Article 2: Advice For Aspiring Writers
1. Train yourself to write to deadlines. Use small, short-range deadlines, such as completing the next chapter, as well as long-term deadlines, such as finishing the book. If you only use long-term deadlines, it’s so very easy to get off track.
2. Don’t talk about your book until it’s done. There are many reasons for this. Resist the temptation. Zip it!
3. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Don’t worry about selling your book if it isn’t even written yet.
4. Pick one kind of book to write, and master it.
5. Critique groups are nice and can lend support, but they can harm as well as help. If the other members are not as serious as you are, it’ll end up being a waste of time, which is in short supply for most of us. There is also the danger of having your individual writer’s voice distorted if the critique group becomes ‘writing by committee.’ On the other hand, they can provide accountability to make sure you meet your self-imposed writing deadlines, as well as problem-solving help.
6. Never, ever “talk down” to your reader in your novel. My college professors used to say that you should aim your writing at someone who’s slightly smarter than you are. Always respect the reader and aim high to please him/her.
7. Read the classics. Educate yourself. You don’t need an MFA to become a novelist, but you owe it to yourself, if not your audience, to have a familiarity with the basic canon of Western literature, from Greek tragedy, Beowulf, and the Bible through Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton to at least the WWII era. If you can’t take college lit classes due to your present circumstances, I still think it’s better to read these masterworks on your own than never to pick them up—even if you have to have the dang Cliff Notes beside you to help you understand what you’re reading. Ideally, you would have a good professor explaining the nuances, but not everybody can do that. Do the best you can. These are works of art that will inspire you.
8. Don’t take your research from other people’s fiction. It’s a lazy and unprofessional habit that some people get into. Research comes from research books or from recognized experts on the subject. (The grandmother of the Regency genre, Georgette Heyer, began putting fake facts in her novels in order to expose the many copycat writers who lifted research out of her novels rather than doing their own. You never know who might be doing that today.) If you take facts from online sources, cross-reference them with other sources. Not everything online is reliable.
9. Format your manuscript properly when sending it to an agent or editor, and resist at all costs the impulse to make a pretend book cover for it or to bind it in any way. That looks so unprofessional. It should be double spaced on plain white paper, in Times New Roman 12-14 pt. or Courier 10-12 pt. Give it a cover page, and put a large rubber band around it. You can add an 8 ½ X 11 piece of cardboard under the manuscript to protect in the mail, but that’s it. Don’t do anything dorky to “make it stand out” or you’ll be really embarrassed later. Your skillful writing and beautiful story are all it should need to make it stand out.
10. Learn how to say no when people ask you for favors. Your writing time should be sacrosanct. Some people in your life will take this badly. They’ll think you’re selfish or worse, but too bad.
11. Take all advice, including mine, with a grain of salt. Always give it a ‘gut check’ before you mentally accept it.
12. Never chase the market. Don’t be a sellout. Write what is authentic for YOU. The readers can smell a phony a mile away, so chasing the market doesn’t work, anyway.
13. Don’t have tunnel vision. Writing is always *about* something, about the world, so take an interest in lots of different topics. This is a great way to keep your imagination lively and to spark new story ideas.
14. Enjoy the journey! It’s not about getting published, making money, or hitting bestseller lists. Writing a wonderful book is its own reward.
15. Always remember that the main conflict in a romance is BETWEEN the hero and heroine. Not hero versus self. Not the good guys versus the bad guys. Bad Guys are subplots. Some form of conflict between hero and heroine should exist in every chapter of your book until it’s all resolved in the final chapter.
16. Internal contradiction is what makes a character ‘complex.’ Hamlet feels compelled by honor and duty to avenge his father’s murder and take the power that is rightfully his, but he’s not only young and untried, he’s also an intellectual with a philosophic bent, and it is his nature to question everything, even his own senses. What’s right? What’s wrong? Am I fooling myself? What if avenging Dad only makes everything worse? Do I have what it takes to follow through? If I act, will the kingdom come to harm? It’ll all be my fault…. Complex characters often have a conscious goal that is at odds with their deeper emotional needs. A common example is Rick in Casablanca. Rick’s stated goal is to be left alone, but the need that tortures him is for meaningful involvement in life again.
17. Structure your novel into three acts, with a climactic turning point at the end of each act. Each of the three successive, act-capping climaxes should be bigger and more intense than the last.
18. Become familiar with the stages of the Hero Journey to apply ancient mythic structure to your storytelling. (See THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler. This is based on the work of cultural anthropologist Joseph Campbell.) The stages of the Hero Journey are: ACT I – The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold. ACT II – Tests, Allies, and Enemies, Approach to the Inmost Cave, Supreme Ordeal, Reward. ACT II – Road Back, Resurrection, Return with the Elixir.
19. Regarding love scenes, or what some people call “the good parts.” (grin) They should advance the hero and heroine’s emotional relationship, illuminate character, and explore the subtleties of conflict. Characters learn about themselves and the beloved in sex scenes; they confront their fears and test their courage to open up emotionally, become vulnerable, trust the other person, and give of themselves. The emotional/spiritual component, the process of permanent pair-bonding, is what makes it a romance. It’s not simply what body parts go where.
20. RECOMMENDED WRITING BOOKS You’ve read my best pointers for advice; now let me sign off by giving you a list of my favorite writing books. I suggest that you study them and apply their lessons to your work in progress. They’ve been very helpful to me. If I had to pick my All-Time Favorite Top Three Writing Books, here they are, in order:
a. Ray, Robert J. THE WEEKEND NOVELIST. Dell Trade Paperback, 1994. (This book sat on my shelf for years before I realized what a fab little gem it is. Unfortunately, it’s out of print. Check your library and used bookstores to find a copy.)
b. Swain, Dwight. TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. 1965. (The grand-daddy of all writing books, a classic. Some of his examples are dated, but all of his concepts are spot-on. A must-have.)
c. Bickham, Jack M. WRITING THE SHORT STORY: A HANDS-ON PROGRAM. Writer's Digest Books, 1994. (Bickham was a student of Swain's. Superb, insightful, methodical. Step-by-step program of how to tackle the huge task of writing a complete work of fiction. Note: though it refers to short stories, 99% of the concepts apply perfectly well to novels, too.) Here are a few more in no particular order that are also top-notch, and which I use all the time. Feel free to print this out and take it with you to the bookstore or library.
d.Trottier, David. THE SCREENWRITER'S BIBLE: A COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING, FORMATTING, AND SELLING YOUR SCRIPT. Third Edition. Silman-James Press, Los Angeles, 1998. (Applies to novels as much as screenplays. Especially good for a very simple breakdown that will help you gain an understanding of structure, high concept, and methods for building characters.)
e. Vogler, Christopher. THE WRITER'S JOURNEY: MYTHIC STRUCTURE FOR WRITERS. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA. 1998. (I would consider this an essential, too. Vogler condenses the work of the cultural anthropologist, Joseph Campbell, applying ancient mythic structure to modern storytelling in the heroic tradition, as mentioned above.)
f. Zuckerman, Albert. WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL. Writer’s Digest Books, 1994. (Advice from a big-time agent with a foreword by Ken Follett. Especially good insights into the revision process. This one’s a wee bit pompous at times.)
g. McKee, Robert. STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE, AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING. ReganBooks, 1997. (For the advanced fiction-writing student. Applies to novels and all forms of storytelling as much as screenplays. Also available on audiotape.)
h. Dibell, Ansen. PLOT. Writer’s Digest Books, 1988. (Covers all the basics in an interesting and orderly way.)
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