I wrote a novella! Here are some things I learned

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.

Comments closed
    • stacey1x0pp
    • 7 years ago
    • Bensam123
    • 7 years ago

    The problem about too much feedback IMO is that other people start to shape your story for you. If you have a strong sense of direction and where you want to go and someone feels equally strong willed or you over value their opinions, then it takes your story in a completely different direction. Sometimes this can be better (if your idea sucked) or it can dilute an extremely good one.

    Society works in multiple ways, it’s not always good conforming to the norm. From this blog it seems as though this book was written more by you and your g/f, then just you… I personally don’t see anything wrong with that, just something to consider.

      • Cyril
      • 7 years ago

      Nah. Responding to feedback isn’t an either-or kind of thing. Any self-respecting creative person is going to strike a balance between acquiescence and bullheadedness, which will usually involve throwing out a lot of bad suggestions and keeping the ones that resonate and improve the work. I think shying away from too much feedback is just as destructive as allowing too much meddling.

    • anotherengineer
    • 7 years ago

    hmmm technically wouldn’t it be called typing, since technically it wasn’t written, or would it be more technically correct to say it wasn’t written long hand?

    Arg I confused.

      • Fieryphoenix
      • 7 years ago

      The word writing has both the meaning of the inscription of letters upon a page, which in this context is the trivial meaning, and that of authorship and composition, which is the significant meaning here. So it would be most technically correct to say you’re being pedantic.

      • brookespl091
      • 7 years ago
    • Goofus Maximus
    • 7 years ago

    Just reading the title makes me think of Blood Flukes, for some reason…

    • JMccovery
    • 7 years ago

    Cyril, I have to say, that was a great read. One of the best I’ve read in a while! I can see a movie being made of this…

    • themattman
    • 7 years ago

    I finished the story last night and I really enjoyed it. It took me about 4 nights of casual reading and sometimes short writings are better at getting the ideas across to the reader. It was almost like reading the first and last page of an intense TR video card review while quickly going through the middle sections to get the most important information.

    • Derfer
    • 7 years ago

    Anyone else surprised at how short books are from a word count perspective? When I heard they could range from 60,000-150,000 on average I realized I had written rants that long, among other things.

      • KeillRandor
      • 7 years ago

      I remember talking about that with a friend who’s currently trying to write a book herself – (her computer died, recently, so it’s held up until she has the money to buy another (with my help)) – she’s only written what she considers to be a few chapters, but she’s surprised it’s over 60k words already… (She reckons at the way she’s going it’ll be 10 years and a million words by the time she’s finished).

      She’s put what she’s written so far up on-line, already, but it’s definitely an ‘adults-only’ story 😉 Her story is called ‘Master Swordswoman’ and her facebook page is for Phillippa Tryndal, if anyone’s interested… (I think she needs all the encouragement she can get 😉 ).

    • cjava2
    • 7 years ago

    “I also had to suppress the urge to write flowery prose.”

    You didn’t go far enough. The excerpts I read on the original advertisement post were awful in that regard. It read like it was written by someone trying too hard — too awkward and didn’t flow correctly. I would’ve shelved it and published something more mature later on.

      • Cyril
      • 7 years ago

      I know, dude. You posted five times about how much I suck in the last thread. I think you got your point across. 😉

        • ChronoReverse
        • 7 years ago

        Cyril, I’m glad you can take even harsh criticisms with grace. I’ve downloaded the ebook and will be reading it later too =)

          • cjava2
          • 7 years ago

          I’m seriously impressed that they respond this way to my frank criticism.

        • danny e.
        • 7 years ago

        I think perhaps what he was looking for was something written in the style of the character “Kevin” from “The Office.”

        “The dog goes ‘roof, roof’.” Kevin said with a sly smirk. “He barks because he’s a dog.”

      • Damage
      • 7 years ago

      I would’ve shelved this comment and published something more mature later on.

        • StuG
        • 7 years ago

        +1 For Justice!

          • MadManOriginal
          • 7 years ago

          -1 for not being able to take criticism.

