This is a top down blog...it's actually going
to be a book one day. Chapters are listed on the right.
I'm going to tell you how to be a
writer... April 03, 2018
Except that I'm not.
Welcome to the first Rogue Writer blog post!
This blog exists, undoubtedly, because someone or something on the
Internet pissed me off and I feel the need to write about it.
Actually, I've been thinking about this for a long time. I'd like to
write a book about writing books, but that seems daunting. Better to
put it all in a blog.
So, if you're here, you want to be a writer. I
can tell you how to do that. But I really can't. The truth is that,
despite what most other people will say, no one can tell you how to
be a writer or how to write a book or a story. You have to figure it
out for yourself. But I can tell you a few things.
1. Stop listening to other people.
2. Do whatever it is you have to do to write the way you want to
3. Stop trying to please other people.
4. Trust yourself.
There are as many ways to write a story as
there are people writing them.
I can tell you some other things, too.
1. This blog is going to piss a lot of people off.
2. People are going to tell you that I'm wrong.
3. That's okay.
So, what am I going to be telling you about?
Simple. I'm going to talk about writing. What it is, what it can be,
what you might want to think about when trying it. I'm going to talk
about the publishing industry and self-publishing. I'm going to talk
about editing and formatting. And I'm going to tell you that
everything I tell you can go in one ear and out the other, because
the truth about writing is that it is an individual act. It is
something that you can (and if you ask me should) do alone. All by
It does not take a village to write a book. It
takes you. Just you.
onto your cats, people; it's going to be a bumpy ride
So many writers are suckered in by the idea
that they cannot write a book all by themselves. They've been taught
that it takes a village to write one. A village of critique group
members, editors, beta readers, agents, and back again.
But that's not true. In fact, it will actually be damaging to your
writing and your book to put yourself and it through this gauntlet
of "writing by committee."*
But can you do it alone? I mean...can you do it alone?
Here's the thing. There are as many approaches to writing a book or
a story as there are...okay maybe not that many approaches.
But the approach you take is likely the approach you take when you
challenge yourself to do anything.
Take me, for example. I'm one of those crazy people who, when I want
to do something, goes all in.
Here's a story (I'm a writer, remember? I tell stories. This one
won't be particularly exciting, but it's a morality tale.):
Some twenty or thirty years ago (yeah, I'm that old) I did a bit of
sewing. I wasn't very good at it, but I did have this particular
pattern for a top and I made that top over and over again. Now,
after twenty or thirty years of not sewing, I decided I wanted to
get back into it. I wanted to sew clothes because I wasn't all that
happy with my choices in shopping. (And honestly, I'm becoming
something of a hermit and my self-esteem is pretty much in the
gutter. So...going to Macy's and trying on clothes? I don't think
Okay, so here I am, wanting to sew again. What do I do? I prepare!
I bought a sewing machine. And a serger. And a coverstitch machine.
A store in a nearby city was going out of business so I used their
sales to stock my creativity room with fabrics of all kinds. I
purchased nearly every specialty foot I could find for my machine. I
have all the gadgets and doo-dads. Tools to make my own binding.
Tools to turn tubes. So many patterns I haven't the room to store
them. A 50-yard bolt of muslin and pattern drafting tools. Drawers
full of thread, bows, trims, buttons. You name it, I probably have
it. And I can't tell you how many hundreds of dollars I've spent on
online sewing classes! I watch Youtube instructional videos, too.
And I have books on sewing. I also watch Project Runway like a
junkie and subscribe to sewing magazines to look at what other
people are sewing.
I am prepared!
Of course, I didn't wait until I got all of that to start sewing.
No. I started right away, with just that first machine, some fabric,
thread, and a pattern. The first things I made were crap. Pure crap.
I had to throw some away. Then they got better; I only had to donate
them to Goodwill. I mean, they've got to fit someone, right? And
only now, a couple of years later, am I able to finally start making
things I feel I can actually wear out in public.
Now, take you.
