I’ve written six novels and every one is a different kind of challenge. First there was the sci-fi/fantasy epic, then the historical romance. Eventually, there was a book about unicorns (!). Whatever you’re writing, you want to bring more to it, your whole soul, experience, heart, and humor… if you can.
Here’s a few lessons I’ve learned, and then a few books I recommend.
Lessons From an Outsider Novelist
- Write what you love. This means to me both write in the categories and styles that interest you and then work of the specific project that you can’t stop thinking about, stop working on, or stop dreaming about. If you chase what’s popular you’re doing yourself and the world a disservice; the world is always on the lookout for the next LOTR or Star Wars, not the iterations and certainly not the knockoffs. When you write what you love, you have the best chance of bringing something amazing to this world.
- Stalk the gaps. In the same vain, look for the areas where you’re shocked (shocked!) that there’s not more people writing in that space (where’s the Ancient Greek cozy mystery series? According to Google, you need to write it). Every book I’ve written I would have been happy to read, but it wasn’t out there. Now it is.
- Ask for advice and feedback, then be prepared to ignore it. If need be. From the very beginning, I had people who didn’t understand what I was trying to do or they wanted to turn my writing into their own style. That’s okay; that’s human. But I let their feedback go. Meanwhile, I got great feedback from other people and learned and grew so much as a young author. To me, the questions to ask are: Did I ask for their feedback? Do they care about me and my work and have my best interests at heart? Do I like their style or do we like the same things? And finally, do their suggestions make sense to me and make me excited about improving the work? Good feedback is worth it’s weight in gold.
- Just enjoy the journey of writing. A novel is a big thing. My first one took me eight years to complete. Don’t be bogged down by the enormity of the task. Instead just revel in each day’s work.
- ‘Don’t write that scene in the police station!’ You know the one. The one I wrote for my first screenplay. The exposition scene that bored me to tears but I thought I must have. After I deleted those four pages, I learned a valuable lesson that day which I will now share with you (maybe one of the most valuable things on the site) — If it doesn’t interest you, DON’T WRITE IT. Not one chapter, not one scene, not even a line. If you aren’t into it, skip it, then move onto the next thing you’re excited about. You’ll probably find your story is more interesting and better paced without it.
- God bless the rewriting process. It frees you up to really be open and crazy and follow some larks (the opposite of the ‘police station scene’ is having some wacky idea and allowing it to lead you astray for a few pages [which probably will become the best part of your book]). And after a very free and loose first draft you’ll have many drafts later to improve and polish.
- If people love your characters, you’re home free. That’s not to impugn the value of plot, structure, lyricism or anything else, but people love to read about people (and people-like entities) and I suggest you focus a lot of your energies there. I have a whole section on this, my favorite topic, so I won’t hash it out any further.
- The more of yourself you share, the more people will connect. This doesn’t mean your characters have to have your same weaknesses or your same history, but it means… they wonder that the things you wonder at. And you should love the weirdness that you secretly love out loud. On the page. Let your characters speak the dark fears of your soul — and also be infatuated with this world with a brightness you’re embarrassed to admit to.
- Be influenced by everything. Early on, Stephen King, Douglas Adams, and Dave Barry made up the triangle of my influences, but today I find everything does. A new article, a bird, a poem, a feeling from a moment in time. In a more constructive way, read genres different than your own, read screenplays and poems, old books and new. Let everything capture your imagination and become your teacher.
- Look at everything as a lesson. If you watch a movie you hate, what was missing? How could it have been transformed into a favorite? If a character seems weak in your novel, how are you writing them differently than your favorite character? Use everything around you, the good and the bad as a fount of potential knowledge — drink in all the lessons you can.
Great General Writing Books
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland — Brenda said, ‘Everyone is talented, original , and has something important to say.’ So true!
On Writing by Stephen King — A great book and I still think about his suggestions often — read it!
Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers — It’s been awhile since read this one, but there is a beauty and urgency to the way he talks about the writing life.
Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Orson Scott Card — I learned a TON early on from him about both of the subjects in the title.
The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman — I’ve been at talks by him and he’s a wonderful editor and writer.