Make It Happen, Step 2: Time to Start Actually Writing a Novel

writing a novel
Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Getting started on writing a novel, it turns out, can be hard.

Step 1 of my goal to write a novel in 2019 was to “choose the path.” I was trying to decide between two ideas, and I chose the one I am more excited about; the one I’ve already been researching in my spare time for years.

Next, I started writing about my ideas in a notebook. What it is, the main characters, their story lines, what it all means, and more. Writing this stuff down is so concrete and good. It means grabbing a hold of the ideas that flit into your mind, seem interesting, but then flit out again. It makes a big difference.

Writer Shaunta Grimes happened to write today about the writer Jack London and what he said about keeping a notebook, and I feel exactly the same way:

“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up in your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory. – Jack London

I find a notebook really useful.

But I can’t just write about it in my notebook all year. Now it’s time to move and do the real work. I need to start writing the novel itself.

Writing a Novel

Writing is not a sudden whim of mine, and I’m not starting from zero. I’ve worked professionally as a writer for 20 years now, and wrote for years before that, too. I have a degree in journalism. I was even editor of my high school newspaper. I’ve always been a writer.

But I don’t have experience as a novelist. Mostly I write nonfiction, which is very different. A novel has its structure and rules that I know of from reading about novel writing (and from reading novels themselves), but I don’t yet know in my bones how to create that structure, the way I understand structure in nonfiction writing.

When it comes to, say, an article, I completely understand why it works or doesn’t work. I can glance at something I, or someone else, has written and tell you about how many words it is, how it holds together or doesn’t, and what it’s missing. That comes from having worked as a nonfiction writer for so long, and it’s a great feeling to be at this point in my career.

But I’m not at that point yet with novels, although I hope I can get there. It will take practice and some hard work to figure out how exactly one structures a novel that holds together and is, hopefully, well-written. I’m excited about it, and at the same time it feels a little daunting. (Mostly, I’m excited about it.)

Opening Up Scrivener

I use a physical notebook for ideas, but for writing projects themselves, I use the inexpensive yet incomparable app Scrivener. A writer created it for his own projects, which is probably why it makes so much sense to me. You write each scene as a separate section, and they are easy to view and rearrange. When you are ready to print, you “compile” your manuscript into a Word document or similar. It even formats text for publication as an ebook.

When I have pieces of research for my story – a block of text, a link, a photo, an MP3, or something else – I can store it right there where I am working on the story. I can use the split screen function to look at the piece of research right alongside my blank document as I write. There are so many other features, too. It’s an amazing piece of software. I wouldn’t dream of starting a big project like this without it.

So, Step 2: I’m off to create a new project in Scrivener, and then folders for each chapter, and character and setting profiles. I’ll also start loading some of the research I’ve already done into the program.

I find this exciting! Once my novel has a structure that shows its chapters, right there on the page, it’s just a matter of filling each one in, right?

How’s that for optimism? It might be a bit more work than I just made it sound, but I can’t wait to see how it goes.

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How to Write Historical Fiction

historical fiction
Photo by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash

 

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know I’ve been trying to decide between two fiction writing projects to devote my head and spare time to this year. And – ta-da! – I have chosen the new novel idea, which is historical fiction. I chose this over working on the children’s novel that I have already drafted. (I’ll get back to that another time.)

In 2019, I’ve decided, I’m going to write a novel based on a true story from the past that’s been swirling around in my head forever. I’ve been thinking about this and writing bits and pieces of this story for years and years. It is, I am realizing, a historical fiction project. Historical fiction can be defined as a fictional story set in the past that uses some true characteristics of the period.

It never dawned on me that I could turn this into a novel until recently, although now it seems obvious to me. I’m excited about this project.

Avoiding the Rookie Move

In life, of course, a real story doesn’t go the way a novel needs to play out. This one sure doesn’t. And I know it’s a rookie move to try to write a novel based on a true story unless you take steps to “novelize” it. You need to turn the fact into fiction and carefully create (and discard) characters. You let the story move forward without requiring yourself to stay true to the facts, which might not work in novel form.

