Hacking My First Fiction Novel - 1/3
Let’s be clear. When I decided to try and write my first novel, it is safe to say that I grossly underestimated the complexity and to what extent it would test my patience. What follows is a brain dump of all the lessons learned (a.k.a. things I wish I knew before I started) and hacks that helped me along the way over my two and half year literary experiment I call fork this life : Volume One. In the end, I hope the following series can help someone kick start their own story into something they can share with the world.
Phase 1: Preparation
For me, when you don’t have experience, you lean into preparation. It can make the difference between a successful outcome and flaming out with nothing more to show than a bunch of wasted effort and ample frustration. "See the path through the woods", I always say. As a self-described "non-reader" of fiction novels, I know right?, but long time student of theater and storytelling, I knew it was going to be an uphill climb. Here some of the tricks I used to get started. I hope they help! =)
Choose the Right Passion
I like to believe that everyone is on the multipotentialite spectrum and are rarely singularly passionate. Before you start your writing project, spend a day or so freewriting about your story. If you have multiple ideas, give them each equal attention, but always ask yourself: Does my topic have enough runway? Do I have enough detail? Is there any research I need to do? These are questions you should ask before settling down with a long-term commitment, or at least picking the best candidate. In my case, I used my unique life experiences, which have been the subject of ample party stories over the years. These were always good for an impromptu chuckle, but it was going to be hard to keep all the stories chronologically in order over a span of twenty some odd years. We’ll get to this later! In the end, you are going to spend a lot of time with your idea. So, I strongly recommend hedging your bets and make sure you have enough gas in the tank to see it all the way through.
Find Your Voice
This was something that I never took much stock in early on, but I found it extremely helpful to unstick me when I finally started to write. Translating thoughts into actual words and character actions is not always straight forward, sometimes a level of synergy helps gain momentum and rhythm. Having been a fan of Aaron Sorkin for decades, I knew the type of story I wanted to write, but didn’t stumble upon my voice (and inspiration to write this novel) until I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. His writing style matched the perpetual flood of snark that bubbles in my head, and after reading his subsequent book, Armada, I was convinced I could channel that voice to write something equally entertaining that chronicled the waves of technology, innovation and pop culture that shaped the first generation of Internet technophiles. Authenticity is apparent when it’s there, and when it’s not, so take the time to square this part away before you get too far along. I’m excited to read Ready Player Two next month and see if it inspires me to get serious about fork this life : Volume Two.
Make the Story Real
Not every story has the luxury of being scripted by real life, and in my case, I knew that I didn’t want to make things completely literal. To prevent myself from falling into some simple recitation of my life, I carved up all my acquaintances and relationships and reassembled their personalities, traits and experiences across a new cast of characters. I found images online to represent each new persona and gave them each backstories and bios that outlined key relationships, motivators and individual story arcs to keep everything straight. To make things even more clear in my head, I took a page from J.R.R. Tolkien and drew up floor plans and street maps around the primary location for easy reference and consistency. These steps paid dividends over the long haul, especially when I had competing priorities and had to take extended periods away from writing. After a quick review of the relevant materials, I was back in the saddle to pick up where I left off. It is my personal opinion that if you take the time to get to know your characters, it will be easier to express their emotion on the page and helps you ultimately connect with the reader.
Know What You Want to Say
Part of preparing is knowing where you start, where you end and having a discernible message when it’s all said and done, Outlining the story arcs for the main characters was extremely valuable for me to keep their relationships straight over time, but it didn’t come all at once. I needed a flexible system that would allow me to create on the fly and organize my thoughts. To do this, I used Google Docs (see diagram, above) to wrangle my brainstorming into a single creative space and once enough structure evolved for a “section” or “chapter”, I broke it out into its own document. Since my book was built around historical events, I made sure to include an approximate year and month in each title, which made it easy to drop ship ideas from freshly discovered research or free writing blurbs that popped into my head. Not only is Google Docs flexible to organize, but it has numerous ways to leave annotations in the content, which is extremely helpful for personal TODOs, or even better, collaborating with trusted friends to get their opinion inline. This process took me over a month to fully refine, but I’ll explain a bit more why this was so important to set me up for success in Phase 2. The important takeaway here is give yourself a flexible framework to curate information as you go and help you see the big picture as soon as possible. Whatever works for you. We’ll talk about working within the limitations of Google Docs and converting things into different formats later in the series.
Find a book that has the general heft/feel of the type of book you’d like to produce. Use it as a guideline to help determine your margins, font size, words per page and other features you’d like to support. Make sure that you have your template setup before you get too far along. See Part 3. It helps to see progress in it’s true form to inspire confidence and visualize your goals. That four pages of writing you have may in fact be an entire chapter after proper formatting. Remember: Imitation is flattery. Thanks again, Ernest Cline!
Stay tuned for parts two and three of this short series coming in the next month. In the mean time, please consider following / sharing content from @ForkThisLife or Facebook and check out my book on Amazon Kindle and Paperback. Until then, #JustKeepWriting.