Writing your novel: Getting Started

Writing your novel: Getting Started

 

The problem with most would-be writers is not a lack of time or even ideas. The biggest problem is that most do not know where to start. How do you get the ideas that are in your head onto paper? Or better yet how do you get them into a compressive form also known as a novel. Over the next couple of blogs I will break down the process of getting started. How do you write your novel? Let’s talk about what to do before you begin to write your story.

 

Keep a Journal

Keep a journal. A journal gives you writing practice. This type of practice is invaluable because it gets you writing regularly. Your entries don’t have to be long or extensive. But I would encourage you to include as many details as possible. Details will be crucial to novel writing. You can journal about anything–a specific experience that has happened during your day or even a specific concern which keeps you up at night. Write your thoughts. Be as honest, straightforward as possible. Remember this part of the process is for you. Not only is it cathartic, but it will get you into the habit of honest writing.

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Describe Your Story

Often times when you ask a new writer what the story is about they’ll go into great detail without actually getting to the point. But defining your story doesn’t mean that you should try to concoct theme or give overtly complicated meaning to it. But plain and simply –what is the story about? In screenwriting terms it is the elevator pitch. It is the short summary of your story. Remember no one wants a play by play. They don’t need to know all of the plot points and details of every scene. They don’t even need to know all of the characters and their quirky habits.

For example, The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate is about a family struggling with generational addiction. The Shack by William Paul Young is about a man’s encounter with God after the abduction and apparent murder of his youngest daughter at a shack in the Oregon wilderness.  There. It should be that simple. If you find this difficult to do, go back and evaluate. The jest of the story should always be center in your head, even as you are writing.

Define Your Characters

I like to do a character sketch of each of the main characters before I begin to write a novel. Character sketches allow you to set up the who of your story. Include their ages and personalities; their background and history. This may seem daunting but I find it helps with flow. You will probably add characters as your story progresses. You may even kill off a few. But at least setup framework by creating an defining the main characters. Write out as much information as possible. Appearances are important, but even more crucial are the idiosyncrasies specific to each.  What makes them tick? What do they absolutely hate or love? What are their secret desires and habits? Include the juicy stuff they’d rather not share with the world.

Write a brief Outline

There will probably always be an on-going debate about whether you should outline or not. There is no correct answer. Some people write by the seat of their pants and do wonderfully. They wouldn’t dream of outlining. Others take days even months to develop the perfect framework. Some, like me, do a combination of both. It is neither right nor wrong. But I will say that a loosely developed outline gives you a roadmap to where you are going. If you are intimidated by the whole writing process this may be a way to get you focused or at least take away some of the apprehension.

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Do the research

They say write what you know—or to put it a better way—know what you write. If you don’t know much, or specifically if you aren’t knowledgeable about the subject you are writing, do the research. There is nothing more annoying than reading a book about a subject and the writer clearly doesn’t know the ins and outs of the subject he or she is writing about. If you are writing a murder mystery, there are books available to help with the specific details of detective work and police jargon. What is the first thing they do when a body is discovered or when someone is reported missing? Exactly how do they question witnesses? Don’t simply rely on your CSI knowledge. Give authenticity to your work by knowing your facts. If your story is based in a particular region, interview people that live in the region, read books, gather the history. If you can, visit the region (any excuse for a quick getaway). There is nothing like picking up the nuances of a particular place. Truthfully you will probably have far more information than you will ever use, but that’s OK. Store the scraps, you may need them later. Nothing is lost.

At this point you have a solid head start. Sitting down to write will be easier, less intimidating. Go for it.

Read, read and read some more

I cannot stress this enough. I am surprised by the level of would-be writers that rarely read. Can you imagine wanting to become a director having never watched a movie?  Reading not only increases your knowledge of the world around you, but it’s invaluable to learning the flow of a story.  Read everything—fiction, non-fiction, books of the trade. Read often. Learn the texture of a story, the layers and depths that cannot be taught in a classroom or properly described. These are aspects most effectively picked up by reading.

Writing Your Novel: What to do when your story stalls out

Note: I actually blogged this over a year ago but felt it deserved a re-blog. It is still relevant!

