I can’t begin to detail everything I’ve learned over the past six years since writing became my primary focus, but there are some elements that I believe are common to all writers, and that’s what I’ll share here.
- Every novel is different: Just as every labor is different, the birth of each book is also unique. Some come out chronological, some are a jumbled mess. Some are clear from the beginning, and some hit you with the true story at 50,000 words, and some require intervention. The adage is true…you never learn to write a novel, you just learn to write the one you’re working on.. One thing that is common to all is hitting “the wall” at 20k words.
- Protect your creative process: The basics matter – eat, sleep, stay hydrated and use good posture. The rest of it is highly individualized. If you need to walk before you write, do it. If you need silence, find it. Work with your process and give it what it needs. If that means saying no to other things, then do so. The draft doesn’t last forever. Also, if you feel drained, refill in the way that works best for you…beautiful art, gardening, quilting…whatever fills you, make it a regular part of your routine.
- Easy drafts, hard edits: This isn’t so uncommon, but sometimes I feel I’m in a minority. My drafts come fast. I can complete a draft in about 30 days if the rest of my life cooperates. However, editing is a slower process for me as I spend much more time thinking about plot issues than I need to and procrastinate a lot in the edit phase.
- Writers groups and alpha/beta readers are priceless: If you have a good writers group, you already know they are worth their weight in gold. If you don’t, check around until you find one (or start one). My original group started in Tennessee and though we are now spread out across the world, we keep in touch via Skype (though we are now more of a critique group that supports one another). These three talented writers and authors are the only people I show my raw stuff to, and their insights are always amazing. When you get ready to have your novel read by beta readers, try to pick a few in your target audience as that helps a lot in terms of targeted feedback.
- Don’t force a short story into novel length: I’ve tried. It’s a fast ticket to the funny farm. If it wants to be a short story, write a short story. The most recent example had a good premise, was historically accurate, and has strong characters. However, the decision and conflict of the story would have happened at the end. There wasn’t enough conflict to carry the story for the length of a novel, especially as almost all of it hinged on one fateful decision.
- Diversify for deeper writing: This is a serious matter for writers. Think of yourself as a sponge. You need to absorb to be any good, right? If you don’t have a hobby, get one or get several. If you like to learn, take a class or two. Stretch outside your comfort zone. Pursue your bucket list. The more experiences you have and the more life you live, the more you can bring to your characters and the more connections your writer mind will make. Sitting inside writing all the time will dry you out like a sponge in the sun. Give yourself a wide variety of experiences. It’s good for your writing.
- Glue your butt in the chair: Writing is sitting in one place and putting down word after word after word. There are no short cuts. The magic is in building words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, and scenes into chapters. If this seems intimidating, don’t look at your overall goal (e.g. 90,000 words). Just look at your goal for the day (say, 1500 words) and break that down by writing session if you need to. 500 words in 30 minutes is a lot less intimidating than thinking about 90k.
- Take all writing advice with a grain of salt: Caveat: I don’t mean craft. Grammar and basic writing skills need to be proficient. That advice you should take until you have enough knowledge to know when and how to effectively break the rules. What I refer to here is advice on your process. If you hate outlining, don’t believe that an outline is necessary. If you prefer to research as you go and it works for you, by all means, do it. If you verbally process your story and it doesn’t diminish your desire to write it, go ahead. Conversely, if you find, like me, once you know how the story ends, you lose interest, then keep it all to yourself until it’s down on paper. The only writing advice that works is the advice that works for YOU.
- No writing is ever wasted: That part of your brain that creates story is incredible. Write what it generates and trust it will serve a purpose, if not in this story, then the next. At the very least it is creative writing practice, and practice is never a bad thing. Remember that short story I tried to make novel-length? It ended up as a story inside a novel as a mystery for the characters to solve.
- Read, read, read: Read your genre. Read other genres. Read news articles, fiction from the 19th century, special interest topics, non-fiction, memoir, essays, biographies, history books. Hell, read the dictionary or encyclopedia. Not only do you develop a sense of rhythm and structure from reading, think of it as storing up words or planting seeds. Inhale everything the written word has to offer. Read for pleasure first, and then for mechanics and craft. Good books in = good books out.
What have you learned about writing through the act of writing? What are the lessons your work has taught you?