So today we open up the Deadline Dames mailbag, since I’m seriously scraping barrel-bottom on blog post ideas and it’s Friday. I know my brain will serve up other stuff about writing soon, I’ve just been in revision. Which eats a lot of braincycles, believe me.
So, I’ve stolen a question from the mailbag. Other Dames might have different answers, but I figured I’d give my twopence. Said question is from Reader Sara H., and is very interesting:
So, I’d like to write, maybe not as a career, but as a creative outlet, potentially getting to the point where I might try to have something published. I love the research portion of getting ready to write and I have ideas, but getting them onto paper and getting them onto paper in a grammatically correct way is becoming a problem. I have a, History degree, so I can write a fantastic essay about the Nazi art movement or how Martin Luther was the first multi-media rock star, but writing a scene of dialogue or switching POVs makes me want to break out in a cold sweat. I’ve thought about signing up for a creative writing class. Is this a waste of money? Should I maybe just go out and buy a style guide or am I beyond all hope?
Well, you’ve taken the first step, which is realizing that academic or history-essay writing isn’t the same as fiction or genre fiction writing. I like to compare it to sports–different sports use different muscles, and writing in different styles or to different purposes uses different mental “muscles.” You wouldn’t believe how many people who want to write a novel that has a chance of selling don’t grasp that simple, essential fact.
First of all, are you absolutely sure you want to write to publish? Maybe research is all you want to do. If you’re absolutely certain you want to go ahead, think about why. Make a list, verbalize what you want to a trusted person, that sort of thing. A few moments spent discovering your own motivations and what you hope to get out of striving toward publication can be extraordinarily helpful, not least because it can tell you if this is something you really want to do. It’s a lot of hard work.
If you’re sure you want to get something published, and want to develop your novel-writing muscles, then here are some things you can do, and some things you should probably take into account. Ready?
* Treat this goal as a priority. Yeah, I say this a lot. No matter how talented or special you are, the chances of you tossing off a manuscript that will get snapped up first thing are pretty damn small. If you expect just to weekend-warrior it, your chances of getting to the finish line on any novel, not least a publishable novel, are not very high either. Get out your timers, make your lists, do whatever you have to do to prioritize two chunks of your time. One chunk is for researching the novel-writing and publication process. (There’s tons of advice, both at the Deadline Dames and on my own blog, not to mention many others, that can help you here.) The other chunk is for sitting your ass in a chair, putting your fingers on a keyboard, and taking a whack at it. Which brings us to:
* Recognize that there is a learning curve, and your first attempts will suck pretty hard. Just like you didn’t write a 1500-word one-subject essay perfectly the first time, you will not write a reasonable novel weighing in at industry standard (75-120K words, complex plot, characterization, etc., etc.) the first time. You probably will not even get close. Sorry about that. This sort of thing takes practice. For the first two novels, you’re not looking to win or to place. You’re just looking to finish.
* Don’t get bogged down. Do not cough up one novel-sized chunk of text and think you’re done. If you want to get published, endlessly flogging your first attempt at the novel form is not a good way to maximize your chances. It’s like van Gogh stopping after the first painting he ever attempted and declaring that he wouldn’t set brush to canvas again until someone recognized his geeeeenyus and paid him for it. Not only would that not have worked no matter HOW talented dear Vincent was, it also would have deprived the world of his later works.
* Study the form you are attempting. You already read novels, I’m guessing, and since you’re asking the Dames I’m betting you’re reading what you’d like to write–UF, paranormal suspense/romance, etc. If you’re not reading what you’d like to write…start. Set aside time for doing this. Give yourself a couple months to read with no other purpose than enjoyment and familiarity. Then get out a legal pad and a pen while you read, and start writing things down. Write down what works for you in the novels you’re reading, write down what doesn’t, write down what you would have done differently, make a note of typos or continuity errors you find. (You’re not doing this to “catch someone out”–try to avoid the little self-righteous thrill you may receive when you spot a typo or error.) This is to force you to think critically about the form and structure of what you’ll be attempting.
A slight caution here: once you’ve exercised those critical muscles, it might be difficult to go back to reading plainly for pleasure. Sorry about that. This is, incidentally, why I read so much nonfiction–because when I read fiction, I tend to reach for my pen and pad and start making notes as if I’m an editor. *headdesk* A book really has to work to pull me along so I don’t start checking under the hood, so to speak.
