Monday, March 23, 2020
Guest Post from Peter Berman
Guest Post from Peter Berman
author of Tales from the Robbery-Homicide Division: Hidden Agenda / Web of Betrayal
Review to come from Momma
HOW TO START WRITING YOUR FIRST GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL
by Peter S. Berman
Where do ideas for a good book come from? The answer is complicated. Good writers write about what they know best, but so much of that depends on how deep or exciting their life experience has been. But once in a while an idea can show up by simply asking…“But what if…?
About five years ago I was reading about a medical development related to cancer treatments. At the time, chemotherapy was still a scattergun approach to treating the disease. You get the chemo infusion, and it affects both tumor cells and healthy cells. But it was known at that time that the common cold virus acted by penetrating healthy cells. So some bright researcher said, “What if we could genetically alter a cold virus to enter only tumor cells? And what if that same cold virus could also be altered to carry a molecule of chemo (piggyback) into the tumor cells without harming normal cells?” It was a brilliant idea, and research was quickly begun.
I thought about it for a few moments, and I immediately saw the darker side of such research. Fortunately for the world, viruses like Ebola and a few others can only be transmitted by direct contact. They are not airborne diseases. But what would happen if the altered cold virus could be used to piggyback Ebola (or other direct contact deadly viruses) to make them airborne diseases?
If possible, you would now have biological weapons of war…
And from there came an idea for a story.
Once you have the idea you want for a story, if you want it to be really authentic you need to develop a complex storyline based on the original concept, a healthy dose of personal knowledge, and a very engaging group of characters that an audience can identify with. That sounds simple enough, but in truth, it takes a lot of thought and a very good outline to develop a story that the readers can’t put down.
Let’s consider the weaponized virus idea. Where do you go from there?
What if the viral geneticists who discovered the technique was kidnapped from an international conference where she was going to be speaking about her research discovery? Who took her and…why? How did they do it? Who is going to be involved in the hunt to find her? What happens when they do find her? But you can’t just have a chase novel. The characters involved and how the main premise affects them is what the story is really all about. For example, enter an agent from the CIA, perhaps he works with a fellow agent from a friendly allied intelligence service to answer some of the questions. What about the family of the researcher? How do they figure into the storyline? Can you see the possibilities? They’re endless.
But great stories become great reads because they’re full of authentic details, so now is when the real work begins.
You would need to thoroughly research the genetics involved in this fictional example so that it can be presented in layman’s terms. You need to know lots about the CIA, how they operate, and the same goes for the operational tactics used by the Navy Seals (if you were to add them in for a rescue operation). If a foreign government or two are involved, especially if you’re talking about their intelligence services, you need to do deep research about those entities as well. It is the depth of the knowledge about their tactics and operational abilities that can make or break your story.
And what about story locations? Descriptions are important, so the locations that you choose to use in your story need to be based upon first hand knowledge or comprehensive research. I prefer to visit the countries I use in my books because it’s the little things that don’t appear in online research that can bring the feel of authenticity to your story. Such things as the preferred color schemes for buildings, types of street foods available, smells, clothing worn by the citizens, the weather in the region, etc., all of which are important for creating a believable tale.
And lastly, it is critical to have interesting characters who will carry out your vision, and because they are human, they’re going to have flaws. Alcoholism has been overdone, but whatever you choose to afflict them with, try using something that you’ve had some experience with. Maybe a loved one has a cocaine problem. Maybe it’s the daughter of your lead character. The point I’m making is that dealing with a flaw that deeply affects the characters life is what connects us to the character. It’s common experience in our everyday lives that enables us to have empathy for what the character is going through. If the reader can see a bit of their own lives in the character’s life, then they will identify with the character and stay engaged long enough to see your story all the way through.
So, if you’ve made it this far, you need to begin developing your storylines.
My personal preference is to write an ensemble piece. In real life, one detective or one soldier can never do everything by themselves. I worked for the LAPD long enough to know that every major case takes the work of many different officers, each of whom adds an important piece to the puzzle. It’s called teamwork, so when it comes to major characters, I like to run three separate storylines. The major one (where she is kidnapped and rescued), the impact on her and her loved ones, the impact on those who are charged with finding her, etc., etc. The storylines can remain separate, but the story becomes much more interesting when the personal stories intersect or have an impact on the main storyline.
Perhaps your CIA agent lost his entire family in the 911 disaster. It might affect the way he does things and why? Perhaps he suffers from survivors guilt, so he takes chances that might end up killing him that he otherwise wouldn’t take. If you do things like this with all of your main characters you end up keeping things interesting.
But before you ever write the first word of your story, the most important thing you can do is to develop a comprehensive story outline. I can’t emphasize this enough. Without one, your story will fail. So don’t even bother starting if you don’t have the patience to do an outline. And if you do take the time to do it right, the story will later write itself.
And here’s a little tip I learned after years of doing things the hard way. Try doing a two sentence outline for each chapter. That will allow you to get a quick overview of where the story is going. You can juggle the chapters in the outline to make sure that the pace of your story stays fast, and it also helps you to make sure that all three storylines are moving along together. That’s critical for keeping the readers engaged, so make sure you pay strict attention to this.
Once you have your outline set and you are ready to start writing, try this. Read over the short summary of the first chapter. Decide what is important for that chapter to move the story forward. Then go to bed that night and start thinking about it before you go to sleep. Visualize it as a scene in a movie. What are your characters saying? How do they look? Where does it all take place? What is the weather like? Etc. The next morning, when you first put hands on the keyboard, you might just discover that the story seems to flow from your brain to the page. Don’t stop writing to make corrections. Just keep putting what comes to you down on the page. When the chapter, or scene, is finally finished, you can go back and start cleaning things up, shifting paragraphs around, etc. You would be doing this to make things read smoothly.
And as always happens with my stories, at least once in the frenzy of writing, a character just goes off script and does something that I never expected. When you’re so deeply in the character’s mindset, you suddenly realize that they would go off in that direction because it’s the logical thing to do. When that happens, it always seems to improve the story, and it can lead to a new twist or turn that will make the story really top notch. So don’t be afraid to make changes to the outline as you’re going along. But just remember, a change made in one spot might require you to go back and make changes to what you’ve already written. Use the outline as a road map for going back to clean things up. I guarantee it will save you time and a lot of frustration.
Does it sound like a lot of work? It is, but if you stick with it, if you just write one page a day, your novel will be finished in less than a year.
So good luck! Give it a try! There’s always room for a good, first novel.
Peter S. Berman was a thirty-year prosecutor and Head Deputy District Attorney who retired after thirty years. He then was a Volunteer Specialist in LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division, Cold Case Homicide Specials, for ten years. He has published a number of crime stories and thrillers, and the idea laid out in the above blog submission was developed into a successful fictional novel entitled ABDUCTED. You can find it on Amazon/Kindle, and it will enable you to see how he developed this acclaimed story from the idea that he explained above.
Visit his website at petersberman.com for more information about his books, contests, and background information.
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