Saturday, November 30, 2013

Write and Learn: The Lessons I've Learned as an Aspiring Author

To quote my mentor, “Write and learn”, and boy have I ever learned...

As a currently unpublished author with two finished manuscripts under my belt (one is fully edited and refined, the other is still being proofed, edited and worked upon), I can say there are a lot of things I’ve learned over the years, about myself and my writing. For a long time, I thought that all one had to do was put pen to paper (or in modern times, fingers to keyboard on a typewriter or in a word processing application) and just go with it.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it works. You have to do a lot of things even before you put pen to paper or start typing away in your word processor, and after that. Yes, writing is a joy for a lot of us out there, and in some cases (like mine) as vital to life as breathing, but anyone who wants to write should keep in mind that although writing is the easiest part of the process, there are a few things they have to keep in mind as they try to break into the world of creating a story.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the last few years, after various attempts at writing several different ideas, and finally succeeding in getting two manuscripts finished. Please keep in mind that these are the lessons I learned, and everyone’s experience may be different...

1)      Keep something handy, like a pen/pencil and paper, or even a cell phone with a memos section in it, so you can jot down ideas when they hit you so you don’t forget them. I also have an “ideas” file for each story in my word processor and will copy the ideas into that, or jot them down in that file when I’m at the computer. I do this so things are all in one spot, and I mark them off with “highlighter” as they are written up or in another color if I scrap them.

2)      Write up a general outline, that way you have a direction to go with the story. It’s not set in “stone”, and can be changed if the story happens to evolve and morph into something else. It may only be three points: Why the characters and the story is happening, the climax and how it ends. Fiction is fluid after all, and things can change in your story in a heartbeat.

3)      WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. Say if you’re writing a mystery set in Ohio for example, make sure you know enough about the area it’s set in, the culture, the landscape, and everything else.

4)      If you do not know something, RESEARCH IT. I have spent countless hours online researching different things, talking to people about their area/town/village, driving around and getting photos, and other things to make sure I had all of the facts right so I wouldn’t land in trouble with my (hopefully) future audience and those who live in the areas mentioned in my books. I have read several books set in my province or country that had no facts right at all, and I found it very annoying, so I do my best to make sure I have my facts straight, that way no reader or fellow author can say I “had it wrong all along”.

5)      If you’re writing something like science fiction, you have to create everything, from the world its set on (or high tech stuff if its set on Earth in the distant future), to its technology, and everything else in between. Keep things set in different files or binders, etc, and keep checking those to make sure you’re on track, and have everything consistent.

6)      Keep things consistent. If you say someone has blue eyes, don’t say their eyes are brown later unless you state they’re wearing colored contacts for example. What I do is keep detailed character descriptions in a special file/document for them, from their looks to their personality, sometimes even to the way they talk and what kind of accent they have, and if they speak more than one language. This is so I don’t get yelled at for mixing things up.

7)      Keep a timeline, and write major events in order of the time they happen into it, sometimes minor ones if you wish. What is the time frame from the day your story starts until it ends? Do you need a backstory? Write it down in the timeline. What happens in between? Jot it all down in point form and it can be added to or have things removed as the story progresses and evolves. It’s not set in stone, it’s just a general guide like an outline, to keep you focused and remember key events.

8)      Sometimes you just have to write by the seat of your pants... In a manner of speaking. If an idea hits you for the part you’re working on that seems like it may work, go with it!

9)      Rewrites are a pain in the neck, but they are a necessary evil and have to be done sometimes. I can’t recall the amount of rewrites I have done on various parts of my first two manuscripts. Sometimes an idea will hit me that I’ll go with, but when I reread it later on, I realize it’s not right for the story, and I wind up scrapping it and putting in something else.

10)   Edit, edit, edit, and edit some more! Go over everything you have in the story, to make sure you have everything consistent and the grammar is dead on. Like rewrites, editing your work is a necessary evil, but if you want to be published at some point in the future, you have to edit your work a number of times even in first or rough draft. Most publishers prefer almost perfect final drafts of a story/manuscript in a submission, and the closer to perfection it is with its grammar, consistency, and everything else, the better.

