SO YOU WANNA BE A WRITER

Hi everyone,

Yes it’s that time again… life has gotten in the way of writing this week, with an elderly parent to deal with, trips racing up and down to hospitals, forgetting a relation’s birthday… oh, and getting revisions that need to be done….

Today Elle Druskin has dropped by. Elle and I met over ten years ago via the net.  We even co-authored two books before we actually met.  It was a wonderful experience brainstorming every day, working out who would write what etc, because as writers know, it can be a lonely life locked away in your cave.

Anyway…here’ Elle….

I Wanna Be A Writer!ANIMAL CRACKERS

So you want to write a book, huh? Good for you. Assuming you have something basically interesting to say. Assuming you have a solid understanding of English grammar and spelling, (we’ll confine ourselves to English for now, never mind those tricky foreign language words or phrases which might be necessary. Don’t rely on Google Translates unless you want to be truly embarrassed), the craft of writing, how to create tension, realistic characters, appreciate the balance between narrative and dialogue and possess the requisite research skills if your story requires knowledge that is anything but common. Starting to re-think that book? Don’t give up yet.

 

What’s Required?

Writing requires all of the above but most of all, passion and persistence. Persistence pays, but only if the writer can create a distance between the person (you, the writer) and the work. By that I mean, I’ve heard a number of beginning writers in particular, talk about their book as their baby. Sorry, it is not your baby. Sure, a book requires hours of work, occasional tears and often, a sense of total investment with little to show in return but it still isn’t a baby. All writers need feedback and critique or criticism. Critique is worthless unless the writer is capable of receiving that feedback, even if negative, and addressing the issues in the book that require more time, attention, and effort. It’s a monumental challenge and if this whole darned business was easy, everyone would do it.  Criticism is meant to be constructive. It may be disappointing, difficult to accept, but in the end, that distance should allow a writer to put the work away for a while and then take a clean look at the areas that need revision. You can’t put a baby away and if you don’t like their behavior, you have to address it although plenty of parents don’t. We won’t go down that track.

Writing is a pretty solitary experience since a story exists in the writer’s head. The fundamental job is to find the words to translate the story in a way that any reader can experience it and derive pleasure in doing so. Writers, in that sense, are introverts, they live in their heads but also in the real world (even if creating worlds in our books) and at some point, other people need to get involved in the process. It is their help that improves the final version of the book which may differ substantially from the first draft. Even before attempting to submit The Book (doesn’t have a title yet) to a publishing house or agent, it can be very helpful to get feedback. Remember, criticism? This is where you stop thinking of The Book as your baby. Just checking you were paying attention. You can ask family and friends to read for you although they are probably not objective readers and more than likely, will praise your efforts no matter what product results from all those hours of writing. Should you use them? Probably not unless you are confident they will be objective. So where do you find those readers who will be honest?  Lots of places.

 

Getting Help

 You can enroll in a writing class or seminar. You don’t have to, but if you choose to do so, no reason not to do that. RWA (Romance Writers of America) offers a number of specific classes—creating characters, plotting, etc. Many writing organizations offer group classes online or group critique. SINC, or Sisters (and now Misters) In Crime is another organization that is specific to mystery and thriller writers. Just check the web and you will find them, or perhaps, a local chapter that might be suitable for you.

There are loads of creative writing classes around both face to face and online. I once attended a dinner party where the guests did not know I am writer with a number of published books. One of the guests was taking her first writing course and she insisted there is only one way to write a book.  Suffice to say, it was the method she was being taught. I never said a word other than, “That’s interesting” because the method had nothing whatsoever in common with mine.

There are plenty of ways to write. I have a friend who often says there are plenty of ways to get to WalMart. I’m not going shopping but the concept is basically the same. Doesn’t matter what method as long as it works for you and the end product is great. Less than great doesn’t cut it in today’s market. Or any other market.

