I began writing professionally back in 2011/12. My first book came out in 2012 and I followed that up with two more (Studies in Legacy and The Scarlet Thread of Murder), two comic books (The Case of the Crystal Blue Bottle and Sherlock Holmes and the Horror of Frankenstein, and a biography (Welcome to Undershaw) and the occasional short story.
When people find out I’m a writer I inevitable get asked: how do you write a book? To some it’s an impossible sound task. It’s daunting. Scary! Horrifying! Then you have some who had a little too much arrogance for breakfast and say, “oh you’re a writer…so you make shit up huh?” or “I could write a book. It’d be so easy.” If you’re someone who can just wing it and write brilliant novels with intricate plots, depth, rich characterisation, good for you, you a-hole.
But for the rest of the world who wonder ‘how do I begin?’ or ask me ‘how do you begin?’, I normally respond with the following: I make a plan and PLOT, PLOT, PLOT!
Why do I recommend ‘Making a Plan?’
John Irving said: “Any writer who embarks on a novel without knowing how it’s going to end is a fool.”
I agree! If you don’t know your story you will struggle. It will take 10x longer to finish because what is the end goal? It will suffer from structural issues, plot-holes, and you will rewrite it more times than necessary had you just put the effort into understanding your story before you started.
It is great when one says, ‘I have an awesome idea for a medieval fantasy set on an alien world. They worship Rovers, like Mars Rovers, that humans have sent to their planet. There will be a prophesy and a war between kingdoms and twist when humans land a spaceship on the planet.’ Sounds mad. If you don’t take the time to think about the logic, themes, how the world works, and aims of the story you’ll get frustrated and probably never finish. Or if you do it’ll be such a mess you won’t put the time into fixing it.
Once an idea is festering my basic plan consists of:
A) Asking What Story Am I Telling?
I’m not a big fan of boxing stories into genres, but an understanding of how genres work is important. For example let’s say I’m writing about a crime. I consider what is the story trying to accomplish by investigating this crime? What themes will it address?
I will consider who my lead detective is, when the story takes place and where and what type of crime he/she will be investigating. This helps to consider the various social and cultural states of mind for the characters. An African-American male homicide detective in San Diageo investigating a double murder in 2018 will be in a completely different world to a white female private investigator in 1930s Manchester, UK.
B) Know the Ending
I spend a lot of time thinking about the crime/story resolution. I might know who did it or I might still be working out who did it during the plotting stage, this depends on what inspired what first. I might know as solution to a crime before I’ve created a cast for example.
To add more clarity, when writing crime fiction (ideally) one should (I promise it’s helpful!) know the who, what, when, where and why of the crime. Who committed it, what did they use, where did they commit the crime, when did they do it, why did they do it! Knowing this allows you to strategically plant clues and red herrings throughout your narrative and saves you writing yourself into a hole. You can build better suspense, be sharper, and create better misdirection.
C) Building Characters
I build each character by visualising them. In no particular order, creating an idea of what they look like, what their backstory is (some times very details some times basics), their role in the story, their personalities, any strange ticks or mannerisms. What their internal and external problems will be throughout the narrative and what type of story arc I want to give them.
Knowing your characters (as many of them as you can — some times a new character will just appear in a scene as you write and that’s okay!!) is hugely important. You will be able to create honest reactions. Example: A character might have an irrational fear of red cars to the audience. But maybe he/she had an experience with a red car that tried to run them down and they never saw the driver. Now all red cars are suspects. So what happens when he/she is in the driveway and their best friend comes speeding into it in a brand new red car? How do they react?
D) Three Act Structure
I don’t care who you are, you will knowingly or not use a three act structure. The length of the acts will vary, but you will use it. I’ve heard students swear they don’t use three acts. Thinking they have reached some sort of transcendence, but when challenged they realise their stories fall into this basic structure. A three act isn’t there to quash creativity, it’s simply a…well, simple structure that is proven to work. All stories have a beginning middle and end. Think about the Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship begins with Frodo being told to take the ring to Rivendale (middle) and ends with breaking of the fellowship. This is a three act story within a trilogy of books that makeup a giant three act story – Fellowship (Beginning), Two Towers (Middle), Return of the King (End). Even if that end isn’t the ‘end’, it’s where we exit the story.
I tend to use a beat outline with the a three act structure. That means I outline when and where certain events happen in the story within each act. This might be as detailed as outlining each chapter or it might be as vague as outlining the key events in each act and manipulating events to reach the next plot point. Either way I map what must happen in order to thrust the story onwards.
Think about a Three Act Structure like climbing a mountain: ascend, summit, descend – a standard example. You begin your ascent knowing that you will reach the top through trails and struggles. Once you reach the middle (or summit) you will descend hazardously towards the ending. And by the end of the descent the story should resolve and tie up loose ends before the reader exits the story.
El Doctorow said: “The shape and style of the novel is determined by the thought you put into it.”
He is absolutely right!
Spend as much time as you can understanding/thinking/testing the shape and style of the story. Devote time knowing the end and what the goal is. How will Character A be changed or not by the end? That includes understanding what type of character arcs you want (positive, negative, or flat arc). The more you know what your story is trying to accomplishing, the more you understand what kind of characters to include, what type of story arcs to include, what obstacles you might want to include or explore and so on.
There’s some insight into my writing process and what I recommend to anyone interested in writing. Hope you enjoyed it!
Luke Kuhns has a Masters in Creative Writing and is currently writing a PhD on historic crime fiction.