Q & A: I have a story in mind. How do I write a good novel out of it?

Q & A: The new series in which I answer questions from around the interwebs (mostly Quora) of or relating to read and writing.

The Question
I have a story in mind. How do I write a good novel out of it?

The Answer

Writing a ‘good’ novel can take years of effort. Writing a novel is one hell of a process. Having written one myself, I feel like I can give some advice in that regard.

The write a good novel, the first objective you must have is to complete a first draft. As many writers might confirm, this is actually the most difficult part of the process. I struggled with it for about three years, giving up completely once or twice. So here are some things you could do to make it easier on you:

  1. Figure out your process
    Some people (and I am not one of those people) can just sit down and write with a vague idea of where they want to go in their mind and the story just evolves and plot points arise as they write it. Other people (like me) need to map out the story down to every last detail before they can even dream of starting the story. Story mapping ‘just to be safe’ may not help either – as it could cause people to feel constrained within their outline. So it is very important to figure out: do you need to plan or don’t you?
  2. Give yourself a break
    Many will tell you that you need to write every day and you need to create your own inspiration and all that. While it is important to discipline yourself, if you force yourself to write a story you will eventually start to resent it. It will become and chore and then you’ll never genuinely want to do it. If you miss a day of writing, it’s fine. And if you need a break from your story, take a break.
  3. Never forget: The first draft is SUPPOSED to suck
    The first draft of a book is like the first draft of most anything. It’s messy, the plot development and character development are all over the place, and the writing – it’s a stone’s throw away from garbage. <b>Don’t you edit a thing</b> until you finish that first draft. There is a lot that is going on while you write that draft, and you can make changes, you can move things around. Let the story evolve. But don’t really start editing until you get through that important draft: the shitty first draft.

So when you have something that may someday be a book, and you want to make it good, there are a few things you’re going to want to focus on. For me, the most important thing is the characters.

I can forgive shortcomings in a plot if I love or connect with the characters in some way. Alternation, if there isn’t a single character I can connect with then I quickly lose interesting. You want to write a story full of complex, compelling characters. They don’t just need to seem like real people, they need to be real people. To the creator, at least. There are many things you want to avoid when writing character, like too much power or the everyone-loves-me-even-though-I’m-aggressively-average syndrome or the my-life-is-hard-so-I-get-to-be-an-asshole fallacy (See: Mary Sue and Gary Stu). But there are also many things that you need to pay attention to. The question you have to ask yourself is: Why should people care about my character? And it’s your job to answer that question.

The process of creating a character can quickly become very similar to getting to know a person. Once in creation, you need to give your characters room to breath. If you smother them too much, you could interfere with the natural flow of the story and suddenly Neville and Luna don’t end up together. It’s a tricky balance, that is. There are a lot of really great character questionnaires out there to help you get to know these people, but my favorite right now is The Ultimate Character Builder. The questions are simple, but they go deep. You can really get a lot out of something like that.

After the characters comes the plot. You want your story to be interesting, you want it to seem new whether it’s a new take on an old idea or something you haven’t seen before. The most important part of a story is that you, as the author, loves that story. It is your story to tell, and if you don’t love it then it will be evident in your writing. On top of that, you probably won’t be able to finish a draft in the first place. If you can’t love your story, you can’t expect anyone else to love it either and it 90% isn’t worth pursuing.

There is a lot to be said about the plot of a story. But if you want to make it ‘good’, if you want to make it something that people will praise, then you want to do something different. It doesn’t need to be totally new (very few things are, these days) but you will want it to feel fresh. Don’t become obsessed with this ideal. if you do, it will probably come out lacking. What you want to do is let your own quirks fly out onto the page. You have a very distinct experience in the world in that no one else has ever been you. I’m not saying it’s okay to rip off the plot of Star Wars because no one’s seen it quite like you have – I’m saying that if you have and idea, and you love it and you nurture it, that fresh feeling will usually just come right along with it.

