There is no one process everyone must follow to write a book. All authors must find methods that works best for them. Some write plot outlines that range from general overviews to chapter by chapter details before they put down prose. There are writers who create descriptions of each main characters with their background, history and traits. As with outlines these vary from general to in depth. Others, like Salman Rushdie, David Mamet, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King Margaret Atwood and me don't write either.
Like the other authors mentioned above, I start with a concept I want to explore, place characters in a situation under pressure and see what happens. The way the characters react reveals their true natures and moves the story forward.
As I write, I learn more about the characters and story. New concepts come to mind. I may realize a setting is wrong. I may turn a hero into a villain. When these ideas come, I don’t go back and change previous martial. I make a note of them and continue from that point as if I had already made the changes.
I keep going until I finish the first draft. Before making any changes, I read the entire first draft. It will have grammar and spelling mistakes, dead ends, missing martial and inconsistencies. It will also have the core of the story and character development.
It’s then that I sit down, consult my notes and begin a second draft where I edit the manuscript and fix not just grammar and spelling, I make the adjustments I noted, alter character relationships, adjust scenes and so forth. I will find that some of the notes I made no longer apply to how the story or characters turned out. As I work, I’ll think of new story elements and characterizations that were not noted. Things shift and change. That’s good. The manuscript is taking on life and consistency.
When I finish the second draft, I read it without making changes, then start a third draft. You may be tempted to think only one pass is needed, yet you will be shocked at how many problems and mistakes you’ll find while writing the third draft; grammar mistakes, missing words, duplicated words, spelling errors, character development, story elements, etc. With the third draft complete, I start the fourth. I keep writing drafts until I’ve combed the manuscript to be the best I can produce. It will never be perfect. It is said a novel is a long piece of writing with mistakes. The stopping point for me is when I see the things I wanted to talk about, the representation of the characters, and the entertainment value express what I set out to deliver. For the final book of a fantasy trilogy, I wrote ten drafts because it had to tie up all the lose ends.
After I complete my drafts, the book goes to my editor. We than work together to improve it. This method has served me through five novels and an illustrated edition of one. Three of these books have won awards. Writing a novel is really rewriting until it sings.
A pun is a play on words, a statement that turns spelling or phrases around in a humorous manner. I can paddle, canoe? (I can paddle, can you?) When avoiding chores around then house, mother is the necessity of invention (necessity is the mother of invention).
I had a teacher who hated puns and said they were the lowest form of writing. The TV show Get Smart, a comedy where Don Adams played an inept secret agent when spy movies were popular, was running at the time. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, each episode contained an onslaught of puns in a style Brooks used in his parody films such as Blazing Saddles and Space Balls.
My teacher despised the show and used it as an example of what should never be done. Her idea of good writing was Shakespeare.
I loved Get Smart and all the puns. I can still watch it today and laugh Thinking back, I don't believe that teacher actually understood Shakespeare's works because they're loaded with puns. However, the language and culture has changed so much over 500 years. Many people today don't recognize the humor.
This might sound like a meaningless exchange that's anything but funny. Yet, to audiences in the 16th century it brought uproarious laughter. They understood the joke. At that time, to face a man had two meanings, either to stand up to him or for a tailor to add decorations to a garment. Braved also had two meanings— to challenge someone to a dual or for a tailor to measure someone for garments.
This might sound like a meaningless exchange that's anything but funny. Yet, to audience in the 16th century it brought uproarious laughter. They understood the joke. At that time, to face a man had two meanings, either to stand up to him or for a tailor to add decorations to a garment. Braved also had two meanings— to challenge someone to a dual or for a tailor to measure someone for garments.
For puns to work, they must contain know cultural references. That modern audiences don't always get the puns in Shakespeare's plays doesn't mean people today are dumb. They just don't have the same connection to the older culture and language. Even for subcultures within any modern societies, the puns will differ and may not me understood by people in other groups.
It takes a lot of wit and intelligence to write puns. They make us pause, shake our heads, and if their really good, groan when people get them.
The first draft of a novel is the initial creation of the story. The result will produce a manuscript, not a publishable book. The manuscript must be rewritten several times to craft a book. There will be many false starts, weak writing and mistakes. That doesn’t matter. I never write outlines; I just begin with a situation, put characters in it under pleasure and see what happens. Not everyone works this way. If you do write outlines before starting a book, don’t feel you must constrain yourself to them. You don’t fully know the story you’re writing or the characters you’re creating until you work with the prose for a while.
As you write, concepts will come to mind that you hadn’t thought of. You will realize the true nature of relationship between characters and imagine new twists in the plot. Put these things down and let your imagination run free. If you start on a divergent path, follow it to see where it leads. You may eliminate it later, but explore it anyway. It might lead to something better than you originally envisioned. The final book may bear little resemblance to what you considered in the beginning.
Never go back and edit anything in the first draft as you write. If you realize something needs to change at the beginning, make a note on the side and continue as if that change had been made, then fix the beginning in subsequent drafts.
Now there's only one true rule in writing - you can do anything you can get away with, however the trick is in knowing what that is, and that requires a knowledge of writing guidelines. It also takes experience.
Practice good writing from the beginning. Watch grammar, avoid clichés and be selective with adverbs as you create the first draft. Don't fall back on sloppy writing. Build a story, don't just dump words. Train yourself to be a better writer with each sentence. This will allow you to grow as an author because writing is a life long learning experience. It also makes life easier with the second, third, fourth and subsequent drafts to craft a manuscript into a book, short story or article.
