I'm not a best-selling author. I've got a couple stories in a few anthologies published by small-book presses, and less than a month ago I self-published my first novel. That's about it for my resume as an author. But I have written lots of things that I haven't had the balls to show people.
A friend of mine, another aspiring writer who's about to start his own journey as a novelist-in-the-works, asked me how I write. Do I start at Page 1 and just spit it out? Do I have an outline? Do I know every detail before I write?
The answers are...in order...No. Sort of. Not a chance in hell.
How I write has been as much of a learning process as writing the book itself. Mainly because I've never written anything this long before. I've written screenplays (should probably sell one of those one day), short stories and flash fiction (which is even shorter short stories).
When I started writing my novel I researched what popular authors do. The guys and girls that make a good living writing. Grisham, King, Evanovich. Those authors. And it turns out not one of them does the same thing. So I figure I'm as qualified to give advice on what to do as any of them.
To clarify...This is what I do. This is what works for me. Your results may vary.
1. Bring out the Templates!
TEMPLATE.XLS ON MY GOOGLE DRIVE
(It's a spreadsheet, so I suggest if you really want to use it, click on File and Download. More about Google Drive later...)
Template.xls is a collection of various writing templates and outlines I've used over the years. I don't use them all. It depends on the piece I'm writing. The most helpful tabs are Outline Formula, Characters, Cast (where I keep track of my peeps) and Notes Along the Way for jotting down little ideas I don't want to forget.
As I get further into the story or if I need more help defining my characters or keeping track of plot points, I'll use Character Sketch and CHECKLIST1.
2. Create an Outline.
I am a huge proponent of the Outline. I need to see the entire story laid out on one page. I want to see Step A to Step B to Step 1,462 and every sidestep in between. If I don't, I will start taking side trips and tangents into other books. It's a habit I refer to as Angusitis.
(Angusitis is named in honor of my writing buddy and brother-from-another-mother Jeff Angus who is famous for this and it's one of the many reasons I love working with him!! Jeff and I were once discussing an adorable children's Christmas screenplay we were writing and ended up with scenes that would make George Romero sick in his soup. To this day Jeff will occasionally walk up to me and say, "I still wanna kill off some of those little bastard elves." So do I, Jeff. So do I.)
For this book, I discovered that having a standard outline with A's and 1's and a's was not going to work. It drove me crazy keeping track of things.
So I got a calendar.
(It's actually a calendar my mother gave me for Christmas. Yes, Mom gave me a Lamborghini calendar. She also gives me die-cast Lamborghini model cars. I think my mom's hinting at me to buy her a Lamborghini. I don't think I could afford it even if this book ends up on the bestseller list, but I like the way she thinks.)
I picked May 2012 because my story begins on a Tuesday and I wanted Day 1 to be on a Tuesday. May 1, 2012 was on a Tuesday. As you can see, I have little Post-It Notes all over the month. I start with white stickies, lay out my days, and when I'm done writing a specific day I replace it with a yellow sticky. Seems odd, I know, but it works. For me, because...
3. Don't worry about where your chapters start and end, or the length of them.
I tried to start writing with Chapter One. I fussed and fretted about where it needed to end and the length of it. I worried so much that it was starting to affect the content of the chapter.
Don't do that.
Readers don't care. They don't. If your story is entertaining enough they won't notice what chapter they're on and it won't matter to them.
Just start writing the scenes you know. Call them whatever you like. I write and save my "chapters" by the number day they occur on. Hence the need for the calendar. The type of book I wrote (comedy romance smut novel) flows by day. So I have to think about what happens everyday. Something doesn't happens every single day (which is why Days 5, 6 & 7 have X's on them) but I will make mention of them on the next day.
Example: After Lyssa's long-coming and desperately-needed weekend at The Greenwood Spa, she returned to work to find the office cat had yacked all over her keyboard.
Ta-Da! Time passage sufficiently explained without boring the reader with all the details.
