I'm often asked for writing advice while on tour, or through email, or twitter, etc. Sometimes it feels weird giving advice when I feel like I am still learning myself, but I'm also happy to pass along a few lessons I've gleaned along the way.
Be a sponge.
The more knowledge you can soak up, the better your writing will become. Take writing classes, attend writing conferences, and read as much as you can. There are plenty of online resources for writing classes, but if you can, take an in-person class at a local university or writing conference. There is something very energizing about sitting in a room with a bunch of other writers. And you will probably learn more from in-class debates, and critiquing other writers' stuff, than you will from reading a computer screen filled with writing tips . . . hey, wait a second . . .heheh. Keep reading anyway :D
Don't forget to write.
Okay, that sounds silly . . . but really, it happens. Sometimes we get so absorbed in the task of learning about our craft, that we don’t actually ever sit down and do the writing. Or sometimes, we experience “information overload” and we get so overwhelmed we just need to unplug from the world in order to start writing. Remember—no amount of reading, class taking, networking, or schmoozing, etc. is going to get you anywhere if you don’t actually write. Write every day if you can. Carry a notebook to capture ideas when they strike you. I actually wrote the prologue for The Dark Divine on the back of a program during church.
Join a critique group.
Like I said, there is something magical about being in a room with other writers. And a critique group is a fun, inexpensive way to get feedback, advice, and brainstorming help.
Let your writing percolate.
Like a good piece of cheese, let your writing “age” for a while before you send it out. Stick your manuscript in a drawer for a couple of weeks and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Let your critique group read it over and offer feedback. Sometimes, you may even need to put something away for a long time before you can really see the kinks that need to be worked out. After sending out the original version of my first published novel, The Dark Divine, (unsuccessfully) to a few agents back in 2006, I realized that the manuscript needed a major overhaul—but I didn’t know how to do it. I ended up putting that book in a drawer (figuratively speaking) for over a year. I moved on to other projects, and then one day, the answers to my problems with The Dark Divine just started to work themselves out in my mind. I pulled the manuscript out again and spent the next year overhauling it, let it sit for a month, and then sent it out to agents again . . . and a few weeks later I landed the fabulous Agent Ted!
Don't be unwilling to revise.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: GREAT BOOKS AREN’T WRITTEN—THEY’RE REVISED! Revising is just part of writing, and a major part at that. Hardly anything you write will be golden the first time you put it down on paper. You will tweak and revise on your own, with your critique group, in writing classes, at writing conferences, then take your stuff home and revise, revise, and revise it again. And then you’ll send it out to agents, and more likely than not, you’ll end up tweaking and revising your book even more based on the rejections you get. Then you’ll send it out again, and when you land an agent—guess what? He/she’s going to make you revise it some more before it goes out on submissions. And then when you sell your novel . . . well, that’s when the REAL revising starts. And then when you think you can’t possibly revise that darn freaking manuscript one more time . . . they’ll send it to copy editing where you’ll find out that apparently the language you’ve been speaking all your life isn’t actually English . . .Okay, okay, you get my point? Sorry to say it, but you won’t make it anywhere in the publishing biz if you aren’t willing to revise your writing.
Don't do all the revisions people suggest to you.
I know, I know, I’m such a hypocrite. I just went on telling you that you MUST revise your book, and now I’m saying not to? Okay, before you kick me in the pants, let me explain. You will get a lot of advice on your book, and a lot of critique suggestions—a lot of them will be good suggestions, some . . . well . . . not so much. Or some suggestions might work well for someone else’s story, but don’t jive with your vision for your book. You will even run into a few people who will pretty much want to write your book for you. But remember, you are the author. This is your baby. Take every revision suggestion with a grain of salt.
At first, some revision suggestions seem impossible, or highly improbable, or just plain not right for your story. I always sit on revision notes for a few days (sometimes a few weeks) before I implement them. With a little time and perspective, you will be able to sift out the good suggestions from the bad. And sometimes, an impossible suggestion will suddenly click in your head and it will make a huge difference in the quality of your book. But, if after a little time, a revision suggestion still seems off to you—well then, it probably is. Go with your gut, and do what’s right for your story. But always consider WHY a certain suggestion was made. Did a critiquer want you to change Z into X, but that doesn’t sit well with you? Well, then maybe the reason for Z happening is just not clear enough to your reader. Or perhaps after evaluating the suggestion you will realize that Z actually needs to be changed into Y rather than X. I often find that many revisions are a matter of making things clearer. Hopefully that makes sense.
Becoming an author takes time.
Yes, there are those fluke cases where someone writes a book and then has a multi-million-dollar debut book deal six months later. But for the other 99.9% of us, it takes several years to become an author. Ask just about any published author (including Sara Zarr and Laurie Halse Anderson) and they’ll tell you that it takes about 10 years to make a name for yourself in this biz. And most of us are better off because of the time it took to strengthen our writing. I thank my lucky stars that my first novel never sold. I’m extremely grateful that the original version of The Dark Divine was rejected by every agent I sent it to. Your writing may not be ready for publication right now, but if you keep working, and learning, and reading, and writing, it WILL get there someday. Good Luck!
Authors are people too.
I loved telling stories and writing when I was kid. But I seriously thought that authors were this special breed of people, and someone ordinary like me could never become one. I wish I would have figured out a long time ago that anyone—with enough drive and hard work and time—can become an author. Even a mild mannered citizen like myself :D.
I've also learned that while most authors are very busy, and therefore are unable to answer all the mail and questions they may get from readers, they also love to interact with their readers and fellow writers as much as possible. We are all part of the same club.