You might approach things in a completely different way. Maybe
you're the kind of person who decides he wants to start sewing. You
purchase a decent machine. A pattern (or not, maybe you'll rip up a
favorite shirt and create your own. Maybe you'll go completely rogue
and just start cutting and draping fabric on yourself.). Some
thread. Scissors from the kitchen maybe. And off you go.
Now, the important takeaway from this little story is this: No one
can say that your end project is worse than mine. No one but you,
Sure, some people might look at your stitches and claim they're
wobbly. Some might claim your neckline is sketchy. But is that
important? No. Because those same sorts of people can, and no doubt
will, say equally critical things about my project.
Because opinions are like assholes.
If you love what you made, I guarantee there will be other people
out there who will also love it. And that's very important when it
comes to writing. Not so much in sewing, because, who cares if
anybody else likes what you're wearing, right? (And sure, you might
feel that way about writing too. No worries.)
The only determining factor as to whether or not you or I can wear
our newly sewn shirts out in public is our own opinions. Do you like
it? Do you feel good in it? That's all that counts.
And here's the kicker.
One thing neither of us will ever do is go to a sewing critique
group every week or month and let other people handle our project,
sew seams, add trim, adjust the fit, or change our fabric. Why?
Because we don't want to wear clothes the way they would make
them. We want to wear clothes that we like. We had visions of our
project in our own heads and that's what we intended to create.
That's the whole point of making clothes. (Okay, not the whole
point. We might also simply enjoy the process. Or maybe we want to
make some money sewing. That does present different challenges that
we can talk about later. But for now--and hopefully even when doing
it for money--we're writing...er, sewing, for ourselves.)
Sure, we might take some advice here and there. Suppose we're out at
the grocery and someone says, "Did you make that? That's so cute.
You should really use some contrasting thread on the placket. Would
really make it pop!" And you think, "Hey, that's not a bad idea.
Maybe I'll try that sometime." But this is not the same as seeking
out opinions because we've been told that we can't be objective
about our own work. (Utter nonsense!)
Sewing is like writing.
You decide you want to do it and you prepare for it the way you
would anything else. If you're a crazy person, you go all in. Learn
all you can, get all the tools imaginable, and read a lot of books.
If that's not you, who cares? Who am I to tell you that you can only
do things my way, or the publicly accepted way?
As long as you're not breaking any laws, you can wear whatever you
And the laws in writing are a lot more lenient!
You can do this. You can and should do this by yourself. Why?
Because only you can write the way you do. Be you.
Don't be a committee. Be just you.
*I don't know if Dean Wesley Smith coined this phrase, but I first
heard it from him. When asked about critique groups, he said he did
not believe in "writing by committee." I'll tell you some of the
devastating results of writing by committee in the future.
Seriously. Who the hell do I think I am? Why
should you listen to me? Why should you care what I have to say
about writing and publishing?
That's right. Just click off and go back to something more
important. Because I'm a nobody. I assure you, you won't be the
first person to think I'm not anything special and have nothing to
say about the subject of writing. But, if you think it might be fun,
and if you have this eerie feeling that you agree with me a bit
about this whole writing and publishing thing, then stick around. At
the very least, you'll hear a rogue opinion.
But, let's talk more about me. I'm not my favorite subject, but
there are a few things you might want to know.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first
short story in fifth grade. I wrote my first novel in middle school.
I don't remember anything about it. I wrote my second novel in high
school. It was awful! My main character's name was Sherland. She
was, of course, gorgeous and super popular and made the cheerleading
squad! Unfortunately, her mother was dead (naturally) and she had to
move in with her father and his new wife and kids. So, when Sher
made the squad, she took the place of her stepsister. And of course,
she managed to steal away the boy her stepsister liked. Anyway, in
the end, her stepsister runs over and kills the boyfriend. I don't
know, now that I think bout it, it wasn't so horrid after all.
Then I stopped writing for a while. I piddled here and there. Tried
to publish a few short stories. Got some really good rejections. I
did publish a few times in a local writers' group journal.
