Decide How You Are Going To Punctuate!
Let’s say that somewhere in chapter thirty you find yourself needing to write down the contents of a street sign. How would you do it?
“He thought he was on Parker street, but when he reached the street sign it read ‘Pine Rd’.”
“He thought he was on Parker street, but when he reached the street sign it read Pine Rd.”
This may seem like an immaterial distinction to most beginning writers – neither way really matters after all. What does matter, however, is consistency. If half of your book puts signs in quotations and the other half puts them in italics, that can be very negative for you as an author. You won’t come across as having planned very well, readers are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if any questions arise in their mind, and/or you’ll have to do a lot of editing in the future to make up for your lack of planning!
Also, be sure to plan your personalized punctuation. There will be instances where you might prefer stylistic choices that are outside of the norm. A personal example from my own work comes from the big debate in the editing community right now about the use of “all right” vs. “alright”. The general consensus now is to use “all right” in any and all cases. I personally, don’t agree with this. What if somebody cut their arm and a character asked, “Are you feeling all right?” In my mind, this seems like a flawed question. How could somebody be all right, as in completely right, if their arm is bleeding? Knowing personal preferences like these beforehand is important. Before you begin a project you should do yourself a favor and ask yourself the tough questions:
- Do you want to use quotations?
- Will you indent your paragraphs, as is common, or try to save printing space as in the up and coming style?
- Will you put dialogue on separate lines?
- What tense will you be using?
Remember, consistency is key!
Start With Something Other Than A Novel!
It takes time to develop your own unique style. If you start with a novel, you will be discovering it as you go along. This is a problem, not just because of the consistency issues listed above, but because without being extremely familiar with your preferred way of doing things, you might not be able to elegantly convey the messages that you want to convey. I recommend writing several short stories before you begin a novel. Ideally, use your stories as training tools to practice your craft, decide your favorite tenses and discover/fix your personal disadvantages. This is the best time to test the boundaries of what you are capable of in your writing! Another way to test your writing ability beforehand is to write a screenplay. A screenplay, because it is a bigger project, is a great test to give oneself as a starting writer. It will give you as a writer a chance to see what it’s like to work on a larger project, and will force you to plan your work in a very similar way. Whatever you do, beginning a novel can be a daunting task! If you do it without the proper preparation, you might find yourself unable to finish or left holding a 30,000 word book!
Know Your General Point Before Word One!
It’s okay if you prefer to write without knowing your destination. While I personally thrive with 10+ pages of planning, not everybody does. What is not okay is meandering. In my work with new fiction I’ve come across stories about characters who have no life goals, who wonder aimlessly from place to place, simply because their authors didn’t know what to do with them. Just having a message or, at least, a basic character arc in mind, can help drive your plot forward. By a message, I don’t necessarily mean a moral.
Let’s say you decide to write your book about a poker player in the 70’s – a real Doyle Brunson type, not unaccustomed to having his winnings taken from him at gun point in back-alleys. Your message can be something simple like “Poker players lead rough lives.” This allows you, the author, to know the confines of the story. If your character is a gambler on page one, he needs to be a gambler on page one-hundred and one. This message also prevents you from clearing all his problems away too early.
What happens if you don’t have a message or through-line. Let’s imagine a story about a chronic gambler whose life is really hard until, about half way through the novel, he meets a woman who helps him get over his addiction. Throughout the rest of the book, the ex-player helps other people get over their addictions… what’s the message here? That a good relationship can cure addiction? Not really. If it were, what was the point of the second half of the book? That curing gambling is a good thing? If that's it, it's a really weak message! Do you see how it falls flat? The book has become a series of events devoid of meaning. There must always be something that connects the events in a meaningful way! Think about a good book that may, on the surface, be all over the place. A good example is Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim jumps through from scene to scene throughout the book. The events don’t unfold chronologically. Yet, somehow it works. What holds the book together? It’s the message about the Dresden Bombing, and about war in general: when someone witnesses a great tragedy, sometimes they need an escape in order to keep their sanity.
Before you begin a novel, at least have a general idea of what you’re trying to say! Here’s the sad truth: You will create messages whether you want to or not! The most powerful ones, however, are intentional.
Create A Schedule!
Start small. 300 words a day is more than doable as an initial goal. Depending on how early you have to wake up, consider doing it first thing in the morning before you start your daily ritual. If you can only set aside an hour a day, you might be surprised at how much you’ll actually get done during that time. Not everybody has time to write 2000 words a day like Stephen King, but a schedule will force you to be honest with yourself about what kind of time you DO have to write. The most common reason I hear for not setting aside specific time to work on your book is “I don’t even have time to make a schedule!” Okay. If that’s really, honestly true, you certainly don’t have enough time to write a novel.
Familiarize Yourself With Similar Material!
If you’re planning on writing a book about aliens invading the US, you should read and watch any similar material you can get your hands on. The point is not to steal their work, but to see if their stories can fuel your own creative efforts. In these cases, don’t read/watch for pleasure. Instead, think about plot holes, what made the dialogue good or bad and the work’s strengths and weaknesses. Let your mind run away with possibilities. Ideally, you’ll find yourself thinking, “That’s good, but what if I did this…” Even if you don’t immediately find anything useful, seeing how other authors wrapped up dilemmas you might face may subconsciously help you with your future problems. Before I start a project, I won’t touch a book that I don’t believe will be useful, either because it’s written in a similar style to my future novel, or because it contains a certain element that I want to incorporate in my own work. Not only is this process immensely helpful, but it allows you to make sure that what you’re writing hasn’t been written before!
Note: Lots of people prefer to write by the seat of their pants. They believe that, because they have no idea how their project is going to turn out, that they can’t do any research beforehand. I completely disagree with this philosophy. If all you know is that you want to write something about a guy who lives in Tennessee, then you know enough to start!
Write 500-700 words on the general point of a novel you are planning on writing. I won't edit it, but I'll give you advice on whether the idea has what it takes, what works to look at, and how to maximize your ideas effectiveness!