Writer’s Workshop: Where to start

OK – so you want to write a fiction novel.

Well, there are plenty of blog sites and YouTube videos filled with tips about how to do it. Some even claim they know the ‘7 secrets to writing a bestseller’. Do you believe them? If so, I have a bridge to nowhere on eBay with a reserve price of $1 million (it’s a bargain at twice the price!) if you’d like to bid. 😊

Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there. I’m not going to add to the pile by trying to tell you how to write a novel. But I will describe the start of my journey and hopefully there’ll be something in there to help guide you along.

First – you do need to know something about writing. I have three books that are my go-to references for how to write:

  1. Everything I know about writing by John Marsden
  2. Steering the craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
  3. How not to write a novel by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman

I’m sure you can find other good ones. These books assume you know how to construct a sentence. They won’t teach you the rules of grammar. And this blog won’t do that either. This advice is for people who can already write, but want to turn that skill into a novel.

Second – and this is really important, you should list your objectives. That is, why do you want to write a novel? 

Here are mine, in order of importance.

  1. To develop an enjoyable, creative pastime that helps me [insert appropriate reasons here]: tune out, relax, challenge myself, manage my mental wellbeing, learn new skills etc. etc.
  2. Write something I can be proud of, given time, money and other life constraints.
  3. Write something that people I care about enjoy.
  4. Publish the highest quality book I can within the constraints listed above.
  5. Publish a book that others enjoy, including people I’ve never met.
  6. Have people actually pay to read the book.
  7. Sell enough books to cover the production costs.
  8. Sell enough books to make a profit.
  9. Sell enough books to make a living.

You’ll notice that all the objectives about selling books are at the bottom. If your primary objective is to write a bestseller, don’t waste any more of your time here. I can’t help you. Plenty of charlatans will happily take your cash in exchange for the ‘secrets’ on how to write a bestseller. But ask yourself, if they’re making so much money writing books, why do they need to charge you for advice on how to write books?

Bottom line – there are no secrets. Writing bestsellers takes a bit of skill and a lot of luck (and very good marketing).

If your primary objective is to write a good book, we should keep talking. If you list this as your main objective, then you don’t open yourself up to disappointment from things you mostly can’t control.

Make the quality of the story your goal. Write and publish the best damn book you can. If it sells, great. If it sells lots, even better. But be satisfied, first, with what you produced.

Third – you’ll need to have a story worth telling. If you’re not sure about your ideas for stories, run them past people whose opinion you value. Use the feedback to develop your ideas further until you’re happy. And keep bouncing ideas off others. Talk to anyone who’ll listen about your story, and ask for their opinion. If you publish, you’ll certainly find people quite willing to tell you the worth of your story (and the quality of your writing skill!), but then it’s too late to do much about it. (Although, with print-on-demand self-publishing and easy eBook conversion, replacing first editions with revised ones is fairly straightforward).

Fourth – research. No matter what you’re writing about, you’ll need to do some research. Even Fantasy writers like me need to research. The Relevation Trilogy draws on a range of influences and ideas, meaning I had to research things like:

  • Medieval history, armour, clothes, warfare, food etc.
  • Interpretations of the Book of Revelation during Reformation Europe
  • Ancient Germanic culture, names and language
  • Indigenous Australian culture and language
  • Roman culture and language
  • Mundane things like how far, on average, a horse can travel in a day, or how far a person can walk in a day
  • Geology, ecosystems, animal behaviour, moon phases etc.

The list goes on, but you get my point (hopefully). Luckily for us, the internet has a wealth of information (though watch out for the crap pile!). I also purchased a number of non-fiction books on relevant topics to use as reference.

Fifth – this is where things get tricky because people approach writing in different ways. Here’s what I did. For The Relevation Trilogy, I spent nearly 5 years writing detailed notes and ideas about character arcs and plot lines before beginning Chapter 1. This probably sounds ridiculous to you (and many others!), but you certainly want to spend some time (months maybe), nutting out where your story will head.

I know there are writers who will tell you to just start writing and see what happens. Maybe that’ll work for you. It doesn’t for me. I need to at least have the basic plot mapped out – and most importantly, I need to know how the story ends. I can’t embark on the journey unless I’m clear on the destination.

Having said that, I strongly encourage you not to plan every little thing in detail. Allow the opportunity for the characters to surprise you. Give the story room to let the characters take things in a direction you didn’t expect. It happens. Ask any writer. Characters can come alive, take the keyboard out of your hands, and go off and do something really stupid, fantastic, cruel, beautiful, evil, heroic. It’s THE best part of writing.  

OK, let’s summarise where we’re up to – learn something about writing using good quality reference material, write out your objectives, test story ideas on friends, research your topic, and take notes to develop the plot and characters.

I’ll end the blog here because now we’re up to the nitty gritty of writing and I’m not the best person to listen to on this (having published only 2 novels so far). Again, there’s plenty of resource material available on developing character arcs, fixing holes in plots, creating tension, moving the story along etc. etc. and one more for good measure, etc.

In the next Writer’s Workshop blog, I’ll cover issues such as dealing with feedback on drafts, editing, proof-reading and polishing to get your manuscript ready for publication.

In the November blog, we’ll visit the royal city of Sardis.  

Until then, keep reading, writing and trying to make the world a better place.


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