When my agent sold my first novel to Warner Books, the contract stipulated that I was to write a sequel. Despite The High House being the third book I had completed, (first two unpublished) I suddenly found myself asking the question of how one writes a novel. Prior to that time, I had started with an idea and wrote until the book was done. It occurred to me that a more methodical approach might be useful.
Since that time, I have critiqued a number of beginning writers' work, which led me to think about how one becomes a writer. Some people are fortunate enough to write professionally from an early age—they seem to possess an intuitive gift at producing commercial work. Most don't. Many do not become published until their 30's or 40's. Not being able to work on one's craft full-time plays a role in this, I think, but another part is simply the sheer number of skills a novice has to develop in order to sell his or her work.
So, how does a young writer shorten the time it takes to become salable? I've spent a lot of time thinking about that question. Here, for what they're worth, are my thoughts:
Research shows that to become an expert in anything, you need to spend 10,000 hours learning the craft. A daunting number. What makes it more intimidating is that if those 10,000 hours aren't spent practicing the right way, it lengthens the process. Practicing in the best possible way should, therefore, shorten the process.
What skills do you have to master to become a writer? And what is mastery, anyway? My definition would be when you reach a point where you can write any story you want without having to consciously concern yourself with sentence structure, style or dialogue. Not that you won't be dealing with these things; it's just that they come naturally enough not to interfere with what you're trying to accomplish. You know the rules and you know when you can ignore them, or break them altogether. That frees you to work on the higher problems of plot, pacing, and characterization.
The fundamentals begin at the sentence level. One can't write books unless one can write decent sentences. Notice, we're not talking about brilliant sentences, or even engaging sentences. Just sentences that do the work and convey your ideas.
For some of us, including myself, sentence structure comes fairly naturally, but when I entered the professional realm, I realized I needed to know a bit more. I began by rereading Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Notice I said rereading. If you haven't read it at least once, begin by doing so. It will remove a few of the more obvious mistakes from your writing.
Although editing is the final thing a writer should do on a manuscript, a book entitled Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King should be another of the first books you read. Like Strunk and White, it will show you some of the pitfalls of writing down to the sentence level. Writers should not expect an editor to edit their sentences. Generally, editors are too busy to do that kind of work. The manuscript should be very tight before it ever reaches an agent or editor. Upon publication, a copy editor will proofread your work. Some copy editors are incredibly talented, others less so. I had a terrific copy editor on The High House. Even in books that a writer painstakingly edits, a good copy editor will find mistakes. Their job is not to rewrite your sentences, however.
Next, look at The Art of Styling Sentences 20 Patterns for Success by Waddell, Esch, and Walker. This is a workbook. It is boring. But remember our goal—to become a writer as quickly as possible. Don't skip—go through every exercise until you have a firm command of the possibilities of sentence structure. When you are done, you should be able to write with variety and clarity. You want your novels to be clear and understandable, with continuity of thought within sentences and between paragraphs. This will help you achieve that goal.
While you're going through the workbook, obtain a book on manuscript format. Writer's Digest usually has a book on the subject, or search the web for the information. Don't use forums to educate yourself on this, however. I see far too much misinformation out there. If you want to be a professional, you must present yourself as a professional. Your manuscript is the 'coat and tie' of your work. If your apparel looks bad, you may be judged a novice before the editor or agent reads a single word. You are an unknown writer trying to make a positive impression in a world that knows nothing about you.
An example of manuscript format: when I began writing, the norm was that you put two blank spaces after a period. That made it easier for the printers to catch the end of the sentence. Oddly enough, this convention still seems to hold—I asked an editor not too long ago about it—I figured since everything was digital, I was actually causing the printers more work, because someone has to go in and delete one of those blank spaces in the finished manuscript. He told me he preferred I keep doing it the old way. Habits die hard.
Once you learn the proper manuscript format, use it regularly. It helps keep it in mind, and it's much easier, after finishing a first draft of a novel, if you have already put it in proper format from the beginning. NEVER send an editor a manuscript in anything less than perfect format.
With some mastery of sentence structure, you are past the fundamental "base" of a writing pyramid. There are a lot of things still to tackle before anyone other than your mom will want to read what you've written, however.
