Fictional Advice For Fictional Authors


shutterstock_172002743Writing a novel or two (or ten) is on my bucket list. I’ve jotted down ideas, notes, scraps of dialog from a dozen different stories. But I have yet to actually write a book… even a bad one. This, despite the ubiquitous advice from published authors that writing anything every day is the biggest step. Do Ricochet comments count?

I have read books on the various processes of many authors, which is a bit like asking people in every state in the USA for directions to Oklahoma City. Strangely, they disagree. Still, I appreciate the suggestions.

So what are your suggestions? Ricochet has more authors than Obama’s autobiography. What are some habits or surprises that worked for you?

Most importantly, how did you get started? Did you begin with an outline or a scene? Did you know your main characters from the start? Are those characters people you know, tweaked ever so cruelly? How detailed was your plot in the beginning?

Any kind of advice is welcome, from anybody. Poetry and short stories are fair game, though I am most eager for book tips. All genres: I have an odd assortment of ideas to start from, including a werewolf philosophical thriller and a stupidly fun satire of video games.

Alas! Alack! A lot!

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  1. MJBubba Member

    I heard a segment on NPR where some guy had asked a bunch of authors, artists, and assorted creative types what sort of routines, rituals, or habits helped them be productive.   He said that the one thing that seemed to come up a lot was to go for walks, and to take paper and pen to scribble notes to yourself.

    (I can’t vouch for that, but I do enjoy my walks, though my own walks are seldom solitary.)

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  2. Ricochet Member

    Here are a couple of books by K. M. Weiland.  She goes on a bit about her own works (which sound dreadful), but I am having great results with her guidance.  There is great value in here, even if you have to weed a bit for it.

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  3. user_280840 Inactive

    No, Ricochet comments don’t count. If you want to actually do this, then its one hour every day. That’s writing. Not research. No surfing. One hour every day. It requires substantial discipline.

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  4. user_1938 Inactive

    You know, Bubba, I started a song while walking a neighbor’s dog just a week or two ago. So maybe there’s something to that.

    Any routine that occupies motor functions while providing stimuli to explore can get the creative juices flowing. Unfortunately, for myself, that free flow comes to an abrupt halt the moment I notice another human being nearby.

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  5. Ben Inactive

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  6. Muleskinner Member

    Preston Brooks’ post earlier today “The Two Christophers” had me thinking about Walker Percy. I’m sure he wrote about writing and how to do it somewhere, but I remembered this explanation and warning.

    It has been observed that artists live longer and drink less than writers. Perhaps they are rescued from the ghostliness of self by the things and the doing of their art. The painter and the sculptor are the Catholics of art, the writer is the Protestant. The former have the sacramentals, the concrete intermediaries between themselves and creation—the paint, the brushes, the fruit, the bowl, the table, the model, the mountain, the handling and muscling of clay. The writer is the Protestant. He works alone in a room as bare as a Quaker meeting house with nothing between him and his art but a Scripto pencil, like God’s finger touching Adam. It is harder on the nerves…

    [H]is work, if he is any good, comes from listening to his right brain, locus of the unconscious knowledge of the fit and form of things. So, unlike the artist who can fool and cajole his right brain and get it going by messing in paints and clay and stone, the natural playground of the dreaming child self, there sits the poor writer, rigid as a stick, pencil poised, with no choice but to wait in fear and trembling until the spark jumps the commissure. Hence the notorious penchant for superstition and small obsessive and compulsive acts such as lining up paper exactly foursquare with desk. Then, failing in these frantic invocations and after the right brain falls as silent as the sphinx—what else can it do?—nothing remains, if the right won’t talk, but to assault the left with alcohol…

    Lost in the Cosmos p. 147-8.

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  7. Pencilvania Inactive

    Aaron, do you read James Lileks’ blog ‘The Bleat’, on his site?  He writes it Monday to Friday, and it’s really entertaining, plus he sometimes writes about his process of writing, very interesting to see how the wheels work. He writes about a lot of other things too, but whenever he’s editing one of his novels he’ll write about it. I think the blog is his discipline, like Fred says above.

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  8. user_86050 Inactive

    Writing isn’t my particular weakness. I write a lot.

    Selling what I write … That’s a different challenge. I get bollixed up from the start. I need a good editor and a good agent.

