How To Write A Novel (1): Where to start

How To Write A Novel (1): Where to start

I recently joined a Facebook group for writers. I soon realised it was not for me but what I learned from it was that there are many people out there who want to write a novel and don’t know where to start. So, I thought, like so many other blogs and websites, I should put down my thoughts on how to write a novel in the hope that it may help others. Today we start the process.

What’s interesting is that yesterday, I started on a new novel of my own. Perhaps these posts will reflect the process I go through as I write it. That could take years, so I expect these posts will overtake the actual writing of the new novel. Hopefully what will follow over the coming months will be useful to anyone who wants to put pen to paper, or fingers to keys.

It starts with an idea

Actually, it begins with the internal need to tell a story but let’s assume you have that need, that want, that something inside you that tells you, ‘You must write a story.’

Ask yourself: Do I want to tell a story?
If the answer is yes, then read on.

How to find inspiration

You want to write a novel, but you don’t know what the story is. If you really have no idea, or if you only want to practice writing, then check out my post on Finding Inspiration On Your Bookshelf. It’s one way to find ideas, not the only way, but it’s a start.

I also suggest reading any of the millions of books available on ‘how to write a novel.’ I’ve been writing books now for 17 years. The early ones are, in my opinion, pretty rough to say the least but they are out there and have been enjoyed. I still read books on ‘how to’, and writing advice and the one I have read most recently is On Writing, by Stephen King. It’s part biography and part advice giving and all worth reading. There are many others.

You’ve already got an idea, now what?

How to write a novel
First draft notes for a new novel, part of the timeline

Let’s say you already have a story you want to tell. What now?

Well, some writers simply start writing and see what comes out, that’s fine. Others like to plot and plan the structure of the action that will drive the story, that’s fine too. Some like to build a character and then set them in a situation to see what they do, others have the ending imagined and then work out how to get there… All techniques are valid, and I can only tell you what I have done in the past. Here is how I started with a couple of my own novels.

The ‘What If?’ approach

I wanted to write a novel (I have since I was young) but I had no idea what it was to be about. Then, one day, I was alone on holiday on a Greek island, in the summer, and I saw a small yacht a little way off the coast. It was one of those sailing boats that people hire out for a week at a time, white, with a mast and probably a ‘Sunsail’. On it was a group of young men and, from what I could see, they were all naked, larking around and having fun.

Then I thought, what if…? What if they had been hired by someone to crew their boat for the summer on a deal that they couldn’t refuse? Nice. But what if that person was after something more than just a crew? What if…? What finally came out is a mildly erotic gay thriller called Other People’s Dreams. Not my best work, I have to say, but I was passionate about the idea and immediately started writing it. I had no idea of structure or even plot at that point, but I spent the second week of my holiday living out the story (not literally but in my head) and drew on the scenery and settings as I did so. Once home, I eventually knocked it into some kind of shape.

The point is, I was inspired by something I saw and thought, ‘What if…?’ which is, I am sure, how most novelists think.

The structured approach

How to write a novel
First notes for ‘Unforgivable’ a list of twists and complications

On the other hand, what I am starting now has been in my head for many years. I have no idea where it grew from except that I have always wanted to write a farce. Don’t ask me why. If anything needs plotting and planning it’s a farce. This one started out as an idea for a play called ‘Vile Bags’, and now I have the working title of the novel as ‘Unforgivable’, as that was a line in the first draft of the first act of the play. I never wrote any more than that.

In this case, I have plotted the action first. I have a rough idea of characters, and they will develop as I go through the preparation process but, for a farce, or a mystery, or a thriller, or anything where the sequence of events is necessary, then I suggest you write those events out in chronological older first. If you don’t, you will have an awful lot to keep in your head as you go through the writing process.

How to write a novel
My first draft list of characters including their ages

I have no idea how to write a farce, and so I will probably buy a book or two to find some advice. But I do know that structure is vital. As are mix-ups, timing, a growing sense of panic, a calamitous climax, foreshadowing things to come, laying traps, comedy, and strong, conflicting characters. The first thing I have done (all I have done so far, as I only started on it seriously two days ago) is set out the essential action in a timeline. I did this by hand at the kitchen table. The next day I transferred those notes to the PC and typed them up – it’s easier to cut and paste and change things around. So, already I am on draft two of the plot outline.

