A friend of mine just saw a cool science tech article and was struck with all the thorny consequences he could foresee from this technology. Suddenly he realized he wanted to write a book to explore these challenges and the ethical questions they raised. He’s quite jazzed by his story concept (I think it’s a pretty darn good one, too), and so he asked me, his friendly neighborhood novelist, how to get started writing a novel? Since he hasn’t done this before.
That is a topic that does not lend itself to a brief treatment, but I have been asked this same thing a few times across the years, and lately have more resources at hand to answer it with than previously. So I fired off my distilled-down, “If I were in your shoes” summary of how I would go about writing a first novel, if that were the task before me these days.
I thought I’d share that brain dump here as well. What I say is not revolutionary, nor is it The One True Way (darn); a lot of what I say here you can find elsewhere on the web. But these are the considerations that leap to mind as I think about this situation, and it is what I would do if I had to do it over again. Incidentally, the person who inspired this blurt is not a writer and feels a little daunted by the magnitude of the task, and so some of my advice (regarding writing something else first) is given with this in mind.
There’s Philosophy in That Thar Story…
Don’t worry about the fact that you’ve already spotted themes in your story and that philosophy informs them. Theme identification is good, and if it is at all possible to identify the underlying theme of your story in advance, it’s smart to do so. All great science fiction (and great literature for that matter) deals with philosophical issues on some level. My only cautionary word of advice is something you probably already know: stories that set out to ‘send a message’ can be very pedantic and lackluster. People will engage with a message-laden tale IF the message is hidden by being made integral to the life issues and dilemmas of the protagonist. I.e., set up a hairy situation and let it resolve in a manner natural to the characters and setting, as opposed to peppering the story with soapbox moments and philosophical discourses. Those have to be extremely well set up, justified, and sparely used in order not to derail a story.
The Craft of Writing
Now, about writing in general: mastering the craft is a life-long process, so it isn’t like you’ll ever get to a point where you’re “done” with learning how to tell a good story. The best way to become a proficient story teller is to write a ton of stories (or rather, books, since we are talking the work of novelists, here). They say writing 1 million words will get the average writer over the learning curve (that’s 10 100k novels). This harks back to the notion that the only way to achieve a level of competence verging on mastery in any craft, is to simply do it, over and over again. That’s as true of writing as it is anything else. However, I also know many writers who didn’t need to do 1 mill words in order to write really great books, although they tend to be on the more gifted end of the storytelling talent curve and are also more autodidactic about learning craft on their own.
Yet everyone starts somewhere. You don’t know yet if you are a talented writer, so don’t let judgments of accomplishment paralyze you (especially not from the internal critic in your own head). You will discover your voice and your skills as you go, and they will always improve the more you use them. Remember that any one book is never completely “done.” At best it is a snapshot of the best story the author could tell at that point in time.
Understand that this is a journey you are on, and the process is as important or even more important than the end product.
One Way to Get Your Sea Legs
If this book you have in mind is bigger than you are right now (so to speak), or your craft skills are not yet up to doing the tale justice, you might want to write at least one other book first, to get a feel for what these new muscles are that you need to learn to stretch. It need not be ‘wasted work’, either: perhaps a prequel to your bigger story, or the backstory of a main character that stands on its own as its own book. Incidentally, book-length novels in the traditional sf publishing world are average minimum of 90k words in length. but in the burgeoning ebook environment, book lengths (and short story lengths) have shrunk: I see people calling things “novellas” that in the paper world are simply short stories. At any rate, what that means is that if you want to ebook publish, you could get away with calling a 50k to 70k length work a “book”. Longer is better (generally speaking) for the sake of learning craft by virtue of producing a lot of story, but in the end the length that is needed is the length necessary to do justice to your story.
Anyway: with a trial run like that under your belt you will be much better able to judge how to go about telling the story of your opus. If you are like me, then when a story comes to you that has a lot of charge and feels important, you want to do it justice. This is not to say you can’t work on it also while you work on a first (trial run) novel: you can be doing character biographies, tech notes, world history, backstory, and plot notes – all the stuff that will become your story bible when you sit down to write The Book. Even if you started directly with The Book, this planning/prep work is stuff you’d be doing anyway. It is possible to just start writing a story right out of the gate, but that is also a really great way to run the car into the ditch further down the road, when you lose your way in the tale (which happens quite frequently even to those with great roadmaps).
So, what to do, concretely speaking. In your position, these would be my next steps:
1.Outline the Plot
Start writing out the general plot of the story that has come to me. In particular, get very clear on how the book ENDS. Once you know the ending, everything else must lead to that conclusion. You don’t need to know it in detail (and it will no doubt change when you write it anyway), but you need a target to shoot for.
2. Write the Synopsis
Write a 1 or 2 page synopsis of the story. If you can tell your tale in brief form like this, including major plot twists and turns, then you effectively have the road map you need (at a minimum) to write the whole book. You can also write a longer, more fleshed out synopsis, but it is essential to grasp the central story structure and the writing of a short synopsis forces you to do so.
3. Begin prep work and writing
With this grasp of story, you can a) do the background work (world building, tech notes, character bios, etc) guided by the needs of your general plot structure. You can b) start to write parts of the narrative of it as you please, to get it out of your system and onto paper, whether or not you decide to defer serious work on this until a test novel is under your belt. You will also find that c) you have a skeleton upon which to hang (insert) new scenes and story details as they come to you randomly, so your synopsis becomes fleshed out over time and can morph organically into actual scenes and chapters.
Equipped with this, and the impetus to write scenes, OR the decision to do Prequel (or other “trial run” novel) first, I strongly urge you to:
4. Join a workshop group.
Especially when you’re starting out writing it is really invaluable to get peer feedback on what you are writing and whether or not it is working on the page (constructive criticism being the key here). It is also great practice for you to read others’ work with this same critical editorial eye, because later you will be much better able to catch your own missteps in your work when you edit what you’ve written yourself.
If you don’t have a writer’s group near you, or one not taking new members, consider creating your own. That’s what I did: In Fall 2010 I needed connection with other writers and so invited some acquaintances from Live Journal to a small (4 person) group. We meet online in Second Life in a virtual “face to face” meeting every Monday (usually), and have been at it for 73 weeks now (wow!). The moral support is also critical because writing is a lonely task and most people around you won’t ‘get it’ except for other writers. They can provide essential encouragement when things are tough or when your writing is sucking.
5. Learn your craft.
Get self-educated about the craft of writing. If I had to do a cram course, here’s what I would do:
a) One Essential Reference
Buy and read and take to heart this book: Scene and Structure: the elements of fiction writing, by Jack Bickham. This is pure gold and is the distillation of things I learned over 30 years the hard way. If I had to pick just one core reference book for writing fiction, this would be it.
b) Consider a “How To” Course Online.
If you want real hands-on, step-by-step assistance in the actual nitty gritty process of writing a novel, consider taking one or more of the online classes offered by Holly Lisle. She is no longer teaching these live, but they are courses that come to you via email, and she also has invaluable books like Holly Lisle’s Create A Plot Clinic, and so on. Check out her resources. She is about the only “how to write” instructor on the web that I can wholeheartedly endorse.
There you have it. Not a comprehensive roadmap but some suggestions for jumpstarting the writing process and getting underway with your first novel.