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.

Action Scene from “A Spark of Heavenly Fire”

Here is an action sequence from A Spark of Heavenly Fire. I worked hard on this particular scene. Rewrote it about a dozen times. Took out all extraneous words. Removed most of the character’s thoughts. Condensed the descriptions. Shortened the sentences. I wanted the action to zing! And maybe I accomplished my goal. Today a woman told me that A Spark of Heavenly Fire was so intensely emotional and so tightly written that she had to pause to rest while reading it. She said was glad of the breaks because it stretched the book out longer. Made me feel good to know the book meant that much to her.

Pippi watched the two boys come nearer. With their eyes alit with laughter, they looked young and innocent, like children playing a game.

The larger boy stopped, raised his rifle to shoulder height. All at the same time, she felt something whizzing by her face, heard the crack of the rifle, and saw a piece of bark flying off the tree next to where she stood.

She stayed rooted to the spot. She knew she should run, wanted desperately to run, but her body refused to cooperate.

Jeremy grabbed her coat and yanked her behind a thicket of bushes, where they stood ankle-deep in leaves.

“Listen,” he said urgently. He tugged at her coat. “Are you listening?”

With robotic jerkiness, she turned her head to look at him.

“Yes,” she answered, marveling at how far away her voice sounded.

He lay face down on the ground. “Cover me with leaves.”

She gazed at him, not comprehending.

“Cover me with leaves,” he said harshly. “Now! Do it now.”

She dropped to her knees.

As she scooped the wet, soggy leaves over him, he said, “As soon as you’re done, I want you to start running. Zigzag through the trees. Make a lot of noise so they think we’re both running away. And whatever you do, don’t look back.” He turned his head and looked up at her. “Got it?”

Pippi nodded, but refused to meet his eyes. How could he talk to her like that? Blinded by tears, she finished covering him with leaves, then took off running.

The binoculars banged against her chest, branches tore at her hair, rocks tripped her, and still she ran.

She stopped for a moment to massage a stitch in her side. To her horror, she saw the boys up ahead, coming straight at her.

She looked around in confusion. Seeing the thicket of bushes and the mound of leaves covering Jeremy, she realized she had come full circle.

She glanced at the boys; they leered at her and licked their lips.

Her skin prickled.

The smaller boy, whose hair had been dyed a deep crayon blue, thrust his pelvis forward and cupped his crotch with his hand. The larger boy, blond ponytail swinging, flailed his arms and legs in a gross burlesque of a woman running.

The boys convulsed with laughter.

Still laughing, the blond boy raised his rifle. With his finger crooked on the trigger, he aimed it at her.

Suddenly the mound of leaves at the base of the bushes erupted. A creature—barely recognizable as Jeremy, with his tensed body and his rage-distorted face—sprang toward the young blond rifleman.

The boy didn’t even have time to turn his head.

Dressed in camouflage clothes as Jeremy was, it looked as if the very leaves reached out, grabbed the blond ponytail, pulled the boy close, and made three rapid sawing motions across his throat.

Blood spurted in a bright red arc from the boy’s neck.

It happened so fast that when Jeremy tossed the blond aside, the blue-haired boy was still cupping his crotch and laughing.

Jeremy turned to confront him. The grin slid off the boy’s face. He dropped his rifle and raised his hands. His eyes, the irises rimmed with white, were riveted on the bloody knife.

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Nor All Your Tears . . .

The Moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
     Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a Word of it.

When I started writing, I often thought of the above quatrain from the “Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam.” It made me smile to reflect that this warning about the moving finger does not hold true when it comes to writing. We writers can — and should — rewrite and rewrite until the story turns out exactly the way we want it to turn out.

When it comes to real life and especially death, however, there is no rewriting. If the story does not turn out the way we want, too bad. And tears, as I now know from experience, will not wash away a single moment of what has already happened.

No matter how much I cry, my mate is still dead.

