Hiring an editor is a waste of money when there are no guarantees in traditional publishing.Read More...
Revision is scary. The secret, I learned, is that there was no secret.Read More...
Writing a book is dang hard. And even though experienced writers know that writing the thing is the easy part, that doesn’t diminish what an amazing accomplishment it is to finish a book. A lot of people don’t get that far, so it’s pretty incredible if you do. I mean, you are awesome.
You learn a lot going from your first completed manuscript to your second. In no special order, here are 12 things I wish I could go back and tell my former self — a newbie fiction writer with a lot ahead of her.
#1: No one gets it right on the first try
Dear past self: You just finished that manuscript, wrote “the end,” and your whole body is shaking. YOU WROTE A BOOK. You’re excited and proud, and you damn well should be.
But as amazing as you think your book is, it’s going to need a lot of work — a little thing called revision. There’s a reason most writers consider their very first finished MS their “practice novel.” You’re flexing a muscle you’ve never used before, at least not so rigorously — it’s gonna take awhile before you compose a masterpiece.
So don’t feel bad if this isn’t “the one.” First drafts are never, ever perfect. First novels rarely ever are.
#2: Listen to what your gut is telling you
Dear past self: When you were writing that book, you thought that this was the hard part. But now revision looms ahead of you, and you just can’t bring yourself to get past the first few chapters. You’ve polished them each about ten times, and you still have tens of thousands of words left to go. How can you even.
Truth is, you’re procrastinating for a reason: You don’t love your book. You don’t believe in it. You think it’s boring, and that’s hard to admit, and it’s going to take you a year or two to finally concede to it. But hey. That’s okay. You can put this one in a drawer somewhere and start working on something that’s going to excite you again. Because if you don’t love your story, chances are no reader will.
#3: Publishing isn’t the point
Dear past self: The totally delusional write to make millions. (Not gonna happen.) The semi-delusional write to get published. The realistic write because they love writing, and if publishing follows at some point, hey, that’s pretty awesome.
Every writer wants to get published, but as soon as you accept that that’s not why you’re doing this — that you’re writing because you can’t not write — then things will fall into place. You’ll become more disciplined, more serious about getting the work done in a timely manner. And that’s what counts. That you treat it like a profession. That you hone your skills. That you keep writing. Publishing is not proof that you’re a writer. Your writing habits are.
#4: Study your craft
Dear past self: You’ve got a lot to learn, kiddo, so you better study up. Start researching story structure. POV. Character development. Info dumps. Show versus tell. Internalization and dialogue. And most importantly, REVISION.
Fiction University is going to help you a lot. You’re going to recommend it to every writer you meet who’s struggling with the basics. You’re a whiz at grammar and punctuation, and that will take you far. Now it’s time to master technique.
#5: Get over your fear of sharing
Dear past self: The best revision you’ll ever do will be the product of having other writers look at your writing. No writer should revise in a vacuum — you’re too close to your work to see what needs fixing, and you have no sense of what you should be focusing on.
Without the guidance of critique partners and beta readers, you’ll be changing things that don’t need changed and making edits that don’t have much impact. Having someone provide feedback on your work will be ten times more valuable than trying to figure out revision when you have no idea where you should even begin. Revision is hard enough; don’t do it alone. The only way to get over your shyness about sharing your writing is to share your writing.
#6: Negative feedback isn’t a death sentence
Getting critiqued is hard. You’re going to cry the first few times. You’re going to feel nervous. You’re going to have to train yourself not to get angry when someone thinks your story needs work.
But guess what: The more you do it, the less sensitive you’ll be to negative feedback, and the more you’ll crave it. Because this is the good stuff. This is going to make your writing better. And with time, you’ll start to realize that the difference between a bad chapter someone hates and a good chapter they love can come down to a few key edits. It’s not as a hard as you think. It’s practically magic.
#7: Revision will get easier
Dear past self: Just like getting critiqued, revising will get easier, too. Right now, you hate it. It’s so much work. You spend so many hours on one chapter. You feel like this is going to take forever and that you’ll never get there.
