Lizzy of Lizzy’s Weekly Blogs wrote me an email yesterday asking if I would share some advice on “how to write a short story or a novel.”
I said I would give it a shot. What are some things I’ve learned in the five years I have been doing this?
As I so far write only novels, here is my brainstorm on that complicated, yet also very simple, question. For starters, I have 10 suggestions (not offered in any particular order):
1. Our imaginations are “infinite” of course, but when writing a first novel do your best to write what you know pretty well. That may seem a cliché, but it’s a great place to begin if you’ve never tried novel-writing before. It doesn’t matter if you wish to write a dystopian world in a distant galaxy 100,000 years from now in which humans play no part in the universe, or about three people stuck on an island in the Pacific in 1800. Seek to imbue your story with what you know based on your real-life experiences and knowledge.
2. Look closely at authors you admire and try to have a glance at their own personal “areas of expertise.” I bet they write tales related to what they are passionate about and feel secure about in their personal knowledge-base. My late uncle was a crime novelist. Guess what his job had been for 25 years before he took to a keyboard? He was a New York City narcotics detective. In Passports, I started out writing about a Long Island university, its diverse foreign students, study abroad, and “extracurricular student activities” because, well, essentially I lived that 25 years ago. I wasn’t going to write my first novel about, say, touring Punjab when I’ve not even been to India.
Hello from #Hertfordshire, #England. 🇬🇧What a ludicrous hour to have to wake up: 5:30am.😜Coffee time.☕️And how about another morning "long ago": a (ahem, "old") 35mm photo I snapped of the top of a sorta famous Paris landmark, over the tree, center, 1994.😊📸🇫🇷🗼. . #Monday #MondayMotivation #morning #1994 #France #Paris #eiffeltower #toureiffel #fiction #manuscript #history #writers #publishing #photo #photographylife #authors #editing #writers #memory #35mm
3. If you are writing about romance, what experiences have you had that readers may find interesting? Happy or not. Or death: Have you experienced the death of a loved one? Or illness yourself or of close friends/family? What you’ve experienced could well be much treasured by readers seeking just that sort of “advice.”
4. Before beginning my writing of the actual novel, I produce several pages of “outline” as to how the tale is meant to end, what will generally constitute the middle, and how it will start, and brief character summaries.
5. Write for your readers. Remember, you know what you are trying to say. They don’t.
6. Develop a general idea of who is “telling” the story at any given time. I write generally from one point of view, but also vary it to encompass other points of view. I avoid “I said” or “I thought” and such because I find reading too much “I, me, I, me, I,” is tedious. But that’s just what, uh, I think.
7. Along the way, you will make changes from where you started and some changes may be huge. I have had secondary characters in my pre-write “outline” jump to the front and center. Two examples. “Valérie Khoury” in my first three books does not appear until half-way through Passports, but she becomes a major character from then on in that novel and in its 2 sequels simply because there was (is, because I hope to write another sequel) so much to her that I could not resist writing ever more about her – and I had once known “her” in my real-life. Similarly in the coming Conventions, “John Abbott” grew and grew in importance as I wrote. I enjoyed writing him and playing him off “Robert Rutherford.” Some great stuff is produced totally by accident. Don’t be afraid to follow new writing directions and pathways that seem to be working.
8. I begin each writing day with this sentence in mind: “Okay, friends, what are we going to do today?” My uncle had years ago told me that was how he started his writing days and that he went next with what “flowed.” What my “friends” produce as a result of “their doings” within the broad story target at which I’m aiming, is, I always hope of course, worth reading.
9. Whatever your fictional subject – be it that dystopian world in that distant galaxy 100,000 years from now, or those three people marooned on an island in 1800 – you are creating an entire time, place and group of characters. Those inhabiting your pages should live and breathe to your readers. Make your readers dislike someone. Or make them fall in love with one or more of them. It’s entirely your call. One reader actually wrote me, for example, that she really came to fancy “Mark” in Passports.
10. Above all, try to have some fun with it all. Creative writing is tough – and that’s why the world is “full” of unfinished and never written novels – but it should not be drudge work. Fiction may teach us some things, but it is, above all, entertainment and escape for your readers: a chance to go “somewhere” they may never have been and to “meet” “people” whom they would otherwise never have gotten to know.
I *know* there are additional suggestions that could be made if one thinks on that question longer. Those are merely the first 10 that popped to my mind. Looking at them again here, they may be, really, only nine: 1 and 2 are essentially extensions of each other.
Have a good Monday, wherever you are in the world.😊🇬🇧