Posts Tagged how to write a book
Today I’m at Michelle Dunton’s Youtube channel, talking about ideas, where they come from and how they end up as books. Michelle’s been reading my novels and decided to pick my brains for her podcast. One question of hers I particularly liked: she asked how a first-time fiction author should start writing a book. Should it be the characters, the plot, what? My answer: ‘start with something you can’t stop thinking about’. And from there, everything flows – as it does in this discussion. Do hop over.
I write a lot of posts about problems with book drafts. But isn’t it just as important to look at the positive? If we listed the qualities of a brilliant read, what would they be? (Plus, I think we need a feelgood post.)
So, as I sit here on Sunday morning in London with an hour to get this post out of my head and into the grey matter of the blogosphere, this is the list I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll storm your brains and join in at the end.
Deft use of details
A writer needs to give a lot of details to evoke the setting, time period (if it’s not contemporary), distinguishing features of the characters, points about the weather. A skilful storyteller will smuggle a lot of these in as part of the action. A historical period might be evoked by showing a character cleaning their teeth, or lifting their skirts away from the horse manure on the city roads. If we need to know a character is left handed, we might see them borrowing a friend’s PC and clearing the clutter off the desk to rearrange the mouse before they start to use it. Weather might be evoked by a character worrying that the rain will ruin their suede boots on a day when it’s important to look smart. We’ll never get the sense that the narrative is marking time in order to explain something.
Characters that are real
We hear this phrase a lot, but what does it mean? The characters will seem to have their own agendas, and good reasons for everything they do. They won’t seem like puppets for the plot. Their emotions will spur them to act so we feel everything they do is genuine and believable. They’ll have distinctive ways of thinking and expressing themselves. Even if they are conflicted or make bad choices and decisions, they’ll have ways of justifying what they do. They might have interesting blind spots about how the other characters feel.
Never a dull moment
Every scene will move the action on. There will be a sense of trouble building and escalating. The characters’ plans will never quite work out as they’re supposed to, and every scene will finish on a slightly unexpected note. Whenever the characters get something they want or need, it won’t be in the way anyone could predict.
Fresh until the end
The writer will know when to change to a different group of characters, which we’ll welcome. At the same time we’ll be eager to see those other characters again soon. They’ll know when to vary the mood with some humour or a more serious note. They’ll deploy some major turning points at just the point where we think you know where it’s going.
It all adds up
The story might begin by resembling an unraveled sweater with threads going everywhere, but slowly it will converge into a shape. The ending will seem to be inevitable, yet it will be a surprise. Or, if we can anticipate the ending’s events, we won’t be able to predict how we’ll feel about them.
Now you. Grab coffee or brain-stimulating accessory of choice, and … jump in!
It’s always a struggle to find time to write. If you’ve got a book in progress, it’s tempting to spend all your free moments on it. But don’t sacrifice time that you would usually spend reading. It’s a false economy.
Similarly, don’t fear that your reading is going to influence your work to a detrimental extent, or that you might end up copying ideas. The chances are you won’t. Your book is much bigger in your mind than anything you read, or watch, or any conversation you overhear. Any influence will be minor by comparison with the huge amount of work you’ve already done.
But if you stop reading while you write your book you might lose touch with the way prose tells stories, and you won’t be using your ideas to their maximum potential. We do many things on instinct, and those instincts are learned unconciously. Reading feeds our muse and our technique.
Today I’m at the wonderful Writers Helping Writers site, run by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Emotion Thesaurus fame. They’ve devised a series of writing lectures this year and have invited various coaches to be regular contributors, and I’m honoured to be on their list (note that nice award they have from Writer’s Digest). And because I wrote the piece as the year was turning, my mind was operating in resolution mode. If I was to identify a change that I’d urge writers to make, what should it be? Many of my author clients would do their work a world of good by reading more, but it’s job to persuade them. So here’s my persuasion. Do hop over.
Some of you know that I began my writing career incognito, as a ghost-writer. It gave me certain habits and approaches that I still use to this day, and I’m sure they were a head start for productive writing processes. Today I’m talking about those habits at Jo Malby’s blog. (And as I’ve had two guest posts this week, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the rest of the weekend off. There is bank holidaying to do, as well as a spot of writing.)
And if you’re wondering about ghost-writing yourself, let me clear my throat discreetly and point you to this…
My guest this week says he needs silence to write, but not necessarily aural silence. Instead he seeks what he calls a ‘silence of the mind’, a cessation of chaos, so that he can tune his senses to his novel’s world and the feelings of his characters. Music by Bach and Joni Mitchell, among others, prepare the way for his latest novel – the story of a boy born in thirteenth-century Persia with four ears instead of two, and his path towards spiritual awakening and love. Stop by the Red Blog to meet literary novelist Michael Golding, and the Undercover Soundtrack for A Poet of the Invisible World.
The organisers of my Venice masterclass, Henry and Janys Hyde, have just published this interview about the course. If you’d like to know a little more about my teaching approach, or indeed how I came to be doing this at all, this is the place to go. And if you’d like to come to another, let them know!