As a final thought, when crafting your story and your characters there are a few questions you’re going to want to ask yourself:

  1. Why is that particular character the protagonist?
  2. What is the catalyst of the story? What got these characters started on this path? What changed everything?
  3. What is the climax of the story? What is your story leading up to?
  4. What id your protagonist’s goal? What are they trying to accomplish?
  5. What is stopping him/her/etc.?
  6. How does he/she/orwhathaveyou change over the course of the story?
  7. What are you trying to say? Why are you writing this story?

If you can answer those questions, you can get a whole lot closer to making something good. Now, this sin’t a magic formula, i haven’t imparted on you some great wisdom. It’s your story, it’s up to you to tell it. You need to trust yourself, you need to trust someone else and ask them to be honest with you, you need to take criticism, but you need to be confident in your work. Don’t be afraid to finish it.

stop letting fear hurt your progress. there are other things in life that deserve fear. this is not one of them. we’re making art, here. it’s supposed to be fun. -raspil

Write well, my friends.

How to Beat Writer’s Block

 

 “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” – Grandmaster Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

This is the advice I’ve been given time and time again, and if it seems like a load of barnacles, it’s because you just aren’t dao enough, man.

No, but I’m sure you know the feeling. It’s the middle of the day, you’ve sat down to write – you’re trying to beat this thing without inspiration, you’re going to break down those walls and…and…nothing. You stare at the keyboard. You type a word. You misspell that word. Backspace. You misspell it again. Spell check cannot identify the word. You’ve failed as a writer.

Saying that anyone can beat writer’s block by writing is like saying anyone can beat obesity by dieting. Really, some people can do it. But, we’ve been told time and time again, even body is different. My weight is not the same as your weight. So it should come to no shock to you that my mind is not the same as your mind. When I can’t write, I can’t. There are no words in my mind to even get onto the page – and to beat wordlessness by producing words is a ridiculous paradox that is extremely frustrating to attempt. So what do you do?

Read. This solution is one of many, of course. Pick up a book, go through some poetry, binge on wordpress, deviantART, fanfiction – bring words to your mind. Because within each of these stories there is an exchange between author and reader, a secret sort of conversation where two people can share ideas without having to ever talk to each other. When you become invested in something, it becomes easier to throw that investment into your own writing.

Watch. TV, movies, YouTube. Watch slam poetry because the poets read those words in a way you could never read them. What YouTubers talk about thinks that you love. Watch a TV show that makes you invested in the plot as it unfolds episode by episode by episode by episode. Watch poetry unfold on the screen of a film. Or dick and fart jokes. Whatever tickles your fancy. Watch these words, hear them spoken, and let it resonate within you. Then throw it all at your computer keyboard.

Listen. Your favorite band, a string quartet, Justin Beiber, whatever makes you happy. Whatever you love. Feel the words. And, like previously stated in my over-stated hippie rant, write it down, man.

When it all comes down to it, everything that has already been created has a struggle behind it. The struggle of the artist, the struggle of writer’s  block, what have you. And everything created is a conversation between the creator and the viewer, the performer and the spectator. When you feel the words, the space between words, the things that words cannot say, perhaps, you’ll find your own.

Veteran writers scoff at the idea of inspiration. Don’t wait for inspiration, they say. And they’re right. Make your own inspiration. Because it’s there, it’s always there. And, even if someday you forget it like they have, you have to learn how to find it. It isn’t just there. Not for most of us.

So, when faced without the unimaginably empty weight of being unable to write, become close with something you love. And if that doesn’t work, get a pen and a stack of papers. Write a sentence on the first paper and burn it for existing. Keep going until you’ve burned enough pages to fill a book. Realize you’ve burned a book. Write about that.

Good day.

Advice

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.” — Alan Wilson Watts

Can a Book be Overrated?

I hate to be that person, but I definitely hesitate to call creative things ‘overrated’. Because the rating of the book or movie or whatnot depends on how that thing can be loved. That is, if millions of people love it then it must be doing something right, even if it isn’t necessarily ‘good’.

