People often ask me what advice I’d give new writers. Here are the two misconceptions I find myself tackling most frequently
1 Rules give you cookie-cutter books
On Facebook the other day, an indie author asked me for feedback on her back cover (bear with me, this is about writing, not covers or indie publishing). Having recently designed my own back cover I’d figured out what worked and what didn’t, so I could see quite a lot that wasn’t right about her back cover. After offering specific pointers, one of the things I recommended she did was look at books that would potentially be her shelf-mates in her genre and follow their style. She replied: ‘I feel my book shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter version of all the others… you know?’
I do indeed know. You are absolutely right that your book is not part of a set of tablemats. It is its own thing, written with heartfelt sincerity and mined from your perceptions and experiences. You have delved deep to make it individual and true to itself. It is not meant to fit in. It was written to stand out.
But if you throw all the rules away and try to reinvent what a back cover should look like, from scratch, unless you’re a genius you’re likely to end up with a mess.
And so it is with writing. This is the age-old problem for creatives everywhere. We don’t want rules. Of course we don’t. We make our books from nothing but the ideas in our very individual grey matter. We want to make something beyond rules. But many of the stories I see that don’t work because of the same generic problems.
Writing rules don’t fetter you. They are observations of what works. Think of them not as templates and strictures, but as the results of experiments, on millions of readers. Knowing the rules means you can use your material to write, more effectively, a great book.
You’ll have characters that readers care about. A story that unfolds at a pace that keeps their interest. A reason why the story has to be as long as it is, rather than a plot that seems contrived to fill pages. Surprises that are astonishing but play fair. An ending that feels satisfying and perhaps leaves the reader with a tear in the eye.
All because you did what other writers did.
2 The book is finished when you type The End
The first draft is just a first draft. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this: ‘I’m five chapters away from the end of my book, then I can send it out.’ Please: no.
Writers often think that because their sentences are careful and fluent, their novel is ready. But a novel isn’t an essay or a blog post. Under the words, there’s a whole machine that needs to run right.
So much of the valuable work on a novel can only be done once you have a full manuscript. Themes will take shape, plotlines will need to be destruction tested. Pacing and flow need to be assessed. Inconsistencies need to be sorted out, timelines unwarped. Characters may have developed their own agendas and you may need to revise the way you set them up. Motivations and developments that only revealed themselves to you in the course of the writing may now change the entire flavour of the book. When you finish the first draft, hard as that is, the real work starts. (There’s a lot more on this in my book Nail Your Novel.)
Repeat after me: your first draft is not your final draft.
Quick, but not insignificant announcement: I’m teaming up with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn to produce a webinar series starting in November. How to write a novel will be three in-depth, interactive sessions from bestselling me and bestselling her. Cost $99. Find more details and sign up here.
And My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hop over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
Okay, back to the post. First of all, thanks Toucanradio for the pic. And here’s my question: If you’ve got a bit of writing experience under your belt, tell me – what writers’ misconceptions would you tackle?
30 thoughts on “2 misconceptions of new writers”
I agree with you whole heartily on both points, especially the last one. I’ve only read two books by indie writers and both had grammatical errors. It kills me because first off, the books are otherwise incredible. Secondly, my book may not be suited for traditional publishing because it is part of an inseparable set and agents don’t like to look at multiple submissions so I don’t like that self-published books almost always start off on a bad foot because these mistakes get published.
Hello Ermilia. Grammar, spelling… don’t get me started. Too many writers stridently argue today that these don’t matter. In fact, good grammar and spelling silently establish your reputation as trustworthy and professional. Anyone who’s worked in publishing knows this, and most other folk know it on an instinctive level.
I can’t imagine thinking my book was done after that first draft. Grammatical errors aside (and NO ONE can catch their own), we are too married to the words to be able to see the problems. We’ve read them so many times our brain skips over them. My critique partner found so many little things that made me slap my forehead. I think indie publishing is a great option and it’s wonderful that it’s such a growing movement, but in order for those writers to gain cred, they’ve got to get help policing their work. And I think the majority realize that. I think a lot of self-pub’d books get shunted aside early because of those errors, no matter how great the plot sounds.
Hi Stacy – actually some people can catch their own slips… But I totally agree that critique partners are important. We often don’t realise how a story is coming across – usually because we’ve spent so long sorting out major problems that no one else will never get to see.
But this isn’t a post only for indie writers. It’s for everyone. People send their novel off to agents and publishers when the pixels are barely solidified on the words ‘the end’.
Thanks for saying it out loud. ‘Your first draft is not your final draft.’
Many authors on line talk about writing a novel or two a year.
How do they do it?
I’m probably a snail, but it took me four drafts and five years to finish mine, and it was an all absorbing experience bordering on obsession.
Denise, I don’t know how people write that quickly. I’m a snail too – but part of it is what I choose to write. They are the kinds of novels that need a lot of mulling and shaping. I’m only just emerging from the obsession of the last book. I know exactly what you mean.
Being original doesn’t mean you ignore the rules. It means you find ways to make your work original within those constraints. Artists who balk at the idea of rules should study the blues.
The blues have a very specific structure. You can stretch it a bit in different directions, but if you get too far away from it, it stops being the blues and becomes something else. Staying inside that structure isn’t constricting to a blues artist. It provides a map with room for infinite exploration. The music of John Lee Hooker, BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughan are recognizably distinct and original without ever leaving the blues structure.
Aye, Hittman; aye. ‘A map with space for infinite exploration’ – that is exactly it. Well said.
