I remember it was around this time last year when Nick Forster asked me if I thought he was ready to tackle writing a novel. He’d participated in several of my 4-week workshops (mystery and suspense, sci fi and fantasy, young adult) but tackling a 75,000 word novel is a much larger project than a 3,000 word short story.
Well, I encouraged Nick to take the Write Your First Novel Now workshop because I knew he could write in sections and I knew he was able to write without letting fear get in the way too much.
Before the workshop was over, he’d written the first draft of his novel Marine Space: The Fury of Xero Nekton. It was so much fun reviewing his sections in the workshop, and everyone loved this high-action space opera romp through the galaxy.
I'm thrilled to say that Nick’s book is now available on Amazon. He went from a story idea to a first draft in about 10 weeks, and now the finished story is out there in the world.
It’s time to celebrate… congratulations Nick!
I asked Nick if he would share his novel-writing experience with the group... here's the interview:
What inspired you to try writing a novel?
I have a lot of ideas that I wanted to share. A novel is a good way to do that. Nobody else is going to tell me what to write, just me. Although I started a book in 1999 called The Tired Guy, it was not until a couple of years ago that I decided to start writing again. I started another novel but very quickly wrote myself into a corner. It was then that I saw an ad for one of David’s science fiction short story workshops. I promptly signed up, and after enjoying it so much, took a few more that year. I was going to continue with short stories for a while, but gambled on the novel workshop instead, even though I doubted my abilities. In fact, even after signing up and starting to write, it wasn’t until I was well into the first draft that I really started to believe I could actually do it.
What was the hardest thing about writing a novel?
The hardest things about writing a novel were overcoming doubt and finding enough time to write. Days off writing tended to take the story from my mind and made it harder to return. It was in these times that I doubted myself and the story, whether it was good enough, or if I was wasting my time. Sometimes I would hit a rough patch, a poorly-planned section, and it would be very difficult to write. That’s when the self-doubt would kick in. Also, a few days off meant re-reading everything you’d already written to get back into the story.
Can you describe the habits or things you did that helped you finish your story?
Stick to it! I started getting up early and writing for at least an hour before work. This got easier because I found I would wake up with ideas and want them to get them down before forgetting. Also, I replaced bad habits with good, writing instead of watching TV, for instance. Replacing weekend chores with writing also helped tremendously, as getting two or three sections in a row really helped build momentum. Luckily, I don’t have kids, so I have more time for this kind of thing. Heh heh. It sounds pretty cliché, but the more I did, the easier it got, and the faster I became. I also had mini deadlines for myself. Like I wanted to have the first draft done before the workshop was over, and I also wanted to have the second draft done by July 1st. I luckily had a week off work in June which helped me accomplish that, but it was mainly by getting up early anyway. The more I wrote, the less I was able to sleep, which also helped with the getting up early part. The help, feedback, advice, and encouragement given by fellow workshoppers was also a very key piece of the puzzle.
What advice would you give to those who are thinking about writing their own novel?
Think of an idea and do it. Planning is key. Know your characters. Invest time in the plot/section planning. Invest the time daily. My biggest stumbling blocks occurred when I came across a poorly-planned or vague section and had to come up with 1250 words on it. A well-planned section practically writes itself, and I could do the first draft of it in one session. But my biggest advice would be to have fun. Pick something that interests you and will enjoy spending time thinking and writing about because it takes a lot of time! But if you like it, then it is like recreation, not work, so it doesn’t matter that it takes time. Also, don’t dwell on quality when you are writing the first draft. Speed helps (not the pills :). Type fast, get the story down in black and white. Fix it later. Get involved in a workshop or group of writers and meet regularly to help each other.
Some sound advice on getting that first novel written... thanks Nick!
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One of the more common things I see new writers do is to try telling the reader every single detail about a scene or a character or a theme. They think the reader “won’t get it” if they don’t include all that information. This implies the reader isn’t clever enough to understand your brilliance, so you have to insert yourself into the story and walk them through it. But readers don’t like this.