* Publishing is hurry up and wait. So’s writing, sometimes. When I finish a manuscript, I have time built into my schedule to set the damn thing aside. I don’t look at it–sometimes for a couple weeks, sometimes for a month or two. This is so when I go back, it’s relatively fresh for me. I have a better chance of reading it critically, of spotting small errors, and of seeing continuity/character problems.
Also, getting an agent or getting a manuscript accepted for publication is so not the end of the road. There are revisions, copyedits, proof pages, cover copy and other decisions, the wait for a release date, then the waiting for “numbers” that may or may not mean the publisher will want another book…in short, writing the manuscript is only the very first step of a long and arduous process. This process will take ten to twenty times more time than you ever dreamed possible. It will wear your nerves down to nubs. You’ve been warned.
Now let’s move along to some nitty-gritty.
* Dialogue is how people talk, but it’s also moving the plot along. Dialogue has to serve three purposes. It has to reveal character. It must also move the plot forward. Not only that, it must not sound clumsy/unreal. This is a tall order! So, to sharpen your ear for dialogue, go to public places (the mall, a casino, etc.), settle down with a coffee and your trusty notebook, and eavesdrop. Listen to how people speak. Listen to what they don’t say. Get your favorite movies and “watch” them–blindfolded. Listen to the dialogue and think about how it reveals character, see if you can tell what the people onscreen are doing by what they’re saying. Read your own dialogue out loud and think, really think about if it advances the plot and sounds like something a Real Person would say.
Real People talk with “um”s and “uh”s and “yeah”s and all sorts of other placeholders. People in books or movies can’t do that without a VERY good reason. Ideally a piece of dialogue gives you a mental snapshot of how a character’s thinking or feeling AND gives you information/impetus to move the story along. Sounds difficult, right? That’s because it is. Listen and practice, and your dialogue will get better.
* POV must be a conscious choice–you must know WHY you’ve chosen a particular POV. When I write in 1st, I have a small keyhole through which I–and the reader–must view the world I’ve created. That tight focus allows for immersion into a character, an immersion that theoretically makes it easier for the reader to identify with/feel for the main character.
The problem with 1st is that I must show other characters doing things and responding in a way that the reader will recognize but that the narrator may not. When I write in 3rd, I have much greater leeway and a broader “scope”, but I have to work twice as hard to show what my hero/ine is really thinking or feeling–and three times as hard to get the reader to identify with and care for said hero/ine. Each is a tradeoff, and you won’t know which is right for a story until you’ve practiced with both and understand the limitations and advantages of both. This is, incidentally, a big reason why anyone’s first finished manuscript pretty much sucks. This takes time and practice to figure out.
Opinion time: I have read ONE book in my life where the author pulled off multiple 1st-person POVs and made them work. (This was Peter Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song, if you’re interested.) If you have to cheat by throwing in another character’s POV two-thirds of the way through the book because there’s information your main character/reader can’t get in any other way? Unless you’re extraordinarily skilled AND talented, I’m going to call that a cheat and you’re going to lose me. It’s jarring, and I dislike it intensely. This is why I say POV must be a conscious choice–you’ve got to know why you’re doing it, and play to the strengths that particular POV gives you while figuring out a way around its limitations.
* A class might be a good idea. Or it might not. We all know how I feel about workshops, classes, and agendas. The only two creative-writing classes I was ever in were run by petty tyros who got off on destroying their students emotionally. On the other hand, I’ve run a couple writing classes myself, and they seem to have gone OK. (You’d have to ask the Scupperlout if I was a petty tyro, though.)
If you really want to take a class or a workshop, go into it prepared to learn–but not necessarily to learn about writing. Classes and workshops are more often about someone’s emotional agenda than about information-sharing; that can be great material. There are exceptions, but my personal advice is that the time is better spent writing and the money is better spent on postage or research on the market.
I could go on–especially about style guides and reference books–but this post is already a monster. Sara, you asked a very complex and interesting question, probably far more complex than you really knew. I hope this helps. You’re the only person who can decide if the goal of writing to publication is for you, and you’re the only person who can write yourself there. A lot of it is hard thankless work, but you do get a few chuckles along the way.