Oh, I don’t think I have much to add to this, Roz; it’s so comprehensive and clear. 🙂
I will say that I especially loved this line of yours regarding plot: “Surprises that are astonishing but play fair.” It reminds me of what the late Jack Bickham would say: “unexpected but logical.”
Hello Paul – how nice to see you here! ‘Unexpected but logical’ – that’s dead right.
I agree about both the rules and the fact that no story can end with the first draft. Stacy, I couldn’t agree with you more. Even Stephen King can’t catch all of his grammar errors! Ernest Hemingway said that a great book isn’t written, it is rewritten. But I think we also need to join together as writers and review each others work and give honest appraisals on what we see. Many of us don’t have the money to hire someone to help us, so what should we do? Once we have manuscript we personally think is perfect, I think each of us needs to join up with another equally skilled writer and combing over each others work. I made the mistake of publishing my work when I thought it was perfect only to discover when others read it that it had not just grammatical errors, but it had technical errors as well. It had a great, relevant story line, critics felt like I took them right into the scene. I wished I would have gotten the critic before I published.
Donna, that’s a great line to quote about Hemingway. And you’re right – we all need to build up critique partners whose opinions and tastes we trust.
Excellent idea. I’m lucky enough to have a great critique partner and a best friend that’s brutally honest as well as a reading/writing professor and a grammar diva. She’s excellent. I think having trusted partner is crucial, especially since many of us can’t afford big time editors.
“Your first draft is not your final draft.”
When I first read that line, my reaction was, “Duh. Who would think that it could be?” Have you actually run across writers who stop after the first draft and consider the book done? If so, yikes!
I don’t even publish a blog post without applying the overnight rule (wait until the next day and then do a revision pass before hitting that “publish” button.)
As for writing rules, it doesn’t make sense to NOT take advantage of the lessons learned by people a lot smarter people than me who have gone before. Anyone who takes their writing seriously must learn what it means to be a writer. That means learning about the proven tools and techniques of the trade. Only after you learn the rules do you dare break them. At that point, breaking the rules is a strategic decision with understood risk, not an emotional reaction to feeling confined. When it comes to your readers, you’ll find that ignorance of the rules is no excuse.
FYI, good luck with your webinar series with Joanna. Does it help that she’s on your side of the pond now?
Duh, Daniel you would be surprised. Yes, I have but I can’t say any more because they might read this.
Breaking rules… yes, your point is excellently made. And when broken under those conditions, the result is much more effective.
The webinars… thank you! She’s not just this side of the pond but the hemisphere. Even funnier, she’s just up the road from me. I often go running and my habitual route takes me past her street – and I’m often listening to her podcasts at the time!
I’d agree that the first draft shouldn’t be the published draft. I know that my stuff desperately needs revision–some of it more than others.
That said, some of the writers who don’t do many revisions are competent, published professionals. Within science fiction, two names that are famous for it it are Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Asimov supposedly did two drafts, the first draft, and a second that was basically for proofreading.
Heinlein’s attitude was to only revise if your editor required it.
Sometimes I think that certain works of theirs needed a little more revision. Sometimes as I do that, I also note that they’re among the most influential names in their genre.
Both came out of the days of the pulps though–the period in which a writer could actually survive writing lots of short stories. I can imagine the period shaped their attitudes toward revision.
Whatever the case, I doubt I could get away with it.
Sorry if I implied that an experienced author can’t produce a near-publishable book in the first draft. I got the impression from Roz’s example that she was talking about an author who had not been previously published, so my comments referred to newbie authors (like me).
Larry Brooks and Randy Ingermanson, two of my fiction-writing heroes, both claim to have developed a system that lets them produce a first draft that is suitable for submission to a publisher (and have successfully done so). So, yes, I believe it can be done!
I don’t see myself ever getting to that point. I try not to edit as I go, so I would not be able to resist going back over the entire work after completing it. And if I did that, I would not be able to resist editing and revising it. That’s at least two drafts right there.
To each his/her own process.
I write in a white-hot fever. I rewrite in a cold sweat.
You may quote me wildly on that.
It’s the kind of thing I will quote wildly – and honestly!
Thank you for relaying valuable and forthright information to new authors like me. I will save this post for reference while writing my second novel. It’s great to hear that you are teaming up with The Creative Pen!
Thanks, Alle! I’ve been a longtime fan of Joanna’s podcasts and I’ve guested on a couple of her shows too. If you look in the sidebar you can see them… Best of luck with your novels.
It took me forever to figure out that following the rules was the only way you could ever be allowed to bend the rules. And UGH I just finished the first draft of a Novel – it’s my favorite part and I hate editing… wah! But now that I’ve been editing one book, I really see how much I *need* subsequent drafts.
Thanks, Eritta! Hopefully it will get easier and more fun from now on!
Terrific advice, Roz! I suppose I’d add this: “writer’s block” is not part of the job description. I’ve had numerous people ask how I manage it…simply put, I don’t. 😉 I do respect that many writers feel blocked at certain points; however, years as a journalist has helped me hone the skill of taking deadlines and my work seriously. (No time to wait for the muse…!)
So glad Gene Lempp led me to your blog. It’s a goodie!
Hi August – that’s a good one. I’m a journalist too and one thing that teaches you is that you manage somehow.
Wave to Gene for me!
All your posts have been helpful. I need to get your book. Then I can highlight it up and have it on hand whenever I need it! Thanks for all the amazing advice.
This is a really great article that all new writers should read, so I recommended it on my blog for beginning writers.