Welcome back, loyal listeners! We’ve talked a lot about ideas this month, and now it’s time to figure out how to go from concept to draft. We talk about what steps will help you accomplish the birthing of your idea to the page.
ASK THE AUTHOR:
If you could rewrite any famous classic and make it your own, which book would it be? Follow up question- What major changes would you make to it? Jeremiah Peters
Aaron: Do the Star Wars prequels count as classics? If so, that’s my answer. More realistically, they likely don’t. I’m going to assume you mean works of literature. This question makes me think of campy but fun narratives like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But I don’t think I’d choose anything like that. I’d probably go with something like the tale of King Arthur. Some of the modern classics I love too much to change, but some of the more archaic ones could probably use a new coat of paint, if for no other reason than to modernize much of the language and tell it in a more contemporary (show don’t tell) kind of way. The characters would remain largely the same, but I’d explore their backstories a bit more to flesh them out. Unfortunately, this has already been done by several other authors and screenwriters. So, you know. #unoriginal
Al: Usually classics don’t need rewriting. That’s why they’re classics but one comes to mind. Edgar Allan Poe wrote the short story “MS. Found in a Bottle.” Many scholars believe it was the story that launched his career. Some consider it the earliest SF story, other see it as an adventure tale, and still other think it is a parody of popular fiction dealing with seafaring. It’s a fascinating tale but at times hard to follow, partly because it was written in 1833 and the language is foreign to us, and partly because it lacks a real resolution and some of the description of action is a little muddied–at least to my mind. If I were to rewrite it, I would try clear up the prose so modern readers could better immerse themselves in the story. Even so, I doubt I could improve on Poe.
MJ: I’m not sure this is a classic by other people’s standards, but I say Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I grew up on this book, reading and re-reading it. I love Jo March, the strong female heroine who’s also a tomboy, and as you may have noticed, my middle name is Jo. What would I change? Probably rewriting it in modern times would be fun and full of challenges; the relational dynamics are so much different now than they were when the book takes place. If I can’t rewrite it, I’d at least like to live it. Even for a short time.
Heather: I would say Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. This is easily one of my favorite books of all time and I wish I had been the author of it. It is a classic gothic novel with great atmosphere and suspense. It has so much menace and a great first line too. The setting is gorgeous. If I were to change anything about it I might give the nameless young narrator a name. No, I wouldn’t do that, but maybe I would write in a little bit more in the way of love scenes. I always did want to know what Maxim was like when they went to bed together.
Let’s Kick this Pig: Going from Idea to Draft
- First thing to note: There is no one way of doing things. No two writers follow the same path. It’s important to know what works for you.
- Make a schedule. You’ll want to make the time in your day to write. Get up early, go to bed late, write on your lunch break. Whatever you need to do. Make the time, and protect the time. Don’t be afraid to give up social engagements etc. This is work, and you need to treat it as you would any other job. If you don’t go into work, the book doesn’t get written. No one else can do this work for you, not even Stephen King. It’s not his book–it’s yours.
- Great quote for this by Richard Bausch: Writing is not an indulgence. The indulgences are what you give up in order to write. This is from Letter to a Young Writer
- Create your own boss. This is trick told me to by Leonard Chang and I can explain it briefly.
- Al: Decide how your brain is wired: outliner or intuitive or a blend. Play to your strengths. Don’t convince yourself you’re an intuitive because you think it will be easier. It won’t. When in doubt–outline.
- The Al Gansky technique for priming the pump. Select a half-dozen or so books in your genre and surround yourself with them. Look at each one and ask, “How did they do it?” How many pages? First or third POV? How many chapters? Long chapters or short chapters? Lot’s of dialogue or lots of narration? Prologue or no prologue? Read all the first lines. Read all the first pages. Immerse yourself in the structure and the technique of the books. Dismiss anything that doesn’t fit, study intently anything that does.
- You can also copy the first few pages of a novel in your genre to get a sense of the voice, pacing, characters, etc. Don’t seek publication with these, this is simply to exercise your voice.
- The first line is crucial to your project, however, don’t fret over it too much for now. You can always come back after you’ve finished the project to find the best first line. Still, it’s worth considering–what line will immediately interest your reader? You can do this several ways, but the most popular and effective are generally conflict, character, voice. Try a few different first lines and see which is the most intriguing.
