By Christina Rich
So you want to be a writer. You flip open your laptop or notebook. A blank page stares at you and you grimace back at it. Where in the world do you start this adventure?
First you need to pick a length for your work in progress. Are you trying to write a 500 word blogpost/flash fiction story/news article, a 20,000 word novella, or a 100,000 word full-length historical manuscript? Having a word length goal is not only inspiring, but also motivating. I think that’s why Nanowrimo is so popular.
Next, you need to choose a genre. Do you see yourself as a non-fiction writer reporting on current events, writing Guidepost-like devotionals, or giving in-depth advice about your field of expertise?
Or are you a fiction writer weaving words into a riveting alternate reality? If so, what type of fiction should your book be?—a modern day story or historical, heartwarming romance, or chilling thriller? Will your story feature fantastical creatures, magic, and dark villains or guns, John Deere tractors, and McDonalds.
This question of genre is exceedingly important and one you should think long and hard about before putting pen to paper (or fingers to laptop screen.) The most common mistake new writers make is to focus on writing a good story.
“What?” you say. “How is writing a good story a bad thing?”
In my early writing days, I used to think good writing was all that mattered. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true. My third full-length novel was a gritty Christian romance set in 90 A.D. Ancient Rome entitled For Life or Until. I still think For Life or Until features some of my best-developed protagonists. But Christian publishers simply aren’t buying romance set in Ancient Rome, so I never got a book contract.
You can get around some of this pressure to follow a formula by self-publishing. And yet, even if a publisher isn’t forcing you to stick to a well-defined genre, your readers will. Jan Karon writes cozy mysteries for the Baby Boomer generation. Do you think she could still make bestseller lists if she threw a couple vampires and a dark lord into her novels?
Absolutely not. Cozy mystery readers don’t want to read about vampires and the vampire-loving generation isn’t into cozy mysteries. Similarly, the Christian Romance readers I was writing for when I wrote For Life or Until like 19th century Texas Romance a whole lot more than 1st century Roman Empire romance. Even the ridiculously famous Christian romance author, Francine Rivers, couldn’t make her Ancient Rome trilogy sell as well as her 19th century Western, Redeeming Love.
The best way to ensure your book fits firmly into a genre is to go to your local library or bookstore and browse the shelves. Select books off the shelves that have similarities to your plot and read them. See how these authors structured their plot, conflict, characters, and climax/finale/denouement, and think about how well your story idea could fit into such a genre.
Congratulations, you now have a story idea, story length, and story genre! Now you get to research. You’ve already gotten a good start by reading similar books in your genre. Now you can dig into factual details. If you’re writing a 19th century Western, check out all the books and websites you can find on what was going on in Texas, Colorado, or California during that time.
I like to think of my plot first, then adjust it to the historical details I discover later. Example: for one romance plot I thought up, I knew I wanted the heroine to be an American orphan train rider. After deciding that, I turned to Google and history books to discover what states the orphan trains ran through so I could figure out what city to set my story in.
Other authors start with the history and then craft their story. Marguerite Henry, a famous children’s writer from the 1950s, said she would visit sites like the Grand Canyon. After looking at the breathtaking scenery and interviewing the locals, then she would come up with her story plot.
If your story is fantasy rather than history, you still need to think about world building and decide what kind of geography and culture your protagonist will live in. Some of the best fantasy writers roughly base their fantasy world on a revised version of real world cultures or geography.
Done with the research? Now it’s time to start that keyboard clicking. Don’t worry about your plot hanging together or your sentences being grammatically correct. Just write! Unlike brain surgeons, we writers don’t have to get it all correct the first time.
When you’ve put a rough draft of your story together, then it’s time to corral some critique partners. Critiquecircle.com is an excellent free online critique swapping forum for fiction writers. There are dozens of other free sites too as well as many in person author get-togethers. Just Google critique groups in your zip code or search the Meetup.com database and you’ll be amazed at how many of your neighbors are writing. If you have a writer friend, you can also start by swapping one-on-one critiques with him or her.
Don’t get discouraged if your critique partner points out many mistakes. It takes at least twenty drafts for a beginning author to create a polished manuscript. I finished my first full-length novel twelve years ago and I still go through ten or fifteen drafts before creating anything worth reading. You will cheat yourself of writing growth if you choose a critique partner who loves everything you write and is afraid to give you the harsher critiques you need.
That said, make sure your critique partner “gets” your writing. For example, if you’re writing a mystery novel and your critique partner only reads fantasy and hates any book that doesn’t have at least one vampire in it, that critique partner probably isn’t the right fit for you.
And that’s all my advice for now. Famous authors have said, “The writing life stinks. Only try to become an author, if you can’t not write.” Those who have ever stared at an empty page at two A.M. agree. I tried to give up my dream of a writing career at least four times, and I just couldn’t make my mind stop weaving stories.
So happy writing. If you’re so driven to write that you’re willing to brave the odds, then you are determined enough to find success at it too.