Then, around 2010 I think, I started to get serious. I wrote some
books. In 2011 (?) I sent one to a publisher and got this amazing
rejection. You know the sort. The "this isn't for us, but send us
more" sort. So, I figured, what the hell? And I created my own
imprint and started publishing my own stuff.
So, you have questions.
Am I published with a traditional/corporate publisher? Nope.
Have I had any short stories published in a literary journal? Nope.
Are my self-published books best sellers? Nooooooo.
Have I won awards? Well, as a matter of fact, I have. A few.
I've won firsts and seconds for various novels in the Royal Palm
Literary Awards. One of my books got an honorable mention in the
Writers Digest Self-published Book Awards. And I've won or placed or
honorably been mentioned in a few other obscure awards.
I don't make awards my life.
So that's it. I'm just an old woman who knows writing, loves
writing, and publishes her stuff.
This morning, last night's dishes calling to me
from the kitchen were a hated chore, instead of the welcome
distraction they've become these last months. For so long, getting
myself into my office in the morning to write has been like pulling
teeth. That's a terrible metaphor, really. Pulling teeth is easy.
Just grab and yank. It's getting the patient to sit still in the
chair while you're doing it that's the hard part.
I've been stuck for so long inside my own negativity and self doubt.
I knew the only cure was to just keep plugging away, keep trying,
never give up. (I have a paper weight on my desk that says: Never,
never, never quit. A quote supposedly by Winston Churchill.)
Eventually, something will kick in. And it finally did. I was eager
to get to my writing projects this morning.
A lot of people might say, "If you hate it so much, if it's so hard,
why do it? Just do something else."
Why do we do it? Why do we write? Why do we put ourselves
through this process at all?
Well, no doubt there are a lot of reasons people write. And there
are people for whom writing isn't a chore. It's either a job that
they do on schedule, or they're not crazy like I am and they can
just sit their butts down and do it. (I hate those people.)
Why do you write?
For me, writing is a part of who I am. It was born out of a
childhood dredged in fear and loneliness. I was raised by a
narcissistic mother and a father certain family members call The
Fog. I prefer to call him, The Shrug. As a child, I was shamed and
teased into silence, leaving me anti-social, without adequate social
skills. Speaking was horrifying--it often still is. But when I
wrote...when I wrote I was free to make myself understood.
Writing for me was, and still is, a way of navigating through, and
understanding, this world.
I get that that's pretty deep (oh, heavens how I loved to think of
myself as "deep" during my crazy adolescent years), so let me be
very clear: you don't have to have a sad back story to be a great
writer. So, if you write just because you have a cool story that you
want to tell and you sit down every chance you get and write it
down, that's wonderful.
Is your reason a good one?
Even if your reason is because someone you know is doing it. Or you
want to get rich and famous. It doesn't matter why you do it. If you
want to do it, do it! Don't let anybody tell you that there is a
pure and sacred starting point for writing, because there's not.
For some people, writing is art, a form of expression; it's a
serious and intense undertaking, even if they're writing humor or
For others, writing is a business. Write, publish. Write, publish.
It's pragmatic. Practical. Logical.
For others, writing is a hobby, a joy. They don't think too much
about it, but they enjoy the process and the product.
It doesn't matter why you write. And if you write, you certainly can
publish. And you might even sell.
The key here is very simple, and also extremely difficult. The key
Don't stop writing. Even when you start to think that maybe this
writing thing wasn't such a great idea after all. Try to remember
why you started. Was it because it's an integral part of your
nature? Then you can't bottle that up! You have to let it out. Was
it because you wanted to make this a business? Then you're the CEO;
you can't quit! Was it because you enjoyed it so much? That joy will
return. I promise.
