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Traits of Successful Authors I— Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

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.

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterWriting 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.

backgroundWhen 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?

Best Way to Sell Books? Write Better— Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Yes, we all say it, but a perusal of blogs, articles, and conference schedules show a focus on eBooks, social media, marketing, promotion, formatting, cover design and much less on learning the craft of writing. Everyone is asking “How, in this flood of content, can I sell books?” And the answer is indeed: Write Better Books.

The key to being discovered is to have readers searching for you. Gather a fan following. That doesn’t happen by having a ton of followers on Twitter or Facebook. It happens by having a ton of readers, eagerly anticipating your next title to come out. Ultimately that is going to be what separates out those who succeed as writers and the vast majority who won’t over the long haul.

In light of that, I’m introducing Craft Tuesday. I will blog about various aspects of writing and also discuss examples from media, both print and screen. I will present a classic form of the novel, but also talk about how I view story telling to be changing. I’ve really seen a change in this in the last decade, especially in terms of narrative structure, timeline, and point of view. I’ve always believed in rule breaking, but I have three rules of rule breaking:

  1. Know the rule. Breaking a rule we don’t know is just being dumb.
  2. Have a good reason for breaking the rule. When I run Write On The River workshops here, I never say “You did it wrong.” There is no wrong. What I ask is “Why did you do it that way?” Often I get a blank stare back. It means the person just did it, without a good reason. Have a good reason for breaking a rule.
  3. Take responsibility for breaking the rule. If it works, you’re a genius. If it doesn’t, you’re a mere mortal. Failure is the start point for future success.

Great writing is an art that comes out of craft. Which can be learned.

Toolkit_TNSome of the material presented comes out of The Novels Writers Toolkit. I started writing that over 20 years ago and have been updating it ever since. In this blog, I will be updating the excerpts for the next edition of the Toolkit.

Something I’ve picked up in the last several years is that a writer must study, refine and perfect their own process. This is the creative and practical way in which we write. It’s rooted in our psychology. I often tell writers that since we sit in a dark room by ourselves and write, we need therapy. It’s a given. But it’s true. We must understand our own thought process; and how we funnel that into our creative process.

I know a #1 bestselling writer who has the imagination of a rock. That’s not to say she’s dumb. She’s actually very, very smart. Just not imaginative. So part of her process is to compensate for that lack. She spends a lot of time studying her setting, but beyond her setting, she spends a lot of her time interviewing people and listening to their stories. And her story comes out of their stories. I don’t judge the right or wrong of that; it’s her process. It’s worked well enough to propel her to #1 on the NY Times list.

I tell people I can plot anything. What I mean is I can take a bunch of pieces and pull them together into a coherent plot. So I don’t overly worry about knowing exactly what will happen down the line. The longer I’ve written, the more I trust my subconscious. It means putting things in that manuscript that I really don’t know why they’re there. But I leave them. I’ve learned in my process to not edit those things out. Because later, down the line, it’s probably a piece I will need to build my story and make it tighter. So that’s a part of process I’ve taken something out of my subconscious and work with consciously. The more our process becomes conscious, the better we will work.

Process also includes point of view, which we will discuss. Another key to process is knowing what part of writing is our weakness, and then working to make it much stronger; I believe our book is only as good as the weakest part.

So let’s start there. What is your process as a writer? The following questions will help define it:

  1. When I start a story, what is the moment of conception? I call this the original or kernel idea. Is it a person? A place? A theme? A story?
  2. Do I understand my theme/intent for what I’m writing?
  3. Why am I writing about this theme/intent? Why is it important to me?
  4. Why is it important for me to write a story others will read?
  5. What point of view do I write in? Is it the POV that supports my best writing? What POV scares me to write in? Might that be the best for me?
  6. How do I research a story? What does that say about my imagination and my process?
  7. What’s the weakest part of my writing? How can I make it better? Compensate for it?
  8. What’s the strongest part of my writing? What is it compensating for and hiding from me? Remember, our greatest strengths are built around our greatest weaknesses.
  9. How much outlining do I do? Do I outline plot? Character? Both? Neither?
  10. How much rewriting do I do? What is the focus of my rewriting?

backgroundDon’t worry if you can’t answer all of these. I’ll be blogging about all of it as the Tuesday’s go by. And if you’re in a rush, buy the Toolkit and Write It Forward, and they’ll give you insights into the answers to these questions. Feel free to answer some in the comments and I’ll do my best to also comment.

The Write on the River workshop coming up this weekend was sold out a while ago.  The next one is 27-28 June; or if you can gather three friends we can schedule a special weekend.  Check out Write on the River.

I’m looking forward to this journey with you over the next months! Nothing but good times ahead.

 

#Nanowrimo Yes, Writers, You Need A Mind

Yeah, you do sort of need one to be a writer contrary to what many who know me think of me.  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 is 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.  (Rent 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 is 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 for a writer to dig into their own mind to figure out where they are coming from.  Yes, if you’re a writer, you need help as I recommend in Write It Forward.

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.

Also remember that there are two sides to the brain.  The right side is your creative part while the left is more analytical and logical– this is where the editor part of you resides.  Sometimes you have to silence that editor while creating or else nothing will get done.

Are you left brain dominant or right brain dominant, or just plain nuts?

