Monday 18th December 2017,
Bird On The Wire

How I Got Started Writing

Students pass beneath Sather Gate and onto Sproul Plaza at UC BerkeleyWhether you’ve already written your novel or are just getting started, you may feel daunted by the prospect of actually getting your book published – most writers do. It is very difficult these days to find an agent who will take you on, let alone an editor who will read your story, the irony being that you need an agent to get you into almost any publishing house. Then, even if you are lucky enough to somehow land a book contract with a publisher, they will spend very little, if any, money promoting your book if you are a new writer, so almost all of the marketing will be up to you. That’s the sad state of publishing today! Not to mention that the business end of the writing business is not what writers are good at. So, how do you get your book out there into people’s hands?

I have spent years writing and reading about writing. I have also been in writing groups and have attended national writers’ conferences where I made contacts with famous writers. So, I have lots of information that I’d like to share with you, information that could save you a great deal of time as you write and publish your novel. Writing is a lonely profession, one in which you often wish you had someone to turn to for advice. I’m here to offer you that advice and to be your partner on this exciting journey. I’ll take you through the steps I went through in writing my novels, steps that, again, will save you lots and lots of time. Then, I’ll be with you as we both go through the process of self- publishing our books on the internet.

The beauty of the internet for us writers is that, as more and more publishing houses disappear or merge with other houses, making it less and less likely for us to find an editor who will read our work, suddenly we can SELF-PUBLISH what we’ve written, thus fulfilling our dream of getting our books into the hands of people who would like to read them. So, let’s get started!

How I Began To Think Of A Story

I’ve always been told, as I’m sure you have, that writers should write about what they know. I was also told, by a well-known writer, that you should write about what you have to write about – the story you’re dying to tell. That story, for me, was one that I experienced as a student at UC Berkeley during the Vietnam War. I didn’t write a memoir about that time because I wanted to create my own story out of the experiences I’d had and wanted to include, as characters, people that I hadn’t actually known. Here’s another thing – I knew from the very start that the point of my story would be that the young men of that generation, because of the Draft, had to make life-changing decisions before they were even able to vote, and that none of their choices were good ones. I later learned, after years of painful re-writes, that making a point, moral, political, or otherwise, is not really the best way to start a novel. (I’ll talk about this later).

So, I had my idea for the novel. The next thing I needed was Characters.  When I was a student at CAL, I lived in a boarding house, actually an old Maybeck-designed house. I knew that this historic house, as well as its inhabitants, would be central to my story. My characters had seeds of these girls in them but were definitely not these girls. If you’ve already written your novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that characters have a way of taking off on their own, even as you write them. To me, one of the most exciting things about writing   is seeing how your characters turn out. They will definitely end up being different from the way you initially envisioned them. So, even though I started out writing about my housemates, they themselves never actually appeared on the page.

Here’s another interesting thing about my characters  – I met my husband at CAL, yet he doesn’t even end up in the novel. I can’t know why that is, but that’s part of the mystery of writing – the novel will be shaped by the needs of the story as it progresses. The trick is that you be tuned in to these needs.

How does one begin to write a novel? A famous writer says that he begins with an image and just lets that image grow in his mind until he knows the story that surrounds it. Another writer, a friend of mine, begins with an idea, and all she really knows about her story is the ending. She says that knowing the whole story would bore her. Well, that’s not me! I need an outline – one that’s not that detailed at first – but detailed enough to give me a sense of the general direction of the book. And I need to know my main characters and their relationships to one another. As I said, much of this will change as you write, but you have to have a starting point. Before I begin a novel, I write little biographies of the characters – where the came from, how they look, their personalities, and how they feel about the other characters. It’s also important to understand what these characters want out of life. This is a tall order, I know, but if you don’t understand your characters and their motives in the beginning, you’ll end up doing a lot more re-writing than you need to.

So, you have your outline, your characters and their biographies. Next, where does the novel take place? A sense of place is important to most stories, so I suggest that you know your location well. In my case, Berkeley was so important to the novel that it was almost a character. But, let’s say that you are writing a science fiction story. You must know exactly how this planet looks, as well as all aspects of life there. (What do these creatures eat, what is the weather like? etc.) Also, make sure you’re clear on when your story takes place. If you’re writing about some other era, or even another decade, you have to let the reader know, in the beginning, where your story occurs in time. Sometimes you can do this subtly, by mentioning the clothes people are wearing or the cars they’re driving. Other times, if you’re writing about Renaissance Italy, for instance, you would need to let your readers know up front what period of history you’re in. In most cases, you’ll have to do a lot of research on that time period in order to make your story seem authentic. I found that I needed to research the Vietnam years, even though I’d lived through them.

When you feel that you really know the world of your novel —  its trajectory, its characters, its time and place — then you’re ready to begin.

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