You’ll notice this project, for once, does not involve wood, furniture, renovations or curiously odd handmade objects. The truth is sometimes even I don’t feel like spending the day in the garage especially if it’s unseasonably hot (FL) or cold (MA). Seriously, I built the cryptex dressed like an Eskimo. Not fun.
On those days where you need a change of pace or feel some unused creative energy, why not try writing? I don’t mean blogging, I mean prying a galaxy-splitting science fiction epic out of your skull with a keyboard! How awesome would that be??!
How might you get here? Maybe you enjoyed creative writing exercises and want an opportunity to expand your skills. Maybe you’re enthralled with the prospects of being a storyteller. Maybe you’re looking for a humbling/maddening challenge. Maybe you grew up with steady access to Star Wars, Jonny Quest and had a friend drop the works of Bob Mayer in your lap (guilty). Whatever the circumstances, here are a few steps I’ve taken through the minefield of writing my own stories. If you’ve got a little perseverance, patience and passion, you can build a world that will not only bring you satisfaction but a welcome escape for your readers elsewhere in the world.
*Disclaimer: I do not portend to be a bestseller and absolute master of the writing/publishing game; I can only provide my own experiences and some of the references that I’ve used along the way. In doing so, I can hopefully save you some of the mistakes I've made along the way, give you some new tools and provide access to an adventure that has provided me many hours of enjoyment. To the fellow writers out there, I'd be happy to know your results as well.
Step 1: Workflow
So where do we start? Hopefully with a good idea or spark of some kind. I can say I’ve come to my plots from multiple angles: envisioning scenes and events that I think would be interesting, imagining characters who have an adventure to go on, or just asking questions and seeing where they lead (What would happen if…).
Whichever way you decide to start is up to you. After you have a starting point you'll need to plan the events as you desire them to unfold. I normally begin with a large sheet of graph paper and make several columns detailing a few major plot events, locations, activities of various characters and major turning points.
Some considerations/questions to ask:
What is the tone and atmosphere of your story? When/where will it be taking place?
Do you have some characters in mind? Your protagonists/antagonists?
What is the problem they will need to solve? Will they succeed? What do they face if they fail?
What sort of goals do your characters have?
For your readers, what should their expectation be? How will you approach them from an emotional/intellectual level? What is the central theme?
When the time comes to design major scenes or events, I find it useful to draw the scene on a white board. Here I use different colors to designate characters and movements as the scene progresses. This helps not only with envisioning how the plot unfolds but also visually displays the interactions and experiences of your characters.
If you need a more concrete outline, go ahead and make one but I’ve found they tend to not be entirely useful and my characters are notorious for not wanting to listen to me. After you hold an argument with a fictional character, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
And speaking of characters…
Step 2: Characterization
Unless we’re talking a strict Space Opera where all your characters are living out their humdrum lives, some problems are going to befall them. Okay, like a ton of problems. Interesting problems (Oh God, Oh God, we’re all gonna die problems). Because of the veritable grinder that you’re going to put your characters through, they’re going to change along the way. They’re going to react differently at the beginning than at the end. There will be some grand lessons that they’ll take away from the whole experience.
Experience is a great teacher and can bring your characters forward from mediocrity to excellence.
Through it all, remember that your characters are (generally) human and won’t always make the right decisions. Some of the most impactful tragedies circle around people making imperfect decisions or those based on selfish or imperfect information.
In any event, you'll need a decent idea as to why your character is the way he/she is. With an established history, your characters will have experiences to draw upon when coming to conclusions which for good or bad can impact the story.
Although I've done most of my work from little more than a plan for beginning and end states, I found a great reference in David Wisehart's "How to Write Great Characters." Additionally, I've gotten some good mileage out of Rayne Hall's "Writer's Craft" series.
Step 3: Plotting and the Hero’s Journey
Of primary concern for any story will be the plot and all of things you’d like your character to do along the way.
You can use a variety of brainstorming techniques for worldbuilding as well as assembling the plot. I find it helpful to establish a series of milestones I’d like to hit along the story and from there drill down into the details.
A great structure for a scifi/fantasy plot is the Hero’s Journey. While it isn’t the only plot available, it is popular because it works (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Kingdom of Heaven, etc. all use it).
A strong consideration in any story is to make the imaginable believable. To do that, the events and principles of your story must be internally consistent.
Step 4: Revising
So you've now spent the last few months hammering away on your keyboard, fueled by passion and coffee, convinced you have built a piece of art destined for a Pulitzer and a movie deal. This lasts until you return to the first page and find... six typos. There are stray periods, a few mixed-up instances of is vs. it and led vs. lead.
