I’ve recently been invited to talk to a few writing groups, about the experience of transitioning from a reader, to a budding writer, to a published author. This column comes as a result of thinking about that journey, from the advice I gave and the questions I answered, plus a few interesting discoveries on the internet I made along the way.
First, for funsies, it seems like we keep telling ourselves the same stories. In a recent study, researchers have fed numerous books to a machine learning module, and it has found The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an A.I. It’s amazing to see how a computer analyses emotional highs and lows, based on language. This isn’t about machines taking over storytelling, but how we can harness technology to better understand ourselves.
Do make sure you follow the YouTube link in the article to Kurt Vonnegut “story shapes” lecture snippet — it’s awesome! Both entertaining and informative. It’s fascinating to see the emotional arcs of stories plotted that way, but a more immediate question is: how is any of that pertinent to my writing? (i.e. the debate of writing vs academic analysis of literature)?
Here are some of my thoughts on the subject, with — as always — a practical approach.
Advice from the Stars
I thought I’d start you off with a few more links (while hoping that you’d find yourself back here for the rest of the article, of course). Specifically, I’d like to quote household literary names in the advice they give to prospecting and starting authors:
- There’s JK Rowling’s 8 Rules of Writing, which is a pretty straight-forward list of helpful advice.
- Neil Gaiman’s advice comes in two varieties — an 8-point list (expanded here to 12 points) and more open interview excerpted here.
- With Game of Thrones being on everyone’s lips (including those who keep talking about how they just don’t care about it), lessons from George RR Martin’s take on writing should be heeded. There are 10 tips from GRRM himself, as well as 11 lessons learnt from observing storytelling in GoT.
If you read between the lines, I think you’ll find a lot of commonality. It seems like we’re not only telling ourselves the same stories, we also do it in similar ways. While the struggle to finish a novel is a very individual, reclusive, introverted effort, it still takes a common appearance for many authors who face similar issues.
I therefore present you with my own, condensed, set of 3 things you can do. These come in order, so they should help you build up your writing.
#0: The worst advice I could give you…
I thought I’d actually preamble my talks with the absolutely worst advice I can give to any aspiring author. That should set things in context.
The worst advice anyone can give you is to do exactly like them.
Each author is different. Moreover, each book is different. What works for one may not work for another. Worse, the market changes swiftly, and someone who published ten, five, even three years ago had a different experience.
So, please, don’t just blindly follow someone’s advice and get frustrated when it doesn’t work for you. Look at varied examples, try and learn about options to experiment with, and find what works for you.
With that said, I do believe the next three points are valid to almost everyone, across time and genres. They are the quintessential core of writer’s-craft.
#1: If you want to write, write
Here’s what we published authors all know. I am about to impart you the biggest secret to finishing a novel. This is the single most useful thing you should have.
The best thing you need to finish a novel — is a comfortable pair of pants!
Because, really, you need to park your arse in a chair and put words on a page. Each writer has their own way of writing, from discovery writing to plotting. More than that, many authors find that each new book come about with slightly different approaches and methods. So experiment, try and see what works for you, don’t get stuck on a method that works for someone else — but above all, write.
If you don’t put words on a page, regularly, you’ll never finish your manuscript. So make the time, and use it. As a personal example, I wrote Murder In Absentia at night when everyone was asleep, and I wrote In Numina and currently writing In Victrix on the train to the office and back. It’s a 45-minute ride, twice a day, averaging 4 days a week (other times I’d be too tired to write, or not going to the office). It comes to 6 hours a week, and even supplemented by the occasional lunch-time or late-night session it isn’t a lot. But simply by sticking to it and getting used to being creative during this no-distraction times the books are making progress and getting published.
During that time, as I told one group, eliminate all distractions and write. As I told one group, “the muse works for me, not the other way around.” (I was this close to saying “the muse is my b!$%#”, but decided to appear more suave than that ;-). I have another lengthy post about my specific writing process to ensure the words flow (again, because someone asked), but my methods are less important. You need to set the time, sit down, not stare out the window, and write.
