I’m not going to be able to teach you how to write a book in the twelve hundred or so words in this blog post – even presuming I have the skills. Yes I’ve written books, seven published so far (including The Amber Crown due in January 2022 from DAW) and a further four that I’m editing. The more I write, the more I realise I don’t know, but here are a few basic tips that I’ve assimilated.
The Big Idea
You need an idea which will give you scope. Sometimes ideas don’t translate into novel length stories. A rich entrepreneur builds a space rocket is an idea, but it’s not a story. A rich entrepreneur has always wanted to walk on the moon since he was a raggedy street urchin, and now he has the resources to build a rocket, but dark government forces are working against him. That’s more of a story because the basic idea has conflict. Person lands on wondrous new planet is an idea, but person lands on wondrous new planet and immediately has to defend it from big corporation wanting to strip its mineral resources is a plot. There has to be the opportunity for forward momentum and maybe a couple of reversals before the book reaches its climax.
Writing Great Characters
We all like our heroes and heroines to be super competent, but let us not make it too easy for them. Give them flaws, physical or mental. Make them work for their good outcome. Litter their path with obstacles; throw in a dollop of pure bad luck; have someone they trust betray them; injure them; hurt (or threaten to hurt) someone they love. Sure they are mostly super competent, but make them human (if they are human). Make us care about them by making them care about something/someone else. Give your character opinions, ideals and standards that will be put to the test. Put your character outside their comfort zone. Give them an emotional reaction that drives them to action. (You could do a lot worse that read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels to see how she takes a four foot six runt with brittle bones, living in a society that values militaristic physical perfection, and has him succeed despite sometimes making bad choices and having to think his way out of potentially deadly situations.)
Building Fantastic Worlds
Even in the most mundane, earthly books, you have to build your world. It might be a Delhi slum, or a central London office, but you still have to define your story’s setting. In fantasy and science fiction your worldbuilding can be extensive, but it has to seem real. You have a fantastic green city in the middle of a parched desert, but what is its history? How was it built? Is it self sufficient? How many people live there? Where does the water come from? Where are the food crops grown? Are there local businesses? Is there industry? Where do raw materials for manufacture come from? How does the city trade? What is the level of science and medicine? What kind of transport is there – both in the city and across the desert? What is the social structure? How is the city governed/policed? What is daily life like? What do people wear? Is there a city-wide religion? Is there magic, if so what are its rules? Are the people content? If not, why not? Patricia Wrede has a series of fantasy worldbuilding questions much more extensive than mine. See here: https://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/04/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
A book without conflict is like a meal without salt. Conflict is a clash between two opposing forces, internal or external.
- Person versus self (The Nothing Girl)
- Person versus environment (The Martian)
- Person versus person (Night Watch)
- Person versus bad guys (Harry Dresden)
- Person versus supernatural (The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep)
- Person versus society/government (Little Brother)
- Person versus mystery (A Morbid Taste for Bones)
- Person versus aliens (Independence Day)
- Person versus war (Old Man’s War)
- Person against time (Freeze Frame Revolution)
- Person versus love – or lack of it (The Other Miss Bridgerton)
- Person versus history (Azincourt)
Or often a combination of some/all of these things. I’m sure you can think up more examples, and subsets of the above. You have to give your characters a meaningful challenge and see how they rise to meet it.
To Plot or to Pants
I didn’t plot Empire of Dust. I just started writing and let the events happen, though I did have an idea of how it was going to end. Winterwood was tightly plotted in advance, which made it faster to write the first draft. Mostly I prefer a mixture of pantsing and plotting. (Pantsing, by the way, is writing by the seat of your pants.) You need to work out whether you want to plot your book before you write it. Some people feel that once they’ve committed a plot to pixels or paper, they’ve done the hard work and there’s no fun to be had in writing the whole thing out. Others like the structural framework that a preconceived plot has. I like to have a rough idea of where the story is heading, but I want to know that there’s enough flexibility for me to follow a new idea. I usually get a scene in my head, or a situation and I write to explore where it’s going. Sometimes I get ten or twenty thousand words in and then sit down to plot it out. I usually have an idea of the ending, but the middle bit is sometimes covered by stuff happens.
If your story is an unconnected series of events it will feel flat. Each event should lead on to the next. Cause and effect. This happens, and because this happens Character does that, which leads to this happening, which causes Villain to take action, which leads to Character doing something spectacular in the story’s climax. See here: https://youtu.be/vGUNqq3jVLg – it’s two minutes of invaluable advice on plotting featuring and then, therefore, or but. Don’t rely on coincidence to get your characters out of trouble (though you can use it to get your characters into trouble). Don’t rescue your characters with a deus ex machina (literally god in the machine) where something pops up to make everything all right without any kind of build up or foreshadowing.
What will happen if your character/s don’t succeed? Story stakes can be high concept or personal, but there should be a high price for failure. The end of life as we know it. Cruel regime takes over the world. Character (or Character’s loved one) dies. Character loses the love of his/her life. Whether global or personal make the stakes high so that your characters have something to strive for.
Got it? Good. Go write it.