I worry sometimes about talking so much about my crying for him (and for me). Perhaps people will see me as weak since people often equate tears with spinelessness and immaturity. There is certainly something babyish about crying for that which one cannot have, for wailing against that which one cannot change. Sometimes I think I should be braver about this traumatic turn my life has taken, or more stoic. Still, tears are the only way I have of momentarily relieving the terrible ache of his absence. And this reason for tears is true not only for me.

I met a woman who cannot cry over the death of her husband, though she wants to. People have suggested that she cut onions to stimulate tears, but research shows that tears released by such irritations are different from those released because of emotion. Dr. William Frey, a biochemist and director of the Dry Eye and Tear Research Center in Minneapolis, says that people “may be removing, in their tears, chemicals that build up during emotional stress.” So crying is not a sign of weakness. Abstaining from crying is not a sign of bravery.

Tears are simply that — tears — though I wish with all my heart they were more, that they had the power to wash away the past and bring my mate back to me, healthy and happy.

Interview with C.A. Milson, author of The Chosen

Interview with C.A Milson, author of The Chosen, available from Amira Press:

Bertram: What inspired you to write The Chosen?

CM:  The first inspiration for writing this particular story came to me in 1989, when I was living in Melbourne, Australia. The original story was titled “Shack of Evil”, a 9-page story based on the character of Jamiesonn. The story idea came from a Hobbytex picture my mother had on the wall of her apartment. After writing “Shack of Evil”, I went on to write an additional 25 short stories, all of different genres, including a children’s story. “Shack of Evil” would later become the base for what is now the trilogy of The Chosen, Bloodline of Darkness, and Prophecy’s End.

Bertram: What was the hardest part of writing your novel?

CM: The hardest part is the re-writing of chapters and scenarios. No part of writing is perfect from the first sentence, as I will have an idea for a chapter, then when I have reviewed it I am likely to scratch that whole scene and go in a completely different direction. The other hard part is coming up with new ideas and concepts. There are times when I can sit in front of the computer for hours with no inspiration at all.

Bertram: What is your favorite scene?

CM: One of my favorite scenes in The Chosen is when Alex faces his nemesis for the last time. Alex has been anointed with supernatural power that even the forces of darkness sit back in awe. There is a scene where he is thrown into the sea of fire, and . . . well, I won’t say too much as that will give the plot away.

Bertram: What do you hope readers will say about your book?

CM: I hope my readers will say that they loved my novel and await the second one to come out!

Bertram: What’s next for you?

CM: Next for me is writing Bloodline of Darkness, which is the second in the trilogy in the life of Alex Manning — a man who is put in the middle of a spiritual conflict he otherwise wants no part of. Bloodline of Darkness is set seven years after The Chosen. Alex has forsaken his powers to live a “normal” life, and the forces of Tartarus have arisen to harvest the souls of humans and plunge the world into darkness. Alex once again must stand and save humanity but can he overcome the ever-present darkness that also reigns in his own heart?

De-was-ing My Manuscripts

I don’t seem to be able to write during the summer. The heat fries my creativity, or at least stifles it, so I use the time to send out query letters and edit my novels. For this current edit, I’m going through and de-was-ing my manuscripts. I have no objection to the word “was,” but it seems to be falling out of favor. Too passive, perhaps, and too weak. And I use it a lot; I have found pages that have six or seven wases.

Sometimes it’s easy to remove a was. I just replace it with another verb. He was still handsome becomes He still looked handsome.

Sometimes I find it more difficult, and have to rewrite the entire sentence. It was a nice day becomes The sun shone. The warm air smell of just mowed grass. Not brilliant prose by any means, but at least the was is gone, which satisfies the point of the edit, though I don’t see what was wrong with the first version. It might be bland, but it’s also the character’s opinion. By describing the day, it seems less personal; nevertheless, I made the change.

And then there are all those sentences that I can’t figure out how to rewrite. He was out of the habit of talking might become He’d lost the habit of talking, but it seems too severe for the casual comment I intended. In the end, I left it out. It might change the character’s motivation for not responding to a direct question, but at least I got rid of the was.