Everyone really does have a
May 09, 2018
First, we have to talk about the title of this
It should read: Everyone really does have a book inside him. But
people won't like that, because I said "him." That's sexist. So, I'd
say: Everyone really does have a book inside him or her. But that's
too long and awkward. What a lot of people would do, is write:
Everyone really does have a book inside them. But I cannot abide the
The word "they" is plural. Yes, yes, I know that it's been used in a
singular manner forever. But I don't like it. It doesn't sound right
to my ears. I use it all the time in speech, but I suppose for me,
writing is different. It's more thoughtful. Meaningful. Important.
So it must be done correctly. (That's all bullshit, of course.)
It's true. You have a book inside you. Probably more than
one. Everyone has a story. We know this. How?
Because storytelling is innate. It's part of the human experience.
We've been telling each other stories since we lived in caves.
Stories teach us, they warn us, they entertain us. A joke is a
story. You tell people stories when you tell them about your day, or
about something crazy that happened to you at the Walmart.
You can tell a story. You know how because you've heard them, read
them, and watched them all your life. You understand innately
about beginnings, middles, and endings. You have a sense of what
sorts of stories you like most...and those are the ones you will be
most adept at telling.
That doesn't mean you should shy away from any story in your head
that you aren't certain about. Not everything is meant to be easy
for us. If you have a story idea and you want to pursue it, do it!
It might be so difficult you hate it. And it might stink. But it was
an idea and pursuing it, even if it doesn't work out, is worthwhile.
There really isn't all that much to learn before you start writing.
The most important thing you can do is start. Just write. The
worst mistake you can make is to first decide to learn "how to
write." You take writing classes and join a critique group so other
people can tell you how to write. That's a really bad idea.
Because you already know how to write a story.
Sure, you might have a grammar deficiency. And maybe you aren't
exactly sure about sentence structure. But those things can wait.
The very first thing you ought to do is write. And write and write
and write. And read what you've written. Read it aloud and hear the
way it sounds.
It doesn't have to sound grammatically correct or perfect. In fact,
perfection is the death knell of a story. Perfection is bland. It's
dull and uninspired. You don't want your work to be too polished,
too "writerly." You want it to be honest, and human. Authentic.
Only you can write the way you write. If you learn too much
too soon, if you start letting other people tell you how to do it,
if you try to do it the way other writers do it, you will lose your
authentic voice. You will be teaching yourself that your voice isn't
Don't do it! You are a writer simply by being a human being.
So, when you sit down and stare at the blank screen or page, just
start writing. Write anything that comes to your mind. And here's
Don't try to make it sound good.
Seriously. Don't try to sound like what you think a writer sounds
like. Don't try to be smart and use a lot of fancy words. Don't try
to be "literary" and make your words sing, or paint pictures.
Just tell the damn story. In your own words. The way you would tell
a friend. Be YOU. Write like no other human being on the planet can
write: like YOU.
When I started all of this writing and
publishing nonsense, I had a hard time finishing a novel. I'd start
rather strong and then, after a few thousand words, lose heart. My
story wasn't great enough. There wasn't enough conflict, not enough
action. The stakes weren't high enough or I couldn't figure out the
stakes at all.
But that all changed one night while I sat in bed reading A Long
Way Down by Nick Hornby.
Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors. There is only one book of
his that I didn't like. The rest are wonderful. And as I sat reading
A Long Way Down, something smacked me on the head. A
realization. This book is very simple. A group of people meet atop a
building on New Year's Eve all with the intention of hurling
themselves off it. It's not as silly as it seems. This particular
building has a history of that sort of thing. Anyway, they meet,
they manage to put off jumping. And from that point on, their lives
There were no grand families. No generational sagas. No end of the
world or world shattering conflicts. Just a group of people with
difficult lives, learning from one another.
And I suddenly thought, "Hey, wait a minute. There's nothing to this
story. It's just...a simple story. And I LOVE it! I love all of this
After that, I started to relax and just tell my stories.
So, what is it that makes a story great?
Everybody you talk to has an idea. Conflict, they might say. You
have to have a powerful conflict. Without a huge conflict there is
no story at all. High stakes--even if it's not the end of the world,
it's the end of something big for someone. Beloved characters.
