With computers, the physical exercise of writing has never been easier. You open a file, start typing and wham! You’re writing. But this ease has some drawbacks that can shine an unrealistic light on the whole process. It makes writing look easy. And anyone who’s ever struggled over a stalled plotline can tell you it’s not easy at all.
So, for those starting out (or those struggling) here are ten things to remember if you want to be a published author:
1. Writing is Hard
Don’t get me wrong, it has its easy moments, but constructing a publishable novel is not an easy task. There’s a reason most people who want to publish a novel never do. It takes a lot of work, skill and dedication. It's helpful to remind yourself of this during those tough moments. It's not you, it's writing in general, and every writer at every stage struggles from time to time.
2. Learn the Craft
You wouldn’t expect to race in the Indy 500 the day after you got your driver’s license, would you? Then why expect to sell a novel without putting in the work? Writing is a skill like any other, and there are rules to learn and muscles to develop. Even those born with natural storytelling skills still need to learn the technical aspects of writing a novel. Talent gets you so far, training pushes you over the top. Allow yourself the freedom to suck at first (we all do) while you build your writing skills. Don't feel like a failure just because your first submissions get rejected or you get a bad critique.
3. The First Book Will Probably Not Sell
Writing is a skill we learn by doing, and our first attempts are usually pretty bad. Even if they aren’t, they are often filled with flaws that keep us from reaching a professional level. But that’s okay, because we all have to learn somehow, and the next book will be better. Enjoy the satisfaction of finishing your first novel. It only comes once. But don’t get so hung up on the need to publish that novel that you spend all your time revising and never write anything new. If you're lucky enough to sell your first novel? Then enjoy the win and remember that feeling for the days when things don't go so well.
4. Revision is Part of Writing
Much as we love our words, they aren’t set in stone. When and how you revise is up to you, but revision is part of the business and part of the process to crafting a great novel. Being open to feedback and learning the skills needed to use that feedback will serve you well in publishing. If you refuse to ever change a word, then there’s a good chance no one but your friends and family will ever read those words. Keyboards have a delete key for a reason. Use it.
5. It’s All About the Story
With so many books on how to write, it’s easy to forget why we write–and read–in the first place. We want a good story, and as my high school creative writing teacher said so beautifully, a good story is just interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. Don’t let yourself get so sidetracked by the mechanics that you forget why people read. As important as good craft is, a great story is what matters most. So cut yourself a little slack when a technical aspect has you banging your head against the keyboard. It's not the end of your career, just a bump in the road.
6. Whatever Works, Works
There’s a lot of information out there about how to write, what makes a good plot, the rules that “must never be broken.” Truth is, all rules can be broken in the right situation, and if it works, it works. This can be frustrating when you're struggling to understand a technical aspect or analyzing why a particular novel is doing so well. A novel might do something every rules says not to do and sell a million copies. But something in that novel connected to readers in a profound way and make breaking that rule work. To quote Pirates of the Caribbean, the rules are more like guidelines. Forcing your story to a set of rules because “everyone says so” might not be the best thing for your novel. However…
7. Rules Are There for a Reason
Guidelines are part of the business, so ignoring them because you don't like or understand them is also a bad idea. Ignoring the rules of grammar or doing twice the average word count rarely says creative genius, it says unprofessional writer who doesn’t know their craft. Breaking a rule often works best when it's not obvious a rule was broken, because it fits the story so well. It also works when it's so clear about how and why the rule was broken, and that knowledge actually makes the story better. When you break a rule, make sure you have a solid legitimate reason, and not just because you want to, or you can point to one book as an example. Which brings me to…
8. Famous Authors Can do it, Even if They Did it Before They Were Famous
Name any rule, and there will be books that successfully broke it and writers using them as a reason why they can do it too. Usually, those books are by famous authors or unknowns who because famous because of that one rule-breaking book. These books are exceptions for a reason. Understand why a book is an exception, but don’t use it as a free pass to do the same. You might be an exception as well, but odds are you’re not. It’s hard enough to sell a first novel, so why make it harder on yourself if you don’t have to? But if you admire a famous book that breaks a rule you also really want to break, then determine why it works for that story and figure out how to make it work for yours.
9. Not All Feedback is Good Feedback
One of the hardest things to do when you’re just starting out is to sift through comments about your work. It's natural to be unsure about your skill, and any negative comment can send you into a tailspin. Just as any good comment can inflate your head like Macy’s Day Parade balloons. Learn to evaluate criticism and trust your gut on what will help your work and what will hurt it. Even a good idea might be the wrong idea for a story. If your gut is telling you not to do it, listen.
10. Don’t Give Up
If being a published writer is your dream, then stick with it. It’s not easy, it will beat you down as often as it lifts you up, but if you work at it, keep improving and keep trying, you can make it. Writers have so many options these days to get their stories to readers, with paths for every personality and career goal. If one path doesn't feel right, try another, or even forge your own.
What rules do you break in your writing journey?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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