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Becoming a Writer: The Best Advice I Ever Received

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Becoming a Writer

“Writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce.”
~Annie Dillard (The Writing Life)

Back at the beginning of this series, I mentioned attending the 2001 Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers’ Conference at Ridgecrest, NC. Up until that time, I’d been writing and writing and writing for years. I’d even majored in creative writing (and hated it) many years before that.

At the conference, I took the Fiction 101 track, taught by author T. Davis Bunn. It was pretty early on in the first day’s workshop that I heard the piece of advice that had the most profound influence on my writing career of anything I’ve learned since:

“Above all else: FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT.”

It seems like a pretty simple thing, doesn’t it? Almost too simple to have to be said aloud, right?

But how many people out there are like I was: content to just “play” with our characters by either revising/rewriting existing stuff we’ve already written or writing scenes/vignettes that don’t necessarily tie together into a story, but that’s okay, because we’re writing and entertaining ourselves, without ever having a story that has, as Meg Cabot explains, a beginning, middle, and end.

I think this is probably a bigger trap for those of us who’re character driven than for those who’re plot driven. Those of us who start writing because we’ve fallen in love with a couple of characters really are writing to spend time with those characters. If we don’t have a clear idea of a story for them, we can write stuff about them for years without ever “finishing” anything. Take it from me and my 200,000-word unfinished opus that I spent ten years playing with.

One of the questions I’ve seen most often in the interviews I’ve been doing recently is what advice would I give to “aspiring” writers.

My response is this:

    Just like someone cannot one day pick up a stethoscope and scalpel and “become” a doctor, one cannot just pick up a pen and notebook (or start up a computer) and “become” a writer. Writing fiction is as much about learning and studying as it is about composing and creating.

    I’ve heard it said that no one can consider himself a “real” writer until he has written at least one million words. I’m not sure it takes quite that many. I would revise that to say that it’s really hard to truly learn how to write well without having written at least two or three complete manuscripts, attended a few writing conference or workshops/classes, and read many writing-craft books and/or websites.

    To all aspiring writers: get your manuscripts finished! Stand-In Groom was my fourth complete novel and the first I’ve ever completely revised, and it was an almost three year process from beginning to end. With each manuscript I wrote and completed, I learned more and more about the craft of writing. So instead of just concentrating on polishing and repolishing those first three chapters for contests or submissions, get the whole book written and revised, then start on the next one while you’re in the process of submitting.

Am I suggesting that no writer is ever going to get their very first manuscript published? Absolutely not. But I’ve talked to a plethora of writers who did get one of their first finished manuscripts published—and now they cannot abide to even split the covers of that book because they’re embarrassed by the lack of quality in the writing.

By writing a story through to completion, you’ll learn more about yourself as a writer than you will from any seminar, workshop, conference, mentor, or critique partner. You’ll learn how long it takes you to write something to the end. You’ll learn what your natural rhythm for pacing and character development. You’ll find out that you have a tendency to write chapters of a certain length (which can change, based on what genre you write in if you write multiple genres). You may find out that you’re really better suited to romantic suspense rather than romantic comedy or to women’s fiction rather than chick lit.

But more important than any of that, you will feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence in yourself and your calling as a writer when you write those two most glorious words: THE END. Nothing else in the writer’s life can compare with writing the ending of a story—whether it’s a happy ending, bittersweet, melancholy, or tragic.

Forget trying to make it perfect as you’re writing it. Just write. Turn off the internal editor. Ignore the analytical side of your brain. Don’t worry about rules and finding the perfect descriptive verb. Don’t write for anyone but YOU. As Stephen King told us in On Writing: you write the first draft with the door closed, you revise with the door open.

“A writer who is writing at white heat with the muse at his shoulder doesn’t need any rules. All he needs to do is be a good typist.”
~Ellen Gilchrist (The Writing Life)

Every time someone announces winners of writing contests—whether it’s online at ACFW or in the back of the RWA magazine—I always read them, because I know I’m going to see familiar names and want to congratulate friends and acquaintances. However, there are some people I worry about—their names regularly appear on finalists’ lists for multiple contests, and have been there every year for five or six or more years. A few I’m close enough with that I’ve talked to them about this phenomenon and I’ve come to discover that there are certain writers out there who have what many of us call “contest addiction.” They spend most of their writing life revising and implementing suggested changes on the first ten, fifteen, twenty-five, or fifty pages of their stories—but never really go past that. Either they never finish the story, they just keep entering those few pages into contests, hoping the editor/agent judge will miraculously offer them a publishing contract, or, when they do get a request for a submission, the rest of their manuscript has suffered from severe neglect and can’t live up to the quality of the opening pages.

