Not long ago, I was at a meeting at which my being an author came up. During a lunch break, a woman started talking to me about writing, and how she’d always wanted to write something. She was asking me questions about how you know if you’re a writer, how you go about writing a book, and so on.
On the one hand, I see people saying things like that similarly to telling a brain surgeon how you’ve always wanted to perform brain surgery, but never had the time or never got round to it.
On the other hand, it’s not for me to tell people that if you’re not writing then maybe you’re not a writer. Perhaps people genuinely suppress that desperate need to write that actual writers feel, because they don’t know how to go about starting a book. Maybe.
Regardless, the question of how to write a book is one that is asked a lot. The internet is also overflowing with articles and step-by-step guides. It could figuratively literally burst at any moment because there are so many. So I’m going to write one too.
My guide on how to go about writing a book is not an ‘expert’ one, nor a hugely in-depth one (otherwise it would be in a book, wouldn’t it?), or an all-encompassing one. It is simply based on my sphere of experience and knowledge: what does and doesn’t work for me, and what does and doesn’t work for other writers I know.
I’ll only go over the basics, and then you’ll go away and put thought and research into the stuff and whatnot therein. This is more of a pointer in the right direction than an attempt to rival Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.
So, with the disclaimer that it’s not my fault if you finish reading this and still don’t have a best-selling novel with your name on it, let’s start. Oh, also, I’ll be using my own work as examples; I shouldn’t have to spell it out, but it’s not for advertising purposes.
Aside from the actual writing, there are some other things you need to do and think about.
– Buy A Notebook
You will almost certainly find yourself coming up with ideas for storylines, characters, scenes, even single lines of dialogue or description that you will want to remember. No matter how much you think ‘I’ll remember it’, there’s a very good chance you will not. The same goes for dreams. It’s too easy to wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and be too tired and relaxed to write it down, thinking that you’ll remember it in the morning. Then you don’t. So write it down, even if it’s only so that you can look at it in the morning and wonder how you ever thought that was a good idea.
– Learn The Rules
Writing isn’t just about thinking up a good story and interesting characters; writing is about…writing. That means your characters and story need to come alive on the page and in the reader’s mind. And for that to happen, your writing itself needs to be at least solid.
Obviously, just knowing the difference between an adjective and an adverb isn’t going to make you an amazing writer. Knowing how to use adjectives sparingly, and to show not tell, won’t ensure that your novel is the next Game of Thrones. But once you know the ‘rules’, you’ll know when you can break them. You’ll know what a pile of crap many of them are. But even the rubbish ones are there for a reason, and may make you think twice about an iffy sentence.
You can’t paint without learning how to paint. And once you know how to paint, you can do whatever you want with the knowledge and skills you’ve learnt. Do you think Picasso was taught to paint the way he did, or did he learn to paint traditionally, and then take all of those skills and paint his own way?
You may have heard this so many times that it now annoys you. We’re always told that a good writer is a good reader. This of course means that we deconstruct what we’re reading and work out why something on the page works or doesn’t work. We think about how we would have written the same scene or dialogue. Perhaps we imagine our own characters in place of the book’s.
Reading improves vocabulary, opens you up to different styles and character points of view (first person, third person, etc.). You’ll see from reading other authors’ works just how much you can get away with. I found myself obsessing over adjectives and trying not to overuse them, until I read the first chapter of an Ian M. Banks novel. He broke so many of the ‘rules’ and it didn’t matter. His paragraphs spanned entire pages, some sentences ran on for multiple lines, I counted something like nine adjectives and adverbs in a single sentence… But none of it ruined the writing or put me off.
And what about the Harry Potter books? J. K. Rowling is quite fond of adjectives, and takes some criticism for it, but has that fondness damaged the books or their sales? Depending on what source you look at, the Harry Potter series is either the third or the fourth bestselling/most read of all time. Do we really think that if she used less adjectives, her sales would outstrip anything else?
– Why Are You Writing?
You should probably have it straight in your own head why you’re writing a book. Is it because you think it will make you money? Because you think it will be easy? Because someone else wants you to?
