Here’s the deal. There are many new, budding writers out there who have no idea what they’re doing. They’re fragile – they’re newborn writers and they’re flying blind, wanting to create all sorts of cool things with no idea how to do it. They can be easy to make fun of; I see the cliches and tropes they’re writing with gleeful abandon, I see the mistakes they make with everything from grammar to romance to characterization and I think ‘Oh honey. Ohhh honey.’
But me thinking ‘Ohhh honey’ and sipping my coffee with a Sage Expression on my face doesn’t really help anybody, and here’s the thing – I was that fragile, newborn, budding writer with no clue what she was doing. I took ideas from everything I read and was so ‘influenced’ by some authors that I was practically plagiarizing them. I had the Stereotypical Fantasy Characters – the brooding hero with the tragic backstory (and YES I still lOVE HIM leave me alone), the Feisty Independent Heroine (who was actually just a bitch, honestly, pardon my French. She was) and the sarcastic, hapless comedic character who didn’t….really further the plot in any way. Obviously the FMC needed a brother, so….there we are, I guess? Oh, and it was an ALLEGORY, PEOPLE, because Intellectualism™ a la the Door Within series. (Also I’m fine with allegory; I like a certain amount of allegory. We’ll get to that in another post.)
The point is, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve been writing since I was twelve, I’ve completed over ten novels and started + shelved a dozen others. I’ve tried just about everything. So here are some tips to help move your writing out of the….I don’t even know what to call that space. The Bad Place. These will help move you from The Bad Place to The Good Place; let’s call it that.
ONE: GRAMMAR IS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT
‘That’s what editors are for.’ I see this one a lot, even from writers who aren’t necessarily newbies. But here’s the thing – if you don’t have a good grasp on grammar, your writing will lack a certain amount of depth, description, and sophistication. (I don’t mean you need to be Arthur Conan Doyle or quirk your pinkie; it’s not that kind of sophistication.) Your writing will not be as good as it could be. That’s just the way it is, and it doesn’t have to do with typos. If you don’t know how to use grammar, you will not know how to write as well as you could. You can write passable things, sure, but there will be a childish quality to the writing that people will notice. (And I say they will because I do, every time. Every single time.)
Is grammar hard for you? Don’t despair! I didn’t even realize indentations were a thing until a year into my writing and my mom pointed out they were supposed to exist in a manuscript, and I realized – I’d been reading since I was a few years old, but hadn’t been paying attention to structure. Pick up a book (a good book, a book you know to be well-written and not just your average YA fantasy novel. Not that one. But not Jane Austen; that’s another load of…well, structure wasn’t much of a thing then, either). Pick up a Charles de Lint book, or a Patricia McKillip or an Allison Croggon book or even Brandon Sanderson. Pay attention to things like indentations. Pay attention to spacing and structure and pacing; pay attention to turns of phrase, the difference in each character’s speech and sound. Grammar can be fun and it doesn’t mean you need to sit down and take a course from beginning to end (unless you have a real issue with it in which case, you might have to).
TWO: SHARE YOUR WRITING
This one is hard. It still is hard, actually, although it’s gotten significantly easier over the past decade. But you have to do it. You cannot – I repeat, YOU CANNOT – reach your fullest potential as a writer if you don’t have feedback. And this means all kinds of feedback. It means finding some people who will tell you the truth. Do NOT share your writing with someone who tells you how MAGNIFICENT and MARVELOUS your writing is each time, without any critique. You know why? Because they’re lying, and they don’t want to hurt your feelings. If you’ve sent out ten chapters in a row with no constructive criticism from someone, they aren’t helping you. You want truly constructive criticism? Find a family member. Generally I don’t give manuscripts to my mom until they’ve been revised, edited, and proofread because I want it to be as good as I can make it, but once she reads it there’s nobody more helpful because she’ll tell me what’s wrong with it. ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ ‘There’s too much of X element.’ ‘Did you mean to do this here?’ But when she comes to me and says, ‘I need more,’ or proceeds to bring up her favorite characters for the next few weeks, there’s nothing more encouraging.
