It seems that writing a novel may still be beyond me. The plot and synopsis I can create with little trouble, but I get lost when it comes to the finer details of plotting and maintaining direction while writing it. Writing short stories as ‘practice’ does not build up the skills I need for a novel. I can with little effort plot out a short story beat by beat. Hell, a short story doesn’t always need to be plotted. But how do I go from short stories to novels? There is a massive leap in both scope and expectations. I need stepping stones. A go between.
What about that thing that is too short to be a novel and too long to be a short story? You know, that thing everyone tells you not to write. I remember years ago on the writing forums I frequented I saw a lot of old school mentality. To be fair, this was before the Kindle became a thing. A huge thing. It almost felt like I was surrounded by a ‘bottom line’ mentality. Want to make money selling fiction? Well then you need to get a full length novel published through traditional means. Boo vanity publishing! Boo anything not short story, novel, or movie script! It’s amazing how 5-6 years ago feels like ancient history.
Now let’s jump forward to the world of eBooks. A world dominated by the Amazon Kindle. And let’s drag print on demand into this. How hard is it now to publish something onto a marketable platform? Not very. The actual marketing is a whole different animal and beyond the scope of this article. But seriously, what can’t you get published on these services? Print on demand services aren’t concerned about shelf space and eBook readers could care less about word counts. So at the end of it all, publishing something other than a novel or collection of short stories is totally doable. It doesn’t necessarily have to be self-published; it’s just that other fiction formats are now viable.
And that brings me to the novella. What caught my attention recently was this quote by Robert Silverberg I found on Wikipedia, “[The novella] is one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms...it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel.”
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, all you need to know is that Robert Silverberg is awesome. That quote right there has gotten me motivated to start exploring the novella. The rigid structure of the commercial novel is too much for me right now, and short stories do not give me enough time to develop the kinds of plots I envision. Perhaps the shorter length will also save me from plotting burnout (see previous post).
While I don’t often write short fiction, I do enjoy reading it. Ernest Hemmingway has hands down written the best short fiction I’ve ever read. He creates tension and conflict through action and detail. Nothing is wasted on set up and exposition. In his short fiction anyway; I never tried his novels. Anyways, when you’ve got prose that tight, you don’t need a lot of pages to convey your story.
As one could imagine, there’s not anywhere near as much info out there on writing novellas as there are more popular modes of fiction. I think for the most part I’ll be exploring the novella on my own, but I think that’s ok. It’s kind of exciting to tap into new territory, like when I wrote my first movie script. I felt satisfied because I had finished something not only in a format I never tried before, but also something of considerable length. That feeling right there is another motivation boost for getting a novella done, and of course, I can also sell it.
Stick around as I’ll try to provide updates on my plotting and writing progress when I get more into it. I’ve still got some shorts on the back burner. Stepping stones.
Back in December I started plotting out a Sci-Fi series to be sold on the Kindle store. I’m still in the plotting phase, and for some reason or another I’m getting burnt out on it. Maybe it’s the extensive time I’ve spent on it, or maybe I’m not going about it right. Whatever the reason, I need to make things fresh again before I can the whole project.
Writing is hard work. There’s no getting around that. If you wait for inspiration, you will never finish anything. It’s one of those passions that’s as frustrating as it is rewarding, kind of like hardcore gaming. However, with games it seems like the light at the end of the tunnel is easier to see. Just one more go and I’ll beat this boss! It’s not that simple with writing. We all get to the end in our own way. I tried writing by the seat of my pants and I never finished anything longer than a short story. With a flexible path before me I might be able to reach that end, but creating that path is a challenge in and of itself.
Putting everything down on the computer is how I started. This quickly turned into a mess. I’ve organized the notes since then, but there’s so many pieces missing. Why are my characters doing this? What are the stakes? Can I create tension out of this? The answer is always, I’m not sure. After reading book after book on plotting, I learned that plotting is very much an individual path. Everyone has to find their own way. Am I lost, or just tired?
