9 Writing Tips: Things I’ve Learned About Writing Novels in the last four years.
When I heard I’d get to do a guest blog on MSW, my first thought was: whoopeee!! My second thought was: what am I going to say?
We’ve talked a lot about the life of a professional writer. We have each taken diverse paths, because every writer is different. We’re all at different stages, too. I’ve learned so much from everyone here at MSW, especially about promotion–raising your profile and cutting through the clutter—but also about writing.
I thought I’d do something different and address writers just starting out, some of whom have sold stuff, some of whom haven’t, and share with you what I’ve learned about writing in the last few years. It also applies to veteran writers, though. No matter how much writing I have under my belt, sometimes I hear something said just a little bit differently, and it strikes a chord. I’m hoping that will happen here.
#1: Write to please yourself. It’s a daunting undertaking to write a book you think will reach thousands of readers. You want your story to be universal, to thrill or inspire people all over the country or the world. How do you go about doing that? I figured out the only way for me to write a really good book was to please myself, because I’m the only person I really know. If, when I read my story, I am completely taken away by it, then I’m guessing other people will feel the same way.
This is not to say you should be self-indulgent in your writing. You really do have to please yourself, not just think it’s “good enough.” You have to become the reader.
#2: Write at least five days a week. Preferably every day, even if it’s only a sentence. This keeps you tethered to the book and part of that world. Once you’ve taken a “vacation” from your story, it’s very hard to get back in. It’s like getting ready to start a diet—almost impossible. My voice teacher once told me, regarding practice: “If I don’t sing for one day, I know it. If I don’t sing for two days, my teacher knows it. If I don’t sing for three days, everybody knows it.”
#3: Writing a book is just a rehearsal. Another thing I learned from my singing career. If you have trepidation about writing a whole book, see it as a rehearsal. In a rehearsal, you can learn the material, practice it, and eventually it takes shape. Plus, you can fix anything during rehearsal, because there’s no audience to see what you’re doing behind the scenes. When you get ready to send the book out—that’s the performance. And you don’t have to worry about that for a long time.
#4: First draft: Write a bunch of crap. Face it, a lot of what you’ll be writing will be crap, so you might as well embrace the fact. Wallow in it, even. Because, since you’re only rehearsing, you can fix anything. You need a stack of pages—270 to 400+, double-spaced– to make a book, so all you really need is to get the ball farther down the field. It doesn’t have to be pretty.
Look at it this way. You’re a pioneer. You’re making your own trail through the deserts and mountains, and it isn’t a landscaped parkway. But once you’ve made the trail, it’s there. You can follow that trail or deviate, make it easier to follow by going around one mountain or making a bridge over a ravine. You’ve written the story. Your subconscious will have been working on it as you’ve written your crap, and all of a sudden you will be blazing new trails and they will be good. As one writer said, “I don’t care how bad the first draft is—at least it’s there. You can’t fix something that doesn’t exist.”
When I decided to start over and become the best writer I could be, I ended up writing crap. This was hard for me because always before, my first draft was pretty darn good. It was pristine, beautifully written, lots of good stuff. All I did was give it a quick polish, maybe three week’s worth. My work was well-written but it didn’t go any deeper than that, because I didn’t take it any deeper. I didn’t make it the best I could make it, because I thought I was good enough and besides, the words were so darn purty.
#5: Read only the best. If you aspire to be among the best, this one’s pretty obvious. Read the best writers, the ones on a consistently high level, but read the writers who speak to you. If you love John Grisham, read him. If you love Jodi Piccoult, read her. Don’t read bad novels. Yes, you can learn from their mistakes, but they can drain you psychically, and at some point you’re going to think, “well, if so and so got away with that and they’re published, I can, too.” Read the best, read them for enjoyment, and then study them. Ask yourself, why are their books so effective? Outline a novel or two. If you see something that’s particularly good, write down your impression of it, see if you can apply that principle somewhere in your own book.
The best are the best for a reason. They do things that may seem completely natural—easy, even–but a lot of deliberate thought and practice putting in hours blazing the trail have gone into their work. It’s not a fluke. You can’t get there from here unless you work hard, and the best way to get someplace is to see where you’re headed. That comes in reading the best.
#6: Find writers who write something that’s doable for you. Your Best Writers should appeal to you on a visceral level. You love their books. Generally, if you love mysteries, if mysteries consume your reading time, it’s a pretty good clue you should be writing mysteries. But there are sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. I could never picture myself writing like Grisham, only because I’m not made that way. But I can picture myself writing like a handful of other writers. They’re the best, but they share with me these things: a similar narrative voice and world view, a similarity in pacing; they write the kind of scenes I can see myself writing; they depict character, setting, mood, and tone in ways that feel familiar to me. I can fit inside their biorythms because on some pretty basic levels, we are similar. They are at the top and I’m not, but I can see myself among them. I have a comfort level with these writers that I could never have with John Grisham.
# 7: But don’t pick just one! I once heard an editor say that her author “channeled” a famous writer. I thought, how sad. The only thing any of us has over anybody else, is ourselves. That’s the one thing that makes us special. We are our own instrument. I love to watch the top comedians on the comedy channel, because the really good ones use themselves—their world view, their own quirks, everything that has been poured into their lives so far. So you’ve got a guy playing piano. You have a bunch of guys who look like meth heads. You have people with props. You have people who are dirty, and you have people who are clean. But the best ones don’t copy anyone else. I don’t want to channel John Grisham. There already is a John Grisham, so anything I could do would be only warmed-over, second-best John Grisham.
So how do you avoid channeling Grisham? If he’s your taste, look for other top authors like him, like you. And read them all. Mix it up. Don’t read two of one author’s books in a row. There are some writers who have such strong voices that when I read them, I have to leaven them with another strong writer from another direction. If I’m reading Sue Grafton (for fun! Because she’s one of the best!), then I have to find someone who will neutralize her, someone like James Lee Burke, before I start to write. That combination will confuse the hell out of anyone.
If you choose, say, five to fifteen authors you love, if you can see your work in that mold, in that grouping, you will do well to trust them. I have four writers, I call them “my boys,” and whenever I start to freak out in my writing I go to one of them, read one of his books, and it calms me right down. I know I’m on the right track, that I do many more things right than I do wrong, because I’ve been over this trail a few times and each time it becomes more pronounced. (They don’t know, by the way, that they’re “my boys.” If they did know, they might think I’m a crackpot and go out and hire extra security.)
# 8: Don’t compare yourself to other writers. This sounds antithetical to what I’ve just talked about, but it isn’t. Don’t compare your career to others. Don’t whine, “Why did he get a seven figure advance when I’m just as good?” Don’t think that just because one writer is doing really well, that you should, too, because you’re very much like her. Try not to be jealous. Try to concentrate on what you can affect, your own work. Be egocentric, literally. And when you’re up, don’t look down on people who are lower on the ladder than you, because reversals don’t happen just in screenplays. Try not to think, “I’m better than her.” Or, “She’s better than me.” Don’t compare, don’t compare, don’t compare. (I tell myself this a lot.)
# 9: Visualize where you want to be. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, “How would you feel if you were on an international flight and the pilot came on the radio and said, ‘We’re going to try for Paris today?'”
You have to believe you will get there—wherever “there” is. Getting there is one part hard work and one part believing it can be accomplished. Picture where you want to be, and aim for it. You might come up short, but I guarantee that the higher you aim, the closer you’ll get.
By planning to be one of the best, you raise your game. And that’s something worth working for. 🙂