Sunday, August 16, 2009

How to Write a Book

I'll be alternating this topic every Sunday (or so) with my "How to Paint" blog. Hope you enjoy and take home something new to think about!

I mean, it's not like I'm a NYT best-selling author or anything. My only claim to literary fame is one ebook. So far. But over the years I have learned an awful lot about writing, stuff that I keep hearing repeated to newbies who haven't yet figured it out.

So you want to write a book. I am going to make the assumption that you have a story to tell. Hopefully it isn't a fanfic story.

I get into trouble talking with folks about fanfic. These days there's actually a market for SOME teeny tiny proportion of fanfic, but if one writes only fanfic, one develops lazy writing habits.

Fanfic comes with characters, situation, theme, dialogue patterns, entire world, etc. already established by someone(s) else. Thus the writer never gets to exercise their literary muscles in these areas. That's why I'd like to ease you off the teat of fanfic, if that's where you're attached, and point you toward building your own stories.

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
--W. Somerset Maugham

I'd like to disagree with that. I'd say there is one rule: KEEP YOUR READERS WITHIN YOUR STORY.

An oral storyteller once told my writing group about a man who lived long ago in India. We learned about the lazy man and his situation in life, learned about his busy, frustrated wife, but most of all saw the man as he listened to another storyteller, a traveller who had come to town for a few days, telling him the tale of a beautiful princess who was locked in a tower away from her True Love. This man got so involved in the story that when someone in it took a key that would have released the princess from her captivity and threw it in the ocean, the storyteller raised the story question to the crowd of listeners: Who would dive after the key to retrieve it? The man in the crowd stood up, announced, "I will!" and dived into the story's ocean to save the princess so she could return to her True Love.

THAT'S how far into the story you want your reader to get.

This means you'll have to establish interior continuity: your world-building (even a story set in Manhattan needs world-building) must be consistent. So must your characters and how they speak and react to their world. If you establish that this is a story set in the ordinary world, you can't throw in a fantasy element to save the day at the end. If you're going to have fantasy, you must establish that up front.

This is called the "contract with the reader." What this means is that within a few short paragraphs of the beginning of your story, you tell your reader what kind of story they have in their hands. Is it a war story? A mystery? Chick lit? Fantasy? Sci fi? Is it going to be funny or deadly serious, or something between those two extremes?

How do you do this? Not by presenting an outline of your intent to the reader, but rather by using tone and introducing concepts. Your title and cover will be a big clue, but you will have to cover this in your writing as well. Is this a mystery? Your atmosphere will be dark and mysterious, you'll probably use a lot of detail in your description (so as to hide clues within all the minutiae), and there'll probably be a body showing up somewhere in the first chapter. A fantasy? Why, that white rabbit will make an appearance and announce straight off that he's late. Historical? Everyone will be riding on horses or dying from some plague, and there'll be a castle or Almacks in the distance. Chick lit? (note: Chick lit is dead. Buh-bye. It's now a small subset of "women's fiction.") The narrative could very well be set in first person with a bubbly voice, and there will be shoes and/or a tiresome ex-boyfriend (or memories of such) lurking. The setting will quite likely be in New York City.

You begin to set your interior continuity so your reader knows what to expect, so they can sink into the literal trance that a well-crafted story can produce.

If I may, I'd like to point out the current run of Wonder Woman. It's written by a skilled, terrific writer, and she seems to have a very definite idea of who Wonder Woman is. (At last, a writer who Gets It!) The problem is: WW readers have seen WW through so many changes in approach, venue and circumstance that because this writer hasn't started out with a solid definition of her WW's world (which also equals circumstances) we aren't sure what's going on or what's possible. When we get plot points thrown at us that normally we might be wild about, instead we rise up out of the waters in which we've been immersed and say, "Huh?"

For instance, this writer is keen on investigating what the Magic Lasso can do. We discover that only Diana can control the Magic Lasso in any way.

Yet readers have seen a slew of others utilize it in the past. Huh? What's going on? I don't understand! We're out of the story!

As she introduces the Magic Lasso in her story the writer has failed to set up a situation in which she can say in some literary fashion, "As of now, the Magic Lasso is going to function this way. Forget the times in the past that you've seen it used in other ways. They aren't part of this new world we're operating in." (And yes, this switch to new operating worlds, or soft reboots, is common in superhero comics. Especially with WW, new writers often find a way to throw out or contradict their predecessors' work, both positive and negative. Readers can accept it if it provides them with interesting stories and characters.) (I've even seen it presented as a blatant editorial narrative: "Readers! From now on, we're throwing out the idea of X and from now on we'll be operating on idea Y instead!" I rather think that your own definitions of the various concepts of your world will be ever so much more subtle than that.)

You don't want your readers questioning things in the middle of your story. Or even worse, at the end when all heck is breaking loose and you want them holding your book with white knuckles, breathlessly waiting for how it's all going to turn out.

So plan how your world operates, how your characters operate, etc. Get a vivid picture of it in your mind. Post pertinent pictures. Burn evocative candles. Some people actually make dioramas or collages of their novels that utilize symbols and motifs they wish to keep in mind. Some people interview their characters, pieces that will never see print but clarify the character to the writer. Some people set up their offices (or nooks where they write) specifically to get them in the right groove for whatever they're writing. I've heard people who simultaneously are writing two different kinds of books, say that to switch from one to the other they bring in a large screen decorated with an atmosphere-invoking fabric when they're doing one genre, and then they store it away, leaving their office with another ambiance when they're working on the other novel. Some people have to utilize two entirely different offices (work and home).

Do what works for YOU.

As you write, things will morph into something different. Better. Bigger. Some of them will begin to instruct YOU as to what they're doing. (Remember: YOU are in control! If they want to lead the story to a place you do not want to go, remind them of who's boss.) Very often you'll finish your story's first draft and discover that you need to go back and reshape things in order to focus your story more sharply, but you'll do so keeping everything consistent within this new draft.

You'll have an easier time if you sit down at the beginning and really think about how all the little pieces of the story you're building fit together. Believe me, it will save you a lot of aspirin and pulled hair.

1 comment:

whiteshark0121 said...

I love writing and reading books. I love the notion that people can make things up in their mind and then make them real on a page, for the pleasure or utility of someone else. One of my favorite mentor on learning how to write a book is Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.