So you want to be a writer?
September 1, 2014
I was recently asked this question on Goodreads: ‘What’s your advice for aspiring writers?’
As a new author myself, I’m definitely no authority on the subject, but here are my top tips on how to make your writing sing.
Read, read and read some more
This is key to becoming a better writer. Read widely across genres rather than focusing solely on your preferred genre. Study the style, prose and voice of many different authors, especially those who are successful, to identify what is unique about their work and sets them apart from the crowd.
By reading a wider variety of styles by different authors, you’ll begin to read with the eyes of a writer, which will not only strengthen your technical writing skills in terms of style, pacing, dialogue and grammar, but this will also help to identify areas you can improve, e.g. tightening prose, losing adverbs, avoiding clichés and controlling pacing.
I think most of us start out by emulating the styles of other writers, either subconsciously or through lack of confidence in our writing ability. Even the most successful authors began their writing career imitating the prose of others who had gone before them. Unless you’re a literary prodigy, it may take many years and several books for your voice to evolve naturally and your personality to shine through your writing.
Learn your craft
Whether you choose to take the slower traditional publishing route or the self publishing short cut, make sure you take the time to ensure your work has a polished finish so that it will be seen in its best possible light.
I like to think of the writing process as the four P’s:
Passion, Preparation, Polishing and Perseverance.
A writer writes because they must. They have a story they’re bursting to share with the world. When they’re not writing they’re thinking about writing. Whether that’s visualising a challenging scene, mentally running through a piece of dialogue, taking inspiration from people and places around them or questioning what’s working and what isn’t, creative thoughts and ideas are constantly whirring through a writer’s mind. Once a story takes hold, it won’t let go. Your story lives with you day or night. I keep a notebook and pen by the bedside as I often get moments of inspiration when my mind is in a half-awake state.
A novel-length piece of work might take months or even years before it is ready to be published. A writer will have poured their heart and soul into every word, agonised over every page, sometimes at the expense of everything else – and why? The short answer is because it is a labour of love, a belief in their story and a will to see it through to the bitter end. If you are writing only because you believe it will bring financial gain, your time would be better spent doing something else. Without passion, you cannot succeed as a writer.
This is fundamental if you want to become a better writer. If I could go back and start over, there are some things I would have done very differently. All new writers make mistakes, and with each mistake we learn something new that can improve our skills, not just in the technical aspects of writing, but also the intensive process of publishing and marketing a book.
If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to learn the rules of writing before attempting to write a published piece of work. Join a local creative writing group, attend writing conferences, buy books on the technical skills of writing. If there are no classes in your area, there are many useful online groups that can be a great source of information and support. The more knowledgeable you become, the more your confidence will grow and the less amateur mistakes you will make in your writing. And the more money you will save during the final copy edit. Trust me, I’ve learnt the hard way!
You wouldn’t build a house without strong foundations. The same can be said for learning any new skill. Writing is no different.
Before attempting the daunting task of writing a full length novel, I would recommend starting with a smaller project, such as writing a short story, novella, an article for a local magazine or starting your own blog. Keeping a journal can also be a good starting place to practice your writing style and voice.
For those of you who write fantasy, a novella is a good way to introduce places, back story, characters and magical systems into your world. This gives you the opportunity to shape and plan your storyline over time without committing to a longer piece of work. A novella can be written and published within months, gaining a new author that all important visibility and feedback from readers.
Have you ever polished a pair of leather shoes until they shone? Well, that same elbow grease should be applied to your writing to give your work its best possible chance of success. A first draft is simply that. It’s a diamond in the rough, where you get the overall plot, dialogue, structure down on paper. Don’t try to edit as you go, as this will only slow you down and restrict your creative flow. The first draft will be messy, unrefined, full of typos and grammatical errors, but that’s all part of the writing process. By the time you type your last full stop, you’ll be buzzing with delirious joy, or more likely too much caffeine & chocolate. 😀
Finishing a novel is a huge accomplishment, even a first draft. By all means celebrate this golden moment with family and friends, but rein in your temptation to share your masterpiece with them.
No good will come of it.
Step away from your baby for days or weeks even, so that when you read it again it will be with a fresh pair of critical eyes. This is the most time-consuming, ulcer-inducing part of writing, but it’s also the part that will transform your manuscript from mediocre to magnificent.
Prepare yourself for several teeth-grinding months of revisions, and many more grim moments that will bring you within a hairsbreadth of burning every crappy page you’ve ever written. On good days, you’ll find yourself cutting swathes of words with merciless glee. And on the not so good, stubbornly pouring over the same sentence for an hour, convinced there’s something else you can add to make it stronger.
However, like any masterpiece, there comes a point when you need to stop tinkering before you spoil it. This is now the time to let others read it. The criticism that will inevitably follow will be painful to hear, but ultimately your writing will be better for it. Listen to all feedback with an open-mind before deciding what to dismiss and what changes would positively improve your story. But whatever you hear, good or bad, don’t let it hold you back.