Don’t try to write to trends or opinion polls. These change too often. By the time your book is ready for publication, tastes can vanish.
Be bold. Sit down and write your book. It's all you can do.
The Lord of the Rings was a modest seller when it first appeared in the early 1950s. Nothing like it had been published before.
It wasn’t until the 1960s, when college students discovered the books, that it became the hit we know today.
J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t write to please fans or media swings. He wrote from his heart. Write from yours. Tell your story. It has just as good a change of selling as trying to catch yesterday’s fad.
Didn’t and hadn’t both refer to events in the past. Which you use depends on the context.
If the action in question cannot be completed, use the past simple form of didn’t. The action occurred in the past and can't be changed in the present.
If there’s still a possibility for the task to be completed, use the past perfect form of hadn’t. The event occurred in the past and can be changed in the present.
Assume there are three people, Tom, Mary and Joe.
Example 1 - “Tom read Marys’ report where she spoke with Joe who said he didn’t finish painting the wall.” This implies the painting of the wall was not completed and Joe is no longer capable of doing so.
Example 2 -“Tom read Marys’ report where she spoke with Joe who said he hadn’t finish painting the wall.” This implies the painting of the wall was not completed and Joe has the ability to do so.
This second example doesn’t tell the whole story, however, because we don’ know what Joe’s intentions are. You could write, “hadn’t yet finish painting the wall.” This indicates Joe intends to finish. You could also write, “hadn’t finish painting the wall yet.” This implies Joe could finish but has shown no indication he wants to.
There is a fine line in writing between foreshadowing and telegraphing. Foreshadowing consists of facts, incidents or dialogue that appear to be insignificant at the time, yet prepare readers for future events in the book.
For instance, a character might say, “Sara used to deliver newspapers in college to support herself. She had a great arm and could put the paper on a porch every time. She was always good with her hands. I remember how she wanted to be a sculpture from the beginning. Her job let her stay in school where a professor noticed her work and suggested she enter the state competition. That was the beginning of her art career.”
On the surface, the conversation seems to be about Sara as an artist because it moves from throwing newspapers to Sara being good with her hands to Sara being able to stay in school because of the job to Sara’s big break so she can become an artist. Her ability to throw newspapers accurately is hidden within dialogue and will fall to the back of the minds of readers until a later scene where Sara has to throw a key to a character who is trapped in a cage. The seemingly unimportant fact about her ability to always hit a porch with a newspaper leads readers to believe she can toss the key accurately. Without that piece of dialogue, the reader will not believe Sara capable of this act.
Foreshadowing can be taken too far. If the dialogue had said that Sara practiced throwing objects because she was always worried she would come across animals caught in cages where she couldn’t reach them and wanted to be able to knock the cages open. Her throwing ability in the piece of dialogue would become as import as her art career and readers would be waiting for Sara to encounter something locked in cage. When the scene comes where Sara finds a person locked in a cage where the key is hanging on a shook, readers will think, “Oh, yes. Sara will throw that key into the cage.”
This becomes telegraphing and removes the suspense. When Sara tosses the key, readers will have expected it instead of being surprised when she comes up with the solution. Her action is now mundane instead of satisfying.
Foreshadowing is all about subtlety.
Beyond the Shallow Bank, my women’s historical novel with elements of Celtic mythology, won first place in the Magic, Legend and Lore category and third place for Historical Fiction at The BookFest Awards for Spring 2022. The awards ceremony took place on 2 April 2022 in Los Angeles as part of the semi-annual conference. The ceremonies and panel discussions were held online this year. https://www.thebookfest.com/book-awards-spring-2022-first-place/2/.
Beyond the Shallow Bank is told through the perspective of an artist named Margaret Talbot who fights her way into the male dominated world of publishing in the late 19th century to become a magazine illustrator. In 1901, she suffers a life changing crisis and comes to a small Nova Scotia fishing village where she meets another woman rumored to be a selkie, a magical being from Celtic mythology who walks on the land as a human and swims in the sea as a seal. With the influence of the villagers, and Margaret’s own self-determination, she strives to discover who she is and what she truly wants.
Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize said, “Wimsett's novel is quickly paced without the events of the story feeling rushed… Engaging characters and the right amount of fantasy help elevate the novel above standard genre trappings while retaining enough of the conventional elements of historical fiction. Margaret is an engaging protagonist…”
Nova Scotia writer Susan Haley, author of a number of Canadian titles including A Nest of Singing Birds and Petitot said, “The wonderful romantic plot of the book with its magical twist and turns gives substance and resonance to Margaret’s multiple dilemmas. Beyond the Shallow Bank presents a delightful picture of a Nova Scotia fishing village with all its characters: the madman inventor and the man who carries the ashes of his dead wife around with him. Beyond the Shallow Bank contains descriptive passages of the sea which are wonderfully poetic. The writing in this book has both depth and psychological complexity, as well as humor, in the interactions of its large cast of village characters. Perhaps best of all, for the lifelong reader, it is a book to sink into, put down reluctantly, and wonder about long afterwards.”
Writing a synopsis for a novel can feel like a daunting chore. How do you capture a long story and the essence of the characters? It seems impossible.
