So, you have a balloon idea for a novel or you have already written one and thinking about doing another?
You may have written a short story, or several, and you figure getting stuck into a book shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. Boy, are you in for a surprise! If you have written something and you think you know all the tricks, this series of articles may not be for you. Still, you may get some amusement from reading how I go about my writing.
Getting an idea for a novel is easy. You have a concept in your mind, you jot down some notes: a starting point, some scenes, a dramatic climax – or perhaps not. It doesn’t sound too hard. Well, for me, getting a concept for a book is the easy part. I have dozens of idea balloons, and several are worth nourishing, but which one to pick?
Okay, this is how I go about my craft:
- Decide on a concept/theme for the book.
- Jot down all the pointers/elements that will make a story.
- Thoroughly research all the story elements.
- Develop your characters.
- Write a point-by-point story outline/synopsis.
- Develop a detailed outline.
- Fill in any missing research elements.
- Start writing.
- Review, edit, rewrite.
- Review and edit the final version.
- Take a holiday!
If I haven’t lost you yet and you want to stick with me, over the course of the next few weeks, I will post articles that deal with all the above points. Perhaps they may aid in your writing, or get a chuckle out of you.
Step 1 – Book concept and theme…
Remember, there is no guide for this.
An author can write about anything in any genre. This is where the author’s imagination kicks in and there is no how-to manual for imagination. However, the toolbox I use once I do have a concept can be reduced to definable steps. Think of the process akin to drawing up a plan for a new house or writing instructions to someone how to perform a specific task. If the specifications or your instructions are not clear, you should not be surprised at what happens when the job is supposedly done. Sadly, during my time reviewing books, I have seen some of these results. Wincing and cringing is only a part of what happens with such books.
It can happen that an author has a supposedly brilliant flash and wants to jump on the computer or drag out his writing pad that very instant and start churning out pages. Such an impulse must be resisted at all costs. That approach may serve you well if you are digging a hole for a fencepost, but it just won’t do for a major work that usually takes many months, and for some, a whole lot longer. There is simply no substitute for thorough planning and preparation. Take a shortcut and you end up in a cul-de-sac with lots of rejections. Been there and done that when I first started. My very first effort was done on differently colored paper, single-spaced, half-inch margins … you get the idea. That was a long time ago and much sweat has been expended since.
Anyway, I was talking about planning your opus. The idea balloon must be firmly anchored by its content. If you simply have an idea, that balloon will end up in a galaxy far, far away. But you are telling yourself that you already have the story content, no? That’s what the idea was about. So what the hell am I getting at? You might have an idea, such as: the US Navy takes over the Panama Canal to prevent Al Queda from sabotaging a vital trade and military link. Okay as far as it goes, but what is the story? This is where the hard work starts, and before you get very far, you may regret starting. Have lots of strong, black coffee handy.
Translate that idea into a possible story
To achieve it, the idea needs to contain several elements. Sounds basic and it is, but you must have a story start, main plot, sub-plots, events, culmination, an ending. Depending on how complicated or simple you want your novel to be: story about a single event, story about several characters in a single event, several events woven into sub-plots that involve a number of principal characters. The possibilities are endless, but you must make a firm decision at the outset and choose what the scope of the book will be, then stick to it! Get overly ambitious and you will get bogged down. Start off too simply and you will lose interest, or your reader will. It really depends on how much writing you have done so far and mastery of its tools. If you are starting out, stay with the simple. Nothing wrong with writing a complex novel, but the crafting gets very much more involved and there are lots of crevices to fall into for the unprepared.
The punch line: Define the scope of your novel and the main elements!
Step 2 – Research and Character Definition…
In every endeavor, to ensure success, you must research, research, research. At least that’s what someone said, I think. Anyway, it’s all very true. The extent of your research is, of course, governed by the topic and target audience of your novel. I will not touch on science fiction, as that requires a different approach.
