Author Scott M. Baker continues his series on writing...
I have a story idea in mind and am psyched to begin writing. What’s the best way to get started? Should I outline the plot first, or just jump in and write?
There’s no right or wrong method to plot out your novel. The mechanics of writing is one of personal choice, so go with whatever method works best for you. For example, Jeffery Deaver creates meticulous outlines for his novels, detailing each scene and key segments of dialogue on sheets of paper and sticky notes that fill the walls of his study. He admits that it takes him months to come up with such a detailed framework. However, when he sits down to actually write the novel, since most of the work is already completed, it doesn’t take him long to finish the manuscript.
I prefer a less structured method. When plotting out my novel, I keep a stack of lined 3x5 cards handy and write down scenes as I think of them, including anything that I want to put into the scene such as descriptions, plot points, or snippets of dialogue. Before writing, I arrange the cards in the order I want the book to flow. This allows me to outline the major themes in the plot while allowing enough flexibility that I can add or re-order scenes easily.
These represent the two extremes of organization, and most of you will use a method of plot outlining that falls somewhere in between. What is important is, no matter which method you use, be sure you have a firm grasp of the opening, the conflict, and the resolution of your story before you begin writing your story. You can always change those elements later. But if you don’t have a basic idea where your story starts and ends, no amount of outlining will turn it into a viable manuscript. Trust me on this one. I have several short stories taking up space on my hard drive because I wrote them based on a single scene, but have yet to find an effective way to finish them.
Thanks. This has been a big help. While you’re here, can you give me any tips on writing?
Yes, I can. But this is not the blog series for that. There are thousands of books out there dedicated to instructing someone on how to write a book. They cover all the aspects of the craft – plot, setting, character development, voice, etc. There are even books that tell you how to write in specific genres. Feel free to use them if you want. No one has ever become a bad writer by reading these works.
In my opinion, however, the best way for someone to become a good writer is by reading numerous books to see how other authors write. When I say read a lot, I mean it. Go through at least one book a week. Start with the classics. We’re still reading Twain, Hemingway, Austen, and the like not just because our English professors are sadists, but because those authors knew how to write compelling stories that have stood the test of time (except for Great Expectations, but don’t get me started on that one). Then read a wide variety of books and authors in your genre as well as those outside of it.
And don’t forget to read trashy books, whether they’re pulp novels meant solely to entertain and entice, or novels that are just horribly written. Figure out what those authors did to make their work so laughable or painful to read, and learn from their mistakes. Remember, it takes a long time and many published works to build up a fan base, but only one poorly-written story or novel to turn off readers forever.
While I won’t offer writing tips in this blog series, I do want to point out that there are certain aspects of the craft you need to pay close attention to if you ever hope to get out of the slush pile and get published. These points have been reiterated to me time and again by publishers and literary agents, all of whom said that when they see these mistakes in query submissions, they immediately take the work out of contention.
The first is grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Over time you’ll find your own style and voice. If you don’t have the basics down, you’ll find it that much more difficult to break away from the thousands of other authors bombarding publishers and agents with their manuscripts. Make sure you proof read your final work carefully. You may have written the next bestseller, but if your sample chapters are full of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and incorrect punctuation, good luck getting a publisher or agent to read beyond the first few pages. Even if they see the potential in your book, they’ll view you as sloppy and will think carefully before taking you on. If it comes down between you and an author whose writing is solid, who do you think will get the contract?
Realistic dialogue is also very important, so of course it’s one of the hardest parts to get right. If you write dialogue so that it’s grammatically correct, it will sound stilted and will turn off the reader. If you write it to sound like every day conversations, you run the risk of making your characters sound like idiots. I trained myself to write decent dialogue by listening to others talk. This has the added benefit of letting people think you’re the silent, mysterious type (or they’ll just think you’re an introvert, which most writers are).
Finally, make sure you maintain the continuity of your story and characters. If your main character’s name is Ken Smith, always refer to him as either Ken or Smith throughout the story, and do not interchange the names. Keep your secondary characters straight as well; if you call someone Bob when he first appears in chapter three, make sure you don’t call him Bill when he reappears in chapter ten. If you describe your main character as being bald in chapter one, don’t have him run his fingers through his hair in chapter five. If your character is a devout Mormon, don’t show him/her drinking a cup of coffee without explaining why. If your story is set in Victorian-era New York, don’t have electric street lamps lining the streets. These are the minutiae that are easy to overlook. When publishers or agents catch them, they immediately get the impression that you’re sloppy (see above). If your readers catch them, you lose them quickly. I have had several authors who write historical dramas tell me that the worst criticism they receive from readers is when they get some fact wrong.
So consider yourself forewarned. Now get out there and start writing. Your public is waiting.