So you have an idea, but how do you present it so it reads as wonderful as it sounds in your head? It takes planning and plotting to get to that first draft.
Right now, let's forget about the editors and publishers and think about the most important thing--the story. You need a story in order to get published, no so?
Let's get started.
Plotting is a tool all authors use, but all use it in very different ways. Plotting, in this context, means planning the pieces of your story and how they all fit together. There are authors who approach a novel as one would an essay or some sort of technical drawing. They work out the plot, develop their characters, and even write a synopsis or outline before they sit down to write their first word. On the other extreme (I fall under this category) are authors who start with just the theme/idea and develop their plots and characters as the story goes along. This second method works well for me, since, in my opinion, I get to know my characters more as I spend time with them.
Either way, there has to be a beginning, a middle and an end, whether you're writing a short story or a novel.
Let’s start with the Beginning. What do you want to write about? Why does that story need to be told? What makes you the best person to tell that story? The first question, to me, is the most important, since the second two will manifest themselves in the story, based on the author's personal experiences and motivation.
When I set out to write my first novel, Forest Girl (FG), my basic idea was to do an arranged marriage story. The common plot in most Ghanaian stories/movies/plays is of a young girl forced into marriage to a much older man for the financial benefits it would bring her family. Usually the girl would have a love interest—a young man her age who has little or no money to his name. It means that usually, the girl is against the marriage while the rich man calls the shots and the poor boy ends up a casualty of love. Most of these stories advocate love marriages while depicting the evils of arranged marriages.
I asked myself, what if the girl was all for the marriage and the man wasn’t? How do you force a man into an arranged marriage in a culture where the man has a say and the woman doesn’t? That was the seed that grew to become FG.
Once you've decided what you want to write about, how do you start the story? Now more than ever, it has become important to hook the reader as early as your first line, since the industry has become very competitive, and potential readers have a vast number of alternatives for entertainment.
Think of a story that starts with: Jesus was not born on Christmas day. Both religious and non-religious people are likely to be drawn to this line simply because it sounds so audacious. The author has the reader’s attention now. If you have a good story, the reader will continue reading. Suspense is probably the easiest genre to do a first-line hook, since the genre naturally lends itself to drama. Here’s a good example:
The Secret is how to die.
From the beginning of time, the secret has always been how to die. [The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown]
Of course, best-selling books don’t always start with such dramatic lines. In fact, an article I once read said that many stories get rejected by editors, because the first line is so great, but the story goes south from there. You would serve yourself better to avoid starting with a bang if the rest of the story doesn't support it. Grabbing attention is only the first step; you need to be able to hold the readers attention.
To buttress this point, take a look at the following starting lines for the top 5 Paperback Mass-Market Fiction on New York Times Best Seller list as of 13th December, 2009. (For some I chose to include more than the first line):
1. To her complete stupefaction, he slid his blaster out of its holster faster than she could blink and opened fire on Rits. [Born of Ice, by Sherrilyn Kenyon]
2. My name is John Tyree. I was born in 1977, and I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, a city that proudly boasts the largest port in the state as well as a long and vibrant history but now strikes me more as a city that came about by accident. [Dear John, by Nicholas Sparks]
3. The rules of the New Haven Youth League required that each kid play at least ten minutes in each game. Exceptions were allowed for players who had upset their coaches by skipping practice or violating other rules. [The Associate, by John Grisham]
4. The sixty-foot steel-hulled trawler was what all commercial fishing boats ought to look like but seldom did. [Arctic Drift, by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler]
5. Tiny lights winked on the Douglas fir standing tall and full in front of the picture window. Swags of Christmas greenery and dozens of cards decked the well-appointed living room, and apple logs cackled in the fireplace, scenting the air as they burned. [7th Heaven, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro]
As you can see, some start with a bang, while others lead you in. A hook comes in many forms as exhibited but these authors; element of danger, humour, imagery etc. Each of these sets very different expectations in the reader’s mind.
What do you think of the examples above? Which is your favourite and why? How does your first line(s) compare?
The next few of posts will talk about the middle—developing the meat of the story.
As a follow up to my last post, here are some online resources I use. They are obviously not the only ones out there, but they serve me extremely well, and I definitely recommend them:
This is a one-click English thesaurus and dictionary (and word finder) for Windows that can look up words in almost any program. The great thing about WordWeb is that, it works off-line. There is a free and a premium version. I currently use the free version, which has the following features: Definitions and synonyms, antonyms for some words, related words, audio and pronunciations. This is an absolute must-have.
In the premium version, internet connection allows you to look up words in web references such as the Wikipedia encyclopedia. To learn more or to download, click here.
Google For everything else (grammar etc) use a word search engine. I swear by Google, although I sometimes use Bing or Yahoo! etc. It's good to get comfortable with more than one search engine.Speaking of comfort, I’ve heard many people complain they can’t find things or they get confused by when they search. I read an article a couple of years back, which basically showed that most of us don’t know how to get the best out of our searches.
E.g. Special characters and operators, like +, –, ~, .., *, OR, and quotation marks, can help you fine-tune your search and increase the accuracy of the results. I found a site, called Google Guide, that takes you through tutorials for Google searches. I'm sure the rule will work for other search engines. To go to the website, click here.
The best way to get to where you’re going is to know where you are; we've all heard this before, right? It's true.
Here’s an exercise you can do as a first step to getting there. You are welcome to share the results here (I encourage you to). Sharing your goals with others might be a good way to motivate yourself to work toward those goals. Plus, you will get encouragement here:
Step 1: Assess where you are as a writer
Who are you? What genre do you write? What/who is your muse? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How much time do you currently dedicate to your writing?
