I can’t begin any discussion of what I’ve learned about writing while writing without a disclaimer: I’ve learned things that work for me. Aside from a few college-level writing courses, the books I’ve read on writing, and what I’ve picked up from other authors at workshops and conventions, I am completely self-taught.
And I’m constantly learning new things, sometimes better things, which result in the abandonment of things that worked beautifully up to a point. Some of these things may prove to be true for others, but what works for me will almost certainly not work for everyone. Here is what I think I know as of right now, subject to change at any moment.
First, I learn more from reading than anything else I can think of. I read eclectically and voraciously. Even reading books that seem (to me) to be poorly written is instructive. Why is the book not working for me as a reader? Whatever that is, I don’t want to do it. On the other hand, the books I stay up way too late reading, the stories I become so utterly lost in that I forget to analyze them until I’ve finished and have properly mourned that I must now leave those characters behind, these books I ponder long and hard.
This touches on my second point, which is that writing and reading are intensely personal. A partnership exists between the author and the reader. From the words the author puts on the page, the reader visualizes the characters, the setting, and the action through the lens of her own experiences. Some partnerships don’t work out. Some readers simply will not connect with your story.
This does not mean it’s a bad book. Reading is subjective. (Agents and editors are readers first, just like you and me.) If you want to write for publication, you’ll be more likely to maintain your sanity if you cultivate the thickest possible skin.
Something else that comes to mind is that I spend less time spinning tangents and subplots that will ultimately have to be edited out if I start with an outline. It’s all well and good to lose myself in the writing and completely change the story along the way when inspiration strikes. I created the outline. I can change it. But writing is an easier job if you have an idea what you’re going to write every day when you power up the computer.
Every day? you ask. Yes, when I’m writing a first draft, I write every day. On the weekends, it might just be an hour or two. But this helps me stay connected to my characters, anchored in my alternate reality. Once I’m editing, if I’m far enough away from my deadline, I take the weekends off to be with my family. The other thing I do while writing a first draft is to start every day by reading and editing what I wrote the day before. This helps me with reentry into my story. And by the time I’ve finished the first draft it’s been edited once, which is helpful.
While I’m writing a first draft, the words are newborn infant words. I hold them close. Although I once did, I no longer share parts of a first draft with critique partners or beta readers. I don’t want anyone to influence the story while I’m still writing it. In fact, I like to do at least one additional round of self-editing before anyone else reads a manuscript.
That said, having beta readers and/or critique partners is optimal. But the key is finding folks who are a part of your target audience. It can be counter productive if you’re a mystery writer to have your friend who is also a writer but writes science fiction and never reads mysteries as a first reader. You want someone who would otherwise buy and read your book—one who enjoys the genre—giving you feedback.
The other thing I’ve learned about beta readers and critique partners is that I have to filter. If I get feedback that doesn’t resonate with me, I shouldn’t run off and make the changes anyway just because I have such respect for the person who gave me the commentary. (Unless, of course, I get the same advice from multiple sources.) Reading is subjective. Everyone has an opinion.
Which leads me to one of the most important things I’ve learned. When querying agents, a “revise and resubmit” is often (not always) a bad proposition for a writer. Think about it. When an agent says, “I love your writing style, (your voice, your whatever) and if you would only add vampires or shape-shifting unicorns,” what she is really saying is, “This book didn’t work for me,” or possibly, “I don’t know of an editor I think I could sell this to, but Editor A was looking for a shape-shifting unicorn last week.” (Reading is subjective.)
I got forty-nine rejections before signing with my first agent. At least ten of those agents had very different visions for my book than mine—and each other’s. I have to write my books—tell my stories.
I once worked for two months on a revise and resubmit. The rejection sounded like a fan letter right up to the point where the agent asked for changes, so surely this would lead to a contract, I thought. When I resubmitted, the agent not only did not offer me representation, but she never even read the revisions.
She was too busy at that time. I had made the revisions at her suggestion, but she was under no obligation to me whatsoever. This was my mistake, and I see that clearly now. One of the rules I live by now is that I only make revisions for someone with whom I have a contract.
I’ve learned many more things than this, I’m sure. I’ve now been writing full-time for thirteen years. Oh my stars! I had to count that up twice. It’s amazing to me how slowly everything moved for the first eight years and how fast the planet has spun for the last five. That’s another thing I’ve learned. Publishing has two speeds: glacial and warp.
Susan M. Boyer is the author of the USA TODAY bestselling Liz Talbot mystery series. Her debut novel, Lowcountry Boil, won the 2012 Agatha Award for Best First Novel, the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense, and garnered several other award nominations, including the Macavity.
The third book in the series, Lowcountry Boneyard, was a Spring 2015 Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Okra Pick, and has been short-listed for the 2016 Pat Conroy Beach Music Mystery Prize. LOWCOUNTRY BOOK CLUB is due out July 5, 2016. Susan loves beaches, Southern food, and small towns where everyone knows everyone, and everyone has crazy relatives. You’ll find all of the above in her novels. She lives in Greenville, SC, with her husband and an inordinate number of houseplants.
Category: How To and Tips