If you wanted to become a nuclear engineer or a psychologist, you would go to college and achieve the appropriate major in four years. Then you would specialize and go to graduate school for a number of years. Then you would have a work practicum where you would actually learn your job by doing it. In many cases, during the practicum, you pay for the opportunity to work for someone else. When I was working on my Masters degree in education, I was less than thrilled with the practical aspects of student teaching, whereby I would have to pay tuition to the university so I could go to a local school and teach, something the actual teacher was getting paid for, but that's the way the system worked if I wanted to become certified.
Nevertheless, many people want to be become a published author by sitting down and writing a single manuscript and selling it. In fact, I've run into many who want to pitch their idea, get the publisher to give them a contract and then write it. It doesn't work that way. 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 in an interview, says the same thing. I just saw Stephen King on C-Span the other day and he also said it: the most important thing to do to become an author is to write a lot.
One professor I listened to 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.
Referring back to where I talked about those who want to make a bundle of money writing; there are also those who pin all their hopes and dreams of being published upon their first manuscript. And when that manuscript isn't published, their writing 'career' is over.
Let's look at the positive side: I mentioned the odds are strongly against getting published. But simply by taking the time and the effort to read this book, 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 years previously to lackluster sales and failed. What is important to note about that was Grisham realized he hadn't done something right and worked hard to change.
From talking with other published writers, I have found it is common that somewhere between manuscript numbers three and six, comes the breakthrough to being published. How many people are willing to do that much work? Not many, which is why not many succeed. On top of that, there is the fact that 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 which will be discussed in the business section.
Not only is it hard to get published, it is also hard to be successful when you are published. Nine out of ten first novelists fail. I've failed after six novels under one name. I "failed" after two books under another name. Failure comes because of a number of reasons but the sign of it is common—enough books don't sell. I discuss this in the business section.
If you wanted to become a symphony musician, you wouldn't expect to get there the first year after you pick up an instrument. It takes a lot of time and practice and the best practice for a writer is writing. And for novel writing, it's usually writing novels, although there are some very successful novelists who honed their craft in short stories or magazines or newspapers.
Read interviews with people who are successful in the arts and entertainment industries (or pretty much any profession) and you will find a common theme (with a few exceptions of course): a lot of years 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. 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. At the time I am reviewing this chapter, the number two, soon to be number one, bestseller on the NY Times list is a first novel. The author received a two million dollar advance. So much for my theory, you say. Yes, except for the fact that that particular author spent thirty years in Hollywood writing for shows, honing his craft. I wish him well with his advance and his success; he earned it. Sue Grafton spent years writing for TV before she attempted her first novel. And it took getting to her G book to hit the bestseller list.
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. I've gone through some hard times in my writing career and I expect more in the future. I've gone through times where a "normal" person would have folded up shop and gotten a "real" job. I haven't yet but others with more talent have. What about you?
There is a noted exception to this rule and that is celebrities who get six figure advances for books. I know authors who are incensed over "so and so" who is a famous whatever getting a book deal. The issue there, though, is that most of those people put the time and effort into becoming well known for whatever they are well known for. And the name on a book jacket sells. It's part of the business. Few people are handed success. If someone worked for it in another field and tried to transfer it to the field of writing, then they are taking a risk. There are numerous books by celebrities that have bombed, and also many that have succeeded.
Something else to consider about those big advances— they can also turn into a big failure. If you get a $10,000 advance and fail, no one notices much. If you get a quarter million dollars and don't earn out your advance and fail, you can be sure everyone in the industry takes notice. Hard as it is to believe in this day of 'overnight' successes, but most writers aren't. Most earn their way and pay their dues with many manuscripts and many years of learning and studying.
The 'job' of being a writer is rather interesting if you consider it. It is one where whether you get hired or not totally relies on the product—the manuscript—and not at all on who you are, what you look like, etc. When you send submissions out, you are sending the end result, not the process, and it is judged as such.
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. I address this near the end of this book, but it is a worthwhile investment of your time and money to go to a workshop/conference or two.
The other day a local college student interviewed me and she asked me what she could do to help become a 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."
Think about the lifestyle of an author, the lifestyle you are hoping to achieve. Most people want the end result: a published novel in the bookstore, but they don't pay much attention to the life that produces that end result. A writer's life is one of paradoxes. You have to be interested in people, yet you work in one of the loneliest jobs there is. You need inspiration and passion, yet also possess the self-discipline to trudge through writing 400 pages of a manuscript. In other words you have to have a split personality and be slightly nuts.
I very much suggest studying 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.
I know I sound somewhat mercenary at times with my constant reference to the business end of writing, but please remember I would not be writing for a living if I didn't get a thrill from the process of literally creating something out of nothing. I was making a heck of a lot better living in my previous career, but I love this job and hope to do it for the rest of my life.