      • thanatos355
      • 7 years ago

      In old country, mature publishing shelves you!

    • jstern
    • 7 years ago

    I really thought is said for a fee, rather than for free. Funny how the brain expects there to be a fee. I’ll pick it up later tonight, and have the computer read to me.

    • WhatMeWorry
    • 7 years ago

    “Tom could perceive the mellifluous tittering of the GTX 660 Ti circumnavigating the iridescent 192 bit memory interface”

    What do you mean the simpler descriptions are more striking?

    • HisDivineOrder
    • 7 years ago

    Congratulations on finishing it. Congratulations on publishing it. I sincerely mean that. Both are real accomplishments. 🙂

    Btw, it’s no surprise you had moments of insight while in the shower or when you were falling asleep. I walk every day and I have my moments of insight at three times of day typically: walking, shower, or as I’m falling asleep. It makes sense, really. If you walk past 45 minutes, you get your heart pumping and the extra oxygen helps your brain. We tend to think better when in water. It may have something to do with the way water (and heat) changes how our body is operating internally or it may have something to do with the fact we came from water a long, long time ago. And when you’re falling asleep, a lot of the conscious processing crap that gets in the way falls away as we begin to drift into unconsciousness. Good music or a movie I’m really, really into can also help me get to a point where I shed the conscious chatterbox in my head that keeps me from my muse.

    I suppose that’s why it’s called a muse, right? Anyways, I like your discipline. I might even steal a few of those points. Thanks for the article, I know it’s outside of techreport’s wheelhouse, but it’s great to see someone succeed and share some of the secrets of their success.

    You didn’t say, but I’m curious if you’re still writing on a schedule? I’ve found every time I stop writing for even a few days, I have the hardest time going back to it…

      • Cyril
      • 7 years ago

      I haven’t really written any new fiction since finishing Fluke. Writing in general is a huge part of my day job, though, so I get plenty of daily practice. For what it’s worth, I rewrote part a chapter just before we published last month, and it seemed to come pretty naturally.

    • brute
    • 7 years ago

    i really like the cover

    • danny e.
    • 7 years ago

    Why is it free today?
    I did notice that you went from #40,000 something to: Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,566.
    However, the increased “sales” are hard to make a profit on if you’re making $0 per “sale”.

    Promotional advertising?

      • indeego
      • 7 years ago

      Because [url=http://www.techdirt.com/blog/?tag=free<]free drives sales[/url<].

      • MadManOriginal
      • 7 years ago

      Sell it for $0 and make up for it on volume. Classic business model.

      • danny e.
      • 7 years ago

      Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,844

        • phileasfogg
        • 7 years ago

        Here’s hoping Cyril’s novella climbs into the top 100 by tomorrow! Very generous of him to offer a free download even if it’s just for one day.

      • danny e.
      • 7 years ago

      Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #680

    • MadManOriginal
    • 7 years ago

    It’s a solid ‘first’ work Cyril (obviously you write a lot otherwise, even if a different type of writing.) I look forward to more, the plot for this story was so much interestly!

      • sweatshopking
      • 7 years ago

      [quote<] I look forward to more, the plot for this story was so much interestly! [/quote<] how do you grammar

        • vargis14
        • 7 years ago

        I liked it a lot. It was more better then most i have readed 🙂

        • brute
        • 7 years ago

        his grammar is fine

        interestly that you should ask,,,

        • MadManOriginal
        • 7 years ago

        How is grammer formed?

          • ludi
          • 7 years ago

          How girl get perspicacity?

          • sweatshopking
          • 7 years ago

          it’s made by magic by fairies that pick magical fruit and then make juice out of the fruit, and then mould it as jelly into grammar rules.

    • Noigel
    • 7 years ago

    Cyril, would you mind sharing what software, hardware, and environment you favored?

    From a hardware standpoint I’m wondering if you chose a laptop or a desktop. As far as environment, did you write behind closed doors or where there was more people traffic, etc. Did you listen to music or require silence? 🙂

      • Cyril
      • 7 years ago

      I usually wrote late at night, in my study, using Word 2010 on my desktop PC. I listened to music before writing to get myself in the mood, but generally, I tend to write better in silence.

