Some work first thing in the AM, others in the PM, some don’t get started until near midnight. Some write sober, some don’t. Some write on a computer, some on legal pads, and some write on tablets or even phones. Some edit as they go along, perfecting each sentence before going on to the next. Some keep strict, almost corporate office hours, some write irregularly but in hot rushes of productivity.
Others write a first draft as fast as they can, then go back to edit and revise. Some outline in detail. Others work from a jotted list of scribbled notes. Still others let the characters do the work. Some brainstorm the plot with a trusted friend or spouse. Some work with a crit partner/ editor/beta reader getting comments and guidance along the way. Others won’t let anyone see their work until it’s finished.
Bottom line, there's no ONE way to get the job done and no ONE way will work for every writer. Still, no matter where, when or how writers write, certain general rules seem to work well for most people most of the time.
1. Thou shalt hold thy nose and type.
Anatomically impossible, of course, just like another frequently suggested act but writing without over thinking has positive payoffs:
- When you write without censoring yourself, you get the engine running. You quash the inner scold, that mahatma of negativity that rains on your parade.
- Writing while holding your nose doesn't give you time to second-guess yourself.
- Even if you have an outline, writing fast gives you the freedom to stray when a better idea or that fabulous plot twist pops into your mind and surprises even you.
- You avoid obsessing over whether your hero should be blond, brunette or a power-baldy à la Bruce Willis. You can always figure out the details later and, more often than not, as the character engages and develops, hair color (or lack of hair) will become obvious.
- Writing freely increases your chances of "getting into the flow" and gaining access to your sub-conscious or what Stephen King calls "the boys downstairs." Those "boys"—or girls if you're of the female persuasion—are the ones who come up with the dazzling and unexpected (even to the writer!) plot twist that causes a reader to gasp—and keep turning the pages.
- As you watch the words and the pages pile up, you give yourself the gift of a sense of accomplishment. Where there was nothing, there is now something. The fact that there’s "something" where once there was nothing builds confidence. Besides "something"—even if it’s the notorious lousy first draft—can be revised/edited/rewritten. Or deleted if it’s that bad. Which is probably isn’t
- But, you ask, won't writing fast add to the "tsunami of crap"? The answer is yes/maybe but so what? No one except you has to read it and, besides, writing slowly and agonizingly can also result in unspeakable crap. So, you choose.
2. Thou shalt write. A lot.
Commandment 2 is a close relative of Commandment 1. Professional writers turn out copy, they meet deadlines, they get the job done and the more they write the better they get. Same with any job, career or profession.
Do you want a surgeon who's just out of med school or one who's done hundreds of knee/hip replacements? See what I mean?
3. Thou shalt not give in to temptation.
You know the Internet is full of enemies: email, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, Candy Crush and Words With Friends. Now meet the allies:
- AlphaSmart Neo ($39), a lightweight, hand-held dedicated writing machine sans internet connection. Many find the AlphaSmart ideal for first drafts which can be uploaded to your PC or Mac.
- Go retro with a notebook, legal pad and pen, or even a typewriter.
- Install distraction blocking software like Freedom (Mac, Windows, Android) or Anti-Social.
- OmmWriter for Mac, PC and iPad ($4) presents a calm, peaceful environment, aids concentration and helps get you into the zone. "Discover the bliss of single tasking."
- Full-screen, distraction-fighting writing tools: Scrivener (Mac and Windows), Ulysses (Mac), FocusWriter (Windows/Mac/Linux, FREE) or WriteMonkey (Windows, FREE).
4. Thou shalt respect thy genre.
Successful writers of horror, romance, thrillers or mystery read widely in their genre. They study its conventions, know what readers expect and they do NOT let them down. Period.
- No unhappy endings for romances. Readers want the HEA and that's what the pro delivers.
- No "revelation" at the end that the whole book, the characters, their trials and tribulations, was the MC’s dream. We're writing compelling fiction here, not a shaggy dog story.
- No tearing up in tough-guy noir. Hard edges, dammit!
- No blood and guts in a cozy mystery.
- No weepy heart-to-heart confessions in action thrillers.
