When I first started writing, I was worse than a kid in a toy store. I wanted it ALL…NOW. I was desperate to be ‘good’ at writing. I didn’t want to just ‘be’ a writer, I wanted to Stephen King that shit.
I was deluded. Not because of my dream, but because I was unconsciously incompetent!
I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Which frankly, at that point, was less than fuck all. So I set about rampaging my way through everything that had even the faintest whiff of ‘writing tips’ attached to it.
The problem was, I got overwhelmed, saturated with conflicting advice and utterly bewildered as to which direction to go in. I didn’t know what to learn or how to learn it.
I realised there was no avoiding the fact it really does just take time to develop your writing muscle. However… along the way, I also picked up some pretty nifty tricks that helped me speed up the process. Tricks I wish I’d known earlier.
So I swallowed down my bitter pride pill, accepted I didn’t know shit and set about sharpening my proverbial pencil.
These are the lessons I wish someone had told me before I started:
Lesson One: Focus
Writing is a black hole. It’s fucking endless. Even when you’re old and wrinkled on your death bed there will still be an ocean of shit you could have learnt. But knowing that isn’t helpful to anyones writing crusade.
The only way of sailing across that ocean is to focus.
If you try and learn everything in one go, you end up not learn a thing.
Instead, focus on one aspect at a time.
I wrote a list of everything I wanted to learn, like: characterisation, arcs, dialogue, plot, pace, outlining etc and that’s where my Monday posts come from. Each one is a lesson I’ve learnt.
Lesson Two: Specificity
Focus is great but it’s not enough, being specific is equally important. Don’t just say you want to learn about dialogue. Hone it down. For example, maybe you want to learn how to differentiate between characters or perhaps, understand the pace at which a young adult speaks.
Being specific means when you read books, you know what to look for. Your not wildly scanning pages hoping for word osmosis to give you shit hot authorly skills.
Being specific means you can easily identify the detail of whatever skill you want to develop. You can then deconstruct it and analyse/learn the technique the author uses.
Lesson Three: Objective feedback is a gift
I remember the first time I got real feedback. It hurt like a bitch and crushed me into a sobbing hysterical wreck. I nearly quit writing for good. But then I realised my terrible mistake. I’d given them a first draft to look at and everyone knows (although I didn’t back then) all first drafts are shit.
I mean, it didn’t really matter, because I was ignorant and assumed I’d be the one that could write something that wasn’t dog turd on a first draft. I was wrong. I didn’t just write dog turd, I wrote fly infested rat shit. I also NEVER showed anyone a first draft again!
After I finished crying like a wuss and licking my wounds I took the feedback out again. I read it. Read it again and read it some more after that. Then I listened. I edited, I changed and I tweaked. I got better.
I’m not saying all feedback is right, but if it comes from the right source, it is more than worth it. And that’s why I said ‘objective’. Friends, family and general ‘readers’ don’t know writing like writers do. It’s not that their feedback is any less valuable, but writers critique in ways non-writers just don’t.
That’s why I use two critiquing services:
But I just recently used Joan Dempsey’s service too. She has an awesome newsletter which I recommend signing up to here: Joan’s newsletter. It’s filled with helpful resources and revising techniques as well as providing updates as to when her service is open to new clients.
I can honestly say both their feedback has been off the freaking chart invaluable. If you want to get better, that’s a sure fire way to do it.
Lesson Four: Benchmark
I hate that I’ve sullied my blog by using the phrase ‘bench marking,’ because it’s the kind of mind numbing buzz word I dish out at work as often as I send emails.
Much to my horror, it fits. So stick with me.
Everyone tells you to ‘read’ your genre. But no one actually tells you what the bumblefuck that really means.
I’ve consumed a ridiculous amount of YA books. But I didn’t learn a thing. Not till I realised I should be benchmarking.
And by benchmark, I don’t mean compare yourself. No. No. That’s worse for your writing career than a pint of arsenic and a double hand amputation. At work, when we bench mark, what we actually do is look at specific ‘things’ other organisations do. We take a project, process or service they run and deconstruct to see why they are so good at it.
The same logic applies to books in your genre. Before you read, decide what you want to learn from them. I’ll use YA as an example. YA’s think differently than adults. They have less experience and more hormones, so one of the things I look for is how YA writers portray protagonists emotions and decision making processes.
Every time I spot an emotive section in a novel or a section where a YA character has either formed a conclusion or made a decision, I’ll highlight it, and then come back to it at the end to analyse what they have done.
More often than not, I will then compare how a couple of authors have done it. The commonalities between them are the things I know I need to include. The differences are stylistic and therefore unique to that author.
Lesson Five: Benchmark Everything Else
Covers, prices, back of the book blurbs, book length, chapter length, popular themes in books blah, blah, blah. I make hoarders look tidy with the amount of shit I collect.
Collect it so you know your market. 80% of a writers job is marketing these days. What’s out there. What’s been over done? Where are the gaps in the market? and what’s popular?
Cover collection is one of my faves. There are key ‘styles’ in genre book covers, it’s how a fantasy reader can spot a new fantasy book on a bookshelf from half a library away.
If you collect them and examine their basic construct, you can decide whether you want to step in line or buck the trend and stick your finger up to conformity.
Lesson Six: Make Writing Friends
No matter how supportive your friends and family are, there are just some things they don’t get. Like why a spike in stats or sign ups is awesome. Or what the pain of the 18th edit is like.
If you want to stay sane, you need writing friends. Besides, who else is going to read you 6th draft of the same paragraph with only one preposition change?
Lesson Seven: Time
Unless you’re privileged enough to write full time, no matter how many pissing charts and to do lists you write, everything takes much, MUCH, MUCH longer than you think. End of story.
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