It’s time to get serious about reading
I know common sense dictates that a blog about writing would start with…I don’t know…writing. But actual writing is not my first stop on the way to producing a novel. No matter where you look or who you listen to the “experts” agree that to be a writer first you need to be a reader. But what sort of reader are they talking about? I spent years on a first name basis with librarians and the owner of the local used book store and my book shelves are crowded with books. But I’ve actually finished less than half of the novels I picked up. I was a casual reader, someone who didn’t take reading seriously. It was a fun pastime or a means of escape but it didn’t help at all when it comes to producing my own work. And there is my problem.
The most obvious track to mastering the art of compelling and seductive story-telling is to observe how the people who are writing novels do it.
Sounds good on paper but it’s harder than it seems in real life.
There are so many distractions and so much noise in our daily lives – television, texting, facebook, twitter, the whole internet) that it’s hard to carve out time to wright much less to read. I’ve started to dig out time in the evenings to read. Usually at this time I’m vegetating in front of a television or immersed knee deep in the internet. Neither of these activities is productive when it comes to actually writing. So off goes the television and I’m promising to step away from the computer during my reading time.
I won’t just be reading I will be reading critically. As I go through a novel I will be looking at just how the plot is constructed, how conflict and foreshadowing are mixed in. It’s a more difficult sort of reading and a sort that requires active participation with a book. I can’t just enjoy a book anymore I get to enjoy it and tear it apart at the same time. This goes for books I’m enjoying and more importantly for books I am not enjoying. I remember in high school chemistry being told that a failed experiment can teach you as much or more than a successful experiment. I don’t think that reading bad books will be my norm, but if I find a lemon I will finish it and do my best to figure out just what went wrong with it and why I was not happy reading it.
I don’t know just how many books I will get through in the next twelve months. I have high hopes but I am also trying to remain practical. I won’t set an actual goal because I know in two months I will be hopelessly behind and wondering what in the world I was thinking and it’s likely I will take my own reading challenge and shove it to the back of the closet and try to forget about ever making a goal for myself in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that to happen. I WANT to read as much as possible in a year–and I WANT you to succeed at this goal.
Enough of this blogging I’m firing up my new Kindle and I am ready to read.
What’s the hardest part of writing a novel? Sitting down and getting started. I mean this in both the sense of getting yourself into gear to write a novel but also in starting to write every day. Maybe because the beginning of the writing process and the start of each day’s writing starts the same, staring at a blank document on the monitor. The fast empty whiteness of it all can be so intimidating. For me it’s a time that self-doubts roll in and start nagging at me.
“What if I write a really bad novel?”
“What if no body reads it?”
“What if people read it and hate it?”
“What if they just laugh at me for trying?”
I have loads of self-doubts. They aren’t the problem so much as they are a symptom of the problem. The real problem is the ability to find excuses to not start writing, either to not start writing that novel or to put off the daily word count quote and going to play on Facebook instead.
Excuses come in many forms:
“I have to go to work/school/the gym/the grocery store.”
“I need to take care of my kids/parents/dog/pet rock.”
“I’ll write when I have more time.”
“This bathroom is filthy.”
“I really need a nap.”
“Ohhhh….cute kitten videos!”
As you can see, I have loads of excuses. And I’m sure you do too.
The reality is that I am never going to have more time to write than I do right now. There’s always going to be things to do, people and objects to take care of and cleaned up after, naps to take. In the end I’ll only have the time to write when I make the time to write. And that means first and foremost facing my excuses and recognizing them for being what they are. Hey are just excuses that let me get away from facing my own self-doubts.
So in the end I have to be firm with myself when an excuse pops up. I have to say” “To bad, you’ve got a book to write.” And when the self-doubts come creeping in I have to say: “Get over yourself and get back to work..”
Recognizing these things and being firm with myself is by far the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn so far. And it’s something I need to re-learn practically every day when it’s time to sit down and start writing. It’s a tough lesson to learn and there are times when I don’t want to be learning it….
Too bad. Get to writing.
This will be a long one…just warning you.
Pretty much the first step in writing a novel is getting that initial idea, that first premise of who and where and what your story is going to be about.
Fiction writers get asked a lot “Where do you get your ideas?” Many of these writers have written about this question and their frustration about answering it. It’s a legitimate question but it’s also one that almost never gets answered. Some writers will give a flippant answer to this question. Science fiction author Harlan Ellison is famous for responding to this question with “I send away for ideas to a post office box in Schenectady.” Most writers dance around answering the question by going on about how easy generating story ideas is and how you as a potential writer should have a backload of hundreds of great ideas for a best seller just sitting there. We are told time and again that story ideas are everywhere and all we have to do is pay attention for them.
It’s nice to think of idea as something you can just send away for or that they just come to you when you’re sitting alone in deep thought when suddenly that big magic bulb over your head lights up. In addition to the light bulb possibly with a ‘ding’ noise like the microwave makes when your baked potato is ready.