I won’t go into details and statistics about the money side of writing, because it’s depressing. And because I can’t be bothered to go looking for said statistics. Even if writing a half-decent book guaranteed you several years’ income, it’s not a good reason to write. You’ll get bored and frustrated, and you’ll either give up or put out a really crap book. The same goes for most reasons for writing, really. If you’re not writing for you, then you probably shouldn’t be writing. If you have any doubts about whether you actually want to be a writer, try writing a short story and see how it feels.
PLANNING, PLOTTING, AND SCHEMING
That’s an Oxford/Serial comma. If you don’t know that, you should still be in the preparation stage! It’s entirely arguable that I shouldn’t have used the Oxford comma there, but never mind. Clarity over convention. Not that the title needed clarity. Moving on…
Straight away, this is diverging from my own routine. I tend not to plan beforehand. I just have an idea for a story or a character, or even a scene or event, and I write it. Then I just keep writing. As I write more, the world and the story develops around me, both on the page and in my head. That’s when I start to plan more. That’s when I start writing ideas of where the story is going, what’s going to happen to the characters, etc. But that way comes with its own problems, so if you’re just starting out, you might be best planning.
The thing to remember, perhaps above all else, is that what you plan and what happens on the pages of your book are not going to be the same. That’s fine. Once you breathe life into your characters and your world, you can’t possibly expect to stay in control. You nudge and suggest, and your creations will agree or disagree.
A good example is my thriller, Acts of Violence. Years ago, I wrote a few chapters of a book, which my computer then decided to delete. Thankfully, I’d been sending updates to my granddad, and he’d been printing them out. The last update I’d sent was only about half of what had been deleted, but it was something. I decided last year that I would take that story and those characters, and rewrite it in a sci-fi setting.
The result was absolutely nothing like what I wrote all those years ago. It doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance. The one and only thing the two share is the protagonist’s name. So I got what I think is my best work, and I still have the old story to rewrite sometime down the line.
– The Basics
The first things to decide are the basics. What is the genre? What is the setting (including time period)? What POV will you be writing from?
These are obvious and important. Each one will also sway the others to some extent. If the setting is the Crusades, for example, there’s a good chance it won’t be a romance. And if it is, why is it set during the Crusades?
Point of view is an important one. Is it first person, where we’re in the head of the protagonist (or antagonist, if you’re clever about it)? This will mean that you have to stay in his/her head for the entirety of the book, unless you are a very talented writer and can make a mix of first and third person POV work. Is it third person, where you can afford to be a little more omniscient? How many characters’ POVs will you write from? Just how omniscient will you be? Will the narrator him/her/itself have a voice?
While these are important things to decide before you put pen to paper – literally or not – they may well change. Again, Acts of Violence was meant to be third person, because I don’t like first person. But the line that popped into my head and caused me to abandon what I was writing in favour of the thriller was ‘As his nose cracked under my knuckles, I reflected on how much I hated violence’. It’s a first person line and I liked it. So I didn’t have much choice in the matter after that. It turned out that first person suited the novel better than third person would have. Even something as seemingly set in stone as POV can change in the course of writing.
The most obvious thing to plan. What, why, how? Also who, when, and where, but that’s kind of covered in the basics. (Side note: you’ll notice I used the Oxford comma again, and again it was arguably unnecessary, but…consistency!). This part of the planning can be as vague or detailed as you want. If you’re going for detailed, just remember what I said about things changing.
How are you going to introduce the story? What is the conflict or problem that needs to be solved? In what way are you going to develop and progress the story – will there be a trail of bodies, each more grisly than the last as the killer becomes more bold, until he slips up? What will the climax be – probably the hero will confront the villain, or the oblivious lingerie model will suddenly realise she/he loves the hopeless romantic.
How will things be resolved? Will the hero die? Will the villain die? Will the hopeless romantic realise that the lingerie model actually isn’t a very nice person and go travelling to find him-/herself? What loose ends might there be? You won’t really know this until you actually get to the end, but there might be some obvious ones that you can note down from the start, so you remember to check. Perhaps you’re writing a mystery, and one of your red herrings leaves town early on. You’ll have them do it so that the reader will be more suspicious, but then you might forget all about them, and never actually have the detective work out where they went, or why.
