12 tips for new writers working on their first manuscript (aka, a letter to my past self)

writing a book

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.

writing happened

#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.

write trashy

#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.

word count gif

#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.

5 tips for reaching your reading goal in 2014

So you vowed to read 20, 30, 100 books this year. Awesome! Go you! But what if you didn’t meet your goal last year? How can you avoid falling short this time?*

books pileBe practical

If your goal last year was 50 books, don’t aim to read 60 this time. Tally how many you did read and set a reasonable goal. For example, if you read 30 out of the 50 you intended, push yourself to do 40. That’s still a challenge, but it’s much more practical and within reach.

Choose different lengths

Hey, there are no rules about how long a book has to be to qualify in a standard reading challenge. I saw someone on Goodreads who set the bar at 100 and read 99. Ninety-nine. Why on earth that person didn’t sneak in one more novella or graphic novel is beyond me.

Read whenever you can

Reading even a few pages at odd times during the day is better than not reading at all because you’re busy. Believe me: You can sneak in a few minutes here and there — at lunch, on the bus, while you’re making dinner, in the waiting room, whenever.

I like to squeeze in some reading before bed. Since bed is a “no work” zone, I can forget the stress of my responsibilities and obligations and focus on the book in my hands — and usually that means I get sucked in. What I plan as five minutes turns into an hour (or two).

I would also suggest putting down the remote and backing slowly away from the TV.

Stuck? Move on

Feel like you’ve been reading that one book forever? Do yourself a favor and let it go. It’s bogging you down and preventing you from reaching your goal for the week/month/year. And it’s not worth it. The more bored you get with the book, the more it becomes a chore to read and the more likely you are never to finish it at all. Don’t be stubborn. Drop it for something you will enjoy — at that point, probably anything else will strike you as a thousand times more interesting.

Mix it up

Avoid getting cemented in one genre. Vary what you read! If all you read is a hundred fantasy books in a row, there’s a good chance you’ll sigh over starting each one (unless you really, really love fantasy — and in that case, knock yourself out). But dabbling in different genres can make each book you read seem fresh, which is an important part of staying excited and motivated.

What are your tips for reading success in 2014?

*As a disclaimer, I didn’t make my goal last year, which is why I’m determined to change that. These tips have all been gleamed from the mistakes I’ve made, so they’re bound to be helpful to you, too.

Questions answered: Novel progress and New Year’s resolutions

writing

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.

What emus and Halo can teach us about world-building

Halo: Reach mapSo I did something very out of character this weekend: I played the sci-fi game Halo.

My boyfriend somehow managed to convince me to play Halo: Reach‘s co-op campaign with him last night. He knows I’m not a big first-person shooter fan, particularly when they involve any kind of military plot and characters (I love BioShock, on the other hand, and I’m hoping for Borderlands 2 for Christmas), so this was a little like teaching an emu to fly.

A few things happened. One, I actually had fun. I generally enjoy shooting things in video games. I thought the Grunts were adorable (in that so-ugly-they’re-cute way), even when I ran them — and the emus — over in a transport vehicle. Oh, yeah. The emus, or Moa as they’re called in Reach. The first time one came into view, I tried to shoot it (and missed, of course). But it was a great way to fool little ol’ me, who was expecting nothing more BUT to shoot enemies. It was a nice touch that endeared me to the game.

Halo: Reach MoaYou’re probably wondering by now what the hell this has to do with writing/world-building.

Well, we exited the game at one point so I could customize my Spartan (bright red armor with blue accents, oh yeah), and when we returned, we accidentally restarted at the first mission. Only we didn’t realize it at first. So we were saying, “This looks almost exactly like the other level. Why would they do that?” And then it clicked when I saw the emu.

Lesson is, diversity is important to building any world, whether it’s in a video game or a book. If all you can visualize is the same plot of land, with the same trees and hills, then you’re not thinking big enough. And video game environments are a great model to consider when you’re trying to create a world in your writing because sometimes you have to mentally see it before you can believe it — and your reader needs to believe that it’s real.

Author Stephen King agrees. He says, “See everything before you write it[via Galleycat]:

Take two pledges: First, not to insult your reader’s interior vision; and second, to see everything before you write it. The latter may mean you’ll find yourself writing more slowly than you’ve been accustomed to doing if you’ve been passing ideas (“It was a spooky old house”) off as imagery. The former may mean more careful rewriting if you’ve been hedging your bets by over-description; you’re going to have to pick up those old pruning shears, like it or not, and start cutting back to the essentials.

