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Top Ten Writing Tips #5: Story Trumps Craft

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why did we start writing in the first place? Was it so that we could get our wrists slapped and be told “no” and “don’t” and “you can’t do it that way”? So we could sit at the computer and stare at the screen and feel so inadequate and full of self-doubt that we’d never be able to do it “right” that we’re unable to write at all?

Of course not. We all started writing because WE LOVE TELLING STORIES! It saddens me when I go to conferences or speak at writers’ groups and see the majority of people who are more concerned about “crafting the perfect prose” so they can get a book contract rather than learning how to tell a great story. Which brings us to today’s tip . . .

Writing Tip #5. Story trumps craft.

Several members of my local group have had very frustrating experiences with their results from unpublished-author contests they’ve entered. It’s allowed them to see how subjective the publishing world is . . . but it’s also shown them that most contests are judged based on the “rules” of writing rather than on storytelling.

After all, how can you really judge a story in only fifteen or twenty pages?

I’ve read plenty of published novels that start out with a bang—the first two or three chapters (the ones the author worked on and worked on and worked on for contests and to submit to publishers) are fantastic—but then the story loses my interest. Sure, it may be a technically well written piece of prose, but is it really a good story? And it’s even more frustrating when these judges whose scores are based on judging whether or not the entrant “followed the rules” when each judge has a different/subjective/occasionally flawed understanding of those “rules.”

So when you receive critiques or contest scores back, carefully consider each comment you receive. My local writing group has adopted a line from Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean when it comes to comments received from critiquers or on contest entries: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” It doesn’t matter how many writing how-to books you memorize and how skillfully you apply the “rules” you’ve learned from them—if you don’t have a good story, none of the rest of it matters. Yes, the guidelines of good writing are important, but don’t let your story get lost in an attempt to “follow the rules.”

Does that mean you can ignore all of the guidelines about showing vs. telling, Limited Third Person POV, using active rather than passive language, varying sentence structures, eliminating as many adverbs as possible, not using embellished dialogue tags? NO, of course not. But just like a contractor needs an architect’s blueprints to go by BEFORE building a house, you need to learn the guidelines of good writing and current accepted style before you’ll be able to express your story in writing well. So do study the craft (but remember Tip #4: you learn more from reading currently published books in your genre than you do from reading craft books). Just think of the guidelines as a shepherd’s crook guiding you to a wide-open, grassy meadow rather than a dog catcher’s tight leash dragging you toward a cage.

In The Fire in Fiction, agent extraordinaire Donald Maass talks about two different types of writers he runs into at conferences: storytellers and status seekers.

Status seekers are the writers who see a contract (and hopefully a multi-book contract) as the be-all and end-all of their writing. They’re writing to sell. They’re studying and following the trends. They’re crafting their manuscript. They’re going to all the right conferences, making all the right contacts, going to all the right classes, entering (and finaling in/winning) the right contests, working with the right critique partners, and sending out the right number of queries each month. Of these types of writers, Maass writes:

At my Writing the Breakout Novel workshops, I again notice the difference between [status seekers and storytellers]. Some want to know how to make their manuscripts acceptable. If I do this and I do that, will I be okay? When I hear that question, my heart sinks a little. That is a status seeker talking.

. . .Status seekers rush me fifty pages and an outline a few months after the workshop. . . .

What the status seeker wants is a contract. He wants to know that his years of effort will pay off.

In contrast a storyteller is someone who is more concerned about crafting her story, about developing the characters and the plot, about conveying the story that resonates in her heart and soul every time she sits down and gets lost in the world of it. Of these types of writers, Maass writes:

A storyteller, by contrast, is more concerned with making his story the best story that it can be, with discovering the levels and elements that are missing, and with understanding the techniques needed to make it all happen. . . . Storytellers won’t show me their novels again for a year or more, probably after several new drafts. . . .

