Monday, July 27, 2015

5 Important Lessons I've Learned About Writing

With any new job, there's a learning curve. Take waitressing for example -- in the beginning, I just kept my little pad and a pen on me all the time. Over the course of several months, I didn't need the pad and pen anymore, I could remember the order. I could remember customer's names and what they drank. I could get my side-work finished and be out the door come closing time without having to look at the closing list. I think if I ever took another waitress job, it would be second nature. Sort of like riding a bike. I might not want to take a spin, but I remember HOW to do it.

Same with writing. I can't TEACH you POV, or dialogue, or structure, which is why I don't do it on the blog. I've been writing for almost ten years full-time and now it's just stuff I know how to do. Fingers on the keyboard, butt in chair -- GO. I had to practice, and practice makes almost perfect, and now it's just second nature. The way a pianist practices scales.

There are tons of books and articles, and blogs, and videos to learn HOW to write, but you can't really learn it until you actually DO it. You can sit in the restaurant all day long and watch the waitresses, but you won't actually know HOW to waitress until you walk up to that first table and say, "Hi, how are you. Are you ready to order?"

And don't get me wrong, I didn't just write a book and BAM I know how to write. I've read craft books, studied other writers, and blogs, written my million words of shitty first drafts. Those things helped to TIGHTEN my writing, but they didn't actually TEACH me how to write. I just sat down one day and wrote "Chapter One" because that's what I wanted to do.

Jhumpa Lahiri said:

“All writing, all art is just a wild leap off a cliff because there’s nothing to support you. You’re creating something out of nothing, really.  No one’s telling you to do it.  It comes from within, and it’s a very mysterious process, at least for me.  I still don’t understand how I write a story or a book.  I don’t understand how it happens.  I mean, I know it takes time, I know it takes effort, I know it takes lots and lots of drafts and hours, but I still really don’t understand the internal mechanism of how it really happens.”

Lesson # 1
Write what you want to read.

You can't write for the market, the market changes in a heartbeat. Ten years ago, it was all about wizards, and sparkly vampires, two years ago it was all about the shade between black and white. Who knows what tomorrow will bring. Write what you can't find in the marketplace. Write what makes you happiest to read. There are other people out there who will want to read it too. I write traditional Jane Austen type Regency romances. They don't have sex and they don't have contractions. I wanted to read something without a heaving bosom and washboard abs on the cover. I couldn't find it. So I decided to write it.

Lesson #2

Write about what you know.

I recently sat in on an online conference and mostly it was about non-fiction. How to make a bazillion dollars writing a book about beet farming. And hey, if you know all there is to know about beet farming and you think there's a market for that idea, then go for it. Write that book. You probably could make a bazillion dollars.

It's the same in fiction -- stick to what you know.  I also write contemporary romances that are set in Rhode Island with crazy ethnic families. WHY? Because that's what I know. You have a penchant for parakeets, you love cozy mysteries, and your Aunt Matilda is the town gossip -- well, there's a book if ever I heard one. You dress up every year for Halloween as Frank Sinatra, noir is your favorite genre, and you would totally love to time travel. Go for it.

Lesson #3



My favorite quote of all time from Margaret Atwood (THE HANDMAID'S TALE). I've had it on my blog forever. To me it means, no matter what anyone says about your writing, don't let it stop you from writing. Don't let ANYONE stop you from writing. Your mother, husband, BFF, writing teacher. If you're not good now, it doesn't mean you'll never be good. You don't know what you don't know, and practice makes almost perfect. (Nothing is "perfect" but it can be damn near close.)

I recently sent a story to a friend of mine for a quick critique. I thought it was fantastic. I thought I wouldn't have to tweak any of it. Yeah, not so much. It came back with several (okay, lots) of "suggestions" on how to make the story better. And it hurt (because I have the ego of Superman), and one well-meaning "suggestion" is like Kryptonite for me. I went through my usual two days of self-doubt and throwing in the towel, but then I got over it. Those crits weren't going to stop me from doing what I love. As a matter of fact, it only gave me more reason to "show him". I'll make this story the BEST DAMN STORY I've ever written.

7/28/15 Post Script -- Thanks to Maria for pointing this out in the comments. 

It's hard to think that I'm NOT a "perfect" writer. I ask for help from critique partners and because my EGO is larger than my pea-sized brain, I tend to get all grumpy about their suggestions. As I said to Maria in the comments, Critters are the best people on the planet. I wouldn't be where I am today without them. And generally, 9.5 times out of 10, I always take their suggestions and put them in the book. For #3, I guess I should have made the point about those people who aren't writers who nay-say our "little hobby", or trivialize our passion for the art. You know, those people who say, "Oh, you're writing a book -- how quaint." Or "You're writing a book -- WHY? What do you have to write about." You know, the mean ones. We all have mean people in our lives. Don't let those bastards grind you down. Keep plugging. Keep working at it. Don't let nay-sayers have their way.