At writepractice.com, author and story coach David Safford says there are four things you must do to write a book based on a true story:

  • Remove yourself from the story
  • Cut characters
  • Exaggerate (or invent) motivations
  • Edit a true story into a great story

I plan to take the gist of this true-life tale that fascinates me and fictionalize it. I’ll have to do research about the parts I don’t know or that don’t fit the story I want to tell. I’ll need to create characters who are fleshed out, so to speak, “real people” that a reader will care about. Then there’s the importance of settings, and adding conflict in the right places, all that.

In the end, it will no longer be the real story at all. But I will have worked through this true story that fascinates me and made it my own. I suppose that’s historical fiction.

This article from The Writer is about writing historical short stories, but its tips are good and apply to novels as well. Chuck Sambuchino‘s Writers Digest article discussed whether it’s possible to be completely accurate historically and still tell a great story. (He says he doesn’t think you can do both — and that maybe it’s not even necessary.)

Historical Fiction Novels

As I figure out how to write historical fiction, I realize it’s my favorite genre. Here is an eclectic list of such novels that I have especially enjoyed, in no particular order. I gathered them here merely to remind myself to aim high (not because I expect to be able to pull off a first novel written at this level, holy cow!).

Or in case you, too, like historical fiction novels and would enjoy some recommendations. You can click on any of these titles to read more. They are all great.

(When I find lists of novels that are especially interesting to me, I always imagine ordering them all at once. In my fantasy, a box arrives filled with all these wonderful books I am completely interested in. I carry it in off the doorstep, make a cup of coffee and then stretch out and read all day, every day, for weeks. This is not the life I live, at all, but it’s one I dream about!)

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Now that I’ve thought about each of these books as I copied code into this post, I want to reiterate something: I have no illusions I am going to write the next Gone With The Wind this year. There are some amazing historical fiction novels out there. Sheesh. I love all the books above, but revisiting them while talking about my own novel is a little overwhelming. I will just figure out how to write historical fiction and then do the best job I can.

Doing Some Pre-Work. (Which is Still Work.)

I haven’t quite started writing yet—soon—but I’ve been thinking a lot about this new novel. That has been helpful. I’ve sat with a notebook and figured out why I want to write this particular story and it’s taken me deep. Part of the answer? I’ve been researching and thinking about this story for years, trying to fill in the holes. If I didn’t have to earn a living it’s what I would be working on anyway right now.

And I’ve been trying to come up with one sentence that describes this book I want to write. All of these questions are themselves writing projects that require a lot of passes. I’m still working on them. Each gets to aspects a little deeper and more interesting than the last.

These questions I’ve been answering are the some of the first exercises from Author Accelerator’s 7-Day Writing Challenge, which is great. One is to zero in on what I want to get across with this story. It’s like a road map, I think, that will keep me on track throughout the writing. I like the idea of thinking about this ahead of time. It seems like if I know where I am heading, I’m more likely to get there.

I’m sure things will change along the way. Although I work as a professional writer, I’m new to writing novels and I don’t have structure and other technique figured out yet. I will have to learn that as I go.

But I like the idea of having a plan as I work, so there’s something concrete I am working toward. That should make it easier to actually finish. If my story’s direction changes while I’m writing it, I can go back and rework my overview to match. It means, I think, being aware that it is changing, and thinking it through intellectually and knowing why you are going in a particular direction. Making sure, as much as you can when you’re a new writer, that it all makes sense and still holds together.

That’s the plan, anyway. Hold on—I’m getting started! I’ll be back soon to let you know how it’s going.

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Thanks For All the Fish!

We made it to the end of the month, you and me! I blogged every day in June and successfully completed the Freelance Success 2014 30-Day Blogathon. Thank you for reading, or at least hanging in there. (I only got one “unsubscribe” during the month.)Leslie Lang, Writer, Memoir, Biography, Content Marketing, Hawaii

My goal was to take some of the things out of my head and get them onto my website. I wrote some articles about how much I love the genre of memoir and biography, and a little about some of my work in this area:

And about my other specialization, content marketing, including what that is and some examples of work I’ve done:

And I wrote about books and the power of words:

and a little about Hawai‘i, too:

I will now give you a bit of a break and will stop pelting daily emails at you — though this did get my blogging muscles back in order, I must say, and I will probably be blogging here more often than I had been.

