Advice for New Writers

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Overwhelmed yet?

A couple weeks ago, my mom asked me for advice on setting up a writers group for some of her students. She’s a language arts teacher at a small middle school, maybe 60 or 70 kids total, and at least a dozen are really into writing. She asked about how my own writing group functions, but with kids that age the emphasis really needs to be on encouragement rather than critique. It got me thinking about how the advice that will work for a given writer depends so much on where they are in their journey.

For the very new and the very young, for those who may not be sure this writing gig is really for them, I say: write. Don’t worry about if it’s any good. All the craft in the world won’t help if you don’t love it. Writing is hard. Take some time at the start to be sure it’s what you want, to strengthen your resolve; it’s the only thing that will get you through the tough spots.

For the new and determined first-time novelist: forget about publishing. I know it’s super-easy these days and everybody’s doing it, but put it out of your mind and focus on actually writing the book. Lots of people start writing a novel, but it takes real determination and hard work to finish.

This is also the stage when a new writer will start to need help. I’ve been doing this for almost four years now, and it’s tempting to make a list of every book and website and podcast I’ve ever found helpful: Everything You’ll Ever Need to Know About Writing. But that’s the last thing a newbie needs. Reading about how to do something doesn’t automatically translate into skill; that takes time and practice. When a writer’s knowledge far exceeds their skill to put it into practice, well, that is frustrating. That’s when they’re most in danger of tearing their hair out and ripping up their manuscript and quitting, because their writing sucks, and they’ll never be able any good, and what’s the use of even trying.

So, experienced writers: resist the temptation to drown newbies in your font of knowledge.

Newbies: resist the urge to buy all the writing books and read all the writing blogs and never get around to actually writing your book. Pick one or two to get you started. Focus on what you’re having trouble with, and leave the rest for later. When writing feels like a breeze, you know you’re ready for another dose of learning.

A final piece of advice: all the so-called “rules” of writing are made to be broken. There are as many ways of writing as there are writers, so if something doesn’t work for you, ignore it.

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Dealing with Hope

I know, I know.  The line’s supposed to be “dealing with rejection.”  But to be honest, the internet had me pretty well braced for it by the time I got around to asking for critiques, let alone querying.  The first couple times did sting a little, but I got over it surprisingly quickly.  Getting back to writing and keeping things in perspective really does help.

Photo © Linnéa Marks

Hope, now.  Hope’s a trickier beast.  It’s not quite acceptance—which I’ve heard comes with a whole new set of troubles—but it’s definitely not rejection.  It’s when you get that first request for a partial manuscript, and then a second, and then a full.  I don’t know about anybody else, but that’s when I start to imagine what if.

What if she really likes it?  I’ve heard stories about agents calling right away, excited to read the full manuscript.  What if that happens to me?  What if he offers representation?  What if they both do, how will I choose?  And then my mind goes spinning away into a fantasy-future where the agent of my dreams calls to say she loves my book, and what else am I working on, and she’d like to offer representation, and then my book goes to auction…

I have kept myself awake at night, more than once, because I am unable to stop my mind from playing through the entire hypothetical conversation.  Or the scenario where such and such editor just happens to be at the convention and I somehow become an amazing conversationalist and he loves my pitch and wants to buy my book.

Right.

It’s good to be prepared, but in the long run, dwelling on these kind of overinflated hopes will end up hurting more than the rejection ever could, because they’ll make any modest success look like it’s just not good enough.  I think I’m keeping my actual expectations pretty reasonable.  I’ve seen the statistics, I know how long it can take and how few writers really make it big.  Still, sometimes I can’t help but dream of the what ifs…

And then I dig back into my drafting, or editing, or synopsis-writing.  Nothing like a little fantasy to ground me in the realities of a writer’s life.

On Writers’ Brains and the Critique Process

Edited Version of First Book

Edited Version of First Book (Photo credit: TheCreativePenn)

I recently had a startling revelation.  My writing group was discussing the utility of picking on the details during a critique—grammar, spelling, etc—and someone mentioned that he doesn’t bother with the basics on early drafts, because he trusts the writer to be able to fix it on the rewrite.

