I had never written fiction. I learned to draw on other experiences writing and reading, as well as personal and professional (social work and counseling) experiences relevant to characterization.
In order to teach myself how to write fiction, I read fiction I admire and materials on craft. I share my recommendations on helpful materials in this article.
The most helpful new practice for me: I read out loud every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter multiple times as I write and after.
The overall writing process for me:
- Extensive reflection on the type of story I wanted to read
- Vague idea of some characters and idea for the climax of the story
- A period of free-for-all writing for about 60-80 pages
- Intensive work on characterization
- Systematically experimenting with plot structure many times
Table of Contents:
- Evolution of overall writing process
- New experiences that helped me write
- New writing habits for fiction
- Resources for learning how to write fiction
- Books on how to write fiction
- Free online resources
- Previous experiences that helped me write
- My writing background
- Three factors that helped me develop the story
- Technical Tools:
These aren't recommendations. I don't consider myself an expert at all on writing craft, and you shouldn't, either. For this article, I think of myself as a transparent reporter on what I did. I'm sharing my personal system for writing that I figured out to finish the book. I hope my experiences will give some material for you to develop your own system.
I found myself with five months of completely unstructured time. I tried a lot of hobbies, and writing fiction stuck. I have long had an interest in behavior change, so I thought of writing fiction as an interesting experiment to try a new way of living.
Over the last five years, I infrequently returned to an idea for a book: a girl with mental illness who can travel in time. I didn't think any further until I tried to write the book.
After some thinking about time travel and this girl, I got together the shapes of four characters and a definite setting, and I had an idea for the climax. I initially worked on introducing the characters I knew. More people popped up out of nowhere. I felt the beginning was too early for the climax, so I compelled these people to do things to pass time and pages. I decided on these movements because they amused me or held my interest. Mostly, I followed George Saunders' "What Writers Do When They Really Write." I wrote words with and without origin, liked some of these noises for their feelings, and these words became events and people. When I committed to knowing the characters, they told me what they would do, which began the plot in seriousness.
After I began my book, I soon caught on to a pattern. I hate my book on the sixth day of writing. My writing sounded awful. So, I changed my schedule to take a day off from writing every sixth day. I didn't read my writing or create any new material every sixth day. On this day, I read other books for research, and I worked on other aspects of self-publication.
On days I did write, I soon set a goal of writing 1,000 words. I did have many, many days where I met this quota. The goal was to generate, not necessarily retain 1,000 words. I had several days when I deleted almost everything I wrote the next day. I was more often hitting 400-800 words a day, and sometimes I wrote 0 words. At the end of most days, I read out loud most of what I had written that day.
My quota-based goal changed when I realized I could read books on how to write fiction. You can read more about the books in the section below, “Resources for Learning How to Write Fiction."
Around page 60-80, I started thinking critically about plot. I followed suggestions in Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. I mapped out the plot I knew on movable Post-It Notes and a calendar. Mapping revealed more parts of the plot. Before I wrote the rest of the book, I reordered chapters and scenes based on building and releasing tension.
After thinking more about plot, I didn't have much of a goal for each day, other than a hope to finish the book within my timeline. I regarded my timeline as more or less fixed due to other things in my life. I will cover the detailed editing process in a separate article, but I will say for now that, during the writing process, I usually started my daily writing session by reading what I had written the previous day and revising for language.
At this point, I wrote constantly whenever scenes, words, or dialogue came into my mind. These thoughts came very often and out of sequence. I should say that at this point of writing, I believe mood was on my side, and I swung toward the elevated pole of my emotions. I frequently wrote for 10 hours a day and sometimes more than 12. One day, I wrote 20 pages. I think this period lasted almost three weeks. I kept most of what I wrote during this period. I think it definitely helped that I had planned out plot in heavy detail before.
More details on the editing process in a separate article. In this article, I will give a bare bones overview. After I finished writing the last page, I systematically reviewed the book as a whole and rewrote much of it, whole chapters and several scenes. I contacted four friends as early readers, I continued to edit the book at this time. I didn't read my novel at all for eight days. Then I read with fresh eyes as a reader might. Later, I went back and rewrote all of the scenes that I didn't feel great about. I added minor ideas to the plot as they occurred to me during editing. After I heard back from my friends, I made minor revisions based on their feedback. I hired a proofreader.
New writing habits for fiction:
I sometimes remembered to discuss my story with friends, which always created new thoughts and great book recommendations. Mostly, I spent a lot of time reading. The first thing I did when I woke up was read for at least a half-hour. I especially sought out fiction in the genres of memoir and magical realism, so I could soak up these styles for my book. I read several books and articles to learn about Filipino history. The writers I most enjoy are Kazuo Ishiguro and Raymond Carver, so I reread my favorite passages.