Can both kinds of writers get published? Sure. Can both be successful? Initially, yes. But for a status-seeker writer, the world of writing and publishing is about oneupsmanship—about one-upping both himself and everyone else around him. If his last book spent five weeks on the bestseller list, he isn’t successful if his next book doesn’t spend six weeks on the list. For the storyteller, the measure of success is not number of weeks on the lists, but reviews that say things like “I enjoyed this book even more than the last one” or “The characters stayed with me long after I put the book down.” The status seeker believes that success in writing can be relayed in lists and royalty checks.

The storyteller knows that success in writing is the intangible thread that connects the reader’s and writer’s hearts through the written word.

Is that saying that storytellers don’t want to make money writing? Not on your life! It’s saying that for storytellers, story trumps craft every time. This is why when you pick up a book by a bestselling author, you may be frustrated by the way the author seems to break all the rules you’ve had beaten into your head about the craft of writing. But the reason the bestselling author can do it? Because he knows how to tell a dang-good story (and because of that whole branding/name recognition thing—but that’s a different blog series).

Madeleine L’Engle put it this way:

Being a writer does not necessarily mean being published. It’s very nice to be published. It’s what you want. When you have a vision, you want to share it. But being a writer means writing. It means building up a body of work. It means writing every day. You can hardly say that van Gogh was not a painter because he sold one painting during his lifetime, and that to his brother. But do you say that van Gogh wasn’t a painter because he wasn’t “published”? He was a painter because he painted, because he held true to his vision as he saw it. And I think that’s the best example I can give you.

I think so, too.

Works Cited:

L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980. Print.

Maass, Donald. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. Print.

Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #4: Read five published novels in your genre for every one craft book you read.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Last week, we covered Writing Tips 1 through 3:

1. Finish your first draft.
2. Put your manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can after you finish the first draft.
3. Start something new.

This week, we’ll cover #4 through #7.

Writing Tip #4. Read five published novels in your genre for every one craft book you read.

So many writers, especially new writers, get caught up in “learning the craft” and they lose sight of “writing.”

You can learn more from critically reading published novels than you’ll ever learn from reading how-to books.

What was one of the reasons you started writing? For me, it was the combination of an overactive imagination combined with a love for reading. I didn’t just read novels, I devoured them. And the more I read, the more my imagination expanded. In fact, my first true foray into writing was after I read what would become my favorite book of my teens, Victoria by Willo Davis Roberts. I loved that story, those characters so much that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to them when the book ended. So I started writing my own sequel to it.

If it hadn’t been for reading, I never would have become a writer!

But more than that, as I grew up and read more and more books, it was a rare book that didn’t spark half a dozen or more story ideas of my own as I was reading it—whether the idea had anything to do with what I was reading or not. I shared this story back in 2007 in a post titled “Interrupted by Inspiration”:

A goal I’ve set for myself recently is to read through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy—whether by listening to them on audio (I have the entire unabridged set of CDs) or by actually reading the books. Well, I’ve had trouble convincing myself to put the CDs back in the car after I got to about disk six of the first book (and they’d barely made it to Bree!), so I picked up the actual book to read before bed last night.

Things were going along swimmingly…. Then, suddenly, I was no longer in Middle Earth, but standing on the deck of a ship, observing the silhouette of an officer looking out into the night.

Yes, that’s right, in the middle of reading Aragorn’s explanation of the Black Riders, I was suddenly visualizing a scene for the second book of my historical trilogy. Needless to say, I tossed the book aside and picked up the notepad and pencil I keep right beside the bed for just such an occasion.

I only got two pages written, not nearly all of what I was picturing, but it’s a great start on a scene (I think poor Julia may have broken a toe or two). And not only was it fun to be writing something for the second book (although I try not to write out of sequence), it gave me some insight into the tension between William and Julia at that point in the story (where exactly it fits, I’m not sure, but I think pretty early on), so that I’ll be able to incorporate the possibility for it as I work on revisions of the first book.