Find somebody who will tell you the truth. Will it hurt your feelings? Yes. Especially if you’re just starting out and don’t have a good grasp on things, because there will be more negative than positive for a while – but if this person loves you and wants to see you succeed, listen to them. Take their advice. Take a deep breath, strap on your helmet, and dive in. It’s more comfortable to believe your writing is just fine. But comfort won’t get you anywhere.
THREE: TREAT YOUR WRITING SERIOUSLY
Obviously writing should be fun. Writing is incredible. But let me show you a few phrases that might sound familiar to you – “Haha yeah, gotta follow the plot bunnies!” “My poor charries!!” “I know this doesn’t really FIT but it was so CUTE.” “Yeah I know this isn’t perfect, but I mean…”
No. Stop. Stop making excuses for your writing, and stop treating your book like it’s some kind of over-excited Pomeranian puppy. Remember, I did all these things and my writing never got better because of it. THAT I can promise you. (Nor have I ever seen anyone else’s writing get better because of it.) Plot bunnies? They’re an excuse to be lazy and not have to come up with any actual solid plot. Your poor charries? Oh honey. Ohhh honey. It doesn’t FIT but it was so CUTE? Yeah, it sucks, but cut it out. Cute or otherwise, if it doesn’t move the story forward it has no place. I don’t care how adorable it was, and neither will your reader once they finish the book and go, ‘You know…there were a bunch of scenes in there that made no sense, though.’ And as for ‘Yeah, this isn’t perfect, but’ – no ‘buts.’ No. If you know something you wrote was lazy, sloppy, or unresearched, then you have no excuse. Fix it. Make it better. I don’t care if this is just a first draft, your first draft should be as good as you can possibly make it. If you get halfway through a first draft and realize you don’t like it, or you already know the whole plot but that it needs massive revisions, then stop! Start another book, or shelve this one for later. Be flexible.
And just….please don’t call your characters ‘charries.’ It really does encourage you to not take them seriously, which you should. People don’t connect with Charries. They connect with characters.
FOUR: TORTURE IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR DRAMA
I mean sure, torture is dramatic and my books have a fair amount of it in different ways, but one thing I see amateur writers do c o n s t a n t l y (and I did this myself) is substitute physical pain for other kinds of drama. I mean I know – it’s hard to write genuine, believable pain, drama, and angst when you’re new at it, but don’t settle for just torturing your characters. It’s an amateur mistake and I’ve seen some new writers rely on it so heavily that they honestly creep me out a little so…tone down on the torture. Here’s a tip – try embarrassment instead. We all HATE to be embarrassed and most of us suffer from secondhand embarrassment, too – which is why it’s an important element to write. In The Last Samurai (one of those historically horrendous movies I will still watch) one of the characters is subjected to having his hair cut by enemy soldiers. It may not sound like much, but to him, it’s an abject humiliation. They don’t torture him – they just cut his hair, and the impact is far more powerful than if they’d stood around kicking or punching him.
FIVE: DON’T FOLLOW THE LIGHTS
I’ve seen new writers (and accomplished writers – looking at you, YA section in the library) do a Thing. This Thing is to have more character than they know what to do with, and try to give each character their Very Own Spotlight. This is absolutely fine if you’re an experienced writer – I love huge casts and weaving their storylines together. But it’s painful when I see someone who can barely write one character’s point of view try to write seventeen. The result is that each POV sounds relatively the same, gives nothing new to the plot, and winds up frustrating to the reader (this is one reason why, terrible plot aside, I never could get into the Divergent books. Everyone sounded exactly the same – but this is very common in young adult novels). Focus on writing one point of view. Focus on keeping it simple. Discover your strengths as a writer and pursue those – work those up so that eventually you can start turning your weaknesses into strengths, too. But don’t pile your plate three feet high in an over-ambitions attempt to Do All the Things. I have to remind myself of this even now, after almost fourteen years of writing. If you have an overload of ideas for one novel, step back and take a look at them. Maybe you actually have TWO SEPARATE books here! (I know I often do.)
So there we are – the five top tips I could think of off the top of my head. The point of this post was not to be discouraging, but to tell you I’ve been exactly where you are and made all the mistakes new writers make, and if someone had been able to point me in the right direction my literary life would have progressed faster than it did. If you LIKED this and have your own questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them in another blog post!