I tend to think a lot about process and the little things that go into working on a project and yeah, the overarching philosophy behind the act of writing.
I mean, obviously, if you’re writing a novel, you probably have the ultimate goal of being published. Let’s assume that’s the goal, anyway and let’s focus here on writing novels/fiction.
Writers don’t write just to get published. If that’s the only reason you’re doing it, re-assess. Write because you love it, because you can’t NOT write, because if you didn’t your soul would wither into a desiccated carcass, left to bake on the salt flats of your future.
So with that in mind, I’m here to disavow you of some notions because writing a draft of a novel isn’t just hammering something out and then you’re ready to go get it published (and then make ass-loads of money).
I think most people probably are aware that more goes into this, but what they don’t realize is even when you have a draft hammered out, that draft will need to be re-written several times. Re-writing is a huge part of writing, and it can be tedious, but that’s the nature of the beast.
Writing, like any other skill or ability, requires a lot of practice and some new writers aren’t willing to put in the time, energy, or resources to learn the craft or the mechanics of it and develop from there.
Nobody starts out a perfect writer and honestly, there is no perfect writer. Even the really good ones aren’t perfect.
There are people who might have a better grasp of craft prior to writing a novel, and people who have read widely and taken classes and have an excellent command of the language, but their drafts are going to need work, too.
Also, writing isn’t necessarily a goal. It’s a journey, and as you travel, you will be kicked around, experience frustration and exhaustion/burnout, be subjected to harsh critique, deal with the constant of trying to market yourself, and chewed up and spit out by publishing, regardless of the platform you use.
1. Assess your reasons for doing this. Seriously. Really have a think about this. Because if you’re thinking writing a novel is a get-rich-quick scheme…oh, honey. Bless yer heart.
Not to suggest this doesn’t happen. But…generally, it doesn’t. Everybody in this business is hungry, and competing for various readers. Finding your audience is going to take much more than one book. So once you embark on this idea of being a novelist, that means you need to write many more than just one. You need to commit, and it’s a fuck-ton of work.
- Who are you writing for?
- What are you trying to say? (your message)
- Have you found your writing voice?
- What are you willing to sacrifice on this journey?
See: “Writing Tips to Make You Better” (writer Jeff Goins; lots of good stuff at his blog, btw)
That last one is something new/new-ish writers don’t seem to really consider, is what they’re willing to sacrifice on the journey. Because you will be making sacrifices. So it’s good to get to know yourself (if you don’t already) and understand what you’ll give up and what you won’t in order to do this.
Write because you feel the call. Not because you think there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that a bunch of dancing leprechauns are only too happy to give you. If you’re looking to make money out of writing, stop. Write because you want to, because it’s almost a need, because you’re compelled to tell stories.
The majority of professional writers have day jobs, especially if you’re in the US because that’s the only way we’re able to access affordable health insurance and benefits (and that’s a whole other subject and rant). Which is not to suggest there aren’t writers who are able to make a living at this. But it’s a constant hustle, 24/7 and if you have family who depend on you or you have other commitments, you’re going to have to figure out how to make all that work, in addition to ensuring that you’re taking care of yourself and engaging in wellness. This can be a stressful business and you have to ensure you’re part of the wellness equation.
So really think about what your goals are in terms of writing. If you’re just wanting to hammer something out for NaNoWriMo to prove to yourself that you can do it, that’s one thing. But if you’re wanting to turn that project or something else into a published work and then embark on a writing life in some regard, that’s a whole other thing.
Think about what you intend to do with your project. And along those lines…
2. Focus on craft. There are a lot of moving parts to writing. Stories that are written well run smoothly, and you aren’t aware of all the moving parts because they’re flowing seamlessly together.
A reader should stop reading because something was so awesome that they wanted to read it again. They shouldn’t stop because something isn’t working. Colleague and fellow author Joan Opyr told me that years ago. Good writing/story-telling is like a well-tuned engine. Everything works together so well that you don’t notice how well it works and you just enjoy the ride.
Work on your craft — on the mechanics of writing. Learn grammar, the parts of sentences, the parts of a story, how things fit together. Become a better writer before you go out in the world looking for a reward for it.