The scene that I started writing that night—and continued over the next couple of days to get the entire idea down before I forgot it—appears in Ransome’s Crossing almost verbatim from what I wrote three years before I ever started writing RC. Would I have had that idea anyway? I’m not sure. All I know is that the creativity that’s inspired by the process of reading inspired that scene.

Another reason to read novels is to learn new words and see how other authors use language. It’s hard to develop a unique voice and style if all you’re reading is cut-and-dry nonfiction. That’s not saying that nonfiction authors aren’t creative. They just don’t use language the same way novelists do. My tenth-grade AP English teacher gave us vocabulary lists each week that were words taken from the American literature we studied that year. Most of those words (such as superfluous, tenacity, ubiquitous, ambivalent, tintinnabulation, etc.) have stayed with me as part of my everyday vocabulary. I learned to love it when I run across a word or term in a novel that I’m unfamiliar with but learn what it means through the context of the story—and it’s more likely to stick with me that way.

What should you be looking for when reading novels published in your genre?

  • Point of view—what is the most common POV used by the professionals in your genre? First person, present tense? Third person, past tense? Omniscient? Limited? Deep-third?
  • How many viewpoint characters (on average) do the professionals in your genre tend to use?
  • What tone, style, voice, etc., do you find works best in the stories that are most similar to yours?
  • How complex are the language and sentence structure of the authors you love and those who are bestselling authors (if they aren’t one and the same)?
  • How do professional authors explain unfamiliar/colloquial/technical/fantastical/historical terminology and vocabulary without actually explaining them? Context? Proxy character for the reader to whom everything needs to be explained? Glossary in the front/back of the book?
  • What can you learn from these professional authors about balance between dialogue and narrative?
  • How do authors in your genre handle descriptions—settings, characters’ physical appearance, weather, world-building, history of the setting, etc.?
  • How are the physical aspects of your characters interactions with each other (i.e., anything leading up to, and including, sex)?
  • How have professional authors handled the types of scenarios, conflicts, plots, situations, etc., that you have in your story?
  • And so on.


Read Other Genres, Too
Though it’s important to read within the genre you’re writing, it’s a good idea to read across genres, too—otherwise, your own writing might become stale. Reading other genres expands your imagination as well as helps you develop your own personal writing voice and style instead of just falling into the patterns of the other authors in your genre. It sharpens your imagination (see the above example of being struck with an idea for Ransome’s Crossing while reading Fellowship of the Ring).

Be Sure to Read Recent, Traditionally Published Novels
In this day and age, sometimes it’s hard to tell traditionally published books apart from self-published. The easiest way to do that in this scenario is to make sure that you’re reading books that are put out by the publisher(s) you’re targeting, whether that’s Harlequin, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Mira, Tor/Macmillan, etc. This means you need to do your research on the publishing industry and, by doing so, familiarize yourself with which publishers actually acquire and publish the types of novels you write. Will this guarantee you that you’ll be picked up by a major publisher? No. But it means that the novels you’ll be studying for your “master class” in writing are those which have met the standards that publishers know readers are looking for. Don’t try to shoehorn your story into the mold of those published works—just try to learn everything can from them.

While it’s great to read books from throughout the ages, from classics to dime novels of the late 19th/early 20th century to mid-century pulp novels to 1990s experimental fiction, it’s very important to make sure you’re reading new releases in your genre and from the publishers you’re targeting—it’s called market research (thus, you can write those purchases off come tax time!) and it’s something every writer and published author needs to do. It keeps us abreast of current trends, current styles, and what non-writing readers are out there enjoying.

You should read for enjoyment, but you should read for education as well. I’ll encourage you to review the series on Critical Reading (click on Writing Series Index and scroll down to the Critical Reading topic).

For Discussion . . .
It’s goal time! What are the five novels you’re going to read and the one craft book?