Also, I’ve been on BBC Radio London this week, on Jo Good’s afternoon show. The day before I’d listened to Jo interview Candace Bushnell, so I made sure to wear feisty boots. Jo asked me about ghostwriting, tips for writers etc – some of which may be familiar to those of you who have hung around here for a while. Anyway, if you’re curious it’s here for the next 30 days. My section begins at 1 hour 10 minutes.
Oh, and these were my interview boots. Roberto Cavalli. I hope Carrie Bradshaw would approve.
I’ve had this great question from a reader:
Do you think somebody who has only done screenwriting would be able to write a novel? I have spent the last 18 years writing screenplays and, while there has been some success (two distributed films, a screenplay option, meetings with nifty LA people, admission letters from both USC Film School and the AFI Conservatory), I know that to take the next step would require me moving to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I have a medical condition that prevents me from relocating. However, I do love storytelling and would like to attempt novels.
I know the story structure is basically the same. I worry about the novel seeming too bare, particularly when it comes to description and inner monologues. Thoughts or suggestions on how to get past this?
What a good question. Thoughts and suggestions coming right up.
First: expand your story ideas
A screenplay plot is little longer than a novella, so for a novel you usually need to spread the idea further. Often writers have a natural length they’re comfortable with, according to the demands of their medium. Short story writers, for instance, are often daunted by the much bigger task of a novel. They’re used to a certain number of characters, or they look for an idea they can explore and resolve in a short time. Here’s a post on how to turn a short story into a novel, adapting to a longer distance by adding subplots, beefing up other characters’ roles and delving further into the potential of the idea.
Here’s an experience of mine that might help. One of my early writing jobs was TV and film tie-ins. I’d be given the script and a wordcount – but no matter how much I lingered over narrating the action, there wasn’t enough story for the size of book the publisher wanted. Sigh. So I had to get creative and invent more scenes – without padding, of course.
I explored the characters’ thoughts and gave them scenes where they were alone, dealing with an aspect of the plot or their lives that was around the corner from the main action. I looked for moments that had been condensed for the sake of fitting the show’s time slot, especially explanations that could become a sequence of scenes. And I had to make them interesting or they’d be red-penned. The key to that was usually humour, interesting characterisation, irresistible back story or a cool bit of info or procedure. If it had been my own story, I could have used these to enlarge my original idea as they often had interesting potential.
You never know what you might discover once you start opening some cupboards, lingering with a moment you were intending to dismiss in a single line.
Here’s your first piece of homework. Read novelisations written from filmscripts and compare them with the original. The author probably had to add like crazy to make the wordcount.
Also look at plays that have been made into movies. Two of my favourites are Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus, which had extra scenes written for the movies (and also because the action could be more realistic).
And try the other way around. Study novels that are now movies. Which characters were spliced together? Which plotlines were dropped? What was wildly skewed or simplified, for better or for worse? (Sometimes it’s an improvement. Sometimes it’s sacrilege, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which steamrollers a complex story into a rather angst-ridden romance.)
Sometimes the different versions each stand up as artistic works of their own – think of the two English Patients – Michael Ondaatje’s novel and Anthony Minghella’s film. Here’s a post about that.
So think long. Think deep. Indeed, if you usually write on a three-act structure skeleton, try stretching that. See what potential there is in your material if you aim, perhaps, for five distinct phases. Going back to TV, look at the recent adaptation of House of Cards, which was a four-episode mini-series on the BBC and is now a multi-season monster on Netflix. Watch the movie of Fargo and notice how it was enlarged – without a single ounce of flab – for the FX series.
Second: develop your narrative style – by reading (again)
In your question you mentioned thoughts and description. Screenplays aren’t the final form of the story, as I absolutely don’t have to tell you. Novels, though, are – and that’s one of the reasons I find prose so exciting. The novelist has the direct line to the audience, one on one. We pour the experience into the reader’s mind. This is why prose is my weapon of choice.
As a screenwriter, you already know some vital voodoo – how to control the reader’s understanding and emotions from the structure of the plot. With prose you have so much more. In a movie, you’d have emotional effects from lighting, shot framing, foley, staging and the actors. In a novel, you do it all yourself – from your tone, word choice, the shape and fall of a sentence, the careful use of themes. Whatever you’re going to write, read some great examples in your genre and pay close attention to how the authors do this. Savour every sentence that gives you a thrill or a shiver or a smile. (You might become an extremely slow reader, like me.)
And, by the way, relish the fact that you can do this solo. Depending on the kind of story you like to write, you can be more than a director of actors and action, more than a describer of what happens. You can be an illusionist, a mesmerist, a singer.
You said in your email that you’d already seen some of my posts on how movies and prose differ, but in case others are reading this, here they are. Thanks for a great question and welcome to our perhaps megalomaniac world.
Guys, what would you add? Have you transitioned from one storytelling form to another? And are there any book-film or TV combinations you’d add to my reading list?
