Category First Novel

The last story writing manual you’ll need: Margaret Atwood’s 9 steps to five-star speculative fiction

It’s a genre that requires spunkiness.

A mind that thinks outside the box. And still blindly knows its way around the box.


Today, I want us to learn from a mastermind of speculative story writing, or as she calls it, the “wonder tales – a woman who is adventurous enough to write a novel about a genetic engineer whose DNA merges with that of a cat and an owl, or a republic called Gilead where women are held as slaves to their commander to bear them children.

Margaret Atwood defines this form of writing as: A way of dealing with possibilities that are inherent in our society now but have not been fully enacted.

Following her writing principles and her journey, you will understand the genre of speculative fiction and get the ultimate manual for writing it with confidence.

Essentially, “it’s characters in a story”. All fiction is.
The characters can take many forms, morph into many scenarios.
Within these characters and events, everything is possible.

The main rule is: hold the reader’s attention. Make it as believable as possible.

But how exactly?

To follow Atwood’s advice, we want to focus solely on the genre, but rather on the process of making it as good a book of its kind as it can be.

Make it real.

Make it strong.

Take the reader on a journey.

How does speculative fiction, which includes the sub-genres of sci-fi, fantasy, dystopia, post-apocalyptic, techno-thriller and much more, differ from the other genres?

Speculative fiction deals with possibilities; be it in technology, science, society or politics. Books like Brave New World or 1984 were arranged in a space that we could be living in.

To master this genre, you need to look around. See what’s happening in the world. Follow publications like Scientific American or Singularity Hub. Read about things people are working on right now. Take an idea from the real world and move it further down the road.

David Baldacci says: Writers have a dark side. They create problems which they are solving over the course of their story.

For example:
If you write speculative fiction about social media, it would be easy to predict that one could take the data to manipulate elections. This development has been coming at us for decades.

You just have to speculate about the arising problems and don’t be afraid to tackle issues and imagine worlds.

But only because it’s speculative fiction doesn’t mean that it’s going to be automatically interesting. Remember: Thinking outside the box means knowing it inside out.

You have to know the rules of story writing.

1. How to find the creative spark in speculative story writing

How to come up with the boldest ideas?

“Immerse yourself into a field.”

Be it art or science, politics or history. Immersion will trigger ideas. This is how human creativity works.

Story writing ideas won’t arise from staring at a blank page. They emerge from real life, from going out into the world and looking for the spark.

For an author, everything is story material. You just have to look through the author prism, think in a way the average citizen doesn’t.

And read. A lot.

Atwood grew up in the woods. She was an early reader with nothing else to do but immerse herself into the pages.

If you find yourself constantly distracted by life – lose yourself in the woods. Shut off the internet. Put away the phone. Seek the loneliness. Read.

A lot.

story writing and reading

Expand your “toolkit of stories” by reading folk tales, fairy tales, and the Bible. Read African and Native American stories, and those famous stories humanity had been telling for centuries.

“Expand your frame of reference to gain more depth when you think of stories.”

— Margaret Atwood


This frame of reference is a toolkit.

You want your plot to gain more depth?
Read those classics without interpretation. Know the originals and interpret them in your own unique way.

2. Why research is essential in speculative story writing

When writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood had a rule: Nothing went into the story if it didn’t happen in real life at some time.

She collected a ton of research for this book, amongst it three main inspiration sources:
The 17th century Puritans, the study of utopias and dystopias as a literary force, and totalitarianism, asking herself: If the US had one, what would it be?

The costumes in the book were partly inspired by nuns and old Dutch cleansers.

“Write first and then research the details.”

Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Always crosscheck for more than one reference. Look into old diaries, letters, archives and newspaper reports in libraries.

Researching for a book accurately is crucial. If you get the details wrong, it will throw off the readers. Even things like: When did people start using plastic bags? What color were the refrigerators in 1960? Or else, someone will do an angry internet post that begins with: You idiot.

Never forget your main goal: Make it real. Make it believable.

3. Excellent story writing: why you need a strong plot and how to accomplish that

The definition of a strong plot?

Something has to happen.

No, not just something.

Blood pressure increasing, suspense building events that make us want to know what is going to happen next.

If nothing is happening by page ten, you’re in trouble: You have no story.

