November 2, 2014
SEVEN TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS
1. READ A LOT, ESPECIALLY WORKS SIMILAR TO YOUR OWN. More than anything else, my writing style has been influenced by early Clive Cussler works, which I devoured. Now, Clive doesn’t write historical novels, though his books contain historical flashbacks. But he taught me how to keep a story constantly moving forward, and how to tell a rip-roaring adventure without profanity. I’ve been discouraged over the last decade or so how heavy-duty profanity (read: the f-word) has invaded mainstream fiction and journalism as well. There is no heavy-duty profanity in any of my novels, and there never will be. To those who use it, a question: how does that make the story better?
I still read other authors’ novels to see how I compare. The answer is, usually pretty well. But I often learn things that will improve my own work. Since I write historical fiction, I recently read a huge John Jakes novel about California (California Gold). Though I wasn’t terribly impressed, it was time well spent, because it showed me how I can improve my next book’s opening scene.
2. MAKE EACH WORK BETTER THAN YOUR LAST. That has been my goal from the beginning, and I believe it should be yours. Now, there are a bunch of authors out there who have found a formula that works (in other words, it sells), and they write at the same level book after book. Why mess with success, I guess. Well, if it comes down to money, I suppose they have a point. But it’s not for me. I’m not happy if my last book wasn’t better than the one before. My next should be better yet. So should yours, no matter how successful your publishing track record becomes.
3. BE TRANSPARENT IN YOUR WRITING. DON’T CALL ATTENTION TO YOURSELF AS THE WRITER. Your readers should forget you’re there as the creator, and get involved with your characters instead. Clumsy phrasing, excessive descriptive passages, too much telling rather than showing—these call attention to the author at work, and serve to pull the reader away from the story. There are many other ways the author could show his hand, but again this is where reading the works of successful authors is so valuable.
4. DON’T EXPLAIN WHAT YOUR CHARACTERS ARE FEELING, AND WHY. LET THEM TELL IT BY THEIR WORDS AND ACTIONS. Once you create your characters and establish their personas, turn them loose; give them some freedom within your plot framework. As often as not, they’ll take you in directions you did not anticipate. This, for me, is one of the things that keep writing fun. My characters often come up with something surprising, putting a new twist on things. If you spend a lot of prose telling what they’re feeling and why, this can put a damper on the story and again, reveal your hand as the author. Make your readers forget you’re there!
Often I have begun a scene not knowing where it was going, but my well-established characters and their particular personality traits wrote the lines for me. Let your characters do the talking; they may take you down a new path. Now, that’s fun!
5. MAKE YOUR PROSE LEAN. Now, if there’s one thing I hate in fiction, it’s filler. You know, a lot of dialogue meant, I guess, to establish the scene, such as two women sitting around the kitchen table, talking about little Johnny’s baseball team and little Susie’s ballet lessons. Here I can only guess this is supposed to establish the characters as normal people. Boring! When I read stuff like this, I’m thinking, GET ON WITH THE STORY! My goal is to have EVERY LINE of narration or dialogue serve to advance the story. If it doesn’t, I don’t need it. And you can see this in my novels. The prose is lean and purposeful. This is a lesson I learned early on from an agent whose rejection included advice that I simply had too many words I didn’t need. I sat down and eliminated 6,000 words, and my writing was much improved.
6. WRITE CHARACTERS PEOPLE WILL CARE ABOUT. I have read too many novels with main characters who were jerks. I don’t know what the authors were trying to do; but they certainly didn’t engage my sympathy. I didn’t care what happened to the characters. You’ll get readers much more involved with your book if you arouse sympathy and emotion in the reader. I want readers to fear when my characters are in danger, to shed a tear for them when they’re in anguish, to cheer for them when they triumph. When I have a reader tell me she was afraid to read the last chapter of one of my books because she feared something was going to happen to my heroine, I know I’ve succeeded. When my readers tell me they’re going through a box or two of tissue reading the end of my latest novel, I know I’ve done what I wanted. (Maybe I should be getting royalties from the tissue maker companies). What’s one way to create such characters? I saw a poster once that said, “Real heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things”. That sums it up pretty good. My female characters are not superwomen; they’re pretty much normal but with some unusual traits: an utter fearlessness in the face of danger, an unyielding determination to achieve their goals, and sometimes, volcanic tempers. It is these traits that get them into trouble and drive the plots.
7. NEVER STOP BELIEVING IN YOURSELF. Some writers will say they go from believing they’re fantastic one day to believing they’re truly horrible the next. I’ve rarely had that problem. I’ve alway believed I had something going with my writing, even in the face of mounting rejection slips. Yes, I learn from the rejections, and study hard to improve. But with each rejection slip, my attitude is that it isn’t me that has a problem, it’s the publishing industry! Will they ever wake up and recognize my talent? Time will tell. But I’ll never stop believing. And neither should you. Keep writing.