As I do this, so the characters grow, and I can already see that I have one character I want, but the story doesn’t. By which I mean: I want a mad old mother living in the house of the wealthy composer where the story is set, but I have no need for her. It’s a comedy though, so perhaps she can stay for no reason other than to add colour, but she doesn’t fit into the plot. Yet.

Two ideas for places to start

So, there you have two or three ways to start your novel. Next time, I’ll address another of the questions the social networking group asked, and we’ll go from there. But for now, as I start work on ‘Unforgivable’, you might like to start on your own novel using one or more of the techniques mentioned below and write along with me.

  1. Find inspiration at random
  2. Just start writing the story
  3. Plot and plan and draw up a timeline of events on which to hang the story
  4. Start with characters you want to explore
  5. Start with handwritten notes, or type on the PC (always save and backup)

The bottom line
Just start writing… something.

How about swapping some free publicity?

I’m still working up this (unoriginal) idea, but it would be good to get some feedback so I can see if it’s worth pursuing. If you have the time to read to the end of this post, there might be some free publicity in it for you.

Free publicity on offer

Getting free publicity for our books is tough. You don’t want to overdo your self-publicity on Facebook pages as that just puts people off, but if someone else talks about your book, it’s a different matter.

It strikes me, as writers, we probably have blogs about our writing. I do. Actually, I have two blogs. So, I’m thinking about offering a blog post every now and then for a fellow self- or indie-published author to write something about their work. I’ll put it up on my blog, and it will get the same mentions on FB, and my Twitter pages as my own would do, and the blog post would also link to where it’s for sale on Amazon. A bit of free publicity for you, some content for me, and vice versa. A publicity swap, in effect. But there would have to be a reciprocal understanding and certain conditions.

My conditions

I wouldn’t just post any old book. It would have to be something of interest to my readers and me. If one of your books matches the genre/niche of one of mine, you can send me a post about your book to go on my blog. I’d send you the same about a ‘matching’ book of mine for your blog. We’d trust each other to reciprocate and share the blog post on FB etc. Kind of, “I’ll show you mine, you show me yours” – but in public. I think you’ve got the idea.

So, if you’re still interested, here are my criteria for acceptance:

The book must be for sale on Amazon.

  1. It must fit with the type of books that I write and like (there is a list below) as that’s what my readers will be interested in.
  2. You write the blog post to go on my blog (in English), and I post it when I can – if I get lots of replies to this it may take a while to get through them all.
  3. You can write what you want but it should be more about the writing of the book, the inspiration, the journey of creating the piece, but it can also have a paragraph of ‘blurb’, suitable quotes from happy readers, a short logline, etc. And it must be honest. This is not an exercise in putting out spam, there has to be some meat to the post. (Note the pun?)
  4. The post must be well written and be between 500 and 1,000 words.
  5. I’ll get the cover image from Amazon, and the link.
  6. I’ll have the right to edit the post (no naughty words etc.), and you can do the same to mine.
  7. One book per person, at least to start with. Don’t send me three and ask me to choose, you decide which of your titles you think would best fit.

Is your book suitable?

To make sure your book fits with what I like to write and blog about, you can check out my titles on my Amazon Author’s page but here’s a quick list of what I’m looking for:

Books about or set in Greece – this is for my island blog, www.symidream.com (voted one of the top 25 island blogs on the net) Previous guests posters there have included Anne Zouroudi (Bloomsbury’s ‘Greek Detective’ series) but I am looking for self- or indie-published authors. ‘Girl Gone Greek, by Rebecca A Hall, has featured on this blog in the past, for example.

For this blog, James Collins Author, these kinds of books:

Amusing travel tales – Three of my titles are collections of stories concerned with moving to and living in Greece, but yours can be about anywhere. Think Bill Bryson style books.