The single most valuable activity I started was to read out loud every word I wrote multiple times. It changed every way I write because it changed how I listen to written sound.
The second most valuable activity is more questionable. I unintentionally found music that got me in the right mood for whatever scenes or characters I was writing that day. Later, I intentionally found music.
Interestingly, I wrote a synopsis about halfway through the novel. I'm not sure why I wrote the synopsis before finishing the book, but it actually helped me realize the primary themes in the book and Martha's desires. I thought about the synopsis often while writing and revising. Similarly, I came up with a title about halfway through the writing process. The title motivated me and helped me think about the story's central themes. You can read my other article on writing a synopsis and title for more about this process.
Regarding events and plot, I mapped out events on a calendar to ensure continuity. I made a second chart on Post-it notes with scenes and chapters. I used this chart frequently and rearranged the chapters leading up to the climax several times. When I had trouble connecting parts of the plot or character development, I free-associated ideas in a notebook. Then, usually the next day, I went back and highlighted ideas that I wanted to keep.
When I set out to work on a chapter, I usually wrote a brief outline with three very short lists: events that I plan will happen (often the plan changed in the act of writing), ideas (loose associations that I found interesting), and characters' agendas in dialogue (whatever desires each character had in the scene). For many chapters, I wrote dialogue first and filled in between later.
Resources for learning how to write fiction:
First, I need to say that I learned how to write from Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, which I read obsessively in middle school. It is a nearly perfect book.
Similarly, while we're talking about resources, the best thesaurus I've used is English Oxford Living Dictionaries. It is available online. I lost track of it for a while and missed it painfully.
Books on how to write fiction:
About 60-80 pages into writing North for Sun, I read books on how to write fiction. I'll review these books briefly:
The book that was most helpful was Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School. I found this book beautifully written, useful, and clear. It focuses on elements of craft such as characterization, plot, dialogue, structure, and voice.
The second most helpful was How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript by James Scott Bell. After reading this book, I rewrote almost all dialogue.
I also learned from The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland, and Write Great Fiction: Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell. I only read half of Outlining Your Novel, but this half changed my thinking of plot and pacing.
Free online resources on how to write fiction:
- Article: The Atlantic has a series called 'By Heart.' Writers reflect on their meaningful process. I like reading the end-of-year summaries from the interviews.
- Article: Close Reading by Francine Prose in The Atlantic. Discusses the relationship between intentional reading and writing.
- Videos: Shaelin Writes - I liked her thorough, earnest attitude. I watched her videos on 15 Beat Plot Structure and the CreateSpace paperback publishing process. I didn't follow her suggestions per se, but I thought about the ideas and was entertained by her style.
- Article: "How to Plot with the Three-Act Structure" by Janice Hardy - After finishing a good draft, I wasn't sure whether my plot built to the climax appropriately, so I used this article and compared to my outline. I took out a calculator and mapped out my page counts according to percentages described in the article.
- Video: "Zadie Smith Interview on NPR" - Zadie Smith discusses writing process. More motivational than instructional. I enjoyed it.
- Article: "What Writers Do When They Really Write" by George Saunders - Funny and accurate. Made me feel not alone while being alone.
My writing background:
For context and the purposes of your comparison, I'll share my writing background.
I love reading almost anything. I was not able to read for some time in my adult life, so I have since appreciated everything with letters.
I have worked hard to write my best in other contexts. I journaled off and on regularly for many years. I started relying on a thesaurus and Strunk and White's Elements of Style when I was eleven years old. I copy-edited in high school. I wrote many non-fiction pieces with a reflective or analytic tone for school in Philosophy and Social Work. I write in a food blog with my sisters.
In terms of fiction, I haven't completed a fictional anything since I was ten years old. I wrote assignments for class, and I recently found four fictional stories I started when I was nine. In one story, a lumberjack travels in time. Modern children fed the lumberjack candy and helped him return home, similar to E.T. It was a comedy. I think. I do remember throwing away 3-4 completed stories I wrote around this same time, when I was 9 or so, because I was embarrassed that my mom liked them too much. I attempted a short story when I was 17, which I gave up on when I was 19. It was about a woman falling asleep on a plane.
From these fragments of bad fiction, and memories of destroyed bad fiction, I judged recently that my genre has always been magical realism.