 

Setting up a critique

 Alternatively, you can join a critique group. One of the benefits of a critique group is getting more than one opinion. Likewise, it’s much easier to see flaws in another writer’s work than one’s own which you will have to do in order to be part of the group. Critiquing helps a writer focus on problems in terms of craft and learn to avoid them so it’s never a waste of time. Consider it a time investment. When I was starting out, I read for a publishing house for a while because I wanted to get some idea of their criteria for publication. I read a load of awful stuff, and I do mean rotten. One was so terrible, I couldn’t finish it no matter how I tried. I did approach each book with the idea that it would be wonderful so I didn’t start out with negative thoughts. Almost always, I had to force myself to read to the end of a disappointing piece of work that I am sure some poor soul slaved to create.

 

Out of all the books submitted for me to review, I think I was able to recommend one. What were the flaws? Multiple spelling errors (that’s a big red flag. While some errors get past the best eagle eye, mistakes like your when the word should be you’re, weather, when it should be whether, and plenty of other mistakes along those lines send out an alert that this is a sloppy piece (or peace, if another error) of work with many flaws other than spelling.

Some of the other things that continually arose were poor plotting or no plot at all that I could see or revealing far too much too soon so that no tension was created. J. K. Rowling stated that revealing too much too soon was one of the problems with her earlier drafts of Harry Potter. Obviously, she fixed that glaring problem and went on to astounding success. One of the biggest problems in fictional work is no obvious conflict. Conflict is the basis of any novel and the sooner it is made clear to the reader, the better. It doesn’t matter if it is conflict between a man and woman, the basis of the romance genre, a challenging landscape such as an Alaskan winter (conflict with nature), conflict as part of the background such as war with the various characters pitted against each other, or internal conflict demonstrated best by Hamlet who spends so much time procrastinating and trying to figure out what to do. Yes, I know Hamlet is not a novel, but the notion of internal conflict is so beautifully illustrated by the play. Conflict. Like I said, I learned a lot and was able to take out my own work and revise with those issues in mind.

You can find a critique partner and work together.  It’s a good idea to set ground rules. How long each critique should take, and how the criticism should be framed. Critique can be positive and should be, not only a focus on the negative. If you have a good partner, you have a great friend. You’ll probably have different strengths and weaknesses and be able to help each other considerably.

Another option is a beta reader. I still use them although increasingly, I’m confident in my work and don’t need them much. A beta reader is like a critique partner, only you don’t have to read their work in return. They just read your book and ideally, you give them a list of questions that you want them to think about while reading. Just a few examples could be, is the dialogue realistic? Can you visualize the setting? Does the story contain sufficient tension? Do you feel engaged with the characters? Most of all, did you feel that you just had to keep reading to find out what happens next?  My beta readers are great. If they point out a possible problem, I take it seriously and often take up their suggestion because they are almost always right.

 

Getting Published

Try to build a thick skin when you are ready to submit to an agent or publisher. It’s wonderful indeed if your book is accepted and you are the next bestseller. Most likely, sorry to say, that is not going to happen. What is more likely is getting many rejections. You might get requests for a sample chapter or chapters and still get rejections of your book. That’s part of the process. If it keeps happening, it’s time to revisit that book and see what might be the problem. This is a very competitive market and most agents are not willing to take risks on unknowns. Of course, that can happen, but odds are against it. Cheer up. Remember stories like Kathryn Stockett. If you don’t know the name, you know the book—The Help. Sixty agents rejected it. Something similar happened to J. K. Rowling, so who got the last laugh? But, that’s rare, do keep that in mind.

Independent publishing is quite respectable today and it is an option as long as you know what you are doing. I have not gone that route but should you choose to do so, it is necessary to get an editor and cover artist. Make sure you shop around for the ones you want who will do the job that is necessary to showcase your work. Do Indies sell books? Sure. Some of them sell very well indeed and a few have been able to take that success and land contracts with publishing houses. Again, rare, and it does require you as the author to promote the book which is a full time job, but again, this is an option to explore if it suits you or your book which may not fit neatly into any genre.

 

 Genre?? Does it matter? What about writing a series?

I’ve written a number of books, all of which could be classified as romance genre but my To Catch series is also reviewed as mystery. Personally, I never saw that but it honestly doesn’t matter. Lots of books are genuinely cross genre. It should be noted that romance accounts for about 50% of the market which is huge by any standard, mystery and thriller only about 10% but the percentages should not deter you from writing the book of your heart. The bottom line is a great story.