Once you’ve made all the revisions necessary to strengthen your work, you’re ready to hit the publish button, right?
The next worthwhile step you can take is to have your work professionally copy-edited, and/or proof read. After spending months or years working on your novel, you’re too close to be completely objective. It’s all too easy to become document blind. A copy-editor will bring fresh eyes to the text, highlight grammatical errors, typos, and any inconstancies in the overall structure, style and tone of the story. In short, they will give it the final polish.
I know what you’re thinking – all this polishing sounds expensive.
Prices can vary greatly depending on the word count of the novel and level of editing necessary, e.g. my first novel was around 72k words and cost around £550 for copy-editing only. Not cheap, and yes it used up most of my savings, but I saw it as money well spent if it meant I was projecting the most professional image of myself to readers. If you’re on a tight budget, you could opt for a proof-reading service only, or alternatively find online beta readers who may well offer to edit your writing for a free copy of your completed novel, along with an acknowledgement of their input at the end of the book.
No one is born a writer, they become a writer. Whilst it’s true that there are some gifted individuals out there with a natural talent for writing, talent alone doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful writing career. It can takes years of practice and perseverance to develop the skills you need to become a credible and respected writer. And while you’re feeling your way along this often dark and lonely uphill path, you can be certain a ton of gnarly obstacles will be thrown at you whichever way you turn. But if you’re truly determined, you’ll learn to find alternative routes around them, step by step.
One of the first and most painful obstacles all writers encounter is rejection. Often in our eagerness to share our work with the outside world, too many new writers, (myself included) have sent out their precious manuscript to a publisher way before it’s ready, only for it to linger unseen in the slush pile before being sent back with a standard letter of rejection. The first few times this happens it feel like a punch in the gut. There’s no sugar coating it, no matter how tough you think you are – rejection hurts.
After receiving dozens of rejection letters, it’s hard not to take it personally. This can be a critical turning point, where you might be tempted to stuff your manuscript in a drawer and walk away.
Cry, wallow, punch a pillow, take comfort in a huge bar of chocolate or dive into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. Do whatever helps you process the crushing disappointment, anger, and self-doubt. Then move forwards.
New writers should take comfort from the fact that even famous authors have suffered the sting of rejection by major publishing houses. JK Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected 12 times before it was finally accepted by Bloomsbury. William Golding’s, Lord of the Flies was rejected at least 20 times, with one publisher calling it, “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” And Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen’s, Chicken Soup for the Soul series received a staggering 140 rejections before going on to sell over 25 million copies.
Every writer has suffered rejection from publishers, literary critics and reader reviews at some point in their career. It’s all part and parcel of becoming a better writer. Think of it as the first notch in your writer’s belt. Learn from the experience, push aside those self-limiting beliefs that try to hold us back and develop a thicker skin. But most of all, KEEP WRITING.
Set realistic goals
The idiom, slowly, slowly catchee monkey, really does apply here. Don’t expect to be an overnight success with your first novel. Many new writers think that once they’ve published their first book all they need to do is sit back and watch the royalties roll in. Think again. I don’t wish to crush your dreams of fame and fortune, but the chance of this happening with only one book under your belt is to put it bluntly, slim.
This is especially true for self-published authors, who have no proven track record or the backing of a big publishing house behind them. Some of you might be shouting, ‘Rubbish! Look at John Locke, Amanda Hocking, John Green or even EL James.’
I don’t disagree. There’s always a few lucky exceptions, whose book becomes a best seller in the first few months of sale, or hits the market at exactly the right time. Sadly, for the rest of us, it can take many years and several books to gain the level of visibility required to build a strong readership.
There’s nothing wrong with having big dreams, but dreams alone won’t take you where you want to go. Consider why you write. If it’s for success and money alone, step away from the keyboard now. Most authors, even those traditionally published will not sell enough books in the early days of their career, if at all, to be able to write full-time. For most of us, writing must come second to our day jobs and fit in with the demands of work and family life.
First and foremost, you must love what you do to make writing a priority rather than viewing it as a means to end. It would be foolish to say money doesn’t matter. Of course it does, especially if you’ve invested years of time, hard work and your own savings into developing your writing career.
But what if you never see a return on that investment? What if all those years have gone to waste?
Yes, that’s the risk all writers must take, but like any good investment it’s likely to take many years to come to fruition. The best you can hope for is to be patient, stay positive and persevere. One day it might just pay off.
My advice is to keep it real. Set yourself smaller, specific writing goals that are achievable, realistic and time-limited. This will help to build confidence in your writing and in turn motivate you to overcome every hurdle you’ll inevitably face on your writer’s journey. From gaining a creative writing qualification, reading more or committing to a regular writing routine, find whatever works best for you and will take you one step closer towards achieving your goals.
Good luck and happy writing!