Once upon a time, when I was about 7, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I had stories bubbling forth and by gods, the only way to purge them was via writing. My mom bought me an old typewriter from a secondhand store– the typewriter that had the ink ribbons and you had to whack the letter keys extra hard to make sure it would push the imprint through the ribbon and onto the paper. Armed with something more legible than my chicken scratch, I wrote.
When high school rolled around, we had a class called career education, and one year I got to job shadow someone for a day. I was told we had no local authors, so I had to go with a journalist. I was fine with that, because I was also worked in the school newspaper, so it was right up my alley.
The experience itself, was not particularly memorable as it didn’t really relate directly to writing or the editing process, just interviewing. What I did take away from the experience is that if you’re going to do anything worthwhile in life, make sure you do it because you have a passion. Not because its something you can do to kill time or make money… although one can count those as bonuses. But there’s gotta be more soul in it than the Almighty dollar.
If one day you came upon a realization that you too could write a great American novel, you better have a plan. And that plan should involve something more than your reserved place on the New York Times bestseller list, a glowing Kirkus Review, and advances from publishing houses in the six digit range, because that’s a very rare scenario, even mythological, at best.
For me, writing my first novel was like a marathon. It invaded my life. I had to make time for it otherwise it would never get done. I would write late at night, work early in the morning before everyone else is up. I drank coffee by the pot-full, and when my doctor told me to cut down on how many cups of coffee I consumed, I just got a bigger cup for less refills.
When I wasn’t writing, I was brainstorming or researching or pondering what’s the worst I can do to these people that I really like?
Writing a novel is an exercise in one’s personal ethics and morality. You want to have good conflict, whether internal or externally, you want to have something that is going to strike at the soul of another, grasp it and hold on to it, only for them to cheer on the protagonist to whatever-may-come.
For some readers, immersing oneself into a first person perspective novel is a way for them to experience another person’s lifetime and adventures they would never find themselves in reality. If you’re going to write a novel that sinks its teeth into the reader, you’re going to have to play nasty. You’re going to have to delve into life’s darker side, the side most people avoid addressing.
People remember and share good books. People remember and make fun of bad books. That fact of literary life is a facet of quality control. If you don’t enjoy your own writing, readers probably won’t. If, when in the midst of editing your first draft, you refuse to listen to any constructive criticism and surround yourself with sycophants to critique, your work will suffer. If, when called on what a reader/reviewer/interweb stranger/your mom feels/thinks is a flaw or something that pulls them out of the narrative, so you reply that you are writing it just for yourself, well, fine then. Keep it to yourself. If you want to improve, you will need the input of others. Some people are harsh, some are not. Some will tear the manuscript apart in search of context,syntax, and continuity, while some will handle it with kid gloves. In a happy world, a writer would get a happy mix of both; nit-picky detail tempered with tact.
The purpose of sharing one’s work is to get feedback, and if you are not open to getting all kinds of feedback, which in reality, you could very well be getting a whole rainbow of, then you might want to rethink your writing strategy. A thick skin is absolutely required if you plan on putting your writing out there for consumption.
Writing is a passion. If you have the burning passion to share a story with someone without having to make eye contact, then here’s a list of things to keep in mind.
1: thinking about a story is good and all, but the truth is you have to write it down.
After all, that is what writing consists of in its entirety. Getting the bones down is the foremost important step. Muscles, tendons and skin can be added during phase two of getting the story out.
Do not forget to save, save, save, and back that shit up on a thumb drive or in the cloud. You do not want to have your hard drive’s fiery death nuke the ONLY copy of your novel to the bowels of the ninth hell because you failed to back it up, and often. I lost a 53k novel. The only back up was one I made at 13k.
It hurt, so much. I had to reframe the experience as a creative exercise before I actually began rewriting that novel from chapter three, onward.
Backup. It is so important.
2: writing workshops are only as good as the people in them.
If your submissions get things like, “I love it its great don’t change anything” or never offered a different perspective to tighten it up, or mentions interesting plot ideas, or anything of substance, you need to find a new workshop.
Passive help isn’t really helpful. Pats on the back are nice, but I feel they should be sandwiched in with constructive criticism.
3: writing a novel is like getting into a relationship.
There will be a period of months (or years) where your interest revolves completely around this one thing that lives in your mind.
That plot line, those characters and their adventures… they will be your happy place.
4: set goals for yourself.
For me, a thousand words is how much I try to write in a day. If I miss a day of writing, I have to write 2000 + words. I have found writing short flash fiction like chapters to be effective as it forces me to be concise in the action and dialog. It forces me to slay my darlings, although it really depends on the novel I’m writing. Chapters last as long as they need to, and when there’s an opportune moment to take a break, I go for it. Never forget your end of chapter hook.
5: just like in real life, you need to make you time.
Listen to music, try a new blend of coffee, savor the silence before the clacking of keys begins its symphony of creation. Taking care of yourself is paramount. Sitting down for hours at a time isn’t kind to the human body, plan accordingly.
6: just because you think your idea is the greatest thing ever, is not a guarantee others will believe the same thing.
I learned that the naive, hard way. My first novel, A Toast to Starry Nights, was a labor of love. My soul bled into the characters, my pulse gave Kaylis her heart. The hardest chapter I wrote dealt with violence and rapine in graphic detail. While it’s in the middle of the novel, it was literally the last chapter I wrote, and took the longest to get out because I really didn’t want to go there, emotionally. Six months of eking it out, and I edited it once. Left it alone because the feels it conjured up echoed my own tumultuous emotions concerning the subject matter. As for the rest of the novel, I had a blast getting it out. And when I self-pubbed, a reviewer said the whole novel sucked almost to the point of DNF, but for that one chapter of abuse. I felt very mixed about that, as I couldn’t match that reader’s expectation with keeping that kind of tension rampant throughout the novel. It would kill me emotionally, I think, to do that.
So, I’ll take the one star and write something new and/or better. Can’t please every reader, but so far, that is the only negative review my novel received.
That said, if more than one reviewer or critic mentions the same thing over and over in their reviews, that may be an issue with your manuscript you will want to address.
7: A novel is a story, and good stories have characters that change due to circumstances inflicted upon them.
If you have a protagonist that is stagnant, pick a new protagonist. Everything that is written needs to move the story along.
Detail is a great thing, but it’s easy to go overboard with it. I am of the school of thought that bare basic detail is the best, that way the reader can fill in the blanks on their own and thus the reading experience becomes more engrossing. your mileage may vary.
8: Research is very important.
Just because a facet of the story is not particularly interesting to you, do not discount the ability for readers to know random shit which will make you look like a fool because you didn’t do your research. For example… If an author is trying to sell me the idea that Mary Tudor is the same as Mary Queen of Scots, I’m going to feel betrayed by that writer and hate them because I am NOT ignorant. Lazy writing is a huge no-no. Not sure of something? Ask the magic of Google. Or give your local university a call and get in touch with a professor who may have the specific knowledge you seek, or may be able to point you in the right direction.
Nothing pulls me out of narrative faster than seeing a blatant falsehood pitched to me by an author. I can suspend disbelief if I’m comfortable with the facts being laid forth. But that’s just me.
9: cultivate writer friendships.
It’s good to have another set of eyes who can pick out things an average reader wouldn’t really notice, its great to have someone who understands what you’re going through in your corner, and so you can cheer them on as well. Humans are social animals, and writing tends to be a solitary act, so it’s good to have a happy balance of those factors.
10: Most importantly: embrace your passion.
Feed it, do not neglect it, and your passion will be good to you.