My local writing group has adopted a line from Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean when it comes to the “rules” of writing: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” It doesn’t matter how many writing how-to books you memorize and how skillfully you apply the rules you’ve learned from them—if you don’t have a good story, none of the rest of it matters. Yes, the guidelines of good writing are important, but don’t let your story get lost in an attempt to “follow the rules.”
Does that mean you can ignore all of the guidelines about showing vs. telling, Limited Third Person POV, using active rather than passive language, varying sentence structures, eliminating as many adverbs as possible, not using embellished dialogue tags? NO, of course not. Just like a contractor needs an architect’s blueprints to go by BEFORE building a house, you need to learn the guidelines of good writing and current accepted style before you’ll be able to express your story in writing well. So do study the craft. Just think of the guidelines as a shepherd’s crook guiding you to a wide-open, grassy meadow rather than a dogcatcher’s tight leash dragging you toward a cage.
The storyteller knows that success in writing is the intangible thread that connects the reader’s and writer’s hearts through the written word.
4. Read five published novels in your genre for every one craft book you read.
So many writers, especially new writers, get caught up in “learning the craft” and they lose sight of “writing.” You can learn more from critical reading of published novels (breaking them apart, learning how/why they work or don’t work) than you’ll ever learn from reading a how-to book.
While it’s great to read books from throughout the ages, from classics to dime novels of the late 19th/early 20th century to mid-century pulp novels to 1990s experimental fiction, it’s very important to make sure you’re reading new releases in your genre and from the publishers you’re targeting—it’s called market research (thus, you can write those purchases off come tax time!) and it’s something every writer and published author needs to do. It keeps us abreast of current trends, current styles, and what non-writing readers are out there enjoying.
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.
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. For example—with three books to write each year for the last two years, I had, at best, four months to write each one. I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t trained myself to immediately start something new upon finishing a manuscript before I was published.
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.
2. Put your manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can after you finish the first draft.
You want to forget as much as possible about it before you start revisions—that way, you can be more objective about it. When we’re in the midst of writing a manuscript, we’re so close to it, we can’t see misused or missing words. We can’t see where we’ve used telling language instead of showing. We can’t see info dumps or excessive explanation or description. It isn’t until we’ve cleared the manuscript from our minds, until we’ve allowed ourselves to move on to something else for a little while, that we can begin to see the things that need to be addressed.
The easiest way to burn out on a story—or to completely ruin it—is to smother it with attention as soon as it’s finished. Give it some breathing room. Clear your mind. Start something new. Work on other non-writing projects. Then, after a few weeks or even a few months, come back to it, and you’ll be amazed at how much more objective you are about your own writing.
1. FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT.
Don’t stress out about perfecting your opening hook before you have your entire story written—because until you get to the end, you don’t really know what your story is about, no matter how detailed your outline/synopsis is. It’s all well and good if you can write great openings, three to five great chapters. It’s fantastic if you can win contests with them. But if you never actually finish a manuscript, winning contests is all you’re ever going to be able to do.
How will you know if a story has enough plot, enough conflict, to sustain an entire 80–100,000-word novel unless you write the whole thing? The only way you learn how to write a novel is by writing a novel. You’ll never be a professional author if all you ever write are snippets and snatches and opening chapters.
“Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other. Some writers tinker over their words endlessly, perhaps fearing the end result. It might stink.
Yes, it might. But it’s the only way you’re going to get better.
Finish your novel.” (James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers)
When Maureen O’Connor begins scheming to match her grandson Jamie with Flannery McNeill, the last thing she has in mind is a romance of her own. But when Jamie turns the tables and conspires with Flannery to bring Maureen and Flannery’s grandfather Kirby together, everyone’s best laid plans seem to go awry. Is Maureen willing to start a new relationship at this stage of her life? Will Jamie ever drop his veneer of self-sufficiency and succumb to true love?