Books with gay characters – but not pure erotica! All but one of my novels features positive gay characters, but there’s very little erotica in them (apart from Other People’s Dreams my first one, written a long time ago which also has the advantage of being partly set in Greece). My new mystery/thriller (coming out in May), ‘The Saddling’, has an underscore of ‘coming out’, there are some homoerotic moments, but they are very understated. My horror novel, Lonely House’ has a very ambiguous relationship between the two main characters, I like to leave it to the reader to decide if Pete and Drover’s relationship is a ‘bromance’ or something deeper. So, gay novels would be welcome, but I’m not looking for Mills & Boon style, pure gay romance with a bit of nookie in them.

Satire – well-written comedies. Check out the details of ‘Remotely, my gay/straight body-swap satire that came out last year. Or You Wish’ which is a mad comedy with gay characters (and straight) that was written as a bit of fun, and written a long time ago before I worked with a professional editor.

Thrillers & Horror – yes, but as there are so many of these I’m going to narrow it down again to my three main categories. I’ll consider thrillers and horror stories only if there is a positive gay character, or it’s set in Greece, or it’s also a comedy (well, you never know, and I do like to mix genres).

I’m not looking for fantasy, science fiction, children’s books, academic books, straight romance, erotica… If in doubt, take the time to check my Amazon Author’s page and see if what you have will match up with what I’ve written. If you’re still in doubt, send me the link to the book on Amazon, or a decent, short synopsis, and I’ll decide.

What now?

If you are interested in doing a blog post swap, send me an email that includes:

  1. ‘Blog post swap’ in the title (so I see it in my Mailwasher and make sure it’s not marked as spam).
  2. Give me the title and link to its Amazon page and say which of the above criteria it fits into. (The book must be in English.)
  3. A link to your blog so I can see that you have one.
  4. Obviously, ask any questions you may have about this idea.

RemotelyI’ll then get back to you as soon as possible to say if I’d like to do a swap with you or not.

Don’t take time writing the post until we’ve made contact with each other, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.

Note: there’s no money involved here, but I’ll affiliate link to your book, and you can do the same to mine. You may make a sale or several (I can’t guarantee it) and so might I when you put up my reciprocal blog post, something you promise to do and which I will trust you to do if I select your book.

My email is dream@symidream.com

I look forward to hearing from you and, hopefully, mutually benefiting from some free publicity swapping.

 

 

 

 

Book covers: Worth The Money

Book covers: Worth The Money

Unless you are an established name with thousands of fans who will buy anything you put out, you need a good book cover for your novel. Covers sell books.

But how do you find a good cover? What makes a good cover? There are plenty of questions surrounding this issue and, for a lot of us starting out in e-publishing, the main worry is the cost.

What did your novel cost you?

You can see from the two cover images below, what €140.00 meant to the look of my book. The first cover was done by me, the second by a professional designer that I found through People Per Hour.

the judas inheritance
My attempts at a book cover for my horror-thriller, ‘The Judas Inheritance’

If you add up how many hours you have spent on your novel and then multiply that by a decent hourly rate, let’s say a very modest one at only €3.00 per hour, you will come up with a surprising figure. I don’t keep a log of how many hours I spend on a novel, I think of it in terms of years. ‘The Saddling’ (due out in May) took four years from initial idea to now, the final reading of proofs and checking the layout. I once took a week out of my usual routine to work on it and in just that one week I worked for seven hours a day, so let’s say 35 hours for that one block of writing. I also spent two hours per day on it in the second draft stage, a further two per day on the third, and a few hours a week on editing. I am currently spending around two hours per day on the proofing and ‘fiddling’ — that’s slaughtering the windows and orphans and looking at the final look of the pages. I’ve already lost count of the hours, but I’m going to guess at 1,000.

