Getting to Know Your Story (Part I)

So let’s say you’ve got this fantabulous idea for a novel, right.  So then the first step, naturally, would be to start writing about it.  Riiiiight?

Err…if you mean start writing the actual novel, then I’m afraid not.  I’ll explain why.


I can be a real stubborn one.  I’m the kind of person that will purchase one of those self-assembled furniture pieces from places like Target and IKEA and refuse to read the instructions because I’m smart and can figure it out by myself, thank you very much.  My dad’s an engineer (electrical, actually).  Works in the aerospace industry.  I’m sure he passed down some of his figure-it-out mentality to me through the bloodline, even if it’s just a fraction.  Convicted of this, I set my mouth in a grim line and put those insulting pictorial instructions with those ridiculous smiling faces aside.

Of course, I usually end up regretting it later.  “What?  Where did that piece come from?”

Disassemble.  Insert missing piece.  Reassemble.  Scowl at own stupidity.  Smart, eh?

Shut up, I tell my snickering subconscious.  Shut the frak up.

*   *   *
Not surprisingly, I’ve taken a similar approach to writing.  I like to learn things the hard way, apparently.  Make mistakes.  Make a fool of myself.  Gain incredible insights along the way.

The latter is the greatest part, the part I never regret.  The same can be said for making some mistakes along the way, though a good number of the mistakes I’ve made probably could have been avoided.

Here’s where I’m going with this: There are instructors out there in this big wide world who have set aside time out of their daily bustling lives to provide useful tips, guidelines and storytelling commandments, either free of charge or for an affordable rate, to would-be writers who think they’ll have no trouble figuring it all out on their own by doing things their way.  (This page is proof.)  Writers like me.  And, perhaps, you.

I think it’s quite possible to figure it out all on your own, but if you’re not a very patient, dedicated, or disciplined person you’ll burnout long before you’ve even gotten a quarter of the way there.  Lucky for me, once I’ve dedicated myself to an endeavor I don’t quit easily, but I also don’t like floundering around like a fish out of water for long and will eventually turn to someone for help.  But only if I can’t figure it out by myself first.

Call it a character flaw, but I really do like to figure certain things out on my own.  There’s a sense of achievement that comes along with that.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this for yourself at one point or another.  You’d understand.

Okay, so maybe there’s stuff I should learn before attempting a novel.  So what?

If you’re not convinced you need to get yourself edumacated before you set out to start a novel with any hope of potential amongst other readers besides yourself, then I’m sorry; I can’t help you.  No one can.  If that’s what you want, to figure it out on your own, then more power to you.

On the other hand, if you are new to this writing thing, want to benefit from those who’ve been there and learn more about storytelling before you embark on the incredibly ambitious mission of writing a novel (or any story for that matter), then there are a few places you can start.

The first: remember that page I mentioned earlier, that orange link?  (At least I think it’s orange, unless you already visited it.)  That would be a good start.  Or, if you have a favorite author(s), why not check out his/her website or blog?  They might even have free writing tips to share with you.

There are also some books out there that you might want to consider.  If you’ve read some of my other posts, then you already know that I’m a biased writer in that my focus is on the fantasy genre.  With that said, there are a couple of books I’ve read and thought were helpful without them being limited to fantasy writers.

How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey was one.  It gives you some basic things to think about before you start pecking away on your keyboard, relentlessly churning out fiction into your poor word processor during ceaseless nights, and perhaps even, days.  (Sometimes you get that into it.)  The Key, by the same author, was also useful to me in understanding the archetypal Hero’s Journey and character types but also cliches, how to avoid them and how it’s possible to mix character roles to create more complex characters.  Also, check out Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  It goes through the basics of how to put a coherent sentence together, but it also talks about how to appropriately use certain misused words and phrases like lie and lay.  Style and grammar all wrapped up into one.  It’s a good reference book–one I still like to thumb through.

…and that’s where my book-reading advice stops short.  Like I said, I am of the figure-it-out variety, so I didn’t read too many how-to books before I dived back into the process of writing.  Most of my research, when I hunkered down and did some, was actually done online.  However, if you prefer books to online articles or want to mix up your educational-things-to-read list, then there are many bookstores out there, online and in-person, that make it easy to search for instructional books and make personal judgements as to which ones might help you the most.  This is especially easy online, where you can also browse other reader’s reviews on books you’re interested in and read their takes on how helpful those books were/were not.  That’s personally my favorite way to go about purchasing books.

Alibris, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders are all great places to search.  I’m sure there are more out there, but those are the one’s I’ve tried.  (Amazon is probably my fave. :D)

Learning about writing is a lot like homework in college: No one’s gonna keep looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re doing it.  Either you learn the material or you don’t.  That’s how I feel about it, anyway.  In essence, I think becoming a (creative) writer is just one of those do-it-yourself kinds of things.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t mentors out there who can give you pointers and advice along the way, though.

Now, to the Point.

Hm, this post is getting long, and I’ve barely brushed the titular topic!  You know what?  Here’s what I’m gonna do: Consider today Part I.  Tomorrow, I will post Part II.

“Soooooooound good?”

“Yes, sir!”

(Thinking of Inglourious Basterds there.)