For the present, I am concentrating on the Liberty Heights series. I love writing this series! I started with what I assumed was a stand alone book (Animal Crackers) which showcases my voice and style. I’ve tried to write books that have a serious tone but inevitably, some humor creeps in there. It’s a personality quirk. I laugh at everything, especially myself so I decided to stop trying to fight what came naturally to me.  As I was writing this supposed stand alone book which I was enjoying immensely, scenes that had nothing to do with the story kept flashing through my head. I kept a few notes on the side, and eventually they evolved and became Life of the Party (Book 2 in the series). That pleased me enormously because I really did not want to leave Liberty Heights!

Fortunately, reviewers and readers feel the same way about the series, telling me it gets funnier as it goes along and makes them want to move to New Jersey except, they have to keep reminding themselves Liberty Heights isn’t real. Well, that’s not true. It is real to me but it only exists in my head and in the books. Still, it’s really pleasing when readers connect so well with a book, let alone a series.

Basically, Liberty Heights, that mythical New Jersey town, where things are just a little bit loony (sometimes more than a little) has become a character in a way. All the books are centered there and because there are peripheral characters in each book, they lend themselves to additional stories, thereby providing the basis of a series. In general, the stories have primary characters that were introduced in previous books, other than the first one, Animal Crackers, but then come front and center in their own story, the difference being, that the primary characters in a previous book may reverse roles and become secondary in a subsequent story. Furthermore, many of the characters are, well, just a little bit quirky which means I get to have fun with them. In context, they are eccentric but make sense, except for the primary characters who are the stable anchors with insanity whirling around them. One of my favorite characters, (and judging by the beta readers who adore this character) is LouAnn who makes her first appearance in Light My Fire (Book 4, due out in June 2013) and appears in subsequent books (Rodeo Daze, Book 5, due out in September 2013  LouAnn is more than a bit flaky; she has a dog she claims is psychic, a sister who is a witch school failure and a root beer addict. That was more than a little fun for me because from LouAnn’s perspective, this all seems perfectly reasonable.

I also enjoy some of the senior citizens in Liberty Heights who are often catalysts to stories. In Hanky Panky (Book 3) Grandma Baumgart, who is a pretty hip senior, takes a ride on a skateboard, has a concussion and recovers nicely other than an unshakeable conviction that her grandson Hank is married to Dana Fremder. Pretty soon, the whole town believes this. Grandma is busy planning a reception for people who missed the wedding which is the whole town since no wedding ever really happened and has her heart set on a new outfit.  Everyone is buying wedding gifts and Hank and Dana are forced into pretending they are married since nobody wants to upset Grandma. It’s Grandma as matchmaker! Along with Algernon the meerkat since there’s no groundhog in Liberty Heights for Groundhog Day, Algernon is the substitute.

This might all sound wacky, but in Liberty Heights, it all seems perfectly reasonable. The trick to managing these unusual characters is to ensure that the primary hero and heroine are caught up in the nonsensical fun, like the eye of the hurricane, but not the actual storm which whirls around them and eventually results in a satisfactory end to whatever conflicts exists in the story, a happily ever after ending and the chance to appear in future stories so we get to see all these characters evolve as the series progresses. That’s fun for me too. I don’t just drop them, we get to find out how their lives are progressing. I like that and so do readers which is a great benefit of writing a series.

I could say a lot more and truthfully, I always feel I am still learning. Sometimes, my characters say things or do things I wouldn’t do, but it’s their story and I have to allow them to behave in a manner that is faithful to their core values and beliefs.

All of my books are available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble as well as other sites. I hope you’ll enjoy them, especially a visit to Liberty Heights.

Check out Elle’s books at www.elledruskin.com

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Books and Writers Community, a great place for writers and readers. It’s free, it’s fun and everything you can possibly imagine is discussed. You’ll see some famous names there including Diana Gabaldon and Joanna Bourne.

 

Thanks to Elle for such an insight into the life of a writer.  And especially when it’s humor. 

Happy reading everyone

Jane Beckenham

 

 

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