The other day someone said to me “Are you an author or a writer?” For a moment I was taken by surprise and didn’t know how to reply. I asked what they meant and the reply left a sting. Their answer was: “Have you published a book? If you have then you are an author, if not, you’re just a writer.” Just a writer? I nodded politely and walked away, not being big on confrontation with strangers, but true to my usual form, about two hours later I came up with exactly what I wish I had said.
I should have said that anyone who scribbles a note in order to remember a thought, even a shopping list, is an author.
Sticky notes have become an office staple, after all. We leave notes on a regular basis in the form of texts, posts, and tweets, even many of the alarms we set on our phones are a way to push an intention into reality. So what exactly is this thing we call a writer? Is it as easy as jotting down an inspiring thought and sticking it by your mirror, or is it more than that?
Maybe the difference between an author and a writer is form. Whether you write poetry or greeting cards, if you want to develop your writing from sticky notes or notebook scribbles into a recognized format, there is a process. Step one for a novel? Give your work a name! I tend to have a title I use to refer to each work, then I have a plan B and C in mind. Sometimes a story develops in a surprising way and the title no longer fits, but give your thoughts a title and start referring to it as a book. (For the sake of using correct terms, a novel is a work of fiction, so if you’re writing is historically correct, it won’t be a novel)
Once you’ve decided you’re writing a titled book, what comes next? I wrote two complete novels based on personal experience; trips, relationships, etc., where I changed a few names to protect the stupid. (Usually me) The plots of these stories rambled and meandered, as real life often does. I once asked a friend to read part of one such diatribe. I was particularly proud of the amazing job I’d done telling exactly what had happened, blow by blow. When my friend finished reading, he looked up and said it was okay, but it would never really happen. I was flabbergasted. Due to embarrassing content I didn’t want to argue that indeed it had, but I’ve since spent much time contemplating what makes a story feel “true”. We all know that truth is stranger than fiction, but where had I gone off track with the storyline? Of course many authors love to write about things that have never happened and never will, thus science fiction etc., but in my case I wanted the story and the characters to feel plausible. The content was real, but somehow I’d lost the reader and he couldn’t relate.
One thing I’ve come to realize is that most people have expectations when they pick up a novel. You certainly do if you have a favorite author. What all is wrapped up in the anticipation that causes someone to buy my book over another? I write contemporary romantic comedy novels, so I had to spend some time to understand what people who buy contemporary comedy romance novels expect. Of course I have the option to write my story how ever I want, but at some point I had to decide that instead of writing a wandering story of my choice, I wanted to create a story that would feel like a romantic comedy, thus meeting the expectation of my readers.
At first I balked against the rules of story development, feeling that it would somehow limit my story. After all, I’d once read that all I needed to do was put my characters up a tree, throw rocks at them, and get them down again. Yes, I thought I was somehow gifted enough to flout the rules and create from scratch, a wonder of literature. But once I swallowed some pride and tried to follow story development guidelines, I found that I was forced to write a much more complete and well-constructed story.
The guidelines I speak of are as follows: Stasis, trigger, the quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal, and resolution. The truth is, if you can construct a story around these eight story arcs, you can form a good solid story. Using this format, the plot will keep moving forward and come to a unswerving conclusion, which most authors know can be challenging. If you find that you have individual storylines wandering off into space that can’t be resolved, consider giving the side stories similar rules, or even their own book. There are many ideas out there on story development, but do some research into your genre and consider following good advice.
Remember that the general idea of a story is to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you keep getting bogged down or tangled up in the middle part, consider using some guidelines to help find your way out.
Next time we’ll talk about some of the tools you can use to keep track of your well-constructed storyline, but for now, keep writing!