Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
At the turn of a new calendar year, we typically make plans for the new year, at least for the next months. We may also look back at the year that has passed to see if the plans we made twelve months earlier were completed or amended or even pushed aside in favor of other events.
As always, I’m here to encourage you to write. To learn more about writing. To learn the intricacies of rewriting and editing.
I also want to encourage you to read simply for pleasure. When I get caught up with work, my time for reading goes way down. But if I don’t read for a couple of weeks—and I’m talking reading strictly for fun and pleasure and not for editing—then I start to feel it. If I live too long in my real world with all its delights and difficulties and challenges without delving into imaginary worlds and the problems of imagined characters, then I get a bit anxious.
If I read newspapers and magazines and news reports every day and lose myself in real events without tempering my reading with imagined events, I get out of sorts. Maybe off balance. Cranky.
I need my fiction.
As soon as I read a couple of books back to back, I’ve restored my equilibrium, and I’m feeling quite normal again.
Do you get that way too? If you’ve been writing and studying the craft but haven’t been reading, let me suggest that you take some time to indulge your need for fiction. Getting away into an imaginary world can help us see the 3-D world in new ways and can help solve our real-world dilemmas. Reading fiction can also quite simply just make us feel good.
I’ve missed writing blog posts the past few weeks—between editing and family needs and the holidays, I simply ran out of hours. I’m certain that the same happened for many of you.
You didn’t get to work on your writing projects as you’d planned or as you’d wanted to. But don’t worry—they’re still there waiting to be finished.
I want to take a moment to encourage you to write and to think beyond just one book. Yes, you do want to focus enough to finish one. But don’t think that one will be your only book. Imagine yourself finishing the one and starting another. Look beyond a single project.
Several of my clients completed multiple books this past year, keeping them and me exceptionally busy the last quarter of the year. I want to congratulate them for their dedication and for the quality of their work. They pressed in and pressed on and completed the tasks they’d set themselves. I’m honored to have been a part of their teams.
I congratulate you as well for your successes this past year. Whether you completed one manuscript or a series or simply jumped into the novel-writing world for the first time, you moved beyond where you’d been at this time last year.
I hope you learned something you hadn’t known. I hope you strengthened a skill, maybe did away with a bad writing habit. I hope you met a character who moved you so much that you created a world around him or her and started to write about that world.
I hope that when you discovered or rediscovered that writing is work that you stayed with it anyway, pushing against discouragement until your page count went from 10 to 40 and then to 100 and more.
I’m not saying that writing isn’t fun or isn’t rewarding, because we know that it’s both. But reworking a scene for the tenth time can be frustrating. Rewriting an ending, changing it completely, after you’d been dreaming of the original for years is hard. Changing plot events or characters because they no longer fit the story that finally emerged is painful. Writing well, creating a seamless and compelling story, is hard work.
But that moment when everything in a story clicks, that’s so deeply satisfying. I hope you enjoyed many of those moments last year and will enjoy many more this next year.
I hope your characters fit together in ways that surprised you, that events and setting came together in ways that had you pumping your fist and wanting to break out the champagne. I hope that word choices turned a so-so story into a work of beauty and strength.
And I truly hope that you clicked with your story as well, that you, with all your plans and dreams and skills and complexities came into union with your writing projects.
Sometimes what makes a story click isn’t the right character or a perfect scene or a motivation that nails the protagonist’s reason to exist. Sometimes what makes a story click has to do with you, the writer.
Sometimes the eureka moment in a story’s progress is when you recognize that you need to let go of some of your cherished beliefs about the story’s plot events and characters and let them be what they need to be to make the story shine.
This is one of the toughest obstacles new writers face, the point at which they could insist on a story going the way they’d imagined it in their minds for months (or years) or when they change direction because they realize that the needs of the story are different from what they’d been imagining and they choose to follow the path that will create the strongest story.
If you’re a new writer, I hope that when you reached that point this past year that you recognized that letting go of your long-held plans for your story would make a stronger work. That you didn’t fight too long to get your own way when you saw that something different would make a better character or scene or book.