By now, you should have defined the scope and the main elements of your book, and you have a pretty good idea, admittedly still very rough at this stage, what the whole thing is about. If you are still struggling to develop that idea balloon, take a step back and review your concept and theme. If you are past that, consider what you will be writing:
- A love foray
- A psychological exploration
With what you have now, you are all excited and tempted to get stuck into the writing before all those brilliant flashes and scenes fade away. That’s a no-no. Certainly, write down snippets that give you a warm fuzzy, but tuck them for later use. Don’t get carried away along a road that has no ending – you’ll be walking it long enough as it is. Consider these snippets as elements of your research. It all serves to gradually build a portfolio of background information against which the novel will develop coherently. Impulse jumping on a computer and pounding away can work well for a short story – if you are a skilled writer – but not for a major work no matter how good you are. Think of it as laying down foundations for a house. If you start putting down bricks on bare ground, everything above it will be creaky.
To business. Let’s follow that idea balloon where the US Navy takes over the Panama Canal to prevent Al Queda from sabotaging a vital trade and military link. Before you can even start thinking in detail about a plot and characters, you need a background. For this particular story – the approach is the same for any story background – you must research:
- About the US Navy, or at least the elements that might be involved in the story, ie: ships, what type, capability, weapons, personnel, everything that might be needed to provide a realistic background. This, of course, if governed by the theme of the book. A techno thriller needs lots of data, whereas a character driven work will need much less.
- Where are the ships coming from, ie: which US naval base? What is the command and control structure?
- Information about the Panama Canal: how many ships traverse it in a day, what types of ships, impact on various economies should the canal be blocked, political consequences.
- Who are the story players: individuals, organizations, governments. Provide background structure for all and define what they do.
How do you do the research?
These days there are so many information sources. The problem is finding the right one that suits your needs. This might sound obvious, but your local or city library is a goldmine of useful material. And, of course, the Internet is a bottomless well of stuff, and you don’t even have to get up out of your chair. Just be careful not to fall into that well, and take care to get your facts correct. Not everything on the Internet is accurate. So, research from several sources and cross-reference. What I do with everything I have gathered is to print it out and file it in a reference folder, to be used as needed. Hint – get yourself a thick folder! And don’t be fooled; this exercise can be exacting and tedious, but it is absolutely essential.
You get the idea. At this point you may also be scratching your head, wondering whether that idea balloon was all that good and whether you want to go through all this rigmarole. That’s up to you, but if you believe in the concept and have passion, you need to persist, and you need to be professional about it. Once you have the static background all mapped out – keep in mind that some finer research always happens as you actually write – the next and most important part of the research step, and perhaps the most demanding, is identifying your characters. I am not talking about defining them; that will be handled in the next section.
Who are your characters?
A story can be distilled into two main elements: what happens, and who does what to whom and why. For our idea, you must identify:
- Who is the main story character?
- Is there more than one?
- What do they do in the story to makes them central?
- Who are the secondary characters?
- Who are the bit players?
All this effort culminates in two important outcomes that should give you a really warm feeling – I hope. The background research has provided a backdrop for the book and given you confidence that the concept is sound. The second, you now know who your characters are and basically what they will do in the story. You now know the good guys and the bad guys. Ready to start writing? Far from it!
Step 3 – Defining your characters…
When you are writing a novel, you are writing about people. If it’s not about people, then you’re writing a user manual. The trick is: to what extent do you evoke your characters? This section will hopefully answer that.
In days long gone, I was more interested in the process: the how and what, not the why and by whom. Such writing is easy, as processes tend to be static – most of the time – and talking about inanimate objects or action scenes where guns blaze or starships chase each other, is fun and can be eminently readable. I have done books like that and still love what I wrote. But as I got grayer, my perspective changed. In any novel, it is people who do things, not machines. People, on the other hand, are quirky, unpredictable, and a general pain. They are much harder to write about if you want them to be real. Unfortunately, that’s where the story is. Action scenes are merely the vehicles your characters use to get things done. How the characters interact and why, that’s where the real story lies.
How do I define my characters?
Lots of famous authors have written books that have minimal description of their characters: she was tall, leggy, and beautiful. They used dialogue and narrative description of behavior and mannerisms to flesh out the character in the reader’s mind. It can work, but however readable the books, all of them are about processes, and people are secondary bit players. So, if you want to write a great novel, you must populate it with great people – or at least believable ones. How do you go about doing that?