But listen: You will get there. And you will get used to revision. In fact, you’ll actually start to love it more than writing a first draft, because revision is how your story transforms. How it becomes everything you envisioned it to be. As the changes you make pile up, you’ll actually start seeing the forest for the trees. And revision becomes … fun. Imagine that.
#8: Schedules are VERY important
Dear past self: In order to write a book, you have to stick to a schedule. That could be anything — 300 words every day of the week, or 500 words every other day. You decide.
And just like with writing, revision only gets done when you set a schedule. And as soon as you make that schedule a habit that you follow, it won’t be so hard to stick to anymore. And hey — you’ll learn that if you plan your schedule at the start of each week, you’ll get so much done. And getting shit done is a GOOD FEELING. You’ll want as much of that good feeling as you can get.
#9: Stop worrying about word count
Dear past self: Okay, so you’re an underwriter. While other writers can churn out 130,000 words and then have to spend their time trimming, you’re stuck adding to your novel more than you need to take away. You basically have to flesh out every scene — paint in the details.
But for the love of god, stop obsessing about word count. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Sure, publishers expect certain genres to be within a certain word count range. But you’re going to drive yourself crazy with this one, trust me. Focus on the story now — word count later. Story matters more, and oftentimes in filling out and also tightening your story, word count will take care of itself.
#10: Stop comparing yourself to other writers
Dear past (and present) self: On your worst days, you’re going to hate every word you write. Don’t look at your novel on these days. Don’t go anywhere near it. And above all, do not compare your writing to someone else’s.
Your style is your style, and trying to be like That Author You Love isn’t going to change that. In fact, trying to emulate them won’t get you published. A fresh voice will. A unique voice. Your voice.
Every writer’s journey to success — and to publication (which are separate things) — is different. Some take longer than others. Some are harder than others. So a published author you admire is just a writer who’s been at it longer. Who’s practiced more. Don’t get down on yourself because they’re far along in their own story and you’re just starting yours.
#11: You will get better
Dear past self: When you see how much better your second manuscript is going to be than your first, you’re going to flip. It’ll be so obvious in the writing, structure, and characters how much you’ve grown. You’ve learned from some of your mistakes. You’ve gotten better. And of course, you still have more to learn.
But when you go for your third time around, you’re going to use that new knowledge and write an even better story. All stories involve work — involve rewriting. That’s how it’s done. And even if novel one through novel four don’t get you published, the experience of writing them — of revising them — will make you stronger. So much more than you think.
#12: Never give up
Dear past (and present) self: Never give up on your dream.
Writing is hard. It’s a thankless job. It takes years of your life. And sometimes you’re going to wonder if it’s even worth doing.
But in your heart, you know it is. Because you love this. Because this is who you are. And because you’ll never be truly happy until you see your first book on the shelves — and then your next book, and the next. Writing stories makes you happy. And when you don’t write, you’re anxious and grumpy and restless, and you know it.
So keep writing. Keep going. Whether it takes you two manuscripts or ten to get published. Write to write. Write because you want to. Because you can. Because you’re unstoppable. Because you’ve got a story to tell, dammit. And never let anyone else tell you otherwise — especially yourself.
So this year I’ve vowed to work harder on revising my novel. I love copyediting (I do it every weekday for GamesBeat), but it’s much easier to look at someone else’s work with a clear eye than your own, trust me. That’s why I don’t edit my own articles! I have another one of our fine editors check over them.
The same problem occurs with novel revision, but it’s a lot deeper. Instead of dealing with the coherence of a 1,000-word body of text, you’re managing 60,000 and above. GULP.
I’m so glad I made an outline for my novel before diving into it. I got about halfway through writing the first draft of a fantasy novel in high school before I realized how badly I needed a roadmap, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. But when you’re editing a chapter that’s around 20 pages and trying to make it work within a much greater context, a lot more can go wrong.
I’m trying not to worry too deeply about that right now, though. I need to polish each chapter several times first before handing it over to anyone to read and provide feedback, which I want to do before moving forward with publishing. So right now, I’m concentrating on each chapter, one at a time.
