So You’re Writing Your First Novel by Author Thomas M. Malafarina
In June of 2010 a month before my 55th birthday, I signed my first book publishing deal with a Pennsylvania publisher Sunbury Press and began a learning experience that was like nothing I had ever expected. In fact, at the time of this writing, March 2017, seven years and eleven books later (with six more books in the works) I’m still discovering new things. I’ve also managed to learn quite a bit about the writing process and the publishing business in general. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had most of my 100 plus short stories published in a variety of anthologies, allowing me to share the pages with authors I consider the best in the business. This is in spite of the fact that writing is still only a part-time obsession for me. Below are some writing and publishing tips that I personally follow when I’m writing and which I hope will help the novice writer in getting his or her first work published.
Start with a very basic idea – on occasion do an outline. You want to write your first book? It helps, but isn’t necessarily a requirement to have the start of an idea of what you want to write about, even if it is just a title, a sentence, the crux of an idea, anything. Whatever you have will do. Then just start writing. It can be the most elementary of ideas with no set course of action or direction. The key is to get the words down on paper and give your creative juices a chance to start flowing. I rarely take the time to do an outline or a plan for what I want to write and on those occasions when I do; I usually end up abandoning it early on.
For example, my first horror novel, “What Waits Beneath”, published through Sunbury Press had been written with no outline or plan. It started out in my mind as nothing more than a gruesome scene with someone being attacked by a demon-like creature in a dark coal mine. I saw a hideous demon sucking out the victim’s soul and then subsequently disemboweling him and feasting on his innards. There was no story, just this single scene. I wanted to get this idea on paper so I started writing the scene and then once motivated, I started building on that concept. At that point I had no title, no direction, virtually no idea of whether or not the book would be a short story, a novel or if it would simply not materialize into anything at all. In fact, “What Waits Beneath” started its life as my feeble attempt at writing a screenplay then evolved into a novel.
My second novel started with a few simple lines, which I wrote, not having the slightest idea where the story was heading. Here is all I had written, which ended up being the first paragraph of the book: The tarnished brass customer entry-warning bell dangling above the weathered front door of the establishment clanged with a tinny clank. A large man in a glistening rain-soaked black trench coat and driving cap plodded inside, dripping what seemed like gallons of water in his wake. Ancient floorboards worn from decades of foot traffic groaned beneath his sodden leather shoes as the musty aroma of a time, long since forgotten wafted up into his sinuses.
From that simple paragraph eventually evolved my novel, “Burner” which still happens to be one of my favorite works to date. (Ok, I’ll admit it. They’re all my favorites for one reason or another.) Burner is very demonic, disturbing and often gory but it has a great story that sucks you in and leads you right to the twist at the end.
Write a rough draft of a couple of chapters with the limited ideas you may have available. This is critical! Get your ideas, no matter how minimal, down on paper. This is a form of brainstorming. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, half sentences, fragmented thoughts or anything. Just get your idea down on paper. Every journey starts with a first step. This is yours. Don’t think about it, just take that first step.
And don’t concern yourself about whether what you’re writing is the first or last chapter or if it is only a fragment of some other chapter, whatever; JUST DO IT! Commit the idea to paper as quickly as possible. You’ll likely be shocked at how the idea begins to take shape and becomes something much, much bigger and better than you originally thought it would be. You need to open the gates of your imagination in order to allow the ideas to flow.
Don’t think in terms of “I’m writing my first novel”, or “I wonder if anyone will like this”, or any other such negative ideas which I consider a detriment to the creative process. Instead, just embrace the story itself and enjoy the moment. Relish the writing process and bask in the joy of your story as it unfolds before your eyes.
Rewrite the chapter(s) adding more detail and specifics. Now that you have some of your basic ideas down on paper and you don’t have to worry about forgetting them any longer, it’s time to slow down a bit. The initial brainstorming frenzy is temporarily over. (You will repeat that process multiple times as the story evolves.) But now this is the place where everything must go into slow motion. This is where you read and re-read every paragraph and start to expound on the initial concepts, fixing spelling and grammatical errors along the way.
This is where you add details which help to set the mood and explain about the subjects of which you are writing. This is where you should sit back, close your eyes and try to imagine a scene based on what you’ve just written. This is where you start to write with the eyes of the reader in mind; someone who is seeing your work for the very first time.
For example: If you wrote the simple sentence, “John saw a wagon.”
Now you need to try to imagine what the actual scene would look like. With the minimal statement above you’ll soon realize you have nothing but questions.
