Now for some secondary writing tips. I will delve a little deeper than the basics I addressed in my previous post. It is worth noting, however, that the tips in that post will be addressed again here, first and foremost:
1) MAKE A SCHEDULE & STICK TO IT!!!
2) READ OFTEN!!!
3) WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW!!!
Okay then – moving on…
Start Small & Work Your Way Up
You don’t need to jump right into it from not being a writer to suddenly being a novelist. When I first really started to write, I was writing poetry (much of which I published here). The kind of poetry I emulated was short on words and high on power. I’d write a poem and then edit it down for days until it felt done. One exercise I liked to do was this: set out to write a poem about a certain topic. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say “a poem about love.” Next, think of 10-20 words that you commonly associate with love (heart, kiss, desire, etc.) and THROW THEM OUT THE DOOR. Don’t use them at all! Then start writing. This forces you to think about new ways to convey what it is you are trying to say. Afterward, start figuring out which words in the final poem are superfluous, which words are filler or junk. Yank them out and get your poem down to the bare bones. Remember: less is more with certain things (poetry being one, at least for me anyway). Nine times out of ten you will have a better, more powerful poem when you do all of this.
Okay but poems aren’t always full stories. As a kid I was always interested in making movies. Growing up, my father had a video camera that he allowed me and my brother to use. Almost always we were making horror movies of some kind, stop animation, or fighting movies. I started writing loose scripts for the movies I intended to make. A script outline is called a “treatment” – this was a good, logical next step for me to take. Eventually I set out to write a few feature-length movie scripts. I completed two out of my many false starts and failed projects, and I’ve written about a half dozen shorter scripts and skits. They have yet to be turned into films. After going through the publishing process for Fifth Stone I turned one of those screenplays into a short novel called The Streets Fantastic.
From there it was still a big jump to novelist. When I set out to write Fifth Stone, my first completed novel, it started out conceptually as a fantasy story loosely based on the Biblical book Revelation; an apocalyptic and frightening “end of times” prophecy. It grew and changed, of course, but that was the seed. I wrote nothing but back story and outlines for months and months. I drew timelines, maps, ancestral family trees for characters in both the back story and the main story. I had reams of notebook paper filled with descriptions of the realms and characters. This was NOTHING like writing a screenplay. But at some point I looked down and said: “This is it. It’s all here, I just have to actually write it now.” It was a daunting task ahead, but I knew I had to get through it. When I started writing, it would be five or ten pages of story and then I’d edit. I hit brick walls of writer’s block and had no idea how to get through them. But once I was on a more structured writing schedule, I would bang out much more per day. After six years I had a completed novel; the first in a loosely planned series of four which would include sequels and prequels. Lazarus proved to be a much faster process (concept to completion within a year).
Style & Descriptive Detail
To quote the band Rush: “Show me, don’t tell me.” When you write, don’t just say what is happening. Paint a picture with words, so that a reader can SEE it. You aren’t a court reporter or news person, listing the facts, and you don’t need to explain every minuscule detail if they aren’t important. You can allow some things to be open to interpretation. You are an artist, so write like one. You don’t need to be fluffy and verbose. You can be bare bones and still be a success. Just read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” for the antithesis of verbosity and fluff, yet the epitome of powerful, dramatic scene creation. That is the perfect example of how sometimes less is more. It’s all in how you craft your descriptions and what you want to get across to the reader, how much you want to spoon-feed them about what is happening, or how much you want them to fill in the blanks in their head. You don’t need to describe every hair on a person’s head, how it is placed, etc. But maybe the hair color is helpful, if necessary to the story (take Joffrey in Game of Thrones, for example – his blonde hair speaks to his incestuous parents and identifies him as Lannister blood, not Baratheon). As a rule of thumb, you can ask yourself if a specific detail is necessary to the story. Does someone’s height and weight matter in your story? Do they run and get tired because they are out of shape? Does the image you have in your head about how the character looks even matter? When in the story should you reveal such details? Things to think about…
Germinating the Seed of Your Story
As for how I start a novel, the first thing that happens is that I will have some sort of basic idea; very rudimentary usually. I will use The Lazarus Impact as an example. The Lazarus Impact began as a very basic idea: “A zombie story about a meteor that hits the earth.” This is ultimately just a setting; a loose framework which needs to be populated with characters, their struggles, and a compelling story. In my first writing session I conceived that the space dust that flies up into the air after the meteor hits would cause people to die and then come back to life as brain-hungry cannibals. So both air and bites can create a zombie. This is still more framework, more plot-driven concepts, more setting.
Then I started thinking about logistics; what is the reality of life like in this fictional setting? All the characters would need gas masks to survive; and people would kill each other for them if they’re scarce. The government would try to contain the people, to contain the dust, to slow the spread of the affliction. Naturally, people would resist the force of government to contain them and control them. They would want to break free and go to where it is safe. This leads to a broader concept for a struggle or greater conflict, and it creates all sorts of possibilities with respect to themes or other socio-political issues that I like to touch upon in my writing. This is vital stuff to think about, as it can help drive what motivates your characters. It also tends to add believability to the story, and it will get you thinking about continuity.
Be aware of this though: if you choose your setting first, as I have done, it might place physical limitations on the way the story can unfold, and the characters that populate the world. In other words, you might have unknowingly created “rules” that your writing should follow. Take Fifth Stone for example: I set out a very knowable set of rules when I created the rich fantasy world of Haaret. My characters couldn’t just take to the skies in flight out of nowhere. Believe it or not, some fantasy writers just go way overboard with the powers that their characters have, without explaining why or how they have such powers to begin with. Writing like this can cause all sorts of continuity problems, and readers will throw up their hands in frustration because they can’t come to know anything for certain about the world or the characters. Readers will ask: “Well if they can just teleport to a place at any time, then why did they walk for half of the story?” Things like this piss readers off, and they will put down your book and never read it again. Worse yet; they might write you a bad review.
