I got a pleading e-mail from someone who is beginning her first novel and who—despite having known me for a long time and having read my work—imagined that I could help her. This is what she wrote:
“I suddenly realize that I don’t understand how to write fiction. If I put in all the details, it could be boring. If I gloss over everything, it’s a plot summary. There’s something in between the two extremes, but if I write the whole story in the in-between way, I think it’ll still be at least be 10x longer than it should be. So what do I leave out? Which parts should I write long, and which short?
“I’m not sure how to pick what order things should go in either. Is straight chronological too boring? Are flashbacks too artificial?
“Also, I don’t have a name for my protagonist.
“I haven’t started writing because I’m still debating with myself about these things. I also haven’t started writing because I don’t know how to start writing.
“The only advice I can find anywhere is ‘don’t do X’; but what should I do?”
Let me be perfectly up-front here: I don’t know the answers to these questions.
I can’t even say, “I only know what answers work for me,” because, honestly, I have no actual system that I use to decide long or short, detailed or spare, chronological or not. I don’t even have a system for picking names for my protagonists (although I wish I did).
But I do have this one little bit of advice:
If you have something written down—however unsatisfactory—you have something you can work on and revise into something you like better. You can revise it forever, in fact; though I don’t recommend this. (Sometimes you just have to move on and resolve to do better on your next book.) But you can’t revise what you haven’t written, so forget everything else and just get some sort of story down on paper. Make it as long as you like. 10x what it “should be” is actually just about right (every manuscript reads better after a thorough pruning, I find); but if the only way you can get the story down on paper is as a plot summary, then write a plot summary, and plan on gradually fleshing it out. Chronologies can always be changed; flashbacks introduced or eliminated; whole episodes and characters put in or taken out ad libitum. Just write. Do it; don’t think about it. Then re-write and re-write and re-write.
That’s almost all the advice I have.
I also have one handy writing tip, but it’s not actually my own. It’s something I got from my husband, the biochemist. He says that when a cell is about to synthesize a protein, it first secretes a “leader peptide,” whose function is to tell the cell where to direct the protein it’s about to make. A leader peptide is absolutely essential, but once its job is done, it’s immediately destroyed. By analogy, he destroys the “leader peptide” of every scientific paper he writes.
Having tried this in my own work, I can confirm that this tip works for fiction, too. Once you’ve begun writing in earnest, go back and delete the first paragraph you wrote—if not the first page or even the whole first chapter. This is the secret to a punchy beginning.
But mainly—just write. Just sit down and write. Do it now; today.
Tomorrow you can figure out what to name the protagonist.