 

There’s nothing like halfway through your story getting that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach because you see an inevitable roadblock ahead. And then…you hit it. You run out of words, ideas and the story is just stuck.

Help I can’t think of anything else to say!

For most of us this is the point where we stop; we pull away from the computer, get up and do something else…anything else. Sigh.

The question becomes: what made the story dry up? Why the stale mate? Is it the story or is it…us? In fact, it could be a combination of many things. This is the point where we must stop and look back. Start with the story first because, honestly it is the most benign and arguably the easiest to fix.

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Where was I going with this? 

Let’s face it, every story should be headed somewhere. There are reasons you started writing the novel in the first place; there was a point you were trying to make, so to speak. Retrieve it from your memory, go back, read what you have written and ask yourself if in fact you ventured down an alternate path. (umm what if I turned here?) It could be that halfway through the story you discovered an exciting new direction, and that may be O.K. But if you began with one thing in mind and the story took off in a different direction, this will become a problem.  Your readers will become lost. There may be some heavy editing involved at this point so that the story will flow without obstruction.

There are too many subplots.

There’s nothing more convoluted and frustrating than a novel that has ten characters and ten subplots. Trust me, if you’re getting twisted, your reader will too. Sometimes you just have to clean it up. And it may be that all ten subplots are essential to the theme. Take a second look; they probably are not. It is exhausting to try to keep up with too many people and story lines. Additionally it becomes cumbersome to write and keep the momentum going.

There is too much information.

Details are good, but too many can halt your story like a traffic cop. Again if they are a burden for you to write, imagine what it will be like for your reader. Sometimes it isn’t what you give, but the way it which you give it. Give less, but in high concentration– kind of like Espresso.

What if it’s me?

Yes, chances are the story is fine; it’s tight and well-written so far. Good. Maybe it is you. Perhaps you’ve lost the momentum or something is going on in your life which has dried up your creative juices. Then yes, walk away…literally. Take a walk and clear your head. Take a few days away from writing and regroup, rethink. Give. Do something for someone else. Sometimes less attention on yourself and more focus on others will provide clearer focus. Meditate, not to empty your thoughts but to be present in the moment. Embrace where you are at this very moment.

Now what?

Make a decision to except this moment and move on or change some things in your life. There’s nothing like imbalance to stall your writing. First remember writing fiction demands a lot of you. Also remember your story needs you and it needs you to be whole. Start again when you are ready. The world is waiting to hear what it is you have to say.

The Power of Silence

The Power of Silence

A friend said to me one day that she couldn’t image her commute to work without music, that talk radio show she loves so much or something to fill the quiet. She went on to say that she knew someone who actually rode with nothing on. Can you imagine that? !

Yes, actually I can. I find it interesting that we are a culture that attempts to fill every white space, almost every moment of every day. The Daily News reports that more than 80% of the world confesses that they can’t do without their mobile device.

This leaves us with little to no precious time to clear our heads, our thoughts, evaluate what we’ve learned without forces sucking    us in to respond to some type of stimuli– begging us, beseeching us to buy or sell or react emotionally to some news, gossip or current event. Overloaded with information, we are often no better for it. We subconsciously take in stuff which produces no benefit in exchange for something, anything to fill our heads. It’s kind of like eating when you are clearly not hungry.

We seldom give ourselves time to evaluate, ponder or consider whether information is useful before we are back at it taking in more—stuff. And even when we are conversing with others in real time, we often do more talking than listening– always ready tell what we know. It just seems the natural thing to do considering we know so much. Sigh.

 

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting with a curmudgeon old lady who rarely smiles and is never up for small talk. She is not the one to chat about the weather –mentioning how unseasonably warm it is for the month of May. Her talk is purposeful and to the point. When she is done, she stops talking.

The Art of Listening

There was an incident which occurred with my son and her niece and she came to talk to me about it out of concern for her niece. My first reaction was one of defense. I wanted immediately to remind her that I have successfully raised three children and I’ve got this thank you. I wanted to tell her all I knew on child rearing. Did I mention I have three children? But something inside willed me to hush. Be silent. Listen. And so I did. I took in everything, immediately mentally applying it where it was necessary. No I didn’t listen as we often do; we barely hear what the person is saying because we are awaiting our turn to share, to tell what we know, add meaning and depth when often none is needed. No, I emptied myself of preconceived opinions and drank in her words.

