Thirty years after Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 he wrote an afterward, a reflection on his novel and what it means to him. In this rich document he outlines five observations about writing that all of us who aspire to write great fiction like Bradbury must take to heart.
I've taught F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby to high school students for the past 20 years. Each year we read through the novel and I make note about Fitzgerald's style and writing strategies through the responses of students and through my own observations.
I decided to compress these many observations down into a list of five things that Fitzgerald does (and does well), because as a novelist I feel that these are lessons that any writer can use to enhance their own writing style.
We can pull any sentence from Fitzgerald's piece and it is full of colorful adjectives, has surgically chosen diction, and is brimming with immediate and precise description. Case in point, here are a couple of sentences taken from the first few pages of the first chapter:
I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth. - (Fitzgerald, 6)
This first quote is when Nick is discussing the advice of his father, but the repeated word "snobbishly" denotes a tone of disdain for the advice and at the same time disgust that he is falling into his father's shoes. Our sentences should be as densely crafted if we are going to write great prose. And another:
The butler came back and murmured something close to Tom's ear whereupon Tom frowned, pushed back his chair and without a word went inside. (Fitzgerald, 19)
This sentence is an example of how one can show a reader the emotion of a character without ever telling us what he is actually thinking. It is obvious from the actions described that Tom is not happy with the news he receives from the butler. It also sets up some glaring characterization for Tom.
Every year one of my students points out the use of color in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald uses color as just one vehicle for symbolism, and it is something every writer should study.
In "Symbolic Meanings of Colors in The Great Gatsby" H.B. Zhang goes into great detail describing the various colors Fitzgerald uses as symbols in the novel. I suggest a download and a careful reading of the essay. I've provided a citation for it at the end of this article.
- Green "symbolizes Gatsby’s original dream and hope, his ceaseless pursuit of his dream and even the corruption of his dream and life" (Zhang, 41). Gatsby stares at the green light across the bay as he stands on the end of his dock. The green light is at Tom Buchannan's house, the home of Daisy, the woman for whom he throws lavish parties in the hopes she will attend.
- White "represents the immaculate and pure beauty" and is associated with the character of Daisy Buchanan, the woman Gatsby places in an imaginary ivory tower (Zhang, 41). She is externally a stunning woman, but internally is a "beautiful little fool" (Fitzgerald, 21).
- Red "is the symbol of violence, danger and rage" which is illustrated in the first chapter when Nick leaves Daisy's house (Zhang, 42). Nick describes the "wayside garages where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light" (Gatsby, 25) which Zhang posits that the words "red" and "pools" are veiled symbolism mixed with foreshadowing as Myrtle is killed in front of the garage. The color red is also present every time violence is committed in the novel (i.e. Tom bloodying Myrtle's nose).
- Yellow obviously represents wealth and money, so all these yellow and golden things indicate that the Jazz Age is an age where everyone shows great worship of money and where the materialism is so fashionable that even God [Eckleberg] cannot avoid its influence" (Zhang, 42).
These are just a few of the many colors noted by Zhang which are used as symbolic vehicles throughout the novel. For the amateur scrivener this advises us to utilize symbolism in our prose. The trick is not to become to obvious with it. Fitzgerald uses the color/symbolism technique and works it subtly in to the text. He never writes the word "red" in the Tom-bloodies-Myrtle's-nose scene, but he mentions "bloody towels upon the bathroom floor" (Fitzgerald, 41).
The Great Gatsby is also a study in writing conflict. Each character in the novel has some type of secret life or secret desire which often crashes violently in conflict with other characters. It is a character-driven novel (which is what makes any great novel). Most of these conflicts rise to the surface in frenzied ways, but many of them are subtly revealed over the course of several chapters. Without spending paragraphs on info-dumps about how people feel about each other (because Nick is our narrator) Fitzgerald artfully shows conflict through raucous dialogue. I will highlight certain descriptors in the following excerpt from Chapter 1: (Fitzgerald, 14)
"How gorgeous! Let's go back, Tom. To−morrow!" Then she added irrelevantly: "You ought to see the baby."
"I'd like to."
"She's asleep. She's three years old. Haven't you ever seen her?"
"Well, you ought to see her. She's −." Tom Buchanan, who had been hovering restlessly about the room, stopped and rested his hand on my shoulder.
"What you doing, Nick?"
"I'm a bond man."
"Who with?" I told him.
"Never heard of them," he remarked decisively.
This annoyed me.
"You will," I answered shortly.
"You will if you stay in the East."
"Oh, I'll stay in the East, don't you worry," he said, glancing at Daisy and then back at me, as if he were alert for something more.
"I'd be a God damned fool to live anywhere else."
At this point Miss Baker said: "Absolutely!" with such suddenness that I started it was the first word she uttered since I came into the room.
All of these highlighted words characterize each person in the scene, painting a vile picture of these 1920's sycophants. From speaking "irreverently" about the baby to Baker's annoying shout of "Absolutely!" the tension is elevated to a fever pitch, and this is just the first chapter.