From the previous section, you should have your cast of characters lined up against the wall with ID cards on their chests. This is the time to roll up your sleeves, put on your thinking cap, and make each one of them real. You need to:
- Define physical characteristics: height, weight, facial features, distinguishing features such as scars, limp, or whatever.
- Mannerisms: does the person twitch, scratch periodically, slouch, stoop, point with his finger…
- Dress, color, food preferences…
- Emotional makeup: cool, analytical, emotional erratic, judgmental…
You may very well ask, why bother with all that? It seems like a load of hard work I will never use in the novel and I already know what my characters are like. Perhaps, but you are fooling yourself.
The invaluable benefit of doing this step is that it provides consistency and an anchor for your characters. You are giving them a personality. I have read books where in one chapter the main character is six foot two, and in the next, he is five foot ten. Instead of having blue eyes, he suddenly has brown ones. There is no excuse for such sloppy writing. The first time a reader comes across such a thing, the author has lost all credibility and the book is discarded.
In addition to consistency, this work provides a fixed image in your head what every character looks like, how he/she behaves and their mannerisms. In a novel that spans several hundred pages, your characters must behave consistently and be real! If the story evokes a change in a character’s behavior, it will be done from a known base and the reader will follow the change comfortably. Making your character behave erratically is also a sure way to loose your reader. It also shows a lack of discipline in your as a writer.
There is another benefit from getting to know your characters intimately. As you write, you will be able to step into their persona, and their actions and dialogue will reflect this familiarity. Your writing will be natural and fluid. How to write good narrative and dialogue is another can of worms and outside what I am talking about here.
Step – 4 Write the story outline…
I don’t know what works for other authors, but for me, before I put pen to paper or touch that word processor keyboard, I have to know what I am writing about. But wait! Don’t I already have my concept and my characters? Sure, I have a book concept already defined, but a concept is not the story. Don’t kid yourself. Writing an outline is where the hard work really starts. You can get away with a few bullet points if you are writing a short story to make sure the thing doesn’t get away from you, but for a novel, it takes more than that. Remember those foundations for the house? You have dug the trench, now you need to fill it with reinforcing wire.
How do I write an outline?
What I do first is build my story skeleton – the wire frame. This can be done any number of ways: bullet points, a series of sentences/paragraphs, even a process flow diagram. They all work. From the concept that we’ve already talked about, what I do is start by jotting down the initial scene ideas and build from there. I know, or I should by now, the main plot and the ending, but it’s the in between bits that need joining and filing out. Don’t treat this as a synopsis, which is an altogether different beast. An initial outline is meant to deliver a structure around which everything else is built. If you end up doing this part wrong, you shouldn’t be surprised when bits start falling off, or the agonies you will suffer during the actual writing when the thing doesn’t hang together. Writing can be an exhilarating, creative act that generates an immense high. It can also be a cause for depression and thoughts of jumping from a tall building. To avoid the latter, get the basics done right and enjoy the buzz.
The outline must have, which might sound obvious:
- All basic story scenes defined.
- Characters involved in each scene.
- Main plot and sub-plots.
- The human elements!
- Fill in any research bits.
Once done, a consistency check should be run against each scene to make sure it all fits together. Like a skeleton badly assembled, you don’t want an arm falling off if you shake it. Once I am happy with the initial outline, I start work on the detailed storyline – pouring concrete into the trench. This is basically a chapter by chapter narrative, which can be a real pain to write, as by now, I am anxious to get into the real writing. That urge must be resisted, because at this stage, not everything has been defined, and you don’t want to spend time in plot development as you write. That’s a sure way to get off the rails. Think of it as building a house once the footings are done. Unless you plan everything beforehand – color of brick, tiles, interior fittings, paint color – when you have to actually do those things, you’ll be tearing your hair out. This takes discipline and a professional approach, otherwise you are kidding yourself that you are a writer.
When I say chapter by chapter, I mean that literally. This exercise is putting the main muscles and flesh on the skeleton. This is where you bring the characters alive in your mind and get them doing ‘stuff’. Moreover, the exercise stresses your story concept for consistency and identification of any loose threads. There is nothing worse for the reader than having to go through a story and find plot and sub-plot elements unresolved. Death!
