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 crucial if you want to become 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 and different types of novels. This will help you to recognise the key elements that make a novel successful and develop a greater understanding of how to construct a story of your own.
Reading more diversely and critically will not only strengthen your technical skills as a writer in areas such as characterisation, plot, pacing, dialogue and grammar but will also help to identify personal areas of weakness such as purple prose, adverbs, clichés, info-dumping, flat/ unrealistic characters.
Most writers start out by emulating writers they admire, either subconsciously or through lack of confidence and experience in their own 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 Ps:
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 running through a challenging scene or piece of dialogue in their mind, searching for inspiration from the world around them, sketching/pinning/ researching or reading, creative ideas are constantly whirring through a writer’s mind, both consciously and subconsciously. Once a story takes hold, it 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, during which time a writer has often poured their heart and soul, sweat and tears into their masterpiece, agonised over every word and sentence, sometimes at the expense of all else.
The short answer is because it is a labour of love, a belief in their story and a compulsion to see it through to the very 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 stronger writer. If I could go back and start my writing career over, there are many, many things I would have done differently. That said, the mistakes and setbacks I encountered along the way have been a necessary evil, as they equipped me with the skills, knowledge and tough skin I lacked when I first started out, not just in the technical side of writing a book, but the challenging process of publishing and marketing.
If I could give one piece of advice, it would be this: before attempting to write a published piece of work, join a local creative writing group, attend writing conferences, buy books on the technical aspects of writing. If there aren’t any 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 fewer mistakes you will make on your path to publication.
And, the more money you’ll save on the final copy edit. Trust me, I’ve learned 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 to write a full-length novel, I would recommend starting with a smaller, less daunting project, such as writing a short story/ novella, an article for a local magazine or starting a blog. Keeping a journal can also be a good way of practicing your writing style and voice.
For those of you who, like me, write fantasy, a novella is a good way to introduce cultures, back story, characters and magical systems into your world, which will give you the creative freedom and time needed to plan and develop your story 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 skeleton of the story down on paper. Don’t try to edit as you go, as this will only slow your creative flow. The first draft is meant to be messy, unrefined, full of typos and grammatical errors.
Finishing the first draft is a huge accomplishment. By all means, celebrate this hard-earned achievement with your nearest and dearest, but rein in your temptation to share your masterpiece with them at this stage.
No good will come of it.
Step away from your baby for a few weeks, 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 rounds of painful revisions, where you’ll be tempted to burn every crappy page you’ve ever written. On good days, you’ll find yourself cutting swathes of words with merciless glee. And on the despairing ones, labouring 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 hard to hear, but ultimately your story will be better for it. Listen to all feedback with an open mind before deciding what to dismiss and what to revise.
Once you’ve made all the changes necessary to strengthen your novel, you’re ready to hit the publish button, right?
The most worthwhile step you can take next is to have your work professionally copy-edited, and/or proofread. 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 alone. Not cheap, and yes, it used up most of my savings, but in order to compete in an already saturated book market it was essential my finished novel met the same professional standards as one published by a traditional publishing house.
If you’re on a tight budget, you could opt for a proof-reading service only, or alternatively find online beta readers who may be willing to edit your writing for a free copy of your completed novel, along with an acknowledgment of their input.
No one is born a writer, they become a writer. Whilst it’s true there are a select number of gifted individuals with a natural talent for writing, talent alone doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful writing career. It can take years of practice and perseverance to develop the skills you need to become a credible and respected writer. However, if you’re truly determined you’ll find new and inventive ways to circumvent every gnarly obstacle thrown in your path.
One of the biggest and hardest of these roadblocks is rejection. Often in our eagerness to share our work with the outside world, too many new writers, (myself included) have submitted their precious manuscript to a publisher long 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 feels 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 and paralysing 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. Think of it as the first notch in your writer’s belt. Learn from the experience, push aside the self-limiting beliefs that hold you 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 are always some lucky exceptions whose debut either hits the market at the perfect time or who has discovered the secret ingredients to make it into a bestseller. Sadly, for the rest of us, it can take many years and several books to gain the level of visibility required to build a healthy 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 the majority 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 meal ticket to a fat royalty cheque. Keep it real. Commit to a regular writing routine. Put in the hours to learn your craft, develop an iron will, and most of all, enjoy the journey.
After all, that’s how the best stories are made.