Friday, December 5, 2014

How To Be A Novelist Part 1

So I get a fair number of questions from people, both friends/family as well as readers, about how to "be a writer." I try to answer these questions as best I can, and I don't mind them at all, but it's hard to sum that up in a paragraph or off-hand conversation while still giving a helpful response.

So, I thought I'd write a series of blog posts about what I did* to develop my craft, learn the ropes of writing, and go on to have a career in writing. This will mainly focus on CRAFT, not business. The business aspect is super important, and there is absolutely a place to talk about that, but I think the foundation should be skills related to the creation of content.

*Bear in mind this is what I did in my journey. Mileage may vary!

So let's pretend you, the reader, are asking me to help you become a novelist with the intention to be published (independent, trad, hybrid, doesn't matter). You don't just want to write one novel, you want to make a career out of it. You want to tell stories and sell them and make a living from it.

I think emphasizing the career part is important, because a lot of my advice is going to hinge on the idea that you need to be developing skills that will allow you to stick with what is a difficult and intense process at times. If you want to write that one book and that's it, great! You will probably not make a lot of money from it**, so don't expect that, but that's perfectly fine if that isn't your plan. However, if you want a career, you will need more than one idea and infinite time to spin it into a story. You're going to need a whole arsenal of skills.

**People are funny with their assumptions about authors and their finances. I remember a couple of years ago when I was starting out and had 1-2 novels out, and people made all kinds of strange small talk with me about it. They'd say things like "are you a millionaire yet?" I just laughed awkwardly. Or, "you just need to get a movie deal and you're set for life, right?" Um, no. Other people say things like "you must be really rich" after you've published 1 book. No no no.

Anyway, this advice is specifically for people who want to be authors and who want a career doing that. People who are in it for the long haul.

First, pretend apprentice, I would advise you to work on developing or strengthening some skills, both general and writing-specific. The good news is that you can do all of these things at the same time, a little each day. Yay for multitasking!

General Skills

1. Develop discipline.

Writing is hard. It's emotionally taxing, creatively draining, and it requires a lot of work that nobody is making you do (unless you have deadlines and an editor harassing you about them, I suppose). Generally, you're going to sit down and write that novel IF you make yourself do it, so possessing the ability to make yourself work hard and stick to a schedule is pretty important. Soooooo many people say "one of these days I am gonna write that novel." Well... maybe? Novels don't just happen. They take a lot of intentionality. But remember, we're looking at developing a career here, not just writing that one book. So discipline is going to be even more important.

Honestly, I think one of the biggest hurdles to becoming an author is simply finding the discipline and fortitude to 1) learn to write well and then 2) actually do the writing. It's not so much the learning, it's the ability to keep trying and working over a long period of time.

I learned a lot of my self-discipline when I finished my degree long-distance due to health problems that caused me to drop out of school. So many people said to me, "I could never do that. I could never do my homework and write my papers if I didn't have the structure of class." But you CAN. It's a skill I learned--I wasn't born with baskets of willpower and discipline--and it came in handy again and again after I started seriously working on writing novels.

Well, how do you develop things like discipline?

I found these books really, really helpful. They are not about writing in particular, but they aided me as I worked to become a more productive individual.

The Power of Habit

Outliers: The Story of Success

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

The Talent Code (haven't read this one but it looks similar to some other things I have read)

2. Develop a thick skin and the ability to hear constructive criticism.

A lot of writing is just re-writing and revising. You get the words down on paper and then you have beta readers and editors give you feedback, or you read books that guide you through the process of editing. You have to look at what you've produced and say, what needs to be fixed? How can I make this better? If you can't hear anything bad about your book baby, that is going to hold you back from growing as a writer. A lot of writers seem to be sensitive creatures--I certainly am--but I strongly advise cultivating the ability to hear hard things, because this will grow you as a writer. Also, you're going to get lots of criticism, not all of it constructive, once you are published. You are going to want to start now when it comes to learning to deal with that in a healthy manner.


1. Read fiction.

Seriously, read. Read all the time, especially in whatever genre you wish to write in. This is the fastest and best way for you to develop a feel and a taste for the genre. If you want to write YA, you need to be reading YA. Lots and lots of it. I cannot understand it when people say they want to write YA and they haven't read anything in that category except maybe The Hunger Games or something really well-known. That is THE starting point for you. Familiarize yourself in what you plan to write. Bathe in it. Soak in the styles, the conventions, the character types. Learn what you like and what you don't.

The good news is that this is the fun kind of work, because (hopefully!) if you want to write, then you like to read.

So read a lot.

2. Pay attention to all kinds of storytelling.

I, for instance, pay a lot of attention to my favorite TV shows. What do I like, what do I dislike, why did the writers make the choices they did, how could they have chosen differently? Analyze movies for structure, character arc, dialogue. Find a friend or two who enjoys discussing this kind of thing. Immerse yourself in the business of taking stories apart to find their nuts and bolts. This is part of learning how to put them together. This is another easy kind of work, one you can train yourself to do effortlessly.

3. Read books on writing.

I would suggest reading at least 6 books a year on craft, or 1 every couple of months. Depending on your skill level, you might want to start with more basic books on writing and work up. Beginner books are going to teach you very storytelling basic skills, like how to avoid info dumps, create compelling characters, and write basic, functional dialogue. The more immediate ones will assume that you know that kind of thing and focus on more advanced techniques. Here's some suggestions:


The First Five Pages

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers


The Fire in Fiction

Writing the Breakout Novel

The Making of a Story

4. Write all the time.

It's as simple as that. You need to be writing. Not necessarily every day, but... a lot. Maybe every day. Make it a priority. Practice. Learn. Let yourself be terrible at it, and then learn why you were terrible, and fix it. Making mistakes is a huge part of learning. Don't be afraid to put down imperfect words, because that's what revision is for. Learn to uncork the flow of words in a consistent way. If you put off writing until you can compose it perfectly, you aren't going to learn. You're going to be afraid of failure and you're going to stall and stagnate. Don't do that.

Seriously, don't fall into the trap of waiting for a moment when you feel inspired and seized with the magic of the muse. In fact, that's a terrible idea, because most of the time you won't feel very inspired. Learn to use discipline (from general skills) and consistency to get the work done. As you become more familiar with your own process and as you grow your skills, you will develop confidence, and I think a lot of "writer's block" and other kinds of problems come from a lack of confidence in yourself as a writer and your own process, so you will see improvements there.

Movies always seem to depict writers as moodily wandering around, moaning about writer's block and doing romantic things like drinking a lot, smoking while wearing sunglasses, and staring through windows of coffee shops waiting for that perfect idea. NO. Writers plant their butts in chairs and write. They don't always leave the house or take a lot of showers if deadlines are tight. You're probably not going to be that guy from Castle. It is mostly unglamorous work. And when you've got a book or two out, it's not all about sitting around gazing at your name on the cover. Especially not as your write more and more. You'll probably say "cool," smile at it like a proud parent, and get back to work on the next one.

Don't be in love with this image of "being a writer." Love the craft. Love the process and the journey and the sharing of stories. It's what is going to sustain you through the crappy hard work.

Now, having said all that, I looooooooove being a writer. It. Is. My. Dream. Job. It's a lot of work, and it takes intentionality, cultivation of skills, and effort. But it's WORTH IT. And you can do it! You really, really can, if you set your mind to it and don't give up.

In part 2, I'll talk more in depth about my suggestions for developing your writing skills, specifically in regard to novels.

1 comment:

  1. Great advice, and I love your doodles! :-)
    I can't wait for part 2 of the series.


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