So I want to share a little of my experience on writing with you. Essentially, what I hope to accomplish is to give you some tools to help you succeed, as well as tell you some of the mistakes I made along the way so you can avoid those same pitfalls. So this is going to be a little stream of consciousness, and a little information dumpy. That’s not what I would call great writing, but it gets you a lot of what I have to tell in a short span of time and you can (hopefully) refer back to it later if you need to.
About me: My name is Robert L. Perrine. I’m a chef turned self-published author, and I write full time now. I write a middle grade series called The Bookshop. The first book, “The Bookshop and the Junglest,” was released in January and is doing very well. I’ll talk about making your book a success in a while, but for now that’s getting the cart well ahead of the horse.
To start with, I want to talk about beginning your story. So there are a LOT of ways to begin a story. Some authors plot every little thing before they start. David Baldacci does this. He literally outlines the entire story before he ever begins to write it. He actually writes the first paragraph of every chapter, then goes back and plugs in the rest afterwards. If this works for you great. I personally would feel very confined by a structure like that. The way I build a story is driven by both characters and environment. So that’s what I’ll speak to you about. As to environment, I’ll start by jotting down what might be found in a place. So since my stories take place at least in part in a bookshop, I’ll use that as an example.
What would be in a bookshop? Books, tables, sofas, chairs, a sales counter, a proprietor, pictures, posters, a hand cart, and hey, maybe an old cat. Bookshops have cats right? Sometimes, I’ll add subcategories to these because if we’re going to bring these things into our story, then we can certainly use them as more than just décor. So as subcategory examples, I’ll say books. Well, what sort of books? History, fiction, sci-fi, mystery, new release, etc. But more than that, I may look at individual items and ask, why does it matter that that’s here? So you have a sales counter, so what? Everybody has a sales counter. What makes yours special? Well mine’s magical of course! Maybe it’s fire proof and can withstand the flame of a dragon. That would make it special! And that would make it interesting. Or take the pictures on the walls at Hogwarts or all the different sorts of candies Rowling thought up. Sure, she could have made them just pictures or candy. But pictures that come to life and candy that turns into a living frog is much more fun! So think about your environment as it will provide you the tools and setting for your story.
There are entire webpages devoted to world building for authors. These can include anything from the flora and fauna of a place, the climate, the government, the religion, and even the modes of transportation, architecture, and music that make your world up. Yes, you can absolutely let these things develop naturally. But it’s been my experience that simply jotting some of them down helps you to find that world in your head and to make it real for the reader.
What about the old cat that was in the bookshop? Certainly we can make him special in some way too right? Maybe give him a personality? So I want to talk a little bit about character building. When I think up a character, the first thing I do is tell myself fifteen things about that character. These things may not even make it into the story or be important in any way, but they help me get to know them. And even if you don’t specifically write in your story that Brian never played baseball as a child, that persona will creep in. so that would look on paper something like this:
- Not athletic
- 12 years old
- Loves books
- Has a crush on Sarah
- Scared of heights
- VERY good at math
- Doesn’t get along with Principal Bigsby at all
- Parents died in car crash when he was a baby
- Lives in an orphanage
- Has a best friend named David
- Is very loyal
- Has a very strong sense of right and wrong
- HATES spinach
- Wants a dog and a family more than anything else in the world
Plot: I personally don’t choose a plot before I begin a story. Or at least not a full plot. For the most part my stories begin with a simple question. The question for my first book was: “What if there was a magical bookshop that could take kids into stories?” Once I had the question, an idea of environment, and a few characters, all I had to do was put my characters into the environment, and see what they did. From there it was just a case of me recounting the events that took place. This happened, and also this. This too. And sometimes you’ll come to a place where the characters aren’t telling you what happens next. In my experience, that’s because there is another character waiting to tell their part of the story. So in these occasions, do terrible things to your characters! >:) Say you’ve brought them to a waterfall. It’s beautiful. We’ve all oooh’d and awe’d over the waterfall, but then you don’t know what to do. Introduce a new character! Maybe they find a cave behind the waterfall. What’s in the cave? A dragon? A wizard? A Troll? A porthole into the future? Dealer’s choice guys. Write whatever you like. But keep it moving and keep it fresh. As a rule of thumb, if it bores you, it will bore your poor reader to tears.
