You could also call this willingness to change. This is not only important when starting out, but it is perhaps even more important after first getting published. You should be willing to learn from any source to improve your writing.
Before you can be willing to change though, you have to be willing to say the three hardest words in the human language for most people, “I was wrong”. This should be followed with:, “Maybe I’m not doing this the best possible way. Maybe I can learn from someone else.”
One thing I see too much of is writers who want validation instead of help. They want to be told how great their manuscript is and have a publisher put the check in the mail. They don’t want to hear what’s wrong and what more work needs to be done. I find this very strange in the environment of conferences and classes, where the entire purpose is not validation but to become better writers.
After three books published, I took some graduate literature courses at the local college. It was a very worthwhile experience and expanded my horizons. In fact, the longer I write, the more I appreciate the literary side of the house. I think many genre writers get too caught up in the “formula” of their genre and trap themselves, becoming unable to write anything different. In the same manner, if you have a background in literature, don’t turn your nose up at information that seems too “common” or genre oriented.
I read a book and took a course on screenplays and learned some things about writing that I can incorporate not only into my work on screenplays, but also my novels. I found the way a screenplay is broken down interesting and I use it later in this book to help you get the big picture on how a novel works.
I recently watched the visiting writer at a local college come into our writer’s group to do a reading. She walked in, did her reading, took her applause, and then walked out. I guess she was simply too good of a writer to waste her time listening to the other people in the group read or discuss writing. She didn’t bother to find out whom she had just read to and because of that she lost the opportunity to network with several published authors who might have helped her in her attempts to publish her next novel.
That’s another lesson I’ve learned—you never know who you’re dealing with so be courteous and open to all you meet. No matter what your mindset, listen to others and what they have to say about writing even if you disagree with them. You might find yourself agreeing a year or two later. In this book, you might find me appearing to be somewhat schizophrenic, taking several different perspectives, some of them seemingly opposed to each other, but remember, I began writing this in 1990 and have been adding to it ever since, so in these pages you see some of my own evolution as a writer. I do have to say that for mainly ego reasons, I was very touchy when first starting out at what I perceived to be snubs from the literary community toward genre writing. Now I see that attitude to be naive and wrong. You have to decide what you want to do and pursue it, regardless of what others say or believe. Another thing I have learned is that it is guaranteed that someone, somewhere, will not like what you’ve written after you get published. It’s also guaranteed that some of those people feel a burning desire to inform you of those dislikes.
The biggest change I have made over the years is to alter my perspective on plotting and characters. I will discuss this in detail further in this book but for my first dozen manuscripts or so I believed that the plot drove the story. Now I realize that characters drive the story. In order to make that change, though, I had to admit that what I was doing was not the best way to work and be willing to look at points of view diametrically opposed to my own.
You can’t ever get better if you don’t first admit you’re not doing it the best possible way. When I taught a writing correspondence course, I would have to say that 80-90% of the students were unwilling to change anything based on the feedback I was giving them. The first question this raises is why they even took the course in the first place? The answer I mentioned above—they wanted validation. The few who did change, who did the hard work and reworked their material, and put the time into thinking about the questions I would pose—they made great strides as writers.
Remember that change takes stages. First one has to accept that there is a need for change. Then you have to intellectually accept the change, which isn’t total acceptance. After a while of living with the mental acceptance, you will gradually have emotional acceptance of the change, which is total acceptance. That is why it takes years and years to change, if one ever does.
I find change usually requires Kubler-Ross’s five emotional stages. I also touch on this in editing, but very briefly we tend to go through:
- There is no problem or need to change
- How dare someone, including me, say I’m not doing it right
- Maybe if I can change some small things it will make a big difference
- Yes, I do really need to change
- Which leads to change
Once, I spent every day of a week reading the fifteen New York Times bestsellers. I did this because I wanted to become a NYT bestseller. I read them with an open mind and I learned many things. I adjusted some of the structure of my plotting in accordance with what I learned and incorporated what I learned in places in this book also.
There are two types of books, besides bestsellers, that I recommend new novelists read: first novels (because this book was sold on its own merits) and breakout novels (the book that breaks a mid-list author into being a best selling author).