See: “Don’t Fake It–Learn the Craft” (Beth Hill at The Editor’s Blog)
See: “10 of My Favorite Writing Craft Sites” (author Kate Weiland)
See: “7 Craft Lessons Every Writer Must Learn” (writer and editor Michael Noll at HuffPo)
See: “The Most Neglected Writing Tip” (Jeff Goins)
See: “The Difference Between Good Writers and Bad Writers” (Jeff Goins)
Take workshops/classes/webinars on writing and craft. Learn fundamentals. Read books on how to construct novels: plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, narrative arcs. Types of fiction. What connotes style. What genres you’re interested in. How those types of stories are constructed.
If you want to write well, you have to work at it, which means you also need to read widely and often. Read writers better than you so you get a sense of what makes a good story. Read across genres to expose yourself to all kinds of approaches and styles. All of this will inform your style and craft, and will help you develop as a writer.
I’ll repeat: To write well, you have to WORK. You have to make the time to practice your craft and to learn the mechanics of writing. Sorry. There’s no easy way to do this. Good product requires a lot of work on the back end and in writing, you’re the back end.
3. “Hope for the best but expect nothing.” The late Harper Lee said that, which seems funny now because she didn’t publish more than a couple of novels and look what happened there. But her point is well-taken. It’s great to hope. Hope fuels a lot of cool things and without that, what the hell would ever get done?
But don’t expect that the world owes you a damn thing for your novel, no matter how much blood, sweat, or how many tears you poured into it. Refer to point 1, above. Write because you feel the call and you want to tell stories. But don’t expect that people will care about those stories. That’s part of writing. Don’t be looking for rock star status. If that’s your only reason for writing, re-assess.
Here’s more of Lee’s quote, from an interview she did in 1964 (Lee was notoriously press-shy, so this is a treat):
Hope for the best and expect nothing. Then you won’t be disappointed […] You must come to terms with yourself about your writing. You must not write ‘for’ something; you must not write with definite hopes of reward … People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don’t know what they’re doing. They’re in the category of those who write; they are not writers.
4. Read. I said this above, but I’ll say it again. All good writers read widely. Nonfiction, books, short stories, periodicals, long-form journalism — brain and soul food, friends. If you’re serious about improving your craft, do not lose sight of reading as an important ingredient in your writing life.
If you’re going to do this writing thing, you need to challenge yourself through reading. Writers need to be wordsmiths, and versed in the art of language. Don’t stick to one genre or one or two authors. Read widely, read often. You’ll find inspiration and ideas in other people’s words, and you can use that to improve your own writing and feed your brain.
See: “14 Reasons Why Writers Need to Read” (editor and author Jan Fortune at Noteworthy)
See: “3 Reasons Writers Read Books” (Joe Bunting at The Write Practice; excellent writing advice there)
Podcast: “Why is It So Important for Writers to Read?” (Write Now podcast with author, editor, podcaster Sarah Werner)
So if you’re serious about this writing stuff, READ.
5. Think about your writing life. What that means is, writing isn’t just about reading books and doing workshops/classes. It’s also about understanding that like any other skill, you need to practice just about every. freaking. day. Top athletes and musicians engage with their craft every day. If they take a break from the physical act of sports/music, they’re still thinking about it.
It becomes embedded in their bodies, brains, and lives.
I’m not suggesting you work 12-hour days at writing and take an hour off here and there. Like anything else, writing requires that you find a work/life balance, but if you’re new to this, you absolutely need to be realistic about how much time you’re willing to give to a writing life and if you can’t commit to engaging with your craft every day, then this isn’t the gig for you. And that’s fine. It’s not for everybody. Go, you, for giving it a shot! There’s no shame in not continuing and finding your groove elsewhere.
Like anything else that you want to do well, writing requires COMMITMENT and WORK and TIME and PERSEVERANCE. If that’s you, then GO, YOU again!
But really think about why you’re doing this.
Writer Jeff Goins wrote a manifesto for writers, and I totally agree with it. Here it is:
So there you go. If you’re working on your first novel, there are lots of things to consider. Like your platform. And in the great scheme of things, why you’re even doing this and what it’s going to entail.
Whatever you decide to do, GO, YOU! If this writing life is for you, welcome!
Happy Monday, happy READING, happy writing.