The Judas Inheritance
My designer’s professional cover for the same book

So, we can say that ‘The Saddling’ took me 1,000 hours. Incidentally, that works out at ten words per hour. ‘Remotely‘, my gay/straight body-swap comedy, took me a little longer, as it’s a longer story, say, 1,300 hours; and these are very rough guesses. So, I have put in at least €3,000 per book of my own, unpaid time. At least. Some of us take longer, and some less time, but the point is, when you’ve invested so much in the writing of the thing, it’s pointless not to sell any of the work. Leaving aside marketing, usually the biggest budget in any book sale, how much do you actually then spend on a cover? I know you don’t pay out any money to yourself for the writing and even a publisher’s advance won’t cover the work. When it comes to a cover, you’ve actually got to either do it yourself or pay someone. Unless you have a friendly designer who will do it for free or for a share. The trouble with using friends is that, if you don’t like what they do, you’ve got the tricky problem of telling them you are not going to use it.

My advice? Save up and pay someone who knows what they are doing, which brings me to where to find designers.

People Per Hour

I was put onto People Per Hour by an author friend of mine who had been looking for an illustrator for a children’s’ book. It took a matter of minutes to register and have a look around. There are excellent instructions for ‘Buyers’ as you will be known, as you are seeking to buy someone’s services. I got the hang of it very quickly and prepared my posting in advance.

Fairfield, Romney Marsh
The church at Fairfield, Romney Marsh, that inspired ‘The Saddling’

You will need to know what you are looking for, and have an idea of what you want to pay. You can either set a top budget, or leave it open. You can choose the level of the expert, in that those with more experience will cost more, newbies will cost less, and you simply make your job open to offers. The designers then tender for the work. You’re able to check their profiles, read any testimonials from those who have used them before, and see what their hourly rate is. Post your request, sit back and wait for the offers to come in. I had loads of tenders for ‘The Saddling.’

Be cautious

Here’s where you need to be professional. Some of the replies I had for my first cover were along the lines of: ‘I am designer, do great work, please, I will be good for your services. Like me.’ Which to me immediately shows a lack of professionalism. I can understand my language not being their language, but that reply told me nothing about the designer except that English was not his first language.

the saddling, James Collins
My designer’s cover for ‘The Saddling’. As you can see, it incorporates the inspirational church

I was much more drawn to those who wrote a full reply that outlined their prices and those who showed me examples of their previous work. You also have to look out for those who are mainly web designers etc., who show examples of that kind of work, but who have no book cover designs. The person I used not only showed me a variety of designs for already published books, but showed me his website, and told me there would be an Author’s Form to complete where I could put own all my ideas in detail. He would then produce five mock-ups, his price, and the estimated hours which took into account the to-and-fro discussion process that would inevitably follow. I knew his hourly rate in advance and got a good estimate of how long he would take. It was an honest reply and not the cheapest, but I still think, the best.

By the way, there are also protections built in. You can withhold money if you don’t get the service; you pay into an escrow account, so the designer sees that the money is there, but you don’t release it until you are happy; the site will help you if there are disputes. And there are loads of other artists with different specialities on the site checking for work and making offers. You can find someone to do you whole e-book layout and preparation if you want. I already have an editor and layout artist working with me on those things, so I make sure the inside of my books is as professional as they would be if prepared by a publishing house. As that’s the case, why not the cover also?

A good cover design is worth paying for

All I am saying is: you’ve spent hours on your work, you should be able to save and pay for a few hours of a professional designer to get the cover looking perfect too. And, in my experience, you can do that through this site, People Per Hour. There are others, of course, but this is the one I used. I think you will agree, the difference is outstanding.

The back, blurb, layout to fit Create Space specs – all included in a one piece cover

Starting a new novel

Three ways to start a new novel

I am often asked how ideas for stories come about. There is no one answer for that – one has come from a dream, one has come from walking past a television, one or two started off as ideas for screenplays and then, once the first draft was written, were turned into novels. But the usual starting point, for me, is the need to want to write something.