One of my main goals is eliminating clumps of exposition or author-like material — the notorious info dump. I’ve noticed that anytime I’m spoon-feeding the reader unnecessary or convenient background info, either through description or dialogue, I need to stop and perform surgery. Just cut it out. If it sounds like I’m stepping in and talking directly to the reader, then I need to find a more natural way to integrate those details.
An article on writing.com suggests, “Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know everything, just what’s necessary to move and complete the story.”
This is sound advice, but I wanted a better idea of how to avoid and address info dumps, or narrative summaries. Here are some good tips from a professional editor:
When writers tell instead of show, they’re generally writing from the author’s POV and not the characters’. While the technique called “narrative summary” does have its place in a novel, it should be used sparingly.
Here’s a before-and-after example. The first version, written in the author’s POV, is a narrative summary:
But the site itself had been inhabited for much longer. The previous day she and Mike had jogged along an old path which edged the Knob, and she spotted the stark, vertical rock chimney of a burned-out cabin. It jutted from a weathered rock foundation that was now covered with thick vines and forest debris. The cabin had been built near the Knob’s edge, which plummeted almost two thousand feet to the valley floor. She realized that, when the one-room cabin was built, its owner had probably cleared trees away to open the valley up for a spectacular view.
Notice the author is telling about the discovery, just as one tells ghost stories around a family campfire. She is summarizing what happened yesterday. There is no action. There was action yesterday, but that doesn’t count as action today.
I wrote that passage years ago. I thought it was fine writing until an old writing pro pointed out the problem. I read it again, and—by gosh, she was right. Following is the passage as I rewrote it to put the scene into a character’s POV and show the action, instead of leaving it in the author’s POV and tell about it:
Mike stepped aside and she saw a clearing. Grass, kept at bay in the deep woods they’d passed through, covered an area the size of an average yard.
She frowned. “This is it?”
“Yep. The original cabin site. See if you can find it.”
She saw nothing but the woods and grass. Blue sky appeared over a huge, waist-high stone outcropping at her left. She stepped to it and peered over.
“Why, we’re right at the bluff’s edge!”
“That’s right. Jump off that rock, and you’ll fall almost two thousand feet.”
And then she saw the vertical stone chimney. She’d overlooked it before, since it resembled the surrounding tall trees. She walked tentatively toward it. As her eyes adjusted she saw the stone foundation of a long-gone, one-room cabin. Its chimney rose from one corner, its hearth opening toward the center. Slanting rays filtering through the treetops brought the chimney and foundation to life.
She turned to Mike. “Look at that—it’s just like a shrine. Why, I feel like I’ve just stepped out of a time machine.”
The lesson? Write in real time. Don’t tell what happened in the past, but show it as part of the action now.
How do you deal with info dumping in your writing? What’s a good way to catch it?
Some of you are wondering how my first novel is coming along. Hard truth: I’ve been slacking. For me, writing for the web — not fiction — is my main job, and with hours of writing, reading, and researching looming ahead of me every day, I’m too exhausted by the end of it to think of doing anything more.
Actually putting down the words was easy enough, but now I’ve moved on to revision, the part where I’m stuck. That’s the most intensive stage of all, and I’ve struggled with developing a schedule that could work for me. Putting in an hour here and there won’t work — revision takes time and investment, which doesn’t lend itself well to scattered half-hour or hour-long sessions, at least not in my experience.
For me, the remaining time in the day goes to one of two options: more writing (and reading/revising) or leisure. I usually pick leisure. It gives me a break and a chance to recharge, which I desperately need for the day ahead. That’s also when I read books for this blog (in addition to what I read for Kirkus), play games (besides the ones I review), socialize with friends, run errands, do housework, spend time with my boyfriend, and basically get as far away from my computer screen as possible.
Not to mention some weeks are hectic as hell and I don’t have time to do my 3-week-old pile of laundry, let alone work on my novel.