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  9. Knotwise the Poet Member
    Knotwise the Poet

    Fred Cole:No, Ricochet comments don’t count.If you want to actually do this, then its one hour every day.That’s writing.Not research.No surfing.One hour every day.It requires substantial discipline.

    Aaron Miller, I’m in a similar boat to yours.  Have wanted to be a novelist for years, have lots of ideas, have started different projects, have tried Nanowrimo, but…still no novel.

    I too have looked at lots of different authors’ writing advice, but I fear that really it all comes down to what Fred says here: you either dedicate the time (daily) to write, and then WRITE, or you don’t.  If you (and I) can’t accomplish that, nothing else will really matter.

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  10. Arahant Member

    Decide what you are going to write and what your process will be, and then write. If you’re writing a mystery, you obviously have to map out the plot twists first. If you are writing a family saga, maybe you want to create your characters first. How you approach it depends on what you are writing.

    A second suggestion I have is not to start by writing a novel. Despite appearances, I have never managed it. I write books of related short stories. Why? Because a novel is a huge project involving large levels of complexity. By weaving together short stories and the lives of many characters, I created some things that look a lot like novels.

    The best piece of advice I was ever given was, you have to finish writing a book, any one of your books that you have been writing. JUST FINISH ONE. I have some actively in process now and others semi-abandoned awaiting my renewed attention. I also have some whose time passed before I could finish them. One was a book of the near future that dealt with politics of that time…ten years ago.

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  11. Arahant Member

    Another bit of advice, in fiction, the characters are real. Do not expect that they will do what you want them to do. I write science fiction. One of my characters decided to go back in time by 138 years. This has delayed my third volume in my Hidden Angels Series considerably. Did I tell her she could do that? I did not, but she went and did it anyway.

    You will get to know your characters as you write more about them, and then what they would do in a situation will start to come to you, even if it violates some of your plans for the novel or story. Usually, when this happens, just let it flow. You can probably adjust the plot later. Most authors do. Also, be willing to cut out a character if they don’t really fit.

    Follow the flow. Your subconscious usually knows more than you do. You will learn things from what you write if you let it flow rather than forcing it.

    Pay attention to your dreams. I have incorporated more than one dream into my writing.

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  12. Arahant Member

    Aaron Miller: Most importantly, how did you get started?

    As a writer or with a given book? Each book is different. Usually some sort of idea pops up. “What would happen if a super-powered mutant appeared in British North America long enough before the Revolution to have descendents who would speed the outcome?” “What would happen if someone developed space travel and we could put colonies on other planets? Would there be transportation laws as with crowded Eighteenth Century Britain?”

    Did you begin with an outline or a scene?

    I usually have at least a vague outline in mind. That does not mean it will be followed when the book is written. For what became my first two volumes in the Hidden Angels Series, I started with a general idea and ideas for about four chapters: Fallen Angel (1700), Catch the Lightning (1764), Preparation (1767), and First Action (1775). The first of these chapters is in the first volume. The rest in the second. Then I came up with a character-generating method. Since the stories were based on the characters and their super-powers, the stories would depend on the randomly-generated factors of the characters.

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  13. Ricochet Member

    Fred et al are correct of course, but the problem many face is not the dedication to sit down and write.  It’s years (decades) of frustration at sitting down and writing crap that goes nowhere and just convinces you that you’re no good at this — despite knowing that you *should* be great at it, based on a few shorts and some dimly-remembered rockstar receptions from creative writing classes long ago.

    Weiland’s guidance is hitting a really good spot for me, about outlining (don’t look like that, it’s not what you think) and structure.

    While there is truth in the WRITE OR DIE family of guidance, I don’t find it helpful.  I do write when it’s going somewhere, and when it’s going nowhere, the best I can crank out is half a scene. Sheer determination produces burnout, not books.  You need a plan, and Weiland’s books are a great way to develop one.

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  14. Arahant Member

    There are also external factors that may intrude as you write your book, especially if it takes you a few years. My first title was Hidden Heroes. I intended to have one volume covering from 1700 to 2000 or whatever year I started writing it. Then a TV network came out with a show about mutants with supernatural powers and called it Heroes.

    Well, from the beginning I had figured that with the classical educations that people had in the Eighteenth Century, it was likely that superheroes would take names based on Greek gods and heroes. So, with Olympian noms de guerre, I changed the title to Rise Olympus! And then some other writer published a book that got some serious traction that was about some kid named Percy Jackson.

