I tend to utilize lists and outlines, but over time I’ve learned to merge this tendency with my creative side and indulge in freeform brain diagrams. What? Stop looking at me like that. OK, so they’re just scribbles on pieces of paper, but I can see the order in the chaos, even if you can’t.

So the first thing I did was jot down the names of every character and faction that would feature in this monumental scene. Take a look at the image below:


Here I have my scene-by-scene outline and my cast. Then I wrote down the goals and motivations of each cast member. What are they doing here? What do they hope to achieve? How do they win the scene or lose it? How do they relate to every other character/faction in the scene? Luckily this mirrored the relationship diagram that I had already drawn up for the entire book. Then I scribbled ideas about how everyone could achieve their goals. If A does this, how will B retaliate, and what will C and D be doing all this time? Wouldn’t it be unexpected if E sided with B? What if A thought C was on his side but C was really working for F? OK, so you get the idea.

Then came the blow-by-blow, or “I should have bought stock in the Post-It company”:


Working through every idea from my pages and pages of scribbles, I wrote one action or event per Post-It note and stuck  it to my desk. It made sense to start with the villain(s) and lay out their actions as if no one stood in their way, then I went back and did the hero, working out how he could disrupt the antagonist’s plans. It’s super easy to shuffle these yellow squares around, and I found it easier than cutting-and-pasting on the computer. I learned this tip from screenwriting books years ago.

After that, I systematically worked through every character and faction and layered in their actions and reactions. I spent hours scratching out ideas, changing events and moving them around for greatest drama and suspense. Many times, a fresh idea sent a handful of Post-Its to the trash. Soon, I was forced to stack my Post-Its as I ran out of room on my desk. This one scene took over 100 Post-It’s of which nearly 50 stayed in the final version. It also took over a week of revisiting the sea of yellow and reworking it night after night.

Then things turned from geeky to nerdy, and I dug into my D&D figurine collection. (I warned you this got nerdy!):



This scene was so complicated that I had to act it out to make sure it flowed smoothly and that no characters ended up standing stupidly about for long periods. I assigned a figurine to each character and placed them in position. Then the fun began! After putting all of my Post-It notes in a single pile, I simply read through them and manipulated the figurines appropriately. This is where I found out that A couldn’t see B and C interacting, and that D and E would easily overpower A unless F was there to assist. Was everyone moving and reacting appropriately or was the scene too static? Was everyone getting their time in the limelight? Oh the headaches of being an author! ;)

During this stage, more Post-Its got rearranged and edited, but eventually I’m happy. After putting my toys away, I returned to the keyboard and typed out the scene outline, enlarging on the few key sentences written on each Post-It. Now I had everything I need to actually write the scene, knowing that I can concentrate on the creative details and dialog because I know exactly how the scene will flow.

You can stop shaking your head now. No, I don’t do this for every scene, just a couple of crucial, complex scenes that I don’t trust myself to wing it at the keyboard. Now who said designing a scene couldn’t be fun? :)




When the World falls apart

Well, all right, not the real world, just the world I am currently writing about in my second book. “Oh,” you say, disregarding the whole thing, but for an author this is a big deal.

When it comes to planning, there are two types of authors: “Pansters”, so called because they write by the seat of their pants. They have a rough idea of their characters and where the plot is heading, but essentially make it up as they go along. Then there are “outliners” – my camp. We plan everything in advance, scene by scene, often in spreadsheets or on index cards. We carefully craft how the plot unfolds, the foreshadowing, who does what, when and to whom. It’s all there before we write, like directions from Google Maps.

Am I painting the impression that outliners are superior? *Laugh* Not at all. There is no correct way, and many authors take a hybrid approach. Actually, I envy the freedom that “pantsers” enjoy, and admire their ability to pull a book together on the fly. I’ve tried their approach and it didn’t work for me. I’m an engineer. I don’t think that way. Oh, all, right, I’m anal. It’s true!

So, here I am, happily half way through writing my current book, and bang! It falls apart. In a moment of total horror, I realize that the whole second half isn’t going to work – it will be confusing, unbelievable and probably very unsatisfying for the reader. Arg!

This happened on my first book, “Ocean of Dust“, too. I suspect that it happens to many authors. That first time, I panicked: “I can’t write!” “This book’s too hard,” “I should just give up and shred it all.” But I persevered, (obviously because my book is published *smile*) and went back to the drawing board. At the forefront of my mind was “what would entertain the reader?” I re-planned half the book, rewriting as little of the first half as possible.

What makes a book go off the rails like that? Many, many things. Plotting an entire book before you write a single word is a challenge, and that is the chief drawback of being an outliner. An outline is just a sequence of scenes with a few paragraphs of notes about each one. Sure, I can imagine the character’s goals and motivations at each stage, consider what they learn, how they adapt; but it’s just not possible to think of every angle.

As I actually write each scene, I’m in the moment with my characters. Suddenly, it might make more sense for them to do this rather than that. As the sentences flow, I consider that another idea is more entertaining that my current one; maybe it would add more tension, more drama. Setting this in an inn is clichéd, how about a street market? That’s silly that my hero could defeat the guards so easily, how about this…? All the time, I am making small deviations from my outline.

These minute deviations act like a Butterfly Effect. Before I know it, the ripples moving through my book have become tidal waves, waves strong enough to break future scenes, to rip a hole in the fabric of space itself! Well, a hole in my outline, anyway.

At the same time, I might be making changes that are more sweeping. There’s a flaw in one of my story-arcs, perhaps because my character did something different than my outline told him too. His act made sense three scenes ago when I was in his head. Sometimes my writing group or beta readers will hate a character or a scene. Maybe it was… shock, horror… boring!

When you think about it, almost nothing in life goes according to plan. It requires constant course changes in light of more recent information. Maybe those pantsers have something after all? Sometimes, you have to head in a different direction entirely. So why should writing a book be any different?

And it isn’t, of course. It just seems like a catastrophe because creative pursuits like writing tap more into the id and superego. An artist in any field will describe similar feelings of baring one’s soul to create their chosen form of art. We are no longer hiding behind our everyday mask, but bringing forth inner imaginations and showing them to the world. When this goes wrong, when my plot falls apart, it is a direct blow to my id.

Such are the challenges of writing a novel. It hurts to have hit one’s writing stride only to come to a screeching halt, and have to rethink everything. But it’s a great excuse for revisiting the plot in light of what has been written, and using all that extra knowledge to build a stronger book, a more exciting book, with a richer, more powerful second half. The caring author thinks not of the extra work, but delivering a better experience for the reader.


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