This happened to Atwood once when writing a book. 200 pages in, she realized that nothing had happened. Mercilessly, she threw all of them into the trash and started again.

Be merciless with your plot.

Understand the difference between structure and story:

The story is what happens. Structure is how you tell it.

Let’s look at Red Riding Hood: There are many ways to tell this tale.

It was dark inside the wolf.
Or maybe from the point of view of the wolf, or as a detective story (There on the floor were two. Murdered.)
Or in time jumps.

Structure determines in what order you tell the story.

Consider the “Rashomon” approach:
Director Kurosawa told a murder story in three versions, leaving the viewer to decide which one is true.

Or the Arabian Nights.

“Some genius put a collection of stories together into a frame story.”

Margaret Atwood

The Sultan kills his bride every morning. To end this massacre, Scheherazade marries him and tells him a different story every night, finishing it with a cliffhanger by dawn. Because he is so eager to hear the rest, she is allowed to live for another day. This continues for 1001 nights. Those stories are told in a particular order to bring a change of mind in the Sultan.

Writing is like any other skill.

How to get better?

Practice. Get your hands dirty.

Start simple. Tell your story chronologically first to see if you can master that part.

You can’t play a Beethoven sonata until you learn to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

4. How to choose the right POV for your speculative story

Don’t leave POV to chance.

Ask yourself: Who are you writing it for and what do you want to tell them?

Here are some options:

  • An omniscient narrator who knows everything
  • Through the eyes of one person
  • As a stream of consciousness – a flow of ideas that goes through a characters head
  • Multiple POVs – Moving further and further away like movie shots

How to decide?

Again: Practice.

Make decisions of what the POV is allowed to know. How can you create the strongest tension?

Does the reader know more or less than the characters?

Hitchcock was asked how to hold a screen kiss for 10 mins. Put a bomb under the bed, he said.

Agatha Christie wrote a story where the first person narrator was the murderer and knew something the reader didn’t. He was lying to the audience the whole time.

Start with a simple exercise: Write the same event from multiple POVs, and see which one works best.

5. Speculative story writing: creating memorable characters

A story is characters interacting with events.

Both exist together, never separately.

Interaction is what changes the characters and reveals them to other people and to the reader. You don’t know who they are until they are put into tough situations.

Getting the basics right

Start with the basics: What do your people eat? How do they look, what do they wear? What does it say about them?

To never lose track, create a character chart with: character’s birthdays, appearances, and special events so that you always know how old they are in relation to important events and also how they look like.

How to create characters that feel real

Reflect the imperfection of humanity, the diversity of humankind.

When creating a villain, make him act in unexpected ways, so that the reader doesn’t know what he is going to do next. If you’re surprising the reader, you are engaging the reader.

Likeability is not necessarily a factor when you’re creating a living character. Characters can be very vibrant and alive although not likable. Think of the Underwoods in House of Cards.

When creating new species as Atwood did in Oryx and Crake, make sure they have their roots in what we already can achieve or are on the road to creating.

The real world is your inspiration, and it makes sure your story is believable.

6. Powerful worldbuilding in story writing

The rule of the particular

Reveal your speculative, new world through sensory imagery

Don’t say: It’s a tree. What kind of tree? How is it growing? Where? What state is it in?

If you want your places to feel real, your characters to feel alive, you need to master the rule of the particular.

In your daily life, exercise seeing special things. The small details.

We are very fond of labeling or abstracting. It happens automatically, but it doesn’t work in fiction.
Purposefully, describe rather the particular than the general.

The rule of facetted description

In Japanese, one word stands for the texture of a piece of white silk bleached on the snow.

This is how facetted this language is in textures and cloth.
How facetted is your language when it comes to descriptions? And how can you improve that?

In this visual world, we tend to focus on sight. But books have an advantage over films: They can use all the senses. How about smell? Touch?

Do you describe particular textures and how they feel to the tip of the fingers? Are you grasping the fullness of the smell that surrounds a location?

Here’s an exercise Atwood suggests: Block off some senses and see what the others pick up. Let’s assume your character is doing a night journey — the character will be very alert to sounds, light, shadows, smells.

