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I’m about 7,000 words into my latest novel, and for several months I wondered whether I was (finally) ready to start working on it. I’ll be honest: starting a new novel is always a frightening endeavor. In general, the blank page is a daunting venture, but starting out a whole novel can be even more so. That sort of paralysis comes in several forms and can be self-defeating before you’ve even written anything. Here are some common forms in which these new-novel fears can appear and a few solutions on how to tackle them.

“Is this even a sustainable idea?”

For me, this is one of the most difficult to shake. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but the real question before starting a novel is whether the idea has enough life in it to sustain an entire novel. I have hundreds of really interesting notions in various notebooks and files, but would all of them be able to carry a whole novel? No. Some might make for an interesting short story or a single scene in a novel, but most of those scrawled ideas by themselves don’t create enough fertile ground from which to grow a novel. Will I start the novel, then peter out after 30,000 words or so, realizing the central idea doesn’t have enough traction? The best way to defeat this is to mull the idea over for a while. Take notes on it. Jot down any interesting little idea that might relate to it: characters, scenes, direction, etc. If plot and character ideas start naturally falling into place, then it’s a good bet the idea will have some throughput.

“Is this idea interesting?”

The other side of this equation is whether the central idea will draw in potential readers. This is more difficult to gauge, but regularly reading similar works in the same genre can help with this. Finding what is popular in the genre can be a good signpost—just make sure you’re not simply parroting back every idea you just read—but what might be more helpful is finding out what the genre is lacking. Authors who simply do something different or unconventional can pique a reader’s interest more so than people who write “yet another spaceship opera” or “yet another plot-coupon fantasy.” It’s also my belief that writing passionately about something that interests you can pass on that passion to the reader.

“Have I developed the idea enough?”

This is always a big concern of mine, although it’s probably due to my tendency to be a world-builder with my genre stories. Some novelists set out with little more than a wing and a prayer, plotting and characterizing as they go along. These are commonly called “pantsers,” as they fly by the seat of the pants, or “gardeners.” Some writers need to make outlines and notes and jot down every single bit of minutiae until they have an entire bible of what they need to do. These are the consummate “plotters.” I’ve always found myself in the middle of the road: I gather ideas, characters, scenes, etc., until I feel I have a good starting point (plotting) and then I go from there (gardening). However, I still end up doing a lot of plotting as I go along, but this is more of the spontaneous kind that arises from the story’s direction than the done-ahead-of-time kind. After writing as many novels as I have, I’ve learned that you don’t need to discover everything about your story before you commit anything to paper. Let me say that again because I think it’s important: You don’t need to discover everything about your story before you commit anything to paper. Oftentimes, no matter how much I’ve plotted, the best character and plot developments I end up with were things I hadn’t even dreamed about  when I started writing the story. So if you wait until you’ve developed all of the “perfect” ideas before you start writing, then odds are you’ll never get started. The trick is to develop enough ideas and characters and plot threads as you need to start out, and then just go out and write the darn thing. Write it into submission—y’know, the kind with chains.

“Have I done enough research?”

The beauty about rough drafts is that you can go back and fix things. Do you need to know the exact temperature and chemical composition of an M-class star in order to start writing your story set on a space station orbiting a red giant? Probably not; just stick in a note and look it up later—preferably when that detail becomes relevant to the story. Do you need to know every nitty, gritty aspect about a specific foreign culture where your story is set before you can begin writing? Not really: focus on learning the important stuff, and add in little snippets in a later draft. Just make sure the tidbits you’re spending a lot of time on are relevant to the story.
For making notes in my manuscripts, I use the style of <note>. This makes these notes easy to search for because, realistically, how often are greater-than symbols going to be in your manuscript? CTRL+F is your friend in this regard.


Finally finished the continuity pass on the latest novel, which now has a working title of Spectrum, and copies have gone out to my test readers.

In just about every novel I’ve written, no matter how much advance planning I did before principal writing, the first three chapters or so always need work before I can give copies to my first round of test readers. A lot of the writing I do–even work based (loosely) in reality–requires world building, and even if I spend months or years adding details to this world before I start writing the book, most of that world building occurs during the writing. A significant amount of it happens after those first three chapters, and over the years I’ve learned that a lot of the terms and ideas that gestated at the beginning of the novel are either supplanted or made obsolete by world-building elements later in the novel. So each novel of mine, almost without fail, requires me to go back into those first three chapters and iron out all the inconsistencies that don’t fit with the rest of the story.

With Spectrum, I had a definite, clear vision of the world and how it worked, but the initial terminology I came up with for several ideas ultimately fell flat. For example, I had a religious term that factored into one of the belief systems, and as I went on, that concept didn’t mesh with the story at all. During the continuity pass, all occurrences of that term got yanked.

For those who are writing novels that entail a lot of world building, don’t get too hung up on specific terminology in your story. If you have a concept, gadget, creature, race, nation, or whatnot that needs a name and your first few stabs at naming seem to fall short, take heart. Odds are you’ll probably end up grabbing that continuity iron after the first draft and either change the term or iron it out altogether, so there’s no real need to get hung up on arriving at the “perfect name.” Rather than let yourself get stuck, leave a placeholder and come back to it later. A nice writing trick is to put <TK> (short for “to come”) in your ms to remind yourself to deal with the item later. “TK” (especially in caps and ever more so with the greater-than/less-than signs) hardly ever occurs in natural English writing. I’ve also seen people use “XX.” Just don’t forget to search through the whole ms for these placeholders before you submit. I’ve seen some published newspaper articles in my day with the <TK> notation left intact.


First draft of my latest novel is complete, and it’s been a long time coming. Started writing this novel at the very end of 2006, and for various and sundry reasons it took me a lot longer than usual to finish it. On average, I’d finish a novel every year or two (even monster novels like this current one), but this one was a challenge, partly because it is the most complex work I’ve written.

Of course, there’s still some work that needs done before I can foist it upon my alpha readers. For example, as I write I tend to keep track of things that I want to fix as I go along, stuff like deciding a term or concept I created in the first few chapters doesn’t really work as the story goes along, realizing I need to add a small reference to something in earlier chapters, or other various continuity fixes that would make the story less confusing for my first batch of test readers. This takes some time, but it’s not nearly as arduous a process since I’ve done this many times before and I have a checklist to work through.

Another thing I still need to do: At the beginning of each chapter is a little snippet—a proverb, a “scripture” passage, or a pithy saying—that relates to the chapter in some way and serves as a way to highlight the differences between the forces at work. I’ve written probably a full third of them, but the creative momentum often dictated I skip them and leave a placeholder so I could come back to them later. Likewise with chapter titles. For some reason, I’ve always named my chapters. It’s not always common practice within the genre, but I feel it adds another level of depth, as even a title can show an insight into the mind of a given character.

Lastly, I still need a good title. My working title was from ages ago, long before I really even knew what the book was going to be about, and things have changed a lot since then. Coming up with a good title is much more difficult than one might think.

But at least the novel’s done. I’ve deposited the lump of coal, and now all it needs some time and pressure.