Therefore: “So long!” but only for now, and Thanks for all the fish! (If you don’t know the reference, you should probably read the book.)

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Driving to a Hawaiian Volcano

Here’s an article I wrote about the volcanoes here on the Big Island awhile back. It also hints at a little bit of my own family’s history.

We really live in a remarkable place.

Leslie Lang, Writer, Ghostwriter, Content Marketing, HawaiiOn Hawaii’s Big Island: Powerful Pele’s Playground

By Leslie Lang on 08/30/13

My grandmother used to tell me about her Hawaiian great-grandfather, who drove long-ago tourists up to the Volcano in a horse-drawn carriage.

Back in the late 1800s, the journey from Hilo took two days, with an overnight stop to rest the horses and travelers. But once they arrived, the landscape undoubtedly looked very much as it does now.

Still an otherworldly land worth visiting, the unique Volcano area is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes. Sprawling, huffing and erupting within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea and Mauna Loa exhibit nature’s drama in action. But while change and creation, and birth and destruction, are part of the park’s inherent nature, I can still see what my ancestors very likely saw: a moonscape in places, where ghostlike trees hold their ground as ethereal steam swirls from a landscape pocked with vents….

Read the rest here

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Piecing Together the Memories

One reason to get your story down:

“It has always been on the written page that the world has come into focus for me. If I can piece all these bits of memory together with the diaries and letters and the scribbled thoughts that clutter my mind and bookshelves, then maybe I can explain what happened. Maybe the worlds I have inhabited for the past seven years will assume order and logic and wholeness on paper. Maybe I can tell my story in a way that is useful to someone else.” 

― Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank, a novel based on the true story of Mamah Borthwick and her illicit love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Leslie Lang, Writer, Ghostwriter, Memoir, Biography, Author

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The Relationship Between Freelancing & Bonbons

“You’re a freelance writer in Hawai‘i? Really?!” I hear this occasionally and realize that what I do sounds pretty plush to people who aren’t freelancers.

I get it. They like thinking about not having to get up early to clock in at a non-dream-job. I can sleep in and wear what I want every day, they are thinking. And on top of all that, HAWAI‘I, where the crystal clear ocean is warm like a bathtub, and sea turtles swim lazily alongside you, and there are gorgeous sunsets. Leslie Lang, Freelance Writer, Ghostwriter, Content Marketing, Hawaii

Some of that is true. But other freelance writers understand how this lifestyle really works. Let’s look at some of those assumptions.

Sleeping late!

I could sleep in but I usually don’t, because I’m running a business here. I keep fairly normal business hours most of the time, because that’s what works for me. The regular hours keep me sane – I don’t have to worry about when my work is going to get done. And it works, too, because there are people I need to interact with, and most of them are available during regular business hours. Of course, there is some flexibility, though, and if I were feeling a little under the weather, I could sleep an hour or two later and make it up on the other end without needing to get anybody’s permission.

Working in pajamas!

I don’t do that; I get dressed. When I switch on my business head, I don’t want to look down and see pajamas. Pajamas say bedtime, not “book contract.”

Time off whenever you want!

Yes, I can take time off and help chaperone a school field trip, or see a friend who’s suddenly in town on a weekday. But then I usually make up the time later, because I keep my work calendar comfortably full. Many weeks I work more than someone who clocks in from 8 to 5 (does that surprise you?). I’m trying to change that.

Writing when the muse strikes!

No. Writing when the assignment needs to get done.