I’m a big proponent of writing contests. Entering the Noble Theme three times helped me overcome my fear of letting others read and comment upon my writing. And it was entering Stand-In Groom in the Genesis contest in 2006 and being a finalist that gave me the confidence to approach two agents and ask if I could submit it to them. But do you see the difference? I took the comments and feedback that I received from those early contest entries and applied the feedback I received to all of my writing—and I moved on, kept writing, kept finishing manuscripts, kept building my confidence.

Your turn. What’s the greatest single piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

  1. Thursday, February 5, 2009 8:19 pm

    Write what you know.

    I know this is probably common, and I have NO idea where I heard this, probably just hear or there. But after 8 years of piddling with writing, starting something (3 chapters into it) and not getting any further, it’s like God brought that popular phrase into my head.

    I was trying write a book that I knew nothing about. It was all dramatic and moving and just NOT where I’m at in my life right now.

    So, now I write romantic comedy… er.. light hearted romance:-) I felt this huge release once I gave myself permission to write funny.

    And I completed a manuscript in 3 months, vs 8 years for 3 chapters. I’m thinkin it helped a bit!


  2. Friday, February 6, 2009 11:13 am

    It’s okay to change your mind later.

    This is a revelation I had when writing my SHU thesis. There were a few times, particularly at the beginning of the book, where I made an assumption and then later research told me it was incorrect. I’m a perfectionist and it was so hard for me not to throw up my hands and re-write the whole story before I got to the end. But getting to the end is sooooo important, and revision time comes later.

    So especially for those writing historicals or other research-intensive stories: don’t be afraid to mess up the details because anything can be tweeked later. I promise!:)


  3. Friday, February 6, 2009 12:28 pm

    I love that S. King quote. I’m one of those writers who the first draft is usually a big mess but I get it done quick and I don’t stop to revise. When the story in me comes out for the first time I let it come out (good, bad and just ok :))

    And Emilie – how many details did I mess up! Haha that got fixed later – gotta love historic fiction – the research never seems to end.


  4. Friday, February 6, 2009 2:12 pm

    Being a character-driven writer, meandering around with said characters is something that’s very difficult to let go. I know so much about them that they’re easy to write, but pinning down what part of their story TO write gives me headaches. I’ve got three of them licked into submission and novel plot settled on, but the others are still giving me fits.

    I do cherish all the time I’ve spent getting to know them though. It’s saved me a lot of frustration as I embark on the path to finishing. I already know what I need to do to get to know a character and the questions that I need to ask them.


  5. Friday, February 6, 2009 2:24 pm

    “Finish the book” would be the greatest piece of advice I’ve been given but also the thing I wrestle with the most. You say write only for myself but what happens when you are your own biggest critic. Turning off that voice and letting go is tough.

    The biggest hindrance to doing this for me is losing momentum. When I’m away from my draft, as life requires me to be by way of my job and my family, I lose the connectedness that frees me to write. To regain it, I usually have to revisit what I’ve already written, and then, I start twiddling with it.

    But other times, it’s simply that I don’t know where I want to go with the story. There are character development issues or plot holes that I haven’t figured out how to fix. I find it impossible to keep going with this stuff hanging over my head and driving me crazy.

    “Finish the book” is what is required to realize my goals so I’m working on keeping the momentum going and the words flowing.


  6. Friday, February 6, 2009 4:58 pm

    I’m a character-driven writer, and I have such a hard time figuring out what exactly is going to happen to them. 😉 Great post. Finish the first draft. That’s what I’m trying to do in my new WIP. Look past all those horrid typos and writing no-no’s and just get the story out.


  7. Monday, February 9, 2009 5:59 am

    I think you might have just given it to me 🙂

    Apart from that great advice (and my first draft of my novel is so close to being finished, but I’ve seemed to have lost momentum over the Christmas period…must get it finished, must get it finished) is to put yourself out there. My goal is to wallpaper my office space with rejection letters – not because my writing is terrible (or at least I hope it’s not!) but because it’s a sign that I’m continuing to put myself out there. Each time I send something off I am gaining confidence in myself – and I’m fortunate to have had quite a few ‘yes’ responses in the year I’ve been writing. I could have the best book in the world sitting on my hard drive, but unless I send it off, no-one’s going to ever know. I’ve now got contracts on three of my picture books – and a pile of rejection letters too 🙂


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