The motivation is waning. Sitting in front of the PC does not produce results. Plotting is not the same as story writing. Words do not flow. They come in short concise bouts. It also seems to take considerably more effort to keep my mind on the matter. To get me started I’ll free write about my plotting progress in a journal devoted to the project. I’ll do a full five hundred words before moving into the plotting, that way my mind is already intent on typing. As of late though, I often only get the journal entry done.
What else can I do? I tried taking a break. It’s been three weeks now and I was hoping to get the plotting process as a whole done by the end of February. No chance. I did start using index cards and a paper notebook. It just seems like a slower way to do things. What I’ve been dying to do is get a massive whiteboard and a corkboard for my index cards. For military sci-fi I should be drawing up battle plans and pacing around my room like a general. I think the extra blood flow will let the ideas come easier.
Of course, my full time hours and long commutes are probably the biggest motivation killers. Being out of the house for eleven hours a day doesn’t leave much free time, and there’s other things that must be done after work. Plotting isn’t fun. A full day of no-fun is a massive buzzkill.
It seems like maybe I just need to tough it out. I need to keep putting ideas to paper. Bad ideas will be cut, and good ideas can be refined. The biggest change from when I started the project is my lack of reading. I’m always wiped by the end of the day now. When I read more, I write more. This whole project might become a time juggling act now, which is not fun on my ADD brain that hates schedules.
This to me also affirms why I don’t consider writing to be a hobby of mine. It feels like a job and I treat it like a job, but it’s a job that I love. Hobbies can be picked up and put down to make room for other hobbies. I can’t stop writing, and I want to write as a job, so I must learn how to tough out these hard days of work like my real job.
Ever come up with a cool idea in the middle of the day? Some plot idea, an intricate character back story, some neat sci-fi tech, etc. You think to yourself, I’ll jot this down later! But later doesn’t always come does it? Later at some point you remember that smile or ‘Ah ha!’ feeling in your brain, but you have no clue what thoughts and ideas were in that mind of yours.
That’s pretty much me all the time. Recently I thought of this character back story that seemed so awesome in my mind at the time. Weeks later I start going through my computer files expecting to find this back story. I figured, this was so good, how could I not have written it down? Well, I never found it. Now I have to pull together what memories I have of it and write it down.
Of course, that brings me to the whole point of this article, there’s no reason why it should not have been written down! If I’m too tired to type I have multiple microphones plugged into my computer, so at the very least I could talk out my ideas. Long and elaborate recordings can be weird to listen to later, but at least you have a record of some sort. Then later, you can extract the gist of what you said into a word doc. And if the computer is unavailable there’s the old fashioned pen and paper. Hell, I’ve even jotted stuff down in my Kindle using note taking apps (which all suck in their own way).
I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to write, even with plotting, but when it does come it’s a good idea to have some way to get it down. My old Razor flip phone use to house a good number of lyric ideas saved as text drafts (until I accidentally deleted them). Before it started glitching out I would use the voice recorder to remember some plot ideas or even record my acoustic guitar. For me, inspiration is rare, so it’s best to get it out in some way when I can. It’s also a good idea to get those ideas onto a more reliable device (other than an ancient flip phone) as soon as possible.
Even if the idea doesn’t seem that great when you finally write it down, you can do what I do and gut old idea docs. See my last blog post about that. You’d be amazed how useful your old shit can be if you put some effort into those docs. Maybe the protagonist can be extracted from that story and placed into a new setting. Perhaps the setting is great but needs fresh conflict and characters. It’s best not to let this inspiration slip away.
Sometimes I find just a few key words can resurrect old ideas or inspirational dreams. I recently found an old word doc from six years ago that listed titles of short stories I was going to write based off of dreams I’ve had over the years, but I never wrote any descriptions. However, just seeing the titles made me relive some of those dreams. Look! Free inspiration! Time to write it down!