I constantly have to reinforce to writers the fact that the reader does not know what the writer knows. That a writer must be able to get out of their own head and into the head of a reader who is starting from page one.
If you start your manuscript with fifty pages of expository material, knowing that your great hook is on page 51, realize one thing—the reader doesn’t know the great hook is on page 51 and very few will want to wade through that much background information without knowing why it is important or that the hook is coming.
The Writing Routine
It seems like people always want to know what a writer’s “routine” is. I always get that question when I teach and I always have a hard time answering it. I have the same sort of answer when people ask about some of the material in the next chapter: I will use and do whatever it takes to get a manuscript done. If I have to outline on an easel pad, I do it. If I have to write in chalk on the side of an apartment building, I’ll do it. If I have to call the homicide squad to ask a stupid question, I’ll try to get someone else to do it, and when they won’t, do it myself.
Each individual has to discover what works, but the operative word in this sentence is works. Don’t lock yourself in—find what works, and if it stops working, find something else.
One interesting thing I have found is that the entire creative process has many paths but they all seem to parallel each other. I listened to a panel with Terry Brooks, Elizabeth George, Bryce Courtenay and Dan Millman as each talked about their own unique process of writing a novel. And on the surface it appeared that all were very different in their approach, but underlying what they were saying, I could see that they all did essentially the same things, just differently. Confusing? For example, Terry Brooks is a big fan of outlining and hates rewriting. But Bryce Courtenay doesn’t outline, he just starts writing and then spends a lot of time rewriting. But in essence, Bryce Courtenay’s first draft of the manuscript is equal to Terry Brooks polished outline. The same thought processes and amount of work go into it.
This is what you feel about what you are writing about. I talk about intent a little further on—what you want the reader to feel from the book. You also have to consider how you feel about what you are writing, because consciously or subconsciously, it will come through in your writing.
Your passion could be to tell an interesting and entertaining story. It could be to write a novel about what love means to you. Sometimes when I am trying to get a writer to get back to their original idea, I ask them what is most important about their book to them? What do they feel the most about? This is the core of the book.
I refer to this throughout this book, but one thing I believe is that if you are a writer, no one can stop you from writing.
This brings up the difficult subject of rewriting and changing. I’ve seen writers totally change their manuscript based on the off-hand comment of an editor/agent/writing instructor. Sometimes the change is for the better, but sometimes it tears the guts out of the book. I think a writer has to be true to himself or herself first. But the writer also must be objective enough to get out of their own head and see if what they have written works. To have these two capabilities reside inside of one person is a paradox and why it is difficult for most people to do this successfully.
Contentment & Desire
I started by saying wanting to make a million dollars isn’t the best motivation to write a novel. But you do need some tangible reasons. In a perfect world I suppose we could accomplish all the things we would like without having any external stimulus. But this isn’t a perfect world. I find putting my back against the wall helps. I wrote my first two novels living in Korea. I studied and taught martial arts six hours a day and went nuts the rest of the time. I wrote, to a certain extent, to keep my sanity. Then after getting published, I wrote because I enjoyed it but also to make money to live on. I had job offers where I could be financially secure, but I didn’t take them. I wrote, and continue to write, because I have to both internally and externally.
No one wants to talk about money. I remember watching the movie White Palace. In it the character Susan Sarandon plays is having a relationship with a younger man and she goes with him to his apartment for the first time. She’s very impressed with it and asks him how much he pays a month. He equivocates and hems and haws. She looks at him and says something to the effect of: “We can sleep together and make love, but you won’t tell me how much you pay for your apartment?” (I think her language wasn’t as mild, though.) That comment struck me because it’s so true of our society. Talking about money is more taboo it seems than talking about sex. I find this particularly interesting when we consider the academic side of writing. I was sitting in a writer’s group that I helped form and we had invited a professor who edited the local university’s literary publication to talk to us about the magazine. He started out by making the comment, “If you think you can make a living writing, forget about it.” Be careful of bitter people because their aura can be damaging.