11)   Have at least one beta reader. Choose a trusted friend or another writer who knows what to look for with inconsistencies, missing words, grammar and other things you may miss when you’re editing the work yourself. My dear friend and mentor may get my books to read at her leisure and enjoyment, but she has pointed out different things I missed, like inconsistencies, missing words, and other things I thought I had in the books already. It’s a way to make sure your work is even more perfect for a publisher’s eyes, or the public if you choose to self publish.

12)   Brainstorm! Even if you only do it with yourself, bounce around different ideas to see what would work and what won’t. If you want to brainstorm with a trusted friend, do so. You never know what they’ll come up with that will work for your stories, whether it’s a full length novel or even a short story. I have several trusted friends who shot ideas at me... Some were not right for my genre or my style, but others were, and once I could see the scenes in my head, I ran with them!

13)  Be prepared to take honest criticism, good and bad. Others who read your work may like it, and some may not, so don’t get upset if someone says they don’t like your work or if they give you pointers on how you can improve your writing and style. Just because you may like it and think it’s great doesn’t mean others will automatically think you have the best story ever on your hands. Consider everything that was said, take a good long look at your work and see if you can see what they see, and then try to fix it if it’s a grammatical error or you have inconsistencies, and so on. Keep in mind that everyone has different opinions and although some may think it’s great, others will not. Be gracious, do not get mad at them, and thank them for taking the time to read your work and share their opinion of it instead of blowing your stack and getting nasty at them for giving their opinion. They didn’t have to read it, so be nice and at least take what they say under consideration for the future.

14)   Try to be objective when you’re reading your work. Yes, you may love the story and its characters, but sometimes taking a step back to see what works and what doesn’t in the story is a big help. Look at it as if you were reading someone else’s work and editing it, that way you can pick up anything you’ve missed without getting upset or frustrated.

15)   Don’t automatically think you have a best seller on your hands. Not everyone is as lucky or has a big fan base as others out there. Just because someone like E.L. James hit the best seller list with her first book and subsequent series doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to also. Sometimes it takes years and several books to finally get the brass ring (on the best seller list), and some authors never hit the best seller list even with a huge fanbase and great reviews.

16)   Write a story you’d like to read. Say you would love to read a story on the history of your town, whether it’s factual or a fictional story with historical facts added in. Do your research and write it up!

17)   Never forget to take breaks from writing once in a while. This is to make sure you don’t burn yourself out and to remind you that real life does happen once in a while. I sometimes forget this piece of advice, but thankfully, my husband, son, mentor and others hit me with it once in a while so I don’t get sick. They remind me to eat, to sleep, and to pull my brain out of my “little world” and bring me back to the real world. Take a nap, watch some TV (if you have one), spend some time with a friend or a loved one and just take a breather from it every now and then.

18)   Never give up on yourself. Writing may not be for everyone, but if you really want to be published at some point, or just write for your own enjoyment, don’t give up on it and push it away because you’re frustrated due to a bit of writer’s block or feel like it’s starting to overwhelm you. Stay focused, keep that determination, and most of all, believe you can do it!

19)   If you hit a snag in one spot and feel like you can’t write anything for it, work on another part of it. I have done this countless times, and some days, I jump from one area to another of a story – or in some cases, two or three works in progress – until I find an area that “clicks” and I can work on it. Yes, it is frustrating to have this happen, but sometimes things don’t always fall into place in the way you want it. Relax, take a deep breath and remember that the pyramids were not built in a single day. Even if you are on a deadline, sometimes working on a different part of the story will get the juices flowing again, and it will help you think about how you want things to progress in all areas of your story.

20)   Set parameters for what you’re writing about, yet allow yourself a lot of freedom to write what you want to write and allow your style to shine through. If you don’t set certain limits, you’re going to get off track of the story, but you also have to have some freedom to write ideas that pop into your head without warning. It’s a fine line to walk sometimes, and may require a number of rewrites and changing things around, but it’s worth it in the end.

