Write First, Learn Later

If I could offer one piece of advice to beginning writers, it is this: write first, learn later. Because if you try to learn the craft of writing before you actually write, it will only discourage you.

When I was in high school, people asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told them I wanted to be an author. My poor practical mom didn’t like this answer, so she pushed me toward nursing or some other money-making do-good professions. She only wanted her daughter to succeed. Unfortunately, I ended up wasting five years of my life at two different colleges with no degree to show for it.photo

But I digress. Back to high school. People told me that if I wanted to write, then I should learn the craft, read books on writing. So I did. But I read so much information that the rules ended up becoming roadblocks. I would toss the “how-to” books across the room in despair with the realization that I could never learn all those rules, ergo, I could never be a writer.

So let’s fast forward to after my five grueling years of college when I finally started writing. I mean, seriously writing. I didn’t read books on writing. I didn’t study the craft. What I did do was read/listen to interviews of my favorite authors, cling to their advice to “keep writing”, and did just that. You can read my journey about writing my first draft here

All I wanted at this point was to see if I had it in me to finish a novel. Because if I didn’t, what was the point of learning the rules at all? So I finished that baby and sent the first ten pages to freelance editor to see what I needed to work on… which was a lot. (I definitely advise this to first time authors. It’s usually around $30 for the first 10 pages, depending on the editor, but totally worth it.) The editor told me my strengths and weaknesses and gave me a list of books to read. Now that I’d finished writing a manuscript, learning the craft didn’t seem so daunting. Sure, I pretty much had to rewrite that draft, but at least I had something to work with. I suppose I’m more of a “trial and error” student than a “do-it-right-the-first-time” type.

So, my advice to newbies is this: write first, learn later. And when you do get to that learning stage, learn everything you can. Of course, this advice doesn’t go for everybody. But it worked for me. If you’re a beginner and you feel “stuck” behind the rules of writing, toss the books aside and just write.

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GO BACK and do it again.

There always comes a point in my writing that I begin to rethink my story as a whole. I realize plot holes need to be filled, better decisions need to be made by my character (that suit him/her), and the story basically needs to be revised and rewritten completely.

This has happened with my past four manuscripts. I’d reach to the midpoint of the story… and then hit a block. I don’t know if it’s because the writing is atrocious up to that point, so I go back and make it better because I need to have faith in the story in order to finish it, or if it’s because of major plot twists that need to be added before I continue (since they will affect the entire story). Either way, I go back and rewrite what I have. No matter how hard I try to fight the urge, the story needs to change. But in the end, it will be better, the work would have been be worth it.photo 1

Since I am a seat-of-the-pants writer–or, the more modern term, organic writer–I don’t take as much time as I should to truly discover who my character is. I know, I know. In the writing world this is practically a sin. You should research your character before writing about her. You should quiz her, study her, interview her… I know. But even when I do that, my character usually evolves, anyway. I slowly discover my heroine and how she deals with certain situations while I write, not before I write. And it’s not usually until I reach the midpoint of my book that I realize who she is.

Once I have gone back and revised/rewritten the first half the draft, the rest of the writing process flows much easier. I know where the story is going, and I understand my character inside and out. Finishing the story comes a lot easier after I’ve rewritten the first half. It’s getting through the rewriting process that’s the hard part.

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‘Tis Nearing Winter’s End

‘Tis nearing winter’s end.

I keep telling myself that I as I curl up in my favorite chair with a warm vanilla latte in hand.

‘Tis nearing winter’s end.

Maybe the more I repeat that phrase, the sooner spring will come.

This has been snowiest winter I’ve ever experienced. With only glimpses of the ground beneath the inches and inches of hard-packed snow, I begin to wonder if North America has evolved into some alternate version of Antarctica. The sky remains a dusky gray 90% of the time. The air is cold, frigid. Biting. Our furnace, set at 68, kicks on every five minutes it seems. And I’m left wondering, Will winter ever end? Last year, the season seeped throughout the month of March, snowing until the 31st. Today marks the first weekend in March, and despite the 60 degree weather set for the next few days, snow is already scheduled for Wednesday. I’m wondering if this year will be any different from the last.

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‘Tis nearing winter’s end.

I count down the weeks, the days, the hours, and maybe someday I’ll have something to show for it.

But for now, I’ll sip my warm coffee, walk around in my cozy slippers and favorite IU sweatshirt, and dream of warmth, sweaty hikes, and trees who’s leaves and bark practically glow in the sunlight.

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Friday Night Ramblings

It’s 10:30 on a Friday night. I’m awake. I know. This isn’t a big deal for all you high school/college age people out there who will probably hang out on the town until 4 am. But as a mama who has to wake when her baby wakes, this is late. I promise. I’m a rebel. There is no order here.