“We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.”
— The Handmaid’s Tale

This fascinating description of a game that would ordinarily not be noticed springs from the fact that it is forbidden in The Handmaid’s Tale’s world. Women are not allowed to read, so Scrabble has become infused with luxurious meaning for Offred, and this paragraph alone holds extraordinary depth.

In your descriptions, include theme and the special meaning your story attributes to ordinary things.

The rule of purposeful description

story writing aliens

How many of these details can you use?

In the new world you create, it’s easy to lose yourself in the endless description of this world.

Remember the rule: Something has to happen.

So to avoid a book where you have no story, apply the rule of purposefulness: The texture surrounding your characters has to be meaningful.

The Handmaid’s Tale contains many flowers. But the repetition is there for a reason. The floral imagery is conscious because flowers have to do with fertility. They are often mistaken for something that is harmless or girly and appears to be safe. But it is not true for flowers as it is not true for the women in the book.

Readers will assume that everything you put on the page is there for a purpose.

7. How to get through the first draft

When writing the first draft, many authors encounter writer’s block for the first time. They just can’t seem to be able to finish.

Atwood offers great advice for the blockages you may encounter during this stage.

Focus of crummy results

It’s easy to talk about discipline.

But what can you actually do to defeat the doubt lurking deep down inside of you?

Let’s be honest, this is our worst enemy.

The answer is as easy as it is complicated: WRITE.

It’s always better to actually write something — no matter how crappy — than to brute about the pain of writing.

“Do it however you think crummy the result may be — at least you’re moving.”

Margaret Atwood

Spin the wheels

No matter how hard: continue the process of writing.

A lot of it may be stuff you don’t use and throw out. But your mind is engaged and you’re working. Like spinning the wheels.

You don’t always know how valuable your writing is unless you step back and look at it.

Famous writers don’t get good at it until they’ve done it for a while. Any form of human creativity is a process of doing it and getting better at it.

You become a writer by writing.

“Do it more, do it again, fail, fail better.”

M. Atwood

Be kind to yourself

Take some breaks.

Writing is not the healthiest way to spend the day. Keyboarding can be bad for the neck and other parts of the body, so look out for yourself.

  1. Go for a walk. It’s an ancient remedy.
  2. Go to sleep. Tell yourself the problem, go to sleep and you might have the solution when you wake up.
  3. Do ironing or something repetitive to distract your conscious mind and let the subconscious work.

Stop complaining.

“It’s fashionable to talk about how much you suffer as a writer.”

M. Atwood

Complaining will only tear you down because it focuses your mind on the wrong things. But if instead, you start speaking positively about your writing, you will see how these words will turn into your reality.

story writing while walking

8. How to work with structure in story writing

The alluring entryway

The first five pages are the door into your book.

“Tell me more. But don’t tell me too much more and don’t overload me with information. Lead me through the doorway and leave enough hooks so that I will want to read on.”

M. Atwood

Finding those first five pages is rarely immediate. You often have the wrong beginning.

During the writing process of The Handmaid’s Tale, the original beginning turned into Chapter Two of the book.

Finding that moment — that perfect alluring entryway — often doesn’t happen until a certain amount of the first draft has been written. But it’s an important task discovering those five pages, and building the perfect entryway that will invite the reader into the journey.

Make sure that they’ll follow along.

The real beginning of your book might be on page ten. Or fifty?

Keep readers engaged through the middle

The middle of the book is always the most difficult part.

Just imagine you are Scheherazade. Your life depends on whether you can hook the reader strongly enough to survive the next day (or chapter).

What was her survival secret?

She always ended on a strong cliffhanger.

Something has gone off the rails and needed to be resolved. A question needed desperately to be answered. So desperately that the Sultan had to prolong her life for another night.

Writing is work. Especially the middle.

It includes scratching things out, moving things around — like rearranging the furniture in a house.
Sometimes you take a turn down a corridor and it’s a dead end.
You put a sofa in a corner and see that you need to move it.

There is no shame in backtracking and revision. It only means recognizing that there are things you can do better.

The carefully crafted ending

“The ending is often not the ending.”

M. Atwood

When exactly to say “the end”?

It can be a closed or an open ending. Novels in the 19th century had closed endings while in our time, open endings are more common.

Think carefully about how much you are going to resolve and why. Craft an ending according to readers’ expectations while still surprising them.