Perhaps a good place to start is with dialogue. That's always been a bit difficult for me. Writing high fantasy, with its more formal language, I've always had a little trouble getting the right feel. The best book I've found on the subject—and I've read some that were totally useless—is Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella. Reading it will change the way you listen, which is the only way to learn to write good dialogue.
One of the things I continue to work on in my own dialogue is not to make it too pointed. In real life, when my wife says, "You need to mow the lawn," I usually don't say the first thing that comes to mind, such as "I don't want to," or "How about if you do it?" I say either "Okay, I will," or I divert her attention by changing the subject. (The latter answer is a human failing on my part, and shows characterization) If your characters are always answering one another's questions, you need to think it through a little more carefully. People are subtle; so is written dialogue if done well. Some writers are masters of dialogue; the rest of us struggle.
You have to learn to understand POV (Point of View): the character or characters whose viewpoint is used in the story. I think POV is pretty simple, but it throws a lot of beginning writers. One of the reasons for this may be because there are so many different definitions for POV. The bottom line, though, is figuring out whose brain you want to use in the story. In real life, of course, you have only one POV: your own. You can empathize with other people, but you only know what they tell you or what you infer. You can't read anyone's mind (as far as I know).
In a story, you can focus through a single mind in a scene, or you can 'jump' from mind to mind, relating what any of the characters are thinking. Most writers stay inside the head of only one character per scene; that's the easiest thing for a beginning writer to do in order to learn POV. POV is not to be confused with first or third person; if you're writing in first person, (Call me Ishmael.) you will always be in that person's viewpoint—in third person (His name was Ishmael.) you can use one character's thoughts throughout the story, or move around from mind to mind as necessary.
Whichever way you want to write, you have to understand it completely. Don't get caught up in all the random terminology people use about POV unless it helps you. Just learn the process. There is a ton of information on the web about it.
As you learn the different writing techniques, force yourself to do exercises using them. I understand that you really want to spend your time writing great stories, but keep our purpose in mind—to shorten the amount of time it takes for you to become a professional. Sitting down and, for example, writing a few paragraphs of dialogue, may teach you more than trying to write a whole novel.
Here's another thing to consider. A lot of writers, especially in SF and Fantasy, are inspired by novels—sometimes very long novels. For me it was The Lord of the Rings. So it's only natural to want to write a novel right off the bat. The trouble I often see with that, and the trouble I encountered with my own early work, is that one can write a 100,000 word novel, making the same amateur mistakes throughout. I recommend writing short stories, attempting to get feedback from dispassionate readers (I.E: not your spouse or best friend), and submitting those stories to the pro magazines. It's a great way to learn the craft; it can be fun, and having your first short story published in a professional forum, either in print on on-line, is a tremendous thrill. These days, with the plethora of on-line magazines, there are a lot of markets available to you, too.
When I was twenty-five years old, I sold my first short story to Amazing Stories magazine. Shortly thereafter, Stephen Spielberg licensed the Amazing Stories name for a TV show, resulting in its being known beyond the small world of science fiction. I didn't take full advantage of that, because I stopped writing for a number of years to pursue a career in music, but I can't begin to tell you how much clout that single sale gave me when I returned to writing. When I wrote letters to agents and editors, listing that credit, it lent me credibility. It proved that an editor had, once upon a time, judged my work as professional.
Selling a short story also helps you maintain your resolve. Trying to be a writer can be discouraging. Some work for years without ever selling anything. Having a professional sale or two proves to yourself that you can do it.
Okay, so you've learned to write decent, perhaps even lovely, descriptive sentences. You've learned to string them into paragraphs in such a way that one thought logically follows the next. You understand POV and you're getting the hang of dialogue. Let's talk about characterization.
I've read several books on characterization. Most of them are pretty useless. I recently read a book which stated, as many do, that you need to be able to create characters that are so real and believable that the reader will know them better than they know real people.
This is nonsense. Pretty nonsense, but still nonsense. We have all had the experience of meeting a stranger. Their looks tell us a lot—the way they hold themselves, the way they talk, their facial expressions. In conversation, we may quickly grasp their particular sense of humor. Within an hour of being around them, though we do not know them intimately, we may have a good idea about their personality. We have learned more about that person than we could ever learn from a character in a book because people are more than their looks or expressions or sense of humor; there is what I must call, for want of a better word, their spirit--their persona, that intangible essence.