Beach! Ocean! Sunsets! 
Leslie Lang, Freelance Writer, Ghostwriter, Content Marketing, Hawaii

There are days when I come into my office in the morning and flip on the light, work without hardly leaving my chair except to flip the light off a little later when it’s bright outside, and then work until the sun has meandered off and I need to turn on the light again. Successful freelancing takes a lot of work, and unlike an employee, a freelancer handles everything. Not just the work, but also obtaining, invoicing for and collecting for the work, and the accounting and the taxes and the retirement plan and the IT and the website and the marketing and the purchasing and the social media and the public relations and paying for the medical/dental coverage. I really just want to write, but it doesn’t work that way. A friend of mine lists herself on Facebook as her company’s CEO & Janitor. True.

Bottom line? I love freelancing and I like doing it here in Hawai‘i. I like having some flexibility, but this is a real business I’m running here and I work hard. I’m tired at the end of my workday. No bonbons are being consumed, and if you call me you will not hear Oprah’s voice coming from a TV in the background.

I should get out and enjoy that ocean and the sunsets (or sunrises) more. Right now, though, you know: I’ve got work to do.

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Painting Pictures About Hawaii

Hawaii writer, Leslie LangI specialize in writing about Hawai‘i, where I live and have deep roots, in addition to ghostwriting memoirs, biographies and family histories. I help Hawai‘i individuals, small businesses and larger ones with their content marketing.

From the Content Marketing Institute:

Content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.

I’m familiar with Hawai‘i’s culture, its language and orthography, and many of the islands’ movers and shakers. Whether it’s writing content about Hawai‘i’s business, travel, culture or people — or something else — I do it. My master’s degree in anthropology, specifically the cultural anthropology of Hawai‘i and the Pacific, makes me knowledgeable about and able to write well about Hawai‘i’s culture and people. My journalism degree and background means I know how to conduct research and find the information I need.

Who hires a writer like me to write content? Hotels (I’ve written for the Kohala, Halekulani, and Trump Waikiki hotels, among others), representatives of trade industries (like Hawaii Hospitality magazine), airlines (Hawaiian Airlines, the former Aloha Airlines), travel companies (such as Jetsetters, Fodors.com), online behemoths (such as Ancestry.com), human resources companies (ALTRES), other corporations (Trek Bicycles) and local businesspersons (Richard Ha, and many others). Just about anyone who has a business and a message to impart, in other words.

I’ve been in this business full-time now for about sixteen years, and it’s been interesting to see content marketing emerge. It’s sort of a new buzz phrase, content marketing, but really it means writing articles, web copy, blog posts, white papers, reports, and the like to help tell someone’s story. It’s very much what many of us writers have been doing all these years.

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Hawaii Content Marketing & Rock Stars

Do you know that buzz phrase “content marketing?” It’s what businesses are calling the content they hire us writers to provide. Here’s the best definition of content marketing that I’ve come across; it’s from the Content Marketing Institute:

Traditional marketing and advertising is telling the world you’re a rock star. Content Marketing is showing the world that you are one. – Robert Rose

Content marketing is a focus for me, and much of the content marketing I do is related to Hawaii, where I live and work. I know Hawaii well, and my journalism background and years as a freelance writer makes it easy for me to research and write (or ghostwrite) about just about anything – whether it’s related to Hawai‘i’s business, travel, culture, people, or something else.

I don’t have links to many of my articles on my website right now, so I am compiling a list here. This is just a small number of the many and varied magazine articles, books and blog posts I’ve written for various businesses, corporations, hotels and media outlets in Hawaii and elsewhere.

On Business & Current Affairs:

Hawaii Travel

Hawaii Culture

Hawaii People

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Books on Writing

I guess it’s no surprise there are so many books about writing. We writers need something to write about, and some of us write about writing.

Writing is a craft that I continually work on. In college I majored in journalism, and since then I have continued to take writing classes (both in person and online), participate in professional writers’ groups and online forums, and sometimes in local writers groups — and I also read how other people have succeeded as writers. How they do it. Their tips.

They’re just like us, most of those other writers. We’re all just people sitting in front of a yellow pad of paper or a laptop, starting with a blank screen and a head full of ideas. Reading over the years about how some people have accomplished what they’ve done has helped me set goals for my own writing, and reach high.

I could read about writing until the cows come home. (“What cows?” asked my then-four-year-old with a puzzled look, once, when I used that expression.) Though it’s best to put down the books and hit the keyboard from time to time.

