Over the years, many a hopeful author has told me they had a great idea for a story but didn’t know how to being. First and foremost is knowing punctuation and grammar. If you don’t know these, writing a sellable manuscript will prove futile. Joining a critique group or even letting someone you know line-edit your work can help.
There are countless ways to approach writing a book. What I’m suggesting in this article is the simplest method based on what writers have told me and what I have witnessed in the critique groups I hosted for over 35 years. Even if you follow my steps, you WILL end up developing a system that best works for you. Everything written below is to give you the kick-start to begin.
Plots range from simplistic to convoluted, and many stories are woven with a subplot. What fails a writer is when the dots throughout their manuscript don’t connect. Even a simple story must flow with a consistent stream of actions.
Example for a Thriller/Suspense/Mystery or Drama:
Wo(man) moves to a small town and finds the people unwilling to accept her/him.
The “dots” are what connects the beginning to the end of your story. If you’re planning a road trip and using a map to layout your journey, your “dots” are the connecting roads, towns and cities, right? Your story’s journey is no different. Go off on some side road and the odds are you will get lost, as will your plot.
Every action has a reaction. If you write a scene wherein your character senses someone watching them, don’t move on and ignore this bit of mystery you have created. Inexperienced writers believe creating red herrings (false circumstances or last minutes characters) heightens the suspense of their masterpiece. It doesn’t. What it does do is pull the rug out from beneath your plot. And even if you somehow get past an agent and editor with this, the readers are less forgiving.
And make no mistake—we write FOR the readers.
Back in the day when I was one of the judges for the Romantic Times writing contests, these mistakes were consistently made by the hopeful contestants:
Writers of the Realm
A woman falls into a fountain and ends up in medieval times, where she meets her “destined husband.” Okay, so many romance books are this hokey, mine included. BUT, there had better be a connection between the medieval man, the modern woman, and why the fountain comes into play. If not, this writer is forever off my reading list. My absolute favorite romance author is Diana Gabaldon. Her plotting is brilliant—she connects EVERY dot—her characters are unforgettable, and her research is mind-boggling. This Plot has been done many times, but the elements she brings to this genre are incredible.
My other favorite authors are: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Michael Connelly, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Terry Brooks, George R.R. Martin, James Paterson, Robert Ludlum, David Baldacci, Michael Crichton, and Kaye & Jonathan Kellerman. My favorite character among these authors many is F.B.I. Agent Aloysius Pendergast by Preston and Child.
I’m sure I’m forgetting some. I read these authors because I love their plots, characterizations and their style of writing.
You only have a few scenes in your head and can’t figure out how to connect them, let alone fill in everything in between.
Here’s a suggestion:
Purchase large index cards. I suppose you could create pages on your computer, but I find laying out a map far more visual than staring at one on a monitor. So, go purchase large index cards and write one digest-version scene on each one. When you have written all that your mind has put forth, lay them out on a table. One should jump out and tell you “Open the story with me!” One by one, your scenes will fall into place like a stacked outline. From here, create your actual outline (on the computer for you to print out), adding notes to yourself what filler you need as you go.
Another mistake I have noticed in new writers is the misconception that creating something outrageous is a shoe-in to getting published. Right about now you should be hearing a buzzer going off in your head. “Outrageous” or “Unusual” only works if your plot can support it and explains how something improbable or impossible can be as real as the air you breathe.
And if you use ROGET’S THESAURUS to unlock the perfect word when describing an action, etc., don’t go for the little-known or what you might at the time believes is the more “sophisticated” word. Keep it simple. Writing is about telling a story in a way that allows readers to mentally visualize what we have created.
When I went to Scotland in 1990, I stayed overnight in a B&B called Culgruff Manor House in Crossmichael. I woke the next morning and had the idea for Everlastin’. The difficulty I faced with the plot, however, took me a good two weeks of going over it in my head. Finally, I figured out how to explain how a man who has been dead for a century and a half can live in intervals like any other man does in our plane of existence. And there is also the painting that links him to the heroine and her to what I call Baird House in Scotland.
Sometimes straining your brain for a simple explanation doesn’t work. Do you continue on with the “outrageous” situation woven into your plot or do you sit back and analyze why you have chosen this path in your story? If your subconscious is not backing up your mind’s construction of the storyline, pay attention. Try structuring your plot a little differently—or a lot differently. You’ll know when your creative juices set you on the right path.
My favorite books are those that are character-driven. Whenever I think about my favorite books, movies or television shows, the characters are first in line and the plots second.
I personally don’t know anyone who is perfect. Human beings are flawed—some more than others, but what the hey, right? We all have our idiosyncrasies. When creating your character(s), you have their features, coloring, build, and so on to construct. But you also need to create a personality in them, and part of this is the “internal conflict.” If you have a man who has become a hermit, he has to have a reason. If you have a woman who is afraid to leave her house at night, there has to be a reason. If you have a criminal who decides he wants to turn his life around, what is the trigger for this? Give your character the same layers that exist in real people. Loves, likes, hates, fears…emotions make us what we are.
When I first started writing at the age of thirteen, I was only interested in horror, and wrote three novels (very bad ones, I confess) by the time I was nineteen. In my twenties I volleyed between horror and science fiction. Four more books finished. I also started reading gothic romances and it fascinated me how strong emotions played throughout the stories, and by the time I was in my early thirties, I realized all my previous characters were one dimensional. I went into a long, long rewrite on a book I had started in 1970—the trilogy now called, ONE BRIGHT STAR, WRITTEN IN THE STARS, & NOVA (the KATIAH TRILOGY).
I sold EVERLASTIN’ and ONE BRIGHT STAR to Kensington Publishers in 1992. With EVERLASTIN’ I created the supernatural/romance genre that is still popular today. Ironically, I don’t think of myself as a romance writer. I have never followed the “formula” and never will. I still love to write horror and I’m now working on 3 fantasy series.
Here is an inside secret about your characters. Some people may say I’m loony (could be true) but I honestly believe what I’m about to tell you.
You’re working on your story and you hit a block. No matter how hard you try, you can’t get a scene or even the chapter to play out for you. What’s happening, you want to know?
Once you’ve created your characters, they are inside your head. Not just milling about in your mind, but also deep in your subconscious. So you hit a block or what you’re writing is not what you mentally outlined.
Writers of the Realm
Your subconscious is working on the story even while you sleep. The characters KNOW the parts they play even if you consciously forget. So just write. They will guide you along, maybe not on the road you wanted but certainly on the road the story should travel.
EVERLASTIN’ was meant to be a single title, but the character of Lachlan plagued my mind until I delved into the second book. And the third, fourth, fifth and sixth. Apparently I ended the series to his satisfaction because he hasn’t bothered me since.
Writing a book can sometimes be frustrating, exhausting and seemingly futile. Ignore all this, because when you finish, you’ll experience enormous pride, giddy exhilaration and a sense of accomplishment like nothing you could ever imagine.
If you plan to submit you manuscript to an agent or publisher, go the any of the publisher websites and read the requirements. I would also suggest you read a book in your genre and closely study the sentence and paragraph structuring, how the dialogue is set up, etc.
If you need more help than what I have posted in this article, email my son, S.L. MADDEN or myself, Mickee Madden, on our comment form. We will get back to you and help in any way we can.