I have known my wife for many years, but she remains a wonderful mystery to me. I can't always predict what she will do. I have met some great characters in books—Steerpike in Titus Groan, Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. Mervyn Peake spent several thousand words delineating Steerpike's character, but he is still a thin leaf compared to the layers of characterization present in a living person.
Trying to create characters "better than real people" leads to advice such as "you must create a list of every detail of the character's life: color of eyes, hair, distinguishing moles, what car they drive, etc." I have made the lists and they are worthless, at least to me. You should list a few of these things when you're writing a novel, so you don't forget a character's hair or eye-color, but such details don't bring a character to life. Lists such as "What is the character's backstory?" and "What does the character want more than anything?" are more useful. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass has an excellent section on this and other aspects of writing.
The best advice I've found on characterization is from E. M. Forester's Aspects of the Novel, a book well-worth reading. Forester writes of Flat and Round Characters. A flat character is one who only has one or two personality traits. In the old Leave It to Beaver TV show, Eddie Haskell was a flat character. He had only two traits as far as I remember: he was sneaky, and he was two-faced around adults. Eddie never did anything outside those traits—nothing surprising. In effect, Eddie wasn't a real human being—he was one-dimensional. His purpose wasn't to be multi-layered. A round character can take actions that surprise us—but even as we are surprised, we think, 'yes, although I didn't expect this, it is within this person's character for them to have done it.'
Both round and flat characters are necessary in a novel. Most of the characters in The Lord of the Rings are flat characters. Try to imagine sitting at a table with Aragorn: what would he say? What kind of jokes would he tell? I have no idea. (That's true of a lot of characters we meet in books, by the way.) Sam is a flat character—he is the Loyal Servant. Never once does he deviate from that. Yet, for those who read the book more than once, it is Sam and not Frodo who we love best of all. His loyalty moves us. And we can imagine what he would say at table because we have been there with him. Perhaps Sam transcends his own Flatness.
In The Worm Ouroborus, Lord Gro is perhaps the only round character. A traitor to his own people, he is fiercely loyal his new masters. Yet, in the end, we discover that something in his nature always leads him to betray those he serves, even when the betrayal leads to his own destruction. He doesn't understand his own motives. When the betrayal does come, we are surprised, but see that the decision was inexorably bound to his personality.
These days, characterization is king in fiction. Whereas plot tended to drive SF and Fantasy novels in the 70's and 80's, characterization has become more important. This leads to a lot of inner dialogue. Inner dialogue is useful, so long as it illuminates character. Don't use it to recap the plot, as I've seen in several recent fantasy novels. You aren't illuminating character just by having the character think about what has happened; you must portray their mental reaction to what has occurred, or what they fear may occur.
Characterization is too large to deal with in detail here, but I hope these brief paragraphs help. In reader reviews of The High House some said the characterization was brilliant; some said the characters were cardboard. My only explanation for the differing responses is that I didn't use any inner dialogue, and most of my characters were flat. Enoch, I think is a round character—at least in my head.
Learning to plot a story comes next. I wish I could say plotting is easy for me, but it really isn't. Let's talk about two basic ways at arriving at a plot. Some people sit down and plot their short stories and novels from start to finish. This is probably the most efficient way—I say probably because I've never done it, though I'm attempting to do so on a current book. The process is fairly simple, but I believe it has to begin with characterization. Until you know who your characters are, how can you know how they will react in a given situation? If you do know your characters before you begin writing, you can place them in a situation and see what they do. It then becomes a matter of 'what iffing' your way to the end of the story. "What if my character falls down a rabbit hole leading to a fantasy world?" "What if she is taken prisoner by Nazis?" The 'what ifs' are a logical sequence. "If this happens, what are the consequences?" To create a plot you work through the sequence, perhaps creating many branching sequences to see which one feels 'best.'
The second way, which a lot of really good writers, such as Ursula LeGuin and John C. Wright use, is to plot toward the horizon, as if one were walking. You walk (or follow your characters) as far as you can see (plot), until you reach the horizon. Once there, with part of the plot behind you, you can see a little farther and know what might happen next. This is the way I generally plot. It's sloppier and takes more revision.
