Writing a Book

 

As some of you may or may not know, I am writing a book. It’s very hard work. Before I began this process, I thought the hardest part would be writing the story. You know – figuring out what was going to happen and writing it down.

As it turns out, that is the easy part. It’s fun making up characters and deciding what’s going to happen to them. It’s fun making them say funny things, and serious things, and angry things, and happy things. It’s fun making them do brave things, and stupid things, and fall in and out of love, and make new friends, and lose friends, and experience new things. What’s hard is after the story is written – reading it and realizing that it needs A LOT OF WORK. It needs structure, and conflict, and all kinds of stuff that you never even thought about when you were writing it. Passages need to be rearranged and reworded. Sometimes whole chapters and characters need to be cut from the story. It’s hard, tedious work. And. it. takes. forever.

The hardest part, I’ve found, it finding time to do it. When I was writing my first draft, I was great at making the time. I couldn’t wait to write. As soon as I shut my son’s bedroom door at night after putting him to bed, I’d race off to my laptop and would spend hours writing. I’d often stay up until 1 am or later without even realizing how late it had gotten. But housework cannot be ignored forever. Friends, either. Most will be patient with you for a few months while you’re writing a first draft, but when it’s finished, you’re expected to be a good friend again. You’ll need to eat, also, and sleep, and at some point, you will run out of clean underwear. And that’s when you realize that you have to find some sort of a balance.

Revising has definitely been the hardest part for me. I’ve lost count, but I think I’m on my 14th set of revisions. That means going through and re-writing and editing the whole book 14 times!!!! Sometimes I think I’m getting somewhere; sometimes I think I should just delete the whole thing and start over. At some point, (hopefully), I’ll be okay enough with it to say I’m done. But it’s going to be awhile yet.

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Writing a Novel – What to Avoid

State of Being Verbs

Avoid using the “to be” verbs which are: am, is, are, was, were, be, been and being. Any sentence that uses these verbs is “telling,” rather than “showing,” which is what we want. For example, instead of saying: “Sally is a funny girl,” you could say “I like Sally’s sense of humor,” or “Sally makes me laugh.” Even better, you could portray her being funny – maybe have her telling jokes, or making witty comments, which will completely negate the need to say she is funny in the first place, because the reader will already know.

Excessive Adverbs

Try to avoid using adverbs in your writing, especially after dialogue. An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, other adverbs, or various other types of words, phrases, and clauses, and typically are just adjectives that end with the suffix -ly. They will distract the reader from your story. There are too many instances of “he said incredulously,” or “she said sarcastically.” A good story or dialogue will convey the tone you’re trying to create without the use of an additional descriptor. The reason adverbs are bad, is that they draw attention outside of your story. It’s important that the reader does not feel the author’s presence but instead, should be able to absorb the story without distraction.

Excessive Description

Description is very different from specific details, which are necessary in a good novel. Description, however, can slow down your narrative. Use this rule of thumb to decide whether to provide a description in your writing – Does it relate to the plot and advance the story? If the answer is no, cut it. Writing is all about moving the plot along, and if you pause to provide a two page description of a building, no matter how lovely, you are stopping the action and taking the reader out of your story. Pace is everything. Stick with the action.

Avoid Generalizing

In contrast to excessive description, specific details are very important to a story. Taking a moment to name a street, or a restaurant, or to briefly describe a dress, makes all the difference to your readers. I recently read a book, which I won’t name, that didn’t provide any details. It made me so mad! She talked about a dress she had chosen to wear out that evening, but didn’t say a thing about it! She could have said it was a little black dress, or a slinky red evening gown, or a floral sundress. The fact that she neglected to provide such important details really took away from her story. It made it less believable. Most readers do have some imagination, but you have to give them something to work with. Expecting them to come up with all the details themselves is unprofessional, and frankly, a bit lazy.

Creating Characters – Part 2

Once you’ve figured out what your character’s name will be, and what basic personality traits they will have, it’s important to go deeper, and get an even better understand of “who” your character is. It’s helpful to keep a file, or even a separate Word document with all of your character information to refer back to.