4. Multiple Themes
What separates mediocre fiction from classical fiction or fiction that belongs with the greats like Fitzgerald is that work's ability to work within several themes at once. Below is a list of some of the themes evident in The Great Gatsby:
- The Lie of the American Dream
- Unrequited Love
- Lost Love
- Vacuousness of the Upper Class
- Class Struggle Destroys Society (Marxist)
- The Destructive Nature of Rampant Masculinity
The trick to working multiple themes into our prose is to make sure that we outline our project completely, create detailed character sketches of every major and minor character, and then write about what most drives us politically, socially, religiously through the story without becoming too preachy or overt. Above all, the story is the most important thing. It must grip the reader's soul. If it is a great story, the passions we have about the human condition will come out in the text. It is not something we can just "do" however, for writing is hard work. It takes herculean effort on our part, but it enriches our prose to create multiple themes even if it's only two.
5. Multi-Layered Characters
As stated above, the characters in The Great Gatsby have secrets within secrets. Tom is married to Daisy but having an affair with Myrtle. Gatsby is wooing Daisy and is trying to steal her away from her husband. Nick is secretly enamored with Gatsby and (as some critics have surmised) might be secretly in love with him. Nick appears to want to be a part of the upper class life but is seen by his upper class peers as a guy "from West Egg".
In the mound of papers that were Fitzgerald's personal effects, probably underneath the weird personal notes he left to himself, were probably a host of character sketches of some of these amazing characters he created for Gatsby. Fitzgerald was indeed a genius, but I'm sure he had worked out all of the various quirks and deep psychological makeups of all of his characters for the novel.
Before I begin any project, I create detailed character sketches of all major and minor characters. A sample of things we should consider when sketching characters are: character's name, their role in the story, their occupation, their physical description, personality, habits/mannerisms, background and internal and external conflicts. I then use a tool like Mindnode to connect all of the characters together with various webs and plot-lines.
Hopefully this list helped to destroy your writer's block. It probably gave you much more to do as a writer, but then writing is indeed hard work. If you have any other observations about Fitzgerald's work, please write about them in the comments below.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.
- Zhang, H. B. (2015). Symbolic Meanings of Colors in The Great Gatsby. Studies in Literature and Language, 10 (6), 38-44. Available from: http://www.cscanada.net/index.php/sll/article/view/7178
My current WIP has sent me through several psychological states: first elation, then dread, then depression, then elation again, and then probably bi-polar disorder. I spent nearly 6 months designing five separate solar systems complete with flora and fauna, alien races, cultures, history, and tons of other things that probably would bore you to death. I also spent a good month designing all of the main characters of my first book in the series, and even though I spent all that time on the main character (a rough-and-tumble bloke named Guillermo March) I realized today after finishing four chapters that I probably didn't spend enough time creating his motivation.
Sure, Guillermo lives in this very detailed and carefully constructed universe, but why should we care about him? He's one of 45 humans left in the universe, and trust me the backstory as to why he is would take up too many words for this post. He is the only human police officer to join the C'Tuulian (those are aliens) security force. He spent a full year undercover, working a complex sting operation to bring down a drug lord who was selling a deadly drug to a growing number of humans who felt they had nothing to lose, including Guillermo's wife who died of an overdose. He is present when the infiltration team arrives, but in the process loses his arm and falls into a coma, only to wake several weeks later to discover that out of retribution (or so the authorities think) the drug lord's lackeys set off a bomb in the human enclave, making Guillermo the sole member of the human race.
Again. Why should we care about him? I'm still working this out, but I think it might be rooted in his plight as the last human, his coping with the loss of his arm and its robotic replacement, his snarky comebacks that he uses to disarm those who would attempt to sympathize with him, and...well...I'm not sure yet.
I've written four chapters of this book at least three times now. At first it was the voice and point of view that soured me to it, then it was the circumstances behind the plotting, the reasons why the villains (and the villains behind those villains) were perpetrating the evil upon Guillermo's world. Some of the motivations didn't make sense. I think I've got that worked out now.
I just need to get Guillermo in shape. My desire for him as his creator is that he is believable, likable, and is driven by the three basic needs of hunger (be it physical or mental), to not be lonely, and to ease his pain. Perhaps he will need to suffer hunger, be lonely, and endure the pain to become more real.
The point here (in the middle of my rambling) is that your protagonist darn well better be someone the reader can care about or at about chapter three your reader will look for other stuff to read. It is a difficult conundrum. Think hard on this. Your readers will thank you.
I can't count the amount of indie books I've started but haven't finished. I read everything on Kindle now save a few of my favorites like those in my Tolkien collection (I have all hard-bound editions of those). If I want to figure out whether I want to read a new book, I download a sample from Amazon and then if I can get interested in the first few pages, I'll stick with it through the sample, and then if I can read the entire sample and want more, I buy the book. The thing is, most readers today are reading on phones or Kindles or iPads. It's not just the young. My mother is in her 70's and reads all of her books on her iPad...and she's an avid reader.
