Over the last year, I’ve had several readers email me or post comments on various social media about how they want to be writers too and did I have any tips for them. I’ve been surprised, and honored, and slightly intimidated by the requests. It’s a wonderful feeling to have a person like your work enough to think of you as someone who could help them get started too. So thank you for asking.
Honestly, I’m still figuring this stuff out as well. I will say that I feel like I’ve learned a ton just in the last year. And, while I certainly don’t think of myself as any kind of expert, I thought I’d share my biggest ah-ha’s with those of you who’ve expressed interest. I hope at least one of these tips is helpful to you.
Finish a Book
Start with finishing a book (and keep trying). It took me a long time (I’m not putting the years cause it’ll date me) and probably about twenty different uncompleted manuscripts before I finally finished my first book (Blue Violet). Once I did that, things just kind of took off and I’m about to publish my third book only a year later.
Just Finish One – Finishing the first book is the hardest part. Even if you decide it’s awful and you never publish that one, just going through the process will hone your skills to be better on the next one. And you’ll know that you can do it. Passing that mental hurdle is huge.
Don’t Wait for the Perfect Idea – Don’t think that your first book needs to be a Pulitzer Prize Winner or a New York Times Best Seller. You probably have lots of ideas. Pick one and write it. Then pick another, and another, and another. The ideas start flowing the more you write.
Just Start – Don’t wait to have the entire plot mapped out to perfection. I’ve seen writers out-think themselves and never write a word. You don’t even have to start at the beginning. Pick one scene and write it. Build from there.
– I know I just said you don’t have to have it mapped out. But I do find storyboarding to be useful. I will storyboard before I write, but I change it and build it as I go, rather than having it perfect from the start. It also helps with writer’s block (see next tip). You’ll have to figure out which is right for you in the moment – just getting started or mapping everything out first. I use a combo.
Deal with Writer’s Block – There are bazzillions of blog posts and articles on dealing with writer’s block. Find a technique or two that works for you. My personal favs – I force myself to write at least 3 pages a day even if I cut that material later. I jump from scene to scene rather than write the book from beginning to end. I approach a scene from a different character’s point of view. I work on my storyboard – maybe I’m stuck because I don’t know where to go next.
Always Try to Grow Your Skills – Critique groups help a lot with this. But also try workshops, writing exercises, and other things along those lines. You might discard 10 out of every 11 things you try or learn. But you also might find some new techniques that really work for you.
The Editing Phase
Don’t underestimate the editing. You finally finish your first book, and you think “I’m done!”. Nope. You’re just getting started. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of spending time in the editing phase. It’s not just about grammar.
Find an Editor You Love – I got really lucky with this. The first editor I tried fit my writing style, personality, and needs perfectly. She works with me very closely on the content first (wording, flow, pace, character development, you name it) before we ever dig deeply into the grammar and style. She is blunt and picky (in a good way) and I totally love her for it. Do I take every suggestion she makes? Absolutely not. Do I strongly consider each one and apply what I think is best for the book and my style? Absolutely. There are lots of editors out there who you can find through various sites and services. Try a few until you find one you like.
Get Beta Readers & a Critique Group – These folks are kind enough to read your stuff for free (not always all of it, but the important parts) and give you candid feedback. It’s well worth the time and effort to find these folks. Sometimes they’re friends, sometimes other authors, sometimes formalized groups through sites or services. Some you pay, some are free. Find what works for you.
Befriend Other Authors – This has happened naturally for me as I’ve gone along. But I now have a few author friends who share their own experiences and tips with me and vice versa. Not only about writing, but about editing, publishing, marketing, etc.
Multiple Phases of Editing – Do not think that you only need one round of grammatical edits when you finish writing your book. Find a cadence of phases of editing that works for you. Personally I spend at least as much time on editing as I did writing the first draft. And I feel like I still need more, so I’m trying to increase that time without pushing out my publishing schedule. Here are the phases of editing that work for me…
- Phase 1 – My personal edits (1-2) of the book after I finish the first draft.
- Phase 2 – Send specific trouble spots to my critique group for feedback (usually the first – and most important – chapter). Send to first round of beta readers for initial feedback.
- Phase 3 – Editor round 1 – content focus (plot, pace, character development, wording, etc.)
- Phase 4 – Send to second round of beta readers for additional feedback.
- Phase 5 – Editor round 2 – final content clean up; nuances & grammar
- Phase 6 – 1 to 2 personal edits.
- Phase 7 (optional) – Editor round 3 – Sometimes I do a 3rd round with my editor if I feel enough stuff had to change after round 2.
- Phase 8 – Send to my Mom, who happens to be a high school English teacher, for 2 rounds of final grammar checks.
- Phase 9 – Revisit the book 1-2 months after publishing and do another grammar sweep. (Sounds odd, I know, but you get numb to editing after a while – helps to have that break – and it’s usually only little stuff at that point.)
Things You Might Not Think About
These are a couple of random things I’ve learned along the way, mostly from my editor or other authors. These are in no particular order and there’s a lot more of tips like this out there – search for blogs and articles and you’ll find a plethora of tips like this.
Talking Heads – Talking heads happen during long portions of dialogue when the only action you give your characters is facial expressions. Real live people move around when they talk – hand gestures, sitting, standing, pacing, eating, something. Don’t write talking heads. But don’t go overboard with their actions either.
Chapter Length – The rule of thumb I was given (particularly for ebooks) was roughly 5 typed pages per chapter (double spaced). I don’t tend to go under that, but I’ll go as long as 8 pages.
Importance of Chapter Endings – The goal is to keep your readers interested. Right? So try to give them “cliff-hangery” endings for each chapter. You want your reader to say, “Oh, just a little more,” because they can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Take Notes for Yourself – Especially if you’re going to write a series, take notes. Note your characters’ physical descriptions, their full names, any details about them really. Note minor characters names and anything specific about them. Actually, just note anything that is specific (places, names, descriptions, relationships, etc.). You’ll be surprised at how often something you think of as minor gets referenced again later and you’ll thank yourself for the notes.
Spread Out Character Descriptions – I’m still working on this one. Try to space out the description of your character and incorporate into the flow of the story. So rather than one long paragraph describing all their key features, say something like, “she tucked a long blond strand of hair behind her ear” and don’t even mention her eye color, or height, or smile, or that little freckle on her cheek until a little later.
Avoid Telling – Try to show. I know that sounds vague. But “She was nervous.” is telling. “Her foot was tapping a mile a minute below the desk.” is showing. There will still be times when you tell. But try to show as much as you can.
Those are my tips – take ’em or leave ’em. Personally, I still feel like an amateur author. I have to wonder if that feeling ever goes away. This is a craft and something I try to grow and develop with each new book. I’ve also found, as I meet more authors, that every one of us is unique. Each author has their own opinions about what makes good writing. Some like tons of description, others like none. Some want more character development, others focus more on pace. Some are more particular about grammatical nuances like use of fragments or making up words. Let me tell you now… there is no one right way.
So I will close with my biggest piece of advice… Believe in yourself as a writer. You will have your own style and your own opinions. Stick with those and don’t let someone tell you you’re wrong. Absolutely consider the advice that your beta readers, critique groups, editors, other authors, friends, and family give. But at the end of the day it’s your voice. Own it.