Yet, any novel can be reduced to a single sentence. The Lord of the Rings is 1,200 pages long with The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. It can be described as, “A seemingly insignificant character succeeds in stopping an evil that would destroy the world.” This is the core of the story. Of course, there’s a lot of action and characterization in the book. Many things happen. J.R.R. Tolkien created an entire world that feels so real one can imagine stepping into it. There is lore from ancient days and songs. Many cultures are presented. The book has battles, hardship and humor. There are many themes expressed. All of this supports the main core.
In writing a synopsis, look to the core of your book. What are you trying to say? What is the main story line? Who are the main characters? If the agent asks for 1,000 words try to give them a 500-word synopsis. That's two single spaced pages. Agents will appreciate it because they are very busy. Just as importantly, a short synopsis demonstrates that the main story line follows an arc and that you have a grasp on your story.
You may think that if they just knew the minute details they would be enchanted. That is not the case. They will use your synopsis to sell the book to publishers and they have less time than agents.
Your query letter and synopsis are the first things an agent will read. They have to demonstrate that you are writing at a professional level and one indication is the ability to present the major themes in clear and concise language.
David A. Wimsett is the author of women's historical fiction, science fiction and epic fantasy novels.
No matter the career path people pursue, they start off knowing next to nothing about it. Carpenters must learn how to pound nails. They may have watched every episode of a particular home improvement show, but until they gain the experience of actually doing it, they will hit the wood as much as the nails and half of those will be bent. The same is true in other professions. Initial exposure is a good grounding, but there is a difference between knowing a thing and knowing the experience of a thing.
This includes writing. It takes time to learn the nuances of the craft; language, characterization, dialog, plot, suspense, comedy, drama and so forth. We all begin by imitating the styles of writers we have read until we develop our own unique voices, much as art students copy masterpieces to get the feel of how the original artists captured light or expressed emotions. Through this process, writers accumulate techniques they will continue to use. They will also gain the perspective of experience to better understand what they want to say and how to say it. There are those who pop onto the art scene with works of brilliance, however, for most people, it can take years to master the craft of an art.
Even after reaching a professional level, you will discover that the process of learning never ends. There are always new things to discover. This requires a willingness to continually evaluate yourself as a writer and to examine critiques. They could come from other writers, professional development or a critique group. A major difference between professionals and beginners is the ability to override their egos, accept that everyone can improve and commit themselves to that improvement.
Effective critiques are a service and a gift. A good critique examines of how effectively themes or points are expressed and only covers the work. It is not a statement about the writer or a way for the person offering the critique to serve their ego at the expense of others. As such, effective critiques are respectful yet direct in their comments, pointing out what worked and what didn't. Rather than trying to change an author's intention or themes, critiques should cover how effectively the writing expressed the themes and offer suggestions to make the themes more comprehensible. When writers examine critiques about their works, they can gain a better understanding of how to best communicate to readers, though no one is bound to take any suggestions if they feel they want something to be presented in a specific way.
Some new writers can be hypersensitive about critiques. Even respectful suggestions may be considered personal attacks. They may think of their stories as their babies and each word their blood on the page. I have actually heard these words used in writing groups. Some writers might say that their mother liked their manuscript or their friends enjoyed it. These attitudes are a great impediment to becoming a professional writer. Mothers like everything about their children and friends may not want to point out faults. Writers must look to people involved in writing who are willing to comment on how effective their work is. They must also separate their own egos from the work and realize that it is just a piece of writing that does or does not express what was intended. If it doesn't, it must be changed.
Many beginning writers fear that they will run out of material and must jealously guard what they have written by never removing anything. In truth, authors have an inexhaustible source of new ideas that they can draw on by just sitting down, writing them out, seeing how they read, and following threads that are suggested by the material. I threw out five times as much text as what was published in the final manuscript of my first book. Entire characters, cultures, locations and plot lines were removed because they did not serve the story or character development. I was always able to create new martial that did tell the story I intended.
Apprentice carpenters begin in near ignorance. They get experience on the job, go to training courses and proceed through the ranks to become master carpenters. There is no shame in not knowing everything at first, but we humans are impatient, even more so in this wired world. We must all be willing to swallow our egos long enough to study our own work and listen to others in the profession to become masters.
Being surprised by the action of a character or an event in a story is fun to read when that trait or incident falls within the logical world of the story. When these things are sprung upon us with no preparation, they seem like they are occurring in a different tale entirely.
Many authors bleed in information that give clues to readers about what might happen so that the possibilities are in the backs of their minds. This is referred to as foreshadowing. When that thing occurs, we believe it. Suspense is created by carefully revealing information as the story progresses.
Some writers withhold information that they only reveal at the very end of a story thinking this creates suspense. It doesn’t. It can frustrate readers who are following a story step by step and are suddenly thrown a curve ball out of the blue that ties everything up. This is referred to as Deus ex machina, god out of the machine, where the plot is wrapped by an outside force at the last minute.
Authors can string events and characterizations anyway they want, left, right, center, counter clockwise, to reveal "Ah Ha" moments of surprise. When readers are prepared, they feel satisfied and say to themselves, “I didn’t expect that and it’s the only way the story could have ended.” When the material shows up with no connection to what’s been happening or characters do things that contradicts their nature without explanation, it can come off as unbelievable and even ridiculous.