    I did a most thorough search and found a way to change the title of the books and the series once more. I had generated some characters who would take over Cuba. The mother in the family refers to her children as “Angels.” And so the current titles. That decision was preceded by one heck of a lot of title searches, by the way.

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  15. Arahant Member

    Ball Diamond Ball: You need a plan, and Weiland’s books are a great way to develop one.

    I am not familiar with Weiland, but agree that one needs a plan.

    I mentioned that in my sci-fi series, instead of having everything mapped out, I let it grow organically through generating the characters. Basically, it is a family saga, but not all of the family members appear or are important. The only ones with the super-powers are those whose parents are both descended from the progenitor. I have generated thousands of descendents of the progenitor. Often some aspect of a character will spur an idea for a story arc for the character. Following this method, this plan, I have generated thousands of pages of stories. I have published about six hundred pages worth thus far.

    Most of the novels I had ideas for either had the idea expire because I did not write fast enough, or the ideas are incorporated into the future of my science fiction series. But that doesn’t mean there was not a plan, just that I did not have time enough to write them working eighty hour weeks as a consultant.

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  16. Arahant Member

    Most of my other books have been non-fiction and are major tomes of research. The two on poetry I have sort of published here and here. Neither is finished. Some others I am shopping around to have published by an old-line publisher who deals in business books.

    But each of these books had a plan behind them. They also had discrete chunks that I could work on while not knowing everything about the books in their final form. There is something called the Plan Do Study Act Cycle. First make a plan. Second, start executing a portion of the plan. Third, step back and evaluate if the plan is working. Fourth, act on what you have learned to make the plan better. Then start implementing the revised plan, etc. When I started my book of tips for writing better poetry, I did not know that it would have seventeen sections. I started gathering tips and writing them up. I took those hundred pages or so, and used them as a basis to interview other poets and lyricists. Then I started sorting. As I sorted, the groupings became obvious,

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  17. Arahant Member

    Also have a goal. The goal for both of my books on how to write better poetry was to publish a book of poems that would be bought. How does one get people to buy poetry of a living poet? By wedging them into books about writing poetry as examples.

    Yes, I am truly that evil.

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  18. EJHill Podcaster

    Everybody, I think, has one good story in them. The trick is making it two or more.

    Margaret Mitchell, at age 36, produced a tome that still sells in hardcover and paperback some 75 years later. But right up until her death 13 years later she never produced another work.

    There’s dozens and dozens of one-hit song writers. And even Orson Welles peaked at 26 with Citizen Kane.

    The crime would not be found in the subsequent failures, but how awful it would be if they didn’t produce that one perfect piece that made them famous.

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  19. Arahant Member

    Another note on characters living their own lives. I also have a mystery in process where the hero gets killed in the middle.

    Aaron, you asked about whether characters were people the writer knows, perhaps thinly veiled. Not always. Depends on the writer. But the antagonist or villain often is for me. I had this one guy I reported to who was an Indian. One of his favorite phrases was, “I have had enough and more of…” The mob boss in my mystery uses that phrase frequently and is named “Doll” Macchani. Strangely enough, there is an Indian dish called dal makani. Hmmmn, I wonder how that happened.

    The easiest way to create realistic characters is to base them on real people or combinations of real people. Real people have flaws and interests and strengths and things that bore them. They have moods that can shift. They have mental illnesses or bouts of depression. They might have drinking problems or other addictions. It is easier to keep your characters real and consistent if they are clear in your mind, if they are living for you. Basing them on people you know helps you do that.

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  20. Arahant Member

    If any of you have any other specific questions, I’ll answer them as best I can. My knowledge is a little higher than my obvious output.

    I hope some of our other writers will also show up. This could be a great thread.

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  21. Arahant Member

    Another resource that is out there is Ben Bova’s The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells. As with my tips on poetry, most of his tips are generic writing tips. Only a few are only applicable to science fiction.

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  22. Arahant Member

    One more tip on characters: the antagonist should think he is the protagonist. Black and white characters might be alright for Saturday morning westerns, but for the characters to seem real, they will not be perfectly evil unless they only exist as a paranoid delusion like Doctor James Moriarty.

    Look at the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke is a little too goody-goody. I’d rather root for Vader. Luckily, there is also another character who is a bit more real, one who shoots first (no matter how later redacted). Han Solo is the guy than most men want to be.

