Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What To Write About by Scott M. Baker

“Okay, I get it. If I write one page a day, in a year I’ll have a novel. My problem is I have no idea what to write about.”

You’re sitting on a mother lode of ideas. You just haven’t mined them yet.

A good story, no matter what the genre, is about conflict. It’s about developing your main character(s) so that the reader likes (and hopefully can relate) to them, and then placing obstacles in the way of them obtaining their goals. The story is not about the challenges. It’s about how the main character(s) confront these challenges by overcoming their weaknesses and expanding on their strengths. The story is not about the conclusion. It’s about the journey to that concluding page, and what the main character(s) learn about themselves on the way.

Think of how boring The Lord of the Rings would have been if Bilbo had decided to keep the ring for himself rather than give it to Frodo to return to Mount Doom. Or if Ralphie’s mother had acquiesced in the opening scene of A Christmas Story and agreed to buy him an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot air model range rifle. Or if Shelby from Steel Magnolias did not have a medical condition that endangered her life during pregnancy. Or if Harry and Sally had hit it off on their car ride from college and lived happily ever after.

Such stories come from within us. There’s no one reading this blog who hasn’t experienced some type of conflict, whether it’s as simple as a troubled romance, as life altering as death or illness or surviving combat, as traumatic as disloyalty or loss of honor, or as frustrating (or comical, depending on the situation) as a dysfunctional family. Tap into those emotions and build your story around them. Will it be painful or uncomfortable to bear your soul like this? More than likely. But if you can be honest to your emotions and successfully weave them into your novel, you’ll relate to your readers.

That’s what writing is all about.

So if I may use an old clich├ęd phrase, write what you know.

“Write what you know? You write about zombies and vampires. What do you know about them?”

Good question. I asked the same thing years ago of Brian Keene, author of The Rising, the novel that launched a new wave of zombie apocalypse stories. The Rising is about Jim Thurmond who lives on the West Coast. As civilization crashes around him, Jim gets a phone call from his young son on the East Coast asking his father to come rescue him; he sets out on foot across a zombie-infested country in a desperate journey to save his son. Prior to writing the novel, Brian had received a phone call from his ten-year-old son whom he had not seen since infancy and who wanted to meet. He made the trip, all the while wondering what their meeting would be like. Brian later wrote about that emotional turmoil in The Rising, and then added some zombies.

Brian’s advice helped me to find my focus for The Vampire Hunters. At its essence, the story is about the war on terror and how those fighting it deal with the reality that for every terrorist brought down, ten others take his place. My main characters embody the three primary outlooks of any long-term struggle: Drake Matthews, the gung-ho commander who’s in the fight for the long haul no matter how long it takes; Alison Monroe, who follows Drake willingly but who, at some point, wants to put down her weapons lead a normal life; and Jim DelMarco, the young kid drafted into the conflict who does not want to be there, but who fights anyway. The trilogy deals with how each of these characters handles the stresses of combat, and how their experiences prepare them for the final battle. And then I substituted vampires for terrorists.

So write what you know, but don’t be afraid to embellish a bit.

A final note: One thing that every publisher and agent has told me is not to write your own iteration of the latest blockbuster. The DaVinci Code and Twilight were overnight phenomenon because they were new and distinctly unique, which is why they sparked the public’s imagination. After each of these novels went to the best seller list, publishing houses and literary agencies were inundated with knock-offs, most of which were not very good, and many pushed the bounds of copyright infringement. Sure, some of them got published. But rarely did any of these enjoy the success of the original works. Your goal should not be to write the next Harry Potter. Your goal should be to write a novel so unique that five years from now other writers will want to imitate you.

NEXT BLOG: The Mechanics of Writing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How To Write Well by Scott M. Baker

“So all I have to do is write a page a day and in a year I’ll have a novel good enough to be published?”

Not necessarily. You’ll have a novel. Whether it’s good enough to be published is another matter.

Remember, writing is an art, much like figure skating, singing, acting, or painting. You have to practice at your craft to be become good at it.

I used to write espionage/techno thrillers. I don’t even admit to the first book because, in retrospect, it was crap. The second book was better, but still not quite publishable. By the third book I had found my style. It dealt with North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons and blackmailing four U.S. cities. I quickly picked up an agent who presented it to several publishers, all of whom liked the book. Unfortunately, this was right after 11 September, and the market for those books had dried up. So I switched genres.

So go out and write, and submit you work. Don’t get depressed if it gets rejected – that’s the nature of the game. And if an editor sends you feedback, consider yourself fortunate. Most publishers reject stories/manuscripts with a simple form letter. That an editor took the time to offer you feedback means he/she sees potential in you work.

