Do you have an amazing story inside you clamoring to get out, but you don’t know where to begin? Are you tired of merely talking about your dream, and want to make it happen? Or perhaps you’ve already begun writing your book and realize that someplace down the road, you’ve completely lost your way. If so, this blog is for you, a “do-what-I-say-and-not-what-I-did” guide to great storytelling from one aspiring author to another.
If you’ve already read last month's Geek Girl introductory post—“Do Your Homework, Honey!”—then you are ready to advance to my no-nonsense list of Do's & Don’ts, gleaned from painful but invaluable experience.
Keep in mind that the DO's represent what I did right, the DON’Ts what I didn’t do but bloody well should have.
Laugh and learn, my pretties...
1. DO allow plenty of time to develop your story before you write a single word.
Begin with a seed of an idea, and water it with plenty of contemplation. While eating, walking, showering, and even sleeping, your premise will begin to bud and grow. Stories need time to germinate, plots to thicken, and characters to deepen, and the process cannot be rushed or forced. Skipping over this developmental phase is probably the worst mistake you can make. Forget what your parents and teachers told you about daydreaming. It’s good—when done with intention. Allow yourself to simply research, take notes, and brainstorm for now. Let the story grow naturally. Your readers will thank you.
2. DON’T make your premise so complex, it cannot be summarized in one paragraph or sentence.
There is a distinct difference between a premise and a plot. The premise is the basic story concept, whereas the plot is the whole story from cover to cover. Multilayered plots with plenty of twists, turns, and character development are a good thing; complicated premises are not. A literary agent or publisher wants to know, if necessary, that they can market your book on one clear, compelling sentence alone. Don’t give them any reason to turn you down. Save the complexity for the book itself.
3. DO find your unique voice.
Voice in fiction is the illusive quality that makes one author’s writing sound different from anyone else. Yes, you should regularly read other authors, but don’t copy them, even the best sellers. After all, why would you? You are special. Show the reader YOU—how you think, talk, what you value, your humor, your heart. For example, if a librarian were to read aloud a page from The Lord of the Rings, the audience would never confuse that passage with The Narnia Chronicles. Although Tolkien and Lewis were BFFs, they maintained their own unique voice and vision. So should you. If you want to be memorable, be an original.
4. DON’T begin writing without identifying your story’s genre and target audience.
Pinning down the type of story you’re writing (mystery, romance, fantasy, literary, etc.) will make your life easier when it comes time to market your finished manuscript to agents and publishers. Word count, target audience, and even writing style are determined partly by genre. For example, while most publishers would find a 125,000-word manuscript acceptable for an epic fantasy, they would likely consider it too long for a young adult romance. As for your target audience, remember that age, gender, personality, career choices, and even positive and negative childhood experiences influence a potential reader’s attitude toward your story and life in general. Your ninety-year-old next-door neighbor and nine-year-old niece may both be clamoring to read your finished story, but the general public might not be. The tighter your chosen demographic, the tighter your premise.
5. DO spend more time developing the characters than the story itself.
Devising a gripping multilayered plot, only to force a few hastily-created, stereotypical characters into that premise is a surefire way to frustrate your audience or lose them altogether. Even the best plot-driven stories have unforgettable characters. Readers don’t fall in love with story lines; they fall for the characters that are so real they leap off the page. No one cares about your gang of diabolical genius trolls teaming up with Oxford University zombie professors to conquer jolly ole’ England for the Romulans…unless those are some mighty captivating trolls, zombies, and Romulans.
6. DO take the time to put together a detailed file of character and background information.
Compose detailed character descriptions and genealogies, back story summaries, and a scene list by chapter, and refer to them periodically. You will be so glad you did. It’s like owning a personalized encyclopedia to your story.
7. DON’T fall into common novice writer traps.
For example, don't start your first chapter with a dream (it’s misleading), flashback, or information dump, and don’t drown your readers with a flood of excessive description, narrative, dialogue tags, or back story. Granted, the 21st-century reader still appreciates beautifully-crafted prose, but wordy sentences packed with adjectives and adverbs? Not so much. If in doubt, read your chapters out loud. There’s no quicker way to determine what to keep or cut, then hearing your superfluous scenes or awkward dialogue ringing painfully in the air. Trust me; I’ve done it. (groans)
8. DO remember that this Geeky Girl’s Guide for Novice Novelists is merely that—a guide.
Even after you begin to master the rules of story structure, your story will remain precisely that—your story. You know it better than anyone. It should never feel formulaic. Not all novels, for example, fit neatly into a three-act structure or introduce all main characters within the opening chapters. Mine doesn’t. But don’t get me wrong. My novel fell into focus once I learned and implemented the rules of story structure. Bear in mind, however, these principles are meant to be a writer’s best friend, not a burdensome enemy bent on stifling your creativity. They are simply guidelines gleaned from the generations of fine authors who have come before us. Let’s do them proud, writing with both proficiency and delicious freedom.
Now I’d like to hear from YOU:
For those of you who have already started writing your novel, did you commit any of my don'ts? Does this article pin down where your story may have gone wrong, so that you can fix it? Aspiring novelists, how may I encourage you as we attempt to make our dream come true? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.