Tag Archives: how to be a writer

The path to becoming an author #amwriting

People often say they want to write a book. I used to say that too.

In 1985 I came across my first stumbling block on my path to becoming a writer. I didn’t know it, but to go from dreamer to storyteller is easy. Anyone can do it.

But if we choose to become an author, we’re taking a walk through an unknown landscape.

And the place where we go from dreamer to storyteller to author is the hardest part.

At first the path is gentle and easy to walk. As children, we invent stories and tell them to ourselves. As adults, we daydream about the stories we want to read, and we tell them to ourselves.

That part of the walk is easy. At some point, we become brave enough to sit down and put the story on paper.

The blank screen or paper is like an empty pond. All we have to do is add words, and the story will tell itself.

The first impedance that would-be authors come to on their way to filling the word-pond with words is a wide, deep river. It’s running high and fast with a flood of “what ifs” and partially visualized ideas.

If you truly want to become a writer, you must cross this river. If you don’t, the path ends here. While this river flows into the word-pond, the real path that takes us to a finished story is on the other side of this stream.

Fortunately, the river has several widely spaced steppingstones. Landing squarely on each one requires effort and a leap of faith, but the determined writer can do it.

The last thing you do before you step off the bank and begin crossing that river is this: visualize what your story is about.

The first stone you must leap to is the most difficult to reach. It is the one most writers who remain only dreamers falter at:

  • You must give yourself permission to write.

We have this perception that it is selfish to spend a portion of our free time writing. It is not self-indulgent. We all must earn a living because very few writers are able to live on their royalties. If writing is your true craft, you must carve the time around your day job to do it. All you need is one undisturbed hour a day.

The second stone is an easy leap:

  • Become literate. Educate yourself.

Buy books on the craft of writing. Buy and use the Chicago Manual of Style. You can usually find used copies on Amazon for around $10 – $15, passed on by those who couldn’t quite make the first leap.

I freely admit to using the internet for research, often on a daily basis, and I buy eBooks. However, my office bookshelves are filled with reference books on the craft of writing. I buy them as paper books because I am always looking things up. The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the most well-worn there.

Most professional editors rely on the CMOS because it’s the most comprehensive style guide—it has the answer for whatever your grammar question is. Best of all, it’s geared for writers of all streaks: essays, novels, all varieties of fiction, and nonfiction.

The third stone is the reason we decided to write in the first place:

  • Good writers never stop reading for pleasure.

We begin as avid readers. A book resonates with us, makes us buy the whole series, and we never want to leave that world.

We soon learn that books like that are few and far between.

The fourth stone is an easy leap from that:

  • We realize that we must write the book we want to read.

As we reach the far bank, we climb up and across the final hurdle:

  • We finish the work, whether it’s a novel or short story.

Over the years since I first began writing, I’ve labored under many misconceptions. It was a shock to me when I discovered that we who write aren’t really special.

Who knew?

We’re extremely common, as ordinary as programmers and software engineers. Everyone either wants to be a writer, is a writer, has a writer in the the family, or knows one.

Even my literary idols aren’t superhuman.

Because there are so many of us, it’s difficult to stand out. We must be highly professional, easy to work with, and literate.

Filling the pond with words and creating a story that hooks a reader is as easy as daydreaming and as difficult as giving birth.

Because writers are so numerous, every idea has been done. Popular tropes soon become stale and fall out of fashion.

A study by the University of Vermont says there are “six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives.” These are:

  1. Rags to riches (protagonist starts low and rises in happiness)
  2. Tragedy, or riches to rags (protagonist starts high and falls in happiness)
  3. Man in a hole (fall–rise)
  4. Icarus (rise–fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise–fall–rise)
  6. Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall)

No stale idea has ever been done your way.

We give that idea some thought. We apply a thick layer of our own brand of “what if.”

It’s our different approaches to these stories that make us each unique.

Sure, we’re writing an old story. But with a fresh angle, perseverance, and sheer hard work, we might be able to sell it.

And that is what makes the effort and agony of getting that book published and into the hands of prospective readers worthwhile.

15 Comments

Filed under writing

#NewYears Advice from Grandma #amwriting

A new year is approaching, and as the resident grandma, I feel compelled to let you know that you are loved and worthy of the good things in life.

Every now and then I come across an author who is devastated by a lack of reviews, or sales, and is desperate to move into the “big kid’s pool.” I was that kid, once.

