34

I have developed a sci-fi/fantasy mixed universe with many characters, good amount of background lore and I have a plot for at least two different stories each for a single/multi novel length. So far all of this is standing simply written down as concepts. I want to put it into actual stories.

When I started initially to write - it didn't feel right. I've read a few articles about common writing mistakes and I started to understand why. I have no experience in writing. I had a lot of character backstory in the first sentences. Lots of telling, almost no showing. A ping-pong "he said", "she said" etc.

I think I should start writing short stories at first to improve my writing and clear my techniques, but I feel completely lost how to do it. Online articles are usually only scratching the surface. "Use all five senses", "Show, don't tell." - both great advice, but empty without details like to avoid 'to be' verbs or '-ly' words. On the other hand amount of specialized courses, books or even specialized articles on writing is... paralyzing. I'm not even sure what to look for.

How should I proceed from here? Is there any resources or methods that you can recommend?

Generally, any advice will be very welcome.

Thank you in advance.

Edit: To be honest I did not expect all those answers. I guess I needed a reminder that writing is a form of art and as with all art you simply must first fail a dozen times before you succeed. An art does not have a 'better' way to do it, it just have to be done. Thank you all for reminding me that.

  • 4
    You're being too hard on yourself. I'm only 17, and I'm in the middle of writing a novel that I started over a year ago. I am just now getting to the part where I introduce the main villain. Fret not. All you need is to write out descriptions of your setting. The time in which your story takes place, the actual place it's in and the characters and their feelings. – Aspen the Artist and Author Nov 15 '17 at 18:59
  • 6
    Your feelings are totally normal. Watch this a few times until you internalize it. youtube.com/watch?v=PbC4gqZGPSY – Eric Lippert Nov 15 '17 at 22:05
  • 3
    For future questions you may want to hold off accepting an answer to encourage more answers. I think the recommendation is 24-48 hours (but that may be for another part of writers.SE – paulzag Nov 15 '17 at 22:48
  • 2
    You could write what you see in your head. It may or may not turn into good writing, but at least you have something recorded. If it is dialogue you see, then focus on that. You can also try playing a scene in your mind from start to finish, then write how it plays. You can go back later to clean it up and replace adverbs, weak description, etc. – BugFolk Nov 16 '17 at 2:55
  • One resource I've found very useful is OSC's website and forum. He has a lot of articles about writing technique, and if you're a fan of his work you'll immediately pick up on how he makes dialog and scenes flow smoothly. The forum is also great because you can submit snippets, stories, characters, etc for peer review and get pretty good advice. Don't be afraid, the people there are nice (but honest). Also he hosts writing boot camps periodically which can be incredibly helpful. If you sign up let me know! – thanby Nov 16 '17 at 14:15

12 Answers 12

44

Take a dimly lit corner of your universe and one of your lesser characters and start writing some of their backstory as an in-the-moment adventure, not an aspect of someone's history. You know by the character's present-day traits that they had an experience like this, so jump back in time and walk the younger, more innocent version of them along the hard road which made them who they are now.

Allow yourself to make mistakes in this effort. This is never going to get published to the general readership. It is just some scrap lumber from which you will carve your primitive first attempt at art. In years to come it will be precious to you because of its flaws. Someday, it will remind you have far you have come.

Now for the hard part. Take your admittedly flawed short story and join a local writing group; preferably one which offers critique circle with fixed circle membership from week-to-week. There you will read other people's rough drafts and honestly tell them what you think is good and bad about their words. In return, they will do the same for your words. Red pens will come out, egos will be bruised and people will cry; but those who persist will improve.

Continue to attend your writing group consistently until your hunger for time to write overwhelms your need for peer review. Then back off by degrees from attending weekly to once every few weeks and eventually only when your need for human company drags you away from the slowly filling page.

Good luck with your universe and its many tales!

Keep Writing!