Whichever way you use, the process is similar. In the first one, you have to plan out more detail to see what might happen. The second way is perhaps more intuitive.
So how does one come up with a good story? I like the illustration I stole from somewhere: You're writing a story about a cat that is caught in a tree. Not very interesting. Let's up the suspense. The tree is on fire. The cat's owner is below, trying to save the cat. Still not terribly interesting—he could probably call the fire department. Up the suspense again—before calling the fire department, he tries to climb the tree, falls, and breaks his leg. The cat has only a few moments to live; the owner has a broken leg and no cell phone. There is no one around to help him.
At this point, unless you're more imaginative than I, you don't know how he is going to save the cat. One of the guidelines here is that he has to do so without outside help (unless he finds an ingenious way to call for it). The hero has to be the one to triumph (or gloriously fail).
This is the part that separates professional writers from amateurs. The only way I know to solve the problem is to present it to your subconscious until it finds a solution. You let it sit, like an aching tooth, in the back of your brain. At some moment, maybe when shaving or driving or walking, the solution will come to you. This is harder work than one might think, because your mind is engaged at some level on this much of the time. If it isn't, you have to keep reminding it to do the work.
The key is that if you can't come up with an immediate solution, your reader won't be able to either, which means they will be surprised when the owner saves the cat. And it makes you look really clever.
I notice this process most when writing short stories—I throw out a premise, write my character into lots of trouble, and then reach a point where I don't know what to do next. Sweat beads my brow—I stand on a dizzying height without a net--because there is always the chance I may not be able to find an ending to the story. Sometimes I don't, at least one I feel is satisfying. Most of the time I do. And it's the difference between an interesting story and one where the reader begins to skim. I think one of the problems about genres such as Sword and Sorcery is a lack of surprise. The barbarian swordsman is faced with a monster/dragon/enemy. After much sound and fury, he defeats his foe. Some of this is fun, but if the writer can add another dimension beyond the physical—for example, if defeating his foe will cause the death of his best friend. Now, there's a problem to be solved—maybe he lets his best friend die; maybe he finds a way to prevent it. The story is deepened.
Which brings up another point about writing—someone once said that "all stories are moral." Whether that's true or not, if there is a moral issue in a story, it makes it stronger. Betraying a friend, performing an act of murder, choosing between two evils. I was watching an episode of the old TV show Bonanza, the first one I had seen since I was a kid, and I was taken by the simple morality used to draw me into the story. Bonanza, of course, is a cowboy show, and in this episode Hoss Cartwright agrees to go to a neighboring town and escort a young woman back to Virginia City to be the bride of a forty-something year old rancher. The rancher and the woman have never met; their only correspondence has been through letters. In fact, this poor girl, living in the back woods, hasn't met any men at all. Hoss, the innocent, shy cowboy, going with the best of intentions, is oblivious when the woman develops a crush on him. Returning to Virginia City, she refuses to marry the rancher, believing Hoss must be in love with her. The rancher is furious, our hero is in trouble; mayhem ensues.
You read the above and chuckle. How simple and naive TV was in those days! I couldn't leave until I found out how it ended. Because Hoss was the innocent, blamed for something he hadn't done, and I had to know how he would work through the problem. Because we've all, at some point, been accused of something we haven't done.
Granted, this is not deep writing—the problem is that it is based on a misunderstanding, which a bit of communication could have cleared up at once. They loved misunderstandings in the early days of TV—just watch any episode of I Love Lucy. But if you think moral dilemmas can't work in writing today, I have only to say the name Orson Scott Card. Mr. Card is one SF's best writers. Read the moral dilemmas throughout Ender's Game and its sequels and see if you're not riveted.
Moving on, we've now covered, however briefly, what I believe to be the essentials to shortening the time it takes to move from novice to professional writer. The last area I want to discuss is one I haven't really found a solution for. It involves, for want of a better word, maturity. I can only speak from personal experience here.