First, let me say that I read because I am an escape artist. I want to be completely immersed in a world elsewhere, anywhere that is not this world. I write because my favorite authors are unable to turn out a book a week, which would be what I require to satisfy my reading habit. So, I write the stories I want to read.

But I am a ‘niche’ reader. I love Tolkien, and his epic style, and Tad Williams with his lush story development. I adore Neil Gaiman and his meandering prose. I liked Robert Jordan’s side quests and multiple story lines.

I also adore George Saunders, and Patrick Rothfuss, and Erin Morgenstern.

This means my work doesn’t resonate with everyone.

I know! I was shocked to discover this too!

When I was first published in 2011, I would read my hard-earned reviews and be alternately elated or depressed. It came to a point where I couldn’t write because I was so concerned about what readers who also review would say, and that overwhelming concern stifled my ability to tell my stories.

I had allowed my damaged ego to become a vampire, sucking the joy from my creativity.

My own grandmother was right—listening to your ego is always a mistake. Your best bet is to put a gag on it and lock it in a closet.

Nowadays I don’t read my reviews, good or bad. I ignore them because they either feed my despair and lack of self-worth or they artificially inflate my ego. These mental conditions can’t coexist with my true desire to just write what I want to read. I have embraced the fact that I am writing the stories I want to read, and this means I can’t care about writing in commercially viable genres.

What I do have to care about is writing to the best of my ability, writing the story that makes me happy, and learning as much about the craft of writing that I am able.

My work is weird, it’s odd, it’s “out there.” My early books each have flaws I wouldn’t repeat if I were writing them now, but despite the flaws inherent in these early novels, they have life and passion and characters who are real to me, and I still love those stories. My growth as an author has been gradual, but the growth is clear in my more recent work.

We all have this desire to have the work we have so lovingly written and struggled to produce be accepted, and be as beloved by the world as we think it should be. We all want to write award-winning bestsellers.

But that star-struck need to be loved by millions of readers is just noise, wind in your ears distracting you from your real task. Ask yourself, “Am I an author writing a story I am passionate about, or am I calculatedly producing a marketable product?”

When I noticed my books were not easy to market, I asked myself that question. I had to also ask, “If I am pouring time and energy into creating a marketable product, who is going to market it?” The answer was “No one.” I certainly don’t have time to become a marketer if I am creating the product, nor do I have the funds to hire a marketing firm.

My point is this: if I must be strapped to the millstone, grinding away on a book I don’t love, why would I even do it? I retired from that sort of work in 2007, and believe me, working in a data entry pool gives the word “boring” new meaning.

I have no problem pegging out a short story to fit the theme and parameters of a contest or an anthology. In fact, I enjoy doing so, and try to write at least one a month. But an entire novel written to fit someone else’s idea of what my ‘genre’ should be?

No.

Ask yourself, “Do I write because I am passionate about a story? Or do I want to mindlessly enter data to fit some formulaic template readers will chew up and forget as soon as they’ve swallowed it?” Decide what you want to be known for, and pursue that goal.

I am an author. I have accepted that my head occasionally makes noise that steals my creativity. For the last few years, I have chosen to ignore the voices and immerse myself in my chosen craft, and I do this for a purely selfish reason: I want to tell my own stories.

I don’t care if my novels are acceptable to the general reading public or not. I am proud to be a niche reader and proud to be writing the niche stories I want to read, stories that don’t fit into the boxes that genre-Nazis would like to enforce on all authors.

This supremely selfish aspect of my personality keeps me going, keeps me pouring my heart, my life into something others likely won’t see, and if they do chance upon it, they may not find it to their taste.

The fact is, I am writing novels and doing the best I can to turn out a good book. This is all I care about, and I am proud of what I do, whether my work resonates with a broad spectrum of readers or not. I love what I write, and a niche group of readers seems to enjoy it, women more often than men.

That makes sense to me, as I am a woman, and this is what I want to read. While I’d like to have the world love my work, ultimately my own enjoyment is all that matters.

And that is the wisdom this old lady would like to impart to you: Write because you have a passion for a story, learn all you can about the craft, and develop your own voice.

Don’t listen to the voices on the wind, because they will suck the joy out of you. Listen to the still voice in your heart, and write something you will want to read.

