Howdy y'all! It's a four-day weekend! YEEHAWW. Plenty of time to rant … I mean, write useful blog posts.
As usual, I'm going to rant about myself for a few sentences before I get to the important stuff.
So, what's up in my life? Well, this weekend I am going college-visiting! Yay! I feel so grown up.
Next weekend I'm going to the Boston Book Festival; a ton of authors are going to be there (and some agents, too) so that shall be quite exciting and I will post about it. :) If you live in the Boston area you should definitely check it out. (It's free!) http://www.bostonbookfest.org/
Now, on to the fun part of this post.
So, a long long time ago, when this blog was a wee little baby, I wrote this rather long and annoying post called Sooo How Do I Write a Book, Anyway??!! which was probably way too long and rambling and confusing for anyone to want to read. So I thought I'd write another long––but more organized––post on the same basic idea, using a little something my Writing teacher showed us in class the other day.
Frequently people ask me: How do you write a book? Seems like a simple enough question, but a great number of aspiring writers have a problem with pulling together a novel. Luckily, author John Dufresne wrote the simple but useful Ten Commandments of Writing, in which he basically says a lot of the things I said in that annoying earlier post, only in a more concise way. So I'm going to post each of his Commandments and add my personal interpretation/notes to each of them, and hopefully that will be useful.
If you are uber-religious and this offends you … sorry. But then again, I didn't write it. :) Also, the first one has a very mild swear in it. Just warning ya. So here goes.
1. Sit your ass in a chair.
I apologize for the mild profanity. However, it certainly gets the idea across. And it's true. If you want to write a book … you've got to sit down and physically write it. It's easy enough to walk around with ideas floating around in your head, but it takes real dedication to actually sit down and write. It might seem like "No, DUH!" but it's not as simple as it sounds. We all procrastinate. Just give yourself at least a few minutes a day to write. If you have difficulty getting the words out, try out a site like Write or Die. Getting out those few words a day can make a bigger difference than you may realize.
2. Thou shalt not bore the reader.
True that. I know I've said this a billion times before, but DON'T BE BORING–-especially when you get into the later drafts. Sure, it's inevitable that the first draft will be at least a little dull. The first time you write something, there will probably be a lot of needless descriptions, dialogues, inner monologues, etc. and the pacing will be a little awkward since you haven't seen the story clearly as a whole, yet. But once you start editing, you have to let some of those things go. Oh yes, that's a lovely description of a teapot––but I'm sorry sweetheart, it doesn't add much to the story.
For me, this is a very difficult part. I admit, I am often afraid of letting things go. To cope with this … a) Save the original draft, just to make yourself feel better. b) Have someone else (someone trustworthy!), who is not emotionally attached to the writing, chop out words for you. and/or c) While you're editing, thoroughly consider every single word/sentence/paragraph/chapter. On a small scale, does that word actually add to the sentence? On a larger scale, does that chapter actually add to the story? Try to find the important parts and make them stand out.
3. Remember to keep holy your writing time.
You have to be dedicated. If it's really a struggle for you, just write for five minutes every day. Write something––a sentence, a paragraph, an outline, a random description, a journal entry, a blog post. You can always write something, even if it's not necessarily your book. There is inspiration in everything you write.
4. Honor the lives of your characters.
Yes yes yes. This is very important. This may be a matter of opinion, but I think good characters are the most essential part of a book. I've never felt drawn to a story unless I sympathized with the characters. Note: that does not mean, necessarily, that the reader has to relate to the characters. Sure, your main character can be an axe-murderer, but somehow you've got to make the reader understand the character's motivations.
Now, some authors will argue that characters are your tools, and that you can boss them around and control them like puppets. Others will say that you have to be, like, BFFLs with your characters and have long heartfelt conversations with them to the point where you get very emotionally attached. I would say, you have to balance the two. For me, I feel like I have a very distant kind of friendship with my characters. They walk into my mind one day, they pour out their stories to me, and then they leave. They're like … foreign exchange students. They come and visit for a bit, then they return to wherever they came from and I never see them again. It was long enough for me to get to like them, but not long enough that I feel devastated when they go.
So yes, I do think you should have some "conversations" with your characters. Get to know them. Fill out character inventories––even the tiny little details that might not seem to matter. You'll probably find out a lot about your characters that you didn't know before, and that will inspire you with new story ideas. Really, if you just go and Google "Character Outlines" I assure you that you will find something useful.
