“Begin with a 30-page outline,” one speaker told aspiring authors during the first novel-writing conference I attended in 1982. She’s had great success with that method.
“Do complete work-ups on each of your characters before you write a word of your book,” advised another successful speaker.
A third had a proven formula and wrote all of her midlist books exactly according to that, like baking cookies from a trusted recipe.
I tried all of those. My characters, like my children, would not stay with an outline. They wandered. They even defied their carefully crafted biographies.
Writing from a formula, no matter how wonderful, bored me.
How does a person write a book? Also, why?
Inspiration for my first manuscript was prompted by a young man with great potential, making poor choices. He didn’t know the choices a fellow makes at seventeen can set paths for his whole life. Because I couldn’t grab and shake him, I decided to write my advice in a novel, a form he might better understand.
My protagonist would be this young man, bumbling, making goofy choices and suffering consequences.
Sitting in a book-writing lecture that afternoon, I drew a triangle on a blank page of legal tablet. In the center of the triangle, I wrote, “Choices.” I sat up straighter, suddenly alert.
On the point at the lower right, I wrote the word, “Friends.” On the third point I wrote the word, “Detractors.”
I drew curlicue lines connecting each point and suddenly I knew exactly how to write that book. That was June 5, 1982.
As it turned out, that’s the way I have written every one of my completed twenty-plus manuscripts. I call it “Writing from a Premise,” one- to five words written in a triangle on a page of paper. I don’t know any other writer who does it this way, but it works for me.
As a stay-at-home mom with four children I was busy. However, from 5:30 to 7:30 on summer mornings that year, I wrote. By August, Choices was complete at 378 pages. I began with the kid as a tyke practically being raised by his two older sisters after his parents split and each pursued happiness of their own, ignoring the children. Backstory.
I worshipped that manuscript. It was brilliant. Said everything I wanted to say. It was gold. It did not sell.
Eventually a savvy editor suggested I dump the first 80 pages. My marvelous backstory. He was right, but cutting those carefully crafted pages was difficult.
I attended a second writers’ conference in 1983. The words in the triangle that year were, “Until the Meek Inherit.” Those words on that tablet were my guide. If I wandered off track, I could look at the triangle and get right back on task.
Again I wrote from 5:30 to 7:30 summer mornings. Meek was better than Choices. It didn’t sell either. I vowed to quit wasting my time.
The third summer, entertaining four restless little swimmers while they waited for supper, I spieled a story. When the call for supper came, my listeners balked. They wanted to hear the end of the story. That was 1984. I wrote Twitch. It didn’t sell either.
Obviously, no one was going to read my work, so I could write anything I darn well pleased, from sexually explicit to sermons to poetry, according to my mood.
I was working on Manuscript #12 in 1999, seventeen years after I wrote Choices, when a brand new publisher e-mailed that they wanted to publish Manuscript #8. I thought the offer was a scam. Although I marketed regularly, no one had offered to publish even one of my books. Not only did this bunch want that book, Jusu and Mother Earth, they wanted an option on another manuscript, “If you have another manuscript.”
“If I had another manuscript!” I whooped.
Since that year, six different publishers have produced eleven of my manuscripts. Numbers five, six, and seven came in a series of hardcover murder mysteries.
Three are also audio books.
Publication did not come easily, nor has my moderate success been lucrative. I don’t write fiction for the money and advise anyone against trying to do so. I write fiction because I cannot not do it. I tell writers who become discouraged, if you can quit, do. If you don’t feel a compulsion to begin, don’t.
Manuscripts No. 24, 25 and 26 are my current “works in progress.”
My husband encourages me. When I asked why, he said, “Because writing makes you happy and I like you happy.”
Author Jean Hager offered great advice to a writers’ group one evening. When one of the attendees asked that recurring question, “How do I write a book?”
Sharon Ervin is the author of the Oak Tree Press title Jingo Street. You can read more about her books and writing at her website.