So how can a modern writer write their novel so that it has that un-put-downable quality that forces the reader to finish what they sampled? I've thought up a few tricks to get you started, tricks that I see modern writers using, because the all-important hook is needed more than ever in this age of Netflix and video games that will hopefully ensure that the browser becomes the buyer.
- The Chapter One Short Story - This idea came from the frustration of writing the first chapter of my latest work-in-progress. I struggled to write a really good first chapter because I knew that it can be a make-it-or-break-it factor with a potential reader. I hit on the idea that if my first chapter began and ended with strong conflict, where the rich backstory was hinted at, and it followed the classic rising action/climax/falling action/denouement, then it may keep the reader interested enough to want to find out what happens next. I also used trick #2 at the end by making the reader think the main character had died.
- End With Cliffhangers - Modern readers are used to this tactic, and they love it. Every television show and book series ends with a perilous cliffhanger that forces the reader to read on or watch the next episode to see what happens to these characters that they have fallen in love with (see #3). But you are writing a sweeping romance novel! What to do? End the chapter leaving the main character in the lurch between two lovers. It doesn't have to be a cliffhanger that ends with the possible death of a major character. It just has to be an ending that forces the reader to read on, and this makes you have to become very creative.
- Characters Must Be Likable - This doesn't mean that the character has to be a goodie-good. Darryl Dixon is definitely a criminal at heart, but he has a good natured side that wants to be noble. Make your reader fall in love with your characters. If they do this, they will care about the peril that they are placed in and then identify with the peril, making that peril feel like the reader is experiencing it. They won't care about #2 if they don't care about the characters you have created.
- Cut Out All the Boring Stuff - If you have been to any recent writing workshops or seminars, one buzzphrase that always comes up is "cut out anything that doesn't drive the story forward". This can't be more true for current readers. The days of long expositions about backstory and describing every detail are over...at least for now. Most of the best-selling stuff I read is filled with tons of dialogue that reveals aspects of the story without much diatribe and excess. My current WIP is written in third-person singular and jumps from one difficult situation to the next. I don't leave the reader any time to breathe or wander off. My purpose is to force the reader not to be able to put my book down...or power it down.
- Turn the Trope - One big discussion I often see on the topic of media is the overused tropes in today's fiction. There is an entire website devoted to tracking them. The thing to do is to make your novel interesting, and to do that you can't be the next person writing the vampire romance novel. Find out what tropes your plot is re-hashing and then turn those tropes on their head. Re-invent them. Take an old one that hasn't been beat to death and recast it with different situations or different settings. Right now there are thousands of zombie novels being written because of The Walking Dead, and many of them seem to be writing the same plots used on that show. Do it different, do it fresh, and you will ensure that a modern reader will want to read more.
Ok, indie writers! What are some other methods that you have used to keep the modern reader interested? Post them below in the comments.
Every Wednesday night I take my three teens and one elementary child to church. The little one goes to AWANA clubs while my older three go to youth service. Our youth minister Scott Buck taught about the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon's account of his exploration of the meaning of life. No. It's not 42.
During his sermon, Scott emphasized a verse in the text that really struck home with me as a writer:
One who watches the wind will not sow, and the one who looks at the clouds will not reap. Ecclesiastes 11:4
Yep. This verse is about laziness. If you are sitting there thinking about writing that novel one day but have never put pen to paper or started typing away on the keys, you have not "sown" any kind of seed that might grow into a novel. Even the smallest effort may turn into something workable, but if you sit around "look[ing] at the clouds" all day, you won't get anything done.
We can tell ourselves during our days of unproductive dreaming that we are planning our novel, but this could stretch into days and weeks of inactivity that really doesn't amount to anything. Inactivity is never really going to allow you to "reap" anything at all.
So get busy. Stop daydreaming and daydream on paper or on a word-processing file. Anything is better than nothing.
- Create highly developed character bios and then they will inform what kind of plot needs to develop.
- Create a highly developed plot and then the characters will take shape based on the plot created.
I have another idea.
I spent nearly three months or so designing a series of planetary systems complete with flora and fauna, culture, alien races, history, etc. What I found out is that during this process, I created a backstory that informed the plot of the first novel that I am currently developing and/or writing (I have about 2300 words done).
I think there are several ways that we develop good and engaging plots. If the setting is rich in description, namely it has a huge catalogue of places, people and things to interact with, I am finding out that it may go very far in developing a plot that grabs the reader and doesn't let go. I have never written a novel this way, usually using one of the above methods, but I can say that it is probably the most freeing method of all because I have an entire universe of material to draw from.
The cons of this:
I found out that not having the characters that fleshed out, namely having my setting more detailed than the characters populating it, caused me to have some problems early on with voice and with point of view. I have since worked those out, and I found the process to be somewhat frustrating at times.
I have finally written a first chapter that is full of action and deep conflict, both internal and external, and I've managed to turn a few tropes over on their heads as well. This came after writing four chapters, filing them away, writing two chapters, filing them away, and then finally writing one chapter that not only has a surprise ending but also ends with the hero becoming severely disabled. Hopefully this will make the reader want to read on and find out what happens to him.
