Writing Advice

While I am certainly no Steven King, Asimov, or Hemingway by any stretch, people will occasionally ask me for writing advice and about my process for writing “Tesla Prime and the Regulus Event”.  I usually type out my writing experiences and customize it based on their specific questions but frequently it came back to the same message which I will try to capture here.  But first, this advice assumes that you want to get published and sell books.  If you are just writing for fun then ignore everything I am about to say and go write!

Start what you want to finish and finish what you started

They say that the biggest obstacle to getting a book published is not finishing the book.  This sounds obvious but its true.   You need start down this road with the determination to reach the end, whatever it takes.  Many people do that but things get them sidetracked; the plot doesn’t work, the characters are unrelatable, the story is way too long, the author loses interest.  Some of these suggestions below will help with these issues. But the first part is setting time aside to write.  We all have demands on our time, job(s), husbands/wives or boyfriends/girlfriends, kids.  Those of course should be your priority.  But ask yourself, how much extra time you spend watching T.V. or playing video games or just hanging out.  You need to set aside some time (and it’s there) for writing.  It’s the only way this process is going to work.  For me, I usually write between 9PM and 12.  Kids are asleep, house is quiet and I listen to music, drink some wine and get into the zone.  Also Sundays, when the kids are with their mom, work well as writing days.  Also, I will occasionally use a vacation day and take the full day to write.  Bottom line is you need to write if you are going to write.

Your Concept

Before you start writing though,  you need to pick an idea or a concept that you really love.  If you don’t absolutely love your idea/story, then think about new ideas until you find YOUR story, one that really resonates with you, something you care about.  For me, I wrote out a list of more than 20
story ideas until I settled on one that I really felt strongly about.  This is important because if you don’t love your premise, you won’t be passionate about it and you are more likely to abandon it when things get rough (and they will).  For me, that premise was “what would happen if astronauts returned from a mission and the Earth had vanished”.  You need to think of your story in those terms, a key concept or selling point that you can pitch to someone that will grab their attention.  If it takes three or more sentences to explain your concept, you are going to have problems selling it.  Consider focusing your story on the most exciting element of your conflict.  Boil down your concept to one or two sentences.  If you are having trouble with this step, there are plenty of inspirational ideas in the news.  For me, I read a story about scuba divers that surfaced after a dive and their boat was gone.  I thought, “How horrifying that must have been!”

Characters

Second, once you have your idea, focus on your characters.  REALLY get to know them.  Create a spreadsheet with all their info, age, height, weight, eye/hair color, etc.  Then get to the stuff that really matters, where did they grow up, what is their aversion to risk, fears, pet peeves, political/religious leanings, motivations.  How do they perceive laws and authority?  What gets them excited?  What do they do for a living?  What would they love to be doing instead?  How do they talk?  Slang,  formal?  How serious are they?  Playful?  Guarded?  Affectionate?  Anger?  Are they emotionally damaged?  What traumas/tragedies have they endured in their lifetime?   How do they react under stress?  Do they interrupt people?  You REALLY need to understand your characters as people and you should be able to describe them to someone as though they are a real person.  This will pay off big time down the road.  Also, give them real and relatable flaws.  This will endear your reader to them especially if the reader shares those flaws, like insecurity, emotionally damaged, nervous, abused or neglected as a child.  Do research.  Talk to people.  If you personally have some of these flaws, use them in your characters.  You better than anyone already know how they will react.

The bottom line is you want the reader to connect with one or more characters in your story.  This will pull them in when you turn up the tension.  If your characters fall flat, the reader won’t care no matter how much tension you throw at them.  You do this by making the characters interesting, endearing, relatable, and multi-faceted which comes through in their actions, interactions, and dialogue.

Structuring your story 

Third, write down the basic plot outline of your story, beginning, middle, and end.  In one to two sentences, what happens in each of say 30 chapters.  For example, story opens with the crew having difficulties contacting Earth.  Crew investigates, tensions are high some start to blame Daxman.  Crew finds the moon in orbit around Saturn.  Daxman finds a message left behind by Kyle chronicling the Regulus Event and his final moments.  Crew heads to the Ring to investigate.  Etc.

Know what you are aiming at before you start!  Don’t just venture out into your world without a map.  This outline will keep you on track.  Also do research and find out how many words is typical for your genre.  For science fiction, I read this was 80k-100k.  So this works out to about 3000 words per chapter.  Chapters can vary in length but this will at least point you in the right direction.  These are your milestones for knowing how your story is progressing and if your word count is too high or too low.  Are you at the midway point of the story by word 20k?  Have you written 10k words per chapter?  This outline will change of course but the basic framework, the skeleton of your story, will be there to help guide you.

The Opening

I can’t stress enough just how important beginning of your story is.  People have different patience levels.  A majority of readers will give you a 10 page opportunity to pull them in, some even less.  Chapter 1 should open with a conflict, problem, or mystery.  This is your hook and you have 10 pages to deliver.  DO NOT open your story with everything okay and people are just going about their business talking to each other with some back story about what has happened in the past that might or might not become relevant later.  I know this is important to you as the writer but the reader doesn’t care.

One creative writing teacher I had in college used to say “Start your story with someone standing in the middle of the freeway.”   Good advice.  People like conflict, mystery, and tension.   The reader will continue reading your book to see how or if those problems are resolved and by whom.  And then as you write, more advice from same prof. “In your story, throw everything at your characters including the kitchen sink.  Create impossible situations for your characters and have them rise to the occasion and work it out.”

Dialogue

While you write, ask your characters what they would do or say.  If you know your characters, they will tell you.  This is how you know if your characters are developed enough.  If they aren’t talking to you, you don’t know them well enough.  After you’ve written a conversation between one or more people (Yes, one.  people can talk to themselves) read it OUTLOUD.  Listen to how it sounds and ask yourself, is this how people really talk?  Is this how my character really talks?  Ask them.  Note, you should also listen to conversations sometime paying particular attention to the slang and length of statements.

People generally speak with an informal tone and with short punchy sentences.  “It’s raining.  Where you going?” –  “To the store, why?” –  “Just…” –  “What is it?” –  “Just, be careful, okay?” – “I will, silly.  Don’t worry.”

Keep long winded monologues to a minimum.

Editing

Now here is a key thing that I only realized after stumbling for several months.  Allow yourself to suck!  It’s okay.  No one is watching you.  DO NOT edit as you write.  Editing stifles the creative process.  Just go with it.  Get in the zone and don’t look back.  When you reach a nice breaking point, THEN you can go back and edit (or not).  Editing should come at the end.

Okay, that about sums up my writing advice.  Oh, one last thing.  Writing (should be) an emotional process.  We write to move people either to fear, joy, or even tears.  You can’t be afraid to tap into your deeper emotions.  To be a good writer, you have to.  As Ernest Hemingway once said “Writing is easy.  You just sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  Truer words were never spoken.

Hopefully some of these suggestions will help you get started in the write direction (pun intended).

Best of luck to you!

-Douglas

Author of “Tesla Prime and the Regulus Event”

One Response to “Writing Advice”

  1. Allen Watson June 27, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

    Great advice! Thanks for posting!

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