As an author, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “As soon as I get time, I’m going to write that novel I’ve been thinking about.” Good for them! I always encourage people to pursue their creative dreams. After a few hours spent staring into the monitor, though, most people realize it’s not as easy as they thought. Bearing that in mind, I thought I’d share how I write my books. Mind you, there are a million ways to write a book – this is just one.
If I’m writing fiction, I always start with my protagonist. I have to feel strongly about a protagonist one way or the other, or I’ll never want to mentally hang out with them for the next few months of my life. What makes a protagonist interesting? Flaws, of course. Can you imagine reading a book where the main character always made the correct decision, never faced any tough moral dilemmas? zzzzzzzzzz…
Let’s take my last novel, for example – The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver. The protag, obviously, was Thomas. What was his flaw? Where to start? Thomas had a hard time with the truth. He might lie when it was easier to tell the truth. He was weak-willed and often took the easy way out. He was an alcoholic. Why in the world would I choose to write a book about such a character? That’s where the next part of writing a book comes into play.
What was the theme of the book? Themes aren’t just for High School English classes. Every great read you’ll ever hurry through has a theme, whether you notice it or not. In Thomas Weaver, as in so many of my stories, the theme is Redemption. Could Thomas Weaver, given a second chance, become a better person? Stop lying and taking the easy way out?
The next question is, what does your main character want? Thomas desperately wanted to not repeat the huge mistake he made in his first life – killing his brother Zack. (This isn’t much of a spoiler. It happens very early in the book.) More than that, though, he wants to do something worthwhile with his second life – to make life better for people he cared about.
Of course, if a character has a goal, there has to be an antagonist to try to make sure it doesn’t happen. In Thomas Weaver, there are two antagonists – cruel fate, and Michael Hollister, a serial killer in training. I think there was a sense of unease throughout the book that Thomas might not be able to stop Zack from dying. From my perspective, there was. I had changed my mind three times as I was writing the book as to whether Zack would ultimately live or die. You’ll have to read the book if you want to find out, though.
Once you’ve got these elements in place – flawed protagonist with a goal, equally flawed antagonist with the opposite goal, plus a working theme, all you have to do is start asking questions. “What is the first thing Thomas would do to further his goal?” “How would Michael react to that, and what would he do?”
Now, it’s finally time to start writing. For me, at least, the blank page is not daunting. I always type like a house afire at both the beginning and ending of a book. It’s the middle that sometimes slows me down. My advice is to not worry about where to start the story. Ofttimes, the first scene that pops into my head isn’t the first scene in the book. In Thomas Weaver, for instance, the first scene I wrote was where middle-aged Thomas was being fired from his job. For some reason, I saw that scene so clearly, I knew I wanted to start there. In the final draft, that story ended up being about 15 pages after the beginning.
Here’s how I write relatively clean first drafts. When I am writing (creating) I do everything in my power to turn my self-editor off. As long as the plot is moving in the right direction, I don’t worry about choosing just the right words, or whether my grammar is perfect. I just want to get the story out of my head and onto the page. Here’s a tip: try to never write until you don’t know what happens next. I will often stop for the day in the middle of a paragraph or even sentence, because that makes it easy for me to start in again the next day.
Each day before I start writing, I go back to the beginning of what I wrote the day before. This time I read it with a critical eye. For this effort, I do care a bit more about powerful verbs and avoiding adverbs as much as possible. By the time I get to the end of the two or three thousand words I wrote the day before, I am back in the flow of the story, ready to write, and I’ve knocked a lot of the rough edges off that first draft.
I repeat this process until the book is written. Aside from going back to the beginning of the previous day’s writing, I never go back to an earlier point in the story and rewrite things. If I want to change something that happened earlier in the story, I make a note and keep going. Momentum is important.
By the time I’m done with the story, it’s essentially a second draft. Is it finished, ready to send out into the world? God, no. I will read/reread/edit/proof that entire book a minimum of four more times before I send my baby out to readers. That whole process will be the subject of a different blog, though.
For now, you’re well armed to start writing your book. What’s stopping you?