What I noticed is that truly listening is well…humbling. It is like sitting at the feet of a sage for the beauty of their knowledge. Assured that they have a perspective, you haven’t considered or experience in an area where you lack.

I saw that day behind that droopy, leathery face and glassy eyes a women who’d truly lived. Her life hadn’t been particularly exciting but she’d lived. It was the same kind of living I was doing. But the difference was she’d already been there. She wasn’t condescending or mean. She was calm, with a slow, measured rhythm to her words. She wouldn’t allow me to rush her But took her time to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

As writers silence is powerful because it allows us to process knowledge in a way that makes it useful, instead of busy chatter clogging our minds. We began to know how an experience feels, what it tastes like, what it smells like and the way it leaves you in the aftermath. It allows us to compartmentalize what we know and apply it when and where it’s needed and discard what is not needed or at least place it aside until the next time.

Silence is Powerful

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Silence is powerful because it shows control and discipline on our part. It forces us to think about what we are thinking about. It helps us to hear our inner voice. It is that voice—the spirit of a man, which guides us into truth, helps us to make sound decisions, not just based on how we feel, but what our spirit is revealing to us. It is the God part of us, because it is he who is feeding our spirit-man; yes. It is spirit to spirit.

The next time your emotions are screaming, or you are tempted to make a decision bred from some emotional high or low or you’re incited to write some crazy, impulsive comment on Twitter or another form of social media, based on what some political blowhard has fed you, I ask you to be still. Be silent. Consider. Think about it. Listen. Simply listen.

How to Write a Book Review

How to Write a Book Review

As authors, we would like the general public to believe that book reviews hold little or no importance to us. We would have you think that such write-ups are minor side effects or consequences of our career as we get on with the real business at hand—writing. And of course that should be our real focus. But we can no more deny the real effects that book reviews have on us and our readers than we can the effect of an Academy Award nomination on the career of an actor.

People take heed to what is said. Once it is said or read we can’t undo the effects. The thing is, distinguishing a good, solid review as opposed to a bashing, venting or an out and out rant of the story or book.

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The purpose of a book review

When giving a good review whether you are a professional or just an avid reader, keep in mind the purpose of a book review: It is to inform potential readers of your opinion and to give merit as to whether a book is worth the read. As a reader of your review, I would hope that it is not biased, but objective based on your varied reading experience and knowledge of prose. For example, perhaps you are prochoice, but the protagonist in the book you have just read has a mission of destroying abortion clinics all over the country. Your review should be unbiased and not based on your beliefs for or against the subject.

Was the story well written?

Well written stories have specific and vivid detail. The wording is crisp, accurate and precise. You are drawn in to the suspension of disbelief. In other words based on description of characters, setting and dialogue you are able to step away, temporarily from your own experiences and believe in the plausibility of that story, for that time without judgment.

Also, does the story have a natural flow? Does it progress with great timing, not flitting here and there like a nervous bird as if the writer was not quite sure where he was going? If he doesn’t know, at this point, who does?

Was the story compelling?

Honestly, I have read books with rich, specific and colorful detail and that was the best part of the book. I was completely pulled in with anticipation thinking, this is going to be good, only to realize that the risk for the protagonist was minimal or not really a risk at all. There was no driving force.

A protagonist can be a complete jerk. You absolutely can’t stand him. But–his reputation is at stake. His life is at stake, or that of his family. You must know what happens to him. It is what compels you to keep reading. It is what causes you to pick it up during your lunch hour, read into the late hours of the night. You can’t wait for dinner to be over so that you can delve right back into it. A compelling story is tightly written. The main characters have taken a path, the path of least resistance but even that one is risky and could end badly. He could lose it all. He could fail and that would be to his demise. Ask yourself as you are reading: Were the reasons for not pursuing the other paths clearly given or at least implied?  Otherwise, you will read and find yourself saying, Well, if he would have just…he could have avoided this entire mess. But keep in mind that his chosen path is based on the character’s personality background, history. If he is naturally driven, then for him, turning back is not an option. But if his other options were viable, possible, less risky, then, that is a problem.