It’s like the night before christmas when you were a child. You usually have to go to bed at like eight o’clock, but on Christmas Eve your parents let you stay up late to watch the dying flames of the fire and eat cookies after you’ve brushed your teeth. That’s me. Right now. Except I’m not eating cookies, I’m eating ravioli. My 7 month old son is asleep. And I am Wide. A. Wake.

I guess that’s the curse of writing. It wakes me up, keeps me typing until the wee hours of the morning, my imagination on fire, my fingers blazing across the keyboard, my blood threading through my veins at the speed of the Amazon River. (I researched rivers, and that came up as one of the fastest in the world. Now you know one more fact than the average american. You’re welcome.)

I haven’t been able to experience that kind of high since I had my son, though. It’s okay. All worth the giggles, the smiles, and even the dirty diapers. :) But, here I am, writing with no respect for tomorrow. Not only that, but writing about, well, nothing. Rambling, more like it.

write-nightSo what does staying up “late” on a Friday night have to do with writing? Usually people write on a school/work night, and only because they have that research paper they need to finish. But most creative writers–– the ones who write as a hobby, who find adventure in the thrill of Story–– would probably enjoy sitting inside on Friday night with a cup of tea or decaf coffee (or regular coffee if they have no reason to get up tomorrow), and just… write.

Because that’s what we do. We get lost in our stories. We would rather spend Friday night reading/writing a good book than hanging at the bar with some fair-weather friends. You have heard the quote by George R. R. Martin, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” 

So from my desk, I lift my cup of tea to you my friends, my comrades, my fellow readers and writers.

Cheers.

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Plow Through the Writer’s Block

This is sort of a follow up of my last post (which I wrote a million months ago, apparently). So what have I learned about writing this week? Sometimes you have to plow through the writer’s block.

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I’m a seat of the pants writer, meaning, I don’t create outlines. Which means writer’s block comes a lot easier to me than it would, say, to an outliner. This past week has been especially rough. I know where my story is going, but the scenes required to get me there just aren’t coming to me. Questions plague me in the middle of what are supposed to be heated or important scenes. How shall I write this scene? Is this scene truly necessary? Can I sum up the necessary components in a measly paragraph in the next scene? Should I make this scene longer? Slow it down? Speed it up?

So many questions. But I have to remember that this is a first draft. Anne Lamott says it best in her book  Bird by Bird:

The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is a child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and you can shape it later.”

I won’t know how to pace each scene/chapter until I reach the end and see the story as a whole. Then I can shape it. Then I can go through and make some serious revisions and rewrites.

So I take my pick and inch my way through the scenes that are required to carry me to the end of the story. I know that spark will come back. You know, the spark that inspires you to write until your fingers ache. It always does. For some reason, sitting on my swing outside, or going for a walk to contemplate my story just doesn’t do it for me. If I want to get past my writer’s block, I have to write past it.

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Are You an Outliner or a Seat-Of-The-Pants Writer?

I learned something about myself this year. I am a seat-of-the-pants type of writer. My first trilogy was written scene by scene, without any knowledge of what was going to happen in the next chapter. Sure, I had the general idea of how to finish the book, but other than the beginning and the end, I was clueless of how the story would turn out.

image002However, after attending some writer’s conferences and reading books on writing, I got the idea that writing an outline makes the revision stages of a book easier, because you don’t have to re-puzzle all the scenes together. (Something I know all too well about by writing my books in seat-of-the-pants mode.) It’s true! If you don’t outline, chances are, you’re going to move your scenes around, and in moving them, you’re going to have to rewrite many of them.

So I tried outlining. I started writing a new book, sure to outline the entire thing first. I got about 20,000 words in before I got bored. I already knew what was going to happen, and even though my readers wouldn’t know, I still didn’t see the point in finishing the book. It was the same feeling a reader might get if they picked up a book, skimmed through all the chapters, and then decided to read it. The book wouldn’t be quite as exciting because they would already know what was going to happen in the next chapter.

However, I thought it was the story that bored me, not that fact that I had outlined it, so I began a new book with the same approach- I outlined the entire thing. I didn’t even get 10,000 words into this one before I got bored again. I began thinking that maybe I was a one-trick-pony, that writer who writes ONE story and never writes again. I was discouraged and wondered if I should even bother writing again.

But I wasn’t about to give up. I picked my third story idea, (I have about a dozen ideas buzzing around in my head,) and I decided NOT to outline. I wrote it scene by scene, just the way I had written my original book. The outcome? I am currently 30,000 words into the story and I can’t wait to sit at the keyboard and write more!

