Lessons Learned so Far

Status: Eastlight is complete! First query letters are off. The first rejection is in. Now we play the waiting game.

I was really flattered yesterday when someone asked me what he should do to start writing a book. I felt a bit like an imposter, as I haven’t published my novel, but I do think I have figured a few things out. Here are the things I am applying to my own work.

Write. This one is standard advice. You’ll read it anywhere. To write well, you need to write as often as you can. I’d take it a step farther and say that you need to write with a structured approach. Be free form to get it down, but try to keep it in my mind that the work has to make sense to other people. In fantasy we have a tendency to spin out worlds that to us are intricately detailed, with lots of juicy side-trips, but that same book needs to translate into something a reader can engage. My friend Alan says that I “have a hard time seeing the trees for the forest, and my forest is deep and lush.” He’s referring to my tendency to build an entire world, when the reader only needs the part they’re exploring. So I’ve been cutting a lot of these details out and saving them for later journeys.

Grammar. This is one I’ve seen pushed aside in a lot of the creative writing courses I’ve taken. The idea is that writing is intimidating, and grammar more so, therefore it’s important to just write and not worry about grammar, which is something you can bolt in later. I think of grammar and the language itself as the operating system. You might create an incredible video game, but if it won’t run on any computer’s operating system, then you’ve made something that will never sell. So again, write freely, but study grammar and language. Writing truly is a craft and becoming good at it means constant practice and applied study. If you’re writing fantasy, think of it as your own wizardly studies. Mastery takes expertise and training. The beauty of it is that you can always learn more, go farther, and reach a new level in the craft. The next level will always be there. Reach for it, and never stop growing in skill.

Read. Annie Dillard says that the payoff in writing is being a better reader. Actively read, not just in your genre, but in others. See what’s happening in Literary Fiction, Horror, Suspense, etc. Even Romance may have a few things to teach you. This is one piece of advice I see over and over, but the part that I don’t see as often is that you need to read actively. By this I mean that you need to analyze books as you read them. Think about point of view, exposition, plot elements, characterization. Try to grasp what’s working and not working in the books you read or even the movies you watch. I’ll warn you though, this might kind of ruin reading for you. I know I’ve learned to shut off my writer self when discussing a movie with friends. Dissecting a creature does after all kill it.

Share. I wrote my first book in a vacuum. I thought of it as a great opus, a piece of art, and didn’t get any input until it was finally finished. And then, it didn’t sell. The book was bloated, with too much description, too much exposition, not enough dialogue. The book came out just like it was being written: solitarily, with little review. When you’ve got a draft together, carefully select people you trust to share it with. They need to be readers or writers, but it’s hard to find just the right critique circle. I chose readers who have a lot of experience with books but not so much with writing. I felt the writers I worked with were too close to their work or ideas to objectively critique mine. Even then, my readers had very different tastes. I found their feedback to often be helpful not for fixing problems, but for telling me what wasn’t working. Regardless of the feedback, be gracious. Somebody took the time to read a less than perfect version of your book. I really could not have written this book without them.

Open-mindedness. Holding your work too close to you is a sure way to strangle it. Some of the best sentences I framed for Eastlight were the ones I had to cut. They were pretty, but they didn’t fit into the flow. I find that I suffer from too many ideas, too many random directions. I had to cut a lot of these side-trips and segues in order to make the book work as a whole tapestry. Be open to the feedback you receive, and be prepared to make changes. Define which items you’re not willing to budge on, but be sure they’re worth the fight. I may revise this lesson once Eastlight is published, as I suspect that publishers and agents will have some suggestions of their own. The important thing is that I am open to them. I’m not married to the work, and as long as the changes don’t compromise the heart of the story I wanted to tell, I am willing to make them. Get a thick skin. It’s a tough market, and thousands of books are written every year that will never be published.

Editing. You’ve got to be brutally objective when you edit. Stephen King suggests putting a manuscript away for six months before editing. I’m too impatient for that, but I do recommend getting some distance. In my case, I sent the book out for critique and got to work on my next project. I started writing something completely different, so that when Eastlight came back covered in blood red ink, I was ready to see it with fresh eyes. It really helped. I integrated the feedback that I felt enhanced the book, starting with the line by line typo corrections, then turned my attention to items of larger or vaguer note: “This character doesn’t have a big enough part;” “There are too many religious factions to keep track of,” etc. Some of this feedback was a matter of the reader’s taste. Some of them agreed on weak points, and after having taken six weeks off from it, so did I. I cut a lot of factions, speeding things up considerably, and making it easier for the reader to jump into the story. In some places I combined factions, removing partitions, and in one, I changed an important faction that showed up at the end to match one from the beginning, giving the story some nice parallelism. A friend asked why I worried so much about editing, that wouldn’t the agents or publishers take care of that, which brings us to my next lesson learned.

Professionalism. Be in it to win it. Be objective and on. Write the best book you can and try to avoid obsessing about publishing. When you’re ready, and the book is as good as you can make it, start studying the publishing and querying process. Do not just start sending your book out. Read up on agents, what they represent, what they’re looking for. Follow the instructions on their website or in Writer’s Market, or on Publisher’s Marketplace. Never assume you’re the exception to the rule. Be prepared to see your work objectively and take critique. Get real on the chances and on the process. Don’t assume the book you’ve labored on as an act of love is the next big seller. Be kind to the agents that request partials and gracious to those who don’t.

I’m sure as the process progresses that I’ll have a fresh list or a few refinements, but the list above is a good start.

One thought on “Lessons Learned so Far

  1. Kim says:

    David,

    A good post, that writers of all sorts can use. As a reader, I appreciate the grammar section. As a writer, they work well together.

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