Backups. Make backups. Backup everything. Have I mentioned backups yet? I can’t tell you how many files I’ve lost due to burnt up flash drives (oh yes, it happens), computer reformats, lost memory cards, and general file mismanagement. Shit happens, especially to those who are passionate. Protect your time investments. If you have multiple computers, copy your My Documents folder to every PC you own. Buy multiple flash drives and rotate them. Buy an external hard drive and make a clone of hard drive, that way you can relocate misplaced files (I found a whole photo collection this way). Put stuff on friends’ computers. Print out copies. Don’t ever let your work exist as a single document!
I think I have made my point. Don’t let things reside in your head, and don’t ever make just one copy. My goal is to be a professional writer, meaning writing will be my bread and butter job, so I’d best start using professional habits now. Ideas could turn into profit later, so losing one could become expensive. Pressed for time like I have been lately, I don’t have the luxury of day dreaming like I use to, so I’m building up a folder of plot outlines based on old and new idea docs. Again, even if you don’t have time to write everything down, something as simple as a title can jog your memory later. So next time inspiration hits, or you suddenly recall an old idea, find some way to make it tangible. Like… I don’t know. I’m sleepy. I’ll write it down later.
If you’ve been writing for a good while, then you’ve probably accumulated a big pile of notes or massive My Documents folder. I’ve been going over the files in my laptop that has all the Word docs from the last three or four desktops I’ve used. It’s like a freaking time machine! Most of these docs are terrible and outline bad ideas, but they’ve got me thinking; could I still use some of these ideas?
Yes, most of the shit I thought up when I was fifteen sucks. Hell, most of my ideas at nineteen were terrible (though I did have a massive breakthrough in my writing skills before I hit twenty, so they at least read nice). But I do find scraps here and there of useful ideas. There is one particular unfinished short story I did when I was nineteen that got off to an amazing start. I should probably finish that, since my writing skills then are about on par with my rough drafts these days. But what I really went back for was those hundreds of pages of notes dedicated to world building. When in a pinch of ideas, that stuff can be useful.
There’s a sci-fi universe I created when I was fifteen that I’ve continued today. However, it’s vastly different and I know a hell of a lot more about life than I did back then. Almost nothing is the same. Tech, history, even names have changed over the years, but there’s these fine little details I wrote back then that don’t cross my mind as much these days. Back then I read sci-fi a lot, and again in my early twenties when I started adding to the docs again. Now I’m mostly non-fiction with an occasional thriller. I just don’t have my mind dwelling in cool sci-fi shit anymore. So why the hell do I want to write a sci-fi?
Honestly, I like having a massive folder of story ideas. I’ve been trying to come up with another novel idea and it fills me with creativity when I read over stuff I wrote as a child (or teenager). Realism is something I get over focused on sometimes and it can slow me down. Sometimes it’s good to let go and explore some crazy what-ifs. A lot of these wild ideas I wrote down for different short stories or novels were inspired by nightmares I had when I was younger. These days I make no attempt to remember them, so there goes some really good free inspiration.
Speaking of lack of realism, my characters back then were horribly unrealistic. Their back stories were stupid. It blew my mind how ridiculous some of their personalities were. I guess I used dark back stories to give them post traumatic stress or something, but back then I had no understanding of that condition what so ever. Maybe I had it in my head that in order to be vicious or do bad things you had to be fucked in the head, and bad things happening to you while you’re young can fuck you in the head. Of course, as I got older I learned that you can get over shit and grow up, but every few pages I read about a character trait that makes me go, “What if?”
What if I gave this guy a normal background and just gave him a few tics? What if instead of something bad stuff happening in the past, something bad is happening right now and this guy needs to adapt or die? What if I could make this crazy person believable? It’s shit like this that make me read over these docs every few years. Most of it makes me smile as I see how far I’ve come. Some of it makes me shake my head and ask what the fuck I was thinking. And some of it makes me go, “Huh. That wasn’t a bad idea.”