You see, outlining and seat-of-the-pants writing  have their pros and cons. I can’t speak for everyone but here’s what I think.

If you outline, you’ll know every part of the story (no surprises!), BUT you’ll have a lot less work to do when you revise your book, because you will have already thought through the scene orders and the benefits of putting certain scenes in certain places. If you want to get that book done quickly, outlining is probably the best option.

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Seat-of-the-pants writing, on the other hand, is like reading one of those books with the options at the end of the chapter “If you want Andrew to fall into the ocean, go to this page. If you want Andrew to hike through the dark forest, turn to this page.” But even then, you have more options than two. You have dozens of  scenes to choose from! How exciting! You are literally writing the book you’ve always wanted to read, and you’re calling all the shots AS you read. Seat-of-the-pants writing is FUN. But it’s harder work in the long run. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve revised and revised and revised my first trilogy. I’ve even gone so far as to turn Book One into two books (adding 80,000 more words), and then going back and turning it back into one book (which resulted in cutting out 100,000 words). It is A LOT of work, and it takes a lot of dedication. But if you’re passionate about your work, if you want to present the best story for your readers, you know the effort is worth it.

imagesBut all minds think differently. This is just my opinion and my experience. To all aspiring novelists who are just starting out, try both approaches before you decide on only one. You may like the seat-of-the-pants approach, but you might find outlining a lot easier for you, or vise-versa.

Of one thing I am certain: make sure you are having fun!!

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The 3 Stages in a Writer’s Journey

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Has anyone been watching American Idol this year? I just started watching the show three years ago. I love the first half of the show most. The part where the judges travel to different cities and watch a wide variety of people perform, all who hope to become the next American Idol. Some people are really good. Others, well… they clearly haven’t heard themselves sing.

I think the singer’s journey on American Idol can easily be compared to the writer’s journey.

The beginners.

It never ceases to surprise me how those who lack the talent of singing react to the judges. Some of them receive the critique with cool maturity and move on with their lives. Others flip off the cameras, shout profanities, and declare that the whole world will know their name by the end of the year. Well, the whole world might know them, but not in the way they had hoped….

In the same way, some new writers receive feedback from others and they build on that. In turn, they study the craft and grow and become better writers. But then there are those who proclaim to agents/editors, “God gave me this story and told me it must be published, so if you don’t publish me, you are sinning against God.” Or something along those lines. The say their book is the next bestseller, and instead of taking the agent’s/editor’s/reader’s advice on honing their craft, they go and self-publish it before it’s ready for an audience.

“I think it’s the people who have no doubt that every word they put down is gold that probably don’t write very well.” ~Dean Koontz

The in betweeners. 

Then there are those singers on American Idol who are in between beginners and experienced singers. Those people who are almost there, but their voice just isn’t strong enough. Sometimes the judges even tell those singers to come back next year.

images-3This is the place in a writer’s journey where their persistence is truly tested. They know they’re almost at the point of being published, but they’re not quite there, and they’re not sure how long it’ll take to get there. They receive feedback from multiple professionals that their writing still needs work. Maybe the characters in their stories are well developed, but their plot is found lacking or vice versa.

In the beginning stages, this feedback may anger or humiliate a writer. But the more we writers work at our craft, the more we come to appreciate, and even seek out, that special critique. That’s why critique groups can become a writer’s best friend.

The experienced.

Finally, there are the really really good singers in American Idol. Those who get the golden ticket. Those how have received confirmation from the professionals that, yes, they have potential in the music industry, and yes, they could be the next American Idol. But at the Hollywood rounds, the judges still have to weed out the best of the best from, well, the best. They can’t take all two-hundred contestants to the final round. The singers rejected in this round may be rejected because their genre doesn’t fit what’s popular right now, or their singing, though brilliant, my need just a little bit more work.

In the same way, those writers accepted by agents may still be rejected by editors because their genre doesn’t fit a category in that publishing house, or their writing is only subpar to the other submissions editors receive. At this point, I think it’s okay to seek out other options, or even go the indie publishing way (such as self-publishing), which is a rapidly growing option in the writing industry now. Many best-sellers have made their beginnings as self-published books. Just make sure, if you self publish, that your book has been edited by a professional and is truly ready for the masses.

Reality show for writers

Wouldn’t it be fun if a reality show was created for writers? It would be something like American Idol meets Shark Tank, where the writers show/read their work to the judges. Then the writer is either sent home or offered another chance in round two, and the winner is offered a publishing deal.

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What about you? Any writers out there feel like they’re stuck in one of the stages above? How do you move past rejection? How do you work with the critique offered?

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