Characters that readers identify with, empathize with. And those
characters must have an "arc," meaning, they must grow and change
somehow. A great narrative voice--one that's easy to understand.
Clarity. A beginning that sucks you in, a middle that keeps you on
the edge of your seat, and a fantastic, unforgettable ending.
Wow. That's a lot to live up to, isn't it?
But...think about it. Is that really what makes a story
great? I mean, can't we all think of some stories that are
considered great that aren't all that? I can.
What about The Grapes of Wrath? What makes that story so
great? A lot of people will tell you that it isn't a great story at
all. That it's boring. It's just a miserable story about miserable
people. What makes it great, for me, is that it's well told, it
makes you (well, some of us) feel for the characters, and it's
realistic. But more so, it's about the human condition. It's a
powerful narrative of hope, and hate, injustice, and fear, and the
way we treat each other.
The Grapes of Wrath is a great story to me. And when I was
trying to write a novel, I kept trying to make my story just as
great, just as deeply meaningful and important. But some people hate
that story. And that's what you have to understand about great
stories. There are all kinds of them. Some people will love your
story and some people will hate it.
The truth is that there are great and popular books that don't have
all the supposedly necessary elements everyone insists make a great
story. Take conflict. Everyone says if you don't have a great
conflict, you have no story at all. But what does that even mean?
What's the conflict in The Bell Jar? It's a rambling sort of
story about a depressed woman. What about The Catcher in the Rye?
These stories seem to lack any real conflict and there are many
others. The conflict in these novels is within the main characters.
There are minor conflicts between characters but the major gist of
the story is just the main character feeling at odds with his
environment or self.
There are books in which nothing seems to happen at all. Some people
love them. They're usually called "character driven" stories.
Because they're all about the character and what's happening in her
mind. Does she grow? Well, she doesn't have to. The story could end
with her right back where she started. Does that make the story bad?
Then there are books in which something happens, but it just doesn't
seem to matter. Take The Great Gatsby. Some people think it's
one of the best stories they've ever read. Others come away thinking
it was a waste of time.
You don't even really need a great narrative voice for your story to
be great. Often the simplest told stories are the most loved.
Fifty Shades of Grey anyone? And who can argue that the Harry
Potter books, simply and not expertly told, are as beloved as
J.R.R. Tolkien's literary tomes? The truth is, one person's great
narrative voice is another's fingernails on a chalkboard.
I recently finished reading Paper Moon by Joe David Brown.
After I read it, I took a look at some of the reviews at Goodreads.
One person gave the book a very low score because the characters
were immoral people. I literally laughed out loud. This person read
a book about grifters and then low-starred it because it was about
You can't please everyone and you should not try to.
What does a story need to be great? Two things. First, a character.
A person, an animal, a planet, an environment. Some kind of
character through which the reader can hear the story. Second, a
basic plot. Something must happen. It doesn't matter what, that's up
to you. And that something could be as simple as the character
walking through the streets of New York City thinking about how much
Your story doesn't need to be great. Or powerful. Or important. It
doesn't have to have subplots and twists and metaphors. It just has
to be your story.
Kurt Vonnegut outlined six basic story arcs in the video below. It's
a must see. But what he says up front is the wisest thing anybody's
ever said about story. He said something like, "Here's a story: A
man gets into trouble and he gets out of it. People never get sick
of that story."
The most important thing to remember when trying to write a story is
that it doesn't have to be great. It just has to be yours.
Write the story the way you see it. If you love it, that's all that
*Fine. If you want to sell thousands of copies,
you might want to try plotting out a story with some conflict and
great characters, etc. But the truth of it is that you were brought
up on story. You know how a story works. And you'll do your best
work if you write the kinds of stories that you want to tell.
Delusions of grandeur or suckiness;
neither serve you well
Do you suffer from delusions of
A long time ago, I was contacted by a
guy who wanted help with his book. This book, he said, was a
bestseller! It had everything! It was a biography, and he already
knew who would play him in the movie adaptation.