I'm not talking about Kurt Vonnegut inserting himself as the creator in a story to make some metafictional point. That is something different. What this is about is the belief that unless you explain things to your reader in great detail, they won't recognize your brilliance.
I don’t think writers intentionally do this, but I know there are times when we all want to show readers how brilliant our prose is, or how sharp our plotting is. Sometimes, we can’t help ourselves.
Why not trusting your reader is problematic
The problem with not trusting the reader is two-fold: first, it insults them. As readers, we love to figure things out, to make our own connections, to visualize what the characters look like and so on. One of the reasons why mysteries are so popular is because the reader gets to figure out who dunnit too. By telling readers too much, writers take that level of engagement away from them.
Second, it breaks the flow of the story. Readers know when you’re inserting yourself into the prose to teach and preach. And if the flow of reading is broken, your reader engagement is lost. When readers become disengaged, they put the book down and may never pick it up again.
How to identify when you’re not trusting the reader
Sometimes it’s difficult to notice when you, as a writer, aren’t trusting the reader. It’s like everything else with our stories: we become attached to them, and blind to the errors we’ve made. So the best thing to do is to make sure others read your story. If they’re honest and sincere, they will tell you when they recognize a certain preachiness in the writing.
Whenever the narrator or a character goes over the top explaining something, you know you’re not trusting the reader. As a writer, you may think you’re doing the reader a favour by telling them how all the dots join up, but readers don’t like this. We like to figure things out on our own.
So, if you find your explaining too much or getting preachy and teachy, that’s when you should have a close look at your prose and start cutting words out.
The story is never finished until it’s read
Lastly, trying to tell or explain to the reader everything that’s going on is impossible. As a writer, you may have a certain idea in your head about what’s going on, but every reader will pick up something a little different that you never thought of. It’s because each reader brings their own personal and unique experience to the story when they read it. They create the theatre of the mind based on places they’ve been, and people they know. In fact, the reader completes the story you began writing.
Because of this, it’s impossible for a writer to portray exactly everything they want in a story. It’s why describing someone as a “tall, brown-eyed woman with shoulder-length hair” is far more effective than describing every single detail about what she looks like and what she’s wearing.
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One of the challenges many new writers face is how to write compelling dialogue so characters don’t sound so stiff. Inevitably what happens is a conversation (or confrontation) between a couple of characters in your story looks more like interview or an interrogation.
“You disgust me!” she said.
“Back off, honey, or I’ll burn the toast.
“Go burn the whole meal, for all I care. You’re not a chef anyway.”
“Oh yeah, well, just for that I’m never ordering pizza again.”
“Suits me fine. But don’t expect a cake for dessert.”
There's potential in that scene because of the tension, but sheesh could it be any less dull?
Here’s a way to immediately improve your dialogue without a ton of effort. I use the Feelings – Action – Dialogue approach.
Step 1: Feeling
Before your character says their words, have him feel something. Example:
Step 2: Action
Now have him do something, take some kind of action.
Step 3: Dialogue
Finally, it’s time to put words in the character’s mouth.
Here are some more examples:
Mary felt a chill run up her spine. (feeling)
She tossed the letter into the fire. (action)
“You’ll never know the truth now!”
Terror shivered down Roscoe’s spine. (feeling)
He stood perfectly still. (action)
“If you press that button, the entire planet will be destroyed.”
Of course, you can mix these up too, so that you might start off with dialogue, then show a character’s feeling, and then an action: This would be D-F-A.
Or you may simplify it to A-D or F-D, depending on the situation. The point is, by adding feelings and actions to your dialogue, your prose will soar and your story will instantly be more interesting.
Here are a couple of examples from successful authors doing exactly this.
This is from Ted Dekker's book "Obsessed". I like this example because he also shows how Stephen is affected by the news.
