These are a few observations I learned from my years (about thirteen years) of regular writing.
1. You learn more with every book.
I wrote the original draft to The Book of Secrets way back in the spring of 2006. It was bad and derivative. I thought it was genius. That thought died hard on the vine. So I redrafted again and again, one draft a year for seven years. I couldn’t finish it. A lot of those drafts were abandoned midway through because I was sticking too close to the original. So in 2011 I wrote the sequel, The Mirror of Life. Instead of seven years, it was finished in seven days. (This is not a typical speed for me. Generally I can get a draft done in three months writing between four and ten pages a day.) I learned more from writing a different book than from seven years fiddling with the original one. Then I wrote Pirate’s Redemption in about three months, and learned even more. Then I went back to Book of Secrets and blazed through a rewrite. Now all I have left is some minor fiddling and it will be released in November.
The moral of the story? You learn a lot more from trying new things than with fiddling with the old. If you must, write something else, learn some lessons, and then come back for a total overhaul.
2. There’s only so much an outline can do.
When I first started writing, I tried to outline everything, down into the details. What I found was that I never wanted to actually write the story. It always felt like a cut-and-paste job. Now I am much looser in my outlines. Cover the basics, get the narrative beats and arcs tacked down tight. Then fill in the rest, and let your creative side work with that. The result is much better, and keeps that creative side of your brain working.
3. Rewriting kills a story.
Seriously, don’t rewrite. It will attack you and suck your brain out through your nose like an alien parasite. Also, ignore everyone who tells you that rewriting makes a story good. Rewriting is the kiss of death to great stories, because rewriting disengages from that creative side. Have you ever taken a multiple choice test and then gone back and changed some answers, then you get the test back and realize you were right the first time? That’s because you worked from instinct the first time, and the rational brain the second time, and your rational brain rationalized you right out of the correct answer.
But, you might say, “Hey, wait a minute. You have rewritten your books, right?” Yes, but as I said, The Book of Secrets died and became a different beast on the last draft. Which means I had reengaged the creative side of my brain. It was like writing it for the first time again. My general practice is to write a draft, get feedback from readers, add and subtract things it needs, polish for spelling and obvious grammar errors, and stop. Don’t kill your story. Write something else and learn new things. If you must, then go back and do another draft.
4. You will write nothing of professional quality for a long time.
When you finish a draft, you feel like the king of the world. You sneak peeks back at your manuscript, marveling over how perfect it is, how well the prose flows and the characters are developed. It’s only natural. But that is because you’re seeing what you meant to say, rather than what you actually said. They say that you won’t write anything worthy of being published until you’ve written a million words. The mistake beginning writers seem to make is to write their first book, finish it, and think they’re going to hammer their way to the top of the NYT Bestseller list with it. Trust me, you’re not. Put it aside and write your second book. The average novel being around 100,000 words, that’s ten novels before you’re ready to be published. (Your mileage may vary. Some will be ready before they hit a million words, some after.)
The rise of e-publishing has made for a lot of wannabe and beginning writers who just aren’t ready to flood the market place. For the love of all that is good, don’t publish that first novel. Stick it in a trunk somewhere and leave it alone, then write something else. I got in my million words a while back, though I have only three publishable novels. I also have a lot of unpublishable short stories, an unpublishable novella, two unpublishable novels, and seven full redrafts of Book of Secrets. I also have dozens of abandoned nonfiction books, two nonfiction manuscripts I hope to publish, and a lot of articles. That’s somewhere above 900,000 words. Plus a full final draft of Book of Secrets, its sequel, and Pirate’s Redemption. So I’m somewhere above 1,200,000 words.
5. Write Every Day.
I cannot stress this enough. The comment is so cliched that it begs for readers to slap me across the face for even saying it, but writing exercises certain muscles in the brain. Like with any other muscle, it needs to develop and tone. You don’t run the Boston Marathon on your first day, and you don’t sit down and write a novel if you only get to it every three weeks. Most of my novels are near or over 100,000 words, which is a little over the average novel of 70,000 0r 80,000 words. I have averaged about three months of writing time to finish them, with another two or three to plan and flesh out the ideas. But three months of producing new words on the page. But I failed at the writing every day rule. Miserably. I used the expression “averaged writing time” very intentionally above, because the actual passage of time between most of my novels have been about a year, but three months of real work. Not a good ratio. I’ve been doing much better with this, but still. Take it from me, you will produce more and be happier if you write every day.