Helpful as I tend to be, I
told him to write that book! (Did I mention that he hadn't written
it yet?) And then, after he wrote it, he should edit it. And then
get it published.
He wanted me to do all of that, of
course. Because this was a sure-fire bestselling book. When I
declined, as I had books of my own to write, he seemed a tad miffed.
I'm not sure, from a psychological
standpoint, what it is that makes some people believe that they are
fabulous in nearly every respect, especially in their chosen fields
of endeavor. And those of us living in the real world tend to view
assertions of greatness with a smirk. But who am I to judge? That
guy's book might very well be the next huge hit about a drug addled
motorcycle gang member who turns to Christ and changes the world.
But one thing is for certain, he won't
get very far with that attitude. The proof is, as they say, in the
pudding. And the pudding has to be made.
There are two problems people have
with publishing. They have either delusions of grandeur or they have
delusions of suckiness.
Those with delusions of grandeur
submit their work to publishers and blame the publisher for not
accepting their kind offer. And then there are those who blame their
work when they are rejected. Worse, there are writers who will tell
you that if your story was rejected by several publishers, you need
to fix it.
Neither of these is the correct
approach, of course.
If you want someone else to publish
your work, you are basically looking for a job. If you blame an
employer for not hiring you--if you say they must not recognize
greatness when they see it, or they just don't know what a good
employee looks like--you don't understand business at all.
Or maybe you're the type who, when
rejected, automatically thinks, "That's it. I've been turned down
for employment by five companies. I'm clearly not qualified for a
position like this. I should go back to school. Or find something
else to do."
Either way, you're wrong. Just wrong.
Publishers are in the business of
selling stuff. Whether it's books or magazines. They're looking for
content that they think will make them money. Do you have any idea
how many submissions they get? Thousands a year. For some, thousands
If your story or book is rejected it
means nothing. NOTHING.
Your work just didn't make the cut.
There could be all sorts of reasons. Maybe it just wasn't what they
were looking for. Maybe it was the wrong subject, the wrong tone,
the wrong viewpoint...for them.
Who knows? And who cares?
Sure, maybe it's not good enough for
But maybe someone else will think it's great. Maybe it's not good
enough for any publisher. Maybe nobody in the world is going to like
it. So, what?
Do you like it? Because that's all
If you have any doubts about it at
all, set it aside and write something else. The more you write, the
better at writing you will be and if it was true that the first
story you wrote sucked, eventually you'll see it and fix it, or
But you can't know if it sucks or not
by obsessing over its rejection.
On the other hand, making yourself
feel better by assuming the publisher doesn't know good stuff when
they read it is hardly beneficial to you. For one thing, if you
don't care for what they're selling, why would you send your work to
them? Seriously...are you sending work to a publisher because you
think their stuff isn't any good and therefore, they will get down
on their knees and praise you for sending them something brilliant?
(Come on now, admit it: you've had that thought at least once in
your life. Maybe we all have.) But if you honestly believe
your work is a gift to your employer...you're not living in the real
Be realistic. They didn't want your
work; it means nothing. Send it to someone else. Keep writing new
stuff. And listen to that little voice inside your head that says
either, "This is really good; I love it," or "I'm not sure this is
really all I want it to be."
Your voice is the only
should be listening to.
Let's back up a bit now and assume you haven't finished much of
anything at all so you have no delusions yet, neither of grandeur or
suckiness. And let's assume that you don't already have the fully
formed idea for the greatest bestseller of all time.
I'm willing to bet that most writers
don't start with a complete idea in their heads. They might have a
smidgen of an idea. Or they might just want to be a writer and don't
know where to start. There are those, I'm sorry to say, who would
tell a person like that to forget writing. "If you just 'want to be
a writer' but you have no clue what to write, writing isn't for
you," they'd say. Hmph, I say. Wanting to be a writer is a perfectly
acceptable reason to try to be one. Duh.