Here are some things you may want to know about your character:

1.) When is their birthday?

2.) How old are they?

3.) What do they look like?

4.) Do they have a family? How many siblings? Are their parents still alive? Do they have any children of their own? Do they have a husband, or a wife, or a significant other, or a best friend?

5.) Do they have any enemies?

6.) What do the other characters like about this character?

7.) What do the other characters dislike about this character?

8.) What are they good at?

9.) What are they bad at?

10.) What do they do? Do they go to school, do they have a job? What hobbies do they have? What do they do for fun? What movies do they like? What books do they like? What music do they like?

11.) Are they optimistic or pessimistic?

12.) What are their favorite foods?

13.) What are they afraid of?

14.) What is their favorite color?

15.) Do they have any pets?

16.) What do they carry in their purse, pocket, backpack, wallet, etc.?

17.) Has anything bad happened to them in their life?

18.) Are they shy or friendly?

19.) How do they walk, talk, and behave that makes them different from everyone else?

20.) Do they have any bad habits?

21.) What sort of facial expressions do they make?

22.) How would they react to good news? To bad news?

23.) Why should we care about them, anyway?

The main thing to remember when creating your characters is to make them believable. Nobody’s going to believe, or even like, a perfect character. Characters need flaws, just like real people need flaws. It’s what sets them apart and makes them different. Find that one thing that makes your character different and run with it. Readers embrace imperfection in characters. It makes the characters more relatable, and everyone wants to relate in some way to the characters they’re getting to know.

As Steven Taylor Goldsberry says in The Writer’s Book of Wisdom, “We adore eccentricity. Most of the folks who populate the real world, never mind invented ones, distinguish themselves by being unusual.”

He’s right. Uniqueness is important. Use your imagination to create a character that people will remember.

Creating Characters – Part 1

Often, the most important part of your story will be your characters. Sometimes, you decide to base one or more of your characters on someone you know. This can be a great way to start. You already know most of the things about them, anyway – how they act, how they speak, what they would or wouldn’t do. But unless you’re writing non-fiction, you will probably have to come up with some of the characters on your own.

Deciding Who Your Character Will Be:

The first thing you must do when creating a character, is to decide on basic defining characteristics. Will your character be male or female? Approximately what age group will your character be in? Is he or she a small child, or a teenager, or a young adult, or middle-aged? Maybe he or she has just had their 100th birthday. Once this has been decided, you must decide what this character will look like.

Maybe your character will be tall, dark and handsome. Maybe not. Maybe he or she will wear glasses, or have blue hair. Maybe your character has a pug nose or bushy eyebrows or very tiny ears. Find that one thing that will set your character apart, and use it. Readers like your characters to have flaws. It makes them more believable, and it’s very important for your audience to relate to your characters. The success of your novel will depend upon this.

How does your character speak? Is his or her voice very low or very high? Does he or she speak in complete sentences or fragments? What words does he or she use often? You need to be able to hear in your mind what this character will sound like, because this will help you immensely with dialogue.

Each character needs to have his or her own distinct personality. Maybe he or she is one of those happy-go-lucky people who always has a smile on their face. Or maybe he or she is very shy and quiet. Your character could be very funny, or dry, or cynical, or romantic, or even some odd mixture of everything. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try something, and if it doesn’t seem right, change it. Getting to know your characters often continues long after you’ve begun working on your novel, and sometimes, you’ll have a flash of insight and suddenly just “know” that your character has a fear of dogs, or an interest in aviation. Go with it. It’s easy to go back and change things if you need to.

Naming your Character:

Once you’ve figured out who your character will be, you need to name him or her. Try to pick a name that suits them. Often, naming your characters can be one of the hardest parts. But sometimes, you’ll just know. You know that the sweet old lady living down the street is named Betty, or the cute little baby in the stroller is named Davy. You don’t know how you know that, you just do. Sometimes, all you need to do is get to know your character a little better, and the name will just come to you.