I am always interested in my reader's process, so if you go about writing and planning the plot in a different manner, then by all means comment below! Until then I'll be eyeball deep in the Five Rim Worlds.
I'm three chapters and over three thousand words into writing my WIP. I reached a point yesterday where I stared at a passage and just didn't know how I was going to write it in third person singular and get the true nuances of what my main character was feeling or what he was thinking without going into some long narrative about the past. This would have taken my reader out of the action and bogged down the story. I also don't want my reader to get too far into the head of Guillermo March, because let's face it, he's kind of a cynical jerk.
Guillermo is one of 46 hold-out humans living on the planet C'Tuul somewhere far from their abandoned solar system. He is a member of what is left of the human race, and because of their desperate situation, is terribly cynical and in many ways has lost all need to care about anything. Most of the humans are sterile, and their food has to be processed a certain way to remove the deadly organics that permeate every water molecule on C'Tuul. Because the humans conquered and subjugated the C'Tuulians for so long, they are a little reluctant to help the dying human race. Guillermo is also the sole police officer in charge of keeping the humans in line...and there is a lot of crime.
A few problems arise when we have a narrator who is gratingly cynical and angry at the world:
- Will my narrator rub the reader the wrong way?
- Will my narrator's voice become unreliable?
- Can I sustain this voice throughout the novel?
I remembered that I'd read a few books that shed light on this subject. The following books have narrators who are either pathetic people at the outset and are that way throughout the novel or begin as jerks and end up becoming likable jerks:
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - This novel is not only a fun ride through '80's nostalgia, but a cyberpunk thrill-ride that is a commentary on the ravages of pop culture and technology. The narrator in this first person novel is a chubby, zit-faced teenager who jacks in to the OASIS (a virtual world created by a Steve Jobs type character ages ago) to find an easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual world that is worth ownership of the company that built the OASIS plus billions of dollars in cash. The narrator in this novel is snarky, witty, and at the same time kind of a naive jerk. He doesn't have it all together, struggles with his infatuation with Art3mis (another user of the OASIS). What makes him charming is his constant references to '80's pop culture, and that even though he is a dorky narrator, he has a heart of gold.
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie - This novel is told in first person, but the narrator purposefully leaves out important clues to the crime. This becomes very troubling when we reach the end of the novel and we find out that the narrator had been lying to us all along. I don't intend to do this with Guillermo, but there are ways to avoid turning off the reader with such a dangerous tactic (as many people who read Christie's novel confessed to have done). The narrator can hint that they are lying about something, and that way the reader feels as if they are in on the joke, and a fun technique to use is to have the narrator saying one thing to the characters around him/her but thinking something entirely different. Even though Agatha Christie wrote this novel and is pretty well known, the novel was received poorly and kind of rubbed her readers the wrong way.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - This novel is written in first person, but is the story of a man who indulges in an affair with an underage girl. Sure, we can debate the ethical nature of this novel until we are blue in the face, but the point is that since the novel is in first person, the reader goes along with this old guy on his journey into (shall I say it?) pedophilia. It has been hailed as a groundbreaking novel, and that it may be, but not everyone wants to go down that road. Be sure that you don't drag the reader down a road that they don't want to travel. Know your audience. If you are writing to an audience who digs the kind of stuff you are causing them to experience, then do so, but don't be unintentional...ever.
Perhaps you have some comments about writing using an unreliable or often cross narrator using first person. How did you write the narrative without turning the reader off? Comment below.
For my latest WIP I spent nearly six months designing a rich backstory complete with six habitable planets, four alien races, culture, pre-history, flora, fauna, and loads of other details that may never make it onto the page in any of the several novels I will write in this series. However, now that I've finished the first chapter of the first novel, I found that trying to develop an engaging plot was a chore without spilling my guts about all of the rich culture and environments I had created. This caused me to come up with some hard and fast rules for myself which would allow me to write freely in the environment without spending pages and pages describing these strange and wondrous places.
- In Medias Res - This means "in the middle of the action" and is probably a good place to start if you have a lot of backstory. This is how my novel begins, the main character sitting at an outdoor cafe minding his own business, rather trying to escape the duties of his boring job. An example of this is in Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Mortimer, a story that begins in the middle of a couple having lunch, but then throughout the course of the story we discover the backstory that Mortimer is a huge coward (even though I would not face off against a wounded lion, either). You don't have to reveal any of the backstory if you don't want to, but jumping in right at the middle of the action is usually a good place to begin.
- Dialogue - The best way to find out about some important backstory is also dialogue, but it has its drawbacks as well. The positive effects of using dialogue to reveal important plot points from before the story began is that it comes out more naturally than if a narrator spends pages and pages to describe it to the reader. It also is a way to humanize the backstory if it is clunky and boring. Long speeches are usually boring unless there is action going on to break up the speech. Another interesting way to do this is for the character revealing the backstory to be biased for or against the events they describe. One definite drawback to dialogue is that it is limited by the knowledge of the character speaking.