Find the time, and put words on the page.
#2 If you want to write good stories, read
This circles back somewhat to that first link about the AI analysis of story arcs. Only by reading extensively can you understand storytelling on a visceral level, and be able to distinguish between what works and what doesn’t, between books that impact you and stories that leave you underwhelmed.
You may come up with ideas ahead of time (plotting) or you may sharpen your writing during editing (if your first draft was written by the seat of your pants) — but either way you need to recognise what makes a good story and where your first attempt falls short.
You can (and probably should) read some non-fiction about story structure, about arcs, and plotting, and character development, and yada yada. But all that academic discourse doesn’t even come close to simply reading. Read to enjoy, read critically, but read! Only by surrounding yourself with stories, by exposing yourself and expanding your mind with all the various tales humans have been entertaining themselves throughout the millennia, can you not only understand, but also come up with engaging stories. You should go past the point where you unconsciously use a trope because it just ‘feel right’ at that point, to the point where you understand not only what your story needs but why it needs it at that particular junction. Understand what works, why it works, and where your own work needs more… work.
So read voraciously, in and out of your genre, open your mind, read critically, and then read some more.
#3 If you want to write well, edit
I’ll actually make it stronger: learn to love editing and revising. You’ve undoubtedly came across Hemingway’s quote re first drafts by now. If you’ve plotted your book in advance you may be a single step ahead of a discovery writer — but that’s still a hundred steps away from a finished novel.
A lot of the magic happens during the polishing stages, when you essentially take a raw mess and excavate the gems out of it. So it’s imperative to learn to enjoy revising, and to learn how to do it properly.
And here’s the thing. In order to learn to spot the bad patches in your work, learn how to address common pitfalls (common to you, specifically), and recognise what to keep, what to cut, and what to expand — you need an external set of eyes. Actually, “sets,” plural.
These can come via writing groups (critiquing each other’s work), beta readers, and (if you’ve been hasty) reader reviews after publication. Though it’s impossible to please every reader, you’d likely prefer to avoid that last way of learning.
Working with beta readers is invaluable. It helps you get first reactions to your story, and highlight areas that need work. Do remember this quote Neil Gaiman, though, and also consider that beta readers come with their own tastes and biases. For example, I had one beta reader note that one character (a senator) comes across powerfully as an excellent representative of a man of his class, while a serving maid lacked agency. Another reader told me that the same senator was a cardboard cutout, but that serving maid? She’s so spunky!
You’ll need to look at beta reader feedback in aggregate, to identify areas of problem (like characterisation in general) vs specific, taste-driven points.
However, the best way to learn how to edit, especially addressing your particular bugbears, is to work with a professional editor. And don’t think that if you’re traditionally published than it’s out of your responsibility — take notes from this professional editor. As an indie it can get expensive fast, but consider it an investment in yourself and your writing career. Get the best editor you can afford (it’s not necessarily the most expensive, but the one that “gets” your novels the best and can help you the most), and then work with them. It will be the single most impactful feedback you can receive, and you’ll quickly see your skills improve.
When working with my editor, my default assumption (based on experience) is that she is looking at my stories from a detached point of view, and that if she highlights something then it likely needs to be fixed. That doesn’t mean I accept her recommendations verbatim or that if there is a point I feel strongly about I won’t keep it the way I feel is right. It’s my story, after all. But it does mean that I take the time to really think about the points she highlighted, and why they are so important to me. Perhaps there is something that she’s highlighted as “doesn’t work” that I can make better in other ways, for a smoother story.
I also engage multiple people for each book: beta readers, my developmental editor, and my final copy-editor / proofreader. They each serve a different function, and altogether working with them — and learning from them — makes both the work in question and my next writing project the better for it.
Find your editors, get their feedback, and use it to grow your skills.
A note about receiving feedback
You can find a lot of material about giving constructive feedback, but I feel that we should cover receiving feedback here.
