Thursday, December 8, 2011

What's on Your Bookshelf?

            So you think you can write a novel.  You have a good idea, and it can’t be very difficult to just sit and write it down, or even better: save time by typing it straight to the word processor on your computer.  Then you can publish your new book yourself through createspace or lulu or bookbaby and start to earn lots of money as a best-selling author. 
            So you follow that simple plan.  And you sell a grand total of ten copies, seven of those to your mom and your closest friends who always support you.
            What went wrong?  Anyone can tell a made-up tale, right?  It’s a basic talent.  The capacity for storytelling is ancient, so deeply embedded in us it’s probably encoded in the human genome.  We dream in living color, full dramas with a beginning, middle, and end.  So what can be so hard about writing a story?  Why didn’t your book sell, or garner any notice, just sinking quickly to the very bottom of the rankings?
            To judge from the e-books being given away for free on the Internet, I have a few ideas about why they don’t make any money for their authors.  If all you care about is seeing your name on a book cover, you can stop reading right here.  But if you refuse to associate your name with anything except your very best effort, read on while I share my experience.
            On my bookshelves, I count 56 books just on writing, editing and publishing, plus four dictionaries, four style manuals and two thesauruses.  I have read them all or at least in the case of the style manuals and dictionaries, consult them regularly.  I seldom go back to the books specifically dealing with the actual writing of a novel anymore, trusting that by now I’ve internalized the lessons contained in them.
            But isn’t all that advice confusing?  Where do you start? 
            These are the basics:
            Most of my writing starts with characters who come to visit and then take up residence in my head.  Anyone can write a description of a character similar that on your driver license: height and weight and hair and eye color.  But while those details are important for the writer to visualize her own characters, they don’t necessarily have to be included in your book.  For one thing, unless your heroine is always gazing in the mirror, she won’t need to mention what color her own eyes are or if her hair is wavy or straight because she can’t see those details. 
            What’s important is what your characters do, the action that builds the plot of the story.  So we’ve written our synopsis or even longer outline and have our characters and know what they’re going to do from beginning to end.  No matter what, our characters have to stay in character all the way through the book.  Once the reader becomes familiar with your story’s characterization, she can’t be jarred by one or another of them stepping out of character for no discernible reason.  (Unless it’s part of your plot: your character has been taken over by aliens, or is a Harvard grad hiding in a holler in Kentucky with Dolly, or has another really good reason to be acting like someone else.)
            Part of staying in character is dialogue.  In addition to aiding in the visualization of your characters, dialogue should serve multiple purposes such as advancing the plot. Paragraphs of “Hi, how are you,”and “Fine, thanks,” are not only boring they do nothing to move your story along.
            Another part of seamless story-telling is scene.  Like building blocks set one atop another, each scene is part of the whole.  Building on the previous scene, or depending on your purposes, deviating from the preceding scene as you change viewpoint, each scene leads to the final one which ends your story – all of which add up to the story’s structure.
            So you’ve studied and stuck with it until you’ve written the entire novel.  And it’s perfect now and ready to publish, right?  One can only wish.  I don’t know of any writer who gets it right on the first draft.  I remember how awkward some of my early writing was; I knew where it sounded off-key, but tried to convince myself it was okay.  It wasn’t okay.  It’s never okay until it’s right, and the only one I was cheating was myself.  But I am grateful there was no Internet at that point so I could rush my toddler book into print and have it out there with my name on it, never growing up and remaining forever an obviously amateur effort.
            Learning to self-edit is probably the most difficult part of writing: ruthlessly chopping, cutting and pasting, re-writing until we almost have the manuscript memorized.  And there lies a real danger, becoming so familiar with our own work that we can’t see its flaws anymore.  I beg of all beginning writers who have gone beyond their word processor’s built-in spelling and grammar checkers, please have someone knowledgeable look at your story before hustling it into print.  Learning to take critique, as well as learning to choose which advice to take and which to ignore, is a critical part of learning to write well. 
            If you can, find another writer or a group of writers at least as far along in a writing career as you are.  Ask them to read your manuscript and give you feedback.  Be prepared to return the favor.  In a group, critiquing an entire novel might take six months or a year.  (I have never used online critique groups, so if anyone has helpful advice concerning them please share.)  If you aren’t in a class or a critique group, and can’t find anyone else to look over your work, try entering a partial in a contest and paying for commentary.  I found Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Contest to be helpful in this regard.  At least you might get an accurate idea of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, what you do well versus what you need to work on.
            I am not an expert.  None of the books in my little library, singly or added all together, makes me an authority on writing.  But I have offered here a consensus of the advice my many writing teachers have given me.  After all the books, and all the classes, and all the critique groups and contests, I can hold my head up as my first book sees print.  Willow Vale is the best historical novel I am capable of writing right here, right now. 
            Learning to write is a process.  There’s always somebody who does it better, and their lessons cost the price of their books.  As long as I write, I plan to attend classes and study other writers, and keep on learning to write well.

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