Monday, June 20, 2016

Advice to New Authors- The Craft


New writers frequently ask me for advice. More often or not, it relates to getting published. "How do I find an agent?" or "How do I self-publish?" 

One aspect that new authors frequently overlook, especially "indie-published" authors, is learning the craft of writing.

We're all bound by Meno's Paradox. Simply put, it's the idea that we can't know what we don't know.
All my life, people told me what a great writer I was, and I suppose, compared to my contemporaries, I had more skill and enthusiasm, but five-paragraph essays didn't teach me how to write fiction. For example, I didn't know my narrator "head-hopped" because I'd never heard of the term.

When I joined my first writer's workshop, I remember posting my first sample chapters with a sense of trepidation, but an underlying confidence. I fully expected to receive the same kind of feedback I'd gotten all my life: "This is awesome! You're great!"

That didn't happen.

I found myself scrambling to look up all sorts of writing rules of which I'd never heard:
  • Maintaining a consistent point of view.
  • Showing vs Telling
  • As you know, Bob.
  • Avoiding adverbs.
  • Intrusive dialog tags. 

And many, many more...

I eventually took my thumb out of my mouth, got up off the floor, and set to improving my craft. My writing improved, as did the quality of critiques I provided for other writers, but no matter how much better I got, there was (and still is) more to learn. If I hadn't given that workshop a try, I'd have sent amateurish works out into the world, not because I didn't want to be the best I could be, but because I didn't know what was wrong with them in the first place.

I see this all the time. New authors whose books are terrible, or not bad, but deeply flawed due to ignorance or flouting of literary conventions. I've seen some writers get off to a hot start, thanks to an appealing book cover, snappy product description, and good pricing and marketing strategies, only to lose steam as readers discover how poorly-written their books are.

Author David Eddings once gave this bit of fairly common advice to new writers (and I'm paraphrasing here): Write a million words. Make them the very best you can be. Bleed, sweat, and shed tears over them until they're perfect. Then throw them away. Now you're ready to write. 

I didn't understand that advice back then, but I do now. I didn't throw away the entirety of my first million words, but I threw away a lot of them. Generally speaking, there's a certain maturity to one's writing that can only be achieved with time, experience, and hard work. As a former teacher, my students sometimes come to me and say, "I've finished my book. I've had it checked for typos and punctuation errors. Now, how do I get it published?" Those situations are difficult for me, because I absolutely don't want to burst the bubble of any writer, but I also know the best advice is, "Don't publish it. Get feedback, learn from it, and then write something better. Rinse and repeat."

Reality check:  I write light, pulpy action-adventure stories with thriller pacing. I'm no literary genius, but readers seem to like what I'm doing, and I try to get better with every book. That said, here's my advice to any writer who is interested in being published:

1. Learn the basic rules of writing.  
You can find this advice in many places. Check out books on writing from your local library or bookstore. Seek out online articles on the craft. Download informative podcasts. Take the time to learn as much as you can before you share your writing with anyone else.

2. Join a writing workshop
If you write speculative fiction, I recommend, but there are plenty of good workshops out there (Critters is one about which I've heard good things.) Some people like to be part of a local, face-to-face, writing/critique group. That's fine, but it has its limitations. The quality of your feedback is limited to what that specific group of people has to offer. An online workshop puts your work in front of a broader group of critique partners.

3. Find alpha and beta readers who read or write in your genre.
These are people who love the sorts of books you write, and hopefully love your writing. They're invaluable in helping you tell the sort of story readers in your genre want to read. For me, these are relationships I developed over time, some in writing workshops, some with fellow authors, and some among my readership as it grew.

4. Read current, popular books in your genre.
If you have no interest in commercial success, disregard this advice. If you want to sell books, it's important to know what's selling right now in your genre. If you're writing thrillers, you might pick up a few tidbits about prose, character, and dialog by re-reading Harry Potter every year, but you won't learn how to craft a tightly-plotted thriller, and you certainly won't learn what readers in your genre are hungry for right now.

You might be thinking, "That's fine for some writers, but I want to do my own thing," or "Won't my book be even better because I'm doing something different?" 
It won't.
If you're writing commercial fiction, you're creating a product to sell. Know your market. Give the market what it wants.

5. Read critically.
I've been a voracious reader since preschool, yet when I began writing fiction, I was woefully ignorant of many of the conventions of writing. That's because I read for pleasure, but not critically. Michael Stackpole once suggested that an author read a book twice. Read it once for pleasure, and then go back over it with a critical eye, trying to determine what the author did that made the book work (or not work) for you. Analyze the plot structure. Identify literary devices. Look at how the author creates tension, suspense, emotion. Since I read ebooks, I like to highlight well-constructed sentences or nicely-turned phrases that I can go back and learn from later. Let other authors be your teachers.

6. Level up.
Writers, especially indie authors, sometimes plateau. Without top-notch content editing that challenges us, and with the same old feedback from the same old sources, our grown can stagnate. Hopefully, over time, you'll outgrow many of your critique partners. That doesn't mean you throw them away, but you'll find yourself getting the same feedback from them, and will need to seek out new sources of feedback. This can come in the form of new critique partners or professional editors. You can also learn by reading more challenging books. Also, revisit older books, articles, and podcasts on writing to pick up tips you overlooked or weren't ready for the first time around.

 To sum it all up: Don't publish or seek publication without putting in the work to be the best writer you can be, and to make your manuscript the best it can be. Keep trying to improve.

Good luck and keep growing!

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