Some writers might find it more important to focus on the characters first (and the stories they tell or the events they go through) rather than focusing on the setting first. The order doesn’t really matter, I don’t think. And often times, for me anyway, setting and characters kind of grow simultaneously alongside one another when I conceive a story.
Populating Your Story & Developing Characters
Creating characters can be really fun, but really difficult. Readers of certain genres like horror or fantasy may expect certain stock types of characters, but it is important not to give your characters over wholesale to cliches or stereotypes. You can hark back to the old formats: the fool, the warrior, the maiden, the sage, the child, etc. These things can help create a core skeleton of a character, but you will ultimately have to add meat to his or her bones to create a unique character.
For The Lazarus Impact I knew early on that I was going to have a diverse cast of characters who eventually would all meet up with one another as strangers on the same hellish journey. I indulged a bit in cliches and stereotypes at the outset to create a template for each character. But from there I created unique back story and motivations for each character, drawing from my own life experience to add nuance, detail, and depth to each of them.
Let’s take one of my favorite characters as an example; Willy Stanton, the old, hardened war veteran suffering from PTSD in The Lazarus Impact. To be sure, I don’t know what it is like to be an old man suffering from PTSD. I have absolutely no idea. I’ve never served the country in war. I’ve never faced the very real prospect of death with every step taken. But we’ve all heard real life stories about these things. Use them. Use whatever resources you have; even if they’re only movies like Platoon or TV shows like Band of Brothers, because those types of stories were successful and based on very real happenings. Don’t steal characters; just look for templates and apply them to your own character creation process.
Be specific in the details of characters, but also be aware of whether the amount of detail is needed (see earlier tip up above). When I was a child, I remember hearing my parents talk about a cousin they lost to the war in Vietnam. They spoke about how the horrors of war drove him to the brink of insanity, and how friends of his had done awful things as a means of coping with the agony of battle day after day. Gruesome photos were taken, grotesque souvenirs were kept, and morbid letters were sent back home with pride. I used some of those stories to add depth and realism to Willy’s traumatized character, despite never having had a gun pointed at me, and never suiting up in camouflage to defend my country or someone else’s freedom. I even added a story from my dad’s youth about hunting to add more age and cultural perspective to Willy’s character. I asked military buddies about how they banter and how nicknames form, what the lingo is like, what a normal uneventful day is like, how many people are sent to do X or Y kinds of missions, who is in charge, etc.
With all this data to draw upon, I found it relatively easy to add a unique flesh to the stereotypical “old, hardened war veteran” type of character, thus making him one-of-a-kind, but also familiar, accessible and comfortable to all readers. I was trying to strike that balance. I think… I hope… that when you are introduced to Willy, you almost instantly know him. But as his story progresses and his particular motivations are revealed and become clear, his character nuances make him special and unique as well as knowable.
Outlining & Putting Meat on the Bones of Your Story Skeleton
This is where some people get lazy. So you have this idea, and you came up with some cool characters. Now what? You write an outline; a loose explanation of who does what, and what happens. This can be daunting. It is essentially formulating the entire story without actually writing it all. And the crazy part is that, I find, once the story is mapped out in a skeletal sort of framework or outline, it is very easy to keep putting off the actual writing of the tale. But you have to get the meat onto the bones, otherwise the story will always stay in your head, or in treatment form, or in outline form on a notepad, forever. This has happened countless times to me. I’d write an outline, or a screenplay treatment, and then I’d put it down, never to work on it again. Theoretically I can always go pick them up again and work them through, but if you don’t keep at it, your drive and hunger for that story will fade, and you will no longer be inside the heads of your characters. If that happens, your story will always just be a skeleton in your writing closet. So stick to it. And you really should make a full outline or a road map for your story. Otherwise you might start writing a story with no clue as to where it is going. Then 40 pages in you might not like where it is headed, or you might have no idea how to continue it. Then there is a severe writer’s block, and you might toss the project aside. I’ve gone through all of this, and the only remedy is to stick to the basic three writing tips, and to keep working to finish the outline and then keep working to put the meat onto the bones. With Fifth Stone, I went through periods of writers block for months to years on end. I knew I was going to finish it, but my outline was too loose and I found myself hitting walls. How did I get through it? I stuck to a writing schedule. It forced me to keep thinking about my story, to keep crafting, to keep writing. The first half took me five years to write, and the back half took me one. That’s the difference a regular schedule can make. As for Lazarus, I conceived of and finished writing that book in less than a year. The basic tips really work, people!
Finalizing Your Book
So you finished writing your book. CONGRATS! Now the real work begins, because you’re going to have to read it until you are blue in the face, and then there are the ominous query letter submission and publishing processes. There are edits, re-edits, changing things, reordering chapters, killing off characters, adding new events… Just when you think you are finished, you aren’t. When you finish the bulk of the writing, you should take a break from your book and come to it with fresh eyes, or have a trusted loved one read it to give you feedback or help edit typos that you might have missed on the 40 passes you already gave it with your own eyes. Once you are satisfied with the way it reads then you can move on to the next set of tips I will have for you for querying and publishing.
Just a side note: I know the tendency is to want to be done with it, for it to be finished as soon as you write “The End.” But seriously – take your time. Unless you are on a deadline, there is no rush! Sometimes, with the end in sight, writers will rush their endings, or rush the entire back half of their books! So take your time. And there’s a saying in the writing/publishing world: the real work doesn’t really start until AFTER you finish your manuscript.
That’s all for now. Good luck! And stay tuned for tips on querying and the publishing process.