Because you can make money writing. I’ve done it now for over twenty-five years and am currently making more as an indie author than I ever made as a best-selling traditional author. I’ve heard some authors and freelancers say never give away anything you’ve written for free, even if just to see it in print, and I tend to agree. If someone isn’t willing to pay for it, then work harder to make it good enough so someone will. Quite honestly, publishers will not be impressed with your credentials of getting published in publications that they never heard of and didn’t pay you anything other than to give you three free copies. I’m not saying absolutely don’t do that, but if you do, realize it is only a step and you need to move beyond. Don’t get stuck there.
I am not saying write simply for the money, but if you don’t factor money into the writing equation somewhere, and take it as a serious factor, you will fail, because eventually you will have to get a real job. Money cannot only be a source of motivation, but it is the basis for making a living at writing, which is very hard to do. It’s a vicious equation: to become a better writer, you must write—to write you must have time to write—to have time to write it most certainly helps to make some money at it.
OK, now that I’ve gotten the mercenary side of the business out of the way, go back to Pearl Buck’s quote: the root of your desire must be a passion to tell a story. Some people tend to look down upon telling a story in a format such as science fiction or mystery or action/adventure. But if that’s your passion and your story, then tell it and don’t worry what anyone thinks. I think there is one bottom line on how good a writer is: how many people read his/her book. That’s called commercial writing and sneered at in certain quarters, but if no one wants to read what a person writes then maybe he or she just isn’t writing that well. Think about it.
I sat on a panel at a conference and they asked each of us what we liked and disliked about writing for a living. The answers were interesting. I think an author needs the paradoxical combination of being able to be content and discontent at the same time. Because publishing is such a slow business and positive feedback so rare, you have to be reasonably content for long periods of time by yourself. At the same time you have to motivate yourself to write the manuscript, to do all the dirty work that needs to be done, to pursue long-range goals.
So far I’ve talked about what you need. Now let me mention something we could all do without: procrastination. If you’re like me, when you were in school, that term paper never really needed to be done until the night before it was due. I remember at West Point the radio station would have a contest the night before the big Social Sciences paper was due. They would have call-ins with the award going to the person who could claim they were starting their paper the latest.
In fact, for me, the one time I did a paper early—in fact so early that I was able to get feedback without a grade—the instructor gave me some basic pointers which I incorporated, then turned in the paper—again early, this time for a grade. I got an F. So much for positive reinforcement.
My main theme is that to become a writer you must write. You can be the greatest marketing specialist in the world, but if you don’t have a product to market, you’re not going to get published or sell. I am very big on understanding the business aspects of publishing and marketing your work as best you can, but I have seen people (including myself at times) forget one very important rule: you have to have a good product. Putting ninety percent of your effort into trying to sell your work when it is simply not good enough, is a waste of time. Put that effort into writing another manuscript that is good enough.
The best way I’ve found to overcome procrastination is to set objectives, both short and long range. If you feel such cold objectives interfere with your creativity, you might be right. But a novel is a heck of a long way to go simply burning the fuel of passion. One common fault that many suffer from is starting a novel, getting about a quarter of the way in, then dropping it to move on to something better, and starting a new novel. I know in everything I’ve worked on, about a hundred and fifty pages in, my mind has already started to move on to a new project and I’m somewhat bored with what I am working on. That’s where discipline and a schedule come in. If my next project isn’t due to start for three more months, then I have to work those three months on my present project in order to earn the right to start the new one.
An Active Imagination
A story is a living, active world you invent. Imagination is essential.
In some ways a story is like a chess game in that you have to be able to think half-a-dozen to a dozen steps ahead for all of your pieces (characters) while at the same time considering what the other guy might be doing (the limitations of your plot; the point of view chosen to present the story, etc.). You have to pick the successful moves and the correct strategic direction given a very large number of variables. But you are also limited by the personality of the characters you’ve invented—they have to act within the ‘character’ you have given them, much like each chess piece is capable of only a certain type of move. It’s your imagination that allows you to thread the proper path. And in most cases, there are numerous “all right” paths, but one stands out above the others as the “best” path and finding the “best” one is critical.