I think people need to be aware of the two ratings that exist when looking at these types of things. There is the subjective rating and the objective rating. The former rating is that of someone who loves it completely. They’ve connected with this work, and this connection completely dictates how they view it. The latter is the rating of someone who takes themselves out of the work, so to speak, and looks at a work technically. Is one more valuable than the other? I couldn’t tell you.

I think that to give an honest rating of anything, you’ve got to take yourself out of it a bit. But you also have to look at the impact. How did it make you feel? Does it sit with you? Do you love it? Do you hate it?

So to call something ‘overrated’ might be looking at it too objectively. Where you’ve taken all the feelings about it out of the picture.

Allow me to give you some examples.

Twilight. You had to know that was coming. It is easy to call it overrated, but, I mean, is it? So many people love it. Sure, the writing may not be that great, and the story might be a little weird, but people love it. I don’t exactly like it, but i can talk about it for hours. So it must have been successful at something. From what I’ve read, the subjective ratings vary from mindless love to mindless hate and the objective rates just sort of say ‘eh’. I find all of these rating appropriate. Now, if someone were to (somehow) objectively give it five stars, saying it was the greatest thing ever written do entirely to the ‘magnificent prose’ and the ‘realism of the characters’, that rating would be too high by the standards they have set. ‘They’ meaning the people and works which have set the standards. But that doesn’t make the book overrated. That means someone has overrated it. To reel it all in, it wasn’t that great, but people love it.

One the other end of the spectrum, Beloved. This novel won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and the Nobel prize in literature. Yet, I’ve talked to other people who have read it and they simply did not like it. They took nothing from it, could not understand that characters, and found the writing style weird. They were quick to write off the book as ‘overrated’. I actually really enjoyed this book. It’s not exactly my favorite book, but I can see why it won the awards it did. While my subjective rating would not be quite as high, my objective rating is a nearly perfect score. Because the rating is also dependent upon the context. Normally I wouldn’t point this out, but it seems relevant in the context. The people who did not like this book were young white people. Even though I am black, I felt like I had missed something. I was too young to have been followed around in a grocery store for fear I might steal something, too young to have first hand experience on racism in my area. I feel very strongly about these things and I feel very connected to them, more so than my white peers, but not quite enough to be as affected by this book as other people. It was great but people had trouble loving it.

If you call something overrated, you are either saying people love it too much or it has been rated higher than you think it should have. Are you frustrated when people love things you don’t? Do you really get the work?

Think about it.

Is it Possible to ‘Read into it’ Too Much?

The short answer is yes. But this isn’t a blog about short answers. So I’ll edit my answer to yes, but it’s not as common as some people think.

As somebody said at one point, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a bell is just a bell. Sometimes there is not deeper meaning to the color of his sweater.

But sometimes there is.

Sometimes, the author really does sit down with ‘themes’ in mind and works to present those to the public. Sometimes the cigar is metaphor for how sweet life can be while it lasts and how bitter it can be at the end. Or, if you’re Freud, sometimes the cigar is a penis. Author intent certainly factors quite heavily into what a person can take from a book, but a lot of the time the themes and impressions are sort of built up in the mind of the reader. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Literature lives and dies in the minds of readers. Take, for example (disclaimer: I am not religious and I and not preaching to you), the Bible. It’s the best-selling book in history. But, if you aren’t a Christian, it’s really quite boring. The words on the page come alive to people because they are projecting their own thoughts and feelings on it and taking away something. Since it’s so old, no one can say the exact intent of each passage, but people take something from it. The same sort of thing works with stuff like Sherlock Holmes.

Don’t tell me ‘it’s not the same thing’ because ‘Christianity is a religion’ and ‘Sherlock isn’t’. Because, I mean, really. Sherlock may not be a religion, but it would not be a stretch to call it a cult. A very loving cult.

Have a nice day.