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Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in How to Write a Novel

Posted by on in Fiction

Okay you've written your novel, short story, or poetry collection. You've poured your heart into it, proofed it, edited it, had other people look it over. You tears and sweat are in it. it's all finished except for a title. Now you're stumped. How can you distill all that thought, all that work into a few words?

Coming up with a title can be one of the hardest things. First, it may be hard to distill all your work into one concise (short) statement. Second, maybe you have more than one theme going on. Which one makes the best title? Last of all, how do you select specific words that will convey what you're trying to say and still spark the interest of a potential reader?

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There are three major questions I often hear from new writers. 1. Do I need to outline my whole story before I start or can I just figure it out as I go? 2. Should I periodically stop and edit my work as I go, or can I just let the words flow and come back to it later? 3. Should I write on a computer or could I physically write it all down first?

 

The truth is there’s no right or wrong answer to these questions. Your own style and personality will determine how you actually write, when you edit, and so on. So, as to the first question - 1. Do I need to outline my whole story before I start or can I just figure it out as I go?

Some people like to plot out their entire story before they begin writing it. These people usually create some type of formal outline in the process. The outline then, is their guidebook, their map to follow. They can write following the outline and be assured that their story ends up where they want it to. The advantage to this style is that you have organization, structure, and goals. It’s all very logical, but some writers think that this is a wrong way of going about it. They believe that this way of writing squashes creativity and puts the writer in a narrow creative box. The outline, once created, limits what a writer can do. Stephen King once described the process of writing this way: “Create interesting characters, put them in a situation, then see where it goes.” I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that’s the gist of it. He and other writers prefer to let a story develop organically. They like to be surprised by the twists and turns of the story, of how characters develop in unintended ways. They like to let their imagination, and the story, run where it will. The advantage is freedom and creativity.

Each of these styles have been used very successfully by hundreds of authors. When you begin to write, you’ll probably find out almost immediately which way you lean. If you find you can’t start without an outline, there’s your answer. If you just want to start writing and see what happens, you’re probably in the second camp. You might start out one way and find that you’re more comfortable doing things the other way. You might make the world’s best outline. Halfway through your story you might decided to throw away the outline and go a totally different direction. Maybe you make a new outline, maybe you throw caution to the wind.

The point is to start writing. Find your own style. If you decide you need more structure in the process, you can go that way. If the outline gets in your way, scrap it.

 

2. Should I periodically stop and edit my work as I go, or can I just let the words flow and come back to it later?

The second question is also a matter of personal style. Some people like to write a chapter, or paragraph, or a certain number of words, then stop and proofread and edit it before moving on. They like to know that their work is somewhat correct and refined before continuing. Other authors like to let the words and ideas flow. Sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs become chapters, and so on. These people revisit their work later, maybe not until the entire draft is finished. They feel that mistakes happen, grammar will need to be corrected, parts re-written, dialogue corrected, etc. In their world all this can be done later. To stop during the writing process and proof/edit would break their flow and interrupt their thought process. They believe (correctly) that writing and editing require two different skill sets, two different mind sets. They prefer to work in one or the other, without having to switch.

Personal preference. See which works for you. Whatever you do, don’t get too concerned with fixing mistakes as you go. Write, without being too critical or nitpicking. Tell your inner critic to shut up until the first draft is done. There may be a few glaring errors that you correct while you write, but let most of them go. Later, you’ll need to re-read and edit your work a few times, at least. That is the time to look at it critically, to scan for mistakes and necessary changes. that’s the time to let your inner critic speak.

 

  1. 3. Should I write on a computer or could I physically write it all down first?

Some people write their first drafts in longhand on a big legal pad. Others use Word, or a host of other specialized word processing programs. Writers used to type their stories on actual typewriters. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as it gets done. That being said, There are things that can make the process easier. 

There are programs and apps designed specifically for writers. I write using a program called Scrivener. It has many advantages that I find handy. For one, Scrivener makes it easy to organize your work by chapters and/or scenes. You can import all your research, web links, photos, documents, etc. into your project and keep it all together. It’s also easy to compile your work, when finished, into whatever format you need: standard paperback, kindle e-book, script/screenplay, and more. The list of benefits goes on and on, but the bottom line is that I use that program because it works for me. 

 

If you use word processing documents in the rest of your life, you’ll probably use one for writing. Check in writers’ groups to see what people recommend. Many apps have free trial periods so you can see if they work for you. One bit of advice that is worth mentioning: many new writers get intimidated by the all functions and features of some of these writing programs.They end up not using them, thinking they are too complicated. A better way to look at these programs is to learn the basic functions first. Most work, on a basic level, just like any other word processing program. For this they are fairly easy and intuitive. Approach them as just another word processor. Then, when you’re comfortable with those functions, you can start looking at what else the program can do for you. Check out the higher functions little by little, adding one or two as you see the need or benefit. Just because a program has the ability to instantly translate and format your work in Klingon doesn’t mean you have to use that function.

