On Writing

It’s been a month since my first published novel became a reality. I would like to say that sales have been explosive, but I realize these things take time and much like planting a garden, slow beginnings are not indicative of future yield.

Over the last month I have had a launch party and several book signings. The response from those who have read it has been very positive, even from non-friends and family! One person even thought it would make a good movie and said she would suggest it to her son who is in the film industry. Not that I am getting my hopes up, but it’s nice to hear, and it’s the encouragement I need to jump into my next book, The Farmhouse.

In addition to the felicitations and affirmations, many have mentioned their own novel hiding in the depths of their soul. “I need to write it,” they say, only to follow-up with “When I have the time.” I can tell you that it took me five years to finish A Brush with Reality, and I hope to never take that long again! Stephen King in his book, On Writing instructs would-be writers to take no more than a single weekly day off while writing, lest the fires of creativity turn to icy lumps of charcoal. He is SO right! As such, I plan to take a different approach to writing my next book, and I thought I would share a bit of this with you.

First, King would tell you that plot has no place in his writing. Stories, he says, are made up of narration, description, and dialogue. He is a big believer in the What if starter.What if vampires invade a New England town (Salem’s Lot)? He then has well developed characters who play out the story. Another writer, James Scott Bell wrote a book called Plot & Structure. Bell suggests (at a minimum) to have an idea of the story. The basic arc, as it were. Perhaps King would agree. I am by no means worthy to contradict either of these writers, but I can say that one of my biggest roadblocks was in not knowing what happens next. I would be writing along and quite literally run out of words! For my next book, I plan to take a hybrid approach.

Before beginning, I plan to fully develop my characters (physically, socially, and psychologically); to know what they want, what do they need and how they will react in a given situation.

In addition, I plan to have a fair idea of the general scope. Not a detailed outline (although I am certain some writers choose this path), but enough that I can keep my eye on the ring (to reference another of my favorite authors), but still allow the characters to drive the story. I think I am in good company with this. As I understand it, JK Rowling spend five years developing her characters and their world before writing a single word of her Harry Potter books.

I hope that this approach will alleviate one of the biggest problems that I ran into: wandering. I wrote some great stuff, but in the end, it didn’t further the story. King says we must be willing to “kill our darlings.” I did; 75,000 of them. A third of my book. I’m happy with the results, and maybe there is a prequal in my rough drafts, but had I prepared better, perhaps they would have survived, or I would have saved myself the agony of the execution and the rewrite!

Another plus to plotting (or at least plotting lite, as it were) may be in preparing for the incidentals. There’s an old saying: if there’s a shotgun on the wall in act one, you had better use it by act three. Good advice that can help avoiding writing about things that are irrelevant. If you do not plan to use that darling shotgun, don’t put it on the wall. But also ensuring that you include details that are relevant. How did John know how to crack a safe? Why was Mary on the bridge at midnight when the body was thrown into the river?

The second change I plan to make is one I already mentioned. Time. With my quiver full, I plan to write like a fiend. I have experienced the joy of a story that writes itself, as well as the agony of trying to relight those cold embers.  I hope that my preparation will help me avoid the aforementioned roadblocks and keep the furnace of creativity burning white hot until the very end.

As for being successful. King says,

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

I think it is important for all of us writers to understand that the chances of hitting the literary ball out of the proverbial park on the first shot are extremely rare. Although I am a HUGE fan of JK Rowling and her Harry Potter series, it is important to note that that is one story. Seven books, but one story. Her other books have not been nearly as successful. As I mentioned, I am a huge fan, and I mean no disrespect. But I think as writers we need to see her stratospheric debut success (and that of a few others) as the exception, not the rule. Most writers write volumes before getting that big break. King, for example wrote short stories for years (all the while accumulating a nail-bending quantity of rejection letters) before Carrie came along. He kept writing and obviously got better. And maybe he revisited some of those first drafts and recrafted them. But that’s not all. He and the likes of Brown, Cussler, Grisham, and others wrote story after story, many becoming best sellers and movies with different characters and different plots. The point is, if you DO manage a Rowling-like success, good for you! But the odds are not in your (or my) favor. Don’t let that stop you. As for me, I plan to keep writing. My next book will be better than my last and the one after that better still.

And as for getting published, we live in a time where self-publishing is very different from what it was only a few years ago. Gone are the days of buying boxes of books and trying to peddle them to friends, family, and boutique bookstores. E-books and print on demand have changed everything. We no longer need to face those rejection letters.

If there is a story inside of you, write it.

Don’t wait. Pardon the cliché, but there really is no guarantee for tomorrow. So carpe diem!

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