Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: The Bare Bones Guide to Becoming a Better Writer

Today's topic is one I've been meaning to cover for a long time now, but first, exciting news!! My fast writing book, 2k to 10k, is now available as an audio book!! 

We worked with fantastic narrator (and fellow author!) Arial Burns, and I just think the whole thing sounds amazing! She really captured the humor and enthusiasm of 2k to 10k, and the transitions are so much smoother with music :)

So if you're the sort of person who prefers to listen to your non-fic in the car or while you're doing other things, I hope you'll give it a try! Even if you've already read 2k to 10k, this new version is just so nice. I hope you'll give it a sample listen at least, because it really is a different experience. (I'm in love with this thing, can you tell?)

Anyway, enough with the news. On to the blog!


Writing Wednesday: The Bare Bones Guide to How to Become a Better Writer

One of phrases that gets tossed around endlessly in the writing world is "honing your craft." This is a fancy way of saying "get better at writing," to which I say, "duh." If being a writer is your dream, then getting better at writing is the obvious best way to make all your dreams come true. No wonder so many writing advice lists start with "hone your craft." Do you suck at writing? Just get better! Problem solved!


As you've probably picked up, I really hate this phrase. It's not the idea I disagree with. I absolutely believe that if you want to do something professionally, you should do everything you can to improve your skills. But too often, the way "honing your craft" is presented--as if it was a single entity, just a box to be checked off before you can move on to other things--bugs me to no end, because improving your craft is not an item on a list or a finish line you pass to collect your winnings. It's a process that continues for the whole of a writer's career. It's the subject of thousands of writing books, articles, essays, and this Writing Wednesday series. It's not something you can just go knock out real quick before you do a final edit and settle in to write your query letter.

All ranting aside, though, all those "How to Become a Writer" lists aren't actually wrong. If your dream is to become a published author, then becoming a writer good enough to pull that dream off has to be your first step. But (and this is my problem with almost all "hone your craft advice") telling writers they need to "get better" is about as useful as telling someone struggling with poverty to "just go make money." If it was actually that simple, everyone would do it, because if there are two things everyone seems to want to do, it's make money and be a writer.

So, clearly, honing our craft is a long and complicated process, but this does not mean it's undo-able. Quite the opposite, every successful writer, regardless of genre, has gone through this process at one point or another. Many of us are still on it, because one of the most beautiful things about writing is that it can always be better. We can always work to become more skillful, more refined in our process. But no matter where we are on the writing journey or what kind of stories we prefer to tell, the basic process of honing our craft is the same, and it goes (more or less) like this.

Writing Wednesdays: The Bare Bones Guide to Becoming a Better Writer

1) Write. A lot.
For some reason, this is the step people have the most trouble with. There's this weird idea in our culture that good writing is a thing that just happens to people with talent, like some kind of mysterious, inborn magic. 

I'm not going to say this has never happened, but for the vast vast majority of writers, writing is no different from any other art. If you want to improve, you have to practice, and the only way to practice writing is to sit down and do it.

Make no mistake, this is not easy. It's not enough to just sit down and write the fun stuff. If you really want to get better, then you have to do it all. You have to write stories, and you have to finish them. You have to write on days when you're tired and you don't want. You have to bang your head against plot problems until you figure out how to solve them. You have to make characters and wrangle them into place. You have to make judgement calls, which sometimes means throwing things away. Even then, you will not be right every time, or even most of the time, which brings us to #2.

2) Accept That Failure is Part of the Process

Not everything you write is going to pay off. It is totally possible to spend three months writing something only to throw it away because it's just not working. I've thrown away six months of work before, and I'm not alone by any stretch. This is not because I or any other writer who's had to trash a book are bad, but because repeated failure is an inescapable part of the writing process.

No writer, no matter how talented, makes the right decision 100% of the time. Sometimes we just make bad choices or get stuck on the wrong idea. And that's fine, because failure is how we get better.