The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of an open ending. The resolution is left to the reader’s choosing: Does she make it as far as England or escape to the border of Canada, or not?

How did Atwood decide on how to end the story? The reason for the open ending is the fact that in history, when you’re trying to trace historical records, figures vanish. Especially in times of catastrophe, people simply disappear from historical records.

So why did you choose your ending? What is the reasoning behind it?

Craft it carefully.

And remember: there is always revision.

9. Story writing is perfected in revision

Completion fear

You might unwillingly sabotage your work, walking around the finish line as if it were made of lava.

It’s not a conscious decision. On the contrary: You wonder why on earth you cannot finish this novel.

Subconsciously, you’re afraid of the finish line.

What if your work is not any good? — This is the deep-seated question that is holding you back.

Atwood gives a piece of advice that helps relieve the anguish: “Remember: You can always revise.”

Nobody is going to see your work until you allow them. Until you feel ready to share it with the world.

What good is your book gathering dust in a forgotten corner?

See it from the reader’s perspective

Sit down. Take a deep breath.

Forget that you wrote this book.

You’re a reader, reading those words for the very first time:
Are the first pages good enough to hold your attention? Be brutally honest. Question your own writing as if you were ripping apart another writer’s work. Why did this character do that? Does everything make sense?

The sooner you stop sugar coating your writing and start thinking like a reader, the faster your work will approach the epic finish.


Include more eyes

Once you feel that you’ve done everything you can to the manuscript, show your work to dedicated readers.

Those readers should be simple genre lovers, not in the publishing business, because they represent your target audience.

They should be able to give you their true opinion (so maybe not your spouse), tell you if there is a piece of information missing, if a chapter is too long or if you’re repeating yourself.

Pay attention to how long it took them to read the book. Was it close to “I couldn’t put it down” or two years? With the latter, you definitely have a problem.

Take the last three steps

The final stage of revision is about texture. It can be divided into three steps:

Step #1: Read your novel for grammar and punctuation. If you can, hire a copy editor to do this work for you.
Step #2: Read your text out loud to catch things you wouldn’t by just sticking to the eyes.
Step #3: Print out your work and edit on the page.

Extremely successful books were refused by countless publishers before they turned into bestsellers.

Wuthering Heights, which is now universally acknowledged as a work of genius, was rejected by many.

Robert Louis Stevenson was broke, ill and living with his parents. He had recently burned up his first three novels because he thought they weren’t any good. Then, he painted a map which turned into treasure island – his entry into becoming an international success.

Not everybody will like your books. Just accept that.

As a speculative fiction writer, your main task is to find the ideal reader.

story writing woman reading book

He or she is someone who will get the jokes, be lead along by the clues, understand the depth of your character, be intrigued by the turns of events, will cry at the appropriate places, and come out of the book thinking: Wow.

Follow the footsteps of the famous writers by adopting one of their strongest character traits: never give up.

Make your book as good of its kind as it can be.

Your ideal reader is out there. Waiting for it.

What are your thoughts on writing speculative fiction?
Let me know in the comments!

Researching for a book: 4 powerful strategies to take your fiction to the next level

Researching for a book – Part I

The blank page is staring at you like hotel room nr. 13 in a horror movie.

No ideas. That is what we dread.

The blank page is said to be every writer’s worst nightmare. But I found that the root of all evil is indeed the blank mind.

You might even have several rough story writing ideas. But what now?

There is a way to escape the horror scenario: research.

Research will deepen your story world, your theme, give you inspiration and fresh ideas. A well-researched book brims with depth, colours and fascinates the reader.

Researching for a book has never been so simple yet so overwhelming. With the power of the internet, we have access to literally everything. This can be a scary prospect if you don’t know where to start, which book or article to read first or which video to watch.

In this article series, I want to empower you with research strategies for fiction (and to a certain extent for non-fiction as well) that will help you make the best use of the media and resources given to us. I will help you find the information and inspiration you are looking for and implement it into your book.

Step #1 Brainstorm your book research ideas

In the first stage, anything is possible. Don’t censor yourself and write down everything you know about your story.

Roz Morris introduces in her book “Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence” a great concept she calls “the hat game”. She makes each note on a separate piece of paper and throws it in a box. Any piece of research that comes across with story potential makes it into the box.