        • Noigel
        • 7 years ago

        Thanks for the info. The “late at night” probably minimizes distractions. Preference of background noise/music is different for everybody I think… and depends on the task/function!

        I’ll tell you that if I’m on the road and there’s absolute silence my driving is erratic and jerky… but if I have music on it gets more precise and smooth.

        • sweatshopking
        • 7 years ago

        is this what you were doing when you posted stories in the middle of the night?

          • MadManOriginal
          • 7 years ago

          He was probably just getting up to pee.

      • BIF
      • 7 years ago

      I too am interested in the answer to this question!

      LOL, you beat me to the punch, Cyril; thanks!

    • notfred
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]Many flashes of lucidity came while I was in the shower or trying to fall asleep. [/quote<]I find that's true for general stuff as well. I'm a software developer and I solve most of my bugs in the shower.

      • dmjifn
      • 7 years ago

      A software developer who showers? Likely story! 😉

        • brute
        • 7 years ago

        he probably finds his bugs in the shower, too.

        • dpaus
        • 7 years ago

        I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw years ago called “Death of a Programmer” It showed a skeleton in a shower stall, clutching a bottle. A police detective was pointing at the bottle and saying to a coroner: “There’s the cause of death right there. The instructions on the shampoo bottle say ‘Lather, rinse and repeat’ “.

    • JDZZL
    • 7 years ago

    I purchased Fluke and i found it to be an excellent first effort! i read this story with the mindset that it would be a trilogy(not sure why) so the ending really threw me. once i had re-read the final couple chapters and considering the mindset of the protagonist i thought the conclusion to be quite good! thanks for the story and i look forward to more!

    • Sargent Duck
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]"Tom could perceive the mellifluous tittering of seagulls circumnavigating the iridescent estuary"[/quote<] Wait....what?

      • chuckula
      • 7 years ago

      My Gawd: It’s full of Thesauruses!

        • dpaus
        • 7 years ago

        “Thesauri”

          • chuckula
          • 7 years ago

          What is another word for more than one Thesaurus?

          Alex: That’s correct.

    • dpaus
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]Long, latinate words are great for sounding authoritative when you're talking about graphics cards, but they're a pretty awful when you're telling a story.[/quote<] Purportedly... Congratulations on the novella! I have a casual friend/good acquaintance who is a very accomplished, multi-award-winning sci-fi authour, and I am amazed at the amount of work he puts into his writing (of course, I guess those two things are maybe related? LOL). I've been proud to be both a source and a minor inspiration for his work. I keep telling myself that I'm going to find the time to follow in his footsteps, even if only the first few of his thousand-mile journey. You've provided a lot of great tips that I'm sure I'll find invaluable when I finally get around to it! I'm looking forward to reading your novella over the holidays.

    • sonofsanta
    • 7 years ago

    As someone trying to get into this writing malarkey – it’s pretty much the only “career” I can feel I want to do, rather than the IT career I’ve ended up doing – it’s great to hear someone else talking about it. I’m still trying to hammer out a writing style by just writing, and analysing anything else I read, but I alternate between days of “I can do this, if $shortStory got published then so can I!” and “Oh god I am so far in over my head I have no idea how to plot out internal conflict for my main character and show instead of tell it.”

    Of course, the answer to either preening over-confidence or crushing self-doubt is the same: write some more.

    Out of interest, did you take any steps towards getting it published by a traditional name, or were you always planning the self-publishing/TR-publishing route?

      • Cyril
      • 7 years ago

      [quote<]Out of interest, did you take any steps towards getting it published by a traditional name, or were you always planning the self-publishing/TR-publishing route?[/quote<] Nope; went with TR from the start. I did a little research beforehand, and based on what I found, traditional publishers tend not to go for shorter novels and novellas like this. Something about the cost of printing vs. how much they can charge for the work. Digital publishing takes care of that. 😉

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