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

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tuesday, 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. Write something new.

On Monday, 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 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?

  1. Thursday, May 13, 2010 2:34 pm

    oh how I love your blog!
    I write everyday. Nothing stops me from writing, it is my life. Still have the dream of publication 🙂


  2. Thursday, May 13, 2010 2:36 pm

    In taking some time to catch up on some reading, I ran across this passage in Madeleine L’Engle Herself that’s apropos to this topic:

    “Being a writer does not necessarily mean being 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.”


  3. Brenda Scruggs permalink
    Monday, May 17, 2010 9:19 am

    I love to write and sometimes it can become a problem with husband and son. I just sit down and start writing without thinking, it comes automatically. Lately, I’ve had to force myself to think about family and write once their in bed but I get so many idea’s that I do stop and jot them on a piece of paper so I don’t lose them.



  4. Sylvia M. permalink
    Monday, May 17, 2010 6:20 pm

    I like what you said about finding pictures of people to help inspire a new story. That’ s one of the reasons I love your books. I can just read and enjoy the story better because I know what the people look like. Robin Jones Gunn says that she has whole notebooks for each novel she writes. She cuts photographs of people out of catalogs, creates a birthday and profile for each character. When she has her character eat at a certain place, she goes there and chooses which table they will sit at to have a certain conversation. The characters just come alive. That’s how I feel when I read your books, Kaye.


  5. Wednesday, April 18, 2012 9:22 am

    I don’t have any finished, but stories come up in my head all the time. I have four different concepts right now and two WIPs – and it’s more distracting than anything. Learning which one to focus on is hard!



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