Just like learning to ride means falling off the horse, learning to write means throwing away words. Some writers freak out about this, but everyone eventually learns that cutting is a natural part of writing. We're human, we make mistakes. The more you write, the better you get at avoiding the big problems, but no writer born writes perfect books the first time every time. And that's a good thing, because we learn far more from writing failures than we do from our successes.

So if you have a fear of failure that's keeping you from writing, understand now that you have to let it go, because writing is failure. Sometimes it's repeated, constant failure, but if you keep your eyes and mind open--if you ask why did this fail instead of just hating it--then every fall will bring you a step closer to the writer you want to be. So fail boldly, and never forget that even in your worst moments as a writer, you're already doing more than most of the population has ever dreamed of. Rejoice in your failures! Because the simple fact that you've noticed them at all means you're already working on step #3.

3) Have Standards.

Part of getting better at anything is knowing what "better" actually looks like. If you've read enough books to want to be a writer, you probably already have a standard for what counts as good writing in your head. After the repeated failures mentioned in #2, it can be tempting to lower those standards to fit your current reality, but if your goal is to actually get better as a writer, this is the one thing you can never do.

There's a reason being a writer is seen as a crazy dream. It doesn't matter if you're setting out to write the next Pulitzer winner or the most escapist read of all time, when you set out to write a novel, you are aiming at a very high goal. How high, exactly, is up to you, but when you set out to write a book, the successful execution of that story--whatever it might be--is your goal. That's your standard, that's the level you're holding yourself to, and it's your duty to yourself and your future readers to try and reach--or even surpass it--as best you can. 

Since writing is an exercise in failure, you might not get it the first time, or fifth. You might have to change your plot because you started with unreasonable expectations. But the core quality of your novel--the standard of storytelling quality you know your book should have--that never changes. That's what you owe your readers. It's the whole reason you're working so hard to get better, and letting yourself slide or cheat on that standard is just pushing your development as an author backwards and wasting everyone's time.

If that sounds harsh, it is. This is why writing is hard. This is why creating a good book is something very few people manage to do. It's brutal to fight your way through these problems without compromising the standard of good writing you know from your years as a reader that you need to achieve. It is also the most rewarding experience you will ever have, because when you finally do pull it off, not only will you be an exponentially better writer than you were when you started, you will have a good book, which is the beginning of all writing careers.

4) Find a Good Editor You Can Trust

Reals before Feels
No matter how diligently we work toward becoming better writers, there's a limit to what we can accomplish alone. Writers at all levels of experience have a terrible habit of getting so deep into the Matrix of our books, we loose all perspective on the larger picture. When this happens, the only good solution is to hand the manuscript over to another person and let them have a look.

This is a terrifying step. I've written over ten novels, and I still freak out every time I have to actually let someone else read it for the first time. But even though I bite my nails the whole time they're reading, I would never skip this step, because having someone else who 1) knows what they're talking about, and 2) has no vested interest in lying about the quality of your book to spare your feelings (ie, not your mom or spouse) is invaluable to the book's final quality. 

Again, writers are human. We have blind spots and prejudices and things we just don't think about. Editors are there to catch those failings early, when we can still fix them. This doesn't mean you have to do everything an editor says. They're only human, too. I've had editorial advice, and I ignored it, but that was my informed choice. Hearing the logic against some element of your book and making the decision to  keep it anyway is a world away from simply not knowing the potential problem existed. 

Finding these things we can not see for ourselves is exactly why editors exist. They are the sanity check, the dress rehearsal stand-in for the audience, who will be far less forgiving. But while editors are vital for reader experience, they're even more important for us as authors, because editors force us to be better. They take our final draft, our best effort, and tell us to improve. They hold us accountable to problems we've let slide, or missed all together. A good edit can be brutal, but we emerge from them stronger and better than we could have been on our own. 