I began submitting short stories in my mid-twenties. Most of them weren't very good. I don't know if they would have improved, because I made a decision to spend my time trying to get into the music business, giving up writing for almost a decade. I do know that when I came back to writing, I finally felt like I had "something to say," that I had gone through enough life-experiences to provide material. I'm not saying you have to be thirty to write professionally; plenty of writers sell in their twenties, but I do think you have to overcome a few things.
The first is emulation. Think of the writer you admire most, the one you want to write like so badly it makes you ache. For me it was Ray Bradbury. Write your hero's name on a piece of paper in big letters. As you look at it, think of the wonderful stories, the wonderful experiences he or she has given you.
Now tear the paper up. You will never be that person. You will never write in the same way he does. Because his writing comes out of his soul, out of his experiences and his viewpoint, just like your writing must do. You can emulate him; you might even do a decent job of it, but it won't be the same. Let your hero go; if not, you may find yourself paralyzed, comparing everything you write to your idol. I did, and it kept me from finishing lots of my early stories.
Secondly, you must realize that your life-experiences are valid. Whatever has happened to you, no matter how insulated your upbringing, is grist for stories. Maybe you think nothing extraordinary has ever occured to you. Let's even go so far as to say you've had an extraordinarily life so far—nothing bad has happened; you were raised in a nuclear family with one brother and one sister; your parents have been happily married since the time they were high-school sweethearts. You always got along with your siblings. School was a breeze for you; not only were you at the top of your class, but you were a natural athlete; everyone liked you. You had plenty of boyfriends/girlfriends, none of whom ever broke your heart. You always had plenty of money. Friends and strangers come to you for advice because you're so caring. You've never done anything selfish.
Seems pretty unlikely. The truth is, you've had some traumas—maybe nothing devastating like the loss of a parent or the death of a sibling, but you've got scars. And you've got good experiences as well. I'm not suggesting that old silly advice about "write what you know." If you're reading this, you probably want to write science fiction or fantasy; how can you know what it's like to live in the Shire? Or in Oz? But you know what it's like to have people misunderstand you, like they did Bilbo, or to feel lost, like Dorothy. Use the material you have, the material unique to yourself, to make your fictional world real. A lot of us don't like to look at the traumas of our lives; some are literally too painful. But we can take parts; we can take feelings, and we can apply those to a fictional situation. Someone said that our stories must be specific to be universal. You tell stories unique to you, and your readers will empathize with the feelings you recreate.
An example; I just sold a short story called Christmas at Hostage Canyon. The story is based around a Swell Idea, one of those writers get every now and then. Early versions of this particular idea have been wandering around in my mind for over ten years. I finally saw the way to write it. I had no intention of writing about my older brother. He snuck into my story and created a simple moral dilemma for my young hero. I think it gives the story depth. Gene Wolfe says every story needs two ideas—in this case it was my Swell Idea and the relationship between the brothers.
I want to end by giving you The Best Advice Any Writer Can Get. Honest. It isn't original with me, but I've lived by it throughout my writing life. It comes from the talented SF writer Barry Longyear, who wrote Enemy Mine, which became a movie, and the highly entertaining Momus stories .
Long ago, there was a magazine called Empire, For the Science Fiction Writer. It was a fanzine with amateur artwork and printing, and it was a great resource, because famous writers like Gene Wolfe and Longyear wrote articles for it about becoming a pro. There was also a section called Crazy Diamonds, where three professionals would critique novice short stories. (I hope someday, someone puts the back issues on the web.)
I am quoting from memory here, but Longyear's advice was this: no matter how important you feel your writing is, even though it may be one of the most critical things in your life, no one, not your spouse, your children, or your best non-writing friends, will ever think it is as important as you do.
The bottom line to that advice is that you don't have the right to abuse the people around you for the sake of your art. You are not entitled to be the misunderstood artist, clutching your work to your chest, demanding everyone kowtow to it.
This advice has served me in good stead. When they were growing up, my children never heard the words, "Don't interrupt, your dad is writing. This resulted in a number of interruptions. To this day, I'm not certain my kids understand how important writing is to me. But it's better that than to have them resent it, or to have my wife packing her bags because she's worn out by the angst. Because there is angst in a writing life—there is a lot of rejection; a lot of highs and lows.
I hope this brief article is useful. Please let me know if there are other areas of writing you would like me to address.