I have a more structured approach to the hat game: I create a “research” folder in Scrivener and structure it with subfolders that are categories for research.

Find categories that make sense for your book, and don’t be afraid to adjust them once you’re in the process. Here are my suggestions:

Worldbuilding (f.e. visuals of Buildings or Interiors/Places, Rules, historical research a.s.o.)
Ideas (literally everything you come up with, then see Step #3)

Use them as a basis, and play around with them until you find the best way to structure your own book research.

If you have an idea that is rough and raises more questions than answers, write those questions down:
How will this work? How will you solve this?
Those are things you will need to find out in the process of further research. But this is how you’ll know what to look for.

Write everything down that you know already: about your world, about your characters, any other ideas you might have. Don’t censor yourself at this stage. Write down questions about things you don’t know. Then proceed to the next step.


Step #2 Places and characters

Visuals are the secret weapon when lacking ideas or details. This is why you should integrate the visual research of places and characters into your process.

A visual imagery of your world and everything that populates it can do wonders for your fiction.

Say you have an underground city: How does it look like, how does it work? You might have a rough idea, but don’t get too hung up on it just yet. Simply type “underground city” in google and take it from there. Look at the suggested pictures. You’ll see how many more possibilities or ideas will open up in front of you. Don’t copy, but let the inspiration drive you to further exploration and thus to individuality and uniqueness.

Create a visual overview.
You can print all the pictures and place them on a board. You can create a Pinterest board where you collect the pictures digitally. This is great for an overall look at your world.

Save them into your Scrivener research folders along with notes, sorting them into your pre-made categories, which will allow you to explore the world in further detail.

The same thing goes for characters, although I don’t like to assign them to well-known and famous actors, and rather make them unique and specific. Still, visual inspiration won’t do any harm. My recommendation is to look at those people who inspire your character’s appearance and describe them on a separate character sheet, adding quirks and special details. Those character sheets will come in handy once you start diving into the first draft.

Let the inspiration drive you to further exploration and thus to individuality and uniqueness. Click To Tweet

In your first draft, pictures will do wonders. You will always return to your research folder once you begin creating your world from scratch, reminding yourself of your vision and making sure you stay consistent and detailed with your world.

James Patterson recommends writing with the movie projector in your head, but this inner movie projector will only come to life if you feed it with visuals.


Step #3 Study when researching for a book

This step number one to deepen theme and characters – the study of ideas in science, history or any other field related to your book.

While I still plotted my first novel, I heard Joanna Penn rave about a book she read that explored the idea of the ecstatic state – Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. The concept fascinated me. I read the book and it inspired me to emphasize this idea in my novel. This changed my story and especially my theme into something that suddenly possessed depth and a much stronger connection to reality.

Christopher Nolan takes this principle to a whole new level.

Movies like Inception or Interstellar combine science, interesting principles and ideas with his story world and create storylines and themes that possess depth and reach into the heart of the viewer (not to mention his extravagant talent for visual imagery). In Interstellar, Nolan explores the theory of relativity, making “time” one of the thematic ideas. He also goes into depth with space travel, black holes and gravity.

You can use this principle with any genre. Look at Dan Brown using historical and modern ideas of art, religion and science. Consider the countless historical novels. You don’t have to revolve your story around those principles, but well-researched ideas will seize people’s interests beyond a gripping story and make it more believable.


Step #4 Inspiration as a lifestyle

Make a habit to look for inspiration wherever you go.

Travel, museums, books, podcasts, and films and TV. Films are a great tool for inspiration in storytelling, setting the mood and creating characters if you learn how to watch them the right way and put on the creator lens.

How Watching TV And Movies The Right Way Can Revolutionize Your Writing

Everything can inspire you if you are on a constant lookout. Become a sponge, absorbing everything around you. The research stage is where this habit will highly pay off, and you will overflow with story writing ideas.

Here’s a little tool for random inspiration: The CURIOSITY App & Website. It’s a great app that will feed you with innovations, principles, all kinds of videos and everything you’ve always wanted or maybe even didn’t want to know. A regular look inside will refresh your inspiration and provide you with ideas.

Everything can inspire you if you are on a constant lookout. Click To Tweet

Effective research is a skill learned by the power of practice.