So what do you need? Briefly you should have a large degree of all of the following:
PATIENCE AND SELF-DISCIPLINE It takes me on average about four to six months to produce a finished manuscript. And that's working full time. When writing, I usually 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 in the library 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 when driving or riding my bike. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, which is why I have my micro cassette recorder next to my bed ready for instant use. Just this morning while taking a shower I had a breakthrough and reworked a story concept I was pitching to a publisher.
But it is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. If you write only when excited or motivated then 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). I eventually average 500 to 550 pages of manuscript to produce 400 good pages in a final draft. To sweat over that many pages and then "lose" them hurts but not as much as getting the manuscript rejected. The longer I've written, the more I've become a fan of rewriting and editing. And now, years after I wrote the previous sentence, the more I've become a fan of outlining and doing a lot of work before I write the first sentence of my manuscript. This is a trend among several authors I've talked. Both Terry Brooks and Elizabeth George got back lengthy editorial letters on the first book they sold. They determined then and there to make sure that future manuscripts would not require such rewriting. And they didn't. They learned to know what they were doing before they did it.
Try to give yourself a goal to work for. For several years I wrote a minimum number of pages each day: at first five, then ten. Then I wrote six hours a day. When I say write, I mean I sat at my keyboard for six hours minimum every day. While that doesn't sound like much, it actually translated into a considerable amount of work. That doesn't count the hours I spent on marketing, correspondence, teaching, book signings, working on outlines, etc. etc. I actually used a timer like a stopwatch that I punched into when I started typing and I punched out of when I leave the keyboard, even to just go check the mail. While that may seem extreme to many people, it is what worked for me at the time. Now I have gone back to trying to do a minimum of 40 to 60 pages a week, but even that is flexible. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
The bottom line is that I have 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.
It might sound strange, but the longer I have been doing this for a living, the harder I work. My work habits have gotten better, not worse. I produce more pages of better quality per week now than ever before. While a large degree of that is due to learning to be more efficient, some of it is also due to increasing awareness on my part of the realities of this business and an intense desire to stay in it.
Being your own boss has its inherent share of problems besides the benefits. For a while I figured if someone going to work in a factory has to punch in on a clock, why don't I? This is something that you have to suit to your personality. Some authors use a system of positive reinforcement. For me, keeping my inner writing clock in balance means I can actually then relax and not feel guilty about not being at the keyboard. A big problem about working for yourself is that you sometimes feel that you should always be working (since you always can.) and I need to have a system where I can take some time off and not feel guilty. For the past six years I have not taken what I would call a true vacation yet. I recently went on a road trip but took along my camera and looked at sights for the book I am now writing. I feel that is the price I have to pay to continue to work and survive in this field at the present time. Maybe that will change in the future, but right now it is a price I am willing to pay.
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.
Scott Turow wrote Presumed Innocent on the train to and from work in Chicago. So don't let circumstances stand in your way.
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.
For many, finding undistracted time may be their greatest challenge to being able to writing. The demands of job, family, school, whatever, can be overwhelming. And it is not so much that you can't find the time, it's that you can't find quality time. Trying to write after working ten hours at a very mentally demanding job may be next to impossible to do, but some people manage to do it.
You have to understand yourself and how you function. How many hours in the day do you have of 'good' mental time? When your brain is working at its peak? Because even on 'bad' writing days, your mind has to be working at its peak performance.
Unfortunately, there is no apprenticeship system in writing; no way you can make a living at it, while at the same time learn the craft. The "break point" where you can be published and get into the business is very high and is why most people fail. There are some who do an apprenticeship writing for magazines or newspapers. There are some genres where this works particularly well, such as the crime reporter who ends up writing mysteries, but in most cases I know of, such people became reporters because that's what they wanted to do, not as a stepping-stone to becoming a novelist.
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. When I discuss the publishing business in the latter part of this book, I use one word to describe it: SLOW. Therefore, that requires that you, the writer, have patience.
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.
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. You have to keep track of your characters, your locales, and the action, to make sure it all fits. I use a spreadsheet that I call a story grid when I write to keep track of all that. (Appendix 5). This spreadsheet is not an outline, but rather something I fill in as I write, to help me keep track of what has been done. It helps when you need to go back and look up a specific part or change something.
From left to right, the story grid has:
1. The chapter number.
2. The start page number for that chapter.
3. The end page number for that chapter.
4. The date the action takes place on.
6. The Zulu or Greenwich Mean Time equivalent of the local time—this is to keep my story in proper time sequence order as it goes to various spots around the world in different time zones.
7. The location of the action.
8. A brief description of the action so I can easily find it.
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 can drive a story, and the more details you have accessible in terms of research, the more options you have in your plot.
When I discuss how to write later, you will see where I refer to looping and tightening your subplots. The ability to organize is extremely important in keeping your story tight and fast moving.