There are so many reasons for wanting to tell a story, but the main one is purely that; you want to write a story. We can shorten that sentence: you want to write. That’s the best starting place. After all, if you don’t want to write, you won’t want to write a novel, but do you start with a character, a theme, a plot, place or protagonist? Do you think, ‘that would be a good setting,’ or do you think, ‘that’s a great dilemma to explore’? I’ve touched on finding inspiration before, see Finding Inspiration on your Bookshelf, but, for me, there has to be a spark, something that makes your heart leap and say ‘that’s it!’ Sometimes, though, that spark is just a flickering flame and needs fanning. I am in that position at the moment and so here are a few ideas about the process of getting started.

Character

Starting a new novelSome people start with a character. Someone you know, someone you’ve observed, read about or seen on the news. You find an interesting person and think, ‘what would happen if…?’ And the ‘What If?’ is probably the best place to start. What if your best friend suddenly found herself/himself in a strange location, what would they do? How would they react? From here, the story grows out of the character, but even with those few lines, you can see that you already have the main ingredients for a story: a character and a problem. After all, without conflict, there is no drama, and without drama, there is no (decent) story. Yes, we can all write about pleasant things and how wonderful our visit to a location was, what a great holiday we had and how nicely it all turned out, but that’s not going not be of much interest to many readers. Readers want drama, they want to follow your character through some kind of adventure, change, difficult situation, and see them win at the end – or lose, you can do either.

Starting point one: Find a character and explore the ‘What ifs?’

Starting a new novelLocation

Here’s another way of starting things off. I am currently thinking that I might like to write a story set in a haunted mansion in the wilds, isolated, cut off, and creepy. Yes, it’s a very overdone setting, and the first things that come to mind are very overused stories. The Cat and the Canary‘, ‘The House on Haunted Hill’, ‘The House that Dripped Blood’ and all the rest. Classic, Gothic, creepiness with a group of people confined to one location and unable to leave. It’s been done to death by Miss Author, in the study with the typewriter. So, why not make it a spoof? Why not find a way to turn in on its head. That’s what I am trying to do. What if this was a comedy horror/mystery/thriller? You could then really play on the cliché and have fun. (Actually, that IS ‘The Cat and the Canary’, so make your characters specialists in a field, and only when all five realise that they need each other to survive can they band together to defeat the evil. But what happens if one of them…? And on we go.)

When writing ‘The Saddling’, the location was paramount. It’s set on the Romney Marshes, and so I was after atmosphere, and the setting brings that with it, depending on how you use it. I remember one of my essays at school, when doing A Levels, was to discuss Thomas Hardy’s use of Egdon Heath as a character, as the protagonist actually, and that’s another way of coming at it. Make your setting (the heath, the marshes) the protagonist, and you have both character and setting before you start.

Starting point two: find a setting and think who would be uncomfortable here? (Immediate conflict.)

Starting a new novelPlot

Another way to come at it, and I’ve done this, is to start with a plot. One of my first stories is called ‘You Wish’ and I hit upon that with the idea of, ‘What if you got your wish for one day?’ Nice, there is definitely a plot there about getting what you want, and we all want that. But then I added, ‘But in return, you have to suffer three days of the downside, the payback?’ That then gives us conflict and, in this case, loads of ideas for comedy. (It’s a comedy novel and rather a mad one, but I still like it.) And then I thought, ‘One person getting their wish and then having to deal with the consequences is one thing, having four people all doing the same is another. And so, the four main characters appeared. But I wanted to tie it in with fast, mad-cap comedy and a bit of a farce, so these characters then had to intertwine and come together and stir things up and… I won’t give away the story, but the point is, I started with a complicated plot and then put in the characters. This makes for an action-driven story with some depth to the characters and also, as there are four main characters, more chance of readers associating with at least one and cheering them on.