But I’m not very happy with this excuse, and that’s what it is — an excuse. Because novel revision isn’t easy, and it requires sacrifice, hard work, and a good schedule. I can handle the first two, but I need help with the last one. Does anyone have any tips that are particularly useful for the revision stage? My goal for this coming year is to update this blog with some sort of monthly progress — not necessarily specific examples, but general problems I encountered and how I overcame them so you can, too.
What do you think? Any ideas? I’d love to hear them even if you’re not writing a novel yourself.
If you’ve peeked at my “About” page, then you know I’m polishing up my first novel. Currently I’m shoulder-deep in revision, which is ten times harder than actually writing the book was—and that’s quite the accomplishment for anyone, especially aspiring authors, who often stop before they finish.
I’m proud to say I finished, and no matter how hard the work the remains is, it won’t stop me from getting the book done.
I’m interested in knowing what other people think is the most difficult part of the writing process—be it book, poem, or short story. Here’s an outline of the major steps.
Writing — To attempt any writing task, you must sit down, leak those creative juices for however many hours it takes, and stay your hand every time it tries to edit or nit-pick. You also have to finish it, and that’s often where beginner writers get stuck. I found that following a disciplined schedule (x number of words per night, or every other night, or per week) greatly facilitates completing the work by your personal or official deadline. For example, if you’re shooting for a 60,000 word book, you can calculate how many words you should write and how often in order to finish by a certain date.
Reading and trying light writing exercises can help struggling writers power through those dreaded blank screens. Blogs—or any kind of vehicle for practicing writing every day—make it easy to stay in shape and fend off writer’s block, which is really just a poor excuse!
Revising — It makes logical sense, to me anyway, to start with heavy revision and then top it off with a final dusting of editing and proofreading. Revision involves fleshing out characters, tightening dialogue, livening descriptions, and correcting any errors in the narrative. This part takes longer to complete just because it doesn’t necessarily mesh with a set schedule or routine. At a certain point a writer must say, “Enough!” and move on from a given section or chapter, but revising devours the writer’s time and energy because so much of it is spent going over the same sentences, paragraphs, and whole chapters numerous times. Revision requires a slow progression, rather than one that involves moving from the first chapter to the last and then repeating the process several times, a troublesome strategy that allows for more continuity mistakes and increases the likelihood of missing out on those “ding!” moments—mental clicks that lend the added depth and richness your story needs.
I usually refresh by reading previously revised chapters, making small edits along the way without lingering for too long, before starting the next chapter and working on it five or six times until satisfied. Your first draft is where the magic happens; revision turns that magic into a presentable magic show.
Editing/Proofreading — A more manageable task than revision, editing and proofreading iron out any remaining kinks in the writing, attending specifically to grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Hiring an editor to assist with this part is instrumental to successful publication. Even if you’re competent in this department like me, it’s probably a good idea to consult outside help.
Sharing — Depending on how high-profile your piece of writing is, you might choose to share you writing before pursuing publication. This is a definite step for me as an aspiring first-time author: I want to ensure my novel is as impressive and reader-friendly as it can be before shooing it off to agents and potential publishers.
Honest feedback from trusted sources is key. I’ve already talked to a few people about sending them advanced manuscripts in exchange for thorough criticism. If you do the same, do your volunteers a courtesy and pay for printing and shipping costs—and give them a mention in your book’s dedications, too.
Publishing — This is one of the biggest hurdles in the process for any writer. All that hard work and time is put to the test. Either it pays off now, or you’re stuck with an unsellable manuscript. If unsuccessful, self-publishing and/or entering the e-book market is another option, but prepare to make a substantial financial investment and, if you push past that, expect lower sales than normal. I’m aiming to publish traditionally because, while my chances of acquiring a book deal are naturally slim, the return can be far greater in the long run.
Marketing — The responsibility of marketing a book rests largely in the author’s hands, and it’s good to have an established platform (online blogs, presentations, community involvement, etc.) to help spread the news of your book’s launch. Failing to secure adequate sales can hurt your chances of publication in the future. Read up on marketing tactics and form a plan early.
Did I miss any steps? What part of the writing process do you struggle with? Please share any anecdotes or advice in the comments below.