WRITING A FANTASY OR SCI-FI NOVEL ISN’T EASY… YOU MIGHT HAVE A COOL STORY…BUT YOU AREN’T BRANDON SANDERSON, NEIL GAIMAN OR PATRICK ROTHFUSS…. SO WHERE DO YOU START?
So, you want to begin writing a novel but you have no idea where to start. Maybe you have a great idea for a story, or a character that you’ve dreamed up that is really cool. how do you take these ideas, daydreams or fantasies and turn them into a great story people want to read? Starting today i will begin outlining MY approach to this process. let me be clear, this series will focus on the steps I am taking to write my own novel. I will provide insight on a variety of topics designed to showcase not only MY approach but also some helpful tips and perspective on each subject, in the hopes that it will aid you in your own writing endeavor. This is NOT a class, I am NOT an expert by any means. but I hope that what I say in the following series, helps someone in some way towards their goal. I will provide links to resources I have found useful on each topic at the end of each post.
Where to begin?
First off let me say, what follows in this article applies to ANY work of FICTION, if your looking to write a historically accurate war novel about the war of 1812, or your grandfather’s memoirs..this probably isn’t the post for you. That said when writing FICTION…let me say that one last time…FICTION. The first place you should start is deciding what kind of writer you are. this is a personal preference for each writer. I would say there are three camps, every writer tends to fall into one of these, it depends on which works best for you but ultimately these are the big three, and writing any work of fiction, from Romance to Sci-fi will fall into one of these. The three Camps, or styles I am talking about are: Out-liner sometimes referred to as Architect, Discovery writers and what I like to call Gardeners. Lets break each of these down into broad strokes so you know what I am talking about.
You have probably been taught in high school or maybe in your college English class that before you begin writing, you SHOULD write an outline for your project. what this is, is a detailed breakdown of everything in your book. Your setting, character descriptions, plot, beginning, middle and end all fall into your outline. this is the document that will tell you everything you need to write your book. so lets begin with setting.
SETTING: what your world is like, its citizens and their various races, culture, flora and fauna, the weather, lunar cycle, calendar, geography, geology, economy etc.
CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS: each character is broken down into their base parts, physical description, personality traits, quirks, flaws, motivation, possibly even their overall character arc ( their growth or decline as a character through the story)
PLOT: what your story is about, in a nutshell, what are you trying to say with this book. however i prefer to think of plot more like a character. in that your plot is the sum of your world building (setting) and character descriptions. outlining your plot will also help you in figuring out the flow of your book, where the beginning ends an the middle begins etc.
sitting down to figure all of this out before hand will give you a serious leg up in writing your story. I caution you however to follow the Iceberg principal when approaching your world building (setting).
The Iceberg Principal: icebergs float in the ocean, they show us only the top few percent of the whole structure, most of it is below the water and unseen. this approach to world building means: start small, focus on only the things that are important to the story you are telling, you can create immense depth to your world by alluding to the history of your religions without actually writing all of that information first. you can show that your world has strange wildlife by showing a couple of strange creatures instead of spending your first few chapters writing a bestiary. Too much information on your world will bore the reader and cause them to put the book down before they ever got to the good stuff. refrain from lengthy info dumps and remember, SHOW DON’T TELL.
Think of discovery writing as if you were exploring a dark cave. You have no idea what you’re going to find, or where it will lead. Essentially you are the very first reader of the book, the difference is…you are making it up as you go. this is a very fun way to write and can lead to some great stories, however it requires a lot of work to maintain consistency in your story telling, this is something that an Out-liner does not have to worry about as much since everything they have worked on is already planned out. one thing to remember in telling any good story of length…consistency equals realism.
Discovery writing often begins with a loose idea for either a story, character or scene, then you as the writer extrapolate what happens from there. Stephen King is quite possibly the most well known discovery writer of our time. if you want more insight into discovery writing I recommend picking up a copy of “On Writing: a memoir of the craft”
A gardener writer is what i refer to as someone that falls somewhere between an out-liner and a Discovery writer. think of it this way, a gardener selects their seeds, they prepare the land and plant. what actually grows depends on the quality of the soil, the strength of the seeds used, the care and maintenance of the garden during germination and a little bit of luck.