Step 2: Decide what you want to achieve with your writing
You can break this down into time periods. E.g. What do you want to achieve in the coming year? Where do you want to be in the next two/four/five years?
Once you know this, you can decide how much time you need to dedicate to your writing.
Step 3: Set targets
The purpose of Steps 1 and 2 is to highlight the gap between where you are and where you want to be. They enable you to really see if your targets are realistic. You may discover that you need to adjust your target. Don't worry. Realistic targets are easier to achieve, and the more you achieve the more motivated you will be to push yourself further.
Step 4: Get your basic resources
Here's a list of resources I consider basic for every fiction writer.
If you’re going to write fiction, you need an active imagination. First of all, imagination doesn’t mean a dirty mind, neither does it mean your mind should always be in the clouds. An exercise I try to do is to find a story in things happening around me. Usually, all I need is some incident or word to spark my imagination. If I have to attend an event, for example, I keep my eyes and ears open for cues. I ask myself ‘what if’ questions.
Others try to pick random words and try to string together a story that incorporates those words. Check out writing prompts. There are many websites with writing exercises. One such place is Writer's Digest. Here's an example of the kind of interesting prompts you'll get from there:
You wake up one day with an unusual super power that seems pretty worthless—until you are caught in a situation that requires that specific "talent."
You’d be surprised to discover there are many stories to be told.
A good dictionary is a must. You may want to get both a physical and an online dictionary. Make sure your dictionary is up-to-date, since English as a language is evolving. Also, what version of English are you writing in? If UK-based English, you might want to get an Oxford dictionary (or a Webster if you write in American English). It’s important to also set your Word documents to the appropriate version, to take advantage of the auto-correct feature.
A thesaurus is another must. You don’t want all your stories to sound the same ... or worse—for your work to sound too similar to someone else’s. We all function within certain comfort zones in our everyday speech. This will reflect in your work, so you need to make a conscious effort to shake things up. A thesaurus will enable you discover new words for old expressions and help you achieve variety. Sometimes you have a word you could use, but simply don’t like it in that sentence. Pop out your thesaurus and have fun with it.
A grammar book
It’s always a good idea to read up on grammar and punctuation. You might be thinking you’ve done several years of English and you don't need lessons in grammar. Yes, we all went to school, and we all studied English, but you’d be surprised the kinds of mistakes you’ll find in your writing if you’re not careful. For example, did you know that combining a question mark and exclamation mark is grammatically wrong? Many of us do it, thinking it’s the way to depict emphasis. What about the use of ellipses? Do you put spaces before and after? Is it okay to use four dots instead of three? You might want to go and dust off your Student’s Companion. Better still, get the latest edition.
Learn the rules and follow them. I’m all for breaking rules, but if you’re going to, the least you should do is make sure you know what rules you’re breaking—and why.
The internet is a vast resource for information and is one of my favourite hangouts. Seriously. While I still like to refer to my big Oxford dictionary (or the Webster dictionary at home), the internet allows you to have all these things are your fingertips without the clutter of books. I recently had to relocate to a new country for work and couldn’t take my dictionaries with me. I rely on my online dictionary and thesaurus. If the internet is too expensive to have 24/7, dedicate time for browsing—purposeful browsing—each week (every day if you can).
I hope this lesson was helpful.
Before Lesson 2, I'll post some helpful online and electronic resources I use.
As promised, I am starting a short series I’m calling “Getting There”. The assumption is that we all want to improve our craft, we want people to be affected by our work, and we want to see our work/name in print.
The bad news is that, to make money as an author, there are no short cuts in this business even if you decide to self-publish.
For avoidance of doubt, let’s do some background.
Self-publishing is whole different ball game and I will deal with that in a separate session. Right now, though, I’ll give an overview. Self-publishing means getting your work published, and undertaking all marketing and promotions at your own cost. There’s no competition between authors here, as long as you are willing to pay for the work, the publisher will get your book printed.There are various ways to go about it, but this will be dealt with later.
Self-publishing is one way to go, but there’s another. We will simply call it Publishing.
If you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. Is she saying I shouldn't pay to get my book published?” The answer is yes. Do you think Dan Brown pays for his books to get published? No, he doesn’t. Neither should you. You may not get the millions he’s receiving now, but I bet neither did he when he started out.
Here’s how it works. Most of the big names in publishing—Hachette, Harlequin, HarperCollins, Kensington, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster etc—do not demand a penny from the author. Rather they pay the author. Sounds good, doesn't it.
Once you have a finished manuscript, you would query the editor of a publishing house, either directly or through an agent, to sell your story. Usually the query will be in the form of a letter that summarises your plot and includes a brief author bio. In some cases the publisher’s guidelines will also ask for a synopsis and/or a samples of the story in question—usually the first three chapters of your book. This enables them assess whether yours is a story they would be interested in. If they are, they will request for the full manuscript, upon which you might receive what, in the publishing world, we refer to as ‘the call’.
The Call is basically when an editor calls to inform you that the publishing house would like to buy your book. In cases involving the big publishers (like those mentioned above) the author will receive an Advance, which varies by publisher and author. The Advance is based on the projected sales the book is expected to generate. This means the more money the publisher believes the book will make, the higher the Advance. This is why a publisher would pay Dan Brown or Danielle Steele or Stephen King oodles of money for their books. The implications of the Advance is something I’d like to treat in a latter post, because it gets complicated. However, as I've learnt, every author should know a little something about everything to do with publishing.
Okay, to keep things simple, I’ll end here to let you chew on it; comment, ask questions etc., before I move on to what you need to do as an author before you even get to the querying and submission stage of your career.