28

Everyone has a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay

I'm not an author. I'm retired. The last time I wrote fiction was probably an essay when I was 10 years old.

For years a fictional story has been taking place in my mind. There are important characters and they have struggles.

There are two timelines for the main two characters. What happens in their early life affects what happens when they are older. To make this work for a reader I would have to intertwine these stories, jumping from one to the other.

The problem

I have no narrative writing experience and especially I have no experience of structuring a fictional work, let alone with interacting timelines. Basically I have no experience of writing fiction.

As a musician, I'm aware that you don't just pick up an instrument for the first time and immediately start playing a virtuoso concerto. It takes years of practice.

Question

I only have one story in me (that I'm aware of). I have no writing skills. How should I tackle writing this story?

(a) Practice writing lots of other short stories that I'm not particularly interested in. Would that even help?

(b) Write a draft. Leave it aside for a year and come back to see if makes sense?

(c) Something else I haven't thought of?

Or, I suppose, just keep it in my head and not write it at all.


Note

I could just keep it in my head. However if I invest in writing it, I would want others to read it. Yet I have no confidence that a first novel would be any good. After that I don't have any ideas that I want to publish so I would have wasted my best story as a learning experience.

  • 3
    Some of the best books I've ever read were the first novels people wrote. It was their passion project. But those are often not the first books they PUBLISHED. Often they wrote the first one, stuck it in a drawer, wrote and published something else, then came back and rewrote their passion project almost completely. By then, they were better writers, but they still loved their story. – DWKraus Sep 26 at 17:33
  • Everyone has a book in them, but very few have a book on them. – Rand al'Thor Sep 26 at 19:41
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    @Randal'Thor I didn't know I needed a Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell reference today until I had it :) – Sciborg Sep 26 at 19:43
  • The difference between sometime who can write well and someone who will never write a good book in their lives isn't some deep secret or something innate to who you are. As with any skill, it comes down to one simple question: Are you willing to put in the work and practice? If you are, the sky is the limit! – Kevin Sep 27 at 1:10
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    I've been told that I need to write a million words for practice before I'm good enough.I'm writing anyway. – NomadMaker Sep 28 at 15:19
38

Write it. Even if it's just for you.

I think this is an incredibly important and valuable question, because I hear it all the time from many of my friends. They aren't writers or authors, and they have limited professional training or experience in writing, but they have a book in them that is screaming to get out, and they need to put it on paper and bring it out into the world. They have a story that needs to be told, whether it be a fictional story, a fantasy world they've been building, or just a story from their life.

But I think the question you might have is, how do you do it? Will anybody read it? How can you just... make a book with no training or experience whatsoever? And even if you do decide to write a draft, it's going to be terrible and no one will want to read it, right? When it comes to this book that's crying out to get out of you, I think you might be asking yourself, would anybody even care?

I'd like to digress for a moment to tell you a story.

My grandfather passed away when I was in high school. Before he passed, he always talked about his life and his experiences - fighting for his country, being in the Boy Scouts, growing up in a tough part of the world and learning important lessons. I loved his stories because he was a man who had seen so much, and lived a rich and beautiful life. After he was gone, I suddenly realized that all of his stories, all of his life experiences, even if we all remembered them secondhand... all of his firsthand accounts had died with him. There was nobody left to tell his stories, except for us.

He wasn't a writer, but he had always talked about wanting to write a book about his life, all of his stories, so that we could read about them someday. He never got the chance to do that in life, and we always regretted that he didn't.

If there's a story that is crying out to get out of you, write it. Just make a draft. It's okay if it's bad, or if nobody else ever sees it. It's okay if you feel like you are not a good writer, and that people will hate it. You are putting something out into the world that you love and treasure and that people will value not for its quality, but because it came from you. My partner is not the best poet in the world, he freely admits it, but I don't care. I love reading his poems anyway because they come from him. You don't even have to publish it. Write it for you. It doesn't have to be for anyone else.

And if you learn a lot from writing it, then you can always come back and write it again! You're not forbidden from writing the same story twice! If you're worried about wasting your best idea on a terrible first draft, don't be. You will learn so much from writing that terrible draft one that you'll want to write draft two and make it even better. The love for the story won't die just because you wrote an awful version of it.

Some advice...

Obviously, since you are a first-time writer, you are going to have a lot to learn. You should absolutely attend seminars, take classes, learn the art of writing, and study as much as you can. Read, read, read, and learn from what good authors do well. To fully tell your story in the way you want to tell it, you'll have to learn how to write well and communicate effectively in narrative form, and that's a lot harder to master than it seems.

Other resources that may be helpful:

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21

"Assume that you have a million words inside you that are absolute rubbish and you need to get them out before you get to the good ones."