- Sprinkling - The way I'm tackling all of this backstory in my latest WIP is that I'm sprinkling it in here and there throughout the narrative. A character might mention a past battle in a short "for instance", a building might be described and there might be a character who remembers the location's historical significance, or there might be an event that reminds the character of something in their past. This is the most artful way to do it, in my humble opinion, but it is also the most difficult. Writers who do this are working hardest at their art.
- Flashback - One television program that was excellent at this was Lost. We would see the backstory of every character on the island through flashbacks to their past lives...probably their lives when they were not dead (spoiler alert...oops). Don't do too many flashbacks. Right now Arrow is working with this method of telling the backstory of Oliver Queen, but it sometimes becomes ungainly if it is done too much.
- Don't Mention It - The huge backstory I wrote for This Broken Earth is barely mentioned at all. I mention in passing the disease that wiped out 2/3 of the populace (Volos), and one could see from the setting that things had taken a terrible turn for the worst economically, as well as governmentally, but I didn't really need to go into so much detail. In order to pull this off, a writer needs to "live" in that setting inside their mind as they are writing. This takes much effort but can lead to a very rewarding product. This Broken Earth is still my most popular book, selling a few copies a week over all the other books I've written.
What are some methods that you use to reveal backstory in your novels? Write about them in the comments below. Don't take too long, however. You have a novel to write, after all...and so do I.
And now it is time for a Saturday morning pep talk, writers. Simon Van Booy, writer of several short stories, novels and other award winning text, who has also written some intriguing philosophy books, gives his two cents on writing and planning a novel...and why everyone should. This is worth a listen. Running time 17:51. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ot6Dz0fe6_w
Currently life is preventing me from reaching my daily quota on my new writing project. I suppose if I hadn't considered a few rules to set for myself before I began this project, I would be spinning my wheels in the endless morass of counter-productivity. I set some basic ground rules before I began writing, and that keeps me on track to finish the novel when I have planned to finish it:
- Why? - I had to first ask myself why I am writing a novel. What is the main reason I torture myself with a 6 month background preparation, design of six planetary systems complete with alien races, culture, and weird predatory animals? The reason I'm writing a novel is because it is something I love to do. It relaxes me, takes my mind off of the stress of my job, helps me cope with certain demons, and is in many ways therapeutic. So ask yourself "why?". If the answer isn't strong enough to sustain you through a lengthy project like this, then reconsider how you would benefit from so many hours focused on the job.
- What Style? - I decided on a style of a third person singular, hard-boiled detective story where the detective is cynical and sarcastic toward everyone around him because he has lost hope that the human race will survive past the end of his own lifetime. I thought about Blade Runner, about District 9, about Forever War and about Foundation. I write in a style that matches the science-fictoin I love. Decide on a style that your novel will have. However, if it doesn't work out, don't scrap the whole thing. I have considered several styles and have even written multiple drafts until I find the one that works for both myself and my readers.
- What Reason? - Why are you writing this particular novel? Is it because everyone else is writing a dystopian teen novel and you want to jump on the bandwagon? I usually start with some kind of overarching thematic message which I call the "soapbox idea". This is some kind of philosophical, faith based, or far reaching idea that strikes deep within the human condition. This gives me the fuel I need to continue with the project even when I hit a wall. I can always write about what I'm passionate about, and that keeps me from getting stuck halfway through after writing 25,000 words or so.
- What Are Your Expectations? - I usually write the first draft of the novel just to get it out of me. After that comes the long and difficult battle of drafting, proofing, drafting again, revising, editing, drafting again, etc. If you expect to write the great American or British or (insert language here) novel, it will not come with the first draft. Good writing takes much work and effort, and writing the first draft is only the beginning. If your expectations are to get a novel produced after all of this work is completed, and you are willing to go through this process, you shall come out of the other side of it with a good product.
- Beta Readers - It is essential to have a couple of beta readers lined up for when you get the novel into a working form, that is after you have revised, revised, revised. Don't send your first draft off to a beta reader. Make sure you have done everything to the novel that you can possibly do yourself. I used to do editing for people, but quit not because the pay was too little (I charged $1 a page) but because usually the writers I worked for would send their unedited first draft that had very little changes from the original. It was a nightmare to read as well as edit. You want your best work to shine for the beta reader, that way when they provide their all important feedback it will be used to heighten an already strong novel.
- What You Will - Set out to write whatever the flip you want to write. I'm currently working on a sort of detective novel set in a future where the human race is nearly extinct (and within the first few chapters becomes extinct) all but one. I wanted to see what went through someone's mind who knew they were the last of their kind, and what kind of deep human issues might arise because of that dilemma. I've heard from friends of mine that this is "strange", "unheard of" and "just plain weird", but I don't really care. I'm going to explore it if it kills me. I've already written tons of backstory, a 400 year future history, six different planets with flora and fauna and four alien races complete with culture and their own pre-history. I guess I'm too deep now to stop.