This is, in my opinion, more important than planning the story. Although it may be entertaining for you to get to know your hero as you go, it might not be a good idea. Your hero needs to be fully formed, and while your writing might give the reader the impression that you’re writing about someone you know personally, there’s a good chance that it will be obvious you’re just making him/her up as you go.
Perhaps your hero finds himself locked in the back of a truck with a ticking bomb. He rolls up his sleeves and manages to defuse the bomb just in time. But your readers are left wondering at what point this insurance salesman learnt to defuse bombs. Did the writer only decide at this point in the book that he was once a master spy?
Even if your readers are only now meant to learn this information, you need to be aware of it from the start. If you kick off your story with your hero tripping over his untied shoelaces and falling down the stairs, there’s a good chance the reader won’t believe for a second, later on, that he was once a master spy. If you already knew that he was, you’re not going to write something like that, but you will probably write in little things that will then later be recognisable as clues.
So take some time to write your main characters’ background stories, write about their appearance, and note any peculiarities they have. It could be something small but very unique to them; it could be something a bit more common (in Acts of Violence, Jack’s anger can get the better of him, and he tries to be smart-mouthed, but sometimes his brain isn’t as quick as his mouth); it could be something bigger and more central to the story, such as Walter Mitty’s daydreaming.
If you don’t feel like you know your character well enough to write the background yet, you could try writing a short story about him/her.
Do not forget to do this same thing for the antagonist. Very rarely should your antagonist be flat and simple. It depends on what you’re writing, of course, but the antagonist will almost always have a reason for doing what they’re doing, may have doubts about it sometimes, etc. Depending on how often he/she/it comes into the story, the reader might not get to see these things too much, but again, you knowing them will make all the difference.
Read about how to write good antagonists. There are plenty of different kinds. Some are acting out of emotion, some out of logic, some out of fear. Perhaps your villain is an android, only doing what it’s programmed to do. This is one of the few cases that a 2D villain would be acceptable, though you’d still need a reason for it being programmed the way it is, so in effect, the programmer would become the true villain, even if he/she is long dead.
Motivation is one of the most important things. Why are the characters doing what they are doing? That goes for the protagonist, the antagonist, the side characters, and even the bit characters (don’t let even your smallest characters be 2D). If your hero jumps into a taxi and tells the driver to run the red lights, you’d better have a good reason for the driver to comply. Does the hero have a gun, perhaps? Or does he offer a large sum of money? There needs to be motivation for everything.
There may be other bits of planning you need to do. If your story is complicated, or contains quite a few characters, you might find it useful to draw out a simple chart. You might save yourself a headache if you can see the book’s timeline in front of you: where the characters intersect, the important events occur, etc.
If you’re writing a murder mystery, you might want to plan each murder ahead of time, listing out the items, weapons, clues, witnesses, and so on, that are involved. Different kinds of book will require different kinds of planning.
Unless you are the world’s foremost expert on your subject, you should do some research. If you’re writing about one man’s quest to find a yeti, do research into past expeditions and findings. If you’re writing about going back in time to walk with the dinosaurs, research what Earth’s atmosphere was like back then, and what kinds of dinosaurs would have roamed various parts of the world. Even in a fantastical book such as that, you wouldn’t really want your hero to witness a fight between two dinosaurs who would actually have inhabited different continents.
Remember not to assume that your reader knows everything you do, but also don’t patronise them. Perhaps more importantly, remember that your characters probably don’t know everything either. Perhaps your time traveller is a genius who has built a time machine and wants to go back 100 million years, but it takes a friend or colleague to point out that there was less oxygen back then, so he should prepare for that.
It’s okay for your characters to lack knowledge. Think about how much you know about. You might drive a car, but do you know how that car works? You probably use a computer, but do you know how it works? It’s not so okay for the writer to lack knowledge however, as in the time travelling examples. It’s better for one of your characters to point out the oxygen issue to your hero than to have one of your readers point it out to you.
It might be boring to research – especially if you already think you know a lot about the subject – but it’s important. Besides, think how knowledgeable you’ll be afterwards. Perhaps that’s why so many famous authors seem to be intelligent and knowledgeable.
And now it’s time to write! Which will be covered in part 2…