Here are just some of the writing books on my shelves, which I’ve loosely grouped into categories here. I have learned from or been inspired by many of these.

BUSINESS

Early on I realized that you are only a hobbyist, and will likely get nowhere as a professional freelance writer, until you accept that it’s a business and you need to be businesslike (in setting goals, where you focus your efforts, calculating your overhead and knowing how much to charge, protecting your copyrights, handling accounting, paying taxes and much more). Some creative sorts have to really force themselves to buckle down and learn the business aspect of being a self-employed writer. Here are some books that can help:

  • The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing, ed. by Timothy Harper
  • This Business of Writing, by Gregg Levoy
  • Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, by Jenna Glazer
  • Six-Figure Freelancing, by Kelly James-Enger
BY WRITERS ABOUT WRITING
I don’t know how to group these books, some of which inspired and convinced me I could quit the day job and live happily as a writer (they were right!):
  • Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
  • The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
  • If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland
  • Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
  • Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • No Mentor But Myself: Jack London on Writing and Writers, ed. by Dale L. Walker and Jeanne Campbell Reesman
FICTION/NOVEL WRITING
What pondering these titles from my bookshelf tells me is that I have long wanted to delve more into fiction and novel-writing. But I knew that already.
  • On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner
  • On Teaching and Writing Fiction, by Wallace Stegner
  • The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
  • Writing the Novel, by Lawrence Block
  • Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway
  • How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen
  • The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, ed. by Meg Leder, Jack Heffron and the editors of Writer’s Digest

MAGAZINE/NEWSPAPER WRITING
I have done an awful lot of this. I started out, long ago, writing an occasional freelance piece for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and then got a regular freelance gig working for Hilo’s Hawaii Tribune-Herald, where I wrote features and entertainment articles every week. That was terrific in teaching me how to just sit down and do it. When I had several articles due each week, I also got over my reticence about calling people to ask questions. That was worth it all right there.

After that I started writing for magazines. More interesting, more in-depth, more time for craft. Yet it doesn’t always pay enough to pay the bills. There are a few people who only write for national magazines and make a good living, but you cannot count on that these days. If magazine freelancing is your plan, you’d better start out with some other income, too.

  • The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, by William E. Blundell
  • Writing for Story, by Jon Franklin
  • Creative Nonfiction, by Philip Gerard
  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, ed. by Jean Fredette
  • You Can Write a Column, by Monica McCabe Cordoza
  • The Renegade Writer, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
  • Travel Writing, See the World, Sell the Story, by L. Peat O’Neil
  • Literary Journalism, ed. by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer
MEMOIR
  • Living to Tell the Tale, A Guide to Writing Memoir, by Jane Taylor McDonnell
  • Inventing the Truth, the Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. by William Zinsser
ON WRITERS
It’s aways fun to read how other writers do what they do. Computer? Typewriter? Pencil and pen? Schedules? Rituals? Isabel Allende always starts writing a new novel on January 8th, because that’s the date she started her very successful (and wonderful) novel House of the Spirits. (It’s one of my favorites.)
  • Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from the New York Times
  • The Writer on Her Work, by Janet Sternberg
  • The New New Journalism, ed. by Robert S. Boynton
COPYWRITING
Some of my work falls under the category of copywriting. These books were somewhat interesting as I started out writing for businesses, but I’ve found that I figured out a lot of it by myself, along the way. The Well-Fed Writer is currently a bible to some copywriters.
  • The $100,000 Writer, by Nancy Flynn
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman
  • Secrets of a Freelance Writer, by Bob Bly
  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Bob Bly
RADIO
This is one of the few books from my long-ago college journalism days that I’ve kept. I have worked in public (and commercial) radio a little bit, and really enjoyed it. I keep the book in case I want to get back into it one day. Cool book.
  • Telling the Story, the National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism
LASTLY
And, my favorite title of all:
  • Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous to Steal: How to have a great life as a freelance writer, by John Clausen

Image © Tanjaru | Dreamstime.com

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