It is an interesting that something which takes me a year to produce can be "consumed" in less than a few hours. I don't even remember some of the things I wrote in my first few manuscripts, things that my readers remember very well. Since I have a series, I need to be very conscious of what I've done so far and organization is critical in doing this.
AN ACTIVE IMAGINATION A novel is a living, active world you invent. Imagination is essential.
In some ways a novel 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 scenario and the mode/perspective chosen to present the story). 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 is 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.
THE MIND Yeah, you do sort of need one to be a writer, contrary to some people's opinion that know me. I'd like to say a little bit more about the mind for two reasons: one is that ultimately 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 in order to be able to touch the portion that most other people use. A little bit of understanding of that other 90 or so percent is useful. It is commonly called the subconscious 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.
This is something that is hard to discuss—writing by feel. People often ask about getting a book doctor or editor to read their work, but I think a writer is the best editor of their own work if they can be objective with it. Everything that an editor or agent has pointed out that might be flawed about a manuscript I sent, I 'knew' in my gut wasn't quite right before I sent it out. That's not to say other readers can't help you, but a novel is ultimately the author's responsibility.
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.
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.
CONTENTMENT & DESIRE I started this book 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 keep my sanity. Then after getting published, I wrote 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's non-plussed 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 that: "If you think you can make a living writing, forget about it."
Well, you can make money writing. I've done it now for almost fifteen years. 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 really 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. This is especially true these days with the growth of the Internet. There's plenty of places you can 'post' your writing, but that hasn't yet replaced getting published (I discuss ebooks near the end of this book in Chapter 37).
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.
SETTING OBJECTIVES 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. I am very big on understanding the business aspects of publishing and marketing your work correctly, 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. I set a daily objective of a minimum number of pages to write or a certain number of hours a day at the keyboard. If I'm researching, I give myself a goal of perhaps a book a night to be looked through and summarized.
I also set long-term objectives. I print out a calendar about once a week with the next twelve months on it. I block out every known appointment, such as book signings and classes to teach. I then break it down by writing projects. I block out weeks and months to write or outline or edit a certain book. I set weekly writing goals (which break down into my daily goals). I post that long-term calendar on the left side of the board, which is on an easel in front of my desk. The right side of the board is a dry erase board. On that I list everything I have to do that day (to include hours of writing, phone calls to be made, things to be mailed, etc., etc.,). As I accomplish each, I wipe them off the board. At the end of the day, if something is left up there, not only have I not accomplished what I should have, it's still up there for the next day. Since I am my own boss, it is very easy to slip up, but with my time objectives sitting there on my bulletin board, less than four feet from my nose, it becomes a little harder.
If you feel such cold objectives interfere with your creativity, you might be right. But a novel is a hell 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.
WRITER'S BLOCK I put this section right after procrastination because you have to decide whether your creative juices have run dry or you are committing the sin of procrastination. On the whole, I have to honestly say most often when I grind to a halt, I am doing the latter.
Ways to overcome the "block":
1. Have a good outline. Since you've already poured a lot of creativity into your outline, you can usually keep going.
2. As the commercial says: Just do it. Just write. It might be awful but at least it's something other than a blank page.
3. Work on something else for a while. Looking up at my work board, right now I have:
a. One manuscript on the market at a publisher.
b. One partial manuscript/concept on the market at four different publishers.
c. One partial manuscript/concept at an agent, looking for representation.
d. A screenplay getting read by a producer for rewrite.
e. Two concepts for third books to follow two two-book contracts with major publishers that need to be outlined in time for a new contract.
f. Two new ideas that I'm researching and beginning to outline.
g. Two manuscripts getting edited at publishing houses and due back in the next month for more work.
As you can tell, I have so much else going on that I value the time I can spend focused on simply writing. But if I do get a block, I have plenty of other things to work on, including this book. It has been written over a fifteen-year span now going from about twenty manuscript pages on the first draft to over three hundred and fifty.
4. If you are sure that you need to pause to rethink where your novel is heading, give what you do have to someone to read to get some feedback. Talk to other people. Clear you head. Free associate. Turn everything in your novel around and look at it from another perspective. Do some more research. Scream. Pound your forehead into your keyboard. Then write.
OPEN-MINDEDNESS 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 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, which I discuss in the chapter on reviews (30), 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 change 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 try to let the 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.
This open-mindedness also comes into play in the business side of the house. Too often, new writers want to do things their way and expect editors, agents—the entire publishing community—to change and see everything the same way as they do. Frankly, that isn't going to happen. There are many things wrong in the business, but there are also many things right. And just because you might not see the reason why certain things are the way they are, that doesn't make them wrong. I have had some very simple lessons beat into my head by my agent or editors that seem so basic now, but I just didn't get when I started out.
Remember, also, 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 also 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 both 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 work. 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 one time 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.
PASSION: 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.
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