That's a Neil Gaiman quote, but many other authors have voiced similar ideas. The only way to become a good writer is to write. In other words, the first book you write is going to be garbage*.

But that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be your favorite, most precious idea.

You can't ruin an idea

Up until a book is published, it doesn't exist. By that I mean that it can always be deconstructed and turned into a new, better book. So if there's only one story that you're interested in writing, then write that story. It's okay if it's garbage, because it can always be rewritten into something better.

No one has a single idea in them

I personally strongly disagree with the quote you opened with. Ideas are cheap. Inspiration is everywhere, if you practice looking for it. What you might have is only a single idea that you're interested in telling. If that's the case, then definitely write that story. If you try to write a story you're not interested in then you won't enjoy writing it, and the project will die before it's barely begun, and you'll never write the story you want to tell.


*It is, of course, theoretically possible for your first book to not be garbage. But the likelihood is infinitesimally small and if you assume that you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Remember that every author you see published has a trunk full of discarded novels that they wrote before their 'first' one.

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    I love that quote. Great answer! – Sciborg Sep 26 at 13:15
8

The quote is not about writers. It's about self-important people.

This was my immediate thought, and then I watched the video where indeed Hitchens says it in the context of memoirs. There is a phrase that embodies such self-important people—"everyone is entitled to my opinion." Your humility is clear from your question. I don't think you're one of those people.

Here are a few points I would put forward:

It's about as easy to get people to read a book as it is to make two people fall in love.

  • Of course you want people to read it. But chances are, they won't, and you need to be prepared for that.
  • Make sure you enjoy the process. That way it doesn't feel like you wasted all that time if nobody reads it in the end.

Action is better than inaction.

  • There is no "wrong way"; some ways will just take longer than others
  • All of your suggestions are good ones. Practising with other stories will definitely help—unless it turns you off writing!
  • Follow your heart. This is the best way to approach any art form. Sometimes going with your instincts on how to structure a story is just what it needs. Sometimes that doesn't work out, but you can get feedback and adjust as much as you need to.
  • By the way, you are already thinking about the structure of your story (the intertwined timelines.) Seems like you're on track already.

Read. Read. Read.

  • Take stories you like, and re-read them. Ask yourself why you like them, why you relate to them, why they're never boring, etc.
  • After you write your first lengthy draft, when you read other things you will have a heightened sense to the techniques, tricks, and approaches they use. This will give you ideas.

Now for a more direct answer to your question, based on the feeling I am getting from you.

  • Your question is very well structured, clear, and logical. I feel if you were to go write a full draft now it would be a clear and cohesive narrative. Maybe not a page-turner, maybe not very immersive, but the story would be told and understood. You're "ready" to give it a go if you want to right now.
  • Consider writing fan fiction about something you're into. (Really.) It's a much easier way to write throwaway stories without needing to create an environment from scratch
  • Aside from that, I don't feel that writing other stories is something that will work for you. To get practice, I would suggest the following. Which one works for you depends on whether you're focused on the final product, or enjoy telling stories about your universe.
    • Write fragments within your universe, snapshots, conversations, chronicles, things that probably won't make the final cut. (This also helps you develop the setting and characters for yourself.)
    • Write drafts, chapters, or something, and get feedback. Have a back-and-forth.
  • Set a pace.
    • Yes, ideas, language, and structure are all important. But none of them matter if you can't manage your time, or if you go in circles, procrastinate, get stuck.
    • There are different approaches to getting a draft done. In your case I would suggest that you take your "intertwined timelines" and split them up into numbered chapters. Churn out the chapters (not necessarily in order). Write crap and don't look back. Don't waste time looking for the right word because you might be throwing a whole chapter out. Wait till you've done it all before you do a review.

Should you put it in a drawer for a while? Yes. When? After you've pushed yourself for a while. When it gets tedious, you need to persevere a little while, and then probably set it aside. Most of the time it can be a short break, but once the story is mature you ought to leave it for a few months or more.

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5

Find a method or structure to help you get started. I used the Snowflake Method https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/ but there are others.

I was in a similar position to you last year (except for the retirement bit). I had an idea that had been swimming around in my head for years, but I didn’t know if I even wanted to write it down, let alone how to go about it.

When I stumbled upon the Snowflake Method, I thought it might be fun to put my idea through the first few stages, just to see what happened. This particular method worked for me because it broke the process down into small steps, starting off with a single line and building up gradually. It gave me opportunities to practise writing paragraphs and single pages before tackling the whole novel, as well as providing a simple overall structure for the book.