To get that satisfying result, it is necessary to prepare readers for possibilities with foreshadowing. It’s a subtle device. Too much information given away in a blatant manner can destroy any surprise. This is referred to as telegraphing. If clues are given in too elusive a manner, readers may not notice or remember them. These clues leave small doubts and suggestions in the back of the mind. Not every clue needs to lead to a conclusion. Incidents and objects can be inserted into a story that are intended to throw readers offtrack and distract them from the real clues. Director Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, The Birds, The Man Who Knew Too Much) referred to these types of clues as MacGuffins.
To use foreshadowing effectively, information must be revealed as if it means nothing at the time or is a minor part of a larger plot device. When the final incident is revealed, readers will recall it and accept the ending because they have been prepared with the suggestion that something like that could occur or that the character might act in a certain manner.
In a novel, incidents of foreshadowing can be inserted throughout the story. They build up in the background of the world and are often unnoticed until the big event is sprung. Foreshadowing can be used to prepare readers for several incidents, not only the end of the book, and produce satisfying of course moments throughout.
Let’s assume that we are writing a novel about a successful career woman named Jane. At the end of the book, she turns down a big promotion to leave and open an antique shop. This is a major decision. For the ending to be satisfying we must demonstrate Jane’s thinking process and detail incidents in her life that lead her to this action.
At the beginning of a book, we can have Jane toying with the idea of opening such a shop but considering it impossible because she has few savings and has always just scraped by in life. She finds her current job deeply satisfying. The idea of an antique shop remains in the back of her mind as unattainable. A promotion would pay enough to save the money required but that would take years and seems far off. She feels she can’t leave to start a full time business and she would be too tired to do something part time if she got a promotion.
If we only see her at work and the rejection of the promotion is just dropped on readers at the end, they will find it unbelievable because it would seem completely out of character. Fictional character in a novel can swing wildly from one state to another, however, they must act within a range of internal logic.
If Jane constantly makes rash decisions, flies of the handle all the time or shows other traits of instability, readers might accept her turning down the promotion but it will just be another of her antics and have no real significance. To make her leaving important, it needs to be an act that seems out of character but has been eluded so when it happens we see growth in Jane. An outside force can be introduced at the end that forces her to take this action but that is Deus ex machine and is generally unsatisfying.
Showing growth in Jane requires the creation of moments where she confronts impediments and questions her life. These can be small incidents. Perhaps she makes toast one morning and her old toaster burns the bread. She can show exasperation and even admonish herself for not replacing the toaster when there was a sale the week before. This has nothing to do with her turning down the promotion yet signals that not everything in Jane’s life is satisfying.
There is an old saying, “The boulders I can walk over but the pebbles get in my shoes.” Putting enough pebbles in a character’s shoes over time builds tension as small irritants add up. That, however, is not enough. There has to be an inner motive and desire hidden within the character that, at the beginning, feels unimportant, seems unattainable or is one that the character is not consciously aware of.
We could give her an opportunity, say a local antique dealer wants to retire and will allow Jane to buy the business in low, installment payments with nothing down. Such a device might seem to be foreshadowing but it could ruin the story by both giving too much information of a future event and invoking god in the machine by presenting an opportunity that she has not worked for or expected. As a general rule in drama, it is best for unexpected incidents to hinder characters who must draw on their inner strength to overcome the obstacle, thus allowing them to grow.
If going to antique shops is an enjoyable pastime, even though she can’t afford to buy anything, readers will be subconsciously prepared for Jane to try and open one herself. Other clues need to be inserted. For instance, a friend can be with Jane while visiting a shop and tell her that she has a real eye for antiques and would be a great dealer. Jane can then say, “I’ve thought about it but I like my job. Besides, where can I get the money?” We can then have her look longingly at the items in the shop before moving quickly to something else, say a traffic accident occurs and the two women run outside. This action scene will pull readers away from Jane’s yearning look in the shop but the suggestion will stay.
Simply giving Jane the desire to run an antique shop does not mean she is capable of doing so. Another incident might be introduced. She could become friends with the owner of a shop who has to leave one weekend to visit a sick relative and asks her to step in and watch the store. Jane can make the biggest sale the shop has ever had and the owner can tell her that she should open her own shop. Jane rejects this idea. Besides the money required, she thinks about how much she loves her job and career. In addition, she feels frightened of taking such a risk and decides stability is better than reaching for a dream. Even though she rejects the idea, it is still present. Having Jane return to work and showing her immersed in her career while doing an excellent job hides the idea of owning a shop but the big sale she made and her competency in business demonstrates that she has the savvy to do so.
To reinforce the possibility that she might open a shop even though she feels satisfied in her career, tension must be introduced at the workplace. She can spend all night preparing a presentation and learn the next morning that the project was canceled the day before and her boss didn’t tell her. A supervisor can take credit for her work and Jane has no way to prove otherwise. She can’t tell herself, “One of these days I’m just going to walk out and open an antique shop if I don’t start getting some respect.” That is too blatant and is a device called telegraphing. All surprise is removed from her final actions.
Instead, she can feel disappointed, even angry, and remember how much fun it was making the big antique sale and how satisfied she felt because she knew the worth and history of the piece. Then, she reminds herself that she is good at her job and likes it, even with the irritations. Both possibilities now hold equal weigh.
This needs to be followed by victories at work to keep the idea alive that she might stay in her career. Things go very good for her and readers will question if she will open a shop.
