Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Advice to an aspiring novelist

Hello world! I have a friend that has just started a novel. She asked for some writing tips and is a little reluctant to join an online writer's workshop because of possible idea theft. (Links to the the best writing tips are at the bottom!) This is my response:

I was concerned about letting people know what my story is about at first, too. But now that I'm talking to writers and understanding how much work it is to get something publish-worthy, I think the feedback I get from OWW far outweighs any risk. Everybody on their has their own "baby" that they're nurturing, and it's just too much work to take someone else's incomplete idea. Anyway, you only post up to three chapters at a time, and someone would have to stalk you for months to get the full story, and you don't have to post the polished version if you don't want to.

In addition, your computer files have save dates on them, and if someone uses large chunks of your work- not just the general ideas, because that's very very hard to prove and also extremely unlikely- you're protected that way.

Unless you're writing term papers, the risk of plagiarism is very unlikely. More likely is what happened to Stephenie Meyer- She sent out a few copies of a draft and that friend gave it to her friend, which gave it to her friend, etc.

(This happened after she was on the NYT bestseller's list. Most writers have to struggle to find someone who loves them enough to struggle through the early versions, myself included.)

So unless you don't want to risk *anyone* reading it, I wouldn't worry about posting it piece by piece online. Of course, this is my advice and you have to make the decision about what you feel comfortable with. But even after starting as a good writer, studying and writing constantly for a year, I find the impartial advice of people that aren't afraid to hurt my feelings (and to tell me what works) is the best best thing I have done to improve. Way cheaper than conferences, too.

The great thing about being in a workshop is you can also read other people's reviews of other writers' submission. This helped me to understand the vocabulary, to have the words when something wasn't "right", and to glimpse what experienced writers see when they read. It's a whole new process.

If you don't find things that bother you or you wish that they'd handled a little differently in MOST of the novels you read, then you either pick the greatest books ever penned or you need to develop your inner critic.

Again, this is meant as friendly advice based on my experience. Read, study, write. Make sure you understand passive voice and can spot it (and slay it like a dragon).
Find out what an info dump is and make a solemn vow not to do so. Don't overuse
"that, just, really, kindof, sortof" or other words that aren't necessary. Avoid adverbs unless you really really need one. No more than one exclamation point every ten pages, and the same for metaphors. Get a book on grammar if you don't have one already.

Be aware that when you send in a MS, you will have to change italics to underline, because the agents have weak eyes, poor things! And you will have to have your MS double spaced, one inch margins, with name/TITLE/page # in the upper right hand corner. Start each new chapter half-way down the page. 12 pt Times New Roman or Courier are the preferred fonts.

There's also the option, if you're really concerned about theft, to write short stories and post those to develop your skill as a writer but keep your novel at home.

The thing about early drafts is that they're early drafts. I can't say if your idea will fly because I truly believe in the hands of a persistant writer any story can be worth reading.

I write (roughly) for plot and character the first draft, consistency and flow the second draft. Deep characterization and believability in the third draft (where I'm at right now). It takes a lot of work to get it pretty, correct, charming, balanced, smooth, flowing, engaging, generous, surprising, and lively. I read an author's blog who posted all twelve of his versions for his chapter one. I read 1,2,3,4,5,8,and 12...and wow. He was a hack in the first draft, but by the was good writing.

(And the book is getting published. I've searched for his blog but it's lost. Should have bookmarked it- Drat!)

My kids' guidance counselor has a quote on her bulletin board that I smile at everyday when I walk Eli to his door. "The great thing about being a writer is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. -David ???" I'll update tomorrow morning after I get his full name:)

Okay- that's all I 've got! Good luck, and send me your Ch 1. and a plot summary if you're still game:)

I would add, read up on writer's and agent's websites. A good place to start is my friend Teresa Frohock's Very Thorough Post of links to writerly tips. Nathan Bransford, super agent, put it all together in one place for you, too.
And, for anyone interested, I love Online Writer's Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Happy writing!

Is there another word for synonym?