- Time and Deadlines - If you are an indie novelist like me, then you have tons of time on your hands to write a novel, right? I don't. I have to make time. This is a huge issue. We have to decide at the onset of writing a novel if we really have all that time to write one. NaNoWriMo is over, but this doesn't stop you from writing a 50,000 word novel. What stops you is usually life. Set some deadlines for yourself, and then stick to them. Reward yourself when you reach them. Don't do any of the fun stuff of life until you reach your daily goals. I use Scrivener, which has a handy goals meter where you plug in how many words you want to write and the date you want to finish and it calculates how many words you need to write each day to reach the goal. I find it very useful.
- Read About It - I will suggest the following books that every budding novelist needs to make sure they read cover to cover: Story by Robert McKee, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King, On Writing by Stephen King, Stein on Writing by Sol Stein and Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. I'd also suggest Elements of Fiction Writing: Characterization by Orson Scott Card.
- Write, Write, Write - You should write at least 1,000 words per day if you want to stay salty. Plan on doing this, but if you don't then don't beat yourself up. Sure, life will get in the way. Most real life writers make an average of $5000 a year, and about 90% of writers don't make any money at all. Write because you want to, because you must, and because you want to get that story out. I do it to relax, actually. When I'm writing I'm living in that weird place I made up and I feel at home there. Writers write. This is a concrete fact.
- Writing Garbage Is OK - That first draft is going to be a dog. It always is. I usually write a first draft and then I lament ever starting the darned thing. That usually fades when I do my first read-through and find little gems that pop out of the narrative that can be used to brighten an otherwise clunky mess. If you are one of those writers who writes a sentence and then erases it immediately, then you just need to relax and unplug the garbage chute on the Death Star compactor. You might at first experience a tense writing situation, the walls closing in, the screams of your protagonists begging you to help them out of their predicament, but light will shine after revision, and Threepio will remember to shut down the garbage masher on the detention level.
I'm a reader because all good writers are readers. Mostly, however, I read because I love to read. I am in many ways like Henry Bemis in "Time Enough At Last", adapted from a Lyne Venable short story which chronicles the sad life of a chronic reader. I'm so glad I have a Kindle Paperwhite, because if I had to buy all the books I read my house would be full of them.
The beef I have with modern fiction is that it tends to wax cliche more often than not. I hope I never use any of these horrible cliches I'm about to list. If you use them, dear writer, I pray you revise them right out of your narrative. I think when you read them you will agree that these cliches need to go.
- Seer Statements - This is when one of the characters in the narrative makes one seemingly psychic statement about the protagonist that sums up their character in a single sentence. This denotes lazy writing. Real people are much more complex, and there should be much more to our characters than what one character can say about them. Now that I mention this, you may be thinking of many instances of this, but one clear example is Haymich from "The Hunger Games" who basically tells Katniss who she is and who she will become.
- Killing the Moral Center - This cliche is becoming more and more popular especially in film. For example, we can see on such television shows as The Walking Dead, every time someone has it together or becomes the moral compass of the group, they are killed off royally. This, of course, causes the group to become more unified and eventually produces another person who is the moral compass who is then summarily killed. I'm guilty of this one. I did it in This Broken Earth, introducing a mentor character for my protagonist who I then allowed to be killed by rocket propelled grenade. Shame on me. I won't do that again.
- Bombarding Us With Background - I'm running into the problem with my newest WIP. I've written over 15,000 words of backstory and pre-history complete with cultures, religions, flora and fauna, and I have found that the hardest thing to do was write the first line of the first chapter. Where do I begin? Sometimes writers overload the landscape with all of the background information rather than let us live in the environment they have created. This is hard to do if you have made all of this background information. The important thing is to tell an engaging story, and if we throw a miasma of stuff at the reader, most of it won't stick but will end up on the floor unused.
- The Burn Out - The main character used to be some kind of expert or mercenary or something-or-other and now is just an ordinary joe. I find it much more interesting if the hero is completely ordinary but has to rise to extraordinary levels to help others or survive. The list is huge on this one: "First Blood", "Rainbow Six", "The Bourne Identity". This is a trope that really needs to be re-thought or deconstructed.
- Explaining Things - In "The Life of Pi", we have a lot of explanation as to why people are named what they are named. You know, I'd like to be the one who figures that out as a reader. The name "Rooster Cogburn" comes to mind here. Charles Portis gave Rooster his name because (obviously) the character is kind of like a rooster and is kind of an old codger, which sounds like Cogburn. I like figuring that out. Don't explain your metaphors or your clever bits. I like to figure that stuff out myself, thank you.
- Let's Write "Twilight" - I could make an argument that "Hunger Games" and "Divergent" are the same story. I could also make an argument that they are playing on the same tired tropes that made "Twilight" a success. Once something sells millions everyone tries to copy it, even if what is being copied is so much literary tripe. "Hunger Games" is actually a plagiarized story, copying at least the premise from "Battle Royale", a 1999 novel by Japanese novelist Koushun Takami. What I would like to see (and love to read, by the way) are original stories that do not try to expand on "Twilight" or "Hunger Games", but delve into the reality of life while taking me to some far away and strangely science fiction setting. I don't need teenage melodrama, and I think people are growing tired of it.
- Stalker Love - The girl doesn't love someone in her life who loves her back, and then after he stalks her repeatedly, she finally sees that he loves her and falls head-over-heels for the weirdo. If this is your love life I am describing here, then you desperately need therapy. If you write stories like this, then please stop.