We’re at the end of the novel. The pieces now have to come together. Jane must examine herself and make a choice. In doing so, she considers her dreams and her fears and the choice she makes reveals her true nature.
The job she has is all she’s ever worked at. It’s familiar. She knows what to expect, both good and bad. She might become a manger. The money could be great.
Yet, the passion of her dream floods her mind and won’t leave her. As authors, we need to reach deep into Jane’s character and have her confront her wants and fears. Is she really looking for money? Is she trapped in a cycle that will lead nowhere? What are the risks of leaving? What are the risks of staying? What scars will inflict her soul if she takes the easy path?
We have shown Jane to be a smart and competent person. To have her turn down the promotion and open the shop she has to be shown to truly want that and device a plan to make it a reality. She has to make sacrifices. This is where we really have to work and earn our keep as authors. Does she have an old family heirloom that she promised here dying mother she would never sell? Will she give up a luxury apartment that her friends are so impressed with to live in a hovel or the back of the store? Will she have to walk away from friends who are immersed in the business and will no longer want to associate with her? Is she willing to fail and lose everything to live in poverty? Whatever it is, it has to be foreshadowed earlier to prepare the reader. The decision can’t be easy and Jane must both embrace her passion and devise a way to make it work if she is going to open a shop.
If we have prepared readers for that possibility by demonstrating her passion for antiques, her competency in the field and her ability to manage a business, they will accept the conclusion of the book and be satisfied.
This, by the way, is the end of the story, the fact that she has chosen to take a leap of faith. Adding scenes where she buys a shop and struggles to make a go at it would be anti-climactic. This is the story of a woman overcoming her self-doubts and standing up for what she wants. She may succeed or she may fail. That’s not the point. It is the fact that we see her inner strength come out and her willingness to do what she loves that makes the story complete. Of course, we could have her accept the promotion and give up her dreams to live a predictable life. That would be a completely different story and would still reveal Jane’s true inner self.
I may never write this story. I made it up on the fly as an example of how foreshadowing can work. I do, however, use these and other similar techniques in my writing.
David A. Wimsett is the author of several books that examine characters who reveal their inner selves through their choices in life. These include Beyond the Shallow Bank in which a woman searches for who she is and what she truly wants as well as The Carandir Saga, an epic fantasy series set in a multicultural world of gender equality.
People get up in the morning, eat food, do things and go to sleep. This all happens in our physical world. What does that world look like? It might be assumed that a story set in Cape Town or New Your or Beijing of today requires little or no detailed descriptions. Writers can draw on actual buildings, customs and politics. Yet, all stories benefit from descriptions of the world where they occur. Some readers may have never been to Beijing and others might remember or imagine it in a far different way than the author intended. Novels that take place in worlds that readers can envision engage readers better and make the stories memorable.
When authors set their tales in a world of fantasy and magic, the details must be created. This is world building. The story might be set in contemporary times, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Yet, the elements of magic and the settings of Hogwarts are all creations of the author. There is no actual school of magic and wizardry, nor are there dragons and unicorns. The books draw on many established concepts such as castles and fantastic beasts, yet the details had to be shaped by the author to engage readers.
Fantasy stories can be set in completely different worlds that never existed. There were no hobbits until J.R.R. Tolkien put them in Middle Earth, which itself does not exist. The world of his imagination draws from earlier tales from largely European cultures and, as with Harry Potter, it is fashioned in a uniquely detailed way.
A clearly defined world in a fantasy story is vital in maintaining the suspension of belief required for readers to become absorbed in them, be they sword & sorcery adventures of epic tomes.
Fantasy stories are really historical fictions set in non-existent worlds. As such, they have all the elements of the normal world; cultures, politics, literature, customs and beliefs. Societies can cooperate or make war on each other. People have hopes, aspirations, fears, successes and failures. The difference between the real and fantasy world is in how the details of everyday life in these fictional worlds are connected and how they are influenced by additional factors such as magic and fantastic creatures.
Fantasy worlds are governed by their own internal logic that must be consistent throughout the story in the same way as technology in the real world behaves dependably (except for computers which are the devil’s plating and intended to torment us). If a certain type of spell is invoked one way in a scene, it must be invoked the same way in every scene. The details can be as imaginative as the author wishes as long as they are built in a way as to appear organic to the world. Readers will be distracted if a wizard draws a circle in the air to conjure wine and food in one chapter and claps hands together to create the same thing in another chapter. The one thing you do not need to do is explain or justify how magic works. It is just a given as long as the reader sees that it functions the same in every instance. In science fiction, writers often provide details about technologies in order to validate events in the plot. This is not required in Fantasy. Magic is just a part of each world’s fabric like the wind and rain. It occurs and readers will accept that. You should, however, show magic being used in scenes rather than just telling about it in exposition.
In making up geographies, cities, customs, religions, festivals and so forth, the sky is the limit. Writers can create floating towns, navigable rivers of lava, flies the size of boulders, portals between worlds and anything else they can dream up. Actual landscapes and settlements can serve as models to inspire the descriptions. Particular settings can influence the people who live there in customs and beliefs as is true in the real world. In Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, which is as much mythology as science fiction, the desert planet of Arrakis shaped the Fremen and influenced their culture, rituals and values.
