Many roads lead to writing successfully.
Perhaps you’re just starting, or perhaps you’ve been working toward publication for quite a while. What you have to determine is how to keep moving in the right direction. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re going about it in the wrong way. There isn’t a wrong way.
My first serious attempt at writing was in 1984, back when the internet was being conceived. Hardwire networking existed between computers, but the idea of computers linked to a World Wide Web was something the common person couldn’t even conceive as being a reality. The very first cell phone was sold that year—for almost four-thousand dollars; cell phones didn’t become a popular commodity until over a decade later. Personal computers had been invented but were not common in homes, and portable computers looked like big suitcases.
In other words, I didn’t have the internet at my fingertips offering never-ending resources for advice and opportunity. I couldn’t chat with a writing buddy two states or a continent away. I couldn’t look up anything without getting in my car and driving across town to our minuscule library, where I’d have to use a card catalog to look up books. There wasn’t even a writers’ group in our tiny town. It took determination, studying, and networking to become a published author. If I managed it without modern resources, you can certainly do it with the advantages at hand today.
First of all, you really have to want to write to succeed at this venture.
If you don’t love writing, stop right now. It’s not worth it if you don’t wake up with words dancing in your head. You must have the urgency to get images, settings, and conversations scratched down on paper or typed furiously into your computer. You must have the drive to go over a paragraph or chapter again and again until it shines, and you have to want to do it because it’s in you and aching to be released, not because you want accolades from friends and family—those may never come.
The second bit of advice I can give you is that you must figure out what works for you.
Some people love that nano-writing thing. If that works for you, do it. Not me. I don’t write fast. I write deliberately. I sink into scenes and work on every sentence with painstaking concentration, over and over every single paragraph until I know each sentence is the best it can be, that it belongs, that it is the next step necessary in the story. When I finish a scene, it’s done, completely done, until final revisions. In fact, I advise keeping a notebook or notecards handy. You never know when or where inspiration will strike and you can’t rely on recalling those perfect words (unless you record them on your phone). The exact wording is precious to me.
I didn’t always write that way, but that’s how my process developed as I went along. Other writers want to get the general scope of the story down and worry about fleshing things out, tightening, and fixing afterward. You have to learn what works for you and follow your instincts.
Honing my skills took determination.
Because my parents wouldn’t let me major in English or literature in college, my degree is in computer programming/data processing (using album-sized disks along with stacks of cards fed into a humongous mainframe). Luckily, programming infused in me a sense of logic, of if/then statements and procedures, which directly relate to story structure.
I also subscribed to Writers Digest magazine and ordered almost every book they recommended. (I remember the elation I felt the day I sold an article to their magazine—I was giving advice to others!)
I won’t discredit anything I learned from all of those helpful books, but my best instructors were great authors. I never spoke to any of them, but I studied their work. I no longer read books for pleasure without digesting every technique the author used.
How? How could I read a novel and learn to write from what I read?
After making the mistake of writing a romance novel, thinking that was an easy sell, I realized I couldn’t write well if I didn’t work toward a novel that would thrill me. So, first I had to settle on what I considered my favorite books and why. Although I read almost anything that crossed my path, I determined that women’s fiction really spoke to me, touched me, and gave me insights into life rather than just a moment’s entertainment. When I read excellent women’s fiction, I was left pondering the larger scheme of things, of what had shaped my life in the same way that circumstances had shaped a character, and what I had learned from the character’s adventure. Those details drew me into stories and left me pondering a book long after reading it. The best were books I could read at different intervals in my life and see with a whole new interpretation each time. I realized these deeper thoughts and emotions were what defined excellent writing for me. Excellence for me was the voice of the narrative and the development of character change more than the plot. I valued complex characters facing ordinary challenges but written in a way that engaged me as much or more than an intense suspense novel.
Once I’d really defined my genre, I read a plethora of authors in that genre.
Some agents recommend reading five hundred novels in your category before you consider putting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard) because intense reading will give you an intimate understanding of the ebb and flow of any given genre. The story structure will begin to flow naturally through you. You will come to recognize the necessary steps of development particular to your genre. I totally agree.
As I read each novel, I marked the pages with highlighters, pens, and sticky notes. If I got so caught up in a story that I was flipping the pages without making notes, I’d stop myself, backtrack, and study that section until I determined what it was that got me so wrapped up in the scene. I made notes about the wording, the character movement, the dialogue. I learned to understand the importance of choosing the best point of view, of voice, tone, “show and tell” versus “show, don’t tell,” pacing, and beats.
I didn’t stop there. While working on my manuscripts, I kept the best of all the books stacked on my desk.
Whenever I reached a spot in one of my manuscripts that seemed to fall short or that I was unsure of how to tackle, I’d pick up each of my favorite books and flip through to analyze a technique—an increase in tension, a string of snappy dialogue, a transition to a new scene, a great chapter hook, or to see how the writer moved the character within a house or across town. My scenes weren’t like theirs, but I learned to decipher how the writer manipulated words, sentences, and paragraphs to keep me engaged.
Writing an excellent book isn’t merely slapping words down, but rather crafting it carefully from beginning to end, word by word, sentence by sentence, scene by scene.
Each word can add weight to a well-written sentence. In turn, each sentence is like a brick of a house, carefully crafted and placed, whether you arrive at that through multiple revisions or through intense concentration.
In essence, I did what I had to do without a teacher, without a college professor, without internet sites or blogs or webinars. I learned to hone my craft by studying what worked in the best of the best books, which took many years and several trashed manuscripts. Eventually, though, it resulted in books I’m pleased with, especially Rachel’s Contrition and Turning in Circles. It led to being invited to speak at conferences, which has been a great honor. It led to being a professional editor, which in turn has connected me with many, many wonderful writers, whose journeys I’ve been delighted to be a part of.
In the end, I still study the books I read for pleasure. I still look to my favorites for inspiration. And I love sharing all I’ve learned through the amazing technological advantages of the internet and conferences we have today.
Michelle is presenting a webinar on some of these ideas and how they translate to an effective self-editing process.
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers with Award-Winning Author Michelle Buckman
- Tuesday January 29 @ 8 – 9 p.m. EDT
Check out Michelle’s new book:
Savannah and Charleston, two sisters living in a small Southern town, have always been close. They’ve shared everything with one another…until Dillon, the one boy in school who’s bad news, sets his sights on Charleston. As she’s drawn down his dark, destructive path, Savannah panics, knowing this isn’t a relationship destined for anything but trouble.
She turns to her lifelong best friend, Ellerbe, for help, but there’s a shift in their relationship. The connection they’ve shared istaking a turn toward something more, something deeper. And Savannah isn’t sure she’s ready for a romance while trying to save her sister.
As Savannah’s foundation begins to crumble, every decision becomes an unchangeable step toward an outcome that could have tragic repercussions.