So You Want to Write A Book: Part 0 — Ready, Set, Don't Go Yet
So, you want to write a book, eh? Did I hear that right? I bet I did. After all, you did click the link to this article.
Well, here's something to help you out. A new column, all about the mechanics of sitting down to write the great American (or British, or Brazilian, or whatever) novel, written by a girl who knows. I mean, who thinks she knows. I mean, I've written five (GAH!) novels already, have two published, and one about to come out. Whether or not I'll ever be a commercially successful novelist remains to be seen, but for the moment, you can trust me. I'm there, in the trenches with you, and if you've never begun a book before, or if you've gotten started and floundered after a week, trust me. I understand.
Thus, this column. Over the next few months, as I work through my next novel-length project, I plan to leave you some tips, tricks, and various pieces of unsolicited advice. And as I only just started myself (okay, confession: I actually started this particular novel back in May, but then my daughter got out of school for the summer and life intervened and I'll be sitting back down to it later this week), it's all going to be very fresh in my head.
Still want to write a book? Here are some tips and tricks and things to do before you ever even sit down at your computer/notebook/typewriter.
Are you an outliner, or a seat-of-your-pantser?
This is one of my favorite questions to ask whenever I interview a writer. It offers insight not only into a writer's process, but also into their brain. I can almost guarantee: writers who are outliners are also list-makers in real life. Seat-of-pantsers are more like me — they figure it out as they go, let the wind take them where it deems necessary.
For you, beginning a novel, you need to know the answer to this question! There is no right answer, but you need to know yourself well enough to say, "I need an outline," or "I don't care, I just want to explore!"
If the answer is a resounding "outliner," then drop everything, step away from your computer, and start outlining. A lot of people I know like to outline manually, using arrows and circles and squares to change path mid-outline, before typing out a final plan. They map out each chapter, each scene, and know the end before they ever write the beginning.
For many of us, though, the answer is likely some sort of mash-up of both. For me, I hate outlining. Hate it with a passion. I rarely know the ending of a book when I start it. I like to see where a story takes me and, more importantly, where my characters decide to go.
BUT (and this is a big BUT which is why it's in all caps)...even if you're not an outliner, it still helps to do some list-making or note-taking ahead of time. So regardless, even for all you pantsers, let's talk about that.
Know your characters (at least the main ones)!
Look. I can't stress this enough. All great novels have great characters, and no great characters appear out of nowhere, fully-fleshed and ready to go. Characters take time to develop, to age like a fine wine or cheese.
For me, one of the lists I always make is a character list. I like to know names, basic visual data (tall/short, hair color, eye color), and some of my characters' main strengths and weaknesses (others I'll determine along the way). For my first couple of books, I didn't know to make this list, and I was forever changing things mid-story, and trust me: there's nothing more embarrassing as a writer than to have an editor point out that your main character has blue eyes in one scene, brown eyes in another, and green eyes in still another. It sounds little and trivial, but it really makes a difference later on. There's only so much Word's Find and Replace function will fix for you.
Get to know your characters. Write stuff down. Draw pictures in your notebook if you must. Know if someone likes coffee versus tea. Know if they're vegetarians. Know some funny little quirks, and write 'em down to reference later on. You'll thank yourself mid-novel, I promise.
Build your world ahead of time!
If all the great novels have great characters, then for sure, all the great fantasy/sci-fi novels have great worlds. But it doesn't stop there. A contemporary YA novel exists somewhere, even if it's not on a foreign planet a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Think about it. When Tolkien set out to write The Hobbit, he had a plan in place for Middle Earth. He knew everything, down to the language of the Elves, before he wrote a single word. That planning is what gave us Orcs and Goblins and the sulfury-smell of Smaug's breath.
Next, picture New Crobuzon in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station — it's rich and thick and full of detail. There are bird-headed creatures and aliens that live in stale, nasty, stinky water. There are foods and drinks and entire societies within those pages. It's a world-building masterpiece.