When creating cultures, writers will often be influenced consciously or subconsciously by existing ones here on Earth whether contemporary or historical. Is a nation in a fantasy book similar to ones found in Europe, Africa or Asia? Do customs in the story resemble those from ancient Persia, European mythology or North American indigenous oral traditions? Does everyone in a world hold the same cultural values and have the same color of skin or are there peoples of multiple races and ethnic backgrounds? A danger writers can face is grabbing elements of different cultures or religions without understanding or respecting them. A created culture in a book can draw elements from many real world ones. Picking rituals and tales from cultures without understanding their importance to the original societies can lead to prose that are insulting and hurtful to a group of people. It can also lead to low book sales among large numbers of the readers.
The process authors use to build worlds varies. Some write out details before starting a book that establish magic, magical creatures, character traits, civilizations, lands, maps and the like. From this, an author can gain a grounding for the setting and people of the book. As with research for historical novels, much more detail will be created than ever winds up in the story. Some authors may be tempted to add all the made up research, as some authors want to do with their reteach for historical fiction. This should be avoided. The point of research, either in the real world or a fantasy setting, is to immerse authors in the world to such a degree that they fully understand their creations. From this, they can select key items that demonstrate those worlds and societies to readers.
I think about world building before I start a new book but I don’t spend a lot of time making up details about the world and characters before writing the story. I do make notes as I write to mull over choices about how magic works, the attributers of different characters or what kinds of terrain the novel takes place. I mostly create the details as I write in an organic process where the act of writing a set of sentences suggests how characters will react in the future and what physical attributes exist. To do this, I have to keep a sense of the plot and the characters in my head as I write, even for novels that exceed three-hundred pages. This allows my mind to roam and be unfettered with too many preconceived notions so that the story and the actions of the characters can flow and change as real life does while we encounter the unexpected, no matter how well we plan.
Not all world building occurs on paper or a computer screen. Sometimes, I will be about to fall off to sleep when an idea or the solution to a plot problem pops into my head. Then, I write it down on a notepad that I always keep close by.
Because of this, the first drafts are filled with inconsistences and dead ends that have to be altered and removed in the second, third and fourth drafts. This is not an impediment to me nor does it slow me down. I, and many other writers, use the first draft just to get ideas out so they can be crafted in subsequent drafts. As such, my first drafts are somewhat like highly detailed outlines but far more flexible to allow the story and characters to evolve. I don’t actually know what the book is about until I finish the first draft, and even then, things will change in subsequent drafts
All the magical spells, mountains and cultural aspects will become more consistent as I comb the work until I feel I have accomplished what I really want to say and established a world that, hopefully, readers feel they can walk into.
David A. Wimsett worked in the computer industry for over four decades and ran his own consulting firm before retiring from it to devote all his time to writing and publishing. His works include the Carandir Saga that takes place in a multicultural world of gender equality and includes Dragons Unremembered and Half Awakened Dreams. Covenant With the Dragons, the third and final book in the series, will be released in 2022.
It’s important to clearly identify who is speaking in a story. The most common way to do this is to use the word “said” before of after the dialogue, as in “She said” or “He said.” This little word has almost magical qualities. Not only does it indicate who is speaking, it actually disappears in the minds of readers so that they are only conscience of the dialogue itself.
Mary said, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom said, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Sometimes, writers want to indicate the emotional state of a character who is speaking. Authors may substitute descriptive verbs and adjectives in place of the word said in an attempt to indicate the mood of the speaker. If authors want to show happiness between two people, they might write:
Mary chuckled, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom responded jovially, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Alternatively, if authors want to indicate irritation, they might write:
Mary chided, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom retorted haltingly, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Both of these examples have problems. The verbs and adjectives slow the story because readers must stop and process them. They also become tiresome to read when used repeatedly. A better way to indicate the emotional state of a speaker is to give them an action or describe a physical response.
Mary thrust her hand into the glove. She said, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom cringed. He said, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Here we see Mary’s anger and Tom’s reaction. Because we are describing action, we can delete the word said and just write:
Mary thrust her hand into the glove. “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom cringed. “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Because the dialogue immediately follows the action of each character, readers will know that the character involved in the action is the one who is speaking. This puts the action and physical response within the flow of the prose and propels the story forward without interruption.
External events, such as the state of objects or the weather, can also provide clues to a character’s emotional state while indicating who is speaking.
Lightning scratched across the horizon, silhouetting Mary against the darkening twilight. “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Readers will associate the spoken words with Mary because she is the object of the sentence preceding it, so there is no need to insert, “She said” before the dialogue. Using a word suggesting a violent act, such as scratched as opposed to flashed, adds tension and communicates anger. Placing Mary against the darkening twilight accentuates her dissatisfaction with the situation.
Still, if these or any other techniques are repeatedly used in close proximity in a story, the pacing can become bland.
Building a mood within a scene and exposing the character’s intuitive realizations can make it clear who is speaking, express the emotional state of the speakers and demonstrate the fortitude of their characters more effectively than giving physical descriptions of action alone. Here is the opening from my novel Beyond the Shallow Bank.
The oil lamp on the bedside table was turned down such that it cast more shadow than light. Margaret Talbot lay for an instant and panted as she stared up at the ceiling. Then the pain returned, like dozens of razors ripping through her. Margaret arched her back and muffled a scream.
The midwife leaned down and wiped sweat from Margaret’s forehead before standing to make the sign of the cross. Margaret cried out, “John.”