It's time to start editing.
Begin by re-reading what you wrote, looking for blatant errors and mistakes, wrong names, etc. Check for consistency and flow, making sure your words flow correctly and you have a product that makes sense.
From there, I highly recommend seeking out a professional for copy editing and story editing. The copy editor's sole function is to check for grammatical/syntax errors that would otherwise turn off readers and convince them they've picked up a low-quality product... you've already gone this far, at least finish strong and don't screw up the landing.
Directories like Reedsy.com, Booklife.com and Authorsdb.com all have extensive catalogs of professionals able to assist you with your work. If you insist on going it alone, I've used the ProWritingAid plug-in for MS Word to help catch my mistakes but I'll be the first to say it's not as good as the real thing.
Step 5: Communities
Sometimes you can write in a vacuum. Everything goes great until you run out of steam without a deadline or can't think of a name for your main character's mysterious cousin who shows up unannounced bearing an ancient map to a long-forgotten...
wait, what were we talking about?
Oh, right, communities. Sometimes you need someone else to nudge you along and hold your feet to the fire. Multiple avenues are available that allow authors to connect with each other and share their work and ideas before they reach the store shelves.
National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org), is an excellent organization with the goal of having people around the world like you and me to pledge to write a novel in a month... 50,000 words in 30 days, held every November. Although useful in helping writers commit to a goal, they also operate an extensive forum system to ask questions, share strategies and help keep everyone's motivation alive. Like a marathon, it sounds impossible until you actually go through with it.
Another useful avenue has been Write On, part of Amazon (writeon.amazon.com), which allows authors to post works in progress and request feedback from fellow writers.
Step 6: Artwork
Hate to go against the classic axiom, but we both know what we do... it's the cover artwork that first catches your eye and acts as the hook to get you to look at a book. If you think it doesn't matter, take a trip through the bowels of the Amazon Kindle self-published store or http://lousybookcovers.tumblr.com/ and think again... Refrigerator art and MS Paint aren't gonna cut it.
The best solution is to hire a cover artist and have them produce a cover that will express the story in a meaningful and concise manner. Even a professionally designed template can make your work stand out. If you decide to jump in and attempt to build your cover from scratch with GIMP/Photoshop, start by studying what makes existing covers jump off the shelf for you. Practice with layouts and make several mock-ups before committing to a single version... This is the workflow for a professional and no one says you can't do it for yourself.
Through it all, keep things legal. Use licensed stock photography/fonts/styles or create your own... I went on another quest to build several props in 3Da.
Step 7: Publishing/Marketing
If anything's changed in the realm of writing in the last 10 years, its the avenues for publishing. Electronic readers like the Kindle and Nook along with their associated markets, allow anyone to publish a book... Therein lies the problem: While the market is wide open to everyone, it becomes essential to have a high-quality product and marketing plan that stands out from the crowd.
If you want to go the traditional route, good on you and I wish you luck. Search out an agent and/or publishing house, look up their requirements for manuscript submissions and start a Rejection Letter Folder. I did my searching through WritersMarket.com and used their leads to track down some agents and publishers with varying degrees of success.
My primary method has been with Kindle Direct Publishing, KDP.Amazon.com and more recently an adventure in the printed world through Createspace.Amazon.com. Upload your manuscript, cover and some metadata and you're off to the races. Another good tool to hit the rest of the online stores is Draft2Digital.com
Once your book is posted, take a deep breath, give yourself a pat on the back and reflect on what you've accomplished.
...here there be dragons, also known as 'marketing' and 'building an audience.' Since I'm in no way a best-selling-author, I cannot claim to be an expert on marketing and audience engagement.
Step 8: The Motivation
A few final thoughts as I wrap this up. If you're going to invest hundreds of hours in the development, production and distribution of a story/book/series/epic poem, the most important question you'll have to ask yourself is "WHY?".
Sheer enjoyment isn't going to be enough to get you there. It might get a few thousand words stacked on a shelf, but that's not the goal. Neither is the prospect of writing a future classic and becoming a bestseller; those are lofty goals as well but even that's not going to do it. How about a testament to your own skill and perseverance? I'll admit, that's one of the reasons I printed a few copies of my first book and it was awesome to go that far.
Ultimately, we all seek to make a connection to someone else's life at just the right time and offer them an escape. Twenty years ago, the works of Paul Zindel, Michael Crichton, Doug Beason and Bob Mayer found their way to me and had more of an effect than they will ever know. I cannot thank them enough but I can honor them in no better way than by seeking to do the same for those who follow me.