This week: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
I actually have a list. There have been many who talk to me about writing. I also have had many young writers around or in touch with me, so here is what I tell anyone who asks for advice:
Read, read everything.
Know and delve into the genre in which you want to write, but don’t limit your scope. I’ve heard editors, publishers and agents say that the first question they ask potential clients is, “What do you read?”, and if the would-be writers say that they read little or even none, they know that the person’s work will not be good before they read the first paragraph. I had it happen with a potential interviewee; he said that he didn’t read much and never read others in the genre of his book. He said that his wife/co-writer read sometimes and that she had read a book or two like theirs. I doubt that anything she may have read was comparably as bad. I declined to have them as guests. Yes, their book was that bad, which was too bad because the backstory that inspired him to write his book was darling. The plot, characters and execution, plus the fact that he badly self-published, (more on that below), was ,well, a mess.
Write what you know, but what do you need to know?
If you don’t know a great deal about something that you want to put into your writing, (be it a place, a job, a science, whatever), do your homework/research. In this day and age of communication and information, there is no excuse not to. Make no assumptions, even to presuming that others won’t notice; they will, and you may turn your audience off forever. Example from actual works: The CIA calling on a private investigator of disrepute for dangerous overseas missions every so often, wrong steps to formal adoption, lawsuits and court martials with missing or nonsense procedures, swamps or mountains where they are not, real cities made into small towns. Make up a town, city or country if you don’t know much about the place that you want to use, but haven’t experienced it or don’t want to take the time to do decent research. Just because you have never been to the place doesn’t meant that your reader hasn’t.
You may ask: What about Star Wars? Surely George Lucas didn’t know space travel, aliens and Jedi Knights? No, but he does know people, and that is why Star Wars works. Even the Droids had distinct and consistent personalities, so:
Learn about people and life
Be interested. Look at those you know and those that you don’t. Why are they the people that they are? You won’t always know, and your misconceptions can also be useful in your writings. Notice how people behave, learn how they talk and actually think about what they may not be saying. You can’t write if you don’t know about life. There are always reasons as to why people do things. They might not be good reasons, but there are always reasons.
Describe well, but don’t over-describe.
Practice description; few writers get it perfectly right. You want your readers to feel that they know where your characters are, what they would see in their world, (even if it is much like our own world), what they would hear, smell and perhaps, feel. It takes a great and skilled writer to take a person into another world, but even just a good writer can make a reader understand where the characters are and what they are experiencing. Practice. Read your own and other people’s works critically.
You need to give readers information, but many writers over-describe and readers get bogged-down in the details and become bored. If you are writing about space-travel, for instance, (I am putting this down on ‘May The Fourth’, so I have Star Wars on my mind), don’t get overly technical. Few would want to read about how your hypothetical engine works in great detail, trust me. You will lose your non-techy readers and your fellow geeks will find fault with your theories and designs. Don’t go there.
I knew a 30-something teacher who wrote a bad romance novel where the young protagonist’s outfits were described in grievous detail, which many a romance reader would enjoy, if the clothing had been from a rich court of the past or on the modern-day run-way. The problem with this book was that the outfits mostly consisted of sleeveless blouses, capris and flip-flops, which were all nearly always pink; just pink; not hot pink, salmon, dusty rose or cotton-candy, she just described them all as “pink”. Waste of words, waste of time; (hers and the readers’).
As for adjectives, they have a place at times, but use them sparingly. Be frugal with them, not lavish. You will find that you don’t need them much at all, so I add:
Don’t fall in to hyperbole.
That is the one area where young or new writers often fail. They think that more is better and more exciting, but it’s like adding your favorite candy to your favorite burger; both are good alone, but together they ruin the whole experience. Don’t lose your readers this way. They lose their appetite for your work when you force-feed them.
Have balance in use of words.
I’m sure that most know that you shouldn’t use the same words over and over: (“They ran for their car, but saw the Bad Guys had jumped into a car to catch them. They could not get to their own car, because their car was behind the Bad Guys’ car. They needed a car, so they looked for a car that they could take. They saw fast-looking car, but the car next to that car had the keys in the ignition, so they borrowed that car, telling themselves that they would return the car when they were safe. They drove that car down the highway, watching to see if the Bad Guys’ car was following the car that they had taken…” You get the idea.) However, if the word fits, use it. You don’t need to empty a thesaurus. Don’t use word that come close if you don’t know their full meaning, just like you can’t call the same car a ‘limo’ in one sentence and a ‘compact’ in another, although they are both types of cars. Rewrite the consecutive sentences above so that you don’t have to keep referring to a “car”, but don’t stress over it. Restructure the sentences, and if need be, and use descriptions: the Bad Guys might have a big black SUV; the heroes might have wanted a red sports car, but settled for a white station wagon. Don’t keep calling the station wagon a station wagon, but don’t change it every time you talk about it. For instance, you should not feel the need to use the terms ‘family car’, and ‘Country Squire’, etc. just to say something different in each sentence, but you can use such descriptions as needed. You actually can use the same word multiple times, because the alternative is often a very awkward outcome:
(“They ran for their car, but saw the Bad Guys had jumped into another vehicle to catch them. They could not get to their own sedan, because their auto was behind the Bad Guys’ machine. They needed a mechanical conveyance to escape, so they looked for a means of transportation that they could take. They saw one fast-looking motorcar, but the station wagon next to that racer had the keys in the ignition, so they borrowed the low-slung minivan, telling themselves that they would return the auto when they were safe. They drove that Country Squire down the highway, watching to see if the Bad Guys’ wheels were following the jalopy that they had taken…” Yes, some take it that far and I have known published books where the writers seem to have had real fear of repetition.)