- Don’t get caught up in editing. Several writers spend days, weeks, sometimes even months getting the first few pages perfect. But most of us power through the first draft and worry about polish after we’ve completed the the initial draft. If you’ve never completed a story or novel, I suggest finishing first. Otherwise, you’ll get caught in the unending revision cycle.
- Get the story down. It will help you see problems and holes. Don’t be afraid to skip ahead. I know writers who come to a scene and can’t quite visualize it. They write, “Put something here showing Judy’s fear of spiders.” That will plant the question in your mind and “the boys in the basement” will work on it while you plow ahead on your story. [Explain “boys in the basement.”]
- Also, sometimes you THINK you know what you are writing about and how the story is going to go, but until it is written, you really don’t. It does no good to “edit” while you write because you may find at some point during the draft that the story needs to go an entirely different direction and then all of those time wasting “as you go edits” will be for nothing. Write, then revise. Only once you complete a draft can you really get a grasp of what you have written.
- Your first pages should establish your primary characters. Don’t worry too much about a laundry list of what they look like physically (unless there’s something out-of-the-ordinary: three eyes, four arms, a massive scar across their face, etc.). Instead, focus on what makes them who they are, their personality, their psychology, their flaws and insecurities. Think of a way to establish these early on, and it will give your readers an idea of the person they may become over the course of the novel/story.
- Most intuitive writers will “discover” their characters as the story develops. Keep track of these details. Outliners often create bios for their characters.
- Be prepared to write scenes and chapters that flesh out your character so that you can really get to know them–fully understanding that a good portion of that necessary character exploration might not make it into the final draft.
- Establish the conflict clearly, and show it progress. If you’re writing a novel, you’ll just get to introduce the conflict. If you’re writing a short story, you’ll need to establish it and elevate it. This is why we use the term “in media res,” which means “in the middle. We also use the term “late in, early out,” which means to start as close to the end as possible, which is one of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing fiction.
- If you’re new to novel writing, consider the three act structure. You can’t go wrong with that and it will keep you on track. There’s no law that requires it (although I know editors who judge manuscripts based on the three act structure).
- Show the seed you fell in love with. Whatever image it was that planted the seed of the idea for you, make sure your readers see the same thing (or something similar that may promise the image that so immediately captivated you). You fell in love with an idea before you birthed it; give your readers the same chance to fall in love with the possibilities.
- Collect some artwork and/or create a soundtrack for your work. We firmly believe that art begets art, that art inspires art. Aaron has a collection of fantasy-themed images he looks at to help inspire his Hand of Adonai series. For several of his projects he created playlists to listen to as he wrote and revised. Molly Jo collects New Orleans related things (both digital and physical) that she keeps nearby as she writes. She eats New Orleans, listens New Orleans, and sleeps New Orleans. We’ve got maps we reference for continuity and for inspiration.
- Don’t underestimate the value is reading to inform your fiction. Immerse yourself in non-fiction, poetry and plays that deal in themes, genre of subject matter that is related to what you are writing. I can give example of my reading/research of grief for my novel.
- Remember, you don’t know it all, even when you think you do. Aaron likes to include things on the map that don’t always come into the story to tantalize his imagination and the imagination of his readers. It also reminds him that there’s more to his story than he currently knows, and that he must be mindful of the influences of the things off the page that affect what goes on the page.
- Don’t expect to do everything at one time. Eat what’s on your plate now. Eat tomorrow’s meal, tomorrow.
- Don’t expect it to be easy. If it were easy, everyone would be writing fiction.
- Don’t worry if you have to toss out some material because it no longer serves the story. Almost every writer trims the fat and the unnecessary.
- Don’t be afraid to start. Don’t be afraid if you get stuck. Don’t be afraid by the size of the project or the fear of rejection. In my (Al) inner dialogue the most frequent thing I saw to myself is, “Shut up, Al. Get to writing.” And I always obey my (bossy) self.
- Sometimes to start you have to just start. It doesn’t have to be “the beginning” — it can be any scene, any character, whatever way you can find yourself into the story. The true beginning will emerge in revisions, so don’t let the pressure of “beginning” get to you.