I recently published a post about NaNoWriMo prep, and it provoked this interesting comment on Facebook:
I really hate this initiative! Shouldn’t we be learning to write novels that are better, higher quality, more considered, more rounded, better thought out, that TAKE MORE TIME!!! rather than just trying to whack one out in a month? We don’t need more books on Amazon, what we need are BETTER books if we are to promote reading in the twenty-first century.
So who is this firebrand? It’s Kevin Booth @Kevinbooth01, a writer, translator and editor, who writes contemporary fiction and arts-based commentary as himself, and eco-fantasy as K. Eastkott.
I don’t disagree with him. And yet I barefacedly, two-facedly, published a post promoting NaNoWriMo?
I think it’s time to discuss the good and bad of NaNo.
In a nutshell (or a nanobyte):
The good – NaNoWriMo can be the confidence boost to get you started. NaNoWriMo is a community; a race; a deadline. It’s an appointment to get something done, like a new year resolution, but just in time for the Christmas letter. Beginners use it as their first go at writing. Seasoned writers use it to get a first draft done, for yea, drafting always makes us as nervous. It’s like the London Marathon, open to all to use as we wish. Perhaps as a one-off special event, this year’s challenge; or a handy lockdown in a bigger writing plan.
The OhNo – NaNoWriMo creates the idea that you can rattle out a book quickly, without editing, redrafting, or, as Kevin says, thought. And woot, a lot of them get put on sale. Look at Twitter in November and you’ll see anguished messages from literary agents, imploring people not to send their NaNo draft in search of fame and fortune.
Here’s where I’ll echo Kevin. A month is not long enough to write a worthwhile book. When good work arises from NaNoWriMo, it’s been planned beforehand, drafted in the crazy race, then honed and tended for many more months afterwards.
And Kevin told me he’s seen too many writers – talented writers – use NaNo as the culmination of the writing process:
As an editor, I’ve seen that, however well-structured a novel’s plan is, when you tell your brain to slap those words down at speed, the grey matter has a horrible trick of blind obedience. And once words are stuck on a page, they become surprisingly difficult to budge. I’m not talking about bad writers here, but talented individuals who have a love of words and should know better—because sections of their work are brilliant. Yet they’ve failed to constructively revise those thousands of words written in haste.
That remark I just made about revising? I’ll repeat it. Your draft is the time you transform your ideas from notes into an experience for the reader. It won’t be perfect first go (unless you’re a genius). It will change as you write it. The first draft is an exploration, not a presentable product. You need a thorough and considered revision period afterwards. And a break, so that you can see what needs changing (I refer you to Kevin again, and my self-editing masterclass snapshots).
But it’s just a game
Fair enough, some people take part in NaNoWriMo just to have a go. There’s nowt wrong with that. We all do hobby projects in the privacy of our own homes, for the kraic, for the experience, for the bucket list, to enrich our lives, to express ourselves.
Where to share
This is the bigger question. What should we do with those have-a-go manuscripts, if the month of writing was quite enough, thank you? (Listen for those agents wailing in the wires of Twitter. That’s a warning.) There are plenty of places where you’ll be among like-minded writers – you can use Wattpad, or blog your book. Other options are no doubt available. You can immortalise it in print – Lulu, Createspace and Ingram Spark will let you do personal, limited distribution.
But please, don’t put it in places where the public deserves properly finished books – Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble et al. Even if it’s extremely unlikely that your NaNo splurge will be found among the millions, there’s a principle here.
No, I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to have just a few months’ experience under my belt and think I knew everything. And a story I was burning to release, and a career I was desperate to start. But we need to discuss where it’s appropriate to share our work. Is that a great unmentionable? C’mon. We’re all grown-ups here.
Encouraging people to read
Kevin mentions the question of encouraging people to read. And he’s right to. We don’t have to try to change the world, or lament that we have so many forms of entertainment that now compete with books. But with every book we publish, we have the chance to prove that reading is still a great experience. So let’s make our books as good as we can, as a matter of pride, and of respect for our readers, and for the joy of doing absolute justice to our potential (yeah, you know what I’m like when I get started).
(Thanks for the speedbump pic Andrew Rivett)
If you’re planning a NaNoWriMo novel, there are plenty of tips in Nail Your Novel. There’s also a discussion about it on this episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)
Have you done NaNoWriMo? What were your aims, and what became of the manuscript afterwards? Are you doing it this year? Whether you’ve NaNo-ed or not, what would you add, agree with, disagree with, protest about to your last breath? The floor is yours.
My guest this week has a novel that spans several lifetimes and puts a new spin on reincarnation – she blends thriller with romance and the supernatural with her story of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret of reincarnation. She used music to conjure her kaleidoscope of time periods, from ancient China to the modern day, and some of her selections are astoundingly haunting – I’m astonished to discover the 1970s album recorded in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Those among you who are reincarnation aficionados will have spotted the reference in the title of this post to the 1980s movie Somewhere In Time, and that was on her Soundtrack too. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.