This sounded eminently reasonable to me, but at the same time, it totally floored me.  During my time in online critique groups, I tended to operate on the assumption that if the author got something wrong, they didn’t know any better.  Now, sometimes, this actually is a good assumption, especially if the writer is unfamiliar.  But for me, it went deeper than that, and I finally realized why.

When I write, my sentences always come out complete and grammatically correct.  That’s just the way my brain is wired.  The word choice might be wrong, the sentiment trite, the pacing nonexistent, but my rough drafts are always readable.  Grammar and spelling are so ingrained for me, I cannot write a sentence that I know is wrong (barring honest mistakes, e.g. typos, cut and paste errors, etc).

Until that moment in writing group, it had never occurred to me that other people might be different.

Thinking about it now, I realize how ridiculous that is.  After all, when I read through my own drafts, I’m perfectly capable of recognizing where the prose is stilted, where the characters are clichéd, and where the setting needs more description.  Just because it doesn’t come out right the first time, doesn’t mean I can’t fix it on my own.  It makes me wonder if somewhere, some writer looks out on all us mere mortals and wonders why in the world we’d ever need more than one draft, because his come out perfectly on the first try.

Nah.

More seriously, though, I think this is important to keep in mind when critiquing any unfinished work.  Sometimes, letting your red pen bleed all over the page may overwhelm a newbie and make them cry; or, your oh-so-helpful explanations might just annoy a fellow journeyman so they skim through and miss your more important remarks.  Not every story represents a writer’s best work—in fact, at the critique stage, it almost never does.  That’s why a regular critique partner or group can be so helpful.  You get to know each other’s capabilities, so you don’t have to guess which mistakes were just careless errors, and which are worth pointing out.

By a strange coincidence, the exact same thing came up at last week’s staff meeting at work.  In this case, it was drawings being sent out for review, but the basic message was: if it’s a preliminary drawing, and you’re only looking for conceptual review or design input, MAKE SURE TO TELL THE REVIEWERS so they don’t spent a couple hours finding every last formatting glitch and misplaced dimension.  With fiction, too, it’s never a bad idea to spell it out: rough, untouched first draft; or solid, ready-to-polish fourth draft?

Perhaps the best assumption to make is this: you won’t be the only person to critique the piece.  It is not your job to catch every tiny mistake (unless the writer specifically asked for it).  Concentrating on the most important issues will make a more effective critique.  And when in doubt, ask the author where they are in their process.  It could save a lot of frustration on both sides.

How do you approach a critique?  Have you ever had trouble deciding how much to say?  Ever been frustrated with a critique you received?

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When to Write a Prologue

I can’t believe I’m thinking about writing a prologue.

For as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve heard that prologues were dead.  They’re unnecessary, usually boring, and readers (and agents and editors!) won’t even bother to read them.  A lot of that is true—sometimes.  Any aficionado of epic fantasy has suffered through many an epic backstory infodump.  But just because they’ve gotten a bad rap doesn’t mean they can’t be effective and powerful* if used correctly.
*I wanted to link to Writing Excuses here, but apparently their wise words on prologues are not collected all in one episode.  In know they’ve discussed them on Brandon and Dan’s project-in-depth episodes, explaining how they’ve used prologues in their own novels.

First Law of Prologues: Only use a prologue if it makes the story better.
Which, if you think about it, could also be the First Law of Writing.  But prologues are seductive; they can trick us into thinking they’re exactly what the story needs, when really, they might just be the lazy way out.  Take the time for objective assessment (and if you’re too close to the story, recruit help!)

Corollary: If you can, call it Chapter 1.
This is more a stylistic choice, but prologues are different from regular scenes.  If there’s nothing setting it apart from the rest of the book—time, tone, point of view—then maybe it’s not really a prologue.

There are several good reasons you might use a prologue.