Lesson #4

Learn your craft.

You couldn't be a mechanic if you didn't know what a torque wrench was. And sure, I've just said write -- what makes you happy, what you want to read. But the caveat is you need to learn the CRAFT of writing. It's not just stringing a couple of sentences into a couple of paragraphs into a couple of pages into a book. It's about grammar, and punctuation, and spelling, and structure.

YOU CAN'T BREAK THE RULES UNLESS YOU KNOW THEM. Did you know you can't use a semi-colon in dialogue? Even though Word says you can. Do you know the difference between a 3-act structure and a 5-act? Do you know the difference between 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and omniscient POV? Do you know the difference between an em-dash and an ellipse? Learn the tools of your trade and the correct way to use them. You wouldn't put a fuel cap on a tie rod.

Lesson #5

Writing is hard work.

Sure, we all saw the instant overnight success of sparkly vampires and pale colors. Sure, we're all jealous. I know I am. Hey, I'd love to have something I write be turned into a hit movie or make the NY Times Bestseller list. Who of us wouldn't. But those are just dreams I hold onto because they're fun. Like winning the lottery. I spend the millions in Powerball every week. But I don't buy a ticket. What would I do with millions of dollars? Buy the stuff I need, make sure Monster has enough for college and give the rest of it away. I wasn't raised to be idle.

I write for a living, and I love my job. I can't see myself ever retiring. And with every job I've ever had, I gave it 110%. Including this one. Every time I sit down at the computer I give it everything I can. No, I don't write every day. I can't. But during the days I do, or the hours that I can, I'm in it until I know I've given 110%. Until I'm satisfied with the outcome. Until I can honestly say, "Job well done."

Working hard becomes a habit, a serious kind of fun. You get self-satisfaction from pushing your self to the limit, knowing that all the effort is going to pay off.

Mary Lou Retton

Extra Lesson 

Social media doesn't sell books. I don't care what anyone says. The only thing that sells books is still word of mouth and a damn good book.

Tell me -- Have you any lessons you want to add? Share them in the comments.

Anne Gallagher (c) 2015


Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I've always heard that the best promotion is to write the next book. You shared some great wisdom there. I really liked how you said that you don't learn to write by reading a book about it. You have to do it and then do it over and over again.
Susan Says

Bish Denham said...

I think you're right about word of mouth being the best promoter of one's book.

Anne Gallagher said...

Susan -- Write the next book. Again and again and again. Practice makes almost perfect.

Bish -- It's the only thing that works. I've seen so many people do all kinds of crazy promotion, and then complain they had no sales. Why bother. Just perfect what you have and write the next one.

Caitlin Lane said...

If I end up buying a book after seeing it on social media, it's usually because a friend or someone that I respect has posted something about it after reading it. I guess that's current day word of mouth!

Anne Gallagher said...

Caitlin -- Depending on how many times you see it, I would consider it word of mouth. If it's everywhere all the time, then I consider that spam.

Maria Zannini said...

I agree with all your advice. If I could add anything it's a caveat to #3.

When you find a good writing mentor or CP, keep an open mind to their suggestions.

Sometimes clearer heads can see what we can't (at least not right away).

Anne Gallagher said...

Maria -- Absolutely. I should have caveated that myself. After throwing myself into the pit of despair that I'm nothing but a hack, I always re-read their suggestions and 9.5 times out of 10 make the changes. THEY always see things that I don't and even though I may not agree (at first) in the end they're usually always right. And I am totally grateful that they took the time in the first place to read.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

BIG LESSON: A good cover costs money. No way around that.

VR Barkowski said...

Spectacular lessons here, Anne. My favorite quote has always been, "Write like no one is reading." It took me seven years to get to the point where I could do this, but now it’s second nature.

I definitely agree with lesson #2, but I’d augment it a bit. I think you can also write about what you want to know, but you must do the research and learn before you put fingers to keyboard.

VR Barkowski

Anne Gallagher said...

Mac -- YES!

VR -- I like that quote. And yes, research, research, research. I swear I spend more time doing research than I do the actual writing. Even about things I already know!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Terrific post, Anne.

I agree that social media shouldn't be the end-all, be-all answer to promoting a book. Mammoth blog tours on the advent of a book's release seem to be very popular, accompanied, of course, by a huge Twitter and Facebook blitz. The first dozen or so times I'm "alerted" about another "great" new book, I may be interested, but at a certain point, the constant barrage becomes downright annoying. There has to be a balance between false hype generated by the writer, and unsolicited hype generated by people who've actually read and love the book. I take personal recommendations much more seriously.

Anne Gallagher said...

Susan -- Yes, I whole heartedly agree about blog tours and Twitter spam. Which is why I've never done it. I hate it. I'd rather spend my time writing the next book. And personal recommendations are always best.