Starting point three: Find a situation

Putting it together

One of my previous cabaret partners used to quote from a show (I think it was ‘Merrily We Roll Along’) and come out with: ‘What comes first, the music or the lyrics? Answer: Usually the contract.’ (Sorry if I’ve misquoted that.) But what comes first when setting out to write a novel? Well, ‘anything’ is my answer. Start with a character and have a book about a character’s change, start with a setting and find inspiration from it, start with the idea of a type of fiction, comedy horror, life story farce (mix genres, I do), or start with a great big ‘what if?’ You will soon find that, once you’ve started thinking, the other things will attach themselves to you. I want to write a story about five people in a big old haunted house, I can even picture the building. Knowing me, I will draw up a floor plan. But I will have to start thinking: who is going to be at this house and why? So, I have a setting, and the characters will come, and then, based on who they are, the plot will emerge. There’s no theme for this idea (theme and subject, or message, is another way of starting out) but that’s all part of the writing process. Let it develop.

So, when asked how a novel comes about, I now usually say, it originates from the desire to write… something. How you then structure your writing is a subject for another day.

It’s not all about writing

When you’ve set yourself up as a writer, it’s not all about writing. Saturday morning was one of those ‘admin’ mornings. Sometimes these are hard work, other times like today, they are pleasant. Today pulled into focus the fact that there are enjoyable things about the writing process, some less pleasant and some that are just plain nice. (Please change that adjective and use one of your own. I was lazy there and should have used ‘rewarding’ or ‘pleasant.’)

The hard work of writing

Writing thoughtsSome things about being a writer are hard work, but the fact that you are doing what you want to do makes them easier. Or at least, it should. The most difficult part of writing a novel is putting in the words, and putting in the hours of putting in the words. You latch on to your plot and characters and do all the fun background stuff of creating the story ahead. Then come the hard part, putting in all the words. I think it was Agatha Christie who said, “I have the plot and characters, all I need now are the words.” Something like that. That’s the hard part, writing down 80,000 words – or whatever.

The second hardest part is selling the book. Even if you have a publisher with a publicity machine and marketing to do it for you, you must do a lot of things yourself. Book signings, PR, etc. If you don’t have a publisher you have to work even harder to get the word, and the book, out there. That’s the thing I dislike the most, the PR. I’m not a salesman. But, get yourself in the right frame of mind and put that mind to it, and you can find you actually enjoy entering competitions (a good way to get noticed) and persuading friends to write reviews, finding blogs that might cover you and talk about your work, making contacts and all that. Keep at it. It’s hard work, but in the end, it may pay off and, if you enjoy the journey along the way, all the better.

[There will be more about the process of putting a story together later, check the category list in the right column. There’s a drop-down menu that says Post Categories, then you click on a subtitle and find all posts under that heading.]

The easy work of writing

the saddling, James CollinsFor me, the easiest parts are the creating and the editing. Inventing a world, and its characters, thinking out a neat plot with twists and turns, obstacles and trials, tribulations and events for your character that will make things interesting. Working out backstories and making up lives, that’s all fun too. (You then have to write the body of the text, see above.) Then you have the editing where, after putting the thing aside for some time, you can come back to it and see what you have repeated, what you’ve told us already, what that character wouldn’t do but does (if he wouldn’t do it, don’t let him! Keep in character), seeing what you have misspelled (a great deal in my case), see how you can shorten it. Then get into the technical detail of your grammar and so on. I now use Grammarly to help me with this and I have an excellent editor too.

The next fun part is working on the cover, but I shall cover covers in another post one day. If you want to see who I used (for the first time) on ‘The Saddling’, check the bookmarks list on the right. The Design link with lead you to People Per Hour where you can put up a job and see who bids, or where you can simply find and contact designers and layout experts. There are many excellent ones there looking for freelance work.

email your fansAnd the next stage is the ‘nice’ things about writing. Not that I like the word ‘nice’. It’s not a nice word at all, strangely enough. But you will know what I mean. Today, Saturday 11th March, I received an email from someone I don’t know. She had bought ‘Remotely’ for a friend and thought she’d check it out first. She’s now “gripped”, as she puts it. As well as saying some other things she adds, “I love all the many details you pull together in one eloquent paragraph!”

It’s always good to get feedback like this and you have a responsibility to reply to such emails. Thank the person (even if they are not complimentary emails) and, in cases like this, try and get them to write a review on Amazon as these help sales. But do connect with your readers, especially if they have taken the trouble to connect to you. It makes it all worthwhile.