That sounds great advice but like most bits of advice it often doesn’t work that well in the real world. Telling people that you should just be able to generate best-selling novel ideas don’t’ help them when they are staring at a blank document on their monitor.
I’m going to break this cycle of non-answering and talk about just how to get great and workable ideas for novels. I make use of two methods: I call them ‘the laundry list’ and ‘the recipe box.’
The laundry list method of idea generation.
This is a method for creating something out of the blue. It relies on tropes and common themes. To start all you need is a blank piece of paper or a fresh document on your word processor and you are in business.
Begin with settling on a genre or three that you want to write in. Is it Romance, mystery or epic fantasy? Historical steampunk a memoir? Having trouble deciding? Dig through your personal library. The stories you love will guide you to what you want to write about. Have more than one area you want to work in. Great! Shove the two genera’s together and start there.
Take a few minutes to brainstorm about your genre. Make a list of all the tropes and clichés that are present in this genre. Some people might tell you to avoid such clichés but I think it is best to embrace them and bring them out front. It’s hard to imagine a mystery without a dead body and a detective, armature or professional to solve the crime. There are common formulas in genre fiction because they work for and often define that particular genre. It is also wise to remember that readers will have certain expectations about what will be in say a mystery or an urban fantasy novel and may balk when you present them with none of the standard tropes they are familiar with.
Play word association with them. Don’t edit or stop too long to think, just let the images pour out. Fill up a page.
Let’s take steampunk as an example of a genre to explore. I’ve written in it and I love reading it so I have a good background to play with it. Sreampunk has piles of tropes and clichés to make use of. Off the top of my head when I think of steampunk I think of dirigibles, clockwork inventions, mad scientists, wind up automatons, Victorian London, steam powered vehicles, aether goggles, the nautilus and mechanical artificial limbs. If I were to spend some time I would expand this list a good deal more.
Take your list and start looking for something that grabs your attention. From my steampunk brainstorm list dirigibles catch my eye. They occur in pretty much every steampunk story I’ve ever read. We usually see them in these stories hovering over London and standing in for luxury ships and the like. They are a true stereotypical steampunk prop. The way to use such a stereotype is to play mix and match with them.
As I noted dirigibles are usually seen hovering over London or being used by members of the upper class. So let’s start there. Instead of hovering over London why not the Amazon or the wild west? Maybe there is a story about a gentleman adventurer hunting for a fabled lost city in the jungle. Sounds fun but I really like cowboys so we are heading to the American west. Why would a dirigible be out there? My first idea is that it’s part of a dirigible race from San Francisco to St. Louis. Suddenly I have a fun workable idea for a novel.
It’s not time to stop yet. That premise needs some interesting characters to interact with. What type of people do you like to read stories about? What kind of characters do you have the most sympathy for or empathy with? Do you like stories about underdogs and misfits, or the rich and famous? World leaders or gang leaders? Men of action and valor? Women breaking out of societal roles?
For my steampunk premise I can start with a daring young man determined to win the race and make a name for himself. Perhaps he is an underdog in the race. There would be a wealthy industrialist sponsoring the race and traveling along. I can add in a vain and wealthy pilot who is the favorite to win for our underdog hero to compete with. And coming up alongside them is a despicable villain who will stoop to any low to be the first across the finish line. Finally a spirited young woman to catch the eye of our daring hero and we have a basic cast of characters.
Do I have a novel yet? No, I have an idea, a cast of characters, and the thinnest possible thread of a plot but not much more. It will take some time and energy to flesh this all out to make a novel. I can keep going back to my list to pick out common objects and themes and start placing them in my dirigible race idea and see where it all leads.
Now that I have the idea I think I may just have to write this story.
The recipe box method of idea generation.
I call it the recipe box method because that is what I use for it. This method is a long term project and there is no way to speed the process up. It will take a good long time of work and note keeping before it starts helping you dish out the great ideas. Let me assure you that the time and effort is worth it, you will end up with a collection of ideas that are fast and easy to access and build on.
Start by getting a pack or three of 3×5 index cards. Whatever kind you want or can get dirt cheap. And you might want a box to keep them in but it really isn’t necessary.
You are going to use these cards to record nay stray idea you have for a plot or a character or a great scene or some dialogue you managed to overhear. Anything that you think might come in helpful for writing a novel.
Where do you get these? Well remember the standard advice authors give out about getting story ideas…no, not the post office box in Schenectady. The pay attention to everything around you advice. What most authors don’t include is the fact that you need to write these ideas down when you get them. This means carrying around a notebook with you wherever you go. You are already doing this right? Right?
At regular intervals take the ideas and characters and notes from your little book and transfer them onto their own index card. Keep going till you get a nice pile. As I said, this is a long term project. You know the routine about finding these ideas. find them in your personal library, in TV shows you watch, at the movies, eavesdropping, newspapers…whatever catches your interest write it down. Pay attention to character traits and quirks of people you run into. It’s all good novel writing stuff.