Fun Friday: Frozen—Yep, that’s pretty much what I thought, too.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fun Friday 2013

It’s no secret—I didn’t like nor enjoy the movie Frozen. Thankfully, I don’t have kids, so one single exposure to it is all I had to put up with.

One of my favorite channels on YouTube is CinemaSins because I love their “Everything Wrong With…” (I also love Screen Junkies‘ “Honest Trailers”). So it made me very, very happy to see this “Everything Wrong with Frozen” to know that I hadn’t been making things up or being overly disparaging when they pointed out everything (and more) that bothered me about the movie (although—I didn’t like the music/singing, either, which this video doesn’t go into).

Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #3: Start Something New

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Originally posted May 13, 2010.

Yesterday, I wrote about how one of the best things we can do before starting revisions is to put our finished manuscript away for a while before starting revisions. So what do you do while you’re waiting to get back to it?

Writing Tip #3: Start something new.

To help you clear your mind of the manuscript you just finished, one of the best things you can do is start working on another story. It may not be writing—it may be collecting images of characters and settings, doing research of the time period or of the careers you want these characters to have. It may be meeting with your critique/accountability partners and brainstorming story ideas. It may be reading books you’ve determined are similar to, or will give you ideas for, your new idea. The important thing is to move on to something new as soon as possible. Start something new.

On Tuesday, we looked at why it’s important to finish your first draft. In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein compares learning to write with learning to ride a bicycle. It’s great to know all of the basics before ever sitting down on the bike (setting pen to paper/fingers to keyboard). If you don’t have a good foundation of knowledge of what it means to write a bike, it’s going to be a lot harder to learn how. But once you know the “how” of riding a bike (or writing a novel), you aren’t all of the sudden a cyclist.

Your first few forays out on the bike, you find yourself very wobbly; you tend to make jerky turns and movements because of how you manage the handlebar; too much speed is scary, but if you go too slowly, you don’t have very good control over stability/balance; you aren’t sure exactly how much pressure to exert on the brakes to stop in time to keep from hitting that parked car.

Those are the essentials of cycling, but it doesn’t mean you can ride a bicycle. What you need is practice. You learn to coordinate your movements. You discover how rapidly you have to rotate the pedals in order to keep the bicycle moving, and how to redirect the handlebars gradually to turn a corner. Only with repetition do you find out how to slow down and stop without tipping over. Once you master riding, what you have learned will stay with you for the rest of your life. You may abandon the bicycle for an automobile, then years later take it up for exercise and find that, in moments, you are rolling ahead, fully coordinated, your brain responding to what you learned in your practice sessions long ago. (Sol Stein, Stein on Writing)

It’s the same with writing. It’s all well and good to complete one novel. It’s great to finish two. But why should we expect to be “professional” authors if that’s all the practice we’re going to give it? As James Scott Bell wrote in The Art of War for Writers, we learn more about how to write a full-length novel by writing a full-length novel. Professional authors must write dozens of novels—on deadline—so how can one expect to attain that level without putting that kind of work in before becoming a professional?

Look at all of the other professions in the world—concert pianists take lessons for years and practice hours upon hours each day before they are considered “professionals.” To rise to the level of Executive Chef at a restaurant, a cook must do one of two things: survive the rigors of culinary school and then work for years and years and years as a sous chef; or she must work for years and years and years and years—working her way up through the ranks until she knows enough to compete with others who also worked hard to get to the executive level. Doctors have to go to school for years then have to complete more years of internships and residencies before they’re allowed to work independently as “professionals.”

Don’t make the assumption that finishing one or two manuscripts is going to give you the skill-set you need to become a professional author—when being a professional author requires one to be able to churn out multiple manuscripts, one after the other after the other. By writing multiple manuscripts before you’re published, not only are you honing your skill at the craft of writing, you’re doing your internship at being a professional author.