  • Jump POVs.  If your novel is from a single point of view, especially if it’s first person, the story is limited.  For example, it can be difficult to make the villain believable, or to show all the nuances in a complex situation.  If it’s crucial for the reader to know something before the protagonist does, a prologue might be in order.
  • Skip the boring parts.  If there’s a large chunk of time between the opening scene and the rest of the story, making it a prologue can keep the reader from getting disoriented.  CAUTION: Be very careful with this one.  There’s a big difference between a vital scene and a history lesson.
  • Flash forward.  It can also work the other way: jump forward to a tense moment near the end of the book to set the tone and hook the reader, than continue with the story as normal.  Again, caution.  Make sure it adds something to the story, and it’s not just a gimmick.  Done well, it can act as foreshadowing, and imbue the whole story with an added layer of suspense.  For example, in Red Seas Under Red Skies, I (slight spoiler) was a little annoyed to discover that the tense little scene in the prologue was not actually the climax, or even that important in the grand scheme of things, but it helped sow doubt as to whether Locke and Jean had really forgiven each other.  It set a tone, which is important in a book with such an erratic timeline.

I’m sure there are other reasons, but the main thing to keep in mind is that it needs to feel like it belongs.  Like any other part of the story, a prologue should be interesting, with all the same nuances of characterization and pacing and conflict.  It needs to serve more than one purpose; if you’re just telling the reader information, no matter how vital you think it is, there are better ways to work it into the story than as a prologue.

In my particular case, I’m contemplating a POV-jump prologue.  See, the big bad is mostly a mystery to my protagonist, and while at the end she sees the results of his plans, she never really knows how he did it.  Not a particularly satisfying mystery.

But if I give the reader a glimpse into the antagonist’s mind in the prologue, showing the actions that set up his opening attack, mystery becomes suspense.  I’ll still hold back most of the details, but they’ll know enough to dread what’s coming as much as the other characters do.

Huh.  I think I just talked myself into it.  Guess I’d better go write it, and see if it works the way I said it would.

Since writing the above, I did write a prologue.  It’s short, ominous, and maybe a little obscure.  I’m definitely going to need a second (and third and fourth) opinion on whether it works or not.  Really, I think that’s the only way to decide, if you think you need a prologue: write the thing, and see what readers say.

Do you read prologues?  Write them?  What do you think makes them succeed or fail?

Identify Yourself by Your Passions

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about labels and identity.  The consensus on the internet seems to be that if you write, you are entitled to call yourself a writer.  (Calling yourself an “author” is another matter).  I agree wholeheartedly: I write, therefore I am a writer.

Out in the real world, however, this doesn’t seem to hold true.  People have expectations.  Anywhere except maybe at a convention, if I introduce myself as a writer, people will think that means I make money at it.  If they follow up and discover that I’m unpublished, they’ll assume by “writer,” I really mean “unemployed.”

A couple months ago, I ended up sitting on an airplane beside one of my teachers from high school.  One of my English teachers, to be precise.  And yet, when she asked me, “So what do you do?”, I still told her I was an engineer.  Not a word about writing.  It didn’t even cross my mind that the question could have meant, “What do you most enjoy doing?”

Now, to be fair, I don’t remember doing so much as a page of creative writing in her class (5 paragraph essays, anyone?), but I don’t think that’s it.  And it’s not that I don’t like telling people about it.  Heck, that trip I spent the whole weekend telling obscure relatives and friends-of-my-parents about how I’m working on my third novel.  But all of them already knew that I was a writer.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just a privileged upper-middle-class white America thing, but people are awfully obsessed with money, especially for a society that thinks it’s impolite as a topic of conversation.  Is there any other reason to identify ourselves by our jobs, than to provide others with an estimate of our income, intelligence, and skill level?  It certainly isn’t the best indicator of who we are or what we enjoy; otherwise, why would anyone retire?

I was listening to the audiobook of The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan, and I was struck by how simply the main character, Imp, put it:The Drowning Girl Cover

“I think of myself as a painter, because painting is what I love to do, what I’m passionate about.  So, I’m a painter.”

I love that.  I wish more people thought that way.

I don’t have much opportunity these days to meet people who aren’t connected with work, where “ground support design engineer” really is my only appropriate identity, but I hope that next time I run into, say, an old English teacher, I’ll remember to tell them “I’m a writer.”  In the meantime, it’s nice to have this little corner of the web where I can define myself as I choose, by what I love and what I’m passionate about.