One of my favorite ways to get some fodder for my recipe box is to get into the fiction room of my library and start pulling books off the shelves. It doesn’t matter what genre the book belongs to or who the author is. I take a half dozen or so to a table, pull out my notebook and get to work. I start by looking for inspiration in the cover art. A good piece of art will convey a lot about what’s in the book and great book covers tell a story all on their own. I don’t worry about what the book is actually about I just try to make my own simple story from the cover. The back cover (or the inner book sleeve) is a great place to find story and character ideas. maybe I’ll read a page or two to see what strikes me. Once I’m back home it all goes on those cards.
Of course the ideas about the dirigible race and the expedition to the amazon have already found their way onto cards. Don’t ever let a good idea slip away.
Once you have a nice collection you can start playing with them. Putt them out and read through them. Play mix and match. Grab a few cards at random and piece them together. This is a more personal version of those random story generators you can find on-line. I have never found them useful, mostly because they run with a formula and the items have nothing of interest to offer me.
I found it helpful to get some divider cards and sort all my cards into categories. I have an ideas category and one for characters and for cool setting or interesting places and for dialogue and for thing I thought would make a great novel title and a few other topics.
As an example I’m pulling a card at random out of my idea file:
“A serial killer wants to stop killing and find redemption.”
That alone sets off a few associations in my head. The card also has a note about the killer in a church confessional on it. Already gears in my head are turning. I need more to make it a great idea though.
Grabbing a random card from settings:
“Global warming has turned New York CITY into the new Venice. The streets are canals and the remaining people have built elaborate causeways between the tall buildings.”
Love it. A differnt setting for a serial killer than one would usually expect. I’m picturing almost a post-apocalyptic feel to this sinking New York.
One more card:
“A disfigured magic user (this is a common theme in my writings) falls in love with a beautiful noble.”
Not sure about fitting this in. but that is the beauty of the method…you don’t have to accept what you grab at random. I’m thinking I will play with this idea a little more.
Good luck working out those great story ideas. Let me know how these work for you.
On any given day I get to talk to a good number of and in the course of conversations I often talk about novel writing. At least four out of five people will respond to this by saying that they would love to write a book but they just don’t have the time.
I don’t buy that.
We all lead busy lives. We all have commitments and obligations. There will always be a job to go to and kids to raise and bathrooms needing to be scrubbed and groceries to be brought and face book and television and so on and so on.
My good friend Steven Harper has one of those busy lives. He works full time, actually he is a teacher so he works more than full time. He is a single dad of three and has a special needs child, and still manages to write two novels a year. If he can find the time so can you.
It’s all a matter of priorities. You need to move your book writing dream up to the top of your priorities list. Maybe not number one but defiantly in the top five. Why? You need to have a serious commitment to writing your novel and writing it every day. Think about your priorities right now. Can you fit 7-10 hours a week in? If you have to let something go that is not high on your priority list, do it.
Start by looking at all the wasted time in your day. And yes I am sure you have wasted time – after all you are reading this blog and that tells me you have time to spare. We all waste a lot of time doing things that we don’t really need to or doing things that are just unimportant. Consider how much time you spend each week watching television. If you are the average American you spend four to five hours per day sitting in front of the boob tube. Are reality television shows really that important to you? And be honest, of all the shows you watch how many do you REALLY enjoy? Maybe a couple. Cut your TV viewing time, even by half, and you will open up huge amounts of writing time.
What about all the time you spend on the internet? If you are like me it is potentially a lot of time. But ask yourself – do you really need to see another cute kitten video? Will your friends think you were in a horrible accident if you don’t update your facebook status every fifteen minutes? I’m guessing that answer to both is no.
The biggest time thief I have found is the attitude of the people around you. How often have you been writing only to be interrupted by someone who seems to think you are free because you are “just writing”? I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve hear that. It’s annoying. Now it would be easy to blame these people for not understanding just how important but it would be wrong. The fault sits squarely on your shoulders, not theirs. Why? Because we act as if our writing time isn’t important. We take phone calls and run errands and visit with people and all during our precious writing time. When you do this you are sending the message that you don’t value your own writing time. And if you don’t value it why should anybody else?
You need to put your foot down, first with yourself and then with those people around you. Claim your writing time and make it important. Defend it. Start thinking of writing time as a second job. So instead of telling your loved ones you are writing, consider saying you are working and will be free at a specific time. It takes a little will power to let phone calls go to voice mail and to shut off Facebook but in the end it is worth it because you will have recognized that you’re writing is valuable time to you.
I have a writing friend who set her foot down with her family. Whenever she heard the plaintive wail of “Moooom” her response was to say “unless the dog is on fire I’m busy.” He reports that the first few times she did this she felt horrible, like she was the world’s worst mother. But in a few days her kids got the message that unless it’s important don’t bother mom when she’s working. She also says that it took her much longer to train her husband to respect her writing time.
Stake out your writing time. Claim it and guard it. If you aren’t spending time writing then you will never be a writer.