You can even look closer, to our own LitReactor instructor, Delilah S. Dawson. The world fleshed out in her Blud series feels alive with blood-sucking bunnies and carnival-caravans. When you're reading her stories, you're in her world. You can see things, hear things, even smell things you don't here on Earth. A good world does NOT get built overnight, and you want your story set in a good world.
Again, the level to which you record/plan is going to depend on your own preferences, but before you start writing, you need to at least know some basics.
Is it set here on Earth? If yes, what country/state/city/town? If no, what's the name of the planet? Where in the solar system is it?
What does your setting look like? Is it hot/cold? Rural/urban? Will your characters be navigating rocky terrain, or running through fields of wildflowers, dancing in warm breezes?
But that's not all! You need to know things like financial infrastructure. How do characters pay for things? You need to know how the government works. Is there a police force? An evil dictator? This is important stuff, writers! If your world doesn't mesh together, and one character works for the city government while another character who lives next door spends his/her days in a rural outpost light-years away, it'll never feel real. Not to you, and especially not to your readers.
Write what you know...or do your research first!
We've all heard it said a thousand times. "Write what you know." Right?
But what if you want to write something you don't know, and you don't want to make it up? The only answer then is to research.
Imagine writing a scene set in Nazi-held Lithuania (I'm speaking from experience here...this book I started and am re-starting is set there!). Imagine being in the groove. The scene is flowing. Your characters are at a dinner party, and the conversation is crisp and Sorkin-esque. One of them is about to give a toast to a bridal couple. He raises his glass. It's filled to the brim with....um....rats, you don't know what people drank in Nazi-held Lithuania, do you?
So now you have to stop, leave that scene that was flowing so well with the Sorkin-esque dialogue, and you need to Google it.
This is, perhaps, a trite example. In theory you could write through the scene and find the answer upon editing.
Or, instead, while you're busily answering the questions above and building your characters and world, you could research as much as possible. If you're writing historical fiction, this is exponentially important. The last thing you want to do is unintentionally muck up historical facts and figures.
For this go-round of novel-writing, I've immersed myself as much as possible in the culture of a small, Jewish village (shtetl) around the start of World War II. I've read books on the subject. I've listened to the music. The only thing I haven't done is cooked the food because my Aunt Ev was the best Jewish cook in the world, and I grew up tasting the foods of the Old Country.
The truth is we usually can't just write what we know, but a good, well-researched foundation can set any novel on fire...in a good way.
When in doubt...Pinterest!
So. Outliners, you're already outlining in your head, aren't you? You're planning your research. Pantsers, you've probably also got some ideas, but you're not sure where/how to write them. So now I'll let you in on a little trick of the trade, and one which I reluctantly began using, and on which I now rely.
I know, I know. We all think of crafts and #NailedIt memes when we hear the word, but for a writer with a visual inclination, Pinterest can be a godsend. Seriously. For my last novel, set on a foreign planet, I created a private Pinterest board and filled it with pictures of landscapes that looked like the planet in my head. I filled it with deserts and mountains and cities crumbling to ash. I filled it with people who came to life in my pages, faces that matched the characters I'd created. In short, I filled my Pinterest board with my story.
Throughout the writing of that novel, I referred to that Pinterest board often, using the visual cues to navigate a tricky scene or figure out a proper facial expression. It helped with the flow of my writing, to have something to look at whenever I got a little stuck. If a picture can say a thousand words, it can also help you write them.
Writing a book is not easy.
There. I said it. Writing a book isn't easy, but it can be very fun, very exciting, and so very rewarding it makes me want to scream. And although writing a novel isn't easy, getting these few things squared away ahead of time can make it easier, and improve your chances of following through to the end.
Me? I've done these things (although I think my new novel's Pinterest board could use some love...I'll check that out later today), and I'm all set to get started again. I'll check in with you next month with some more tips and things I've learned, and I wish you all the best of luck in your new book! Happy writing!
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