Again, how do I write that outline?
Once I have my skeleton outline, writing a detailed outline can be done any number of ways, whatever works for you. What I do is actually write the story itself, which can run into quite a number of pages, or not. It all depends on the story’s complexity. The more involved the story, the greater effort must be done with the outline. Of course, it can also work out that all the story elements are so firmly embedded in my mind that I don’t have to spend too much time writing a detailed outline. But that’s rare and can leave you missing something important, only to catch up with you when you are actually writing the story itself. Then you’re stuck, an event called writer’s block – more depression. Sure, there are always little things that can hold me up while writing, but I never get stuck on a plot or sub-plot element, and that’s because I have thought it all through already. While writing, the story and its characters can take a life of their own and take me in an unexpected direction, but that’s the fun part, and something I will talk about later. We are talking about a detailed outline here. Warning! Don’t get carried away with your outline that you start to actually write scenes in unnecessary detail! You will only be wasting energy.
So, get that outline done!
Step 5 – Start writing the story…
At last, I am ready to go! For me, starting to write is like taking a cold shower. It takes courage to step under a freezing deluge. Once there, you are numb and it’s not so bad. Besides, it’s supposed to be good for you. Still, I’m trying to find the guy who said that and shove him under that shower! There are certain mechanics to writing and every author is different – whatever gives you a high. For me, I use the old-fashioned pen and notebook. I tried typing directly into the computer, but that just doesn’t work for me. I must have that tactile feel of a pen in my hand to actually write with, or simply fiddle with it while thoughts and scenes race through my mind. Oh, yes. Have a large eraser handy…
With my pad open, pen ready, sunlight streaming through my window – or maybe not – coffee cup beside my elbow, I am poised to write that very first sentence. Another thing, I make sure I cannot be interrupted or have bills to pay on that day. Man, starting is like giving birth – from what women say. In so many way, that first sentence and paragraph can set the atmosphere for the whole novel, and you better get it right. It sets the mood and flavor that will be followed through the rest of the work, or should. While writing, I sometimes have background music going, something easy to listen to that complements the creation process rather than impeding or distracting it. But not for that first sentence or paragraph! You may not have such a problem, then you’re lucky. The other thing that helps is if you have mastered the technical intricacies of the English language and grammar. If you haven’t, well, that’s a different can of worms which I won’t open this time. But take my word for it, reading a book a sixth grader wouldn’t write smells like that can of worms.
You are on your way!
Once that first bit is written, I’m off, my pace limited only by the need to refuel. There is nothing so personally satisfying than having words flow and things happen that my pen can hardly keep up. The raw process of creation can be giddying – until you hit a pothole or two, which always happens at some stage. That is a sure sign a break is needed and the batteries must be recharged – or you need to pay that bill. I am never able to sustain a period of creative writing for longer than three or four hours, and sometimes less, even when I want to keep going. Anyway, take that break! The book won’t go anywhere. Once I have a block of writing done, I transcribe it into the computer, editing while doing so. Oh, keep backup files – always – and more than one. The initial version I churned out in my pad is never a clean product, but sometime bits of it is, that some editing is not warranted. Once in the computer, the whole process is repeated: pen to paper, paper to computer, editing.
At this point, it is worth touching on technique. Again, whatever works for you. Once I have a new piece of work in the computer, I do a thorough edit of that material. This not only serves to trap grammar bloopers and punctuation holes, it happens to the best of us, but also beds down the flow of the story in my mind, ensuring I am following the outline. By the way, you do refer to your detailed outline, no? You don’t want to be inventing a new story, not at this stage. This process may also involve rewriting, adding and deleting material. A basic tenet in writing is that the author must be his worst enemy, or your prospective publisher definitely will be. You cannot and must not be wedded to your writing! You must be prepared to cut what seems brilliant narrative or dialogue if it does not contribute to the story. If you are not prepared to do this, you are kidding yourself that you are a serious writer. Cut off my hand instead! I know the feeling all too well, but you must have the cold dispassion of a surgeon.