- Rush to the Airport - Oh my goodness! If I don't get to the airport on time, the love of my life will leave me forever and there is no possible way they will ever know how much I love them if I let them get on that plane...even though you could just catch a later flight.
- The Romantic Comedy Paradigm - This one is a big seller, and my wife will kill me for dogging this, but...here goes: Guy and girl start out hating each other for some reason, guy and girl begin to fall for one another, they fall in love, then one of them does something to screw it up. Later, one of them realizes his/her mistake, and they meet at the airport or somewhere romantic (an airport?!) and live happily ever after.
- Romance Is Mandatory - What ever happened to a male and female character hanging out and just being friends? Do they really have to have a love interest? Is this real life? I think that if the protagonist has to have a girlfriend/boyfriend, then that shows a bit of a weakness, doesn't it? I love strong female characters. If the female character doesn't fall in love is that such a loss? By the way, I love rhetorical questions. They get you thinking, don't they?
If you have any more cliches that you'd like to see disappear in fiction, then comment below. I'd love to learn from you!
K.M. Weiland has a great how-to video about the one thing that ruins the climax of a novel. Have you ever neared the climax of your novel and then blown it because you spent a few pages expounding on something that doesn't really drive us toward that climax? It is best to let her explain. Take note, novelists!
I have accomplished a great personal best: creating a complete pre-history, flora, fauna, culture, alien races and government for five alien planets that the humans or Terrans in my new novel series "The Five Rims". It came in at just over 15K words as well. Now to write the first book set in that universe.
I want it to be a mystery novel, as in someone or a group of someones is murdered, and then our intrepid hero who is the last human in existence (as far as he knows) has to solve the crime in order to bring justice to those who were murdered. He does all this while dealing with the idea that he is the last Terran (the working title) and that the victims of the clime are the remaining Terrans in his fledgeling colony.
I have set the bar high. You mystery novelists blow my mind, really. I have read deeply on the subject, and there are several methods for outlining a mystery novel, but I want to go with the reverse outline. It is what works best for my process and it holds the most promise for my second attempt at concealing the end result from the reader.
Basically, a reverse outline is where we begin with the end result (who murdered who and how they did it) and we work backward, laying out the red herrings after the murder design is created. I already know how I want the first book to end, and I simply have to record all the details of how the murderer reached the ending I have envisioned. I will, however, be working in a little bit of political intrigue into the story, along with a plot by an unforeseen nefarious force who wishes to bring about the destabilization of the planetary government.
I know I have a few of you who follow this blog who write mystery novels. How do you go about it? What is your process? How do you plot out a mystery novel? I may be out of my depth here, but I'd really like to make this story a success, and I think I have a winner of a plot here. Please post below with any ideas as I love to hear from readers who are working through the plot of their stories. If nothing else, vent about the plot you are working on at present and how you designed it.
This quote by one of my favorite writers (Harlan Ellison) is irrevocably true. How many students have I taught to write over the years who most likely do not use that skill now that they are adults? I'm sure the number is more than I'm willing to admit. I consider myself a pretty prolific writer. I've been writing since I was 15, and now that I am in my 40's with a full-on career and a large family taking up most of my time, I have to make time to write. I do this because I simply love it, but there have been times when I've thought about quitting, times when I start thinking that this thing I love to do is just a hobby, something to be cast aside when I grow tired of it.
I haven't done this yet because thankfully there are five methods or techniques I use to keep myself focused and working on the next novel or the next short story.
Here they are:
- The Long-Term Goal - I feel (realistically) that I have at least 10 good novels inside my head, including the ones I've already written. Five of those are a series of books set in a fictional universe of my own design. I have a long term goal to complete them, sort of like a bucket list, and I feel like if I don't complete them then those stories will rattle around in my head until they drive me mad. They must come out of me. What every writer needs to stay a writer is to have a long-term goal. Ask yourself how many books you would like to write in your lifetime. Is it an attainable goal? I have planned out the entire list...and unfortunately it's growing (it's now up to 15) and since I plan on finishing these stories before they drive me mad, I keep writing.
- The Short-Term Goal - Some writers set their sights too high, trying to achieve that long form novel during NaNoWriMo or over the summer while they are not in school. This is problematic sometimes because we often bite off more than we can chew. We need to have short term goals as writers that are attainable. I have a short term goal to finish the backstory, pre-history, flora, fauna and ecosystem of six solar systems before Thanksgiving Day. I know that this is an attainable goal. Don't set goals for yourself that you know you can't realistically reach.
- Haters Gonna Hate - Some writers quit writing because they get some negative criticism...or they get a lot of negative criticism. Some of them quit because they write a novel and no one reads it or buys it, except maybe their friends and family. This is a tough hurdle to overcome because as writers we want our stories to resonate with total strangers. We want to sell books, to be best sellers, to find our niche in the ever growing indie market. We have to face facts: learn from the critics, best selling authors make up less than 1% of the writers in the world, and your friends and family love you enough to buy a novel you wrote. Push on. Something within you needs to be shared with people, even if you sell a few copies of it.