Good editors come in all forms. They can be hired professionals, trusted friends, or even anonymous strangers on the internet. It doesn't matter. So long as you trust them to 1) know what they're talking about and 2) put reals before your feels, your editor will not only help you put our a better book, they will force you to grow as a writer, which is the most valuable gift of all.

5) Write the Stuff You Love

This isn't necessarily a step toward becoming a better writer, but I do think it's a vital for becoming a happy one. When you're coming up with ideas for what to write, you'll often get a mix of ideas you love, ideas you think are incredibly interesting, and idea you're sure are going to make you a million dollars. Ideally, you'll find a way to combine all three, but sometimes you'll get an idea that, while you don't exactly love it, feels too commercially amazing to not write. Sometimes, you can already see exactly how the book will go, and it can feel just stupid not to write it.

If you've had this experience, I will never be the one to tell you not to chase it, but just speaking from my own experience, I can tell you that choosing a writing project based on money rather than love is a miserable way to write. This isn't to say no one's done it, or that you can't find a way to fall in love with your big money making ideas, but if you're just writing Erotica because Erotica sells and not because you love it, you're probably going to have a miserable time. 

The book might still be good, and it might even sell very well, but you're not going to grow as a writer from forcing yourself through a project you don't like or respect, and that's a waste of time in my book. Sure, money is awesome, but we only have so many books to write in this life. Also, as I've hammered in above, writing is freaking HARD. It's brutal, beautiful, amazing, terrible work that brings out the best and worst in us. Why would you put yourself through that for an idea you don't love to the moon and back?

Again, I'm not telling you to ignore the commercialism aspect of writing. Choosing popular genres and putting your own mark on them is also a part of honing your craft. But whether you've written half a book or half a hundred books, every novel is its own challenge. You get better, but writing does not get easier. It's always hard, and when you're knee deep in the worst parts of writing, love and enthusiasm for your project is what helps pull you through. So don't discount your own excitement as moods or frivolity. Just as you can tell when an author doesn't car, sincere attachment to a project will always shine through in your work. So if you want to take your writing to the next level, find something you can fall in love with. If nothing else, you'll have a fantastic time. 

Becoming Better Writers
When we force ourselves to become better writers and demand the very best we have to offer, we're not just doing it for one book. We're making an investment in ourselves. Even if all our titles flop, what we learned while writing them can never be taken away from us. The skills we build, the talents we hone, these are ours to keep forever. It doesn't matter if you've written one book or a hundred, every writer is a work in progress, and every book is just a single step on a much larger road. 

So if your dream is to be a writer, keep your eyes on that prize. Don't listen to anyone who says you can't do it or that making a living as a writer is a pipe dream, because people do it all the time. I'm doing, I have friends who do it, and you're not already, you can too. The dream is real and in reach, but it takes work. So practice, hone your craft, invest in your own talent. Write the books you love to the very best of your ability, and then get better. Keep writing for yourself, and your work will be rewarded.

Thank you so much for reading!! If you liked this post and want more like it, please follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, or subscribe to my blog directly to see new stuff as soon as it goes up! I post about writing every Wednesday and put up lots of writing business posts in between, so make sure to stay in touch! (And give the 2k to 10k audio edition a try! It's awesome!)

Thank you again, and we'll be back soon with numbers for One Good Dragon Deserves Another!

Keep writing!
- Rachel


Unknown said...

I loved this! Thank you! I am definitely getting the audio book---I drive around a lot and I always go back to your book, so this is perfect.

Thanks for your generosity in helping us aspiring novelists. I'm having a hard time falling in love with my story again---practice, practice, practice. Is what I needed to hear.


Unknown said...

Thanks for your inspirational post - great advice. I loved the kindle edition of your book. It definitely helped me write faster, and better!

Ken Hughes said...

Well said. "Just get better" is really a cliche, and you do a fine job of pushing past it into real, basic steps and the things to know about each. (Especially the last; writing what you love is the thing that drives it all.) Bare bones indeed.