  • 10
    "Red pens will come out, egos will be bruised and people will cry; but those who persist will improve." This. Getting good at anything of modest difficulty requires this. – jpmc26 Nov 15 '17 at 23:24
24

You are a prisoner of having learned too much about the writing process before ever trying it out. Forget everything you have learned or been told, and just write massive amounts without worrying at all about how good it is, or whether it follows the rules.

Then, finally, after you've written FAR more than you need for a story/novella/book (whichever is appropriate), go back, and start reworking that material into shape.

Think of it as being a very special kind of sculptor. Eventually you're going to carve up that big block of stone, and bring something beautiful out of it, but first you have to generate the block of stone itself, including plenty of material that will later get excised.

  • 2
    I'm in a writing group now with an experienced writer leading it. His rule of thumb is that a story is finished on its 10th draft. Accepting that the first draft will be weak and finishing it anyway is how you get to the subsequent, increasingly quality drafts. – Kevin Nov 15 '17 at 21:12
  • 2
    @Kevin I am on fourth draft now of first novel. It is still painfully bad but getting there, and ten sounds about right! So. Much. Work! – DPT Nov 15 '17 at 21:32
  • 2
    You could steal Henry Taylor's lumber analogy: before you can carve the wood, you must grow the tree. – jpmc26 Nov 15 '17 at 23:24
  • This is absolutely it. OP has fallen into the easy trap of overthinking things. I find I produce my best material when I stop analysing each sentence as I write it, and instead just... write. – F1Krazy Nov 16 '17 at 13:48
  • 1
    I am a researcher who has to write publications and I have to do exactly the same. Of course my "stories" are very short (about 9-16 pages) and are technical writings, but I feel I am writing a story all the same. My characters are of course not humans, but function, probabilities, mathematical models etc., yet I feel more and more like an author. I so often use the sculpture analogy when I talk about my work. – Make42 Nov 17 '17 at 20:24
10

It's a process. Like anything else. If you play a sport, you know that you got better with time. No one (very few people) start out being the thing that they want to be - we all work to get there.

Here's my background, for context.

I started writing scientific papers in my 20s, and the first ones were very bad. I didn't know how to write them. I learned. I can now (30 years later) crank out a scientific manuscript easily. It involves identifying your messages, providing the context that the reader needs, and being willing to cut out anything that does not need to be there. The final product should be such that every word is worth its weight in gold. A typical word length for such paper is around 5000 words, and they are dense beasts. <- That is a scientific manuscript, not relevant to you except to give you context for my advice below.

Switching to fiction this year - for fun - for other reasons too - I can tell you that even though some of the rules have changed, others (drawn from above) are the same. Here is my advice:

  1. Be clear why you are writing this. Is it to entertain? Is it a story that has grown in your head? ("Everyone has a story") Is it blossoming out of fan fiction that you wrote and enjoyed?

What do you want people to walk away, with? A message, a great experience, new thoughts? For me, I want the audience to enjoy themselves, but also have new thoughts, new ways of thinking about our world, so that is guiding my writing. My goal is to effectively communicate the message/theme of the story, and so I write with one eye on that at all times. (I try to balance it with good storytelling.)

  1. Draw out the arc of your story. I actually do this physically, with an arc on a piece of paper. I sketch in, onto the arc, where the story begins, middles, and ends. I do this for the storyline (gives me a physical idea of the shape of the story), and then flesh out similar arcs for the main characters - how they should also begin, middle, and end.

Example: My main male character starts out angry, frustrated, feeling trapped in his world. He moves then to the middle of his arc - his journey (physically and emotionally/intellectually). He grows. He moves to the end of his arc, it is back where he started, metaphorically, but because he has grown, it is different than it had been at the beginning.

I also do chapter arcs, to help me plan begin/middle/end of each chapter.

  1. Nail your butt to the chair and just freaking write. Just do it. It can be garbage. Follow your story arc. Follow your chapter arc. Keep your butt nailed into your chair. Keep writing.