- The Real World - My biggest hurdle as a writer is that I teach English full time in a high school. I also manage an alternative education program and am the online schooling coordinator. I also have four children and an awesome wife who lets me go off by myself, turn on the bluetooth headphones and crank away on my laptop for an hour or so a night. It is tough being a part time writer. Sometimes you start feeling like it is nothing but a hobby and not your real love. Last summer I went through a funk where I didn't write much at all. I'd just finished Come Apart, it wasn't selling very well (one or two a week) and I felt like I was out of ideas. I started writing short stories to get myself back in the swing of things, and after cranking out four or five weird tales, I hit upon an idea for a 5 to 6 book series. Life kicks writers in the chin, but the best thing to do with it is to write about it, to journal about it, and to get back up and write.
- Love and Ink - The main question you have to ask yourself is: "Do I really love this?" It took me an entire summer to figure that out. I have a friend that I podcast with, an author of a couple of really good pirate books (Ryan McKinley) who has been in a funk for much longer than that. We often talk about it on the podcast. I suppose the answer for me is that I realized that if I didn't have to be an English teacher, didn't have to do all the stuff I do for a real job, I'd get up in the morning, take my kids to school, go find a library somewhere and write all day long. How much do you love writing? I think it is a good question to ask if you want to stay a writer.
What do you think? What is it that keeps you from throwing in the towel and quitting? Comment below!
I'm nearly halfway through the backstory material for my current WIP. I'm writing a series of books tentatively titled The Five Rims Series and try as I might, I'm going to create a Tolkienesque place, a (most likely) vain attempt to give my setting a richness that will hopefully translate to a sweeping epic. I'm just going to ignore what Hemingway said about bad writers, I guess. But (no offense to Hemingway) this is really hard work.
I'm not only creating six solar systems, but I'm also creating the flora and fauna for those habitable planets in those systems as well as alien races, culture, customs, a brief history of each habitable planet and a backstory for how the terrans became their conquerors and eventually were eradicated to near extinction. The first book will be titled The Last Terran.
It is daunting, I know, but I really want this new series to be incredible, layered with much backstory and history. I think I'm on my way to getting through it, if I can find the time and energy to slog through it at the end of the day. Of course this is also after teaching all day and running an alternative education program.
But what if you don't have a day job? Could you still find the time to create great writing? I think it's possible, because you should see all the material I've created so far (all 9500 words of it). I'm getting pretty excited about it, and already beginning to bug random strangers about it. Take that, Hemingway. Random strangers have been actually very interested with my pitch.
I finished reading Wolves and Men, a novel written by a former student, and what I noticed about Natasha Wittman's writing is that she has an affinity for making her prose compact with wonderful description, little use of unnecessary adverbs and edge-of-your-seat storytelling. This is not easily done, and should be applauded. I suppose Natasha wrote an outline for her novel, because without one the pacing would be a nightmare.
Enough babble. Here are my observations about why it is so difficult to write well:
- Writing Well Requires Planning - I don't care if you write outlines like me or you brainstorm out a plot using a bubble diagram or with Mindnode, writing a novel without a general plan in mind is like running into battle in your birthday suit. If you write from your gut without much of a plan you will often include a ton of writing that is wasted words in that they will not further the plot. You could also produce a simple two-dimensional novel that is not layered with that stuff that makes great writing, namely subtext. Very few writers are capable of this without planning, but even the greatest novelists plan ahead.
- Writing Well Requires Education - I've said this a million times, but some of the best writers are trained writers. Writing well requires that the writer take a few writing classes. There are several types of writing, and academic writing often does not translate well to fiction writing or to poetry. It's like playing Dungeons and Dragons with the rules for Axis and Allies (Yeah, I'm a game geek). Go take some annex classes or audit some courses or just go to college. You will be that much more prepared to write well if you have the skills and building blocks to do so.
- Writing Well Requires Experience - I have taught high school writers for a long time. Each one of them thinks that they have experienced enough about the world to write on a more mature level, but most of them (I would say about 90%) haven't even traveled outside of their own town. Travel around, see the world, share new experiences, think about big things...deeper things. This takes time and effort, and again is one of those things that most writers who have never been that adventurous lack. It also makes their writing uninteresting and bland.
- Writing Well Requires Much Reading - If you want to write well, then you must read books that are above the level of something like Twilight or The Hunger Games. These books are not on a level of something like Isaac Asimov's Foundation or Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I read books now not necessarily because the plot is interesting, but because the writing style is interesting. I love to examine how Philip K. Dick can tell a story with minimalist detail, allowing the reader to imagine the details while sprinkling in his own quirky brand of humor. He also is able to entertain whilst ramming home the most powerful and thought provoking philosophical and spiritual messages. Good writing comes from reading good writing. Read and learn.
Have you ever thought about this issue yourself? I'm sure you have. Respond in the comment section below with your thoughts on why it is so difficult to write well. I'm sure we can all learn from each other, and that is what makes great writing as well.