I’m often asked, “What is the most important advice you can give aspiring writers?”
I tell them: Don’t wait for that “right time.” Open a journal and start today.
Too much time is wasted doing nothing when it takes so little to do something!
This is for those who want to write their first novel. It is not necessarily for non-fiction, short fiction, or experienced writers, although some material may be helpful to all writers.
I am a novelist. I write historical mysteries with a paranormal element.
Writing a novel is not for everyone. But it is for anyone. You decide.
There are important questions you need to ask before you begin. Don’t worry, you’re not committing to the answers.
WHY DO YOU WANT TO WRITE?
Are you looking for fame and fortune?
Is writing a creative outlet or a hobby?
Do you want to write a memoir, for yourself or for your family?
Did you promise someone to write something, for example, an employer?
Is seeing your book in print your dream?
Are you just compelled to write?
An understanding of your expectations will avoid disappointment. It will also dictate some of the rules you will choose for your work. For instance, if you are writing for yourself or your family, promoting your book will not be a priority. Be honest and don’t neglect identifying your motivation!
IS IT IMPORTANT THAT YOU WRITE WHAT THE PUBLIC WANTS TO READ?
Today’s most popular genre are:
Perhaps these genres don’t interest you. Maybe what fascinates you is:
Should you give up your interest and write what is popular? Definitely not, but you should know the consequences of writing a less popular genre. If you choose an unpopular subject, your work will be harder to sell if that is your goal. Readers expect characteristics of the genre to be followed.
WHAT ABOUT RESEARCH?
I spent my life in medical administration, and my favorite genre to read is police procedurals. Yet I don’t write medical thrillers. I discovered an interest in history and love crime fiction. I do a lot of research, but I enjoy research as much as writing.
Bottom line: write about what interests you and enjoy the trip.
Writing is not for you if you don’t enjoy most aspects of the process.
GETTING READY TO WRITE
1) Find a comfortable place to work – free of distractions. (It’s not a perfect - world do your best.)
2) Pick out some materials dedicated to writing. Surrounding yourself with favored writing materials will give you pleasure and put you in the mood to work.
3) Computers are not essential for a first draft, but eventually you will need a computer for editing and to prepare your manuscript for submission if you want to publish your work.
** Don’t forget to save and back up your work, and label all drafts clearly. It is too easy to confuse multiple drafts.
Think carefully about naming your files and be consistent in naming and the folders you store your files in. There is nothing worse than spending hours looking for a chapter and having to rewrite it because it got into the wrong folder.
READY TO WRITE?
Before you begin putting words on paper, you still need to make a few decisions. Yes, this is true even for writers who don’t outline but write “by the seat of their pants,” like Stephen King.
Don’t worry, you aren’t stuck with these decisions, Try them out and change them if they don’t work, but you need a place to start.
SETTING: WHEN AND WHERE DOES YOUR STORY HAPPEN?
Consider the following story – close your eyes and envision this scene:
A female character is being held captive by an evil man, his purpose not known. Somehow, she is able to escape. Now she must get away before he comes after her, hide, find help, and a weapon would certainly be useful.
What are you going to have her do next? There are things you need to decide first.
When she escapes, does she discover herself on a farm? In a forest? At the beach? In the city?
Is she in today’s world, or sometime in the past or future? The action will depend on where the character finds herself.
WHO ARE THE PLAYERS IN YOUR STORY AND
WHO DOES IT HAPPEN TO?
Is the woman escapee in your story a sexy twenty-year-old? Is she a skinny eighty-year-old? Maybe she’s an eight-year-old child with tears in her eyes. Or she’s Katniss from the Hunger Games, drawing a powerful bow.
Maybe the man she escapes from is “Jaws” of James Bond fame. Or perhaps it’s Donald Trump.
Once again, you must know your characters pretty well to be able to have them act appropriately, consistently, and have readers care about them. What they do as the story unfolds depends on how well "you" know them. You may have to change the story, or change the character. The
STORY (PLOT): WHAT HAPPENS?
What is your story about? To begin, you must know either what happens to change the main character’s life or what he or she will need to battle to resolve the issue. The plot is not about what happens. It is about how what happens affects your protagonist.
It is not about what the protagonist does, but why the protagonist does it.
It is this struggle that drives the action,
The protagonist encounters a problem that grows and forces him or her to change in order to solve the problem. You don’t have to have all the answers to begin, but you need to know something about either the problem or the struggle.
Stories have a beginning, a middle an end, right? Sort of.
You must decide when your story starts and ends, but always remember that the characters lived long before your story begins (backstory) and will continue when the story ends.
A difficulty, especially for beginning writers, is to decide at what point to start the story and how much backstory the reader needs. These decisions often make the difference between a compelling, well-paced page-turner and a lackluster read.
Often good stories start in the middle, with the recognition of the problem, and weave backstory in only insofar as the reader needs to know it. When the protagonist has solved the problem, the story is over. End it!
TENSE, PERSON AND POINT OF VIEW
These days perfect tense is frowned upon in fiction (use of had, have, etc: “He had felt that way before.”). It reduces the immediacy of the action. Similarly, passive voice (subject is acted upon instead of performing the action: “He was affected by her words,” instead of “Her words affected him.”). If you use perfect tense or passive voice, do it sparingly.
First person has the advantage of being more intimate and revealing the character’s inner thoughts, but it can be tiresome to sustain over an entire novel and you must remember that you can only use what that single character knows or sees.
Third person allows for multiple points of view, but can be less intimate.
Some writers vary the person, but unless it is done extremely well, you should use a single choice in a scene, or the reader will be confused.
Narrator: Who is telling your story? It could be one of the characters involved in the story, or a bystander. Someone narrates the story, and the reader must understand who that person is.
Most Common Person and Point of View Choices:
The important thing is to make a conscious decision, study the rules, and be consistent. It is generally best to stay with a single choice through an entire scene. Some variety is acceptable but you don’t want to confuse the reader.
An example from my books: I use first person narration for the parts of my story that take place in the past. I want to have the reader quickly understand the character from the past and what their world is like, and I find first person does this best.
I use multiple third person scenes in present day portions of my books, because it allows me to present the views of a variety of characters, who may not all be on the same page at the same time.
Don’t expect that you will understand point of view immediately. It is a skill that grows with experience and even seasoned writers make errors from time to time (hopefully caught by their editors before publication!). There are many articles online to help with this. The link below is to a single article on Scribophile that I found useful.
Now start writing!
Pat Camalliere is a Lemont resident and author of local historic mysteries, Pat is also a member the of the Downers Grove Writers Workshop.
Pat wants people to know what a great place Illinois is.
“This is why my books are set here. It’s a fascinating area, geographically unique with an important history, many quirky stories, and ghost lore. It’s a great fit for a mystery series,” Camalliere says.
Camalliere released the award-winning The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, the second book in the Cora Tozzi Historical Mystery Series, in 2017.
The Writing Pond Blog is home of The Downers Grove Writers Workshop. It is a compilation of members contributions. We love to write and writing about writing is one of the many way in which we help to each other to become better and more consistent in the craft.