On Simplicity and Writing Your First Book by Shane Michael Murray
On Simplicity and Writing Your First Book
by Shane Michael Murray.
I recently published my first novel, and thought it best to give a little idea of the process I used while it is all still fresh. What I learned more than anything is that it is best to start simple and do that simple thing well. Writing is an art, and learning an art takes time. Start simple; your masterpiece can come later.
While this information is probably most useful to new writers, I am sure experienced writers will find this interesting as well, if only to remind them of a few fundamentals.
If you don’t read much, you probably don’t have much business writing; it’s like trying to join a team football game without going to practice to learn the rules. No matter how great the story you want to tell is, you will need to learn some skills to back it up. Monkey see, monkey do. No see, no do.
1. Write What You Know
Write in the genre you read the most. This will be the one with which you have the most absorbed experience from your years of reading. It will there be the genre where you are mostly likely able to meet the expectations that the reader will have, as different genres generally need to meet different criteria as books to succeed.
Creating something you are familiar with also means you are less likely to make glaring errors, such as those regarding machines (guns, spaceships, nuclear reactors), magic (yes, it has certain rules), or living things (riding horses, having sex, etc.). Even for experienced writers, writing what you know makes it easier to get things right. If you have no experience with doing or reading about the things your characters are doing, then you are more likely to screw things up, so why not set the game up in your favor from the beginning?
2. Limit World Building
World builders disease is rampant among fantasy authors like myself. I was aware of this, and I deliberately set to bypass this problem by using a familiar place (a mountain), and creatures (orcs, elves, humans, ogres, giants, dwarves, dragons). Now, this does not mean I couldn't put my own spin on the location and creatures, which I very much enjoyed doing, however it did vastly reduce the amount of time I had to devote to the setting of the story.
With all this extra time (and focus, focus is so important), I could to devote myself to the most important thing that any author, new or old, should be devoting their time to, and that is writing a story (the word count for your setting and character and plot description does not count, sorry).
2. Keep the Plot Simple.
Have you ever told a friend or family member about this amazing story that you just had to write? It had dragons, and wizards, and flying carnivorous chinaware all fighting for world domination and you get to see it all through their eyes. Only the triple split-personality hero in his thirty-two dimensional spaceship full of busty maidens named A to Z could save everyone. And then the world exploded, and they had to time travel to meet Merlin to undo it, and then he turned them into frogs, but all the while this other thing is going on and it is really awesome, you’ll love it!
Stop. Please. Just stop.
So many people we tell you “write the story you want to write”, and I won't disagree entirely with that, but I will say limit yourself to something that is manageable. I tried to write an 250,000 word epic fantasy with half a dozen POVs as my first book. It was a mess. I had too much back story, my characters were all too similar, and it went in so many directions at once that is was difficult for the reader to understand what the plot was really about, despite some interesting content in the chapters. No matter how pretty your prose, your book will be broken. It may look pretty broken, but it will still be broken.
My first book is essentially about a boy and his father, with the boy asking too many questions and his father getting angry. The story got bigger of course, introducing a dragon who wants to eat him in a few years, however I did my best to keep the story simple. Letting the story grow as it went on meant that the story got bigger while my skills were also improving, meaning I could handle it, even if by the end the plot was more complicated than it started out as (I had a draft ending in mind from the beginning though). If you cannot say what the story is about in one sentence it is probably too unclear and or too complicated.
In my case, my story was about “one little orc with far too many questions”.
Having this kind of pitch/mission statement will help you maintain the focus of your book. Consistency in plot and character behavior is important.
3. One POV.
Just one. No more. No less.
The POV can be in first or third, limited or omnipotent, or any other list of odd POVs, however it is probably best to stick to the POV that you are most familiar with (most likely the most common one in the genre you write). There are expectations though, I wrote first person whereas most fantasy is third limited. First person suits more personal stories better I find, so it might be something to try with your first book.
One POV will help with points 1 and 2 as well. It is hard to spend time world building from one POV, since one POV is probably not going to need as big a setting to support them, and the POV character (and therefore the reader) is probably not going to spend all their time noticing all the world building stuff, so why overkill it? Additionally, you cannot have a plot that is too complicated if they story only revolves around one person; only so much can happen in the vicinity of one POV.
4. Use a Small Number of non-POV characters
Limit the number of non-POV characters, and introduce them slowly to the POV character so you actually spend some time developing the non-POV characters. If you aren't willing to spend some time (say a chapter), developing a non-POV character, they probably do not really need to be in the story, and are likely to be pretty boring. It is better to have a small group of memorable characters, than a stack of forgettable ones.
Using cliché characters is fine, as long as you give them a bit of flavor. A cliché can actually help the reader get into the story, since they can easily place that character in their mind. In my case I had the give-you-beatings father, the quiet mother, the fire-breathing dragon, the fat bully, the best friends, the wise grandma, and the angry blacksmith among others. Just make sure you give the cliché characters personality, and make them good at something, and you will be fine.
5. Get into the Characters Head
Books do one thing better than almost any other media, and that is thoughts. Use them. It will make your characters feel more like real people. Real people tend to focus on certain things, like a fireman noticing the fire escapes or that there is no smoke alarm. Use thoughts and focus to give your characters character, and make your readers care about them.
It is better to do something simple well, than something complex poorly.
A sample of The Orc of Many Questiolns can be found on my website or on the Amazon page, though my website sample is longer.
Thanks to Shane Michael Murray I have 3 to give away to a lucky reader. To enter fill out the rafflecopter form below. You must be at least 13 years old to enter. If possible, the author would love the winners to review his book on Amazon when finished reading.a Rafflecopter giveaway