What kind of wagon was it? What color? How many wheels? Are any of the wheels worn or broken? Is the paint brand new or is it faded and chipped? Is there lettering on the wagon? What does the lettering say? Is the lettering even still legible? Does the reader care? Do the wheels all turn correctly or to they wobble? Is there anything inside of the wagon? And many, many, many more such questions will follow.
REMEMBER: Words are the paint a writer must use to create his scenes. When you’re finished with your scene the reader should be able to see exactly what you’re seeing in your creative mind.
As a writer, your goal is to find the right words to paint that picture for the reader. If you can’t anticipate and provide answers the questions, then the reader will have to do so, and may not do so in the same way you had intended. If the reader misinterprets an earlier scene it could cause confusion later on in the story. And the ready will not blame himself for this mix-up but will blame the author and rightfully so.
By the same token, you don’t want to get crazy with descriptions unless it is important to the story. For example, if the wagon is an extraneous item not at all critical to either the story or to the mood of the scene you are trying to create then a limited amount of detail will be required. If, however it its description is critical to setting up a passage for what is to follow, then make sure to spell that out in detail. Use your words to paint the scene.
Go over the chapters for grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors. This is the painful part; at least it is for me. You’ve just given your all to create what you consider the greatest words ever put to paper and now you have to pull it apart and do all of the horrible grammatical nonsense we were supposed to learn about while sleeping through during English class in high school.
Nonetheless, you have to do it. So just do it to the best of your ability. And after you go over it once, do it a second, third and possibly fourth or fifth time. Also, this is a good opportunity to begin tightening up your writing and eliminating sloppy sentences. Before I became a published author, I was told by an author friend of mine that as an unknown writer, if I wanted anyone to look at me seriously, my first book had to be around fifty thousand words or so. I struggled and worked hard to make my first book fall into that range. Tight writing made this possible. He said Stephen King can sell his books by the pound and no one blinks an eye but an unknown entity doesn’t have that luxury.
Set the completed chapters aside for later review and continue writing more of the story. This doesn’t mean the chapters are finished, it simply means eventually we will come back and attack the earlier chapters of the book at a later time. For the moment, you’re probably punch-drunk from reading them so many times anyway, and you need to take a break from them. So now would be a good time to forget about what you have written and continue write more To do this…..
Repeat the above steps for all remaining chapters until story is well under way or perhaps even completed. What? Am I nuts asking you to do this? Not nuts, just serious. You want to be a serious writer? Then get serious already. For each new section you write you should go through the same (often painful) process. This will make the steps which follow that much easier. Let’s assume you have finally completed your book and it of course, is a masterpiece. You feel it’s ready to send to a variety of publishing houses and they will immediately be tripping all over themselves begging you to allow them the honor of publishing your work while simultaneously throwing tons of money at you. Yeah… right!
Now go back to chapter 1 and start proofreading, editing and correcting all over again. Now that you’ve had some time to forget about what you wrote some 40 or 50 thousand words ago, you should go back and read it anew as if you had never seen it before. Also if possible, get an anal-retentive grammar fixated friend to read it as well. Two sets of eyes are better than one and three are better than two. Do this for each of the chapters you have written until you finally feel the book is near completion.
When book is finally, finally “completed”. Set it aside again for a month then come back and do it all over again. No way! You got to think I can’t possibly be serious! You’ve just spent months of your life working on this book and it is the most amazing thing ever written. And I have the audacity to suggest you should walk away from it for a month, then come back and start reading it all over again?
Oh yes. That is exactly what I am suggesting. In fact, during that month I encourage you to begin writing something completely new and possibly quite different. Immerse yourself in that new work and do everything you can to forget about your masterpiece. Then after the month is over go back again and start at the beginning doing your best to think of it yet again as the first time you ever saw the book.
For the record, by the time I am finished with a book I don’t care if I ever read it again. Readers ask me questions about various characters in the book and most of the time I can’t even recall the characters’ names. When my book is done, for me it’s done. This is also a helpful tool for proofreading. Because each time I look at it I find something else (less each time, thankfully) which might be potentially embarrassing if not fixed before publishing. And even through all of this, some things still slip through the cracks.
Shop for a publisher and be prepared for rejection. Believe it or not, no one is out there just waiting for you to complete your masterpiece. In fact, they don’t even know you’re alive, and for that matter they don’t really care. You’re an unknown commodity, which means you are a high risk. And when you do get them to take a look at what you’ve written, they may not agree it’s the masterpiece you feel it is at all. In fact, they might even think it’s not worth the paper it is printed on.