Happy writing!

Writing a Novel – How to Begin

When you begin to write a novel, you may already have something in mind. Maybe you’ve had a story in your head for months or years, just waiting to get out. Or maybe there’s a certain character you’ve been creating over time, and you’d like to create a story around him or her. Maybe you have nothing in mind, and have just always wanted to write a novel. Well, here’s your chance!

There are two types of novels: story driven and character driven. Story driven novels happen when you have a specific story you’d like to tell, and you let the plot set the pace of the novel and define the characters. Character driven novels are the opposite – you begin with a character or several characters, and you build the story around them, based on how you feel they would act or behave.

In either case, I believe it is important to get to know your characters very well.

If you don’t know how to begin and have no ideas for a story or characters, here’s the easiest way to start:

1. Decide WHO you want your story to be about, rather than WHAT you want it to be about.

2. Begin to define your character – what does he or she look like? How does he or she speak? What does he or she like? What is his/her name? Write down everything you can think of about this character. You can always go back and change things once you begin writing. This is just to give you an idea of who this “person” is.

3. Once you have your main character, you can begin to define your secondary characters. Decide what their relationship will be to the main character, and write down everything you can about them. Again, you can always go back and change things later.

4. After you’ve come up with a few characters, you may be starting to have ideas of what will happen to these characters. At the very least, you must have an idea of the type of novel this will be. Will it be love story? A mystery? A thriller? All you have to do now is start writing, and let the characters guide the story. The better you get to know your characters, the more you’ll realize that the story is already there, you’re just writing it down.

5. Remember to be true to your characters. If your main character is scared of the dark, you wouldn’t have her going outside at midnight to investigate a noise she heard. Your readers will pick up on this, and you will lose credibility with them.

Happy writing!

Writing Every Day – Why It’s Important

Writing every day is so important. Not only is it a great way to improve your skills, it’s a good practice to get into because it keeps your creativity flowing. If you stop writing, even if it’s only for a few days, it’s really hard to get back into it. Writing can also be very therapeutic.

If you’re not working on anything in particular, it can be hard to think of something to write about every day. Journaling can be a very rewarding activity. Sometimes, writing about the mundane, boring things that happen to you on a daily basis can make them seem much more fascinating, and often, very funny. You may find it more fun to create a fictional journal about the life you’d rather be having. This can be a fun exercise, as well.

Writing prompts are also a great way to get your creative juices flowing. Shut off your thoughts and allow the prompt to guide you in whichever direction it takes you. You’ll surprise yourself. Most of the time you’ll write something you never knew you had in you, which is the best kind of thing to write.

I found this adorable little book called A Creative Writer’s Kit by Judy Reeves at Barnes and Noble. It contains a writing prompt for every day of the year. She suggests committing to sitting down to write at the same time every day for a certain length of time, whether it’s ten minutes, or two hours. And then actually do it. I agree, because it’s so easy to tell yourself that you’ll do it later, or tomorrow, or after you finish some big project you’re currently working on. That’s what separates the writers from the wanna-be writers. The writers actually write.

If you’d rather not buy a book of writing prompts, you can create your own. Anytime an idea for a prompt or a story pops into your head, write it down and stick it in a jar. Every day, draw out a prompt, and write about it. Prompts can be as simple as writing about making a turkey sandwich, or that tall, dark, handsome stranger you saw at the gas station the other day. Which brings me to people watching.
People watching can be a wonderful creative tool. Next time you spot any interesting looking strangers, invent backgrounds for them. Write what you think their lives must be like. You may even be able to use some of them as characters in a novel.

There are many reasons it’s important to write every day. You’ll always be able to think of a million reasons not to, but don’t let them stop you. Be a writer.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. Every writer has encountered this obstruction of creativity at some point, and everyone has their own way of overcoming it. Some are proactive and try to find a way around it, while some step back and wait for inspiration to strike. As someone who’s tried it both ways, I have to be honest – people who wait around for inspiration to strike will often end up waiting a very long time.

