Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to "Get Started"

As I slowly catch up from my three-month marathon of revising two books and writing the complete ms. of a third, I'm finding my inbox filling with questions from aspiring authors about how to get started writing a book.

I think many bloggers here are already in the completing-the-ms.-and-getting-it-sold stage, but I think it's a good thing to review how to start writing in the first place.

You just sit down and write.

Profound, eh?

But true. Writing is a skill/craft that develops by working at it. It's unlikely you'll simply be brilliant and become an overnight star. It doesn't work like that in writing.

(And here's a truth that very few people want to hear: It NEVER works that way. Talented people succeed because they work very, very hard to hone their craft, and they have that craft in place when the right opportunity for them to shine comes along.)

So, you want to write a book. You're willing to work. You might think you have loads of talent; you might think you have zero talent. What do you do?




Read a wide variety of books and make a pile of the ones you love. It's likely that what you love will have something in common--even if they're all from different genres! Something in those books speaks to you. Is it family love? romance? in-your-face action/adventure? Sad stories about courageous people?

Whatever it is, read those kinds of books and find more like them. Then start writing. It doesn't really matter whether you have a good plot or characters or have a grasp on dialog--the act of writing you teaches you as you go.

You might think--but it's crap! It has to be good!

No, it really doesn't. Not your first attempt. Forget about the high-falutin' ideas about "First Novels" and all that BS. It's a good bet your first manuscript will be full of holes, with flat characters and dialog, and likely be an amalgam of books you like. That's ok, because you need to get that out of your system.

If the book is brilliant--hey, you're lucky. If not, don't worry about it.

View your first manuscript as a learning tool. I taught myself to oil paint a few years ago. I certainly would not let anyone see my first attempts! Eventually I painted a couple pictures that were ok enough to frame and hang on my wall.

Books are similar. Your first attempts at scenes or dialog might not be good. And that's ok. Allow yourself to be bad. From "badness" you'll find a little goodness, and you can take that and build on it.

If you find yourself bogged down in the middle of your book, that's ok too. It's entirely up to you whether to abandon it or push through to the end.

Note: When I was first starting, people advised me NEVER to abandon a book, or I would just end up with dozens of half-written manuscripts. That is a danger, admittedly. But I discovered that my instincts were good--I would realize that the story was wrong somehow, or wasn't what I wanted, or something. Letting myself walk away and start fresh led me to writing something that I could finish and was publishable. When I wrote that publishable book, I knew it. The pieces came together--all those things I tried to write before finally gelled, and yep, that book got published.

Once you have a complete manuscript:

1. Celebrate! You've reached a point that so many people aspire to and never reach.

2. Now worry about making it readable and/or publishable. There are tons of books out there on craft (dialog, scenes, structure, style, grammar . . .). Look them up in the library or shop at your local bookstore or online. I read many books when I was learning--some helped, some confused the heck out of me. Find ones that work *for you.*

3. Read some more, and start another book.

A word about process: Don't get bogged down by trying to copy another writer's process. Everyone's is different--you have to figure out the way of working that is right for you.

Some writers won't write a word unless the scene is planned meticulously from beginning to end. I prefer to go with the flow: I might make a note that says [Janet talks with Coyote about the skinwalker; Maya interrupts] and then write the scene. The flow of the dialog, the setting, the important points all come out of my head as I think about them. For me, if I plan ahead too much, it takes away the freshness of the scene.

But, I know plenty of good writers who plan, plan, plan. They make charts; they make posters; they make spreadsheets. They know every single thing that's going to happen and then they write it down.

However, it is not the process that's important but the end result. No one reading your book will have any idea whether you wrote it longhand with a pen or plotted each scene on a spreadsheet and organized it by bullet points. They probably won't care either.

That's my spiel on getting started.

Just start.

What you come up with might be putrid. It might be brilliant. But you will never, ever know unless you sit down and start typing.

So, go for it, and have FUN!


D. A. Baudoin said...

Have I mentioned lately that I Love Ya, Man? Seriously, why do you always write the correct post when I need it most? I still think my new novel sucks and is hardly worth the pixels its comprised of, and I'm having to force myself to care if I ever finish it. But at least you've reminded me that this is to be expected. Thanks.

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

It's a rare author that at some point during the writing does NOT think: "This is complete drivel; it sucks; what was I thinking?" Or similar sentiments. :-) You just gotta keep plugging.