Yeah, you do sort of need one to be a writer. I’d like to say a little bit more about the mind for two reasons: one is that it is the primary tool you use when writing. Second, to write good characters, you need to understand the mind because it’s the driving force behind your characters’ actions.
As a “machine” the brain is very inefficient. Physiological psychologists estimate that we use less than ten percent of our brain’s capabilities (watch the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life and see how he uses this in his story). In many ways, that is what makes writing fiction so hard and draining: you are trying to expand the portion of your mind that you normally use and tap into your subconscious. A little bit of understanding of that other 90 or so percent is useful. It is commonly called the subconscious or the unconscious and plays a very large role in determining our character (key buzz word). Whether you agree with people such as Freud and Jung, it is useful to know a little bit about their theories. A fully rounded character has a complete brain and while they may only consciously be using ten percent, that other ninety percent affects their actions.
As a writer you will start having dreams about your story and your characters. That’s your mind working even when you consciously aren’t. You will also run into writer’s block, which I believe, when real, is your subconscious telling you to hold until you realize in your conscious mind something important with regard to the story. This is where the “write what you feel” school of creative writing comes in. I believe what they are focusing on is this very thing: the power of the subconscious (90% vs. 10%). It is more than feeling though; it is a large part of your brain and the better you can get in touch with it and use it, the better your writing will be.
There are many experiences a writer should have in order to understand both their own mind and the minds of other people. You have to remember that you are not the template for the rest of humanity. Hard as it may be for some to believe, there are differences between people.
I’ve sometimes said the best thing about a writers’ group is not necessarily the critiquing or networking, but rather watching the different ‘characters’ in the group and trying to figure out what is motivating them to act the way they do.
If you don’t understand yourself both mentally and emotionally, you might have a hard time understanding others. Therapy can be a very useful tool to help a writer dig into their own mind to figure out where they are coming from. Later, where I discuss what to write about, a critical question I think a writer should know the answer to is: Why are you writing this novel?
After listening to many authors speak of their creative processes I realize they are talking on two levels. There’s what they are saying and there is what they are meaning. The saying part often varies, but they almost always mean the same thing. For example, there is the issue of outlining. I know writers who swear by outlining and others who say they don’t outline at all, they just write. However, I’ve also found those who don’t outline tend to do a lot of rewriting, thus the first draft of their manuscript might be considered a very detailed outline. Those writers who do a lot of outlining tend to not want to do much rewriting. But in the final analysis, although the two methods seem very different, they are actually the same in creative essence.
Patience And Self-Discipline
It takes a long time to write a novel. No matter how fast you are, it takes a while. In fact, while some things like NANOWRIMO has people writing at a furious pace for a month and is a good way to get the writing down, it is also negative in that quantity is not necessarily quality.
The amount of time I spend writing a novel has actually increased the more I learn about the craft. Rather than making it easier, more knowledge makes it more difficult to write, as I try to make the book the best possible product I can.
Writers are often asked what their daily schedule is. I think it’s important to have the discipline to have a daily schedule and/or goal. It’s too easy to let the writing go and take care of everything else if you don’t force yourself to face that daily goal.
It’s different for many writers but here are some from writers I know:
5 pages a day; 2,000 words a day; 10 pages a day; six hours a day.
I think an external goal that can be measured is the best to go for. It’s a tangible goal and you know when you’ve accomplished it.
Beyond that tangible writing goal, I work seven days a week, anywhere from eight to fourteen hours a day. It’s hard for me to say how many hours a day I work because I am almost always ‘working’. If I’m not sitting in front of my computer, I’m researching or watching the news for interesting facts or simply thinking about my story, playing it out in my mind, watching my characters come alive. I have many of my best plot ideas while driving or riding my bike. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, which is why I have my iPhone with recorder next to my bed ready for instant use.
My cable bill is very high, with every channel, on-demand, and DVR. There are writers who say ‘kill your television’ but I disagree with that. There’s some very good writing in that medium. I watch movies and shows the same way I read books: analytically to see what the writers did and also what were the possibilities that weren’t explored. The #1 thing a writer must do other than write is read and watch movies and shows. It is work. It will take away some of your enjoyment of things as you can get good at predicting what will happen next under Chekhov’s rule of ‘don’t have a gun in act one unless you use it by act 3’. But note that I say ‘use it’ not ‘fire it’. That’s the key to great writing. To take what is expected and do the unexpected.
