I get a lot of requests for writing advice. While that brings the boys (readers) to the yard (blog) like crazy, I have always resisted that route to boost my blog hits because there are many qualified people out there talking writing, and those are the blogs you should go to.
Here are some random tips that have been rolling in my unqualified head the last year.
1. Snacks are important when writing. Do not skimp here. Do you really want to sacrifice your book just because you went with off brand cereal instead of REAL Fruity Pebbles?
2. The quality of your space is important. Through trial and error, learn what spatial elements energize you. I like natural light, my feet off the floor, little to no noise, and someone nearby fanning me with palm fronds.
3. Get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour. I usually use this time to go to the fridge.
4. Use time in a way that is for you and not against you. I am painfully motivated by a deadline, the imaginary ticking of a clock. One of the most effective things I've discovered is writing sprints, where another author and I will start at a set time and write for an hour, with the goal to write 1k words. We're in such a rush that we don't have time to stop and edit or agonize over every sentence. I've written some world class crap during this time, but crap is editable. (Writers Digest, you have my permission to use that poetic quote.) Another idea is to set a timer for 30 minutes or an hour. Write like mad until you hear the beep. Sometimes I use this technique for house cleaning as well. It's been suggested that I use it for ice cream consumption, but that's just a rude idea. You can't put a time on Chunky Monkey.
5. Read. A lot. Read in your genre, read outside of your genre. I think a lot of people make excuses about this one. Everyone has limited time. But I've learned more about writing from reading fiction than I've ever learned from reading books on writing. If you think you are the exception, please hear these words: YOU ARE NOT. Use that library card. Dust off that Kindle.
6. Discuss these books you've read. Brain research says one of the best ways to process/absorb new info is to discuss or write about it. Have a friend or two who are willing to listen to you babble on about that latest YA or rom-com you just read. Author Natalie Lloyd reads a lot of YA, and we have literary interests in common. We both like commercial lit, strong writing, strong covers. We like to analyze all of the above. I always like to hear what author/speaker Marybeth Whalen has to say about Southern lit. I get a charge from discussing books with my students, from classics to Hunger Games. And librarians are great folks to talk books. Join a book club. It's been very eye-opening for me to hear what a group of women liked or didn't like about a book. (Example: 95 percent of us thoroughly disliked a book that has few bad reviews and was a NYT best-seller.)
7. Don't let number six disintegrate into negativity. Even though I'm on an indefinite hiatus, I'm really working on not playing the Comparison Game. This is a tough industry and the waters seem to be choppy for a new reason every day. It's easy to read Publisher's Weekly and see the deal reports or read Twitter humblebrags (one of my new favorite terms) and get negative. Satan wants me jealous, envious, mean, and tacky. He wants me to hold up the success of others in my right hand while clutching my own failures in my left. This is a quick way to get real unhappy real fast. If necessary, get an accountability partner for this. Don't underestimate the power-suckage of the comparison game.
8. Promote and encourage others. If someone tweets about a book, I always look it up on Amazon. If the author tweets about her book, I rarely look it up. Word of Mouth is powerful, but if it's only coming from you, how effective is it? Plus who wants to be the author who only talks about herself, her books?
9. Use social media in pro-reader sort of way.
If all you're doing is selling to me with your 12 tweets an hour, I'm not even reading your posts. The folks I follow, whose posts I actually read, engage with people and interact. Or at least offer some entertainment value. We all have different agendas, but not being obnoxious is high on my list. If being on Twitter gets me 200 more in book sales, but I've annoyed half my friends and followers by constantly ringing their internet door bell, then it's not worth it. Integrity first. Sales second. (Actually integrity first, fajitas second, sales third…)
10. Attend conferences or fake-attend conferences. There is a large conference that happens every summer that I've yet to go to. Instead, I fork over about 125.00 and get the entire conference on mp3. It's so worth it. I can listen to all the classes, skip the ones I don't want (like the ones where the author reads her entire session verbatim from a legal pad), and hear agents and editors discuss what they're looking for. For this I recommend ACFW and RWA. If you write nonfiction (or both), also check out Mt. Hermon, which I believe still does conference recordings.