OK to take a break, but common good advice is to have a goal (of time or word count) every day.

Expect to revise many times after you have something written. Don't give up.

Be willing to trash a good part of what you have written during revision. Get feedback from readers. Use it.

Lastly - everyone has their own approach. I am surprised how much of writing for science journals transfers over - I am very glad to have already learned the "nail your butt to the chair" habit. And the using feedback from others. Be willing to have your ego crushed. That all transfers.

2 cents.

(p.s. do not literally nail your butt. :-) )

5

Find an author you like. For me I like Stephen King, or Orson Scott Card, or half a dozen others. Books I personally enjoyed that also sold millions of copies.

Now, take a scene or a long section of dialogue in one of these books.

Say we took dialogue, it is always a toughie. First, type it into your word processor, verbatim, with punctuation, tabs, paragraph breaks, all as it appears in the book. This is to show you how much space it takes up in your word processor, when formatted for submission (1 inch margins, double spaced, 12 point courier font). So you will have a basis for comparison.

Have the word processor do a word count for you, so you can compare on that basis too.

Your job is to use this as a template for a conversation between two of YOUR characters.

Change all of it, but keep the "form".

Where the author describes an action, you must describe an action in approximately the same number of words.

If they write a private thought, you must also. If they describe a character action, you must. If they describe an object, you must. Your object may be different, but it must be described in a similar word count. If they describe something about the setting, you must also: Your setting may be different, but the same number of words. Always in about the same number of words.

Keep the tone and dynamic of the conversation: If character Tom disagrees with Bill, so must yours. If Bill gets angry, so must yours. If Tom reveals something personal, or vindictive, or begs, your character must do the same.

Change all the words and change all the actions, but keep the skeleton the same, as close to the same number of words as you can.

This teaches you two things. First, what YOUR characters might look and sound like on the page, for a professionally written dialogue.

Secondly, doing this a few times can get you comfortable writing dialogue, your brain learns to know what dialogue feels like on the page. Don't just read it, that won't work. Type it out and DO it, you have to pay 20 times as much attention, but that is what it takes to learn it!

You do a similar thing for scenes. Notice how many details a professional author points out, and perhaps try to figure out WHY those details? What makes them 'enough'? Why would taking one out make the scene less rounded?

Try to write a scene of your own using the professional's scene as a template: Use similar sentence lengths, the same number of sentences. Use metaphors where they have them, similes where they have them, poetic license where they took it.

Learn what it feels like, how it looks on the page, and what your own writing should look like and feel like. Again, doing this a few times lets you learn to do it.

You can do this with multiple authors, too. This isn't plotting or other aspects of writing, but it is a way to build up some skill and familiarity with how YOUR characters should look and feel on the page, it gives you self-taught exercises in the mechanics of professional writing of the kind you already enjoy, or that already inspire you to write: Just pick your authors well, and learn to emulate them.

  • Why would you format “for submission” when you are “working”? You handicap yourself by fitting far less on the screen and using less readable typesetting. Format how it looks good on your screen with a column width matched to your reading comfort. Working ≠ Submitting. – JDługosz Nov 15 '17 at 22:06
  • 1
    @JDługosz strangely I find submission format facilitates engagement by the writer and editor parts of my brain. There's something about that typewriter-ness that tells me I'm working and for a different purpose than my normal email/blog/forum/SE writing – paulzag Nov 15 '17 at 22:46
  • @JDługosz I write as it will be seen and read by whoever reads it to determine whether it should continue to publication. NO, courier is NOT a less readable typeset, numerous editors believe it is easier to read for long periods, and that is why it remains the standard submission format. And what "looks good" to ME on my screen is submission format, and knowing that I am looking at what will be evaluated by a professional. I don't handicap myself at all with less on the screen, it makes it easier for ME too, and the scene I write is in my head. I don't need to look back to stay consistent. – Amadeus Nov 15 '17 at 23:16
  • «numerous editors believe it is easier to read for long periods» then why aren't books commonly published this way? I thought fonts and typesetting has evolved to maximise readability. In partiular, non-fixed-width, and a ballance of dark and light areas. – JDługosz Nov 16 '17 at 4:54
  • 1
    @JDługosz You could ask why aren't books double spaced, and why don't they have 1-inch margins? And wouldn't it be easier to read anything if the font were 12 or 13 point instead of 9? An editor has to read about 8 solid hours a day; the submission format is specifically geared to that. The published format is not to make it easy on readers, it is to save money on manufacturing books. And the typical audience reader does not read constantly, just minutes at at time. Authors are more like editors, they must read and reread and reread as they write, with constant attention for hours on end. – Amadeus Nov 16 '17 at 11:18
4

