I wrote a novella! Here are some things I learned


— 2:01 AM on December 7, 2012

Fluke: Langara's Prize will be free to download on Amazon.com (and on Amazon's international sites) until Saturday at 2:00 AM CST.

We've all written fiction. It might have been as part of a school assignment, or a loved one might have asked, "Did you take out the trash?" and you might have replied, "Yes, of course!" before going on to actually do it. That counts, too.

This year, I went a little further with the whole concept and wrote a 41,000 word novella. It's called Fluke: Langara's Prize, and it went up on Amazon last week. Scott even gave it a a nice little introduction in the news section. He also edited it and published it. In exchange, TR is getting a cut of the proceeds.

I wrote Fluke in one- to two-hour stretches, five or six days a week, over a period of about six months. I started putting the first words down in early December 2011 and finished in late May 2012. It was a pretty wild ride, and I enjoyed most of it—even if by the end, I was starting to feel exhausted from the extra workload. Slowly putting Fluke together taught me a number of valuable things about writing, and I figured they'd be a good topic for a blog post. So, here goes.

The first thing I learned is that writing fiction is pretty counter-intuitive for a journalist. My day job at TR is all about relating facts and events in the most precise and accurate way possible. I already know everything I need to say; the trick is saying them the right way. It's like playing connect-the-dots or paint-by-numbers. Writing fiction, on the other hand, is more like doing a freehand drawing of something you've never seen before. All you've got is a blank page and some ideas. Turning the ideas into a compelling picture is really, really hard. The only way to pull through is to let your gut take over, which can take some coaxing at first.

I coaxed my gut (ew!) by spending some time reading books before sitting down to write. I blew through Game of Thrones, the Kingkiller Chronicles, a few Stephen King novels, and some other stories that way—just reading for a couple of hours every night before my writing session. I found that, after reading, words and descriptions came more naturally. Approaching a new scene, I knew which angle felt right and which angle wouldn't work. I knew what kind of pacing to use and how often to pepper the action with descriptions. Simply getting the rhythm of good fiction in my head before writing worked wonders.

I also had to suppress the urge to write flowery prose. Long, latinate words are great for sounding authoritative when you're talking about graphics cards, but they're pretty awful when you're telling a story. Shorter, simpler words usually have a more vivid meaning in the reader's mind—they certainly do in mine—because they're used much more often in everyday life. So, somewhat counter-intuitively, simpler descriptions are more striking. Something like "Tom could perceive the mellifluous tittering of seagulls circumnavigating the iridescent estuary" looks very pretty, but it's tedious to read. It's also bland from a descriptive standpoint, because the words carry more of an abstract meaning than a visceral one. Replace with, "Tom heard the soft squawking of seagulls flying above the river mouth, where the muddy rapids spilled into the shimmering sea," and you've got the start of something.

I used two other tricks to try and smooth out the writing as much as possible. The first was to revise my last 1,000 words or so before writing anything new. That had two advantages: the same paragraphs would get revised multiple times over the course of several days, and revising would get me in the right state of mind to continue from where I left off, which prevented abrupt changes in pacing or style. There was one disadvantage, which was that by the end of each chapter, the writing was so polished that I was afraid of writing anything new. I repeatedly had to remind myself that it's okay to write a bad first draft—in fact, you pretty much have to start with a bad draft to get a good one down the road.

Of course, occasionally, a draft is really bad. In that case, as much as it may hurt, the best course of action is to select all, delete, and start over. First drafts can be especially shaky if you haven't written in a while, which is why I tried as much as possible not to take days off. After a long, exhausting day, writing even 100 words is better than writing nothing at all.

So that covers the writing part. The rest is all about the plot, which takes a whole other set of skills to pull off—not to mention a lot of sleepless nights trying to get your story out of a jam.

I don't know if there's a recipe for imagination, but I often found that ideas came pretty much randomly, whether I was thinking about the story or not. Many flashes of lucidity came while I was in the shower or trying to fall asleep. My solution was to download Evernote on my phone and write down ideas as soon as I was able, regardless of the time or place. It's tempting to think that you'll remember a good idea the next morning, but it doesn't always work out that way—and you'd be a fool to risk it. Reaching for your phone and typing a few words only takes a minute. Once your idea is committed to ASCII, falling asleep is much easier. Well, unless you get another idea after that. But they usually taper off... eventually.

Once you've got your ideas and your technique down, there are two ways to write. You can write as you go along, which some authors do quite successfully, or you can meticulously outline everything. I did a bit of both, although more of the latter at the beginning and more of the former toward the end. I had my main story outline, which I would then extend with sub-outlines for the different chapters. When I'd get stuck, I would outline the next chapter in order to pull through the current one. I found that, in many cases, writing toward a goal can be easier than ticking boxes.

The last trick I used was something that, after six long years of working for TR, seems almost natural: submit myself to criticism. After polishing up each chapter, I would print it out on my laser printer and show it to my girlfriend. She would read it and give me her feedback, which ranged from gushing to disappointed. Her input led to plenty of revisions and tweaks. I also got input from my father and a few friends of mine, and I made a substantial number of revisions based on their comments and critiques. The rule of thumb here is never to be defensive. If one person finds a problem with your story, then others likely will, too. And the more comfortable that person feels, the more likely they are to give honest feedback. The last thing you want is for test readers to feel they have to praise shoddy work.

And... I think that's about all there is to it. That, and a lot of hard work and perseverance.

I'm happy I wrote Fluke. It has some rough edges, but the feedback on Amazon and TR suggests I've managed to entertain at least a few total strangers, and that's really all I could ask for. I've also learned a lot about the writing process, and I'm eager to get started on a new story. For now, the hard part is to try and promote this thing so more people read it—and just like when I started to write, I have pretty much no idea what I'm doing.

   
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