This is from the book "Cyclops" by adventure writer Clive Cussler. Here, he uses Action - Feeling - Dialogue really effectively to build tension at the end of a chapter.
Cool, don’t you think?
So let’s take another look at that opening scene with the couple arguing in the kitchen. How would you re-write is using F-A-D?
“You disgust me!” Mary crossed her arms in front of her chest and glared at him. (A) An overwhelming sense of disappointment rose in her gut. (F)
John shook his head. (A) “Back off, honey, or I’ll burn the toast.
“Go burn the whole meal, for all I care. You’re not a chef anyway.” She moved to the kitchen window and looked out over the backyard (A). How did her life come to this? (F)
The pain of losing his best friend shook his body (F). John gently placed the ladle on the kitchen counter, sighed deeply, and whispered, (A) “Oh yeah, well, just for that I’m never ordering pizza again.”
Mary smiled to herself (F) and turned around to face him (A). He looked so handsome and helpless in that ugly old apron (F). She wrapped her arms around his waist and said, (A) “Suits me fine. But don’t expect a cake for dessert.”
Three simple steps to improving your dialogue!
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On the subject of science fiction short stories, where do we even begin? There is a massive amount of material in the science fiction megatext, and a large percentage of it is based in the short story form.
My belief is that the short story form is an integral part of the success that the science fiction genre has seen. Moreover, the short story has played a critical role in the exploration of visionary ideas and the genre’s rise in popular culture. Without the short story, science fiction would not be life as we know it, Jim.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more influential short stories in the science fiction genre. I won’t call these the “best” or the “top 100” stories because for many of us, that’s a personal taste. But we can look at these stories with respect to their influence on other writers, on the genre as a whole, on literary analysis, and on popular culture.
19th Century Short Stories
If we look closely enough – and because a definition of “science fiction” is nebulous and ever-changing – we can trace elements of the genre back through to ancient Greek writing. For that matter, some believe that our ancient holy scriptures have more in common with science fiction metaphor than they do anything divine… but I digress!
Let us begin with the rise of modern science, also known as natural philosophy, in the 19th century.
Many readers are familiar with Edgar Allen Poe’s early writing delving into the macabre, but few realize he was one of the first “science fiction” writers (of course, his work was not categorized as SF because the genre didn’t exist then!), bridging early scientific principles with magic, psychology, and voyages fantastiques. Yes, he was influenced by Jules Verne’s stories like many others in his time, and a close reading of Poe’s early short stories reveals this influence.
But never mind… there he was in the 1840s tackling topics like communicating with the spirit world, bringing dead people back to life through galvanism, travels to the moon, and so on. And here we are today still studying those early works.
Then there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter”, written in 1844, about a mad scientist who renders his daughter poisonous to the touch, presumably to protect her from the boys. Well, it’s a trope that is still alive in old Star Trek episodes and in the Batman character “Poison Ivy”. Indeed, the merging of science fiction and comic books is well-entrenched.
Early 20th Century Writings
When H.G. Wells wrote the “The Star” in 1899, did he have any idea that his little story would influence future generations of writers, scientists, philosophers, and film-makers? Or how about E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”? This dark, dystopian view of a mechanized world bereft of what makes us human, written in 1914 during the height of modernism, keeps echoing through sci fi discussion groups and book clubs. It even inspires short films like this one.
The rise of the pulp fiction stories in the 1930s helped popularize SF stories with generations of teenage boys in particular. All those bug-eyed monsters running amok, and the space operas (westerns situated on Mars, for example) that influenced the Star Wars industry, among others.
But more importantly, the origins of the pulps in technical and scientific hobbyist magazines gave rise to a dialogue between writer and reader that was unlike any other genre. Fans would communicate regularly with authors and artists, and this community developed that contributed immensely to the megatext and to the popularization of the genre.
The Golden Years of Science Fiction Short Stories
In the mid-20th century, science fiction short stories truly became literature in the sense that they tackled serious themes and pushed the edges of what could be published. Stories about robots taking over (again with the robots running amok!), nuclear annihilation, early gender-bending experiences, space travel and so on.
