Dream, Hope Believe, Dare, Risk, Try: Advice for New Writers
I spend a lot of time picking on individuals who shout to the world, “I’m going to write a novel” or tout their newest written concoction as a bestseller when, actually, they haven’t studied one piece of literature or haven’t taken any steps to learn how to put together a well-written novel.
I spend far too little time applauding the writers who write while they learn. Those are the ones who understand that writing isn’t liking speaking. Some folks can weave their words into the most terrific audible stories. I envy those who leave listeners spellbound. Garrison Keillor I am not. I find it easier to put the words down on the paper designed for me by Microsoft. Why? Because there I can play with the words I have chosen to tell my story. I can backtrack and eliminate mistakes in plot before anyone sees them. I can advance my learning through practice of the art that has chosen me.
That’s my encouragement for new authors today, especially those who are sitting down daily and struggling to learn the elements of storytelling. I want to shout to the heavens that the maddening structure will fall in place and soon your voice will emerge as you adapt the structure to suit your needs.
For those who are thinking about entering the fray, I’d like to share a few tips that might have helped me along my way faster, if I’d but known:
1. Find a writers’ group. Many towns have groups that meet to critique or to discuss the publishing world. Otherwise, there are a myriad of groups online. If possible, find a group that teaches and also offers critique. More importantly, find a group that has members who are a little more experienced. Don’t avoid other new authors though. Newbies who are learning to write are sponges that you don’t even need to squeeze in order to elicit information. What they’ve learned pours out of them. They soak it up and ooze it out in their enthusiasm. Oh, and make sure that you find the right group with regard to the industry. Whether it’s the difference between secular and Christian fiction or between genres, a deliberate decision needs to be made to join a group that feels comfortable. For example, while I read every adult genre for edits, hand me a children’s book, and I’ll hand you poor advice every time.
2. Learn the elements of fiction. Other authors might break these down differently, but I view and teach the elements as follows:
- Pacing (includes specific to the genre and how to avoid back story dumps)
- Character (I place description under character as it is the character’s job to provide the description, saving the author from mucking it up)
- Point of View (and I believe the deeper the better)
- Show (and not tell, which is aided tremendously by deep point of view)
The only element that is in a preferential order is plot. A story cannot be written without plot, and every element underneath goes inside the plot, always moving it forward (never backward). After plotting, I always suggest that a writer work on point of view because a good knowledge of point of view lifts every element in the story up a notch or two.
3. Not every author approaches a book the same. Authors hear a lot about word counts per day, hours per day, stay off social media, get the job done. The truth is, all of this advice is good advice, but an author needs to find the approach that works best for him or her. Perhaps the weekends are the time when an author can let every scene she played in her mind break forth on to paper. She exhausts the scenes and through the work week ahead, she lets the characters play in her mind again only to start it all over again the next weekend. Other authors are methodical with word count. Others put in a set amount of hours every day. Others are flighty and hardly know how to manage time, but in a moment here or there, come up with brilliant material. Me? I usually put so much in front of my writing that I edge it out. I’ve found recently that setting a 500 word count per session (with more than one session set per day) usually gets me to 2,000 words in the first session. Basically, in telling myself that I have to quit at a certain time, the rebel in me comes out and says, “Oh, yeah. Watch this.” I look up, and I realize that I’ve poured words into more than one chapter, and I wonder how I got there, but the trip was a great one even if I didn’t remember how I got there. Moral of this point: be proactive in the time put into writing, but don’t let anyone declare there is only one right way. Truth is, there’s only one wrong way, and that’s not to write at all.
4. When new writers are starting out, they are basically at the mercy of anyone who will teach them. That’s why the advice in #2 above is so important. If someone doesn’t know the basics of a job, how are they going to receive instruction. Someone could inadvertently send him or her on the wrong path. Before an author knows it, she’s Lucy Ricardo in the chocolate factory stuffing bonbons in her mouth trying to keep up with the job. I don’t know a single individual who ever purposefully gave me bad information on writing. Everyone I know has been very gracious in their efforts to help me succeed. However, I have learned the hard way that not everyone who offers advice understands why they give it. In other words, they’ve heard it from someone who heard it from someone, who heard it from someone. On down the line information is perpetrated, and no one seems to understand why. For instance, have you ever been told not to write passively? That is good advice that turns bad when a writer then tries to make every sentence active–even those that require a passive structure. He went to the store says something entirely different than he was going to the store. He went means he’s been there. He was going means that he either had the intent or the person who is making the statement believes he’s on the way. When I started learning the whys of the rules, that’s when I began to enjoy grammar and punctuation, which leads to my next point.