The door opened and her husband ran in to kneel at her bedside. His moustache was untrimmed and his hair was tousled. He took her hand in his and held it against his cheek. “I’ve hailed a carriage. We’ll be at the hospital in a few minutes.”
He kissed her hand gently. “The doctor said labor could be hard with a first child.”
“Not like this. Something’s wrong. I can feel it.”
The lamp that sheds more shadow than light sets a mood of danger and impending trouble. When Margaret pants while lying on her back, we feel her tension and experience her fear that something bad is about to happen. When the pain comes, the sensation is that of ripping razors, an act of violence. Margaret’s fortitude is demonstrated when she muffles a scream, even though the pain is excruciating. When the midwife makes the sign of the cross, the possibility of death is suggested. When John kneels at Margaret’s bedside, his disheveled look shows his concern and his fear for Margaret’s safety that overrides all thoughts of himself. When he tries to reassure Margaret, her intuition warns her, beyond the reasoning of any doctors’ words, of the peril she is in.
Placing characters into a scene and carefully choosing words to describe the setting and action clarifies the emotions of the characters while clearly identifying each speaker.
Crafting a novel takes place through the process of rewriting the book. The first draft is only a framework of the story you want to tell. Some beginning writers run their first draft through spell check and send out the manuscript, thinking they are finished. This is a mistake.
Even this article has gone through eight rewrites. After putting down ideas I wanted to discuss, I reread and edited the first draft, changing words here, taking some things out there and adding new material where it was needed. This was followed by a second edited draft with more changes as I looked for the exact words to use while making certain that the points I wanted to express were clear. After the eighth draft, I posted the article.
Of course, you also need to check for misspellings, typographical errors, missing words and other grammatical problems. I’m always shocked by how many times I can reread a manuscript I’ve written and come across a sentence such as, “They walked into building” when I intended to write “They walked into the building.” My mind subconsciously added the word the each time I read the piece. Sometimes these things go undetected until after the manuscript goes to my editor.
This is one of the reasons why anyone who intends to write professionally must hire a professional editor and not just have a friend or relative look over the work. Your friends and relatives may not be trained and experienced in editing manuscripts and they will usually tell you that the writing is wonderful because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Worse yet, some writers send out manuscripts without having anyone else look at them.
Those who want to write on a professional level must invest time in rewriting. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
There are many things to consider when rewriting. In the end, the writing itself must disappear to reveal only the story and the characters. A book can present themes and ideas, but without a story that involves readers in the characters, the book becomes a lecture and not a novel.
When readers pause to say, “Wasn’t that a clever turn of phrase”, they are taken out of the story and slammed back into their ordinary lives, dispelling the suspension of disbelief that is essential in storytelling, which must immerse readers beyond distraction.
Here is a good rule of thumb. If, in rereading your work, you come across something that stands out and causes you to become conscious of the writing itself, remove that word, phrase, description, piece of dialogue or characterization. If you noticed it, so will your readers. The story will stumble and any points you wanted to make will be interrupted.
Professional writing is not an academic excursive in showing off how much you know about writing craft, it is using the craft of writing to reveal the material with such impact that the physical presentation becomes invisible. Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama, says to “Kill your darlings.”
Writers may believe that they can’t remove material because they might not be able to think of something else. In truth, writers have an inexhaustible source of material within themselves and their imaginations to create new prose that describes characters and situations. Others hope to impress readers by demonstrating a command of language. This is like drawing a set of gorgeous drapes across a picture window and blocking the view.
You are the first editor in a rewrite, and you must be ruthless with yourself. Fight your ego if it tells you to keep material that does not serve the story or revelation of the characters.
David A. Wimsett is the author of Beyond the Shallow, a novel of a woman overcoming prejudice and searching for herself amidst rumors of the selkies from Celtic mythology, and Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga, a fantasy epic set in a world of gender equality where women and men have the same rights, opportunities and authority. He is a member of the Writers' Union of Canada and the Canadian Freelance Guild.
People write for many reasons. Some want to publish their work professionally. Some want to share their stories with family and friends. Others want to leave a personal legacy as a history or memoir.
In non-fiction, your work can be entertaining and fun while discussing music, art, movies, vacation spots and other subjects. It can teach people important skills such as how to find a job, cook or garden. It can examine history to better understand where we came from and draw lessons for today’s world. It can document current events either in a journalistic manner or with your own opinions.
In fiction, writers can tell a rollicking tale of action or comedy, or place characters in tough situations where the way they react to pressure reveals their true nature and makes a comment on the human condition. Stories can be contemporary, historical, take place in the future or in a fantasy land.
In the same manner that an artist will use brushes to create a painting, writers use grammar to produce books and articles. It is the tool with which stories are built. You can learn grammar in high school and college courses. Another resource is to read and read and read anything you can get your hands on. Study each book. Ask yourself how the writer used words and constructed sentences. Note what you enjoyed and what fell flat.
A good book to consult for English grammar is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. This hundred page volume teaches grammar in a clear and understandable manner. It covers subjects such as punctuation, tense, brevity, misused words, clarity and more. The Elements of Style provides writers with both instruction and reference.
Yet, writing is more than an academic exercise in grammar. There is a second set of tools called craft. This involves skills such as developing characters, pacing the story, writing dialogue and moving the plot forward. College course on writing and journalism can teach these things. You can also find many fine books on the craft of writing. One standard for novels and short stories is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Another resource is Dare to be a Great Writer by my first mentor, Leonard Bishop.