Throughout this maturity, writers continued to focus on what it meant to be human in an increasingly dangerous, troublesome world.
Now, science fiction short stories continue to remain popular despite the amount of TV shows and science fiction films. We see the influence of science fiction in everything from adventure movies to comic books, graphic novels, anime and video games.
Today’s writers continue to delve into themes of what it means to be human, and this trope has remained throughout the history of the genre. All aspects of our humanity are exposed and explored, from our behaviour, treatment of each, sexuality, intellectuality, social systems, politics, and so on.
One of the wonderful things about science fiction as a genre and the short story as a form is that a limitless number of ideas can be presented in a way that allows us readers to explore them in our way and within the context of our own experiences.
When you’re writing a novel, or a longer short story, you’ve got an opportunity to improve your reader engagement by developing one or more subplots.
Subplots add depth, detail, tension and intrigue to the whole story. They are a crucial part of your story, but often mis-used or mis-understood.
Purpose of Subplots
There are three main objectives to achieve with a subplot in your novel writing.
1. they add variety and interest to the story. No one wants to be bored to tears with flat characters and predictable plotting. The subplot allows you and the reader to explore some other interesting aspects of the story.
2. they support the main story line. If Shrek’s main story line is to get his swamp back, and to do that he has to rescue Princess Fiona, then having him fall in love with her is clearly a supporting subplot.
We often see characters behaving a little differently when they’re focused on a subplot. eg our action hero might slay dragons by day, but it’s the romantic interlude with the princess that brings out his tender side.
3. They introduce complications (tension) that affect the main story line. See the example above. Whenever romance is involved, there is lots of tension!
Types of Novel Subplots
To determine which type of subplot might work best in your novel, consider the different types of subplots you can explore:
1. Romantic - the tension develops here as characters fall in and out of love. So whenever your main character’s subplot involves romance, you know you can count on lots of interest.
2. Character conflict - tension appears when conflict arises between secondary character, so allowing these other characters to confront each other can add lots of interest.
3. Expository - this type of subplot provides background to events that have led the main characters to action. crucial, formative events in a character’s life can be brought out through subplot flashbacks, or visits to old haunts, or any number of ways.
we can use the subplot to weave in this background material.
Flashbacks are useful here, for example.
Which Type of Subplot Should I Choose for my Novel?
The subplot you choose should relate clearly to the main story goal. That way, whatever interesting things you want to do - romance, character conflicts, or background - you know they’ll work to support your main story. This is the key to an effective subplot: make it relevant to the main story line.
No matter what kind of subplot you choose to introduce in your story, keep it simple and focused. It should always reveal something more about the characters and it should always support the main story line. That’s it! Keep it simple, and your readers will love you.
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When it comes to revising your story, whether that’s a short story or a novel, you could spend tons of time trying to check every little thing. From grammar to sentence length, word repetitions and clichés, it can overwhelm a writer.
So with that in mind, I want to share with you my Top 5 Revising Tips that have the most impact on improving your story. This is exactly what I do when I revise my own novels and stories.
1. Use Action Verbs
When I’m drafting I story, I don’t pay much attention to word choice or grammar: I just want to get the story out of my head and on the paper. Then, when I revise, I look for those pedestrian verbs and replace them with better action verbs. Here are some examples:
Boring Verb: Walk
Action Verb: limped, crawled, sprinted, shuffled, scuttled, marched…
Boring Verb: Look
Action Verb: glimpse, glare, stare, peek, glance, cast, behold
2. Use Active Voice instead of Passive
The tip off that you’re in passive voice mode is that you use the “to be” verb in front of “ing” verbs. It’s boring for the reader. This may seem like a subtle difference, but your readers’ brains pick up on such things. Here are some examples.
Passive: He was going to the store.
Active: He ran to the store.
Passive: The starship was firing all weapons.