Consider not writing novels

Books are great. Novels are great. There's nothing wrong with writing them, they have a lot of unique value, and I certainly don't mean to discourage you from writing one (or starting one) if you feel like it.

But books are not the only way to tell stories, not the only way to share a world, and certainly not always the best way to do that for every author (I use that term here loosely) or for every story for that matter. I fear you might be looking at writing stories for your world in those forms because that's the only thing you've really been exposed to. Most of the ways I'm aware of to share fictional worlds involve writing to one extent or another-- and they all involve storytelling, but they aren't all going to be the same.

Have you thought about making a video game set in your world?
Have you thought about running RPGs set in it (personally, I find this the most satisfying medium, because oral storytelling comes much more naturally to me), and maybe writing down the resources needed to do so, so that other people can do that, too?
Have you considered writing a screenplay? Or maybe a comic/graphic novel?

Basically, think about why you want to tell the story, and how you want to tell the story. Maybe you do just need to sit down and crank out long prose fiction drafts and learn to write long prose fiction. That's 100% the right way to learn to write long prose fiction, and it could very well be the right choice for you. But do it because writing a novel is what you want to do with this, because a novel is the right way to tell this story, not just because a novel is the only sort of storytelling you are familiar with the idea of doing.

3

From the Writing Excuses podcast:

[Howard] The best words you will ever write, listener, are hiding behind crappy words you haven't written yet. You gotta get those out of the way.
[Brandon] Sometimes the best words you will write will be revising the crappy words.
[Howard] Sometimes they will be hidden in and among those crappy words.
But, as many, many a failed writer has discovered, you can't find those awesome words without writing the crappy ones.

Write.

2

When I started initially to write - it didn't feel right. I've read a few articles about common writing mistakes and I started to understand why. I have no experience in writing. I had a lot of character backstory in the first sentences. Lots of telling, almost no showing. A ping-pong "he said", "she said" etc.

At least, you know what you're doing wrong. Now, you need to learn how to fix those mistakes and to do that, you need to write. Just reading about them won't help you, you have to experience it yourself. Write a few paragraphs, stop and read what you wrote. If you find too much backstory, fix it. Ask yourself if it really needs to be there or can be shown at a later stage. If there are too many tags, remove them and show the character who's speaking by making him do an action when he speaks. Maybe: Man 1 sits down. "Hi there."

Short stories could help you with these issues, 'cause you need to keep the writing tight. Try writing short stories based on your world but with different protagonists.

Show don't tell: The best way to learn is by finding a picture you like and describing it. Example: A picture of a wine glass half filled. Not so exciting, I know. But look at the glass. Where is it placed? On a table? And what is the table made of? Glass? Mahogany wood? Old boards? Write a paragraph about it, then read it. If you find 'to be' verbs, stop and think how you can eliminate them. Ex: 'The glass was on the table' can change to- 'The glass sparkled underneath the heavy chandelier. It rested on an oval, mahogany table, a bottle of a deep red Bordeaux next to it.'

It's good to read articles about writing, but in the end, those articles are based on what that author feels best for him and he's just sharing those ideas. It doesn't mean that his ideas are good for you. You need to find your own way and to do that, you need to write. Also, finding an online community to critique your work, could help. Another set of eyes to see what you're doing wrong and point things out.