  1. I have to say, the fact that you are on your third draft and haven't given up yet is very inspiring. I have few writer friends who are interested in being published (only one, actually), so it's hard to find people who are either a) experienced, or b) relate to the struggles and joys of writing a novel.

    I am still on my first draft and things are not going well, because at this moment I am a full-time college student with a job and strong ties to my church. This keeps me away from my writing for weeks at a time. And sometimes when I get free time, I am completely uninspired.

    I've been writing for a year and a half and so far I have 37,000 words, give or take. Is all of this normal?

  2. Jubileyn,

    I work 40+ hours a week at my job, keep house and husband happy, and I have a volunteer organization that I spend a lot of time on, too. I have my blog, and I'm working through the middle draft of my novel. Oh, and did I mention that I'm going back to college part-time? ;-)

    I set aside two to three hours every evening after dinner to write. Sometimes I write pages, sometimes I only manage to get a couple of paragraphs or a little editing done. I've just spent the last year discipling myself to carve out those hours in the evening.

    I also know a lot of writers like you who often take years to complete a manuscript. I quit writing when my daughter was young, because she needed her mom around. Now that she's grown, I have the time to pursue my writing the way I wanted to when I was young. I also believe my maturity has helped me as a writer.

    So take twenty years to complete your manuscript - I think it's like Lisa Mannetti said, you have to enjoy it. If you love to write, it won't matter how long it takes.

    By the way, I'm a faithful fan of OWW, too. OWW requires a membership fee, so while anyone can join, usually only serious writers are willing to pay. I'm like Kelly, I'm working too hard on my own novel to worry about "ripping" somebody else's ideas.

    What great advice, Kelly! I'm glad you addressed the topic of being afraid to join a critique group. I think if I'd had my OWW critique group working with me on my novel, I'd probably be finished now. Writing it all by myself really wasted a lot of time.


  3. Thanks so much, Teresa. I figured I wasn't an alien species of authoress or something, but it's good to check. ;)

    As for OWW, I've checked it out and it really looks like it could be the place for me. Now that I have a job, I can afford it.

  4. Thanks to our guest moderator, Teresa!
    Jubileyn- finding the time and keeping it there is really hard. I'm trying to make my writing time sacred- that means control how much time I spend on the internet, how much time I spend reading writing tips, agent blogs, etc. but it also means that if I piddle away my writing time, it's gone. I can't borrow time from my kids, so I'm working on making every minute count. That sounds like a good idea for my blog...hmmm. It's perfectly normal for it to take A LONG TIME. I thought about my WIP for a few years and wrote only very occassionally on it. Then I started taking the kids to a preschool coop, and on my days off, I wrote. So I started with just a few hours a week. I did that for a year. Then I started writing in earnest, and I typically write three hours a day now. Sometimes if I lose my hours, or I 've decided I need the chapter done so I can get on with my life, I'll stay up and work until two am, but there's a huge price to pay for that, so I don't do that unless I've had a terribly slow week. The concept and plot have changed (read: improved) drastically since my early drafts, and that's normal, too. Good luck! -Kelly

  5. I hear this a lot - writers are afraid to put their work "out there" for fear it will be stolen, but I never worried about this. For that matter, after you publish something someone could still "copy cat" your idea or plot or whatever - but they can never copy your unique style or voice, in most instances anyway.

    A critique group can also help writers to recognize things "not to do" because they'll begin to recognize it in the other member's writing! this is an invaluable way to learn! You read/see the writer making some "mistake" and you think "Oh wait...wait a minute..." and it is that AHA! moment I keep talking about in my posts.

    Only thing I tell writers: if you are writing a novel, make sure you feel confident about where you are going with it before you begin the critique process or you may become a bit confused with all the advice.

    Finding three or four people you really really trust to read and be honest is invaluable - and I suggest using writers AND those who are not writers!

  6. Thanks Katherine! I had finished my first draft before I joined a crit group, but I think that was because I wasn't a 'real' writer in my mind:) I do wish they'd taught a bit more then 'just write' in my single college creative writing course, but that was a good thing to learn, too. Perhaps more was taught and I didn't get it then.