Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How to Write a Book

As someone who's actually taken the time to finish a whole novel, I can say that there are quite a few things you have to take into account when you set up a story. When I wrote Among the People Lost, I tried my hardest to make my characters, setting, plot, and everything else very accurate and believable. I didn't do anything without having a reason (or reasons) for making things that way.

I'm reading a book right now that is the epitome of terrible writing, in my opinion. The lead character has no depth, the world seems conflicting and poorly designed, and the plot is, well, stupid. It makes me wonder how other people get so far as to finish a book without taking some really important things into consideration.

This is a list of important story elements. The top item is what I consider most important, working down to the least important. Note that all are of importance, and having great characters doesn't mean you should ruin your plot. The list will vary depending on who you ask, of course.
-Character development
-Main plot
-Feel of the setting (empty, bustling, scary, dangerous, etc)
-Physical setting (city appearance, buildings, locations)
-Time period
-World "rules" (how society perceives certain behaviors, laws, what is necessary for survival)

Character Development
While a lot of aspiring writers pursue courses for creative writing and journalism, I took an interest in psychology. My knowledge of mental disorders, social interactions, attraction, and general human behavior has played a big part in developing my characters to be very realistic. I don't like making characters who don't seem real, and it doesn't matter to me if their actions end up being a little predictable because of it. Realism is my priority. I even take great lengths to develop appearances and such, as explained in part 1 of my OCD series (Original Character Development), which shares its name with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder because I've joked in the past that you need the disorder to possibly put as much thought into characters as I do. 

Main Plot 
The main story you're working with needs to be interesting, plausible, and thought out. Admittedly, I wrote Among the People Lost with no idea where it was going. Lesson learned. It made it difficult to write at times, and when I looked back, I found a lot of places where not much was happening. There was also a character that I tried to kill off about a dozen times, but it always seemed really out of character, so I let her stay. She survives the book and the sequel.

Feel of the Setting
Among the People Lost is set in a sort of post apocalyptic world. I wanted to create a feeling that reflected the survival-of-the-fittest lifestyle the characters lived. Things are grungy, lots of buildings are abandoned, fresh food is a luxury, and everyone is always on guard. No one uses their real name for fear of being hunted by gangs, and they hunt the gangs themselves to keep others safe. It's this really brutal, dirty setting.

Physical Setting
I was working with a city I know, Scranton, PA. I know that there are a lot of brick buildings, and even though I used almost no real buildings as references, it still feels like you're reading about Scranton. I feel research is important if you're using a setting you don't know in real life, and if it's a fictional city, I think it's important to decide how the occupants live.

Time Period
Time periods will affect your world's technology, the common mindsets, and even popular names. It affects everything in ways, so it's important. With my book, set in 2026, I had quite a bit of leeway to work with. It all depends.

World Rules
If magic exists, it's important to know its limitations, costs, and management. Does it work by praying to the world's gods, or by manipulating nature? Does it make the caster exhausted? Are there laws against excessive magic use? There's certainly no magic in my book, but different rules apply than they do in real life. Killing is necessary to survive, and no government exists to regulate the violence and drug trade that has no become a way of life. The world is essentially in anarchy. Morals have shifted from "defense of yourself" to "defense of all innocent people," and hunting down the gangs is the right thing to do. Every setting is unique, and it's up to the writer to set rules that work for each world. Having things that contradict those rules, such as an airplane in a sword-and-spell fantasy, make it hard for the reader to suspend disbelief. The book I'm reading now has werewolves with air ships. There's no evidence that the werewolves have powerful magic (or any magic at all), and technology in the world is far from producing air ships. It just seems really dumb and out of place.

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