Who’s the crazy writer, you ask? Me, of course! It’s been a long time since I started this journey, and I can remember way back to my very first story. I even remember the name of said story (we’ll get to that later). Over the years, I’ve learned enough to write a short book about this (is that really a surprise?), and I thought I’d share some of that (hard-earned) wisdom with you aspiring novelists out there. What’s a true journey if you don’t learn some things?
It started one dark, stormy night… No, I’m joking. By the way, a side thought: that’s a really cliche way of starting a story. Please don’t do that, unless you don’t care about being published. Unless you’re trying to be funny or ironic. You might be able to make it work if you’re going for irony. Okay, I’m going off on a rabbit trail. Back to topic.
When I was a bright-eyed little girl in third grade (yes, I’m going all the way back), my teacher gave us a project assignment: write a story with a beginning, middle, and end with illustrations that would get bound to look like a real book. So, I did. Thus, “The Five Little Kittens” was born, and it was about five little kittens who got kidnapped (catnapped?) from their mother by bad people and their mother’s brave journey to rescue them. I got a young author’s award for that story too. Ironically, while I still have the award, I no longer have the story. Anyway, strangely enough, the writing bug didn’t quite bite me yet, though I think it was buzzing around me.
Several years later before 7th grade, I met a boy. No, it was not like that! We became instant friends, and he asked if I’d like to help him write a story. I said, “Sure!” He went on to tell me all about this world he’d created. It was horror, but he also wanted relationships and stuff in there too. That’s where I came in. So, he wrote the scary stuff, and I wrote the gooey stuff, and it worked out well.
Well, by the time we finished the first story in that series, that little writing bug that’d been buzzing around me had found its place to bite! I wanted to try to write another story of my own, so I did. “Summer Dreams in North Carolina” was born not too long after, having been inspired by a commercial (we writers get inspired by the weirdest things). I went on to write two more “Summer Dreams in North Carolina” stories and then other short stories. I had a whole mess of them by the tender age of 15.
That’s when it happened. It was a free day in gym class, and I wandering around by myself, thinking and daydreaming. Suddenly, the clouds parted and a shaft of light… I’m joking again! It wasn’t that dramatic. In all seriousness, I was in gym class daydreaming when I felt God talking to me. I really mean that. I just got this overwhelming feeling, sensation, whatever you want to call it in my heart that I was supposed to be writer. Now, I’d like to be able to tell you that I went on to craft the great American novel. Yeah, right! I gave it my best shot. Actually, my first attempt at a full-length novel came many years later. In the meantime, I wrote and read and soaked up all sorts of things about writing.
Sometime after I turned 20, which might give you a tiny clue how old I am now, I got an idea for a novel, and Hidden Blessings began its life. I wrote four or five drafts, then took my first ventures into the scary world of trying to become professionally published. Rejection after rejection. Fast forward several years: that novel now sits on the back burner. Obviously, I didn’t stop writing. I’ve since written a lot more short stories, writing exercises, and read voraciously. Then, there was this one writing exercise that became a short story and then a novel. If you’ve read Against All Odds, you know the rest of the story. Currently, I’m writing another romantic suspense novel in which I’m seriously taking myself out of my comfort zone!
All along this path, I’ve learned a lot of lessons, some big and all-encompassing and others small and in the details. These nuggets may not seem all that earth-shattering, and you’ve probably heard them other places, but they’re important and bear repeating. I’m going to limit this to just a handful since while I could write a book about it, we don’t have that kind of space here. So, without further ado, here are some important things I learned on my crazy journey.
1. Be persistent.
Keep going. Persist. Don’t stop. How else can I say this? This one really speaks for itself. I’ll be honest with you: I can’t count how many times I almost quit along that journey I just took you on. Self doubt, bad reviews, publisher rejections all combined to make me nearly stop any number of times. It’s hard to keep going in the face of those kinds of pressures, but keep reminding yourself why you’re doing this. If you’re like most writers (or just artists, period), your number one or at least number two reason is that you must. There’s something inside you or some part of you that’s incapable of not writing. And you simply love it. Love for something can make you do crazy things sometimes, but it’s worth it. All that inspirational stuff is great, but how to apply it is a whole other ball of wax, I know. But I’ve learned some techniques to help me get through those slumps that might help you too, and some of these help with writer’s block too (I went into this in more detail in my writer’s block blog).
*Go out and get some sunshine.
*Remind yourself you’re not alone.
*Write something besides your WIP (work-in-progress) for a while.
*Get some sleep (try, anyway).
*Push yourself (one sentence a day is progress).