At the end of the day, looking back on old work is another tool in the toolbox, and you can never have too many tools. There’s a select few stories I wish I never abandoned, but the rest just shows me how I’ve moved forward. That alone can give me a little boost when I’m doubting myself, and at the very best I can get an idea to start writing right now, like this article I just finished.
Well, I’ve finally done it. I’ve finished a piece of fiction! It’s been what? Three years? That’s the last short story I remember doing. Oh, there was a script I wrote two years ago that I’m still revising. Even still, I just completed a 4200 word piece of fiction! And it’s in the genre of horror, territory I haven’t traveled before. It feels so good! I know it’s just a rough draft, and there’s a lot more work to be done, but this is a huge step for me.
After two novel attempts I took a year off from prose. I kept editing scripts, but that’s a whole different writing style. As I mentioned in a previous article, scripts have a certain level of detachment. With prose I find myself pretty self-conscious, which is funny as friends will point out I spill my guts on my videos and podcasts. Perhaps my bluntness gives me confidence that people won’t over analyze my performances. I leave a lot up to the readers in my stories. Often I don’t know what I’m putting out there.
I guess I got over it. Somewhat. I’m already jotting down ideas for novels again, even revisiting ideas I wished I had fleshed out. But I think I’d like to stick with short stories for a while. They give me a chance to play with concepts without having to commit to the labor a novel brings. I don’t need a large cast or an elaborate plot. Or a massive number of scenes to stretch out a basic idea. Hell, with micro-fiction I can just show a glimpse. With four or five thousand words I can show a single terrifying moment, and no one would get mad that it didn’t build into something else.
Short story writing also helps me build up my writing craft and revision skills without spending three months on a rough draft. It did take me a couple of months to finish this short story, but half of it was written in two days (over last weekend). This was more or less due to the stresses of work and then being in between jobs again. I do believe writers need some kind of stability to be successful. Regardless, it’s done! My daily word count is just now something I’m taking seriously, now that I have some order.
It also probably helps that I’m again reading fiction, and not just books on writing fiction. You can definitely pick up on the basics of story telling just by reading a whole lot of stories. Even watching movies helps. I started off with Hemingway again (I LOVE his short stories and novellas, not so much his novels), but I’ve also started reading Dave Morrell, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and Matthew Mather (who may be my new favorite thriller writer). Even though I do not always like what I pick up, I try to get through them just to see what the author does. Dave Morrell’s First Blood went South after the climax, but I was still anxious to get to the end. Believe me I can easily but down a book once the plot loses me, but getting to the end helps me learn how the authors’ keep their readers hooked.
Of course, putting down books can also help me learn too, if I can understand why. For example, I had a hard time reading Michael Crichton’s Disclosure a second time. It’s a great book with some of Crichton’s most believable character development, but he shoves his message so hard in my face I lose all immersion. Crichton is kind of known for his messages, with varying degrees of subtlety. In the case of Jurassic Park, the monsters themselves made the point. Me on the other hand, I don’t put any messages in my work, but I know people will go looking. I know I’ll have to deal with that.
So I’m I back in action? I don’t know yet. This is my fourth day in a row of hitting my daily word count, and I was just shy last week of getting my weekly word count. I think I’m on the right track. Writing short stories will hopefully get me in the right mindset to handle completing a novel. Next one won’t be an attempt. That’s a promise I made to myself.
So I’m finally back and I’m ready to talk about the craft of writing. Towards the end of last year I started reading various writing help books. I never looked into the craft of writing fiction, and I’m learning now that I made a huge mistake. To be fair though, I was on a writing forum a few years back, and I got a lot of bad advice. The best writing advice comes from authors who are actually published. So I have here today some reviews of writing advice books from published authors.
Just a heads up, I bought all these books on the Kindle store, so I don’t know if print copies exist. Let me get started...