James Scott Bell wrote this in The Art of War for Writers:

I’ve counseled many writers at conferences who have come with a single manuscript yet haven’t got another project going. I tell them, “That’s wonderful. You’ve written a novel. That’s a great accomplishment. Now, get to work on the next one. And as you’re writing that next one, be developing an idea for the project after that.”

Publishers and agents invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.

On her website, Christy Award–nominated and Carol Award–winning author Mary Connealy says, “I wrote for ten years before I got my first book published. When I did get my first contract I had twenty finished books on my computer at home. . . . The two years before I got published I was a finalist in eleven contests with five different books. And all the while I’m entering these contests, I kept writing.”

In addition to the three completed manuscripts I had before I started writing Stand-In Groom, I had dozens of partially written story ideas on the computer or in notebooks, and a 200,000-word never-ending saga that was a fictionalized view of me and my circle of friends from college and “what could have been.” Without knowing it, by writing every day since I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I was learning the work ethic I’d need to become a professional author. By writing that long manuscript, even though I never brought it to a conclusion, I did learn about character development, about conflict, about setting, about revision. And by completing three manuscripts before SIG, I learned about story and plot development, about structure, about POV, about showing vs. telling, etc.

Though there’s a lot of hard work that comes after the book contract is signed, all of the hard work of learning to be a published author shouldn’t wait until then. It’s a lot easier to learn how to be a multi-published author before signing that three-book contract than it is once you’re on deadline.

So, write something new!

For discussion . . .
For writers: How many manuscripts have you completed? How many story idea files do you have right now? Are you constantly writing down/developing new story ideas?

For published authors: How many manuscripts did you finish before getting published? How do you think that helped/hindered you?

For non-writers: How many years did it take you to learn your profession—whether you’re a doctor or a homeschooling parent? What do you wish you’d done differently before embarking on that profession that might have made it easier?

Works Cited:

Bell, James Scott. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. Print.

Connealy, Mary. “About Mary.” Mary Connealy: Romantic Comedy with Cowboys. 2009. Web. 12 May 2010.

Stein, Sol. Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Print.

Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #2: I Need Distance!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Originally posted May 11, 2010

You’re probably familiar with these two adages:

    Familiarity breeds contempt.
    Absence makes the heart grow fonder

In the Disney version of Robin Hood, when talking about the fact Marian hasn’t seen Robin since they were “children” and that “he’s probably forgotten all about me,” Lady Cluck says, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Marian follows that up with, “Or forgetful.”

And that’s the basis of today’s tip.

Writing Tip #2. Put your manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can after you finish the first draft.

You want to forget as much as possible about it before you start revisions—that way, you can be more objective about it.

This topic makes me think a lot about the flooding in Nashville [in early May 2010]. No matter where anyone was on Saturday and Sunday during the storm and in the immediate aftermath, we couldn’t get a clear idea of exactly what was going on. All I knew was it was raining a lot, there were reports of flash floods, I’d seen some footage on TV, and I knew it was continuing to rain. It wasn’t until Monday, when the rain stopped and the pictures—and especially the aerial footage from the news helicopters—started surfacing that I started to realize just how bad everything was. The helicopters were able to gain distance and show us the bigger picture, show us things that we never would have seen from the ground, even right in the messiest part of the disaster. And it wasn’t until several days had passed that we were able to truly start assessing the damage.

When we’re in the midst of writing a manuscript, we’re so close to it, we can’t see misused or missing words. We can’t see where we’ve used telling language instead of showing. We can’t see info dumps or excessive explanation or description. It isn’t until we’ve cleared the manuscript from our minds, until we’ve allowed ourselves to move on to something else for a little while, that we can begin to see the things that need to be addressed.