6. Have a Writing Area.
The best way to train yourself to concentrate in your craft is to have a space set aside just for that purpose. It doesn’t have to be a whole room or an office space necessarily, but if that option is available to you, take it. I’ve fought my way through bad writing areas before, and they are no fun. Areas that were too hot, too cold, too cramped, that kind of thing. They make sitting down and writing extremely hard, and making excuses for avoiding the area really easy. It shouldn’t be in your kid’s play room or right next to the television (or even in the same room as the television).
7. Get a Writing Computer.
I know this won’t be an option for some people, but having your own separate computer set aside for the sole purpose of writing and writing related work is a huge help. Not only will it help when tax season comes around, it will help you keep track of your work. For instance, I was recently given a hand-me down computer, an older model from three or four years ago (practically ancient in computer years), which still works perfectly fine. I immediately made the decision to not hook it up to the internet. That way it stays as it is and avoids the problems associated with getting sucked into the black hole of youtube while supposedly trying to write. I also don’t have to worry about trojans and viruses getting on the computer and potentially losing my work.
8. Have a Writing Time.
Everyone always says this one too, but it is still true. Whether you want to take a set time in the sense of writing from 5 PM to 7 PM every day, or simply setting aside the same amount of time every day, it will help your mind get into the habit of producing creative content every day. I don’t currently have a set time every day to write because my schedule is so fluid, but I do have a set two hours that I work on new content every day, and try to set aside at least another hour for planning/editing and working on other elements of my writing work. A lot of people don’t think they have even an hour every day to write. That’s fine, it just means you’re never going to finish anything. You’re always going to be the person that in twenty years says, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” but never have. Writers (that is, people who must write, who are compelled to write) are the people who make the time.
9. Always Know Where You’re Going.
I touched on the dark side of too much outlining in no. 2 above, but outlining remains an important part of writing any story. There are some writers (like Stephen King or Dean Wesley Smith) who tell you they never plan ahead when they write. They have written enough to just trust the process and venture blindly out on their own and see where it takes them. There is much truth to this, and I’ve seen the power of just trusting the process to lead you properly on my last two novels, Pirate’s Redemption and book three of my fantasy series. But at some point in the process before the final confrontation they know where they are going.
I have used Stephen King’s book Salem’s Lot on occasion as an example of the dangers of not knowing where you’re going when you write. It is considered by many to be his best book. I don’t understand why people like it. Ostensibly it is a “monster house” story about a creepy house that may or may not be haunted or possessed. A hundred pages in it turns into a vampire story, where the vampires have taken up residence in the house. Then the vampires are killed or chased away, and we’re given fifty pages of diary notes from a previous owner introducing demonic appearances, a curse on the house, a cult and strange rituals (none of which ties into the rest of the story), and then it goes back to a vampire novel in the epilogue. Along the way we are treated to lengthy asides about people in the town, and King develops character threads that go nowhere in the story. Outlining at the front end means less rewriting at the back end. It focuses the narrative, so that everything you’re doing serves a purpose in the story. A novel is a lengthy tapestry you are weaving together string by string. If you set out to weave a tapestry you generally have at least a vague notion of what you’re aiming for, otherwise you just have a tangled mess.
10. There is No Such Thing as Writer’s Block.
This is going to shock some folks, but there just isn’t. This is a myth. Typically writer’s block comes from not knowing enough about where you’re going or too much about where you’re going. Either way, you get caught up worrying about where you’re going. You get lost in the woods. The trick, originally a bit of advice from Dean Wesley Smith which I have shamelessly poached from him, is to just write the next sentence. Writing is as much about getting out of the way as it is about knowledge of craft and structures. The best thing to do is quit worrying and write the next sentence. That sentence will lead you to another sentence and that one to a next. Eventually, you’ll break out of that rut.