I recently came across the image below, detailing things that writers hate hearing people say to them. It reminded me of some other things that I’ve known people say to writers – things like “Hurry up writing!”, which naturally goes hand-in-hand with point three, and “Can I read your book?” as if it isn’t a very personal thing that I haven’t even shown to my closest friends and family yet (I wrote a full blog post about that a while ago).
It occurred to me that the reason people say things like this is because they have misconceptions about what writing a book actually involves. So rather than just reminding people that writers find being told these things incredibly annoying, I thought I’d write a bit about what novel writers actually do. Hopefully this should help people understand that writing a book is ridiculously time-consuming and difficult, and even more so to do it well. Then you can go forth into the world safe in the knowledge that you’re not going to offend your writer friends, and can actively support them!
It might also be helpful for anyone number 4 applies to – if you want to write a book, maybe you should know what you’ll be getting yourself in for first!
We can split the book-writing process into three basic parts: preparation; writing the first draft; and editing. Since each consists of several steps about which an entire book of advice could be written, I will be discussing each part in a separate blog post, plus an extra one to discuss publishing. I will also then write a post relating all of this to the misconceptions found in the comments listed in the image above. These will all be posted at four day intervals.
This post, though, will deal with the preparation element.
The first step in the creation of a book is the idea. Sounds easy, right? Now you just have to write it!
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. For one thing, how easy coming up with an idea is depends on the writer. Some people wait for ideas to come to them, others will sit and brainstorm ideas until they find something that they feel they could expand upon sufficiently (which could take a while). For another thing, not even the most inspired idea comes fully-formed. There is a lot to do before an idea is ready to be written. Often, the idea requires plenty of thought before an author decides to devote themselves to it and starts the serious process of preparation.
Once you have chosen an idea to work with, the next steps come all at once. At their most basic, these steps include character creation, research, and plotting. You also need to decide things like which tense and perspective you’re going to write in, when and where your story will take place, and if you plan on publishing it, who it’s going to be aimed at. If you’re writing a fantasy story, you’re going to need to do some world-building too.
Let’s start with character creation. This is all about narrowing down the vague idea of your main character(s) which you already have, and also adding new supporting characters as needed. You’re going to need to know what your characters look like, how they act, their motives, their goals, and the sorts of things they like and dislike, among other details. Many people like to fill in “character sheets” like this one
or this one
to help them.
But if you want your project to be considered “good”, you can’t just stick any old thing down on your character sheets. Characters need to be realistic, which means they need to be flawed and, ideally, fleshed out enough that you could talk about them as if they were a real person and no-one would realise. They also need to be interesting, otherwise the reader won’t be able to relate to them, won’t like them, or won’t be able to tell one character from another. Speaking of differentiating characters, each also needs a distinctive “voice”, i.e. you need to work out how each character thinks and speaks – readers will appreciate knowing who is speaking before you tell them. This is especially necessary if you’re writing first person from several perspectives – you can’t have your readers forgetting who the narrator is halfway through the chapter!
You need to decide all of this now because a character’s personality will decide the choices they make throughout the story, which of course is very important to the plot. Not only that, but it will help you figure out how your characters relate to each other. After all, it’s the characters and their relationships that help get readers emotionally attached and keep them engaged: they read on because they’re rooting for this friendship; they want these two characters to get together or this character to be defeated.
Now let’s move onto research. Your book needs to be realistic, believable, and consistent, otherwise readers will put it down in frustration. For example, if one of your characters is a doctor, then you need to know in detail what that might involve, especially if some of the story will take place at work. Even if your character just mentions their job once or twice, it’s helpful to know a bit about it so that they don’t say something that no doctor would ever say in real life. Not researching things like this and getting them wrong will likely alienate and annoy any readers who have actual experience in whatever you’re talking about.
Writing fantasy does not excuse you from research, either; it merely changes the process. Firstly, world-building is a type of research. Your fictional world may not be something you can find out about in books or online, but you still need to know its climate, its geography, its history, and the cultures of its peoples. Plus, learning about real world cultures and histories can help inspire you. Secondly, the likelihood is that you’re not going to change the laws of nature, so you may still have to research things like how long your character could survive starvation or a stab wound, or how this character would have to be treated in order to recover from either of those things.
Next on our list is plotting. While character creation and research are both important and time-consuming, plotting is likely the most complicated part of the preparation process. And it’s so different from writer to writer and project to project that I’m not really sure there’s that much I can say about it. The beginning of the process is usually very open ended: the story could go in literally any direction. This is what makes plotting so difficult – nothing is set in stone. While the reader may see the clear-cut stone path the finished book takes as the only possible way through, the writer sees an overgrown forest with millions of potential ways through. Sometimes, they have an end goal in mind to help them, but sometimes that end goal is only a very vague idea or completely non-existent, and they will have to work it out by trial and error.
The most basic thing you need is a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need to introduce the readers to your world and your characters, then you need to introduce the problem and build the tension, and the problem needs to be solved at the end. But the problem your characters face is often not simple, and it might take you a while to solve it yourself, and then a while longer to work out what steps your characters should take in order to solve it. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the first solution you come up with is probably the most obvious one, so if you want to surprise your readers with a plot twist, you’re going to need to do a bit more thinking than that! Plus, it’s very difficult to tell if the plot you’ve come up with to get from beginning to end is the best route to change. The plotting stage is full of change; there are so many possibilities, and so many ideas all vying for attention. This goes for the character creation process, too: you’ll struggle to decide which character ideas to use and which do not belong in this project.
Some Notes on the Various Methods of Preparation
As I mentioned before, there are many ways to do all this, by which I mean that every single writer does it slightly differently – and then differently again for different novels! Generally, all these methods can be divided into “planning” and “pantsing”. “Planning” involves doing all of this beforehand. “Planners” often prefer to write a full outline before they even consider starting to write – this may be a chapter-by-chapter outline, or even a no-detail-spared scene-by-scene outline. This can take them anywhere between days, weeks, months, or even years.
“Pantsers”, meanwhile, prefer to do things “by the seat of their pants”. But that doesn’t mean they don’t do any of the preparation; it might instead mean that they do it while writing, or in their heads rather than writing it all down, or after the first draft is already written. It also doesn’t mean they put in any less effort; it may just mean that they would rather spend more time fixing their manuscript later than sitting down and working it all out beforehand.
This pretty much sums up the preparation stage of writing a book. Next up is The First Draft, which you can find by following the link below!