There’s usually a story brewing up somewhere in most people’s minds. The primary difference between normal people and writers (yes, it is an affliction, please give generously to…) is the wordsmith in them knows what to do with a good story once it’s started to take shape. Writers rarely puzzle over what they want to write about. The writer will usually ask how I best to write their story. It’s a legitimate question, there are many variables to choose from, including:
- Point of view – who is telling this story? A 3rd person narrator who sees all from everyone’s point of view, or a 3rd person narrator who is unreliable so the details may be missing or misleading, a first person talking from their own head, a 2nd person indirectly involved in the story?
- Genre and audience – I lump these together because the intended audience for the book will also determine the type of story one will write. How gruesome the details in the mystery/crime/horror; how explicit is the sex in the romance, suspense, fantasy; watch the language in the comedy, mystery.
- Is it historical, modern day or, even non-fiction. If it really happened sometimes it’s best to tell the real story.
- Is this story one that carries on into a series of books or is it self contained?
Then come the structural questions:
- Do I outline the story before I write it or,
- Do I write the first draft and see what it looks like?
Some writers will identify as “discovery” writers, explorers who set out into the unknown in search of the dramatic story. That seems more exciting and makes the story as interesting to the writer as the potential reader. Others would say that’s ridiculous and a giant waste of time when it makes so much more sense to plan it out in detail so you know what is going to happen as you write. Those are “plotters”, people who plan out every detail in the book from story curves to individual scenes. Outlining the story seems logical but can make the end product less interesting to write if the words simply fall into the spaces in the plot.
Most experienced authors will work in a combination of these two styles. I always wrote in discovery mode after I worked out the premise of the story because it was fun but it was a colossal waste of time. Then I learned the value of outlining. For me it is visual. Using a graphic program, I lay out the key points in the story, then break those down to chapters and scenes and then step back. I can see how much of the story happens before and after the key story points. It’s actually quite beautiful to see your book laid out in such a way you can literally see the flow of action and plot points and you can move them around in a “what if” trial pattern. If this happens here, what happens to these characters. That’s where your discovery writing comes into play, trying new twists and seeing what happens to the story.
You can use cards, sticky notes or computer programs to do this kind of layout exercise. My favourite is Scrivener with its virtual cork board and note cards, and a plot mapping program called Scapple, also from the creators of Scrivener.
Research, do I do it now and find out everything there is to know on the subject or do I look things up as I go along? This is as much a personal style question as a process one. Depending on the story you plan to write, you may need to immerse yourself in a different time or culture before beginning to write anything. If you are writing about a person with a condition or an occupation or lifestyle, background or upbringing that is completely different from your own experience you definitely need to do that before beginning to think about the story structure. Where possible in your story, use your own experiences as a source to draw on. Readers know when you’re making it up and being disingenuous.
I find research is a bit of a distraction so I will often make notes on the outline cards on what I need to read up on or look up to verify and fill in the details.
One important note to keep in mind; DO NOT feel the need to transpose all of your research material on to the finished page. If you spend a month learning everything there is to know about operating a Caterpillar D9 earth mover to understand what the operator needs to know when working at certain sites, don’t think your reader cares to know everything you learned. They will not be impressed, they will be bored. The same applies to historical facts, anecdotes and amazing things you’ve discovered on the way.
This of course leads to my main point: Write what you know. This is a writing advice chestnut that’s been around for a long time and, at its heart, it makes sense. Except when it doesn’t. Let’s face it, what writers know best is submitting manuscripts and getting rejected a lot. Factual but not overly suspenseful. Stephen King says, “If you’re a plumber, you know plumbing but that’s far from the extent of your knowledge… Consider John Grisham’s breakout novel The Firm…a young lawyer discovers…he’s working for the Mafia. I’ll bet my dog that John Grisham never worked for the mob.”
(I could fill this post with quotes from Stephen King’s On Writing but, suffice it to say that anyone who wants to be a writer must have a copy of this book in their laptop bag. Don’t think about it, just get a copy and refer to it continually.)