What is wrong with them? Don’t they get it? Don’t they see this is the greatest literary work every written?
If you forget everything else I’ve said in this document, remember this: Writing is not for the faint-hearted or the thin-skinned.
When you get a publisher to accept your work prepare for more hours of editing, rewriting, and proofreading. At last, you’ve found a publisher who recognizes your genius, or at least is willing to give you a shot. You’ve signed a contract with a publisher and now you’re finally being recognized as the literary master you always knew you were meant to be.
But guess what? His editors have noticed some flaws in your writing you seem to have missed. And guess what else? You now have to go back through the entire book again and take out all of those annoying grammatical nuances you thought represented your “unique” writing style. News flash: it wasn’t unique, it was wrong.
When a Galley Proof is finally available for your book; read it all over again and to scrutinize it for even more errors and inconsistencies.
At last. The publisher is satisfied with your initial modifications and has sent the book to have a few hard-copy proofs made up. Soon you will hold a proof of your first novel in your hands. It will be like the birth of your first child, perhaps not as messy, but none the less a lot of work. You now hold your masterpiece of literary excellence in your own two hands.
Guess what? When you finally have the proof in your hands, you get to start over again and proof read it from start to finish. And you should do so not only with the eye of a stranger, but with the eye of a critic.
Once completed, prepare to do whatever it takes to help sell your books. Now your book is finally finished and is available, on the web and hopefully all over the world. Now you can relax because you know the royalties will start rolling in, as thousands and thousands of copies are instantly sold worldwide. Maybe you will plan a long awaited vacation, put down money on a new car, a bigger home, maybe a yacht. Guess again.
To your shock you discover there are tens of thousands of writers just like you all trying to sell their books at the same time and each of their books is just as much a masterpiece as yours is. And now with the marked flooded with thousands of self-published works, both in hard copy and e-books, many of which would never get published otherwise, the chance of getting noticed is even further diminished.
Within a few weeks you realize the money isn’t going to come rolling in and you have to do anything and everything imaginable to make people aware of your books and hopefully sell a few copies.
For example, you’ll have to get your name out there; do book signings, book shows, interviews, answer similar questions over and over again and again. You participate in forums such as this one and perhaps you might even choose to bore people to tears with your take on writing books, as I’ve just done.
Write another book. Now that it’s all finished and you are a published author, the best thing you can do is to go back to step one and do it all over again.
Remember you are only as good as your next success and you’re as bad as your last failure.
Even if you’re of that rare breed fortunate enough to have a mega seller the first, second or maybe third timeout, (for the record, after eleven books, I’m still waiting for my mega seller, I’m still a part-time writer with a day job and I’m still a great unknown in the world of horror fiction), you’ll still have to do it again. If you’re serious about being a successful writer you have to prove yourself again and again, building a good solid track record.
So if you haven’t run from the room screaming by now, I suspect you may have what it takes to be a real writer, and call yourself an author. Best of luck my friends.
Here is the details from just one of my many books.
Burner by Thomas Malafarina
Charles Wilson has left home in rural Pennsylvania for the most important sales call of his career when he realizes on the way to the airport that he has forgotten his cell phone; his lifeline to the business world with over a thousand contacts stored in its memory banks, Wilson’s cell phone has radically transformed him as a businessman and has changed the way that he conducts business since before such a device had entered his rather simple life and now he can’t live without it.
In fact, “nowadays if he was without his cell phone for even as little as an hour, Wilson felt completely cut off from the rest of the world, a world that provided him with a substantial income.” Charles decides that since he has most of his contacts stored upon his laptop the best thing to do would be to have his wife overnight the phone to his hotel and in the interim he would look to purchase a “burn phone” – street vernacular for a pre-paid cellular phone.
Unfortunately, luck does not seem to be on Wilson’s side as all of the kiosks are closed at the airport and when he arrives at his hotel it is too late to make such a purchase. Charles is frustrated and berates himself for his foolishness when he is directed down a dark street (an alley, really) that runs along the side of the hotel by a strange man sitting in the lobby – perhaps the fates will favor him after all and he will find what he is looking for?
And so begins Charles Wilson’s hellish journey, and thus begins “Burner”, a novel of Lovecraftian horror and cosmic menace by Thomas M. Malafarina.
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Article Written and Submitted by Author Thomas M. Malafarina
Tuesday, June 27, 2017