Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing a Novel (Part 1): Ducks

I get asked with surprising frequency, "How can I write a novel?" Which doesn't mean, of course, "How do I put words on a page?" but rather, "How can I stick with it long enough to finish and do it well enough to have something worth editing?"

Today, we'll get into the first of 6 parts on writing and completing a novel, and getting it published too.

When you hear what Part 1 is about, you'll be tempted to check out like kids on the first day of school. Nothing important is ever said on the first day, right? Don't ditch me for the shiny over there just yet. Today is about getting our ducks in a row.

I know you've got your formula, or else you're tired of ones that don't work. This isn't about a formula for getting your office space decked out and unplugging the wifi for distraction-free writing. This is about how to write the story you want to write. You don't do that with systems and structures. You have to set your internal state correctly.

I'm going to ask you three questions:

1. Why do you want to write?
2. What do you want to write?
3. What are you reading?

Why do you want to write? Maybe it's this one specific book that's weighing on you. Or there's something you've always wanted to see on the shelf, so you're going to write it yourself. Maybe you've got a thousand ideas bouncing around, and this one seems as good a one to start with as any. Or there's a specific message you want to send.

It's okay if part of your reason is because you think it's a unique and awesome idea. It's good to think your idea is cool! If you think so, then you'll write it that way, and others will think so too. It's fine to pick something because it's unique, too. My next book project is one that I'm writing half because it excites me and half because I think it fills an important spot in the YA market. That's totally fine. It means marketing the book will be easier (hopefully).

But even if you're writing "what sells," make sure it's what you want to write. The two don't have to be mutually exclusive. Romances sell, but so do thrillers, so if you're a thriller person, don't write a romance! Figure out what makes a good thriller and write one of those.

You have to enjoy the book you're writing, or you'll never finish.

Part of this goes right into question 2: what do you want to write? Figure out what genre you're story falls into before you've got anything on paper. Seriously. This will save you lots of headache later. Debut authors tend to cross all sorts of genre boundaries, and while that's not bad, it can confuse the heck out of agents, publishers, and the public if you've got zombies eating unicorns in ancient Greece. (Although, hey, if it's a good enough novel, anything will sell.)

I knew I was writing fantasy because, well, magic. No-brainer. But I didn't want to cross any genre boundaries (crossovers tend not to sell as well), so I made sure I knew the definitions of fantasy and kept within them. Again, not that it was hard: the presence of magic and absence of automatons, skyscrapers, and ax murderers ensured it wouldn't have steampunk, contemporary, or thriller crossover appeal.

(The words "crossover appeal" are a dead turn-off to agents, by the by. Promise me you won't use those words in your query.)

Last of all: what are you reading? Whatever you're reading will inform what you're writing. If your guilty pleasure is reading romance but you're writing women's lit, you might find your writing grows too sappy for the genre. Beware. And if you're writing sci-fi...I can't even begin to list the ways writing style and voice differ between those two!

The quality of your writing will also be affected. When I'm writing, I surround myself with good books. Good is defined as: (a) well-written and deep, and (b) appealing to readers--or at least to me. If it's a book I want to read over and over, then I definitely want that quality seeping into my writing. If it's exposition-heavy and dialogue-scarce (coughTolkiencough), then I might need to put it down for now.

If you've never written a story in your life, your first assignment is to pick three good books in the genre you want to write. As you read, listen to the voice of the author. Pay attention the balance and pacing. When the action makes your heart stop or the character makes you cry, ask yourself why.

Now go do that in your book.

Read Part 2: "The Story." Beat sheets, plot diagrams, and character building, oh my!

Word count: 807.