By the time I got to the last stage - writing the first draft - the story just flowed out. For my own sanity, I ignored the general consensus that first novels are rubbish. As an older person I have read many hundreds of books and absorbed a lot of excellent writing style. I may not have written fiction, but one way or another I’ve written a heck of a lot of letters and documents, and along the way I’ve developed a style that is at least readable, and an ability to self-edit. This self-confidence stopped me feeling like I was wasting my time.

A year later, the third draft is getting good responses from beta readers. It may never get published (although I'll give it a go) but at least people have read it.

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4

You said that you would want others to read that, but you didn't say how important that goal was to you. I think that it's important to recognize that just like the world is flooded with mediocre musicians, it's also flooded with mediocre writers. If you knew that others would not care about reading it, would you still want to write it?

I suggest that you write a five or ten page "book report" of your story. This book report will have three sections. The first section is a description of the book as though you had completed and were very satisfied with it. This is a synopsis of the story. It should summarize the story in a way that causes someone reading the synopsis to want to read your book. So you need to understand that this is not an outline of every aspect of the book. It doesn't need to cover how all the transitions take place from scene to scene. But it does need to highlight several parts of the book in vivid detail, so that a reader of this book report would be wanting you to hurry up and write the book because they could hardly wait to read it.

The second part should be an overview of what made the story compelling or interesting to read. This part will be in the voice of someone who had read the book and was impressed by it. This section should cover things like if you were unable to put it down once you started reading, how immersed you were in the book, what parts of the book will remain with you for a long time, etc. This should be in the form of one friend telling another about a book that they had read and why they liked it so much. So it can touch on plot elements, but it can also cover things like writing style or anything else related to the book outside the plot.

The final part of the book report should be a section giving a brief overview of how you went from knowing nothing about writing to being an author. This part is written in your own voice. It should explain if you took writing courses, or joined writers groups, or exactly what tools and practices allowed you to become a writer. How many hours a day did you write? How did you get yourself to remain focused on completing the book and what period of time did it take you to write it.

Once you have the book report like you want it, get one of your friends to read it over. This needs to be someone you can trust to be brutally honest with you. You are having them read it for two purposes. You want to see how they judge the writing in the book report, and you also want them to say what they think about this book that you are writing about. Once they've read it over, listen to and accept any criticism that they may have without challenging them. Challenge any praise that they have for it and have them explain to you why they think the good parts are good. Thank them profusely for their input.

Incorporate any changes that you want to make into the book report and then repeat the process with another friend. I believe that as you go through this process, it will help you focus on the important elements of the story, and help you explore if you are really ready to do this or not. The nice thing about this is that you are not writing a book. You are writing about writing, and you can portray the most favorable outcome possible without encountering the limitations that you would actually encounter while writing the book.

In effect, the suggestion is to write three closely related short stories about the writing of your book. Doing this will allow you to flex your writing muscles slightly, but it will allow you to plan how you are going to accomplish this.

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3

Just write it. Then rewrite it.

I assume the first time you sat down to play a difficult piece it didn't come out note for note the first time. Rather, you played it as best you could, and then went back and did it again.

Just keep doing and redoing it until it's something you're proud of. Many great artists do nothing but variations on similar themes. You may have just the one story, but you can write it as many times as you need to.

Plus... once you've finished you may find it's just "one story so far."

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  • Hi Russ, welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center or ask here in the comment (use @ to ping someone) if you need more information. This is a great first answer! Thanks for contributing and happy writing! – linksassin Sep 29 at 7:43
2

It depends what the book is.

Millions of low-quality books are written every year by wannabe 'authors'. Lots of them end up in desk drawers. But with publishing being so easy and cheap now, far too many of them end up on Amazon to clutter the landscape and hide the few good books.

If your book is non-fiction, I would say investigate the topic and its likely audience, then decide.

If your book is fiction, then write it for yourself. You can publish it on Amazon if you must, but do not expect to sell many copies.

But first, learn how to write. There are dozens of books on every aspect of writing. Figure out what you need to know and learn, and practice.

Practicing on shorter pieces would help. But be aware that longer works take totally different approaches than short stories.

But whatever you do you need to learn how to plan and organize first. Do not ever sit down and just write and expect it to work because Stephen King does it that way.

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  • +1 People don't want to admit the truth: the vast majority of books did not need to be written, and they add to the disorganized overabundance of information humanity is creating. Like you said, they hide the few good books. – electronpusher Sep 26 at 12:17
2

Join an online writing community.

There are a number of online communities where people write serial fiction and publish it online for other members of that community to read. Sometimes these are fanfiction communities, sometimes they're web novel communities, but either way, by participating in them, you'd have the opportunity to work on improving your writing skills, as long as you're willing to accept that your story will likely never be published as a physical book.

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