THE THREE SECRETS TO WRITING LIKE A PRO
Writing an email is easy. Writing a novel is the kind of hard that requires years of apprenticeship. “Apprenticeship” in this case means getting it way wrong before you get it even a little bit right. Hey, I should know.
You’ve got to commit to a lot of bad writing in order to reach a level of basic competence. Most people don’t go the distance. Most people don’t realize that in the beginning, their writing’s going to suck. Most people, even ones who have talent, lack the most essential ingredient to success as a writer: STAMINA.
Stamina (or persistence, if you prefer) determines whether you’re going to be a hack or a writer. Not only must you suffer the slings and arrows of writing bad prose (if you stay at it, you do get better—sometimes a lot better), but if you want to level up, get an agent, get a publishing contract, trust me, you’re going to need stamina for that, too. It can take years.
Now might be a good time to ask: How badly do I want it?
In my case, I wanted it. Writing was a compulsion, something I had to do. But in the beginning? Trite, overwritten, clueless, bombastic … those are just a few of the adjectives that were thrown my way. I deserved them. New writers (bless them) are so busy mentally calculating what constitutes an “acceptable” advance, rarely do they do what’s necessary to become even halfway competent at their craft.
But for those of you who have a real fire in your belly (you know who you are), I’m here to help. As a multi-published, award-winning novelist who used to be breathtakingly bad, let me share a few tips that will make this process a whole lot easier for you.
1. There’s a big difference between POV and filter.
POV (point-of-view) is the character “reporting” the story. Most contemporary authors use first person (“I”) or third-person limited (“he/she”), which means they write a scene using ONLY the details a character sees. For example: Danielle brushed her hand across the bolt of rough cotton. It smelled of fabric sizing and was still warm from the truck. Everything is streamed through that character, what she sees, smells, feels, hears.
But in today’s market, you have to go one step further than that. I blame the movies. With rare exceptions, movies can’t take you inside a character’s head. Only books can do that. So we in the book world have to make the most of our one advantage. That’s where the idea of filter comes in.
Filter isn’t just the five senses. Filter is the character’s personality, including her take on the world, her prejudices, her immediate impressions of others, the “glasses” she sees the world through. Think of it as really really close POV. If we wanted to add filter to the example above, we might write: Danielle brushed her hand across the bolt of rough cotton and then gave herself a little “straight talk”. Girls who didn’t have money to pay the light bill didn’t have money for pretty fabrics. What was she, Cinderella?
Don’t just write words. Write personality. Your character’s personality.
2. Dramatize. Every. Scene.
I wish I had a dollar for every newbie who thinks that telling you what’s happening in a scene is the same as dramatizing it. Telling: Matthew wanted to be a rock legend and would stop at nothing to achieve his dreams. Dramatizing: Every time Matthew stood in Times Square and saw the eight-story digital billboard lit up with an ad for his favorite Stratocaster, he felt dizzy. All he wanted was ten seconds on that screen—his face. His talent. His guitar.
Big difference, amirite? Don’t tell me what’s happening. Immerse me in the details. By showing me what your character is doing, thinking, feeling, and responding to, including how he interacts with other people or the world around him … that’s a story worth reading.
3. Backstory is like standing next to a tweed coat wearing, pipe smoking, elbow patch sporting, hopelessly dorky self-involved mansplainer at a party.
In the first three pages, no one wants to hear backstory. If backstory is absolutely necessary, never give more than a sentence or two and then MOVE ON. Your only job is to make us want to keep reading. We have to care about your characters before we are willing to let you wrench us out of the here-and-now and force us into the past.
There is an art to salting in just enough backstory so that you don’t slow the pace. Chances are you haven’t perfected that art. So when in doubt, delete. If your characters are good, your narrative is compelling, we have a tight POV and filter, scenes are shown instead of told … we can hang tight till you give us the story that happened before the story. Have a little faith in yourself.
In order to become a good writer, you have to do your time as a bad one. And that’s okay. KNOW YOUR CRAFT. Keep learning. Keep writing. Mostly, keep the faith. Writing is not a race that goes to the swift, but to the ones who actually keep writing.
That could be you.