Photo courtesy Serghii V. at Freepik
Ten tips from one of the best.
Someone mentioned to me that Stephen King had published a great book about writing (On Writing – a memoir of the craft, 2000). Personal disclosure: I don’t read Stephen King’s horror stories because I find them too scary. However, after reading this book, I do now believe that I’d like him very much as a person. In his memoir, he shares numerous personal and human moments from his writing life. The book is packed with gems, the tone is good, and it’s an enjoyable read. He talks a lot about the importance of conversational writing and using good language. He shares that struggle is part of every writer’s experience, no matter how long a person has been writing.
I took much of Stephen King’s advice to heart and now I’ve finished my first novel.
1. Write for the sheer joy of it.
About six years ago, I started thinking that writing a novel would be a worthy lifetime goal. By that time, I’d already had twenty-three years of practise as a technical writer. I was well aware that writing a novel would be a significant undertaking, and that the probability of fame and fortune was almost non-existent. But…
What kind of story would compel me enough to write a novel?
2. Make your story unique, use your own knowledge and experience.
I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a history buff, but I’d developed an interest in my Ukrainian family’s origin and immigration story. After two years of research, I wrote up my findings for my family and shared it in the form of a document. In so doing, I’d discovered that my Ukrainian grandparents had been separated for nine long years during WW1. This fact intrigued me. How many people today would wait for their partner for that long? What did my grandparent’s day-to-day life look like during those years spent apart? I’d learned that after he’d arrived in Canada in spring of 1914, my grandfather worked for the railways. Family stories indicated that my grandmother and her two small children spent time in war camps after their village was invaded by the Russians. My grandparents were reunited in Sioux Lookout in 1923. What was their reunion like?
I based my novel on true family events; I researched daily life between 1914 and 1923 in both Ukraine and Canada including societal beliefs and perspectives, Ukrainian culture and folk medicine, political events, the Spanish Flu pandemic, and how the war impacted immigrants. All of this background information helped my writing to morph into a work of historical fiction.
To identify my story arc, I focused on family story and determined three key events that I’d write about. I set a plan for what the beginning and the end of the story would look like. Then, using research, I added dates for key events (ie. The start of WW1, Brandon Ukrainian Internment Camp, Winnipeg General Strike, and the date my grandmother arrived in Sioux Lookout, Canada aboard the Cunard Ship “Andania”). I knew my grandmother and her two infants had spent time in war camps but didn’t know which one, so I researched a Ukrainian refugee camp in Austria and used it for my setting.
I developed my character sketches by using both family stories and characteristics of other real people I knew. Most times I just imagined how my characters would respond. How would Lilia react in a particular situation? What would a man’s perspective be on reunification if he worked in a rail camp with a bunch of other men? What were my character’s imperfections?
3. Be dedicated and write every day.
I joined an informal writing group at my local library to explore my idea further. Every Monday evening, we’d talk about our writing projects for about 20 minutes, and then we’d write for 30 minutes. I found other writer’s projects interesting, a number of writers had already self-published. I was impressed that one of our members had already published forty books with a traditional publisher.
Slowly my manuscript began to take form, even though my process felt intermittent and clumsy at times.
Through this group I learned about the one-month NanNoWriMo challenge. I committed to writing an hour a day, and by the end of the challenge, my manuscript contained 30,000 words.
Setting my goal to write for one hour for five days a week worked for me. I set out to write 1,000 words a day but often exceeded this goal. Writing five days a week helped me stay current with my characters. I tried to “become my characters” and examine their inner-most thoughts. I found this part engaging. Writing helped me to understand my grandparent’s immigration story more clearly, especially at an emotional level. I’d recommend this approach to anyone who is interested in exploring their own family history. Remember that most immigrants faced similar situations, so research can help build a realistic story.
4. Don’t write in complicated ways, keep your writing simple.
My writing group met weekly to work on writing prompts, and soon after, we started a weekly critique group. We met via Zoom during the pandemic, continuing to make steady progress. Members started to talk about taking their projects and developing them into full length novels.
A good critique group can be critical in helping us make sure our writing is clear and unencumbered with poor wording. Reading our work out loud to each other helped identify clumsy writing. I learned (and am still learning) how to write dialogue. It proved to be a significant challenge, but I soon discovered that overcoming this hurdle made my story easier to both write and read. Now I enjoy writing dialogue and love the power it has to reveal facts, perspectives, and conversation. I also appreciate how dialogue helps to pace a story.
5. Listen to critics and don’t be afraid of rejection; involve others in your writing.
Stephen King experienced a tremendous amount of rejection before he became a famous writer. Writing groups help us learn how to incorporate useful feedback, especially for works that do not seem to hit the mark we’re aiming for.
I enjoyed sharing my project with family and friends. For example, I was unsure how to end my story. While out on a backpacking trip with my husband, we discussed my predicament. He easily came up with two or three options that I could consider, and I ended up using one of his ideas.
6. Revise continually and get rid of all of the -ly adverbs.
Stephen King says “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Get rid of them, they weaken your writing, and for the most part aren’t essential. I found this to be true; there were almost always better ways to write sentences if I considered it long enough.
Revise, revise, revise! I lost count of the number of times I revised my draft before it was professionally edited.
7. Edit yourself by removing at least 10% of the words from your draft copy.
By the time I’d finished my much-revised draft, I’d grown my manuscript to 120,000 words. King advised that we should be prepared to get rid of at least 10% of our words and so I took his advice. He said that it helps to tighten the story up, improving it for your readers.
8. Remember why you write.
Writing a full-length novel takes a tremendous amount of fortitude. My novel is the biggest lifetime project that I’ve both initiated and finished. Most authors sell less than a few hundred copies of their book. Thus, income and fame aren’t possible for most of us. I write because it is a creative pursuit and I have a lot of capacity for creativity. I also enjoy the fellowship of my writing group. It’s important to bear these things in mind when the going gets rough.
During my journey, I received valuable help from my writing group in terms of testing my story arc, helping events become real, improving my dialogue, and in overall support of my work. It would have been very difficult to finish my novel without my group’s support. Being a conscientious person, I always made sure that I had my three pages of material ready for our weekly critique sessions. Accountability to my group kept my project moving forward.
I learned about other group member’s projects and genres. I learned about different ways to approach writing issues, and to understand that my first draft would indeed be “crappy.” I learned that everyone has their own unique writing voice, and how to both give and receive feedback. I learned that I could write poetry, and even had two of my poems published in April 2022 (Writers on Fire: Poetry Prompts to Ignite the Poet Within by Nikki Tate and Carol Thornton. Available at Amazon.ca or your local bookstore).
9. Find a kind-hearted first reader or two.
Most writers feel vulnerable when it comes time to share their creation with others. Being part of a critique group helped me develop confidence. When it came time to choose my kind first readers, I asked my sister and my husband to help me with this step. Each of them provided constructive ideas that helped me improve my novel. They also helped me build confidence in sharing my work with a wider audience and moving it forward to publishing stage.
10. Read and write a lot.
I’ve been an avid reader all my life, I don’t watch television. Before my writing life, I tended to focus on reading biography, non-fiction, and adventure memoir. During the last few years, I’ve broadened my knowledge of fiction, especially historical fiction.
Wish me luck! And thank you Stephen King.
My historical fiction novel is called Heart Stones: A Ukrainian Immigration Story of Love and Hope, it was published in mid-February 2023.
Visit my website for more details on my story, book reviews, more blog posts, my Media page, and to download a complimentary Chapter One from my book.
Follow my author journey on my Facebook account: Christine nykoluk author