2. Do it for the right reasons
That brings me to the next lesson learned: writing for the right reasons. Thankfully, shortly after I began this journey, I became aware that the likelihood of fame and fortune wasn’t high. I loved writing, and I couldn’t not write. I still feel that way. However, even if the likelihood were high, money and fame aren’t good reasons to be an artist of any kind. It takes so much out of you that if you don’t really love doing it, it’s not worth it. Of course, we all want to recognized for our art. It’s an extension of who we are and how we see the world. To want to share that with others is part of being human. But art is the one thing on Earth that’s nearly completely subjective. While we all need some form of art, some sort of creative outlet, that which stirs each of our hearts is vastly different. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that fame and fortune are very much not guaranteed.
3. Publishing is a scary world
It’s not as bad for you who intend to self publish, and that’s a viable option. It comes with its downsides too, but if you’re prepared, you’ll be okay. Those of you want to go the route I did, be ready. Publishers, editors, agents aren’t easy people to impress, and they’re harder to sell on a story than the general reading public. Now, there are reasons for this and good ones. Put yourself in the editor’s (or agent’s) shoes: your livelihood and the success of your business depends on killer books, ones you know that you know will sell. So, they have to be picky. Another thing: don’t think they’re rejecting you because they hate you or your book, for that matter. It just may not be right for them at that time. Different publishers and agents have different needs and wants depending on what’s currently selling in the book world at any given time. Something else to keep in mind: many of the editors and agents you submit to are authors themselves, so they get you. They understand you in ways non-writers could never understand. Thus, they’ve been through this too. All of that said, it’s scary. It’s a frightening experience to send your baby out there to be possibly rejected and torn to shreds by an editor. Just breathe, try to keep your perspective, and keep trying. Also, remember, you’re far from the only author to go through this. Even Stephen King was rejected, and look at him now!
As kind of a side note on this, if you’re going the traditional route, the biggest and greatest favor you can do yourself is to write a killer query letter. It’s the sales pitch, and it’s what will either get you in the door or a boot in the backside. Write it well. Concise, to the point, humble. Don’t ramble, don’t be flowery, and sell yourself but without looking like an arrogant something or other. And always be gracious. I’ll write a more detailed blog about query letters specifically, and there’s a lot of good advice other places about them too. If you’re indie publishing, make sure you edit very well (hire an editor if you can) before you put it out there. (This is good advice either way, actually.)
4. Drafts, drafts, and more drafts
Recently, I heard the best advice about this from a fellow author, Anne Eliot (author of Almost and Runaway Girl). She said to write it until you like it. Ask anyone who knows me personally, I’m notorious for writing draft after draft of the same story! Honestly, though, it’s not a good idea (obviously, I’m still learning that) because a story can always be improved upon or you can always tell it with better words or… It can go on and on for a long time, and before you know it, you’ve been writing the same novel for a decade! I’ve been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt more than once. Perfection isn’t possible, and sometimes when you think it’s as close to perfect as it can be and all it needs is a bit of proofreading–maybe a tweak or two–you submit it to the publisher (assuming you’re going the traditional route), and you find out it needs a lot more than that! Now, my novel is better for all the changes and edits it went through, and yours probably will be too.
Even if you go the indie publishing route, you can only do so much, change so much, improve so much, before it’s as good as it can be. If you can, get some beta readers and pay for professional editing (be careful here–you want somebody who has a good reputation, knows what they’re doing, and is reputable). Try not to strive for perfection because you just won’t get there.
5. Plotter vs. Pantster
There are generally two types of writers: the plotter and the panster. Well, I guess there’s a third category: planster. That’s what Jennie Marts (author of Hooked On Love) called herself at a recent writer’s confab. Not familiar with these funky terms? Don’t feel alone–I wasn’t, either, for a while. Plotter is fairly self-explanatory–it’s generally the writer who plans out their entire novel, beginning to end with characters, setting, etc., before they type a word of the novel itself. The pantster, on the other hand, flies by the seat of his or her pants–this writer just starts writing and plans a little as she goes along. The plantster is somewhere in the middle of that continuum.
As you can probably already tell, there are advantages and disadvantages to all of them. The plotter knows ahead of time what the story is about, where it’s going to end, and what scenes to put in and which ones not to. At least one downside is the plotter may lose passion for the project before it starts. The pantster doesn’t know much ahead of time but may be more free. What am I, you ask? Not a plotter. I don’t plan for much of anything, unless it’s necessary. But I guess I’ve become more of a plantster–I plan in the process that which I need to plan.
This basically comes down to personality: whichever you’re more likely to be based on what makes you tick. What you want to be careful with if you’re like me is procrastination. Actually get the writing done!
Well, there are some basic lessons I’ve learned (so far) in this journey. If I think of any others, they’ll be featured in another blog post. In the meantime, I hope this helps.
Keep on writing, and I’ll see you on the other side.