Granted, I didn't come to writing out of the blue, standing in my
kitchen and suddenly blurting out, "I want to be a writer." Writing
was always just something I did. But however the idea bubbles up
within a person isn't important. It's getting started that matters.
How do you come up with your ideas?
That's something all writers are asked at some point.
Writers get ideas all sorts of ways. There are ideas everywhere. In
the news. In your family. An overheard conversation. A vivid dream.
Some writers carry around notebooks because they feel like they'll
have a fabulous idea and if they don't write it down, they'll forget
it, and they may never get another one. Personally, I don't write
down any fleeting ideas I get. I used to. What I ended up with was a
little leather notebook in my purse that I never looked at except to
jot down weird bits and pieces of...life.
I never lack for ideas. If you do, then there are exercises you can
perform to help you find them. Here are some suggestions:
1. Take your favorite story and ask yourself...what if? What if
Elizabeth Bennett was actually the sister of supermodel Jane in 1986
Great Britain? What if she didn't think the wealthy brother of the
most influential new designer was arrogant so much as a cad? What if
she accidentally ran onto the runway during one of Jane's shows
while chasing an errant cat and dove off it, landing in this guy's
See? You are so far away from Pride
and Prejudice now
it's a whole new story.
2. Watch the news or read the paper and ask yourself...what if?
3. Jot down whatever you remember of that crazy dream you had and
ask yourself...what if?
4. Listen to that couple's argument over eggplant at Publix and ask
Do you see the pattern here? What
the greatest tool writers have. In fact, it's the tool. Anytime
you're stuck, you just shout it into the void and listen for the
Some writers get a title in their heads. Then they think about what
that title might mean. What sort of book does it suggest? What sorts
of characters? Then they start asking what
Some writers get a character in their heads. A name, or a vision.
Then they imagine what sort of situation that character might find
herself in. If they like horror, they ask what if...little Jenny
finds Satan living under her bed because he's on the run from his
Some writers even see an ending first and ask what
Why not? This is your book and your process. Do whatever works for
Some writers merely have a vague idea and work through it.
I raised three sons. When my youngest was about eleven, I decided I
wanted to write a fantasy book with a young boy as the main
character. I thought and thought and asked myself what
imagined what kind of world he would live in. I imagined what I
thought a fantasy story ought to have in it--a powerful object,
perhaps. Magic. Fantastic creatures. A prophecy! And I was off to
The first draft of Children
the first book in The
Kell Stone Prophecy trilogy, focused
mainly on Fenn Foster and the two friends he meets as they attempt
to solve the riddle of the prophecy from which they are on the run.
But the end result was a much bigger story, with a cast of varied
ages, exploring bigger themes. I'll talk more about finding the core
of your story in another post.
The point is, I didn't have an idea, or a character, a genre, or a
conversation. I just had a desire to write a book with a young boy
as a main character. (I suppose that might qualify as starting with
a character, but I don't think so.)
But my story does suggest another exercise for you. Ask yourself
what genre you want to write in...for this project. (Don't ever
imagine you have to stick with a particular genre.) What intrigues
you? What do you like to read? What sorts of films or television
shows do you like? What do you think you'd have the most fun with?
Start there. Then imagine a world, or a character, or a bit of
conflict that might work itself into a plot (Karen hates her
husband, Hector must save his sister, the gods have plotted together
to murder the only creature in existence who can force them to be
Then start writing.
It's as simple as that.
I hear you whining. "But what do I write? Don't I have to have a
plot? What about an outline? Where do I start?"
For now my padawan,
just sit down at the computer and write. Write anything. Describe
your character, or her world, or what sort of magic she wields. What
do you see her doing right now? Or start with a conversation she's
having or a scene that pops into your head.
Don't worry about whether or not it's any good. Don't worry about
whether or not it will even end up in the final product (it probably
won't). Just start writing as soon as you feel that spark of energy
and write until you're tired. And then come back and read the next
Writers often ask others, "Are you a
plotter? Or are you a Pantser?" I prefer the term "pantster" myself.