Writing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. If you write only when excited or motivated you’ll never finish. You have to write even when it’s the last thing you want to do. Just put something down. You can always edit it later or throw it out (you’ll do a lot of throwing out and it hurts but it’s the sign of a mature writer; also, it’s one reason you don’t edit yourself to death on the first draft). I eventually average 500 to 550 pages of manuscript to produce 400 good pages in a final draft. A recent manuscript was 126,000 words long and then I cut it back to 90,000 words. To sweat over that many pages and then “lose” them hurts but not as much as getting the manuscript rejected or not sell if self-published. The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve become a fan of rewriting and editing. I’m also a fan of outlining and doing a lot of work before I write the first sentence of my manuscript, including doing extensive character development.
Overall, I’ve developed an inner “writing clock” that works in terms of weeks and months that lets me know how much I have to produce and how quickly. It varies its pace depending on the project at hand and it took years of experience to develop this inner clock. I force myself to put the time and effort in, even when I don’t feel like it. However, as I discuss in Write It Forward, almost every writer tends to underestimate the time it takes to complete a manuscript.
Experiment and find something that works for you in day-to-day writing. Maybe it will only be for one hour every morning before everyone else gets up—keep doing it. You’ll be amazed how much you can get done if you stick with it. One rule that’s hard for people is to TURN OFF THE INTERNET while writing.
All the thinking, talking, going to writer’s conferences, classes, etc. are not going to do you any good if you don’t do one basic thing: WRITE.
When I taught martial arts, I always found that the majority of the new students quit right after the first month. They came in and wanted to become Bruce Lee rolled into Chuck Norris all within a couple of weeks. When they realized it would take years of boring, repetitive, very hard work, the majority gave up. It doesn’t take any special skill to become a black belt; just a lot of time and effort to develop the special skills. The same is true of writing. If you are willing to do the work, you will put yourself ahead of the pack. You must have a long-term perspective on it. Under Write It Forward, your strategic plan, in essence, is where do you want to be in five years as a writer?
I think a hard part of being a writer is also knowing what exactly ‘work’ is. For me it was hard to accept that kicking back and reading a novel was work and I wasn’t being a slacker. Sitting in a coffee shop and talking with someone is work. Living is work for a writer in that you can only write what you know, so therefore experience is a key part of the creative process.
Ultimately, though, as the late Bryce Courtney said, you need a large dose of bum glue. Gluing yourself to that seat and writing.
The Ability To Organize
As those pages pile up, you’ll find yourself weeks, months, maybe years away from having written that opening chapter. That’s where your organizing skills come in. We’ll cover outlining later on, but in essence, the way you organize your life, is the way you will initially organize your book. So if your life is all over the place, you might have some problems. Yes, there are those natural talents who can just ‘stream’ a book, but they are few and far between. Most of us cannot keep an entire book in our head.
You have to keep track of your characters, your locales, and the action, to make sure it all fits. I’ve used many different tools to write a novel, but one thing I’ve done with every single manuscript is use what I call a story grid. This is an Excel spreadsheet where I can put the entire book on one page, scene by scene (for a really big book it might go to two pages). This spreadsheet is not an outline, but rather something I fill in with a pen each day as I write, to help me keep track of what has been done. Every day I then update the spreadsheet and print it out. It sits to the left of my keyboard (I’m left-handed). It helps when you need to go back and look up a specific part or change something.
I also keep numerous indexed binders with all my research material handy. I spend a considerable amount of time organizing my research material so I can find what I’m looking for. Details drive a story, and the more details you have accessible in terms of research, the more options you have in your plot. Right now I have two four-inch thick binders: one for people; one for events.
Some writers use programs like Scrivener or Onenote to keep track of their research, but I’m still old-fashioned and use Word and Excel and binders.
These practical tools are part of my process as a writer.
What practical tools are part of your process?