Secondly, did the story move too slowly with a lot of unnecessary details and you find yourself skipping over them just to get to the good parts? Or perhaps there are too many subplots and characters and not enough story to convince you that all are necessary or there are simply too many for you to care about.

 

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A rant is not a book review

What you want to avoid in a book review is a rant about how much you hated the book, or how the characters are stupid or dumb, without giving the potential reader of your review specific reasons for despising it so. Such descriptions are unproductive and they do not give the reader or the writer anything they can work with.

Ultimately, if you are writing a book review for the public to read, you want it to truly be useful and fair. Otherwise it is not a review in the true sense.

Turning an Idea into a Book

Turning an Idea into a Book

old_booksThere are probably many book ideas going through your head, even now. They come from everywhere– personal experiences, stories others have told us and those that just seem to be conjured up through pure imagination. But it is a lengthy road from idea to book. Most ideas never make it to book form; and for many, rightfully so. Others can and should be developed. Let’s take a moment to examine the process of turning an idea into a book.

Record your book idea

When you get an idea write it down. Contrary to how it feels when your adrenaline is pumping, you will forget if you don’t record it. Please understand you will end up with more ideas than actual stories but that’s O.K. But if you cannot remember them, it won’t matter. Start a journal or a log of sorts and as the ideas progress with characters, setting and conflict add this information to your entries.

Flush out your story

Write out the conflict behind the story. All stories whether fiction or non-fiction must have sustaining and driving conflict. Conflict is simply the dilemma which your protagonist finds herself in; it is the driving force behind the story.

Provide Sustaining conflict

This is not something that is quickly wrapped up or resolved. There are obstacles, ebbs and flows which your protagonist must work through.  Ensure that there is a journey to end or solve this conflict. If, as you are flushing this idea out, you don’t see it, and you can’t reasonably create one, there won’t be a story. It will fizzle before it even starts.

Provide Driving Conflict

The conflict must drive your protagonist; there must be something at risk. Why is he so determine to find a cure for this disease? Will his wife die if none is found? Is his reputation at stake?  Or, why is she so determined to get married now? Is her biological clock winding down?  Is it her mother’s dying wish to see her married? The driving conflict can be physical, mental or even spiritual. But the stakes have to be elevated enough that the protagonist is willing to risk all to solve this problem. If it is not important enough to your protagonist to risk all or nearly all, it won’t be important enough to your reader to continue reading.

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Find resolution for the conflict

 If the idea you have for a story as an experience which you are currently going through (mainly for non-fiction) it may yet make for a great book, but  it must have some type of resolution. For example, you just found out your husband has been having an affair for the past five years (I really hope not!). You are obviously right in the throes of it. At this point, you don’t know what the end is going to be. Well, pick a resolution point based on where you are.  Perhaps, so far you’ve learned you are too trusting. You always have been. Take us to this point. How did you get there? Tell that story. Perhaps it is still too fresh, but you feel it has been interesting so far—even book-worthy. Writing can be cathartic. Keep a journal. Write. One day it just might make an interesting story.

The resolution is the final part of the story. And there must be something learned, gained or changed at the end. Either the conflict will bring you full circle or things will change completely. As your idea progresses, you will be able to see the end at the beginning even if you haven’t quite figured out how to get there.

Find out if your book idea is marketable:

I saved this for last because these days there are markets for almost genre. But if your book is a romance/thriller/book of poetry you may have a little trouble finding a market for it. Usually you have the market already subconsciously tagged in your head. But often you don’t. As you work your way through your idea, keep the market in mind. Don’t let it completely drive your story or it can block your creative flow, but simply keep it in mind.

You may have a million ideas. Sometimes you will know right away that an idea won’t work based on the above information. Sometimes you won’t know how far you can go until you begin to write because the idea is so alive and thrilling. But you will know. Some ideas may have to be merged with others to become stronger and more sustainable; some need to be completely done away with. But keep writing them down, keep the creative thoughts flowing and soon you may find yourself with a beautiful and engaging story.

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