One of the hardest things about being a new writer is finding reasons to keep going. In my early days, I wrote five novels and twenty short stories before selling a single word. That’s around half a million words. What motivated me on days when the dream wasn’t enough?
In my first post I mentioned that I used to write music. It’s true. In High School, I produced reams of scores for piano and other instruments, and later moved onto a very limited 8-track sequencer running on the same Amiga computer I used to write my first novel.
Sleep is a time when our unconscious gets busy, filling our heads with nonsense and wonders. More of the former than the latter, usually, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve woken up with a thought that either solved a problem I was struggling with the previous day or an entirely new idea.
In the science fiction and fantasy scene, there’s a lot of talk about world-building. You know, how the science of Star Wars works (or doesn’t work) and how the different kingdoms of Game of Thrones differ from each other, etc. Which is not to say that world-building isn’t important in other genres, like romance and crime. It’s just more obvious. I mean, take historical fiction as a genre that sits in the middle, between pure realism and speculative fiction. No one I know has ever been to 18th Century Italy (say) so the author has to create a convincing picture of it and make it make sense, using nothing but words.
We are what we eat. That’s what they say, and I think it’s true of writing too. We write what we read, or we are at least strongly influenced by what we read.
I’m asking myself this question now, not just because my residency arguably begins with this second post, but also because I’m about to start writing a new novel. The new novel of a new series, in fact; there’s a lot riding on it. So: where to start?
Where does anyone start?
Hi there. I’m Sean Williams and it’s December, and I’m excited to be here INSIDE A DOG looking out at all of you.
As I said in my last post, watching movies will never really teach you how to write. Only reading does that. If you aren't immersed in the best writing, the kinds of books you enjoy the most, you can never hope to create a novel that has a life of its own.
That said – you can learn a little about storytelling from movies.
Writing is the art of prose. Storytelling goes along with it, but isn't precisely the same thing. I think storytelling is about expressing the narrative instinct, the need all humans have to imagine what happened before this moment, or what could happen next. Not everyone is an avid reader – but virtually everyone will enjoy a story with a sensational beginning, dramatic middle, various twist and turns in the plot, and a satisfying conclusion. Seeing this unfold in movies won't teach you how to write it (again, only reading does that); however, it may help you recognize when you're on the right track, or where you've gone astray.
A few storytelling tools movies can share with books:
One of the most important things an aspiring writer can do is read. Read widely. Read the kinds of books you most love. Read books you'd never normally dream of picking up. Read everything. That's how we learn what kinds of characters fascinate us, what sorts of stories ignite our imaginations. And even though you can analytically study your favorite novels to see exactly what makes them work, this isn't absolutely necessary. You'll absorb, on an almost subconscious level, a few lessons about how to create a gripping first chapter, how to execute a plot twist, or how to pull various narrative threads together at the end.
This advice sounds sort of silly, because – come on. Doesn't every would-be writer love to read?
The answer, strangely enough, is no. Astonishingly, I often hear people who talk about the books they want to write, but haven't actually read anything in months, sometimes even years. When they think about stories, they think in terms of movies rather than novels. Sometimes this is deliberate, because people love to think about their book becoming a film someday. Who wouldn't? I dream of this myself.
Today I spent some time looking through different military alphabets, past and present. (You know – "Alpha Bravo Charlie," etc.) I didn't do this because I had any pressing need to communicate over the radio to army targets; I did this because I had it in my head that one of these words might make a good character name.
Naming characters can be one of the most enjoyable parts of creating a story, and yet it's also one of the trickiest. When you're writing, you know when a name is right … or wrong. Readers know too. Names with overly dramatic flourishes make people snicker; names that are too commonplace are difficult to remember.
There's no one right or wrong way to name a character, but here are a few principles I personally go by:
1) What name would the characters' parents use?
This is, of course, how most of us get our names. I like to take this into account when I'm naming my characters, because thinking about a character's parents tells you a lot about where they come from, and the expectations their parents had for their child. For my latest book, A THOUSAND PIECES OF YOU, I knew the main character's parents had family ties to France and Russia; they were also bookish types, scientists, unlikely to choose names that were faddish. So this character needed a name that was classic, but that had variations in several different languages – which is how I came up with Marguerite.
This approach also helps you avoid a too-common trap – characters' names sounding too much alike. Not everyone you know has a very romantic name, or a very unusual name, or a very common name, or an Irish name, etc. And yet often you'll find casts of characters in books in which all the names fit together too neatly. Different parents will make different choices, and will help you diversify your own character names.
2) Beware alliteration and other forms of similarity.
As someone whose first book series contained characters named Bianca, Balthazar and Mrs. Bethany – trust me, you can get very tired of all those B-names, or M-names, or whatever letter you're taking to the verge of overdose. Also, sometimes readers may confuse characters whose names seem too similar, and first letters often have this effect. Now, if you have the absolute perfect names for a couple of characters, and they happen to start with the same letter, go for it. But if you have three, four or five characters in that situation … I bet another name would work just as well for one of them.