Sometimes it can be daunting and time-consuming to dig through the endless forest of Google and literature. It’s important to filter here, and not to be afraid to skip paragraphs or read summaries to get the research done eventually.

Be aware that this process needs to be balanced. Have your story in the back of your mind while you dive into research, and see that your research serves it, not vice versa.

If you want to learn how to get the most out of watching film and TV as a writer, download the “Inner Movie Projector” exercise book that will train you to revolutionize the way you view films.

What is your research process? Let me know in the comments below, and let’s exchange experiences to perfect our storytelling skills.

10 things I wish I had known before writing my first draft

Are you about to write your first novel?
Stop right now and read this first.

I wish I had stumbled upon an article like this before I started writing my very first draft. I wish somebody had told me those 10 things.

And especially, I wish I had taken them seriously. Now that I am editing my first draft, and looking back at the process and the things I have learned, I see how much work I could have spared myself by taking those 10 things into account and integrating them into my process.

Learn from my mistakes. Here is a treasure box of those 10 things that can spare you lots of hours if you understand and implement them before writing the first draft.


1. Craft the ending & the beginning first

One thing stuck with me when I listened one to of the Creative Penn Podcast Episodes:

I know the beginning, I know the ending, and the rest is just everything in-between.

Rachel Aaron advises in “2k to 10k”: Write down everything you know, then fill the holes.

So when preparing for the outline, it’s important to know where your story starts and where it needs to go. If you don’t know it yet, figure out before you start.

Nothing is as bad as having to change the ending and accordingly the whole book to set it up. Believe me.
I’ve been through this, and I won’t make this mistake again because it turned my book upside down.

Craft a strong beginning and a strong ending first, then fill the holes.


2. The Outline is the book

This realization came to me during the James Patterson Masterclass.
Reading the outline is like reading your book. So put a lot of work into it.

I tried to be a “pantser”, but I know I’m not, and I really admire the people who can crank out a bestseller just like that. I need my outline! And it better be a good outline.

During the process of outlining, I could not wait to start writing, because outlining is not really writing, right? I felt like I was wasting time because no actual letter of my book had been written yet.

But this is a huge mistake.

The more detail you put into your outline, the more time you’ll save editing later.

My outline was not working when I began writing. But I thought: I’ll figure the rest out as I go.

You have to read your outline and see the book in front of you. It has to work. Your plot holes and inconsistencies have to be fixed by the time you start your first draft.

Once you write it out, your story will inevitably change. But the changes won’t be as global and empower you to finish the book sooner.

The more detail you put into your outline, the more time you'll save editing later. Click To Tweet


3. What is the question you need to be answered?

When I started to write, I had a concept. But I had no theme.

What is the difference between concept and theme?

“[…]theme is what our story means. How it relates to reality and life in general.” Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering (S.118).

Stephen King argues in his book “On Writing” that his theme emerges when he has finished his first draft. This is a fascinating way of finding your theme. But I wish I had known the theme sooner because it would have saved me so much work.

What can help you understand the theme is Ted Dekker’s advice on writing a bestseller: What is the question about this world that is bothering you? When you set out to write a story, this story has to be your quest as well. It has to challenge you and answer a question in your own life.

This is your theme.

So don’t think about a topic that you can preach to readers. Think about a question that is bothering you and that you want to try and answer in your story on a deeper level.


4. Create more than one villain

Many story writing books teach us about the hero and the villain. How to craft the perfect, strong and believable villain.

But one villain is not enough.

Your story has to have one main villain, the one your struggle begins and ends with. But he will never be enough to hold the reader’s attention and carry the story through the middle.

For this, you need at least three different villains that have both similarities and differences and challenge your hero on different levels.

This will make your story so much richer. In order how to draft the four-corner-opposition, see more here.


5. Secondary characters are variations of the theme

I was only able to form my secondary characters into real people in the third draft because of a principle I failed to realize before.

There are many rules on how to create rich secondary characters, GMC amongst my favourites. Debra Dixon describes this method in her book, which in short means that every character who appears in your novel needs to have a goal, a motivation, and a conflict.

But one amazing technique is to make your secondary characters a variation of the theme. If your theme is “fear”, give those characters completely different approaches on how to cope with fear. If your theme is “romantic relationships” (f.e. in romantic comedies), all of your secondary characters need a different outlook and experience concerning relationships.

