Saturday, November 2, 2013

So you want to write a book, huh? Some suggestions on how to get started.

Several people have asked me how I write books and my answer is always the same - I write the movie I see running in my mind.

Now upon reflection that answer helps absolutely no one, because not everyone has that gift or ability to just start writing from scratch. I studied music for fifteen years and when I attended Berklee College of Music, I couldn't write a song or arrange music to save my life. ( Still can't and when I try it's like staring into a giant void of nothingness. No words, no music and no ideas.)

So how did I get to a point where I write books? Well I started with screenplays.

Back in 2004 I had an idea for a great screenplay that was a cool concept, fit the Hollywood "tentpole" model - which means a screenplay that would fit into a blockbuster category like The Avengers or any movie released with a $100+ million  budget . So based on that, I bought a bunch of screenwriting books, ordered a small mountain of scripts from proven  movie successes because they are a great resource for plot development and sat down at my computer with my new copy of Final Draft in front of me.

It took me about three months but in the end I had an okay script that I promptly started pitching at Hollywood pitch festivals like The Great American Pitch Festival and FadeIn Magazine ( my favorite one). Two things came out of that experience - it is bloody hard to pitch and that year absolutely no one was interested in a big budget Sci Fi Adventure.

One thing that was obvious is that writing screenplays comes easy to me because after plot and structure a script is primarily dialogue and action. How can I put characters into impossible situations and see how they triumph or fall? How can I take a two dimensional stereotype and turn him into a fresh and interesting character?

Writing a novel is a different animal. Yes, the dialogue and action are still there but unlike a script where you can hand it over to an army of people who will decide what the setting looks like, how the characters are dressed, how they will act and what their back story will be, it is up to the author to create and convey all of this himself.
 One line of description in a script that says: EXT: Bridge at night, to a writer has to become:

Wrought iron moorings with concrete that had seen better days. John stepped across the foot path, his fingers lightly testing the metal to see if it would hold. Looking up he saw the thick expanse of cable that could hold the weight of a thousand men but in his mind he knew that a single word from her would bring the whole thing crashing down.

Or something like get the idea and I just made that up, so it needs a little work.

So what have I learned on how to write a book?

  1. Come up with an idea for a story that you like. Try to keep it simple at first. Start with two or three characters and test the water. Write them having a conversation with just dialogue. Try to stick with only two or three people because it becomes tricky trying to keep track of everyone and who is saying what. Don't believe me? Next time you are watching a TV show, look at the number of times that two people are having a conversation, then when a third person comes along, they use them as a way to end the conversation and excuse themselves. For a writer, it is easier to write a dialogue between two people, than three. 
  2. When it comes to writing, what comes easiest to you? For me it is dialog, then action and finally the dreaded description of the character's surroundings. Here's another interesting observation. I absolutely loved the Twilight books and think Stephanie Meyer is a fantastic writer. One thing I did notice as a fellow author is that she tends to shy away from writing action scenes. When I was reading her final book, Breaking Dawn, I bet a friend that she would not end it with a big action scene because she tended to stick with her characters "talking out" rather than the physical act of fighting their way out of a situation. Was I right or wrong?
  3. Write an outline, or notes on your book or even character names. Depends on what works for you and more importantly what interests you. I personally hate doing an outline because I like to keep my writing fresh to me. Sometimes I will be writing and a character will say something that totally surprises me. In my latest book Showdown at Evil High, my character Michael Sullivan states that he wants to see his dead wife as payment for helping Heaven fight Hell. When I wrote that, at the time I was surprised that he would say that and debated whether to keep it in or not. As it turns out, my character was right, because the request becomes an important part at the end of the story. Writing notes will help you to remember character names, places and events that you want them to experience. Don't feel that you have to know the ending of the story at the beginning. Part of the fun of writing is to see where you end up and more importantly how you got there.
  4. Take a writing course.... ah yes the dreaded writing course. You want to write a book? Sign up for a Continuing Education course somewhere in your hometown that will teach you about writing. Does it suck going back to school? Yes, no or maybe depending on how you feel. Will it benefit your writing? Absolutely! How you ask? Let's face it, when I wrote my first book- which was based on my first screenplay because I needed to spend more time with my characters - it sucked. Boy did it suck!!! The dialogue was okay, the action shaky and the description was terrible. I spent more time in "Tell" land than "Showing" what the characters were doing. A writing course will give you the basics to build your book, you will meet some great people and perhaps join a writing group or two that will be good enough to give you honest feedback about your writing.
Writing is a skill and like any skill must be practiced in order to be good. If I take up skating today will I be a figure skater tomorrow? Not without hours and hours of practice. If I want to be a professional singer can I expect to land a record deal tomorrow? Not likely and I spent fifteen years in singing classes, performing Opera, Musical Theater and getting a degree in acting. It takes practice honing those skills and writing is no different. 

And finally :  READ

Start with the genres that interest you the most. Enjoy the book for the story then go back and look at it from a writer's point of view. Every author has certain styles that you can learn from. J.K. Rowling loves incorporating minute details into every scene that place you into fully into that Harry Potter Universe. Stephanie Meyer is very dialogue driven yet within the dialogue we see amazing character development. Tom Clancy's books are full of technical detail needed to ground us into a world of military espionage. Choose a favorite author, then expand your pallet and try something that you would not normally read. 

Most importantly, start doing something. Jot down those ideas, read a book or just start writing. You are about to start an amazing journey but as they say, every journey starts with a single step. 

What will your first step be?