For a writer , the way to look at this is, a gardener does SOME world building, SOME character building and develops SOME vague sense of plot and story structure. this is how I like to approach my writing, it makes composing a story easier and still keeps the fun of discovering your story as you write. when I write I like to set up the tip of my ICEBERG, I know some of the creatures, plants and people of my world, I know how the economy works, I know a few (but not all) of the religions in my world, basically I set up enough of my world and characters to have a good place to jump off of, but the rest I learn as I go. what I don’t know is , how my characters will react to a specific situation, because people in real life do not always act as expected. This is important for me to keep my characters realistic, I let the character’s personality ( which I have loosely outlined earlier) dictate how they might react, while remembering anything relevant that has happened earlier in the story.
For example: a loose character outline might look something like this,
Personality: cowardly in confrontation but extremely loyal to his friends
Description: 6’2″, pudgy, blonde hair, brown eyes, walks with a slight limp. a jagged scar runs up his left leg
Quirks: Aaron is shy by nature, and holds on to some disturbing memories from when he injured his leg. he takes great pains to keep his scar covered.
That is about as far as I will take a character outline, I let the rest of the story inform his growth as a character. if someone in chapter three saves his life, then in the climax near the end of the book, he might overcome his cowardly nature in an effort to return the favor to the friend that saved him previously. Conversely, if he was betrayed by a friend, he might instead aid the villain at that crucial moment as a means to save his own skin (he is a coward) while also getting some second hand payback for the slight earlier.
The thing to remember is that, until these events happen I don’t actually know, and for me that is what I enjoy about writing.
A QUICK NOTE ON CHARACTER AND PROMISES:
I will cover both of these topics in detail with some later posts, but it is important to be thinking about these things at the beginning of your writing process.
CHARACTER: It doesn’t matter how cool your story is or how unique your world building is if you don’t have realistic and believable characters. We write fantasy and science fiction because of the world building, and we read it for the same reasons. However, all that work is meaningless if the reader doesn’t believe that the CHARACTERS could exist in that setting, so please for the love of god…FLESH OUT YOUR CHARACTERS…make them real. give them goals, desires, flaws. make them look and sound interesting, have them react to problems and other characters in a realistic and believable way that makes sense for WHO the character is.
PROMISES: what do I mean by promises?, if you begin writing a standard fantasy story set in midevil England, and follow the Hero’s journey ( you know…farm boy meets mentor and saves the world) or another trope of fiction writing, ( we will talk about tropes later) you have made a promise to the reader that they are getting a particular type of story….DO NOT RUIN THIS by upending those tropes 3/4 of the way through the book by introducing some modern or science fiction elements. If you have set up a scenario in which the main character is CLEARLY the hero… don’t turn him into the villain on the last page because you had the thought..”they won’t see this coming”. keep your promises, its ok to upend these tropes and throw the reader some curve balls, but you must always…always…ALWAYS foreshadow these things well in advance. you can do it in a subtle way so that the reader is genuinely surprised, but the trick is to make it seem inevitable. Again, we will go into deeper detail on these topics later, but start thinking about them now.
Alright, that’s it for this week! I hope this shed some valuable insight on where to begin, please let me know what I got right, or wrong in the comments below, and please let me know how you approach writing a story, I’d love to see how other writers tackle the topic.
Here are a couple useful resources I like to use for world building as well as educating myself on all these topics, I have found them useful and i hope you do too…
worldbuilding tools at https://donjon.bin.sh/ I use this site for Dungeons and Dragons but I’ve found it highly useful in worldbuilding for my novel.
as far as writing advice or education…I have turned to Brandon Sanderson, auhor of Mistborn and Elantris and The StormLight Archive. His online lectures have been immensely helpful in growing my ability and thought process when it comes to writing.
watch the lectures here: https://brandonsanderson.com/2016-sanderson-lectures/