After they get over the shock that I do something at home other than sit in my recliner and watch Star Trek reruns, a few people have asked how I wrote a book. My stock answer is that I blindly typed words on the computer screen and then randomly picked out the ones that seem to go together. At that point I usually either get the stink eye from them or they politely point out that what they really wanted to know was how I took an idea for a story and transformed it into a finished book. Then they hit me.
Since that question keeps popping up, I thought that I’d take a few minutes to go through the process that I use. But, I’d like to preface that with the statement that what I do or don’t do when writing is, for better or worse, what works for me. There are many writers out there who are much more experienced, talented and successful than I am. I would urge all of you who are interested in spreading your writing wings to explore what those folks have said and written. Beyond that, a blog post can only provide a broad brush of how to write a novel. The details of plot, character development, viewpoint, style, composition, grammar and a host of other required skills can only be learned by careful study and much practice.
With regards to that study and the science fiction genre in particular, there are several good resources. Ben Bova is the editor of the “Science Fiction Writing Series” and Orson Scott Card wrote a great book titled, “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Both Mr. Bova’s series and Mr. Card’s book are available at Amazon. One outstanding online resource is Jeffrey A. Carver’s Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy web site. Mr. Carver has put together a well designed, professional program aimed at helping aspiring writers learn the trade. As a bonus, it’s FREE! So, after you read my drivel, check out the resources I mentioned and see how the professionals do it.
As an engineer, my life is all about structure and order. That bleeds over into how I approach writing, whether it’s a blog post, short story or novel. I actually use many of the same tools I use as an engineer when I’m planning a story, almost to the point of being anal about it.
On my laptop I have an Excel workbook that has about thirty worksheets in it. Each worksheet contains a separate story idea. Some are a few words long and some are a few paragraphs long. That spreadsheet is my idea file and where I go when I need to prime my creative juices. I know that sounds too analytical for most people, but it’s what works for me. I know other writers that use index cards or a notebook to keep track of ideas and still others that write them on post-it notes and stick them on the refrigerator. The method isn’t important. The key thing is to have somewhere to record the snippets that come to mind as you move through your day to day life. Those snippets are what will eventually become a story or book.
Once I’ve decided on an idea to pursue, I put together an outline of the story that starts at the beginning and goes to the end. For me, this is the most time consuming part. My outlines are so detailed that virtually every significant plot point, character or action is addressed. I actually use a program called Microsoft Project to develop the outline, but you could do the same in Word, Excel or on the aforementioned index cards.
Many authors don’t use an outline. They prefer to wing it as they write and take the story in whatever direction the wind blows. There’s nothing wrong with that. I would suggest that you try both methods and everything in between until you find what keeps writer’s block away and words flowing onto the paper.
For me, one of the biggest hurdles is keeping all the facts straight. That’s not so difficult in a short story, but it can be daunting in a novel. Did I spell a character’s name consistently? Did I confuse the timeline somewhere? What was the name of the doctor in chapter two or the ensign who fired the disrupter in chapter fifteen? Who has slept with who?
One way to keep that all straight is to continually flip back and forth in the book to check facts. I find that a disrupting way to write. For me the solution is to build an excel workbook that has separate tabs for characters, timeline, places, interactions, etc. I even have one tab that does the math so that my space travel calculations are accurate. That was crucial when I reached a couple of places in the story where I decided to make plot changes. It only took a minute and a couple of spreadsheet entries to have new travel times and dates calculated. I call that workbook my “bible” and I refer to it constantly while I’m writing.
Once I have the outline and bible done, which can take many weeks, I start to write. The first draft of Chara’s Promise took about five months. For such a short novel, that’s a long time, but I’m a hobby writer and I’m lucky to get two hours of writing per day mixed in with the realities of a job and everyday life.
After the rough draft is done I walk away from the book for a week or so. When I come back, the real work starts. That’s when I tear apart each sentence and paragraph to examine how they fit and flow with the words and chapters before and after. While I’m at it I check the grammar and make sure that spell check didn’t miss any words. When I finish that, I do something that I read about years ago. I read the entire book aloud. You’d be amazed how many errors of style and composition you can find by doing that one simple, but time consuming, task.
When I’m done with the writing, revising, correcting, rewriting, reading and rewriting again, I do the most frightening thing. I print it out and send it to my school teacher daughter for editing. For sixteen years of school I criticized and corrected her work. You should have seen the look of elation on her face when I asked her to reciprocate. Fortunately, she restrained herself and did a world class job. Lest you think that you can skip that step, remember that I had been through Chara’s Promise at least a dozen times before she saw it. She found two hundred and thirteen errors of grammar, punctuation and style.
For most writers, the next step is to ship the manuscript off to the publisher. For first time authors the next step is to find a publisher. I can’t give you any advice on that. Since I wasn’t planning to make a living by writing, my next step was to design a cover and self-publish an ebook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Designing the cover was interesting. To do that, I learned a modeling program called DAZ 3D that let me design the characters I used on the cover. One of them, Seth, is at the top of this page. The program is actually free now, but to make usable characters or backgrounds you have to invest in pre-fabricated base models and props. It’s actually kind of fun and, if you don’t get carried away, not very expensive.
Publishing on Amazon and Barnes & Noble was easy and painless. Each took about thirty minutes. I tried Kobo too and the process wasn’t difficult, but the formatting never came out right, so after several tries I gave up and pulled the book from there.
So, that’s how I wrote Chara’s Promise and I’m writing Providence using the same methods. I didn’t give much detail about character or plot development, viewpoint or how to define an alien species or build a world. As I said, there are others much more capable than I am to do that. What I can tell you with certainty is that writing is fun. Try it, you’ll like it.