Let’s go back to Star Wars: the Droids are Droids. They didn’t call them “Robots”, “Artificial Intelligence”, or “Little Electronic Dudes”. They didn’t even say “Android”, because only C3PO and his type resembled a human in any way, and that is what the word ‘android’ means: a robot that resembles a human being. In Star Wars, a Droid is a Droid.
Use the right words. Use a dictionary and expand your vocabulary, but don’t get addicted to variations.
Give memorable names to people, places and things.
Again, editors, agents and many readers stop on the first page if Planet Xrgryx is at war with Planets Symalaalooonggaahson and Smygsilandvilijan, but Planet 3497423 and Planet 3496432 are caught in the middle, or if your world of Grimblepong where Grimblepona lives twenty-seven gerpinks from her boyfriend, Grimblepund in Grunplpinch. (I bet most of you didn’t even try to get the names down, did you? If you tried to get into the story, you would have had to try.) Let your readers get caught up in the story, not hung-up on names. If they are concentrating on trying to pronounce the names or can’t remember who is who or which place is which, your story is sunk, no matter how good it may be.
Yes, yes, there was C3PO and R2D2, but their names flowed, plus “R2” and “3PO” were easy, smooth nicknames and there are never more than a few named droids at any time. The others in Star Wars characters have/had common or close to common names, even if they were ‘foreign’. (“Darth Vadar” means “dark father” in Dutch, and many people had a clue about that thread in the story from the start.)
Don’t try to write in the present tense
This is a problem for many writers. Present tense is awkward to read and difficult to maintain. “So, I wake up to the radio and I get out of bed. I brush my teeth and I get dressed, then I leave the room and I run into…”, unless this is Bill Murray recounting “Ground Hog Day” during his repetitive experience, don’t do it. You don’t always do the same thing, do you? And soon, I will bet good money, you will find yourself using past tense anyway. Your readers want to find out what happened and they will go along on a journey in the past with you, don’t worry. They want to see if they can figure it out before you did, but in the back of their minds they know that you know what happened and that they will find out the truth in the end.
Download the free version of Grammarly.
It will catch your typos and offer suggestions, but use your own sense. Only YOU know what you want to convey to your readers.
Trying your hand at screenwriting/play writing?
Download the free version of Celtx. Trust me on this. It makes the impossible, possible.
Write for yourself. Don’t be afraid to write. Don’t be afraid to be read.
You have a place in this world, so does your writing. No one starts out writing perfectly; few end up writing perfectly. You have to practice. Write, rewrite. Write something else.
Choose real friends to read your works, or even kindly strangers to do so. Those who care for you may tell you how wonderfully you write and all is good, but that will not really help you. You need people who will point out that you over-described, that they lost track of who was talking, that you repeated yourself, or that you left out a line while editing, that sort of thing. If you have ‘friends’ or family member who are insecure themselves, perhaps some who are mean-spirited or jealous, they may tear your work down instead of being helpful and encouraging. Stay away from them, ignore the wet-blankets and write anyway. Even caring people may dampen your spirits. A dear friend, Linda, who described beautifully in her writings asked her experienced cousin for advice. I like to think that the cousin knew how difficult it could be to get published and discouraged Linda only because she was seriously ill. I hope that the cousin was trying to save my friend heartache, but the cousin told Linda to journal about dying. My dear friend lost heart and wrote no more. All of her beautiful story was lost to this world and I am still heartbroken over it. Often it really is not easy to get published. Read about how many times big-name writers had their work rejected. Believe me, its inspiring. Few make a living by writing, but if you want to write and feel the need to write, you must do it anyway, if only for yourself, so:
Do not pay to be ‘published’
There are few people who have successfully self-published. Most ‘self-published’ books really need help, even those by authors who do it regularly; they are lost on their own and never see their mistakes. It is very difficult even with a large publishing house, to advertise, get sales going, to get people interested in your work. There are also ‘vanity presses’ out there that will claim to be ‘publishers’. These will take your money and will print whatever you send to them. Oh, the books may look good, but every flaw will be there, every mistake and there will be no help for you in sales or promotion. Don’t listen to their sales pitches that “many famous authors started out self-publishing”, you will note that the famous authors they mention stopped self-publishing before they before famous authors. The companies want your money; vanity presses are not out to help you. The only place for a vanity press is if you write a book of family history for select members, a gathering of stories from one organization for its members, or a special story for one special person. If you’d like nice, bound books to give to a small group of people who would truly be interested in it, you could consider a vanity press, but there are more and more print shops who could handle that job for you at a good price. However, we are talking about your creative writings here and for those, vanity presses must be avoided.
