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On Being A Newbie
(Getting Started)

When I was asked to write an article on writing, my first reaction was "Me...are you nuts?"  You see, I am a fairly ‘green writer’ here, a baby so to speak, but I have come a long way from that person who sat down one day and said ‘I’m going to write a book’.  Hopefully, some of what I’ve learned along the way will help those of you who are also ‘newby’s’.  I’ve decided to start at the very beginning.  I know that many of you are beyond this point, but it never hurts to review, plus this may help those out there who are really beginners.

Like me and so many others out there, you have decided it is about time for you to take all that information stored in your mind, all those thousands of scraps of paper you have compiled over the years and write your very first story.  You are excited, enthusiastic and probably a little scared as well, I know I was.  The creative mind is an awesome thing, isn’t it?  You sit yourself in front of your typewriter (or computer for most of us) and you start writing a fantastic story.  Wrong!  Wish I could say it was that easy, but alas, it is not often the case.  Most of us end up just sitting…staring at that blank screen wondering where to begin.

Let’s take a step back here.  A lot more than character names and a heck of an idea go into the writing of a book. I have broken it down into eight different categories (in order of priority): Plot, Location, Characters, Research, Dialogue, Description, Putting It All Together, and Those (Not So) Minor Details. You may or may not agree this is how it should be done, or you may not agree with the order of importance, but this is the way I do it and it works for me. I don't pretend to know everything about writing---far from it, actually---but I will share with you what I do know.

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Plots are funny things...they twist and tangle and even the best-laid ones can turn on you, so you have to be very careful ---and very strict---and not let them have too much rope with which to hang themselves. I have had so many lynched plots in my experience I don't even like to think about it. The best method I have come up with was taught to me in creative writing in high school. Get yourself a notebook. Divide it into eight sections, and label them according to the categories I've outlined above. In your "Plot" section, write down the ten most important things that need to take place in your story. Make another list of the ten second most important events, and a third list of (you guessed it) the third-most important events. Now blend them all together. This may take some time, as you want to be very careful to put things in the proper order, because some things just quite simply can't happen until other things have. The final, integrated list is actually your bare-bones outline of your novel. Follow it closely. Whatever you do, don't let your plot run wild or you will become hopelessly out of control of your own story.

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Locations are extremely important, because the feel of your story, the atmosphere will come largely from its setting.  If a major part of your story involves gossipy townsfolk, you would do best to set the story in a small town. Big cities just aren't as adept at the art of gossip. Next, do some in-depth research of your chosen location, even if you happen to live there. This involves a lot of reading and taking notes. Learn everything you can about your chosen locale; obtain maps, statistics, populations, etc. If you can financially manage a visit, do so. If not, look up the Chamber of Commerce for that town (the local library should have phone books from all over the world) and send to them for an information packet. They are usually more than willing to help.

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The most important thing you can do for your story (besides having a feasible plot) is breathing life into your characters. I can't begin to count how many books I've laid down after only reading three or four chapters because I really just didn't give a darn what happened to the main characters. I dedicated a great deal of time to character development. Here, once again, that notebook comes in handy. First off, choose names (duh). They can always be changed without too much trouble on down the road if they don't seem to fit the personalities you've created.  Next, give them a history; after all, they didn't just drop down out of the sky, right? (Even if they did, you can bet there's a history behind that!) How old are they? Are they married? Any children? Where were they born? What do their parents do? How do they dress? What do they like to eat, drink, listen to, and read?  It is also very important that your characters' personalities be able to interact with one another. If they hate each other, it is very unreasonable to expect to believably bring them together in romance or close friendship without a lot of hard work and a miracle or two from God. Lay your groundwork well before you begin.

Characterization can be one of the hardest elements of writing, although it doesn't have to be. If you follow a few simple steps before jumping right in there, your characters will be full of depth.  Who said writing had to be hard, anyway?

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A dreaded author's chore, but one of those necessary evils. A well-researched book shows, as does a poorly researched one. I don't know about you, but I don't like sitting down and reading volumes of information in the local library and taking notes. I don't do it anymore since I went online. And since you're reading this, you won't have to either. Put to use one of the search engines (Metacrawler is my favorite) and surf the net in search of what you need to know. I have a stack of info three inches thick that I gleaned off the net (and when I stop and think about it, that's really kind of a scary thought, since my book has to do with Astral travel, the spirit world, witchcraft, supernatural legends and mind control...). It's important that you know what you're talking about. If you don't, you're going to look like a jackass, and what's even worse is you're going to feel like one too. The extra effort spent chasing down knowledge is time well spent. If you develop your characters, plot and location and do your research, your book will practically write itself.