One more thing before we move on: Be fair to your characters. Let them lead you where they want to go. And understand that what they do needs to be rational to them. This is especially true of villains. If you make a villain mean just for the sake of being mean, they’re going to come across as unbelievable. It’s ok for their actions to seem crazy to the reader. But for the villain himself, his actions have to make sense to him. He has to believe that what he is doing is right and good for him.
First things first. Grammar does matter. Invest in a Strum and White grammar book. I find them at used book stores all the time. This will answer your questions like, “How do I punctuate this?” You will save yourself a lot of headaches by simply having a grammar reference book close at hand. Yes, you will have an editor later, but it’s not on an editor to hold your hand. You want to be an author. This is your craft. So take the time to learn your craft. In every way, it will open up worlds for you.
Adverbs/showing and not telling: I’m going to include these both in the same subject because they play off of one another. First though, I want to tell you that while there are hard rules to grammar, there are really no rules to writing. There are guidelines though. One of those guidelines is avoid adverbs as much as possible. The reason for this is they lead to bad writing. An example: He ran quickly. Quickly is the adverb. So here’s what’s wrong with it: First of all, it’s redundant. Saying , He ran, pretty much implies that he did it quickly. If he ran slowly, that would be jogging right? So immediately, “Ran quickly,” is bad writing. Avoid redundancy. But more than that, it’s killed any description you could have given. Try instead:
“Brian rounded the corner pumping his legs as hard as he could. His heart thrummed in his chest and his lungs ached for oxygen. He wasn’t going to make it.”
It’s better right? An adverb would have killed that. It’s the same with almost any adverb.
She smiled sadly.
No she didn’t!
She sat alone in her room with the moonlight reflecting off her tears. She forced a smile she didn’t mean and whispered to herself, “I can do this.”
So before you use an adverb, ask yourself, does it add to the story? Does it make the picture I’m trying to paint better? Or worse? Is it redundant? There are times to use adverbs. Just choose them wisely.
So that brings me to the next point as they’re tied together: Don’t tell me. Show me. Brian ran quickly, Is telling me. The second version is showing me. Another example of this is in characterization. It’s tempting for an author to say, Brian believes in doing the right thing. Or to have a friend of Brian’s say, “Man Brian, you’re always doing the right thing!” This is lazy writing. We’re here to tell a great story! In that endeavor, lazy writing just won’t do! So put Brian in a situation where he has a choice of doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Make the wrong thing tempting. VERY tempting. Then have Brian make the right call. If you’re writing in first person or third person omniscient, you can even take the reader along through Brian’s thought process. This lets the reader know and understand him better as a real person.
One more thing and then I’ll wrap this up for the night. We’ve covered enough to get you started anyway. So the last thing I want to touch on is passive voice. Passive voice is pretty easy to spot. Look for, was, had, has etc. words that imply past tense.
Brian had been coming to the pool hall for years.
Instead, try, Brian came to the pool hall every night.
It’s active. It’s more engaging. I had a hard time understanding this rule. I didn’t understand the why of it. But after having to edit passive voice out of my entire manuscript, I get it. Passive voice is timid writing. It’s the author not saying what they mean. Don’t tell me the class was boring. Tell me the class IS boring. Don’t tell me it was a hot day. It IS a hot day! Don’t tell me Brian was being picked on by the jocks. The jocks ARE picking on Brian. Another addendum to this is passive voice is frequently bulky and unnecessary. So for example, it’s tempting to write, The rock was sticking out ten feet over the gorge. It’s awkward to read right? It’s a mouthful. You could paint a clearer and more active picture by choosing the correct word. The rock jutted ten feet over the gorge. Much cleaner right? So yeah, active voice will make your writing much cleaner.
I think I’ll stop there. That’s enough for one sitting. But I’ll leave you with one final thought. The ONLY trick to writing, is to sit down and write. Get your butt between a chair and a keyboard and start creating. Then don’t stop. When I write, I don’t take more than one day off a week. I do that because I don’t want to lose my world or my characters. I need them to be fresh in my mind. Whatever works for you. But write. Don’t even edit. Just write. Any of the things I talked about above can be cleaned up in revision later. But it’s impossible to edit a blank page. I hope this helps you guys. Thank you for giving me your time, and thank you Mr. Schultz for inviting me to contribute to this! I hope your guy’s stories are amazing! Until the next time, metaphors be with you!
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