Active: The starship fired all weapons.
3. Misuse of “ing” verbs – simultaneity
The real culprit behind gerunds and misuse of “ing” verbs is your grade 5 teacher who encouraged you to do this because it was “good writing”. Bollocks. Now we have to fix the bad habit.
Here’s an example: Walking down the hall, he touched her cheek.
This is a problem of simultaneity. You cannot be touching her cheek and walking down the hall at the same time unless you were Stretch Armstrong or a contortionist. What the writer meant to say here is:
After walking down the hall, he touched her cheek.
The simple fix is to put the word “after” in front of the ing gerund, or else rewrite the sentence altogether.
4. More nasty “ing” verbs – the misplaced modifier
I see this all the time. I mean, a lot! So let’s get this fixed up too (again, your grade 5 teacher is responsible).
Example: Watching the sun set, the air was cool on my face.
Reading the above sentence makes my eye twitch because the noun “air” is being modified by the verb “watching”. Air cannot watch, even it tries really hard. But a person can watch, so let’s fix this up by having the person do the watching.
Watching the sun set, I felt the cool air on my face.
5. Be mindful of “to be” at the beginning of sentences.
When you write “The night was humid”, you’re telling the reader instead of showing her that the night was humid. So if you want to bring your story to life in the reader’s mind, you need to reduce the “it was” and the “he/she was” sentences. Whenever you see the “to be” verb at the beginning of a sentence, you know you’re in telling mode, so change some of those into showing mode.
Example: (Telling) The night was humid.
(Showing): The town sweat under a warm, moist blanket of night air.
A note here: sometimes we use the “to be” verb for dramatic effect, like “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” So you don’t have to change every single sentence with a “to be” verb in it. Just be mindful of when showing the reader would be more effective.
If you do these 5 simple revision tips, you’re writing will improve a ton.
I’ve been in the writing game for many years: fiction, non-fiction, business, and poetry. I’ve also offered dozens of writing workshops over the past couple of years, and I can tell you with full confidence that the hardest thing about writing is not lack of creative talent, knowledge of genres or wordsmithing, no.
The most difficult thing about writing is actually sitting down and writing!
It’s not my intention to come across as obtuse or sarcastic or simplistic here. For me, Newton’s First Law of Motion is in full swing here: an object at rest tends to stay at rest. It’s very difficult to overcome our resistance and get our butts into our writing spaces and open up the laptop or pull out some paper and get writing.
What’s interesting about this, for me, is the reason why it is so hard to stop procrastinating and to start writing. It’s not writer’s block or some other excuse like that, no. It’s got everything to do with fear.
Look, I see this all the time with my writing groups. We are terrified of what writing might do to us, we fear being judged by others, and so rather than take the risk, we simply avoid it altogether by not writing at all. That, by the way, is the real reason behind “writer’s block”... fear!
I’m not different than anyone else. I fall into the fear-trap frequently, and the only way that works for me is to have a daily writing schedule that I force myself to stick to no matter what. I know, for example, that by 8:00 every morning, I’m going to be in one of two writing spaces, laptop open, notes beside me, ready to work. And I treat it like a job too. It’s the only thing that keeps me productive. If left to my own devices, I wouldn’t get anything written, ever.
A funny thing that many of my new writers notice too is that writing is actually hard work. I think we have this idea that writing is easy. All you have to do is learn words and a couple of formulas, and voila, you’re a writer. It doesn’t help either when Jessica Fletcher and other TV writers never actually write much on their shows! They’re always off doing other fun things. Miraculously, their books get written anyway.
But that’s not the way it really works. Writing is hard work. It’s challenging coming up with interesting and fresh story ideas, characters that don’t look like idiots, stories without zombies or vampires(!!), and then actually sitting down for a writing session.
So if you’re looking to be a more productive writer, the first thing to overcome is the fear of writing. Fight the inner resistance. Turn the TV off, and make a habit of writing on a regular basis.