I’m having a problem with a few other sentences, too. He was a lawyer can become he worked as a lawyer, but that’s not the same connotation at all. Nor is She was in love the same as She loved him. And what about What was she doing here? Or He was her grandfather. Simple, ordinary sentences that became convoluted any way I try to change them. So I left them as is. If an editor or agent rejects my work because of a few stray wases, then they wouldn’t have been worth dealing with.

Or so I tell myself.

Storytelling and Storytellers

My previous post about goals (my 100th post, by the way) made me consider my goals and how they pertain to my work-in-progress.

I haven’t been adding many new pages to the novel. I realized Chip my hero believed the accounts of the world coming to an end, yet when he came home from work to find his mother gone, he didn’t think anything of it, just assumed she finally went back to her place. I’ve been spending the past few days reworking the first chapters so that he stops believing the accounts long enough to make his blasé attitude believable.

I could have waited until I finished the first draft to do the rewrite, but I need a solid foundation on which to build my story, or I lose my focus. As I get deeper into the story, I will be making other changes, but for the moment I am satisfied that Chip, at least, no longer believes the world is ending. Now when readers get to the place where Chip comes home to find his mother gone, they won’t roll their eyes at his stupidity, or worse: slam the book on my stupidity.

Although we constantly change our minds or act on a whim, we cannot allow our characters the same leeway. Everything they do must be motivated, or else the story falls apart. Because I have a silly premise, I have to be particularly vigilant.

Yesterday I started to read a book where the main character got fired first thing. Besides that beginning being as much of a cliché as a dream or a weather report, it wasn’t believable. Well, the firing was believable, perhaps even the boss suggesting that the woman find herself a rich husband by attending funerals was believable. What wasn’t believable was the fired woman saying no way and then, for no apparent reason, deciding to do it. It wouldn’t have taken much to motivate her; looking for a job and not finding one would have done it for me. But the author, who should have known better, had her acting on a whim. That’s when he lost me, which was okay since it meant I didn’t have to waste any more time plowing through his self-conscious prose.

Many writers today, especially new writers trying to get published, think they don’t have to follow the rules of storytelling. Perhaps not. In the end, who am I to say? All I know is that to keep from jerking their readers out of the reality they are creating, writers must make sure their plots are interesting, characters real, actions motivated.

Even more than being a good writer, I want to be a good storyteller. If I follow those simple rules, maybe someday I will achieve my goal.

Blogging is Morning, Writing is Evening

I was afraid that when I got involved with writing my new novel I would have to stop blogging, but here I am. I discovered that blogging and writing are two entirely different types of composition, using different parts of my brain, so one does not supersede the other.

Blogging is my morning writing, which I do on the computer. It is linear, logical, and entire of itself. The beginning and ending not only bracket the body; they reflect each other like sunrise and sunset or birth and burial. Because I keep it short, knowing how difficult it is for some people to read online, I can see the article all at once, which makes reblogging easy. (If good writing comes from rewriting, why shouldn’t good blogging come from reblogging?)

Writing is my evening composition. It is linear and logical in that every reaction I write is preceded by an action and every action is motivated, but the process of writing is anything but logical. A hand/mind connection comes into play at night when I sit in a cocoon of light, pen in hand, paper before me, that doesn’t seem to apply during the day or when I am at the computer. That is the time when magical things happen on the page, when subconscious ideas come to fruition. Sometimes the ideas come slowly and the words come hard, in which case I go to bed early. Other times my hand can’t form the words fast enough, and I lose the idea. Those nights I go to bed early, too. But sometimes, oh sometimes, the ideas come, the words flow, and the night goes on forever.

Of course, when morning comes, my linear mind takes over, and I chuck some of that immortal prose into the trash. But I do keep a few of the pages, rewrite others, and the story grows.

I write for myself, more so now that the possibility of never getting published is finally sinking in, but who do I blog for? Myself, too. This journal is a message from the blogging part of my brain to the writing part and if it pays attention, my writing should improve. At the very least, I am developing a database of writing hints for when I (or you) need help.