Once I have a block of writing, I print out the material and do another edit. It is amazing what the eye catches on the screen and what it sees on paper. Anyway, that’s how I go about the business. The big pointer here? Edit and edit! As a reviewer, I have seen so many books ruined because the author did not bother or didn’t do the editing properly.
The fun part while writing, and it can be a lot of fun, is that your characters will develop a life of their own and end up saying and doing things that could surprise you. They sure as hell always surprise me. But that’s okay, and it means the characters are real, not merely two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. However, as the author, I must control what they do or the thing could descend into irrelevancy. Everything must conform to the story outline! You might be tempted to follow a side alley that suddenly opens up, I do, but unless it contributes to what the story is about, you’ve lost control and will need to cut out that section. How do you make your characters real? Through good dialogue and narrative, of course. And how do you do that? Lots of ways to do that, but if you send me small, unmarked bills, I’ll tell you.
Okay, you have spent months pounding away, getting frustrated, getting an occasional high, and the end is in sight. That’s good, but don’t rush it and spoil it!
Novel Step 6 – Finishing your opus…
How long has it taken to get that last paragraph written? Or perhaps you don’t want to think about that part, glad the damned thing is finally done! Up until that last page, I am full of energy and enthusiasm, and when the last sentence is finished, I can pump up my hand and say ‘Yes’! However, that’s not the end of it, not by a long shot. You have merely done the easy part. I can hear that groan, but don’t worry, it’s really not that bad.
You are done, fine. Grab that cup of coffee or something stronger – sometimes that work better, it does for me – sit back and breathe a huge sigh of relief. That’s when the loud music can begin. I recently finished a fairly lengthy novel and the process, as always, leaves me drained. It can take a while before I am ready to tackle a new book, idea balloons notwithstanding. While I am between books, I allow myself to do all the naughty and distracting things I refrained from doing while working. After all, there have to be priorities. Once done, all bets are off – almost.
Why almost? I did say that during the writing process, I would edit and rewrite and edit, ad nauseam. By now, I am heartily weary of the whole thing. But there are two important steps still to be done before that opus is ready to be sent to a publisher. Perhaps you’ve guessed it: more editing. More staring at those same words, reading those same old scenes, tired of having the characters haunting my nights. After that stiff drink to celebrate a successful ending, it’s back to work. I don’t know about you or what you do when you finish a book, but I don’t consider mine done until I have gone over it again with a magnifying glass.
A final polish
The first thing I do when I finish is to leave the thing alone for a little while, which is not all that hard. After many months pounding away on the keyboard, it doesn’t take much convincing not to look at the damned thing again. After doing some crazy things and getting my mind out of gear, it is time to pick up the thread again. I go over the whole novel, first on the computer, then printing everything out and looking at it with a critical eye. Don’t get caught up in the story here. Think of yourself as an editor looking for mistakes, which you should be doing.
Once this pass is done, the book is not yet ready to be sent out. Oh, no! Well, you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. This review process must be repeated a minimum of three times, with some time between each. And every time, there are errors to pick up. Admittedly, less with each effort, but they are still there. Of course, at some point, I must stop because I have reached a barrier of diminishing returns. Your publisher will most certainly have the thing edited anyway, and providing the editor is any good, missed bloopers will be found. If not, your readers will most certainly find them, but that’s how things go.
The thing is, as an author, I am never completely satisfied the book is perfect. Still, I must draw a line in the sand somewhere and leave it, prepared to move onto something else. You have given birth to your child, it is now grown and you must cut the cord. How successful your effort has been, only the readers will say, and sometimes they don’t. The colder and more objective you are as your own editor, the easier the process will become. As with everything, practice and experience will hone your skill.
The final end
Behind every great book idea lies a lot of hard work, and a lot of it must be done before you even start writing. So, prepare well before you put pen to paper and you will ensure a successful outcome. If you omit the planning, research, and character development stages, don’t be surprised at what comes out the other end. Writing is a solitary business and it takes a certain personality to do it. Some people get a buss from watching a football game. I get a high from the pure creation process that writing generates. That’s why I keep doing it. Like a junkie, I’m hooked.
I hope this article has given you something useful to ponder on. Feel free to contact me with your comments – always welcome!