21)   Be prepared for rejections. It’s a fact of life for any author. Even greats like Stephen King got at least one rejection before they hit the big time, so keep that in mind if you send your work to a publisher. Getting rejected is not a pleasant experience, and it is heartbreaking, but don’t give up on getting your work out there somehow. If all else fails, there are plenty of places that allow authors to self publish, from traditional books to e-books. Some places don’t charge anything to publish through them, others require either a small fee or a large one, and some have tiers for their self published authors – from free for an e-book, to a few thousand dollars for the most complete package. Do your research, and pick the right one for you.

22)   Set aside time to write, even if it’s only twenty minutes a day, or an hour a week. It will keep the story in your mind and keep the juices flowing. So what if you write that day is garbage? You wrote something and even if you have to toss it or rewrite it, it’s still progress.

23)   One sentence is still progress. Sometimes we do get flustered when our creativity isn’t at its peak, but even adding a word or a sentence, or a paragraph here and there is progress of some type. So what if it’s going slowly? It’s still writing and moving along!

24)   Set a reasonable deadline for yourself to finish the story, even if it’s five or six years into the future. This is so you’re not feeling pressure to get it done NOW, and in case things like real life push the writing on the back burner. I generally allow at least three to five years for a story to be completed nowadays, because I have had real life and other things invade on my writing or blocked my creativity for a while. If you finish the story long before the deadline you have set, even better, but do not force yourself to finish it three years before it for example. Work along at your pace and hopefully you will make that deadline even if real life gets in the way.

25)   If a story isn’t working at all for you, or you lost the idea for it in your mind, KEEP what you have written so far. You never know when it’ll pop back into your mind or if ideas you had for it will work for something else. Even if you never finish it, keep it as a reminder of how far you’ve come and learned in the time since you started that idea.

26)   Backup, backup, backup! Don’t keep it all in your computer if you write via a word processor, have something like an external drive or a memory stick to keep the most recent version of it safe in a backup file, or store it on a memory stick or external drive of some kind if you don’t want to keep it on the hard drive. You never know when something like a system wide computer failure, a virus or something else will wreck your work if you use a computer like I do. Backup on something you can easily transfer the story onto the hard drive again, even if it is on a writeable CD. I learned this lesson the hard way with the first short story I wrote as an adult... It’s on my Pentium system, which has only a CD player and floppy drive and can’t get it off of there unless I print it out and retype it character by character onto my new system, which doesn’t have a floppy drive at all. I had to retire my Vista system a couple of months ago, and I’m so glad I was using memory sticks and an external drive to backup my work because I would have lost BOTH manuscripts if I hadn’t. Thankfully both are safe on various memory sticks and my external drive because I am very diligent about backing up everything, from my research to the character descriptions to the manuscripts – and parts to be spliced in later on – almost every single day. Do it each time you add something or edit, because it may save you a lot of heartbreak in the end.

27)   If you think something is “too graphic” for your intended audience, it probably is. Either tone it down or do a fade out so the reader’s imagination can take over.

28)   Be detailed, but not too detailed. Do not bore the reader with a ten page description of a boat or how pretty the snow is during the wintertime. Learn to balance things between describing something in detail to the nth degree, but in order for the reader to picture something in their mind, some detail is needed. It’s a fine line to walk sometimes, but it can be done!

I know it’s a long list, but I’ve learned so much, and am still learning as I go along. I hope this helps an author out there, whether they’re starting out or have been in the business for a very long time. It’s been a long road to get where I am today, after countless failures to complete one single story for so many years... When I finally finished my first double length novel, it was like nothing I had ever felt before, a triumph I still can’t believe has happened, and sometimes I have to remind myself that I not only did it once, I did it twice, and I hope to do it again.


Blessed are all the creative types, from artists like my Peapod, to authors like myself and my mentor... 

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