James Curcio is a multi-media artist, writer, and theorist, who has spent most of his adult life exploring modern myths. This exploration has taken the form of collaborative novels, essays on myth, culture, the occult and sexuality, scripts for film and comic production, “round-table” musical albums, soundtracks, podcasts, live performances and installations.
He has written for Disinformation, New Falcon Press, Reality Sandwich, Immanion Press, Alterati, and Jive Magazine. He will sleep when he is dead.
There are many ways for a would-be author to get their work into the form of a physical book these days. We are going to cover those later, but it struck me that in most articles I’ve seen about self publishing, whether the final product is a physical book or a blog of some kind, the actual process of writing a novel is often overlooked.
The down-side of easier access to publication is a reduction of signal-to-noise. In other words, if everyone can publish a blog or a print-on-demand book, the chances of that book being unrefined or even worthless increases exponentially. It took me two novels to really catch my stride, in my estimation, so part of this has always been, and will remain a tautology: “how do you learn to write? Write!”
But maybe I can say a bit more than that. It is however rather difficult to talk about ones process. This happens in part through routine. I have often played something on guitar spontaneous and then had no idea what I had done, a moment later. Of all the often difficult and time-consuming steps that are involved in creating and marketing a book, the actual writing part is certainly the most mysterious. This is especially true when what you are writing is fiction, “experimental literature,” or the like.
Granted, you can easily find faux gurus that will give you their “101 steps to write a a book,” but you and I know it’s more than likely going to be a bunch of tripe. It stands to reason that there is no right or wrong way to write fiction, and almost every author, published or unpublished, rich or poor, has a different method. This is blessedly true, as if it weren’t, books would be uniform and publishers could employ complex algorithms to write their books and cut out the “royalties” part.
Before we get into those tedious but easily mapped out steps – editing, layout, distribution – I am going to share some of my writing method with you, not because it is the only right way, but because it is a different way which you just might find useful.
So, a little about me. I’ve published two novels, and have written or co-written several scripts for comic, film and theatrical production. I will be the first to admit that far too many of those never made it through to production, so you can be thankful that these articles will not deal with how to get your film successfully financed. All this is to say: I am not a rank amateur, but when it comes to writing marketable books, I’m also not Stephen King. I believe some of my process can help you as a writer, if for no other reason than that it is probably different from your own process, if you have one. Take what you can use, leave what you can’t. Most of what I say here has been learned through my own mistakes.
When writing a story, sometimes a theme will first appear. Or even a fragment of an image, a lingering impression. However, whenever I try to get further than this, I’ve found a common element. I begin with the characters, not the plot.
When people ask me “what is your novel about?” I sometimes have a hard time not pointing out that a more valid question is who is it about? After all, a story is about people and their interactions, rather than a litany of their exploits, devoid of personality. (The epics of Gilgamesh notwithstanding.)
This is what makes all literature, from science fiction in the 24th century to historic fiction accessible: the human condition is essentially the same. We face the same fears and have similar desires. The plot is simply a record of what happened when the motives of the different characters come into conflict (or accord.) Many (post)modern novels do away with the convention of plot altogether, but it simply can’t be a story without characters.
So far most of the stories I write tend to focus around a small handful of characters. In the case of my first novel, the entire story (including the other characters) occurs directly inside the protagonist’s head, whether or not that particular passage is in first or third person. The term protagonist and antagonist obviously arise from this convention, but there’s no reason your story can’t really get inside more than one character at a time. I simply haven’t developed the capacity as a writer to pull that off, and from what I’ve seen, very few have. If you can, more power to you.
More likely, especially with your first novel, you’re going to have a small handful of living breathing characters, and a lot of foils or ‘extras’ that help move them along. Give your extras a breath of uniqueness if you can, but don’t let them take over the show. Writing those extras and foils can be the hardest part. You may have a walking stereotype, but just under the surface a unique humanity is trying to express itself. Without that, they’re nothing. Oftentimes, these people fail tragically, usually as a result of their emergent humanity. We all encounter these people every day, in grocery stores, in police cars, on television. But it is nevertheless a very difficult trick to paint someone as the cardboard cutout that they are, and give that fleeting glimpse of something more.
Your first impression of your primary characters is also likely to be a stereotype. That’s fine, but don’t let it stop there. To get to know a character, of course, you need to learn their world. There is a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship between word, personal history, and the character as they exist at the moment that you write them. Explore their world in your mind. What I’m saying is that the first phase of writing for me is usually done without putting a single word on the screen. It’s done through extensive, focused daydreams.
The next step is to develop descriptive lists for your primary characters, from physical characteristics, to fears, to desires, to their past. Usually I begin this rough sketch of the character in my mind. It can begin with a small detail. If you know how a character stands, how they breathe or walk, through enough daydreaming you can probably pull out their entire life story. I often put them in their natural environment and simply watch how they behave when alone, when with other people. What they think to themselves when no one else is looking.
Notice how they talk, notice any particular sensory hallucinations you may find there. If you can daydream as the character and taste the whiskey they’re sipping, you know you’re probably there. Half the time, your characters will give you half of your story in this way. People are, after all, defined through their actions – and their thoughts, in the case of writing where we have a direct line to that inner world. In the end you can’t have your plot without your characters and vice versa. You can find your action inside the characters through their interaction with the environment, and whatever situations you may toss them into.
Of course, as you get into this process you’ll come to notice that there is very little that you can
imagine that isn’t based directly on your experience. This is why “they” rather aptly say that all novels, but especially the first one, often winds up being autobiographical. Conversely, you cannot expect a one-to-one relationship between an author and a work of fiction, or between the intention of the author and the final work. You may pull from a snippet of conversation with one person in one situation, and your experience on a particular beach three years later, and bring them to life through characters that are Frankenstein creations of other past experiences.
A good writer is not necessarily a person who simply uses the language well. That helps, certainly, and will make your editors happy, but the most crucial talent for a writer is observation. Every experience, from the most painful to the most pleasurable, from the most meaningful to the seemingly benign, is source material. You will need to cannibalize every scrap of it to create a strong story.
Of course, not all that you gather about your characters should wind up in the story. A lot of it may be like when an actor does a scene in full costume, even though that particular shot is only catching their head and shoulders. Somehow the whole informs the visible pieces. You can sense it somehow. What actually goes in the story should be what serves the story.
How have we jumped from character to story? Quite naturally. Once you have a full sense of your characters, you should already have a sense of the story they are participating in. If not, you don’t have your characters yet.
When you get to sketching out your ideas, there are countless things to be said about style. More than could fit in a single article, or seven. But for starters, let’s look at how we describe. In my opinion, description is often more about what you don’t show than what you do. I generally have a perfectly clear picture of the character in my mind at all times when I’m writing, but unless if they or someone else in the scene is taking particular notice of how they are dressed, how they’re standing, or so on, I try to avoid mention it.
Of course, this comes down to style: is your audience the reader, or is the writing meant to accurately portray the experience of a particular character? If you put too much emphasis on the former, you will likely break into lengthy exposition, and do a lot of showing rather than telling If the latter, you risk being so spare that no one can follow you without reading the piece twelves times. I always find myself cringing when an author drops in a physical description from out of nowhere. If there’s no particular reason why we should know that Billy is wearing blue jeans, don’t bother telling us. Even worse, don’t ever mention that he’s wearing blue jeans twice in the same paragraph, unless if you have a really good reason to do so.
The depth of a character will still come through if you keep it in mind but hold onto the details like a miser. What are the characters seeing, smelling, thinking, feeling? That can come through explicitly. Everything else must occur between the lines.
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