I apologise in advance for this long, rambling mess, but it’s an important, and often discussed topic.
Writing novel is both much easier than you think and much harder. I have so many people tell me that putting 80k words on paper would be too big a challenge while most people seem to think that coming up with a winning idea isn’t that much of problem. The opposite is actually true. Everyone has a book inside them, or so the oft repeated phrase goes, but most of them shouldn’t ever try.
I’m a (drum roll please) published author, which is a phrase bandied about on Twitter like it’s in some way related to winning a gold medal at the Olympics. Not only am I a writer, but I’m also published, which is a distinction most writers never attain. Well, I called myself an aspiring writer until I published, and only now do I dare to call myself a writer. I hope to add successful to that label later.
Here’s the point. Writing is easy. Type words into a keyboard. Good words? Excellent. Bad words? Please stop embarrassing yourself. Acceptable words that are in desperate need of good editing? Good enough! What’s difficult isn’t the writing, it’s the planning.
Now that I’m published, I get people asking me for advice on writing. Like I’m suddenly, miraculously, some sort of expert. I’m not. Most recently, my sister send me the alpha of the beginning of her work-in-progress.
My sister wanted to know a single, important thing:
- Does her story have potential?
Wrong question. I can’t answer my sister’s question based on the alpha she sent me. It’s just not complete enough yet. And anyway, how the hell would I know? Here’s a few better questions:
- Does the story, as presented so far, seem interesting and/or compelling?
- Is it cliche or is it in some way unique?
- Does it have enough conflict to form a full story?
- Does the author seem to have enough talent to pull it off?
Answering these questions, I’ll say that my sister should continue working on her story and (in my humble opinion) I think it could turn into a good book. With that in mind, (I’m sorry to say this, but) my sister represents an excellent case of what not to do when writing a novel. Let me explain.
- She sent me the alpha text. It’s 16 pages long. It has a few problems:
- There’s basic spelling mistakes throughout. Sure, it’s an alpha, but F7 is a pretty simple button to find.
- There’s a bunch of comments saying things like “How will character A’s presence affect character B?” We’re talking about main characters here so how can this question not have been answered yet. More on this in minute. This is the important bit.
- The document doesn’t even include half of the names. You need the names up front. The names help define the characters, cities, rivers, etc. If you don’t know the name, you don’t understand the character/thing.
- Chapter 3 doesn’t end. Instead, there’s a note saying “To be continued”. It then goes on to chapters 4 through 7. If she hasn’t finished chapter 3 I’m not going to continue reading. I’m not trying to be an arrogant douchebag, she’s just spoiling the story for the alpha reader. How can I evaluate an incomplete storyline?
- She sent me a map in .odg format. How many people can open that? As it happens, I can, but only by accident. .gif/.jpeg/.png please. It’s a simple thing, but makes a big difference to the average tech-illiterate. My tablet can’t open that file even when my laptop can.
- She sent me an 86 page planning document. Seriously. Problems:
- As an alpha reader, I don’t need it.
- As an alpha reader, I shouldn’t see it.
- It’s a template from some website which is almost entirely empty anyway. This document is my main concern, and what I plan to talk about from now on.
So, my sister’s writing novel. Excellent. Will it be good? No idea, but potentially, yes. All of the problems I wrote about above are completely irrelevant. I promise you that my novel, Equivocal Destines, looked exactly like that for a long time. So why complain about these very normal, and very temporary problems in a public blog post? How can others actually benefit from this? To put it simply, polish the alpha into a beta before you show it to anyone.
Here’s the thing…
The problem is my sister probbly has too little confidence in her writing, but she should. Her idea is fairly unique, her descriptions, when included are clear, her characters interesting so far. Who knows if she has talent (probably, yes) but people, please, ditch the formality, the planning templates, the special writing programs, and all that junk. Put words on paper (as my sister’s done) and get the idea down – this is most important – but don’t let all the other stuff get in the way, and don’t seek confirmation until you have something confirmation-ready.
When I first moved to Poland (I always find an excuse to mention that) and started telling people I was working on novel, I had 30 of these conversations:
ME: I’m planning a novel
THEM: How much have you written?
ME: Nothing, I’m still planning it.
THEM: How long have you been planning it.
ME: A few months.
THEM: That’s stupid. Just start writing. That’s a better idea.
No, it’s most certainly not a good idea, but neither is endless planning. I have a planning document for Equivocal Destines that’s currently 49 A4 pages long. When I started writing the novel it was about 20 pages long. It’s growing with the novel as I add ideas while writing. I have to go back and update my plan at lest weekly.
For context, the book series, Upheaving Nidola, of which Equivocal Destines is book 1 will end up 5 books long. I’ve got character and various other profiles and at the end, 2 separate plans for the plot:
- My plot outline is very high level, and only 1 page long. It lists everywhere the characters go, who meets whom and when, how to fix the grand problem, etc. But not much else. Everything else is details.
- My story outline is broken up by book:
- The story outline for book 1 (completed and on sale) is 6 pages of bullet points.
- The story outline for book 2 (currently in progress) is 5 pages long and growing as I write.
- The story outline for book 3 is currently only 1 page long and only includes the specific plot points that I have to hit in a certain way because of what I’ve already written in books 1 and 2.
- The story outline for books 4-5 are skeletons.
OK, so more of me talking about me, gain. What’s the point? I have a high level outline and 20+ pages of bullet-point detail about the characters in a 4-column table (including the critical characters who don’t appear in books 1 and 2) but I haven’t wasted months on planning things in such minute detail that I have no room for creativity.
Conversely, I have a plan! Without any sort of high level plan, how can you get your characters to where they need to be at each state of the story? Do you even know where they need to go?
You’re probably going to end up having to rewrite (maybe big) parts of your story (a few times) anyway, as you come up with cool new ideas while you write, but if you have a broad framework and a more detailed plan for it, then you know where and how to be creative and how to slot your new ideas into what you already have.
- Step 1 – Write a high-level plan so you know what has to happen, but don’t go into any more detail than you need to.
- Step 2 – Figure out who has to do what. Build mental images and make them real. Not on paper, but to you. Names help.
- Step 3 – Write the damned thing, at least to the point that other people can read it without your private notes, understand it, and give you useful, critical feedback.
You have to have confidence in your work, first and foremost, and flesh it out to the point that others can begin to enjoy it. Then let others tear it to shreds so you can improve it. Wash, rinse, repeat.