The best way to hone your skills is to get readers who will provide critical feedback. Your mother and significant other do not count – chances are they’ll say it’s good, even if it isn’t. My suggestion is to find a good writer’s group with published authors or aspiring authors who are also interested in improving their craft. I’m a member of The Washington Fiction Writer’s League, and the feedback they provide on my stuff has proven invaluable to improving what I’ve published.

If you do go this route, remember two very important things.

First, find critique groups that will provide honest feedback. I’ve seen too many groups where the members will tear someone else’s work to shreds, but become indignant if you provide any critical feedback on their material. Avoid those groups like you would a horde of ravenous zombies. Those groups are filled with people who think ripping apart your work will somehow make them better writers. Trust me, it doesn’t work that way.

Second, and this is the hardest thing to do, is lock away your ego in a dark room during feedback sessions. As long as the feedback isn’t personal, listen to it and adopt it where appropriate. Every author is wedded to his/her work and hates to here that it is not quite as good as he/she thought it was. Get over yourself. I did.

No matter how well you write, there is always room for improvement. We all have our favorite writers who, over time, sacrificed quality for the sake of pumping out another book. There are several authors who I once loved but stopped buying their books because they started to disappoint me.

Your goal is not to write the best book ever written. Your goal is to write the best book that you possibly can. Every book or story has flaws. But if a reader can overlook the occasional grammatical error or plot flaw because the rest of the story is so entertaining it keeps them glued to the edge of their seat, then you’ve succeeded as a writer.

NEXT BLOG: What To Write About.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How To Write That First Novel by Scott M. Baker

To all the Permuted Press fans who have been following this blog, my apologies for the dearth of postings the past few weeks.  I'm sure I can speak for the others when I say July has been one hectic month.  For myself, I've spent the last two weekends in Boston and Florida, respectively, and have had no time to blog.  But I don't want to disappoint the readers, so I plan on re-posting over the next few weeks a series I had written earlier for my own blog on how to write your first novel.  And in the interim, if I come up with anything substantial (or witty) to say, I'll post that, too.  Enjoy.


NOTE: I’ve been fortunate over the past five years to be intimately involved with a writer’s group that has allowed me to become acquainted with numerous authors, publishers, screen writers, and literary agents. They have talked openly about the publishing industry in general and their specific genres, and have offered considerable advice. Over time, I’ve grown to realize how valuable that guidance was. So over the next few weeks, I hope to share some of that wisdom with you.]

“What do I have to do to be a writer?”

Write.

Believe it or not, it’s as simple as that. Writers write. It’s what we do. But you’d be surprised how many potential authors forget that.

I’ve met several potential authors who have bragged about all the work they’ve done on their project. One had a detailed outline of their proposed novel. Another had 3x5 cards filled with biographical notes for each character. A third had a notebook in which he kept hours worth of research. When I asked them how far they had gotten in their book, they admitted they had not written anything yet. These people completely miss the point. Research, plot, and character are necessary, but not anywhere near as important as actually writing the book.

So get out there and start writing.

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re a published author and have plenty of time to write. I don’t.”

No one has time to write. You have to make time.

The sad truth about publishing today is that, unless you are a well-established name like Stephen King, K.J. Rawlings, or Dan Brown, most writers maintain a day job (or have a very understanding significant other with a well-paying job and a lot of patience). I get up at 5:30 AM, rush around to feed the rabbits and get dressed, and am off to work by 7:30 AM. If I’m lucky, I get home around 4 PM. Then I have to feed, clean, and spend time with the rabbits; do chores and errands; and try to have some meager semblance of a social life. I’m lucky if I get five hours of sleep a night.

I fit writing into that hectic schedule because I love to write. I need to write. It’s my passion. To do that, though, I have to make sacrifices. When I’m in full-fledged writing mode, my Xbox sits idle and my stack of books to read grows taller and taller. And I don’t want to admit to the number of times I’ve spent several hours cranking out a chapter, only to be greeted afterwards by sets of mopey brown eyes and furry dejected faces giving me that why-didn’t-you-play-with-me look.

Anyone who truly and passionately wants to write can find time during the day to do so. Get up an hour early or stay up an hour late (as long as you devote that entire time solely to writing). If you commute by public transportation, use that time to write. Devote some of your “down time” to writing. Sure, you might have to forego watching American Idol or curtail your time surfing cute pet sights on the Internet, but are these really more important than getting your book written?

“Oh, come on. How much writing do you really expect me to get done in an hour a day?”

Let me put it this way. In that hour, anyone can write a single page. If you type in double space, the way manuscripts should be drafted, that’s approximately 300 words a day. If you do that every day for a year, when you’re done you will have 365 pages totaling over 100,000 words. That, my friends is a novel.

So what are you waiting for? Close down the Internet, call up your word processor, and start writing.

NEXT BLOG: How to write well.