Knowing the kind of writing you want to produce along with the audience you want to reach and a basic understanding of the building blocks of grammar and craft will get you ready to begin, whether you want to write something light and fun or a work that delves into the core of humanity.
Whatever you learn from classes or books, know that there are many opinions about how to write. Some of them are quite contradictory. Evaluate the advice with an open mind and apply it as you learn to write, but do not take any of it as gospel.
In the beginning, you will tend to emulate the works of writers you have read and the instructions of teachers in the classroom and from books. Over time, you will develop a sense of perspective and will accept, modify and reject some of what you have learned. You will also learn new things in the process of writing. Out of this, your own style and voice will emerge. As time passes, you may see both your style and voice change as you experience new events. Learning how to write is a lifelong endeavor. I learn something new every day.
David A. Wimsett is the author of Beyond the Shallow, a novel of a woman overcoming prejudice and searching for herself amidst rumors of the selkies from Celtic mythology, and Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga, a fantasy epic set in a gender balanced world where women and men have the same rights, opportunities and authority. He is a member of the Writers' Union of Canada and the Canadian Freelance Guild.
No one likes to be rejected.
It has a string. People are social and want to be accepted, yet in relationships, business and school, everyone has experienced rejection. It can feel like a personal attack on ourselves and our values.
But, artists, writers, film makers, composers, actors, musicians and others who create and present works to the public must break past this concept and recognize that a rejection or criticism by an individual is just that, one person’s opinion.
For writers, they may feel that rejections by agents, editors, publishers or magazines are a comment on their character. This is not the case. The people you send your queries to are publishing professionals. Though they love books, they are running businesses whose existence and viability are the mechanism by which books reach the reading public. If a publishing house or magazine prints too many stories that don’t sell, they could go out of business and the authors they represent would be left with no distribution. These companies must select material that is not only the best writing, it has to sell and satisfy readers.
There are many reasons a book, short story, poem or article might be rejected. It may not fit the style of a particular magazine or publishing house. Many agents, editors and magazines work in specific areas. A great book about winter vacation spots in the Caribbean will not be picked up by an agent or editor specializing in children’s stories. That’s why it’s so important to research the kinds of work each magazine and publisher accepts.
Another reason is that they may already have too many similar works at the time or they may have a backlog of stories and are not looking for more.
It may also not be that your submission is not written at a professional level. In this case, the rejection is for the work, not you as person. The story or article may need to be improved or you may need to enhance your writing skills.
Most rejections tell you little or nothing as to why the work was not accepted. You will see phrases like, “this does not fit our current needs.” You will often be wished good luck in placing your story somewhere else. Neither of these things do you much good. Sometimes, however, you will get feedback. This can be a gift, and you should consider it carefully.
When I began writing, I was not producing award winning material. Very few beginners do. Writing involves craft that has to be learned and practiced constantly, often over many years.
One agent did me the biggest favor ever when he rejected my submission. He said that I included too many step-by-step descriptions of action that did not move the plot forward.
For instance, I might have once written something like, “George received his bank statement and saw that the service charge was double what it had been the month before. He walked out of his house, got in his car, and drove downtown. After parking his vehicle, he got out and walked into the bank with the statement in his hands to confront the bank manager.”
The only point of this little scene is for George to see his bank statement and to then go to the bank to discuss it.
Today, I would write, “George received his bank statement and saw that the service charge was double what it had been the month before. He went to the bank, statement in hand, to confront the bank manager.”
That agent told me something about my writing that I did not realize. This allowed me to examine my own skills and improve them. Some people would be angry that they were rejected. I can never thank this agent enough for his rejection because it allowed me to become a professional writer and author.
I have had writers tell me that their material was “Their baby” or “Their blood upon the page.” It is neither. What you write is just a piece of work and it either communicated your ideas effectively of it didn’t. If it didn’t, it needs to be fixed. Writers do expose themselves in their work. Even if a piece of writing is not autobiographical, the emotional reactions of the characters are often drawn from the writer’s own life experiences. Still, it is the presentation of the art that has been rejected, not the artist.
Don’t think of rejections as an attack on you. Try to learn from them. However, don’t make changes to a manuscript based on every rejection or comment. Examine each and determine if they expose a problem in your writing or if they are just personal opinions based on someone’s taste.
Certainly, there are individuals who make personal attacks on creators. The best thing to do in those cases is to ignore the comments. The same thing applies to people who criticize your themes and ideas because they don’t agree with. Those themes and ideas belong to you and you have to accept that anything you write can create controversy. Never reply to a negative comment on social media or elsewhere and never respond to anyone in defense of your writing. It can only start a war. Just let people say what they say and go on working. However, in instances of slander and liable, you may want to seek legal advice.
A very good book for writers is Rotten Reviews
by Bill Henderson. This little collection of negative reviews covers works by authors such as Leo Tolstoy, Jonathan Swift, Virginia Wolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others. The book is not only amusing, it's an assurance to writers that not every opinion or rejection is well placed.
David A. Wimsett is the author of Beyond the Shallow, a novel of a woman searching for herself amidst rumors of the selkies from Celtic mythology, and Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga, a fantasy epic set in a gender balanced world where women and men have the same rights, opportunities and authority.