Make notes and SAVE
Have an idea? Write it down. Be as specific as time allows because often you WON’T remember your train of thought at the time, no matter how convinced you are that the idea is brilliant. If you put it on your PC, tablet, phone, (whatever you write on), save, save, save. Save these in a Cloud or on a thumb drive. I have lost many works and notes because of crashes. (Never again.) Get notebook paper, spiral notebooks, legal pads and write on these. Keep a notebook, even a small one, in your purse, backpack, car, bedside, end table, (wherever you go),to jot down ideas, notes or to rewrite sections that spring into your mind, or to write on when you have ‘down-time’. If you try to grab whatever paper is handy, (like the back of an envelope, Lincoln was lucky), it might get lost, thrown away or be unreadable when you get back to it. (I have also been guilty of all of these.) If you have a really nice journal, you might hesitate to ‘waste’ it with incomplete writing and not use it. Give your notes and ideas the respect that they deserve: They deserve to be written down.
Stuck? Re-read and go with the flow:
If you get hung-up on what should come next in your story, start reading it from the beginning, reread your notes and your chain of thought will generally return. Don’t plot too much; it’s a scary but beautiful thing when your characters lead you thorough the story. They may have better ideas of how they will behave or what they should say. Some characters may not cooperate: cut them. You can save them for another story, or you can punish them by cutting their importance. (That is very satisfying, trust me.)
You may find that the story that you had in mind is changing, and that is okay. If you can’t figure out the scene where your hero solves the mystery, the woman realizes her childhood friend loves her, or the scientist finds the way to communicate with the aliens, skip that part. Novels are barely conceived and written beginning to end. Movies are shot out of sequence, and most manuscripts are written that way, too. Two things may be at work; you may need to move the scenes around: the characters sees the light later in the story, (or earlier) ,and possibly, for all your planning, for all of your thoughts that the story hinged on your protagonist coming up with the big solution, another character just might be the one with the answer. You can make it work, your protagonist will fine-tune it and it will work for them. Sometimes your characters or story will not be finished when the big climax you had planned comes to pass, and you have more to write before the story will let you wrap it up.
Read your work out-loud
Read your work out-loud even if it is just to yourself. You can catch many mistakes this way. You know what you wanted to write; it was in your mind. However, we don’t read one word at a time, especially when we THINK that we know what is coming up. You can catch missing or repetitive words, scenes, and sentences when you take the time to read your work out-loud, and you can hear if dialogue is awkward. Our fingers don’t work as quickly as our minds, and our minds can fool us with what is actually written on the page or screen, as opposed to what we intended to write.
WRITE. Be creative. Keep the juices flowing.
Write; do it. Write the story that wants to come out now, (the one that you have been planning), and write the new one that wants to barge in. Write whatever suits your fancy. Don’t think that just because you want to write spy novels doesn’t meant that you can’t also write poetry. Want to write a song? Do it. Compose your own greeting cards and let your graphic novel or that regency romance you have been working on take a breather. Had an idea for how to do a game in a new way? Put it down. Write the recipe for the skillet dinner that you managed to work out with what was in the fridge, the one that everyone loved. Start a blog; you don’t have to post in it every day or every week…or even every month, but it’s there for your other creative outlets. Remember though that once your writing is online, it’s pretty fair game. Like dust in the wind, you won’t be able to get it all back. Don’t put your serious works, (works you hope to have published), out there.
Let your creativity run wild. Writing begets writing.
I know that there are a lot of “don’ts” in this, but how do you tell someone how to write? It’s all from an individual’s mind and heart. These are guidelines gathered from pitfalls that I have seen or have fallen into myself, which I hope help you to avoid. There are no hard and fast rules and even those rules that are out there can be bent. Write what your heart and mind, (and characters), tell you to. Listen to advice, but listen to your heart. If more than one person tells you the same thing, take that advice to your heart. You may be too close to your writing to give it a critical eye, but then, again, only you know what you want to say.
Good luck to you.