As we become parents, as we retire, as we enter a new phase of life, the idea of writing a book enters the minds of many. We can wander the shelves of a bookstore and see no shortage of words put to paper, snazzy covers, rave reviews…and we think “I can do that.” We buy a new notebook from that bookstore – a really nice one with a leather cover and lined paper (or if you are like me, graph paper) and a new pen. After purchasing a tall coffee, a hopeful writer will sit down, open the pristine notebook, and press the pen to the paper.
What is written first? Do authors begin with a title? Am I going to write fiction or non-fiction? Do I know enough about a topic to write non-fiction? Maybe I should write stories, that way I won’t have to do any research. Will my story be a romance or fantasy or a memoir? How do I decide on the name of my main character? Where should my story take place?
This is the first obstacle – getting started. Don’t give up your aspirations to be a writer yet! That’s like a runner with shiny new shoes and a couch-to-5K plan in hand looking at the marathon route. Sometimes the route to the finish line is so daunting, your new shoes never see a mile. In writing terms, that route scares you and your notebook becomes a glorified shopping list instead of the first draft of your novel?
Here are a few truths (based on my own experience):
1. Where to Begin? Sometimes authors do begin with a title. Sometimes it’s a simple mental picture of a few characters interacting. A novel could be born from an idea, a concept, a feeling, or a comment. Gateways is the evolution of a dream I had when I was nine. Unforgettable Roads started with a short story about a grandfather who decorated refrigerator boxes into time machines. Truth is, you just never know where a story will pop into your mind.
Perhaps this will encourage you: you don’t have to start at the beginning. The first words of the novel are not always the first words written. If you have a clear idea for a scene, write it. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the beginning of the novel or the climax scene. Put it on paper. You can always move it around later.
2. Fiction or Non-fiction. If you want to write non-fiction, it will take research, even if you are an expert in your field. If you want to write fiction, it will take research. I spent two weeks reading about trains and hobos and how train stations work. I needed to make sure that there was actually train tracks in the direction and cities where my characters went. Even with fantasy, it’s smart to research clothing, weaponry, speech patterns from other regions. The library and Netflix for documentaries have become my greatest resources.
3. The Genre Question. Romance, Mystery, Fantasy, Science fiction, pulp fiction, urban fantasy, mainstream fiction, Christian fiction…they all mean something. Find their definitions. Don’t be ashamed if you don’t know what punk fiction or flash fiction is. I had to look it up too!
Remember that people usually don’t read only one genre. Here’s a challenge: During your reading time, venture into new genres. And I don’t mean to set down your historical fiction novel and pick up a non-fiction book about history. Go way out there! Try steam punk or science fiction. Be brave! After all, you’ve committed to writing a book. What can be scarier than that? People probably already think your crazy :)
4. Study the art of storytelling. Read picture books. Read young adult and middle grade novels. Check out a few mysteries and some historical fiction. Read the book just for the sake of reading a good book. When you reach ‘The End’, make a few notes about what you liked about the story. Go back through and note the changes in the characters, the descriptions of scenes, the writing style used to amp up the tension. Study other writing.
There are three books that stand out for me…maybe because I’ve recently read them for a second (or sixth) time. These take the art of storytelling and break it down into manageable pieces – think back to the new runner and the marathon. Using these resources would be like running a mile a day.
1. The Story Template by Amy Deardon
2. Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
3. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass – I bought the ‘workbook’ version and have gone back to it with every novel.
I am not receiving any kickback by mentioning these books – they are just good resources if you are just starting out or stalled in your writing. If you decide to use these, read them in the order they are listed. Amy and Larry’s books will help you organize your story and write a first draft. Donald’s book will help you polish your manuscript and prepare if for submissions.
5. Time. Know that writing takes time, both in terms of scheduling time to write and that very few writers are over-night successes. And if you do find success in being published, that is just the end of one race and the beginning of another. Be patient with yourself, set aside the quiet time needed to write (and if you are a parent, this ‘quiet time’ I speak of doesn’t exist anywhere except with the help of naps and ear plugs), and make a little progress each day. It will all add up. I promise!
So what are you waiting for? Go! Write!