Here are some things I’ve tried that have helped immensely:

1.) Tell yourself you only have to write a tiny bit. Limiting your assignment to one page, one paragraph or even just a few sentences can really take away the pressure, which is often what is causing your block in the first place. Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, also recommends giving yourself short assignments. In her case, she only has to write as much as she can see through a one-inch picture frame, and no more. If you feel inspired to continue – great! If not, that’s okay, too. At least you’ve done something.

2.) Rituals. Many writers have rituals that help to get them in the mood for writing. Some put on music, or sip their favorite beverage, or have a special room for writing, or even go for a walk and think about what they’re going to write about. Whatever it is, it has to work for you. The first few times you try it, it may not have the desired effect, but after it becomes a habit, it often has the ability to gently coax you into the writing spirit. If not, try something else!

3.) Try rewriting a paragraph or two from your favorite book in your own words and using your characters instead of the author’s. The reason this works is that it gets you writing in your own voice and often inspires ideas for your own story.

4.) Write about something else. Take a day off from your story and work on something you’ve set aside. Sometimes taking a day to focus on something else will be just what you need to get back to your project.

5.) Write a description of one of your characters. Or all of them. This works great, because often you discover something about them that you’ve never thought of before, and this can add great plotlines to your story.

6.) Try a writing exercise. Most writing exercises are designed to draw out your creativity with the process of improvisational writing. I have found this to be very effective, and often, it can lead to ideas for future stories. One of my old college professors used to challenge us to a 15 minute “Quickwrite”. He would write a topic on the board, and then tell us to start. This forced us to write off the tops of our heads without thinking about how it sounded. We were not allowed to go back and read it or fix anything until the end. Some of the best writing was achieved in this way, because it forces you to drop your inhibitions. Try it!

7.) Change your scenery. If you’re used to writing in your dining room or your home office, perhaps a change of scenery is all it will take to raise your inspiration levels. Try writing while sitting at a café or on a bench at the park, or on a lawn chair in your backyard. If you don’t have a laptop and don’t like writing by hand, try the library. Most libraries have computers that you can use for free if you have a library card.

8.) Change things up a little. If you already have a writing ritual, and it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick anymore, maybe it’s time to change things a little. Change stimulates your brain, which results in an increase in creativity and a decrease in writer’s block. If you usually write in the morning, try writing in the afternoon or evening. If you usually listen to classical music, try listening to rock. Do something different, and see how your brain, and writing, responds.

9.) Never finish your sentences. Another little trick I’ve heard is to never end your writing for the day with a complete sentence. This will allow you to jump back into the same flow of writing as when you left off. This can prevent writer’s block because you’ll immediately know what to write and you’ll avoid staring at your computer screen for 20 minutes while you figure out what happens next.

10.) Realize that you don’t have to write the story in chronological order from beginning to end. Instead, think of yourself as a movie director. They shoot scenes in random order and then piece them all together to create the final product. Some scenes get cut, some get moved around and some get changed or reshot. You can do this with your story, as well. If the scene you’re working on isn’t working for you, jump to a different scene. You may change your mind and decide not to go in that direction after all, but the good news is – at least you got yourself writing again.

Writing the Truth

Even if you’re writing a fiction novel, you’ll want to make sure that there is truth to what you’re writing. Are your characters believable? Are you consistent with their dialogue and personality traits? Like we’ve talked about before, you wouldn’t have a girl that’s afraid of the dark running outside in the middle of the night to check out a strange noise she heard. It’s important to avoid discrepancies like this in your novel.

At the beginning stages of your writing, you might still be changing and making adjustments to your story or your characters. Remember if you change something now, you should also be changing it in the rest of your novel. If a character starts out with blonde hair, but ends up having dark brown hair, unless you have a scene in which she goes to the hair salon, you need to make the hair color the same throughout. Your readers will pick up on this if you don’t. Likewise, if you change a character’s name, it’s very easy to hit Control R on your keyboard and replace the name in every instance in which it occurs.