It's weirder, but easier to say.
A plotter is a person who outlines his
story, sometimes meticulously, before he writes it. A pantster sits
herself down at the computer and starts writing. Either way, the
assumption is that at the other end of the process, a novel is
I have met an
author who does in fact create a highly detailed outline for each
novel he writes. The problem with this guy was that he insisted
that you also had to do this. It's the only way, in his mind,
to write a good story.
I, on the other hand, have myself sat
down and written a book from start to finish without an outline or a
basic plot idea. I knew a few things that were going to happen. And
I knew the scene that would end the novel. But the rest was writing
by the seat of my pants. The end result is Camelia,
a story told by a suicidal alcoholic. After having written more than
ten books, Camelia is still my favorite. Maybe I just have an
affinity for suicidal alcoholics.
Here's the thing: what works for me or
that outlining guy isn't necessarily going to work for you. And
worse, what works for you on one novel may very well not work on
My next novel in the so-called Women's
Fiction (egad) genre is a case in point. I had a vague idea of what
would happen and I sat down and started writing. After more than
40,000 words in, I was lost. I started to outline a little bit to
see where I might go from where I'd gotten stuck. I struggled
between outlining and writing until I realized there was no saving
the story. It was not going where I wanted it to go and I didn't
like it. So I abandoned it, opened up a blank document, and started
This time, I thought a bit about the
story I was trying to tell: a guy has gone into a fugue state of
memory loss and his ex-girlfriend tries to help him remember his
life as better than it actually was. I started writing, and when I
came to a point at which I wasn't sure where to go, I did some
outlining. That's the point at which I came up with the format of
the novel--past versus present and how many chapters of each.
I still wasn't sure what I was going
to write, in what form the main character's trauma would play out. I
did have an idea of what was going on in his home as he grew up. But
the fabulous (in my mind) details I uncovered through the completely
creative process of just letting my inner creator take control would
never have come about had I outlined too much detail. The most
interesting thing was the way I started into the story the second
time. The words came out as if I were Magnolia, writing to Jack.
That book is Always
Magnolia, an honorable mention in Writer's Digest's Self
Published Book Awards.
For other projects, however, I have
done more detailed outlines for, at least, parts.
The point is this, you have to do what
works for you.
I like to start writing right away. I
write until I get to a point at which I'm not sure where to go,
where I want to go, or how is the best way to get there, wherever
that might be. So I stop, and jot down a bunch of notes. Sometimes
it's a list of plot points--this is what I want to happen.
Other times, depending on the type of story, it might be a drawn
calendar grid in my notebook on which I keep track of the passage of
time with plot points. Sometimes, it looks more like the kind of
outline you might have made in school for an essay. But it's never
complete--just to the point to get me writing again.
I sometimes don't ever look at my
outline again and end up at some point having to do another outline
that matches all the ways in which I ignored the previous one. This
is because while it's good for me to know where I'm going, I don't
want to let my own ideas get in the way of my creative process.
That isn't to say that I always follow
this creative mind where it wants to go, but that's its own blog
The biggest piece of advice I can give
someone who has never written a full first draft is this: Just keep
writing. Even if what you're writing is complete trash. As long as
you come to moments of brilliance, those times when you feel the
rush of authorism washing over you (and you might start practicing
interviews in your head), you're doing it right.
I'd say, as long as you get that spark
now and then, keep going, even if you have the feeling that this
project won't make it. Just finishing a complete first draft will
prove to yourself that it can be done. If at the end, you don't like
it, put it in the virtual drawer, and start something else.
And never ask anyone's opinion! Well,
unless you want to. I'll talk later about the dangers of critique
groups on the budding writer's process. But if you feel compelled to
show your work to someone else, be forewarned: this is your first
ever first draft. If you hear it's fantastic, great. But don't let
that deter you from being objective. If you hear it's not so great,
try not to let someone else tell you how to make it better. Remember
this: You don't want to write their story, or your story the way
they would write it. You want to write your story, your way.