You may already have experience with this concept—we subconsciously use it in problem solving quite a bit. When we have a problem or a dilemma and we just can’t come up with a solution, an answer, sometimes the best thing to do is walk away. A couple of years ago, I related this anecdote in a post about satisfying endings:

I edited . . . a hidden pictures book—the kind where there’s a line-drawing picture and you have to find all of the odd little items hidden in the drawing. I spent the entire day with a highlighter finding all of the socks, fish, bananas (on almost every one of the 26 pictures!), ice-cream cones, etc., hidden throughout pictures of kids outside playing ball, skateboarding, swimming. . . . On one spread, I even found a bird (it was the first thing I saw when I looked at the page) that wasn’t listed along the side as an item to find. But then I got to one near the back. I found most of the items quickly, but then I was completely stymied. There were three items I couldn’t find for the life of me. After half an hour of looking at it from every angle possible, I finally gave up and moved on to the next page.

I went back and tried to find the items again. No luck. So, I finally went to lunch.

After lunch, I went back to that page. Within ninety seconds, I had found the three “missing” items. All it took was a little time away and fresh eyes.

Though in that case, it was only an hour or two later that allowed me to see the solution to my “problem,” with a manuscript—because of the prolonged investment of time and energy—we obviously need a more extended period away from it to gain the appropriate objectivity, that “fresh eye.”

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg wrote:

It is a good idea to wait awhile before you reread your writing. Time allows for distance and objectivity about your work. After . . . a month, sit down and reread [it] as if it weren’t yours. Become curious: “What did this person have to say?” Make yourself comfortable and settle down as though it were a good novel you were about to read. Read it page by page. Even if it seemed dull when you wrote it, now you will recognize its texture and rhythm. . . .

Another good value to rereading . . . is that you can see how your mind works. Note where you could have pushed further and out of laziness or avoidance didn’t. See where you are truly boring. . . .

. . .[W]hen you go over your work, become a Samurai, a great warrior with the courage to cut out anything that is not present. Like a Samurai, with an empty mind who cuts his opponents in half, be willing to not be sentimental about your writing when you reread it. Look at it with a clear, piercing mind. . . .

See revision as “envisioning again.” If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind’s picture. . . .

Often, you might read page after page of your notebooks and only come upon one, two, or three good lines. Don’t be discouraged. . . . Underline those good lines. . . . And when you sit down to practice you can grab one of those lines and keep going.

(Goldberg, pp. 172–176)

For Discussion . . .
In your writing (or in life), how has gaining distance brought you new perspective? How has it helped you with your story, with editing, with problem-solving?


Works Cited:

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2005. Print.

Robin Hood. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Walt Disney Productions. 1973. Animated Film.

Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #1: FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Originally posted as Top Ten Writing Tips: Tip #1 on May 10, 2010.

The members of Middle Tennessee Christian Writers asked if, for our May meeting last week, I could present “Kaye’s Top Ten Writing Tips” as the workshop topic. Having been forced by a blog interviewer to come up with five (thanks, Regina—I usually only have to do one, maybe two) tips, I agreed, thinking it would be easy to come up with an additional five. Well . . . it wasn’t as easy as I anticipated—especially since I wanted to make sure I had “experts” to back me up on all of them.

And since I went to that much work, I figured they’d make a nice blog series. So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, you’ll be treated to Kaye’s Top Ten Writing Tips.

Kaye’s Writing Tip #1. FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT.
As I just mentioned in a class on writing opening hooks, don’t stress out about perfecting your opening hook before you have your entire story written—until you get to the end, you don’t really know what your story is about, no matter how detailed your outline/synopsis is.

It’s all well and good if you can write great openings, three to five great chapters. It’s fantastic if you can win contests with them. But if you never actually finish a manuscript, winning contests is all you’re ever going to be able to do.

You’ll never know how to write the beginning of a novel until you write through to the ending of it. You don’t know what hints/clues/red herrings you need to incorporate. You don’t know what themes are going to be important to introduce early. And you don’t know what secondary characters or subplots are going to come into play that need to be worked into the beginning of the novel.

In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell wrote:

Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other.