(That doesn't really happen, by the way. Well, not in the book. It happens quite routinely during the summer months in my house though! ACK!!!)
If you're the type of writer that can write by chapter and make it work, then kudos to you. I can't. So if you can't, then don't worry about it. Just write how it works for you and worry about how it needs to be chopped up for the publisher's later. Just write your content first. Make it pretty later. Which brings us to...
4. Don't worry about all the details now.
This may seem like foolish advice. You would think that you have to know EVERYTHING about the story before you write it. You don't. In fact, I think you might be selling your story short if you do. Some of the best ideas I've had for this book have come on the fly. I'll be writing a scene or talking about the book and out of the blue I'll get an idea that is pure gold.
I've also had ideas that are pure crap. Those ideas we refer to as "Stuff I'll Use Someplace Else Later." They go into a junk receptacle to be used some other time. Honestly, almost half of the material I've used for this book I plucked from other stories that I started and they went nowhere. Or it was stuff sitting in the Miscellaneous Ideas folder on my PC. It's kind of amazed me how well that's worked.
Plus, I find the more I write, the more the story will become obvious to me. As I start on my next book, I fully realize that I have no idea what's going to happen. I'm not worried about it. I'll figure it out as I go along. The story will unfold before me.
(What if it doesn't?!?)
It will. It always does.
5. Don't be afraid to change things and throw things out.
I've written some absolutely wonderful, beautiful scenes that I've had to remove from the book. It was painful. Very painful. But it was necessary. It usually comes because I've started writing a scene and the next thing I know I've taken it somewhere else completely wrong. It happens all the time with my dialogue. I get two characters talking and the next thing I know they're moving along too quickly. It's because I love my characters and I want them to get to the good stuff!!! But there are pages to fill up first.
6. Get feedback.
I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by my book's target audience. I work with a lot of women who read the genre I'm writing. During my first attempts at writing a novel I decided to give out portions of the book to co-workers and friends that I trust to read and give me feedback. So far the response has been fantastic. Am I slightly worried that because it's friends they are biased to me and what I write? Definitely. But I can kind of tell the difference between a polite "I like it. Really," and the "Oh my God, this is good! I LOVE IT!"
I have had a couple moments of "I love it, but I couldn't get into <FILL IN THE BLANK>." To my surprise, I didn't jump down the commenters' throats. In fact, I was elated. Because I knew they'd seriously read the story and their reading wasn't tainted by our friendship. I also pondered their concerns and took it seriously. I made a HUGE change in the story based on one of those concerns and it ended up redefining one of the main characters, who's turned out to be everyone's favorite. It's the smartest thing I've ever done. The book just all fell into place after that.
So, get feedback. Be open to criticism. There is something to be learned from it, whether it's good or bad. Try to remember --- it's your story but you're writing for other people to buy it and like it. If you're just writing for yourself then I don't suggest you let anyone read it. No one will ever "get you." Ever. In fact, you should probably stop reading this too.
7. Give yourself a deadline.
I have a day job. I have something that vaguely resembles a life. I don't have time every single day to write. Does this mean I'm not serious about it? Hells no! It means I have responsibilities that sometimes don't allow me to sit down and write every night. And you won't either. So, if you read somewhere that if you're trying to be a successful author and you don't write every single day that you are a terrible person, ignore it.
Stephen King writes every day. But that's what Stephen King does for a living. I don't. I have to spend 9+ hours away from my home trying to do things like configure SFTP connections between my company's software and insurance companies, who I'm completely convinced are the most evil entities in the Universe. I would love to see Robert Downey Jr. don his metal tights and take on Medicaid New Jersey. He would lose!
The point is...write as much as you can when you can. Even if it's just jotting down ideas or roughly sketching out a scene. But do give yourself a deadline.
Pick a date your writing project will be done.