 

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Posted by on in Fiction

        Since I wrote my first novel a few years ago, I’ve come across many people who feel that they have a story inside them. Most haven’t gotten down to the actual nuts and bolts of writing because the task is just too daunting. Constructing all the elements and putting them together seamlessly seems a massive task. I am often asked, “How do I get started?”

 

If you’ve ever thought of writing a short story, novella, or novel, I’m going to give you some advice. These are things I’ve learned over the past few years, things I wished I knew before sitting down to write a first novel.

 

First let’s address your inner critic. Many of us have a critical voice that critiques our work (sometimes harshly) and may even tell us that we can’t do this. I’m here to tell you that when you sit down to start that first work, IGNORE THAT VOICE. Roy Peter Clarke, in his excellent book “Writing Tools”, says, “the internal critic ...becomes useful only when enough work has been done to warrant evaluation and revision.” In other words, don’t criticize until you have actually written something. Another famous author, whose name escapes me, states it more bluntly: “Write shitty first drafts.” By this she means write, even if it’s not your best. Get a draft down on paper/screen. Once that is done you can always fix it, but you can’t improve anything if you’re too paralyzed to put words to paper. Both of these authors are saying the same thing: ignore your inner critic and write. Give yourself permission to write poorly. That takes all the pressure off of you. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t even have to be good, you just have to write. Get started. Get something written. 

 

The question I hear most from aspiring writers is this: Do I need to plot out my whole story in some sort of official outline before I write or can I just wing it and let the story unfold as I go? The truth is that both styles can work. Some people are very formal and want to know the major plot points, including the ending, before they start to write. J.K. Rowling had apparently worked out the entire Harry Potter saga, including the ending, before writing it. Stephen King, on the other hand, recommends that people create compelling characters, put them in interesting situations, and see where they take you. 

 

Okay, so you’ve decided to write, what elements does a writer need to keep in mind? First you need a main character (or characters). Is your story about a young Jedi? A peaceful hobbit? A wary gunslinger? if you have a story that’s been percolating in your head for a while, you have an idea of who the main character is. The best authors create characters that are well developed and interesting. They have their own motives, habits, even quirks. They have pasts that have affected them and continue to influence them. As an author, you will know a great many details about your character. Not all will make it into your story, but in knowing them, your character will be stronger and more developed.

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You will also need to choose a viewpoint. Will your story be told in the first person, where the character tells their own story? “I pulled the knife from its sheath”, etc. Some well known novels in the first person include The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Hunger Games, and Twilight. The third person is even more common - “He pulled the knife from its sheath”. These are the two most common viewpoints and when writing your first work it’s best to pick one and stick with it.

Next decision: which tense? In other words is the story told as if it is happening now? (present tense) or are we hearing about something that happened in the past (past tense). Past tense is the most common for longer works of fiction. It is simple and easy to follow, but viewpoints and tenses can get very complicated. It’s possible to combine different viewpoints, to switch who tells the story and how, to change tenses for different sections. Unless done very well this can get very confusing for the reader. I would keep it simple for a first effort. As science fiction writer Orson Scott Card says in his excellent book “Characters and Viewpoint” : “Choose the simplest, clearest, least noticeable technique that will still accomplish what the story requires.” Like I said, keep it simple for your first effort.

 

You need some kind of conflict, some big event that your character(s) will face. The Jedi will have to fight the evil empire. The hobbit will need to undergo a dangerous journey. The gunslinger will need to track down the bandit who killed his brother, and so on. Our introduction to the conflict should come early in the story. This introduction may be sudden and violent or subtle and mysterious. In either case, the first chapters of a book should have the reader saying,” something interesting is going to happen to this character, I want to see how it plays out.”

Your main conflict usually involves a protagonist, someone whose motives are contrary to your main character’s. The protagonist doesn’t have to be an evil scientist, a monster, or a devious fiend. It could be a corporation without a conscience, a volcano, a co-worker, or the girl next door. Like your main character, your protagonist should be well developed and fully fleshed out. With all of your characters, ask yourself “What is their motivation? What does each one want?” this is the basis of how each character will act and these motivations will drive your story.Darth

Your story unfolds and eventually heads toward the big final scene. As it does, your main character undergoes some degree of change. The timid, peaceful hobbit gets tougher and more confident. The gunslinger comes to see that revenge makes him no better than the killer he is pursuing. Events affect these characters and they also may find out things that change their lives, their way of looking at things. Luke Skywalker finds out that he’s related to almost every other character in the story. If you’ve created a character that is interesting, one that readers identify with and want to follow, readers like to see how the events of the story affect them.

 

Eventually, the main characters blow up the death star, destroy the ring, get the girl, whatever. Congratulations, you’ve finished your first draft. You’ll move on to the editing/revision phase, but we can think about that later. For now, be proud of yourself, because you’ve accomplished a great deal.

 

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