It’s very important to stay in the writing mode while working on your rough draft, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make changes as you go. After all, that’s what writing is all about! And if you find that what you’re writing doesn’t sound real, or believable, by all means, change it! The most important thing about writing is to create the best experience you can for your readers. If it doesn’t sound right to you, it’s definitely not going to sound right to them.

Also, try to be as specific as you can with your details. Specific details are of utmost importance to the truth of your novel. If you’re talking about a bus, include a few describing details. What color is it? Is it a school bus, a greyhound bus, a city bus? If you go from “he got on the bus” to “he got on the blue school bus,” you create a scene your reader can picture, which will make all the difference in your novel.

Another tip I’ve learned that will help you always write the truth is to consider your five senses. Every scene you write, try to put yourself into it. Pretend you’re there. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you taste? Obviously, not all five will apply to every scenario, but chose the relevant ones, and use them. The more the readers know about your story, the more they will allow themselves to get lost in it.

Happy Writing!

First Drafts

The first draft is probably the hardest and most nerve-wracking part of writing a novel. I know in my experience, especially when beginning a novel, I start to have various self-sabotaging thoughts about my work. Is it any good? Who’s going to want to read it, anyway? What if my writing sucks? What if everyone hates it? Is it believable?

If you’re a perfectionist – and even if you’re not, these kind of thoughts can completely put a stop to your efforts. You may be tempted to go back and read what you’ve written and make changes. This is not the time for that. This is the rough draft stage, which means that you need to write and write and not think about what you’re writing. When you’ve completed your novel, then you’re allowed to go back and make your changes.

The reason it’s important to keep going is that if you allow yourself to stop and read what you’ve written, you take yourself out of the action. You put yourself in the mindset of an editor instead of the mindset of a writer. There’s time to be an editor later. Right now, you need to be a writer. You need to be thinking about what happens next, rather than wondering how you can make it better.

The first draft is going to be terrible and full of flaws. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time. But the important part is to finish the first draft. Keep plugging away. Keep focusing on the end result. Remember that nobody is going to read the first draft but you.

A professor once told me that first drafts are meant to be written as quickly and as mindlessly as possible. Don’t think about it. Just write. Worry about spelling later. Worry about how you’re going to word things later. You can always go back and add descriptions and take out adverbs and make things sound better. That’s where your perfectionism will come in handy.

Right now, focus on the magic of the story. Let your imagination run wild. Ignore the words, ignore the flaws, and definitely ignore that annoying little voice in the back of your head that’s telling you it’s no good or that other people might think it’s stupid. This is your chance to be creative. Give the world something they’ve never had before – a story by you. You can do it!

Happy writing!

How to Write a Good Chapter

Since this is primarily a writing blog, I am excited to share an AMAZING writing website by the successful author, Vickie Britton.  She has all sorts of wonderful tips about writing a novel for publication.  I think so often, we all get so caught up in the writing itself that we forget to write for our audience, which is first and foremost, the agents and publishers.  If they are not captivated by our work, it will be rather difficult to share the story with the actual audience.  I hadn’t thought much about this before, but Ms. Britton shares great advice about the layout of the book – how many chapters, how many pages per chapter, etc.

Here is a summary of the post from here:

A chapter is like an episode from a continuing TV show. Each chapter should begin with some kind of action and end with a question to propel the reader onward.

-An average genre book has approximately 16-17 pages per chapter.

-A chapter should be just long enough to fully develop a scene.

-Each chapter should begin with a distinct scene…The scene’s job in a novel, much like a scene in a play, is to provide a setting and backdrop for the action that is unfolding right before the reader’s eyes.

-Each scene should ask a question to propel the reader forward in the story.

-Each chapter should center around one element or main event.

-The chapter should not answer its own question.  Instead, it should be answered in a following chapter to create suspense.

Tips for Developing a Strong Chapter

  • develop a strong scene by showing, not telling
  • add only the necessary characters to develop a scene
  • stick to the goal of the chapter
  • don’t get sidetracked by adding random scenes
  • end with a cliffhanger question