Creating something a book takes tremendous effort, you’re emotionally invested it up to your eyeballs, and then those philistines who obviously can’t recognise genius are giving you crap attitude.
Only two out of three of the above statements are true. Anyone who bothered to give you feedback has invested in you, and you need to appreciate it. Always be polite, and listen carefully to what they are trying to tell you. They took hours out of their busy lives to not only read your work, but also to jot down and write you back a list of things you could do better. Just imagine doing the same for someone else (or review the quote you got from your paid editor), and you’ll appreciate their efforts on your behalf.
As for implementing the feedback, it’s another side. Don’t rush into either extreme — that of rejecting all feedback for not recognising the genius, and that of accepting everything and rushing to change the manuscript to fit the latest feedback.
On balance, I would say the more you trust the person, the more you should listen to their advice. Professional editors should be heeded — i.e. unless you feel very strongly about a particular point, tend on accepting their advice. Spend all the time you need to fully understand why they are highlighting that section, and what you need to do about it. With writing groups or beta readers, I’d tend to listen in aggregate. If one person says something doesn’t work, it could be a matter of taste; if multiple people say so, it could be important. Again, think carefully of what lies behind the feedback, what problem are they highlighting, and how you can solve it while remaining true to your vision of your story.
Different aspects of editing
I’ve noted above I use multiple editors and you’ll find plenty of article denoting the various types of editing, terminology, costs, services, etc. I’ll just focus on the practical three you’ll likely engage as an indie author, though most still applies to traditional publishing as well:
- Beta Reading: this isn’t editing, but it’s feedback and it’s important. If you find 2-3 people who give you good feedback — ideally about your story, more than just language — you have the basis of a writing group. If they are indeed good, between them they’ll probably cover 80% of what a pro editor will say for a fraction of the cost (it will only cost you the hours you’ll pore over their manuscripts). It’s a good early start, while you’re saving up for more pro feedback.
- Story Editing: called developmental, or structural, or line, or whatever. This is the feedback that looks at the story rather than the language. Normally developmental is earlier and looks at the overall character and plot arcs, while line looks at language flow — but for our purposes anything that highlights story issues (pacing, flat characters, unclear plot action, etc) goes here.
Unfortunately this is the area that tend to get neglected the most — while simultaneously being the one you’ll learn the most from. Yes, it’s expensive and as an indie you may not have the funds (if you’ve got an agent and/or a publisher, they’ll give you similar level feedback as part of their work). It’s just that beta readers and proofreaders can only get you so far — if you really want to improve, this is the area that makes the most drastic impact. Which is probably why it’s hardest to digest too 😉
- Copy Editing and proofreading: Copy editing looks at the language: from spelling mistakes to tense shifts. Proofing is seemingly less of a problem these days as there is no physical type setting (no one goes to lay out lumps of metal with letters on them to transfer ink to pages — it’s all done electronically), but as anyone who hit publish will tell you that’s when the gremlins introduce more typos.
You should always have your manuscript copy-edited (a manuscript plagued with typos screams amateur and can be very distracting).
Often you’ll find modern freelance editors that will roll up story, line, and copy editing into one. They’ll fix the typos and tense shifts, suggest line rewrites for flow, and leave comments in the margins or as an additional report about the story in general. This is excellent, but since you will be making changes to your manuscript following this then you’ll still need a further proofing round. I’d suggest getting two different people for this, as (a) editors naturally have their own strengths on the story-vs-spelling spectrum, and (b) the more eyes the better.
It comes back to what you can afford to invest in your story and your manuscript, but think of it also as investing in yourself.
Just to recap, if you ever dreamed of writing a book or are currently struggling to finish one, or even looking at improving for your next one, here are the three most important things you need to remember:
- Write: you need to put words on the page, regularly.
- Read: to understand good (and bad) storytelling.
- Edit: to polish those gems out of the primordial muck.
This was the most quintessential pieces of advice I gave to a couple of author groups recently. Both have been very well received, so I hope that helps you as well.
What hard lessons have you learnt that made the most impact on your writing skills?