I’m a reviewer as well as a reader, but don’t write your novel for me. Write it for yourself, and enjoy the ride. Chances are, I will see the good in your work and the good will more than outweigh the flaws.

3 Comments

Filed under writing

#amwriting: so you want to be a writer

Dial-a-PlotSo, you want to be a writer. You have written several unpublished short works, and they were darned good, if you do say so yourself. Your novel is half finished, and your cousin, Phil, says he’s never read anything like it.

One of the many things I didn’t realize when I first began this crazy journey, is that your family and friends are not editors. Even if they are teachers, it’s likely they won’t notice anything but the most glaring errors in your work, and they will miss a great many of those.

Unless your cousin Phil is an author himself, he won’t mention places where you have repeated yourself ad nauseum, nor will he point out places that are phrased in a convoluted way.

Because these places are both annoying and confusing, Phil has most likely skipped over them, and didn’t mention it because he didn’t want to hurt your feelings. Large plot-holes, inadvertent use of clichés, and intriguing auto-correct mistakes get missed when your eager-to-help friends try to edit your work.

Your friends might know they don’t like what you wrote, but they don’t know why they don’t like it so they plow through it as fast as they can just to get the misery done with. They will spot a few problems, which helps, but isn’t going to make your manuscript readable.

Oh, your friends aren’t going to tell you they don’t like it, but they will think it: “This is awful. What’s up with the dog…is he an arsonist? No…it was apparently the Guinea pig but…no. God, this is the worst drivel I’ve ever read. How do I get out of this? Um…I’ll tell her it was great, I loved it.”

Consider joining an online beginners’ writing group. A lot of useful information can be found through these two free resources:

  • NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) nanowrimo.org They operate year round and have many resources available to help you get started.
  • Critters Workshop critters.org

Critter is an excellent place to get feedback on your work, in a way that doesn’t feel threatening. New authors should definitely consider joining the critters workshop.

a writer's stylePLEASE don’t publish your work without first having it edited professionally, or at the very least, read by an advanced writers group. You have no idea what your manuscript actually looks like. An advanced writing group will tell you the ugly truth, and they won’t be kind about it, but once they are done with you, you will reconsider your decision to not hire an editor.

If you plan to submit it to a large publisher, do hire an editor so that what you submit will be the best you can offer them.

If you are in the beginning stages of your writing career, invest in books on the craft of writing. Many books are available used through Amazon dot com, and many are available as affordable eBooks, also through Amazon. And you don’t need a Kindle, as you can download the free app for your PC, Mac, Android, or Apple device.

Books on the craft that are on my desk and in use today:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style
  • The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus
  • Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
  • The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker
  • The Sound on the Page by Ben Yagoda
  • Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland

Books that help when I am stuck:

  • The Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
  • The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

Three websites a beginner should go to if they want instant answers in plain English:

Writing is not just a career for me—it is an obsession. Anything involving books is the proverbial shiny thing for me. All of my inspiration has come from the many excellent writers whose works moved me.

Better You Go Home, Scott DriscollI am also inspired by those authors whose workshops I have been fortunate enough to attend. Consider this high quality online option for learning the craft of writing:

Introduction to Fiction Writing at The Writer’s Workshop, instructor, Scott Driscoll.

This is admittedly not  free, but it is an exceptionally in-depth exploration of the craft. I have attended some seminars offered by Scott at several conferences and have never come away disappointed.

Remember, writing is a career path that requires dedication, and commitment to learning and growth. The money you spend going to workshops and conferences is an investment you make in your career. You not only learn about the craft of writing, but you will also learn the business aspect, and make no mistake: regardless of whether you are traditionally published or indie published, this is a business.

via buzzfeed

via buzzfeed

It’s not always easy, and sometimes it is hard to see progress. But with each completed project you gain strength and confidence. Your work evolves, growing in readability and your voice as an author becomes recognizably yours.

Writers finish their work. Many people will begin walking this path, believing they want to be writers. They like the idea of being a writer, and may claim to be a writer, but when you ask them about their work, they will tell you they don’t have time to write, and their work was only halfway begun when they had to stop.

The fact that you once sat in a Ferrari does not make you a Formula One driver.

I always urge writers to write every day, even if it is only for fifteen minutes. If you are not committed to writing regularly, your novel will never see the light of day.

Write regularly, and finish that book.

9 Comments

Filed under Literature, writer, writing