2

One thing that I found helpful many years ago was to participate in an online feedback site like You Write On. Basically you submit chapters / short essays for feedback and also provide feedback for others (you get reviews and are required to give reviews). It's like the other answer of joining a local writer's group, just online and remote. I found the community great, and it is very supportive and constructive. One incentive is that actual publishers participate with the site, so as your writing improves, there is always the chance that you might get discovered :-)

  • Visited the site - it looks intriguing. +1 – DPT Nov 16 '17 at 17:29
2

If you are starting from world building rather than storytelling you may want to thing about different writing styles and media before assuming that at novel is the only way to go.

I think that the biggest trap is that if you have a vivid world in your head it is very easy to write long, wordy descriptions and forget that what is original and creative for you is everyday reality for your characters.

Writing a whole novel is setting yourself a fairly epic task so you might want to experiment with shorter formats eg short stories, diaries, or something like a radio play to give you something which is achievable in a shorter amount of time where you can then self-edit a finished product rather than a fragment.

Maybe set yourself the task of writing one episode of a series and see how you get on, perhaps something like half an hour of reading time.

It sounds like you are reasonably self-aware of what can go wrong so you are probably best just getting on with it and then working out where you need to make improvements. If it helps you to write in terms of 'he said..she said' then do that to get the story down and sort out the stylistic issues afterwards.

2

I would suggest the excellent book Writing FAST by Jeff Bollow.

Something he pushes very strongly is to write whatever comes to mind, even if you know it is poor quality. "Just get words on the page!" Improving it comes later—once you have a bulk of stuff to review. You can't assess the strengths and weaknesses of your work until you've actually produced it.

The "FAST system" may not suit everyone, but I have used it to great success on several large writing projects.

2

Also, spend time on crafting your sentences. To some it comes naturally, but it's also an acquired skill. At the beginning, you should almost never accept the first draft of any sentence as final, but with time you will get better at it.

2

If you have no experience writing or story-telling, my first advice to you is this: Instead of worrying about how to be a perfect writer when you do start writing, get some experience instead. You can know all the rules you want, but that's not what I believe usually helps a person who's just starting out (a lot of the rules are just convention or people's opinions anyway). You need flow. You can always edit or write another draft later. Enjoy yourself.

Of course, studying writing rules is great, and it's fine if you want to do it (even at this stage), but it's a lot like taking a Spanish class where you just learn about grammar and the best way to talk (according to a set of rules). You're not going to become fluent quickly that way (although knowing how to conjugate verbs may really help you out some day). You actually have to practice talking—and practice a lot.

My second piece of advice to you is to practice writing what you're going to be writing. Short stories and novels are different animals. True, writing short stories may help some with the writing process in general, but you'll still have to learn to write novels some day—and it's not the same thing (although exactly how different it is depends on how you write). Feel free to ignore this piece of advice. Just writing something is better than nothing. If you're good with short stories, do that. A lot of novels have several sub-stories, anyway. If you can fit them together somehow, that might work.

My third piece of advice is something that really helped me when I was younger. Here's the back-story first: I wanted to write novels, but I was having a really hard time doing it how I wanted. Things weren't coming out right, notwithstanding I had a plan for how things should be. I had written a long story a year or two before this point and had great success in actually doing that writing (writing it enjoyably, yes—writing it in perfect English, and following a preconceived plan, no)—but, this time was different. There were some problems that I see. I was being a perfectionist about grammar and getting things right (I didn't do that at all the first time.) I was too careful. I didn't realize that most novelists write a number of drafts (and have editors do a lot of work on the final one) before they come out with a great novel. They also typically do a lot of submissions to publishers before their work gets accepted to be edited (if you go with a traditional publisher). Another problem I faced is that not only did I lack experience in writing, but I also wasn't very well-read (let alone in the genre of my choice, although reading in the genre you write in isn't necessarily the best idea—some of my favorite writers back in the day weren't into that).