5. The little things do matter. I’ve told this story many times about a New York Times bestselling author whose work I love dearly. She scoffed at my need to study grammar and punctuation. She indicated that those little things are why we have editors. First of all, she might have gotten away with that statement because she’s published, and well-published. She doesn’t have trouble selling her work. However, I’m talking to new authors. Editors and agents aren’t going to take an author seriously if they don’t know the little things. In the business, those little things are usually the first indication that an author isn’t approaching the work professionally. As I said, my author friend might have gotten away with her statement, except that she had an idea for a series that didn’t fit with her big city publisher. A small publisher jumped at the chance to print her work. Too bad they didn’t have a competent editor to work with her. The spelling and grammar errors were atrocious. Oh, I loved the story, but my editing eyes were jarred from its telling many times.
6. Learn as you go. Authors don’t need to learn everything overnight. The truth is, some authors are going to shine with some elements and not in others. Some are going to paint beautiful pictures of sunsets for their readers. Others are going to zero in on a character and bring that character so alive the reader believes him or her to be a best friend. If we all wrote with the same intensity in all the areas of writing, chances are readers would give up reading. Readers truly do judge a book by the elements a writer uses. They are prone to authors who focus on the elements they like in a story. The funny thing is most readers who do not write, have no idea why they enjoy one author over another. Knowing all of the elements allows an author to develop a voice, which comes about as the author’s knowledge of an element and their focus on certain elements develop. The key is to learn the elements and practice them, one or two at a time and to realize that authors write differently. Some, like me, use description only when it is absolutely necessary to the story. Readers who read my books aren’t looking for heavy doses of scenery. Another author might be high on conflict. Readers who like to read on the edge of their seats are going to migrate to that author. Those who like subtle conflict are going to settle down with an author who presents that for them. Your voice will be determined by your strengths and weaknesses, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
7. While I have a friend who started writing thirty years after I began and she was published a couple of years prior to me, I’m still going to say this: don’t think that from The End to contract is an overnight occurrence. Start learning the market early and when the final revision of the story is ready for pitching, get it out there to the right places while you’re working on the second or third or fourth book.
8. Don’t give up. If you’re a writer, don’t let anyone tell you that your dreams aren’t worthy. Realize, though, that sometimes our dreams need action behind them to make them happen. In other words, if someone says an author isn’t ready, and that author doesn’t truly know if they can write or not, the next step should not be to give up and go to a vanity press or to self-publish.
At this point, I have self-published authors gasping and thinking, “She hates the independent author.”
That’s not true. I love all authors. Authors don’t give up. They keep learning, they realize they will always need to learn, but they will get to a point when they will know–through the wisdom of others or through diligent study–that they have arrived at a point where their work is ready to sell. Some authors get unwise counsel. Their stories are published, even by traditional publishers, when they are far from ready. The result is a loss of trust in the author’s abilities by those who spent money on the book. Whether self-publishing or under contract, an author needs to be very wise and objective about his or her abilities. The lack of knowledge and the lack of objectivity can cost them–and others–which leads to my final point.
9. Whatever you do, do your best. I know that my audience is mostly Christians, so authors, don’t think that God has set a task before you, and just because He has sent the orders means that whatever you present will be a worthy offering. Like Abel, no matter the cost, give God the first fruits of your labor, and make that offering the best that it can be.
Fay Lamb (The Tactical Editor) is an author, editor, and writing coach, who loves to work with authors to help them meet their goals.
Her emotionally charged stories remind the reader that God is always in the details. Fay has contracted three series. Stalking Willow and Better than Revenge, Books 1 and 2 in the Amazing Grace romantic suspense series are currently available for purchase. Charisse and Libby the first two novels in her The Ties That Bind contemporary romance series have been released. Fay has also collaborated on two Christmas novella projects: The Christmas Three Treasure Hunt, A Ruby Christmas, and the Write Integrity Press romance novella series, which includes A Dozen Apologies, The Love Boat Bachelor, and Unlikely Merger. Her adventurous spirit has taken her into the realm of non-fiction with The Art of Characterization: How to Use the Elements of Storytelling to Connect Readers to an Unforgettable Cast.
Future releases from Fay are: Everybody’s Broken and Frozen Notes, Books 3 and 4 of Amazing Grace and Hope and Delilah, Books 3 and 4 from The Ties that Bind.
Fay loves to meet readers, and you can find her on her personal Facebook page, her Facebook Author page, and at The Tactical Editor on Facebook. She’s also active on Twitter. Then there are her blogs: On the Ledge, Inner Source, and the Tactical Editor. And, yes, there’s one more: Goodreads. Anyone interested in learning more about Fay’s freelance editing and her coaching, should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org