5. Thou shalt not be obscure.
Aaah … I suppose this one could be interpreted in a number of ways. The way I see it is, writing fiction is not the time to show off your wonderful knowledge and/or vocabulary. It's about telling a story and getting your idea across. If the reader doesn't understand the words or historical references you're using, they're not going to be interested and they'll walk away. So try to keep it simple. No thesaurus-raping allowed; the first word that comes to your mind is (usually) the right one to use!
6. Thou shalt show and not tell.
Oh, joy. I'm sure you've heard this one a million times. I know I have. And I probably have screamed it at you before. And I probably have already said that it's something I struggle with. But anyway … SHOW, DON'T TELL. Three simple words, yet it is one of the hardest parts of writing. Don't tell me "I was scared", "He was confused", "The tree looked creepy" … Think of unique ways to describe these things. If you just say what the character is experiencing, the reader can't really relate. What does "scared" feel like? What does "creepy" look like? Be specific! Get into the details!
7. Thou shalt steal.
Wait … what? JOHN, ARE YOU TELLING ME TO PLAGIARIZE? No no no. "Stealing", in this case, is different from plagiarizing. The point is to try out different styles. Try to imitate the voices of your favorite authors. It may sound strange, but in exploring the techniques of other writers, you will hopefully find a voice that makes you feel the most like … well, like YOU.
I remember reading a quote by Phillip Pullman once that I really liked, where he said that authors are like bees. The books we read are like flowers. The bee takes pollen from each flower and uses it to make its own honey. The writer takes something away from every book he/she reads and reflects in it his/her own writing. :)
8. Thou shalt rewrite and rewrite again. And again.
… And again, and again, and again. AGH. Yes, I know. It's frustrating. But nothing is ever perfect the first time. In fact, no story will ever be perfect. But if you keep rewriting, at least you'll eventually find what feels right to you.
9. Thou shalt confront the human condition.
Well, this one's a bit tricky. I'd say, you might not even want to think about this until after you're done writing the first draft. Every story has a purpose. Yes, your story does have a purpose, even if you don't realize it. There is some reason that you felt compelled to write it. Something nudged at your conscience that made you itch to write down those words. Maybe it was a story in the news that made you particularly angry/depressed/shocked. Maybe it started with a simple "What if … ?" question. Whatever it is, it should give you some idea of a theme.
In my opinion, this is the part of the story that you shouldn't plan in advance. The plot and characters make up the story itself, but the theme at the heart of the story can only emerge when you actually write it. Sure, you might have a vague idea of a theme throughout, but if you decide too early on about it, you might end up being a little too preachy and forcing it out of the story. Let the story speak for itself, and eventually you will find out what you are trying to say about humanity.
10. Be sure that every death in a story means something.
I could rant about this for an hour. I could probably write an entire post on it. (Maybe I will, someday.) Frankly, character deaths tend to piss me off. Once in a while, they really get to me and I can actually see the purpose behind them. But so many authors––from published authors to unpublished teen writers––seem to think that the only way to end a story is to kill someone. Why? I dunno … Just because they can!
Look. Killing off a character does not automatically make your book deep and meaningful. In fact, it can do the opposite; it can really bring out the weakness in your writing. If a character dies, it has to be heavy. It has to affect the entire story. It can't just be, "Oh, he died. I am sad." And then ten pages later: "By the way, I am still sad that so-and-so died." I mean, you have to think about all the stages of grief––the denial, the anger, the acceptance, etc. And if you haven't experienced grief, this is a really really hard thing to pull off realistically. Grief never completely goes away and it changes who you are entirely. So if you're not willing to make some major changes in your characters, and if you're planning to kill off a character "just because", you might want to reconsider. Often, killing a character (or characters) is taking the easy way out––instead of coming up with something more creative and/or realistic.
When my Writing teacher explained this point to us, he said "You should equate the decision to kill a character with the decision to kill a real person." It may sound intense (and yes, a bit exaggerated), but it's true. You have to be really REALLY sure that killing off that character is something you really must and really want to do. Think long and hard about it.
Hopefully these Ten Commandments illuminated something for you. As always, if there's any confusion ask away in the comments! :)