Three factors that helped me develop the story:
I suspect I wrote quickly in part because (1) I had a clear idea of the book I wanted to read, (2) I chose topics I've thought about for many years, and (3) I have training in skills that turned out to help characterization, which led to plot. I'll review these reasons.
1. Clear idea for book:
I have long described my experience of mental illness as time distortion. In my mood-induced fantasies, I sometimes imagined I had actually traveled in time. These thoughts led to my interest in time travel for a character with mental illness. I returned to this idea occasionally over the course of about five years.
Since my first breakdown, I've looked for a story about recovery that shows the person's life getting bigger and bigger. I don't think I ever found the story I wished for. I knew I wanted my protagonist to pull together fragments of her experience into someone she wants to be, which to me is a big task of becoming well again and again.
I wanted to read a book that shows many sides to the experience of mental illness, both lovely and frightening, in an intensely personal way, rather than in abstract descriptions. To that end, I knew I would try to write a first-person voice of the moment-to-moment experience of many moods, including the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.
Especially when I was a kid, I looked for books about Filipinos like me. I partly tried to write a book that my younger self would find interesting as I tried to figure out my cultural identity.
I also wanted to read a book that is sometimes funny. Comedy is critical.
2. Familiar topics:
I've reflected a lot on recovery. Sometimes I opened my journals to revisit old writings and reflections at different times in my life. Some of the scenes in the novel were adapted from specific scenes in my life, reimagined for different characters with different life experiences and personalities.
3. Relevant professional experience:
My professional background, which I've pursued in school and work for five years, is social work. I think this mindset helped me regard my characters compassionately, rather than as flat inventions. In my counseling training, I've studied how interactions are received into people's experiences. I noticed my professional background helped me get to know my characters, which ended up driving my plot into places I hadn't expected.
The program I used for writing the novel is Writer by BigHugeLabs, a web-based program with offline sync. Writer is not a word processor; it is a text editor. I have had a mixed experience. I will invest in Scrivener for my next book and will report on that experience as well.
- My first priority is a distraction-free writing screen. This is very important to my work. Writer has an option to change the font color, background color, and font of your writing screen. I switch background colors regularly because it helps my eyes focus for long periods of time.
- Writer has features like a running word count, offline sync, online autosave, revision history, and statistics on productivity such as hours worked and time of day. I think online autosave worked almost perfectly; I had maybe 1-2 incidents with lost work, but I think they may have been my error. Exporting documents is simple.
- The basic version is a free service. However, I found the Pro version essential because of its revision history feature. Revision history is not included in basic, and it is very inconvenient to try to restore previous paragraphs, et cetera by hitting undo over and over again. Pro version costs $5 monthly or $45 one-time. I paid for $5 monthly because I wasn't sure if I would like the service or continue to write after my novel.
- Since Writer generates a .txt file, it was very easy to plug the document into code in order to convert the document into book format. I will write an article on formatting your book for e-book and paperback publication.
- Writer doesn't offer much organization for documents at all. I originally started using a separate document for each chapter, but Writer sorts documents by last edited, so it became very confusing to see the chapters out of order constantly. I ended up using a huge 201-page document. It was very unwieldy to navigate.
- Editing using Writer was a huge pain. Other programs allow you to separate passages by chapter and scene, which is ideal for rearranging events, particularly when building tension in plot development. On Writer, I had to copy and delete passages to reorder them. Not as effective and very nitpicky to do.
- Compared to other programs, Writer has no option to view your chapters and scenes all at once, to get a look at the novel's trajectory or summary. I ended up typing an outline in a separate document and referring to it.
- If you have spotty internet connection, a dialog box will pop up constantly that alerts you to offline syncing. I had to turn off my internet connection completely to work in this case. I didn't trust offline syncing, so I exported the document to a .txt file regularly.
- I'm not totally sure whether Writer can support multiple pages at once. I think it got confused once when I had two screens of the same document up at once and edited one. But I'm not totally sure what happened here. I generally avoided opening Writer on multiple pages.
The bottom line was that Writer's bare interface enabled me to focus very well on writing. This is the most important factor for me and outweighed the major inconveniences of editing. Writer's basic version is also free.
After I completed the initial writing period and had a solid draft to edit, I considered exporting my Writer file into a program like Scrivener. It is a more flexible program, so I could edit scene by scene, chapter by chapter. It is also expensive. I ended up printing the document and editing by hand, which worked great. I finished my editing before trying the method of exporting to another program.
I'm not sure that other people will have my priorities, but they worked well for me ultimately. I'm pleased with the results. I encourage you to research reviews of other writing programs for writing your book. I plan to invest in Scrivener and will review that experience later.