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This is where so many books bite the dust. Nothing is worse than hokey, rambling or dull dialogue. You don't like it in real life, do you, so don't put it in your book! When I come across a novel like that, I want to choke the author. Unfortunately there are a lot of them out there, too.  Dialogue is very hard for some authors. It isn't that they aren't adept at conversation; it's just different when you're putting that conversation down on paper and controlling the subject, the replies, and the outcome. It is very easy here to lose control and go off on a tangent that misses the point by a mile, and a runaway conversation is just as fatal as a runaway plot.  Another little tidbit I picked up along my journey: Go ahead. Write that dialogue! Just the dialogue. I have seen brilliant conversations down on paper that were only lacking in accompanied action. Once you have the conversation down the way you want it, find a willing, unselfconscious friend and give them a copy of it. Act out your dialogue. I know it sounds stupid, like one of those things they have you do in psych therapy, but it works, trust me. Don't just read the parts, act them.  Notice your own and your friend's facial expressions and body language. No one just stands around like a stick person and talks. Hand gestures, bodies shift, eyes wander. Once you've acted it out a few times and have a good list of movements, go back and add the motions. The conversation will spring to life, I guarantee it.

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This is the area where I used to, quite frankly, suck. My characters' conversations could be brilliant; my plot amazingly free of snarls, but the setting was like one of those bizarre empty worlds on an episode of The Twilight Zone or something. Get out that notebook again! It is time to visualize! For every location your character is going to be in, even different rooms of the house, write down a list of everything (and I do mean everything) that is in that room. And don't just write down "a blue vase". That will win you the not-so-highly coveted "Wow, Big Deal" award. No ordinary vase here, it's "a cobalt blue vase, gracefully slim, with gold trim around the lip, gold etchings on the side, badly in need of dusting". That not only tells the reader something about the vase, it lets them see it, and tells them something about the room it's in, or the person to whom it belongs (and it very well could be in my house, with a description like that; my version of dusting is blowing the dust off the mantle with my hair dryer, then vacuuming). Some authors are so good at description that I feel I am in the room with their characters, and that is the ultimate goal, to put your readers into your story, to make them live it. Slowly weave your lists into paragraphs and read through them. Are they stilted? Add a few "ands" and some commas (you don't want a four line paragraph with twenty sentences, do you?) Too much descriptive all at once? Work it in amongst your dialogue: while the characters are talking, have one or both wandering around, taking in the sights of the room.

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Putting It All Together

This is actually the easiest part. It's kind of like making a Betty Crocker cake: the hard part's already been done (the grinding of wheat into flour, the raising of chickens for eggs, etc). All you need is to keep your plot reigned in, mediate the characters' conversation, and start writing!  Following your outline is about the best thing you can do; it keeps the control in your hands and you're less apt to go off down the wrong path. If you get to the end of your book and find that, gee, there seems to be a few skimpy parts here and there, don't worry-easy to fill in. Just add a paragraph or two, or even a chapter. The wonderful thing about word processors these days is it's so easy to just throw in a new chapter and it takes care of those sticky page numbering problems with just a few keystrokes from you. And by all means, let someone read it as you write it.  They can let you know when something is unclear or when something just downright doesn't make any sense, and also give some very good suggestions. Go on now, don't be shy, there has to be someone you trust enough to help you along. Lean on them shamelessly, because lemme tell ya, no one writes a book alone. There's always someone behind the scene somewhere.

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Those (Not So) Minor Details

So darn many details, so little brain capacity left to remember them... It's very easy to forget about a vague reference that's meant to become a huge turning point in your plot (I do it all the time). Once again, your handy-dandy notebook comes to the rescue. Write them all down!  If someone in Chapter Six dropped a gold coin that's meant to give another character in Chapter Twenty-Five a major revelation, make sure you remember that gold coin. Your reader will. The minor details are important even in sub-plots and if you don't tie up all those little threads you will drive your reader to the brink of utter frustration (What about the gold coin in Chapter Six? The GOLD COIN YOU IDIOT, WHAT ABOUT IT?!?!) I am assuming (hoping?) that isn't your objective. If it is, by all means, leave those loose ends dangling! If it isn't, be sure to check back through your Minor Details section in your notebook to be sure you've swept them all into the plot.

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Prophecy: The Awakening

Media Release

Book Excerpt



On Being a Newbie

Other Works

Forever Autumn
The Gate


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Updated February 6, 2005

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