Some writers tinker over their words endlessly, perhaps fearing the end result. It might stink.

Yes, it might. But it’s the only way you’re going to get better.

Finish your novel.

(Bell, p. 65)

As an unpublished writer, how will you know if a story has enough plot, enough conflict, to sustain an entire 80–100,000-word novel unless you write the whole thing? The only way you learn how to write a novel is by writing a novel. You’ll never be a professional author if all you ever write are snippets and snatches and opening chapters.

Instead of getting so wrapped up in going back and trying to “perfect” what you’ve already written, when you sit down for your writing time, don’t do anything more than re-read and possibly do a light revision on what you wrote yesterday, but then move forward. Try to push yourself to write a few more words today than you wrote yesterday. In War, Bell encourages writers to “write hard, write fast” when you’re writing your first draft. By pounding out the story in a shorter amount of time, you stay in its slipstream much more easily—the story takes on a life of its own and compels you to write it.

Obviously, this requires writing every day. If you want to be a professional (i.e., published) author, you must treat writing as your profession (even if it’s a second, third, or fourth profession in addition to a full-time job, spouse, and kids). “A surgeon can’t refuse to operate because he’s upset over the Lakers game last night,” Bell writes. “A criminal defense lawyer can’t ask for a continuance so he can go to the beach and dream of someday getting a client who’s actually innocent. And a professional writer can’t sit at the computer playing Spider Solitaire, waiting for a visit from the Muse. A pro is someone who writes, whether inspired or not, and keeps on writing. . . .”

Madeleine L’Engle put it this way in Walking on Water:

We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it.

(L’Engle, p. 24)

Bell gives quite a few examples of authors who put the “write hard, write fast” principle to work:

  • “William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word. (You’re not Faulkner by the way.)”
  • Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris in 1925.
  • From 1953–1954, John D. MacDonald produced SEVEN novels of high quality. Over the course of the decade, he wrote many more superb books, including The End of the Night and Cry Hard, Cry Fast. MacDonald quelled a critic (who said he should give up writing “paperback drivel” and write “real fiction”) by saying in thirty days, he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in magazines, selected by a book club, and turned into a movie. The critic laughed and bet him $50 he couldn’t. MacDonald went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, made into a film in 1962 that continues to garner acclaim (and remade in 1991): Cape Fear.
  • Ray Bradbury wrote Farenheit 451 in nine days on a rented typewriter. He had a newborn at home so he needed somewhere else to work. He had no money for an office. But UCLA had a room in the basement of the library with 12 typewriters for rent at ten cents per half hour. $9.80 later, Bradbury had written his famous “dime” novel.
  • Jack London would shut himself in a room and write, sometimes for up to eighteen hours a day. He filled a trunk with rejections. But he was learning. When he died at the age of forty, he was one of the most prolific and successful writers of all time.
  • Stephen King says he used to write 1,500 words a day every day, except his birthday and the Fourth of July.
  • (Bell, pp. 77–83)


For discussion:
What is the shortest amount of time it’s ever taken you to complete a manuscript? How many manuscripts have you finished (written through to the ending)? How long did it take you to finish your first full-length manuscript? Why do you think it’s important to finish your first draft?

Works Cited:

Bell, James Scott. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. Print.

L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980. Print.

It’s the First Monday of the Month–Time for Reading Reports! (09-14)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Happy First Monday of September, everyone.
It’s Reading Report time!

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

Open Book by Dave Dugdale

Tell us what you’ve finished over the last month, what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your To Be Read stack/list. And if you’ve reviewed the books you’ve read somewhere, please include links! (To format your text, click here for an HTML cheat-sheet. If you want to embed link your test (like my “click here” links) instead of just pasting the link into your comment, click here.)

  • What book(s) did you finish reading (or listening to) since the last update?

  • What are you currently reading and/or listening to?

  • What’s the next book on your To Be Read stack/list?


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