Anyway, so that's the back-story. What helped me, though (not with my ideas, per se—but with my actual writing), is quite interesting. Sadly, I stopped writing for a few years—but I did something great during that time that helped, a lot! I read lots of books (books that I liked). Then when I started writing again, I could write fiction (and even poetry, which quite amazed me). It was magical. The writing flowed from me. I think being lonely and depressed helped, too (but I don't recommend trying to become lonely or depressed). After I got some experience, that's when I got more interested in writer's groups where they tell you rules like, 'show—don't tell'. (I found a good group in the form of an emailing list, and I learned a lot from them.) You don't need to worry about that when you're first starting (when you have no experience), at least if you actually want to be writing stuff, too (but do develop good habits—or else be willing to break the bad ones when you learn they're bad; that might get harder as you get older—so don't get set in your ways; that's probably something I need to think about more).

My fourth piece of advice (another thing that helped me) is this: Draw a map (especially if you write fantasy). It can help the writing process (and ideas, too, as you've got to explain the stuff on your map). A map can help to connect things together, and I think it can help the flow of your writing.

Planning individual characters, and what their personalities are like, helps, too, in my opinion (if you haven't done that, yet).

My next piece of advice is to do one of the following:

  • Write on actual paper with a pen. You won't be able to edit or overly focus on perfection if you do this, and you won't be distracted by the other stuff you can do on a computer.
  • If you write on the computer, make sure there are no icons on your digital desktop. If you're like I was some years ago, they can really distract you subconsciously, and get you thinking about things you need or want to be doing that aren't writing. Clearing them away (or disabling the desktop altogether) can help one to focus.

There's also the digital version of writing with a pen: commit not to delete anything (or else use an editor where you can disable deletions). If you can't delete it, you may also subconsciously take what you write more seriously, and do a better job as a result (because you'll get used to being better at doing it right the first time, without being overly thorough, second-guessing yourself, etc.) Second-guessing yourself isn't a very assertive thing to do (and it's good to know how to be assertive, effectively, as a writer; in my opinion, it can help you to convince others, and make a bigger impression on people, including, in my opinion, publishers, even if you have a few glaring flaws)—but don't be assertive about things you know nothing about (even if you might convince people). Making a strong impression based on inaccurate information that you're assertive about won't win everyone over (even if it might get you a following—and some enemies to boot).

In summary, my advice to you is to practice writing. Read a lot (even if you're not writing—it adds up). Study grammar, writing rules, etc. (but don't take them too seriously, or they might just get in the way). Realize you probably have a lot more drafts to write anyway. Do things like drawing maps to help connect the dots. Write novels as you practice.

Now, this is my advice. Someone else can give different advice (I haven't actually read the other answers—that's a bad practice, I know, but I wanted to write mine). Try what works for you—and, don't let rules (including anything I say) hold you back. Don't let a critique dampen your style. Listen, yes—but don't stop writing, even if you have to ignore the critique. You'll learn how to be a better writer in time as long as you don't give up, and as long as you keep learning. Pay attention to the writing styles in the books you read, and also to what rules they follow—it helps. Traditionally published writers aren't perfect, either (but they combined with their editors do a really good job—I tend to think the editors are the ones who really make a book shine with that look of perfection most of the time, however: all kinds of people write books, and they're not all 100% perfect; read some pre-edited manuscripts, or some self-published books on Amazon—you might just see what I mean). Editors are important for a published work, but you don't have to be the final editor. You can be, but you really, really need to know your stuff. Lots of people think they can be editors (but, I don't think they're all ready for it, just yet). Again, even unedited, self-published books with all kinds of issues can become popular.

Writing something is important.

I was going to end there, but I just have to tell you that when you actually do write stuff, don't stop there. Don't focus too much on what you've written. Keep writing!

protected by user16226 Nov 18 '17 at 17:49

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.