Of course you’re going to write what you know about. You will also probably write what you like to read. The challenge is that most dramatic stories ever written have probably never happened to the author in real life, with a few exceptions. But elements of that story might have. What hasn’t directly happened to you, you have to find by researching it or learning from someone else’s experience. Bottom line, do not fake an experience or emotion, readers will see through it and question the validity of your writing.
Probably the greatest irony in fiction is that you have to be honest. I wrote about a boy of 12 losing his mother to cancer. I wrote about the effect of seeing his father grieve on his emotions, about his reaction to the formal funeral and his annoyance at the wasted attempts by some to comfort him. I lost my mother to cancer, and although I was 30 and not 12, the feelings were real as was my reaction to seeing my pillar of a father cave with emotion. I remembered every detail when I needed to and it wasn’t hard to project those feelings onto a younger boy.
I want to put out a different view on write what you know, that is Write what you don’t know. Or, if you prefer, write the opposite of what you know.
Using my book as a reference, I wrote that, after Jacky and his dad get into the routine of living in their house without Jacky’s mother there running things, friction begins to form between them. Jacky fears that his father is feeling distant, actually pushing him away emotionally. They argue, they lose all common ground. Jacky is desperate to reconnect with his dad, to find a way back to his heart. He is so desperate to do something he resorts to learning to do something his dad liked doing at his age, playing bagpipes. Young Jacky wants to emulate his father at 13 by pulling up something from the past. You have to read the rest of the story to know what happens but, trust me, it’s worth it.
Just to be clear, I didn’t know a lot about what contemporary 13 year olds like do for fun other than the generic video games and chatting online. I’m so old I thought kids used Facebook. I also know very little about playing bagpipes, never mind how you go about learning to play when you’re 13.
Here’s what I do know. Being a single dad is hard, the same but different from being a single mother. It’s hard being both parents to a child or children in my case. It’s also hard to deal with the expectation that you are probably going to fail at it. Every single parent knows the look they get from others when they make a mistake or there is a problem with their child. That sympathetic/critical appraisal of “well, of course that was going to happen.”
Every parent knows the fear of something happening to their child and tries so hard to balance trust and honesty with overprotectiveness. Girls know that having children is an option for them. Many of them can learn the basics of motherhood from their own mothers. Boys are generally not taught how to be a nurturing, feeding, caring responsible for everything that happens parent (known as mothers) by their dads. Even in this enlightened 21st century, most guys grow up knowing they are responsible to make sure their family is provided for. They may change diapers and make meals or clean up but most of them do that in partnership with their wives. A man working a full time job who is used to a division of labour with his spouse is probably not well trained or prepared to take over the whole show himself and will have terrifying, paralysing fears of making a mistake.
This is something I know from experience. The guilt, fear, frustration, lack of sleep, trying to balance being protective with giving children the space they need to grow. Every time there is a problem of any kind, it is escalated to disaster status in his mind. In the US and Canada, there are over 2.5 million single dads actively raising kids. Not weekend dads or stay at home dads, actual single parents who are men raising their children. I know this from doing research. I also know that every one of these guys think they are the only ones because there are few single dad support groups. There are some, now, on Facebook but my experience with single dads was limited to situation comedies on TV, and they weren’t very helpful.
So, my point is this: I know what it feels like to be the dad. The inverse of that is how it feels to be the child of a single parent. When Dad is worried, tired and stressed, he ends up looking angry and has a short temper. His mood swings from happy to worried to angry. He may lose his temper or say things he will apologize for later. He may ask probing questions or, worse, jump to conclusions. It’s not hard to transpose those to feelings on to my fictitious 13 year old boy who is dealing with his own issues of adolescence, school, peer pressure and whatever else is going on.
My book is as much about the fears of being a single dad of as it is about a boy learning to play the bagpipes to impress his dad.
So... Write the opposite of what you know.
...and do your research.