I give myself a date and a word count. 90,000 for a novel. Will I reach 90,000? Probably not since my target audience reads books in the 80,000-90,000 range. But if I give myself 80,000, I will end up short. I have to overshoot to make my goal. That's just how I am and why fight nature. My goal is 90,000 and it works for me.
Feel free to make mini-goals. 5,000 this weekend. 1,500 Wednesday night while the kids are at baseball practice. Whatever. But keep your deadline in mind and stick to it!
To make my deadline, I've had to pass up on going out with friends. Skip family dinners. Scream at my husband to get away from me before I killed him. Sometimes sacrifices are needed! But it's never a huge sacrifice. And it's never for very long. When I feel it might be, I remind Drew..."Someday baby, this will all pay off. Just hang in there." And he always responds, "That's fine." Because that's how he responds to everything. He's a pretty laid-back guy. A lot of Drew's hang-ups with my hang-ups are all in my head...being more hang-ups. Ah, writers! Gotta love those over-productive imaginations!
Again, the point is that Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day...in the morning...because that's what he does. I can't do that. I have bills to pay. But someday I may get the chance to. And that's the ultimate goal!
8. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! BACK THAT SHIT UP!
I know. It sounds like something Tosh would say. But it's really the most important advice I can give.
Back. Up. Your. Work.
If you write on paper, that's just jiffy. Maybe you can photocopy it once in a while and keep the copy in your desk at work in case of a house fire. Otherwise get with this century and put everything on the computer. More specifically, on the cloud.
There are a few online services where you can store your files. I use Google Drive. Why? I get 5GB of space for free (that's a lot when all I'm doing is storing documents) and it's so easy to use. I'm also a Google freak. It's the best writing resource out there. So I promote it.
And don't be paranoid about the internet. No one's going to steal your stuff. You're not going to lose it all. Ok, they might and you might if you're stupid about it. Just be smart. I not only work from Google Drive, I also keep a secondary back-up. Just in case I do something dumb and accidentally erase it.
But with Google Drive, I not only have my work constantly backed up, I can get to my files anywhere I have internet access.
Oh, and on a completely opposite note...keep a notebook handy at all times. I have a little one in my purse. Just in case I'm shopping at ACMoore for more cardmaking supplies and I'm struck by a great idea that I don't want to forget! I can jot it down. I have lots of notebooks around my house for such things. I prefer to bring a notebook when I'm meeting with other authors to brainstorm ideas. Sometimes lugging around the laptop can be a pain in the ass. There's something about pen and paper that can spark creativity.
But when it comes to the actual "writing", get on the cloud. Trust me. It's really nice up here.
(Incidentally, I have pictures of my house, including all rooms and contents, stored on Google Drive too. Just in case of that house fire I mentioned earlier. It will come in handy for insurance purposes. Just saying...pretty, pretty cloud...)
9. Have a little faith in yourself.
It's very hard for me to sit down and write. Especially if it's something new. A new scene. A new day. A new short story. I want to do it right the first time and not waste time writing something that might get tossed later.
HA! Yeah, that's not going to happen. And as I've already addressed in the points above, there's a very good reason for that.
I'm a born editor. I can take any piece of writing and tweak the crap out of it. When it's for NorGus Press or my author friend's work I try very hard to "fix it" without losing their writing style. That's super important. But editing is what I love to do. That's how I started writing. As a teenager I would re-write TV shows and movies that I felt weren't good enough. Mostly Miami Vice.
(Yes, I loved Don Johnson too. And yes, there was some fanfic involved. I was a teenager!! Crucify me for it.)
But the point is, I love to edit my work and other people's work. So starting out with a blank sheet of paper can be a little daunting. But I've learned that once I start, the words just kind of flow out. I have to trust in my talent a little more than I have in the past. I mean, I'm going to end up editing it later and adding a lot of detail anyway. So put the words on the paper now...tweak later.
Just start writing. Even if you don't think you know where it's going. Don't worry. You will get there.
You will be surprised.