For Now . . . Just Write.

writingbIn an online writing discussion, one writer said that the first nine chapters of her book went through a readers review and most of the readers agreed that the first paragraphs really grabbed their interest, but then her editor suggested placing the opening sequence later in the book to make the beginning more appealing to guys. The writer wanted to know if she should follow the editor’s advice, or go with the original beginning.

To be honest, the question confused me. Why would a writer have an editor if the writer didn’t want to follow the editor’s suggestions? And who are the readers? (And what the heck is a readers review? Do I need one, and if so, where do I get one?) What stake did this “readers review” have in the book? If the readers were family and friends, then it doesn’t make any difference what they say. And, if the readers only read the original beginning and did not have the editor’s suggested revised beginning to compare, it seems to me that the readers’ opinions don’t really account for much.

Even more confusing, why is the writer having someone edit the book when she has only nine chapters? Every writer knows that a novel takes so long to write that by the time it’s finished, either the writer has changed or the focus of the book has changed, sometimes both. It’s entirely possible that by the time the author finishes writing the book, the story would have strayed from the original premise, becoming stronger and more vibrant, in which case that first chapter would be superfluous, and any discussion about keeping the beginning or changing it would have become irrelevant.

To spend any time debating the beginning of a book before the entire thing has been written puts too much emphasis on something that is unimportant for now. The beginning sequence of a work in progress is merely a starting point for the writer, a place to anchor the story while s/he is writing it. In many cases, especially with new writers, a story will be stronger without that first chapter, but no one — not the writer, the editor, or the readers — will know that until the entire book is finished.

All an author has is his or her vision to see the way through to the end of a story. When a book becomes a committee project, then it is no longer the writer’s vision but the vision of anyone who happens to have an opinion. Sometimes new writers seek readers early in the process because they are unsure of themselves, but the way to become sure of yourself is simply to write. And sometimes writers want to make certain they are on the right track, but even the wrong track is sometimes the right track since everything you write helps you become the writer you were meant to be. (I’ve heard it said that you don’t become a master at the craft until after you have written a million words. I’ve also heard that it takes four million words. In other words, you need to write a lot of words!)

If you too are in the middle of your book and are pondering whether to change the beginning — don’t. For now, it is serving its purpose. When the book is finished and you are reviewing every minute detail, then you can decide how to improve the beginning to foreshadow the premise of the book and hook readers into wanting to continue exploring your vision. But for now . . . just write.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

How to Begin Writing a Novel

A woman left a comment on a writing discussion today saying she decided she wanted to write a novel, then she requested advice on how to begin.

My advice?

Write a word. Any word. That’s all it takes to start writing.

A book begins with a single word. Many novice writers get intimidated by the thought of writing an entire book, but all you ever need to write is one word. I know that’s not much of a goal, but in the end, it is the only goal. That’s how every book all through the ages got written — one word at a time. By stringing single words together, you get sentences, then paragraphs, pages, chapters, an entire book.

So, to begin with, just write. Get a feel for words. Read fiction. Get a feel for how a story flows. Once you are in the habit of writing, read books on how to write. Sometimes it takes a long time for it all to click. I’d written two and a half books, read dozens of books on how to write in addition to the thousands of novels I’d read, before it all clicked. Most of what the how-to-write books said didn’t make sense at first. Rising conflict? Stakes? Showing? Telling? I hadn’t a clue what they meant, but I stuck with it, and became a good writer. I’m not naturally talented, but I discovered that it is possible to learn the craft. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Writing is not always about writing. Sometimes it’s about thinking. Some authors can sit down and let the words flow and lo! There is a story! Other authors write extensive outlines, detailing the entire story before they ever set one word to the page. I don’t do either. I think about what story I want to write and why I want to write it. I figure out who the main characters are, what they want, how they are going to get it, who is going to stop them getting it. I figure out the beginning and the end (because I need to know where to begin and where I am going), and I figure out a couple of scenes in the middle, to give me an idea of how to get there. Then write. I am a very slow writer, but still, being a slow writer, I’ve written five books that have been published.

The best skill to learn after you’ve written your book is how to rewrite. Chances are, you dumped too much information in the first chapter because you assume people need to know everything about your character before they can understand her, so usually the first thing you do in rewriting is dump the first chapter. But to rewrite, you have to have written. So just write. And write what you want. Writing is all about practice. A person who wants to learn how to play the piano doesn’t just sit down at a piano and immediately start playing. You have to learn the basics, have to practice, but still, you can plunk at the keys to get a feel for piano playing. The same thing goes for writing.

All too often, inexperienced writers tiptoe through their novels, letting major events — fistfights, gunplay, murders, betrayals — take place off-page. It’s much easier to let characters emote afterward than for the writer to take the time and trouble to tackle the action scene. I know I have passed on opportunities to create such scenes, thinking the characters’ reactions all-important, but I forgot one thing: readers need to experience the drama.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the confidence to bring such complex scenes to life, to juggle the many elements that comprise an action scene, but the only way to learn is to plunge headfirst into action. Write it fast and fearlessly; let the words fall where they may. You can always clean up the mess in rewrites.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to study the publishing business. Learn everything you can about good prose, story elements, query letters, promotion. With so many millions of people out there who have written a book or who want to write a book, the competition is fierce. A writer does not attain maturity as a writer until he or she has written 1,000,000 words, or so they say. (I’m only halfway there.) So write. Your next book might be the one that captures people’s imaginations and catapults you into fame and fortune. Not writing another book guarantees you will never will reach that goal. It also keeps you from doing what you were meant to do.

In the Beginning: Starting to Write a Novel

I finished writing my fourth novel several months ago, and I feel as if I should be starting another one. After all, a writer writes, right?

I have a synopsis and a great hook, but I just can’t get into the story. I don’t know who my characters are or why anyone, including me, should like them. I am bored by the minutiae of their ordinary lives and I want to jump right into the extraordinary times that are coming, but I need the preamble to set up the story. I suppose I could start with the last chapter as Margaret Mitchell did for Gone With the Wind, and work my way toward the beginning, but my linear mind would rebel. Or I could start with a violent scene to get my adrenaline going. Books that start with violence sell better than ones that begin more passively, anyway.

I tell myself that, good or bad, I should just get the story down on paper and worry about rewriting later. Then I remember that it’s hard for me to find any words, so they need to be good.

Starting to write a novel is always difficult, even for professionals like Mary Higgins Clark who have been writing for decades. She admitted in an interview that it never gets easier. But still she writes.

Perhaps if I were writing for publication as she does, I would be motivated. There is nothing like the threat of having to return an advance to keep a writer churning out the words. I am not writing for publication yet, and I already have four unpublished novels packed away in the dusty reaches of my computer. Adding another seems pathetic.

So what’s the alternative? Blogging. It satisfies my writing urge, the posts are short and don’t require a big commitment of my time, and I don’t need to create interesting characters.

Characters are the key to a good beginning. Once you know who they are and what they want, they can help drive the story. But the only way to learn who they are and what they want is to write them. It’s a vicious circle.

For now, I’ll stick to blogging.