With only a few more hours laying claim to the 2000’s, I thought I’d try to recap some of the things I learned about writing this year. 2009 was my first full year actively writing as a craft and pastime.
I use the term “learned” loosely because some of the wisdom I’ve picked up I can’t seem to consistently put into action yet. But I’m trying and practice makes perfect. More experienced writers may chuckle at the sparsity and simplicity of my list, but I consider it my Dick and Jane primer.
1. A good story is all about conflict and overcoming conflict. Absent that critical element, and all you’ve got are info-dumps. Info-dumps are nothing more than interesting bits of trivia but do not and cannot carry the story. They are like salt, a little here and there is good but too much spoils the dish and no one dines on salt alone.
2. Always double-space your manuscript, put your name and novel’s title in the header and use a font like Courier where each letter takes up the same amount of space. Make it easy for agents and editors to read.
3. Spell out numbers. The simple rule learned in English 101 of spelling out the single digit numbers and using numerals for 2 digit and up is barely the tip of the iceberg. Still I find it incredibly difficult to write out “Eight o’clock”, I just do.
4. Use dialogue tags sparingly and resist the urge to have “athletic-speak”–he interjected, she bellowed, he groused, she hissed.
5. “Said” is the invisible dialogue tag and it works well all by itself. Resist the urge to modify it with an adverb, she said snarkily. If the words being uttered already imply that adverb, then you are being redundant by tacking it on, she said redundantly.
6. Don’t say “and then”. Pick one or the other. Similarly, don’t say “lift up” or “drop down”. Pick one or the other.
7. Use exclamation points and emphasis italics sparingly (and some say you should never use the latter but I have a hard time with “never” for anything artistic).
8. Don’t head hop. Keep your point of views (POV’s) consolidated and/or consistent. While it’s acceptable to have multiple POV’s, it’s better to change them between scenes or between chapters. Don’t forget who’s POV you are writing from. If the heroine is leading the charge, she can’t know what the hero thinks, feels or sees other than in the most absolute terms.
9. Queries are written in present tense regardless of the tense of the novel. I don’t know how I missed that rule before throwing my first query attempt out there to be critiqued.
10. Queries should answer three questions:
i. What does your protagonist want?
ii. What does s/he have to do to get it?
iii. What happens if s/he fails to get what she wants? (the stakes)
11. Dialogue shouldn’t mimic exactly how people speak in real life. Make your Toastmaster leader proud and leave out all the um’s, you know’s, likes and other nervous filler words. A couple to convey the character’s personality is fine but stop there.
12. The best way to get better at writing is to do it and do it often, the BIC or butt in chair method. Accept no substitutes. This is why NaNoWriMo is such an ingenious creation and boon for writers. It forces you to just write first, worry about what you wrote later.
13. Purple prose is a bad thing. Actually, I didn’t learn that this year. I’ve never been a fan of purple or excessively flowery prose. Fortunately, this isn’t my problem, however, stiff and formal dialogue has been a challenge for me. Too many Jane Austen novels, perhaps, or maybe I just like to show off my vocabulary. However, those who know me, know that I often launch into Austen’esque speak so I’m going to continue to struggle with this one unless I switch to historical fiction. I haven’t tried this yet but I’m told reading my dialogue out loud will help. Still, I kind of prefer putting my manuscript on my Kindle and having it read aloud to me.
14. Planning a story in advance is better than writing it by the seat of the pants…for me anyway. I still give my fingers editorial liberty but I try to at least keep them on the main course.
15. Absolute Write is absolutely the best writing craft and community discovery that I made in 2009.
16. Patience, determination, and humility are an aspiring writer’s best friends.
17. Nobody understands writing like other writers or people in the publishing business. That being said, nobody is going to beat down the door to read your stuff unless you sell it. This goes for requesting beta readers, critiques or literary agents.
18. Better writers than me may never be published. Worse writers than me may be published. Suck it up and do the best I can do. (There, I just violated the emphasis rule, didn’t I?)
19. Make backup copies of your stuff…always and frequently.
20. It’s impossible to be objective about your own writing. There is nothing more humbling than to be told that something you thought was pretty darn good is crap. On the other hand, there is nothing more pleasantly surprising than to be told that something you wrote and promptly forgot resonated with another human being. The latter makes the former all the more bearable.
Happy New Year everyone and may the lessons of 2009 make us all wiser and better at what we do in 2010.