11. Get out of your head, your cubicle, your office.
You'd be surprised how many ideas will be naturally generated by just stepping away from the norm. Going to a Civil War reenactment a few weeks ago was not something I usually do. I'd never done that. Last week I went to a senior citizen event to see the Army field band and choir with my sweet neighbor. For more ideas on this see The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron and check out the section on “dates with yourself.”
12. Watch movies. If they're done right, they should have the same general story structure as a well-plotted novel. And they only have so many minutes to do that in, so they focus on the big moments and the most important dialogue. For more info read the highly recommended Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder.
13. Unpublished? Consider contests for the sake of cheap feedback. If you're going to a conference, purchase paid critiques if available. You will never get the chance for professional feedback for so cheap a price.
14. Make your book stand out. I read a lot of books, and I see a lot of contest entries. I'm no literary genius, but I've noticed a common pattern in the ones that grab me. If you want your story to stand out, make sure:
A. Your dialogue snaps. Movies are great examples for this. Weak or even average dialogue is a killer. Is there tension in your dialogue? Is there fun or sizzle in your dialogue? Does it sound like people you know–do your characters sound real? (Warning: embarrassing admission coming…) A good book with good dialogue compels me to read the dialogue out loud like I'm the star in a movie. I know some of you do that too. If I MUST hear it out loud, then that's good dialogue. Study those books that give you that reaction.
B. You have well-developed characters. What are your favorite books? Think about the characters. Who are the characters who you still thought about after you'd turned the final page? What did you love about them? I have a favorite author who is an auto-buy for me. She usually knocks it out of the park, but not always. But her readers, who are a mega-group of faithful followers, will forgive a lot because even if the plot is lacking, you had a good time with her characters.
C. You have a significant inciting incident. Start off with a bang and never let off. The stakes have to be high right from the beginning. Writer folks sometimes call this putting your character up a tree. Put that character in hot water immediately. It should be an interesting struggle to unwrap the tangle she/he has gotten herself into. Your reader shouldn't read the first 30 pages and be able to ask, “Who cares?” Go big.
D. Your voice is in the narrative. Don't just show your stuff in the dialogue. Your narrative shouldn't be filler–it should be just as interesting. This is usually the stuff we readers skim, but it doesn't have to be. Even if you're not writing first person (where it's easy to interject a character's personality), much of the non-dialogue prose should be just as engaging. Is your voice there? We need to see the scene through the characters' voice, not yours. If you're writing a comedy, is your narrative humorous? This is not just a time to tell me what color the curtains are. There aren't a lot of authors who do this, but those are the authors who have hooked me for life. Imagine Rick Castle going to McDonalds and ordering breakfast at 10:31 a.m. just as a bus pulls up that reads, “Pearl's School of Drag Queenery.” You would describe the sights, smells, sounds much differently as Castle (snark, wry commentary, keen observation, irreverence, twisted joy) than you would if you were observing it through the eyes of Queen Elizabeth.
If you are tired, worn out, burned out, niced-out, take a break. You are no good to your readers if the idea of coming up with another plot makes you want to step in front of rush hour traffic. Taking a break has been one of the scariest, yet one of the best things I've ever done. It's given me new ideas, some clarity, and helped me get realistic about where I've been and where I want to go. Maybe you need a shorter break. Don't take that manuscript on vacation with you. Don't think about it when you have your kid's birthday party. If you find yourself not present, not in the moment in your own life, then it's time to step back and get some perspective and create some boundaries. If I'm miserable, then something's wrong, something's off-kilter.
15. Respect the call.
If you feel that God has called you to write, then pursue it. If this is you, know that Fear is currently doing Boot Camp, P90X, CrossFit, and anabolic steroids to get tough and stand in your way. If there is a voice in your head saying, “This is for other people,” get the book The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson. There is a difference in fear talking and God talking. Sometimes God says no. But until you're sure it's the Big G, then keep pushing.
Writing is a frustrating, hard business. If a good book's in you, then you gotta keep going.
Any questions about writing? The biz? Any suggestions for fellow writers?
These tips have been brought to you by a rainy Spring Break and Jenny B. Jones.