Monday, April 2, 2012

B: Basics of Writing

Hundreds of thousands of people write novels every year. It's not a unique or terribly important experience, in the grand scheme of things. But having sex isn't a unique experience either, and it's still pretty damn important the first time you do it. (And hopefully a few times after that, too.)

I am now writing my first novel. It's a big step for me. I'm trying to pretend it's not a big deal by describing it, in my own mind, as "a practice novel." Also by rushing through it as quickly as possible so as not to give myself a chance to panic

In order to reach this point, I had to arrive at a few basic principles, enough to make me feel like I know how to write a novel. I would like to share those with you now.

Without further ado, the basics of writing:

1) Have a Story: I know, it seems obvious, but we're talking basics here. Writing is communication. Don't write for the sake of putting words on paper. Write for the sake of communicating something. If you're writing a novel, that 'something' should be a story. Ideally, there will be morals and messages and lessons about life nestled in there as well, but "nestled" is the key word. It should essentially be a story.

In my recent experience, I knew that I had a novel when the climactic moment of the story came to me. It's a powerful moment, when someone defies odds, defies pain and terror and bad habits to strike out against the darkness, even when it seems overwhelming. It's a symbolic moment. It's a story.

Basically, before you try to tell a story, make sure you have a story.

2) Be Clear: Advice to authors really likes to urge, "be concise." It's not bad advice, but on looking back at some great novels, honestly, they aren't always concise. Hemingway? Yes. Tolstoy? Not so much. I think what is really meant by "be concise" might actually be, "be clear."

As we established above, writing is communication. Don't write unless you have something to say. As a second tenet to that first one: make what you're saying really, really clear. In any given scene, the reader should know what's at stake. Tell them, in a hundred little ways. Then tell them directly, out loud. Don't bore them with repetition, but reinforce it, again and again, showing new perspectives on why it's a big deal. If the villain is going to fall into a death-dispensing gravity engine, make sure the reader knows it's there beforehand. If the hero is going to make a terrible decision to use a gun, with disastrous consequences, make sure the reader sees the gun in advance, and has a chance to think about what bad things might happen because it's there. And don't fill in the space with clutter. Take your time to work your craft and make the piece beautiful, but unless the price of grain is deeply relevant to your story, there's really no reason to bring it up.

3) Care about your characters: At the end of the day, I think this is the most important. If you care about your characters, they must be more than 2D caricatures. Maybe you can throw a flat puppet into a morality play to make a point, but if you really love that character, if you name them, if you laugh with them at their mistakes, cheer with them for their victories, and cry with them in their time of darkness, then you can't abuse them by putting them in a bad story. Your heart will rebel.

There is no story without people at the heart of it. If you make a story out of planets or tetrapods, it's because you've made them into people. I don't care how brilliant your logic, philosophy and literary allusions are; if there aren't real people, people who make me love them or hate them, at the heart of your story, it's going to be a yawner.

Love your characters, and they will love you. And if your characters love you, then they will tell you when you're doing it wrong. They'll leap right out of the narrow plot you had written for them and tell you things you never knew about your story.

Either that, or I've got it all wrong. You decide :)


  1. Great post Ashton. I think I need to care about my characters more, especially in gamebooks where I'm in danger of seeing them as a bunch of stats.

  2. Great tips!
    A friend and I have been thinking of co-writing a book and here are some tips to get me started!
    Thanks for visiting and thanks for the inspiration.