    Better storytelling has two gray characters at cross-purposes. It’s not that the other guy is really bad, he just has his own agenda and the protagonist is in the way of that.

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  23. user_549556 Inactive

    I’m right there with you Aaron. I “finished” writing a book last year and I’ve been editing it ever since. The [expletive] first draft was no problem. I mainly wrote it in my head while commuting 45 minutes to work and then typed up the scenes I’d created when I got the chance. That first draft was awful. The marginally better first edit was a little better, and I’m finally satisfied with chapters 1-3 after completely rewriting the prologue…twice.

    Someone once explained writing as akin to a plane taking flight. There is a lot of fueling up, flight planning, checklists, taxiing, take-off and climbing until you can reach that cruising altitude where the real writing takes place. Once you get there, the words flow easily, but getting to that cruising altitude is the hard part.

    One book I found encouraging was Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. Perhaps having someone to keep you accountable to get it going would help. I know a certain friend of mine will always ask me how the book is coming. Fortunately we only get together a couple of times a year so I get to slack off way too long. I’ll pray for you my brother.

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  24. Ricochet Member

    Arahant: One more tip on characters: the antagonist should think he is the protagonist.

    This is awesome.  Weiland says that the antagonist and the protagonist should be as similar as you can credibly pull off, which has been helpful in shaping my BG (bad guy).  This tip of yours is also going to help.  I have everything for the bad guy except a bad guy.  I know where he works, what he does, how the hero beats him, etc…  But more on that later.

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  25. Arahant Member

    Vince Guerra: I “finished” writing a book last year and I’ve been editing it ever since.

    And here is another phase. Edit, edit, and re-edit until you’re sick of it. Then edit it one more time.

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  26. Arahant Member

    One more thing I have been known to do to get a better understanding of my characters: cast their horoscopes. Not just their sun sign, but the whole thing. Astrology in depth has sun signs, but also moon signs, ascendents, positions of the houses, positions of planets within the houses. How these aspects interact creates tensions and dynamics in the personality. This is a way to get all of the contrasts that make up a human being. A Pisces sun? Wishy-washy and quiet. But, a Sagittarius moon and a Leo ascendent? So, despite the water sun, he’s a double-fire sign with both emotional response and outward presentation. He’ll be a larger-than-life seeming character who will stand out in a crowd, but who would be happier with a good book. An unlikely contrast? Perhaps. But that’s how people can be.

    Likewise, one can use Chinese astrology. There are versions that get down to the hours of the day, so can provide as much of a mishmash of characteristics to seem real.

    Another thought is to study mental variations. Perhaps you want to study someone with Asperger’s and create a character based on that.

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  27. Ricochet Member

    Meh.  So far I have a protagonist and antagonist with the same fatal flaw. One wields it like a weapon, while for the other it’s a weakness.  But he’s learning.

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  28. user_280840 Inactive

    Look, if you want to do this for real, I’ll tell you exactly what to do.

    Take all those ideas, and scraps, and sit down and write an outline.  It doesn’t need to be elaborate.  Act 1, Scene 1, Tuesday, the Redwood Diner

    Outline your whole story.  Work out the idea.  Work out all the beats of the story.  Write it all in an outline.

    Then sit down and write the story.  It’ll be easier because you have the outline.  It sounds easy.  It is not.  It requires enormous time and discipline and commitment.

    The most important absolute key to do this (and everything else in life) is attitude.  You need to choose to do this.  It requires a deliberate choice on your part and a commitment to do it.

    The other thing you must, must, MUST do is shut off that voice in your head that tells you what you’re writing is absolute [crap].  Its difficult, but you must tell that voice to shut up.  Frankly, it’s not your place to make that determination.  It doesn’t matter if you think its crap.  It doesn’t matter if its all been done before.  It matters if the person buying it likes it.  Period.  Don’t self censor.  Don’t self edit.  Let a professional editor do that.  You’re not a professional editor.  You’re the writer, so do the writing.  All writing is rewriting and you can fix any problems later.

    The third thing you must do is write.  Write every day.  Thinking about it does not count as writing.  Making notes isn’t writing.  Research isn’t writing.  Only writing counts as writing.

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  29. Ricochet Member

    Well said, Fred.

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  30. user_280840 Inactive

    As far as characters and plot, go read up
    On Aristotelian structure. As soon as
    You understand it, you’ll see
    It everywhere. It’s pretty universal. So take your ideas and work them into an Aristotelian structure for that outline.

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