Don't think you will reinvent the wheel. Pros know better. Find out more about the subject in my earlier post "know your genre
". And here are additional resources get you started:
- How to write a romance from the experts at Harlequin.
- P.D. James tells how to write a mystery.
- The Five Cs of writing a thriller.
- Seven steps to writing science fiction.
- Chuck Wendig on 25 things to know about writing horror. (Warning: strong language.)
5. Thou shalt keep it real.
Successful professional authors don’t clutter their minds with gauzy notions of "literature" or "art." Instead, they are experienced, disciplined and competent storytellers and entertainers who understand that craft matters.
Great books are about characters, plot, setting, if "art" is the outcome, great, but, as in building a house, don't rely on wishful thinking when what you need is a hammer and some nails.
6. Thou shalt learn to bail thyself out.
One of the great old-time pulp writers (200+ books) once told me "Each book is a pain in the ass in a different way." What he meant was that at some point each one is going to present a problem.
- A plot going nowhere.
- A plot hole big enough to need planet of its own.
- A boring/stupid/addled/DebbieDowner character.
- A villain that wouldn't scare a two year old.
- A MC who can't get out of his/her own way.
- Too much/not enough background/research.
- Too long.
- Too short.
- Too much tell/not enough show. Or vice versa.
You name it, sometime, somewhere, in the course of writing a book, you will get stuck. Professional writers have learned how to bail themselves out. Whether it means going back to the beginning and starting again, a light rewrite, a total revision, a personality transplant (for a character, not the writer—lol), the pros have learned how to get themselves out of trouble.
First aid for boo-boos:
7. Thou shalt put thy butt in the chair and face thy crit group/beta readers.
Your crit group/beta readers say your characters are stereotypes? They hate your MC. They think your love scenes are boring/soapy/ unbelievable. Are they right? Do they know what they're talking about? Do you agree with them? Should you agree with them?
- They say your plots are creaky? Are they?
- They don't like the way your book ends. Or begins.
- They have a thousand opinions and they can leave you confused or, even worse, paralyzed.
- Belinda Pollard discusses beta readers and crit groups and the differences between them.
- Anne sifts through the evidence, profiles the different flavors of crit groups, and tells why you should ignore your crit group—and how it can help.
8. Thou shalt accentuate the positive.
I read a while ago about an in-demand sports psychologist whose theory is that if a golfer is a good putter, s/he should practice putting until s/he becomes a superb putter. This shrink’s approach was not to focus on correcting an athlete's weaknesses, but on polishing his/her strengths to the highest possible level.
Writers can take the same approach: write what you're good at. Do more of what comes easily and work on your strengths. Snappy dialogue? Sheet-scorching sex? Evocative descriptions? Slam-bang action? Whatever you love to write will certainly be one of the keys to making your book stand out.
9. Thou shalt park thy ego and learn to edit thyself.
Heresy coming from an editor, I know, but professional writers are often excellent editors of their own work. After years of experience, they have learned to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. They have developed the ability to look at their own work objectively and their approach is practical: what works stays, what doesn’t work hits the cutting room floor, aka the delete button.
The ability to self-edit comes with time and experience but it’s a goal for beginning writers to keep in mind.
Here are a few ideas for learning to edit your own work.
10. Thou shalt suck it up.
Rejection and rotten reviews are in your future. Guaranteed.
- Writers from JK Rowling to Kurt Vonnegut react to rejection in this piece on famous authors talking about their rejections
- James Altucher gives sane, sensible advice about what to do when you've been rejected.
- RH on the down-and-dirty behind-the-scenes real reasons for rejection.
- This advice from a clinical psychologist on how to cope with rejection focuses on romantic rejection but much of it is also applicable to rejection from an agent/publisher or even a negative review.
- A professional counsellor explains how to cope with criticism.
10+1. Now that you know the 10 commandments and pledge to obey them, go forth and hit it out of the park. ;-)
What about you, Scriveners? Do you find bliss in single-tasking? Are you following these "commandments"? Do you have any to add to the list? What is the most important rule you follow for your own writing?
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Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10.
Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015
PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE.
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Ink & Insights 2015
is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35:
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. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.
WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique.
The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words. First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.
WRITER ADVICE FLASH PROSE CONTEST
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