You have an idea for a novel or a short story. Good. That's a start.
But now comes the hard part: the writing. If you are someone who has been writing all of your life, yahoo!—the process won't be as intimidating. But if you're just starting out, well, "the jungle" out there is thick with pitfalls.
Here are a few tried-and-true basics to help you get started.
1. Be relevant—Write about subjects that affect people, and may pertain to their own lives. If a reader identifies with the place, time, people or circumstances of your writing, that reader is more likely to stick with it.
2. Make it real—If you are writing about insects, you'd best have some idea of their little, six-legged nature. Kafka couldn't have written "Metamorphosis," his famous story about Gregor Samsa, who awoke in a bug's body, if he had no way of studying bugs and human responses to them. He was able to vividly describe how that experience affected Gregor. If it's the West, you'd better have tumbleweed in your bones—you ought to at least have been there and learned something in the process. If it's parenting—same response. Know your diapers and tantrums; you have to know it to write about it.
3. Focus, don't wander—Stick with the basic idea of your story. You can quickly undercut your theme and confuse readers by introducing secondary characters with weak plot roles, or issues that don't really matter one whit to the story. Always, always ask yourself: Is this pertinent to my story? Does it advance the plot? If not, consider whacking it.
4. Find your own style—Your voice (as we call it) is the truest sense of who you are as a writer. It's the place where you write best, communicate most truthfully, laugh or cry with the most honesty. It can only be learned through trial and error, but it must be learned if you want to succeed. What are your strengths when you write? Dialogue? Descriptive background? Conflict? Are you a painter? A talker? A magician? A lover? Are you young? Old? Defeated? Trusting? Then talk like it. Figure yourself out by trying lots of voices in writers' groups. Others will react to the truest voices; you'll be able to tell.
5. Pace yourself—Journalists, constrained by time and space, learn this fast, and it translates well to other writing endeavors. Don't waste words, use them—at their best. Go back and look at what you've written; remove what's repetitive, weak, distracting or misleading. Keep the flow of the story crisp and moving by not wasting words. The reader who doesn't have to trip over boring or overpriced verbiage will stick with you longer. This relates to voice as well. Keep on truckin'.
6. Tone—You must be aware of where you are headed and what you are doing along the way. If it's light and funny you're aimed at, then be that way. Don't insert a seriously depressing episode in the middle, if it's not merited—and know when that is, or is not, the thing to do. This speaks to consistency, focus, knowledge of what you are doing.
7. Inspire—A reader should come away from your work with a sense of renewed energy, pure horror, excitement or motivation, happiness or sadness. Pick your emotion, then spread it out nicely. There should be a purpose and an integrity to what you write, whether it's a thriller in the vein of Stephen King or a romance, in the vein of Nora Roberts. The last thing you want, dear writer, is for a reader to slam your book down and say, "So done with that!"
Ann Frantz is a cofounder of Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative, a freelance writer/editor, and a retired journalist.