Amongst all those great techniques of how to craft them, make sure to give them at least a subtle hint of the theme to make your story and their part in it richer.


6. The first draft is just one layer

Only when editing did I realize that with every draft, I added another layer to my story. The first draft is the first layer, and this can be both a liberating as well as a challenging thought.

Liberating because this means that your first draft is only a layer, and you can add or subtract as much as you like in all of the following drafts.

Challenging because at the same time, it’s the foundation you lay to your story, and a good foundation saves you time, headache and makes your story sustainable.

I thought: As soon as my first draft is ready, it’ll need a little tweaking here and there, but will basically hold the finished book in my hands.

Far from that.

Consider the first draft only the first layer of what is yet to come. Make sure you lay a firm foundation, but at the same time, don’t stress out about it needing to be perfect.


7. Fall in love with your main character

In the middle of my first draft, I found myself unsympathetic to my hero, for one reason only: I did not really know him. I was not close to his heart.

Sometimes we get so lost in the technicalities of the craft that we forget to love our characters. Do you care for what happens to your hero? Do you care if he fails? Are you feeling his joy and his sorrow?

Because if you don’t, the reader won’t.

It might sound crazy, but you need to make the hero your friend. Spend time pondering on his motivations, his thoughts. You need to become fascinated with him. Find (or create) characteristics you admire, and if he hurts, make sure you hurt as well.

This process takes time, as every good friendship does, but it’s a time well invested because it will make you fall back in love with your story, and ensure that the readers will stick to it as well because of your characters.

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8. Have an action plan and a deadline

Especially if you are self-publishing, it’s hard to set a deadline and stick to it. Consider your writing business.

Just recently, my online mentor Joanna Penn said in her podcast that one novel a year won’t ensure a full-time living. This scared me. It meant that I needed to write at least three novels a year, alas one novel in four months. How is this even possible?

The key is a solid action plan.

You need to write this plan before you set out writing your book, and you need to stick to it. However your daily life looks, create a realistic plan from the outlining up until the publishing date, and stick to it. Take your own deadlines seriously. Because if you won’t consider your writing a professional business, no one else will.


9. WHY do you want to write? – Your mission statement & your book statement

Answer this question now, before you start writing.

The answer needs to be rock solid. It needs to take you through all the ups and downs of the creative process. It needs to get you through the darkest moments.

There can be many layers to the answer. But it needs to be more than money. Here are some of my reasons:
– I want a life where I can have financial freedom and time to do the things I love: write, work out, travel, be with my family, create.
– I want creative expression, evoking change in my readers by helping them, inspiring them and making them see life from another perspective.

Those are your mission statements. Before you set out for a writing or any other creative career, you need to craft those mission statements. Pin them to a board or anywhere else where you can read them when times become tough.

Then, you need to answer this question for your book specifically. Because every book is time-consuming and you will need an unshakable reason to stick to the idea. Test your story writing idea to the bones, honestly asking yourself: Is it really worth it? Do I like the idea enough to stick to it for months and invest all this labour? Be honest with yourself. Find the reasons why you love your concept and your idea. If you can’t, don’t be afraid to throw the idea overboard.

Both your mission statement as well as your book statement will help you get through the times when writing life is especially tough.


10. Push, push, push!

So you know why you want to write? Good. Now, make it a habit.

The process of habit making often means that you need to push yourself in the beginning. You don’t feel like writing? It doesn’t matter. You think that all you are producing is pure rubbish? It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you sit down to do the work.

This is why you need your action plan so desperately, the same way you need a workout plan. It frees you from the decision making. You look at your plan, and you do the work. Period.

Sometimes you’ll love it, sometimes you’ll hate it. That’s how we humans are wired. The point is that you are doing the work no matter how you feel.

And you know what? Eventually, the emotions of satisfaction will become addictive. If you pushed yourself and met your daily deadline, you leave the desk with a feeling of satisfaction.

Don’t be afraid to write. Be afraid NOT to write.

Knowing and applying those principles would have spared me a lot of trouble. This is what I want to do for you.

Are you ready to set out on a new writing adventure? Because this is what your first draft really is. A yet unknown but exciting journey.

Don't be afraid to write. Be afraid NOT to write. Click To Tweet