If you’re a long-time writer, I hope that you encouraged new writers through that change point, that hurdle that moves a writer beyond doing only what he wants and into the realm of writing that opens him to what the story needs.
If you’re a new writer and don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll just say that you’ll soon know. Someone—or a handful of someones—will read a section of your story and make a suggestion about a character or plot event. And your first reaction will be to argue that you couldn’t possibly change that character or event. That event or character may have been the seed, the very impetus, for the whole story, so you couldn’t imagine altering it. Or the section of text may contain some of your favorite phrases, your best writing, and of course you couldn’t possibly change such beautiful writing.
You may not want to change something that has been dear to you for so long.
But you should. You should at least be open to the possibility of change.
If changing any story element makes the entire story stronger or more involving or harder hitting, make the change. If readers suggest that a story element is out of place or awkward or just plain wrong, do give the suggestion consideration, especially if your reader is a writer as well.
Unless you’ve asked your enemy to read your work, it’s not likely that readers are seeking to damage the story. They are telling you where they had a problem.
And no, a problem doesn’t always mean an overhaul of a scene or character. But it might. If a trusted reader tells you that a character’s personality or motivation to act doesn’t work for the story, listen to that reader. And see if a change, even if it means a change to something you hold dear, won’t take care of the issue.
You want to move past the point where you get defensive about suggestions regarding your work.
If your beta readers or critique partners can’t be honest with you—if you react negatively to all suggestion or criticism—don’t expect them to offer suggestions that will help with foundational issues. Don’t expect them to ever want to help you. If you say you want help, be open to real help. Move beyond the point where you expect only unqualified praise.
You don’t always have to make a change just because one is suggested. Yet you should be open to the possibility that a change may strengthen a scene or character or event. Like it or not, our first impulses regarding our fiction won’t always be the best. Actually, it’s likely that our first options aren’t the best. Ask any inventor if his first edition of anything was the best; it’s not likely that a prototype is better than version 65. When you write, be open to making changes, even to your most cherished characters or plot events and scenes. If you’re unwilling to make changes, make your attitude toward your work a goal for this year.
I encourage you to dream big for 2014 and then take steps toward making your dreams a reality. Finishing a first draft by October probably won’t become a reality if you don’t start writing now. Being published by Christmas won’t happen if you don’t get busy writing or rewriting or editing, whatever is next on your list.
If you’ve got to do some research, realize that it shouldn’t take up the majority of your allotted time for writing a book. And keep in mind that you don’t have to finish your research before you begin writing. If your protagonist is a jeweler, don’t imagine you have to know everything about his craft before you begin writing. Your character does a lot more than work at his craft—get him going and involved in his adventure. You can always fill in the blanks regarding his profession later.
And while we’re talking about research, keep in mind that your lead characters’ back stories will be much more important for you than for your readers. That is, you won’t include most of what you know about your characters, not in an unfolding and forward-moving story. Yes, you’ll share some details. But a character’s background and experiences will help you write the character in a realistic way; they shouldn’t be painted onto the page in broad strokes in ways that the reader will note them, as though they need to keep a tally of the information.
You need to make a character’s past relevant to the present. You need to portray a character’s personality without merely providing a list of his likes and dislikes. You need to make a character clear without dumping info, whole and undigested, into your readers’ laps.
Wherever you are in your writing, set yourself some goals. Realize that you might not meet some. Understand that not meeting them is okay.
But do make some plans. If you intend to have at least one manuscript finished by the end of the year, understand that you need to begin now.
Consider adding something new to your goals—taking a class, traveling, starting a new hobby. Opening yourself to something different can also open your writing to new possibilities and open you to new ways of looking at characters, setting, genre, dialogue, and plot. Don’t limit yourself to what you already know and do—explore the unknown. Let the power and thrill of discovery color your stories so your readers will also enjoy the thrill of discovery through your words.
Write something fresh this year. Write well. Bring the bold and new to your fiction.