#Nanowrimo Writing as the only art form that isn’t sensual

I’m still continuing posts for Nanowrimo, focused on craft, since it’s not over yet, is it?

Remember something about the art of writing: It is the only art form that is not sensual.  I’m not saying you can write sensual material, but rather the way the art impacts your senses.  You can see the colors and strokes that make a painting, feel a sculpture, and hear music.  The manner in which each individual piece in those fields impacts on the senses is different.  But every writer uses the same letters on a piece of paper.  You have twenty-six letters that combine to form words, which are the building blocks of your sentences and paragraphs.  Everyone has the same words, and when I write that word and you write it, that word goes into the senses of the reader in the same way.  It’s how we weave them together that impact the conscious and subconscious mind of the reader that makes all the difference in the world.

A book comes alive in the reader’s mind.  You use the sole medium of the printed word to get the story from your mind to the reader’s.  It is the wonder of writing to create something out of nothing.  Every book started with just an idea in someone’s head.  Isn’t that a fantastic concept?

Writers learn by writing.  And before that, by being voracious readers.

In essence, writing is no different from any other profession.  It’s a simple rule, but one that every one wants to ignore:  the more you write, the better you will become.  Practically every author I’ve ever talked to, or listened to, or read about in an interview, says the same thing.  I saw Stephen King on C-Span and he said the most important thing to do to become an author is to write a lot.  That is one of the reasons so many people are participating in this month’s Nanowrimo. One writing professor said you needed to write a million words before expecting to get published.  I’m currently around word five million and still learning so much.

Let’s look at the positive side:  The odds are strongly against getting published.  But simply by taking the time and the effort to learn from these words and participating in Nanowrimo, you are increasing your odds.  By continuing to write beyond your first manuscript, you vastly increase your odds.  Many writers gush over the amount of money John Grisham made for The Firm but they forget that A Time To Kill was published previously to lackluster sales and failed.  What is important to note about that was that Grisham realized he hadn’t done something right and worked hard to change.  Note that Grisham did not sit still and bemoan what his agent/editor/publisher etc. didn’t do to help the novel.  He didn’t complain that the reading public didn’t understand his brilliance.  He worked on the one person he knew he could change:  himself (a tenet of Write It Forward).

From talking with other published writers, I have found it is common that somewhere between manuscript numbers three and six, comes the breakthrough to publication.  How many people are willing to do that much work?  Not many, which is why not many succeed and how you can vastly increases your chances of beating the odds.  Publishers do not want to make a one-time investment in a writer.  When a publisher puts out a book, they are backing that writer’s name and normally want to have more than one book in the pipeline.  Multiple book contracts are very common; with their inherent advantages and disadvantages.  As soon as you type THE END on your first manuscript (and I mean THE END after numerous rewrites), the absolute first thing you must do is begin writing your second.  With self-publishing, I recommend having at least three books before putting much time and effort into marketing.

Publishing has changed drastically and there are new opportunities for writers to get their novels into the hands of their readers. Traditional publishing isn’t the only viable option for the 21st century author. Self-publishing is quickly becoming the new medium for mid-list authors, and new authors. Amanda Hocking self-published her way into a two-million dollar contract with St. Martins Press. Myself, Connie Brockway, Barry Eisler, LJ Sellers and JA Konrath have all either written ourselves out of NY contracts or turned down a NY contract and ventured out on our own and have been successful.

As someone who wants to be in the entertainment business, you have to study those who have succeeded and failed in that business.  Read interviews with people in the arts and entertainment industries and you will find a common theme:  a lot of years of sweat equity put in before the big “break” came.  I’ve read of and heard actors and comedians talk about spending decades working in the trenches before they became famous.  Musicians who sang back-up for years before becoming lead.  Painters who toiled in squalor (and often died) before their work was recognized.

Study the lives of writers.  Read interviews with authors and see what they say.  Go to conferences and talk to them.  Listen to them talk about several things:  how they became authors, how they live, how they feel about writing, how they write.  Many worked very strange jobs before getting published.  Almost all struggled and spent many years of suffering before they succeeded.  I say suffering in terms of financial or career terms, not in terms of the writing itself.  Most writers enjoy writing.

People seem to think that writers are different and, while in some highly publicized cases they are, most published writers have spent many years slugging away before even their first novel was published.

Simple perseverance counts for a lot.  I think many people with talent lack the drive and fall out of the picture and people with maybe not as much talent but more drive take their place.  It’s the difference between having a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  People with talent often believe they know all they ever need to know, so therefore their mind is fixed.  Those who believe there is always something more to learn, have a growth mindset.

Let’s get back to where I talked about people in other professions doing a work practicum.  Besides writing novels and reading, the other advice I would give would be to attend conferences and workshops.  It is a worthwhile investment of your time and money to go to workshops and conferences.  Not just to learn, but also to network.  Because of that, the first Write It Forward ‘short’ my publishing company released is How To Get The Most Out Of Your Time And Money At A Writer’s Conference.

A college student once interviewed me and she asked me what she could do to become a better writer.  I replied with my usual “Write a lot,” then thought for a second, looking at this nineteen year old woman.  Then I said:  “Live a lot.  Experience life, because that is what you are eventually going to be writing about.”

What things do you suggest writers do in order to help themselves become better writers?

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