Adding fun creatures like emus — silly little details like that can make a big difference in how people react to your world, especially if they’re a defining part of it. Just have fun!

Recipe for the perfect writer’s cocktail

The Kindle Daily Post recently published a guest blog by Kate White (So Pretty It Hurts), Cosmo editor-in-chief and six-time published author. According to the mystery/thriller writer, she didn’t successfully pen her first book until she was over 40-years-old.

Succeeding as a writer didn’t mean buying “a roll-top desk” or surrounding herself with “notecards, pencils, edible-looking pink erasers, and everything else [she] thought an author would need.” It meant finding an atmosphere that liberated her creativity, setting a schedule that worked best for her, and fooling herself into writing for longer stretches than she felt like.

The first component is the right desk. One day I realized that I actually I hated my roll top. It made me feel hemmed in both physically and mentally. So I bought two filling cabinets and a block of wood and began to write on that. The big surface was utterly liberating. Over time, with a little experimentation, I also discovered that though I’m a night owl, I write most easily early in the morning. And I came to see that I can’t be forced to write for big blocks of time. I need to play the trick of telling myself that I’ll write for an hour, not an entire afternoon—but then I always keep going. Oddly, it helps, too, if Carmina Burana is playing. (Perhaps that sometimes ominous-sounding music is good for creating whodunits).

The most important part may be not making excuses. Yes, you’re busy. Yes, you’d rather make time for the billion easier things in your life, like watching whole television seasons and redecorating your house and catching up on blogs every morning, afternoon, and night. But if you’re going to do that instead, be honest with yourself: You’re not writing that novel. At least not now.

If you’re going to write a book, write a book. If it needs revised, revise it. Remember that the many parts of the writing process are not always fun, and they’re definitely not glamorous. Stop procrastinating, sweat a little, and you’ll be rewarded with progress. Do whatever you need to do to get there, but don’t use the material world with its perfect pink erasers and notecards as roadblocks to actual writing. Your work doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to happen. Each step you take is one step closer than you were yesterday.

The importance of voice, flow, and courteous editing

Luc Sante wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal recently about finding (and listening to) the editor within. He hits some really good notes—like how being a good writer is not the same as being a good editor, although the two are closely linked.

Toward the end, Sante offers what is arguably his best advice:

One of the means to assure such things is constant rereading. I reread from the top—or some similar landmark if the work is long—whenever I take a significant break from writing, and that doesn’t just mean overnight but includes eating lunch, going to the bathroom, answering the phone and searching for elusive facts.

Rereading not only ferrets out problems, but it also ensures continuity of voice, as well as that elusive quality dear to both writers and rappers: flow. Constant rereading, which can be done out loud if you don’t trust your inner ear, is especially important now that progress has eliminated the tiresome but useful drudgery of retyping. Sometimes a glaring error that you motored blithely past a dozen times will become apparent only on the 13th read.

In the time I’ve worked as a writing tutor and copy editor, I’ve learned two undeniable tenets of the trade: Ripping other people’s writing to shreds is easy. Doing as much to our own happens far less frequently.

The key is a balanced approach. Take a little space and time to let the writing simmer and breathe, no matter whose it is. Reread not only for flow, but to concentrate on various aspects of the piece and allows yourself to catch different sorts of problems. Keep the voice, cut the excess, and dispose of words that hinder effective communication—no matter how enamored you are with a particular phrase. Most importantly, trust your gut. If something feels wrong when reading a sentence, it probably needs work. This instinct applies to whole paragraphs, too.

Be gentle with other people’s writing. As much as you might want to because you’re a Grammar Nazi or the Best Writer Ever in your world, don’t take sadistic joy in tearing another person’s efforts apart. I learned this through experience. The best method is to look for weak openings in grammar, punctuation, and style while keeping a close eye on readability and clarity. Don’t overload sentences and make sure, whatever you do, that the author’s voice is intact. Have a firm, irrefutable reason for changing anything.

Voice is important for our own writing, as well. Sometimes when we edit we’re tempted to iron out any hint of personality for fear that it might sound too informal or risky. But often a little flavor can elevate even the most perfected writing, taking it from flat to extraordinary! Like Burrito Kitty here.