I started my writing endeavors at the tender age of 12, about the time I fell in love with the adventures woven by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, those fantastical worlds far beyond normal, perfect to fuel the imagination of a girl who wanted more than her present mundane life had to offer. My stories stemmed from summer time boredom – living out in the country without cable, out of walking or biking range from my in-town friends, my books all read several times, trapped inside by an Oregon rainstorm, in trouble too many times for tormenting my sisters, I turned to entertaining myself. Shazam! I was hooked.
For years, I wrote what I loved…horribly. Not that I thought my writing was hellish at the time, of course. I just had no idea what I was doing other than creating stories for the fun (or the cathartic experience, depending on the year). The craft of writing is a quiet, unobtrusive thing to the mere reader (well, me anyway). I devoured books I loved without sitting down to figure out exactly why I loved them or how the author lured me into taking up their characters’ adventures or quests as my own without even realizing it.
Then, I actually finished a book. Mission unwittingly accomplished. I had an arcing storyline with characters I loved, all 350,000 words worth. With high hopes, I shipped the head-hopping, meandering plotline, newbie mistake-riddled horror off to a publisher. The rejection was devastating. I stuffed the box in the darkest corner of my closet under a stack of god-awful bridesmaid dresses I’ll never wear again but keep for unknown reasons, in between my clown mask and Indiana Jones whip (don’t ask). I huddled there for a day or two and eventually comforted my frail ego with the fact I had actually completed a novel, even if it sucked. Not everyone can say that, right?
My steam-rolled muse eventually shook herself back into rumpled shape and came up with another story. Demanded I write it. Bossy thing couldn’t be refused. I finished that tale, but couldn’t bring myself to submit. I wrote another story, finished, started another, and a hard question stopped my thought track cold. What’s the point of writing if I’m not going to share it?
Fear swallowed down deep, I bought that thick tome The Writer’s Marketplace and queried lots (a number better off unknown) of agents. When I got a request, I almost danced on the table. Almost. I don’t dance unless dragged onto the dance floor. I knew this was my Big Break! I waited for the email demanding representation, refresh, refresh, refresh. Nothing. Then, there it was in my inbox: an email from the agent. Palms sweating, pulse rat-a-tatting, I clicked open. Now, this particular agent is a total sweetheart. Her “no” was so encouraging it numbed the sting of rejection. In fact, while she denied representation on this particular story, she liked my writing style so much, she asked for another story I had just finished that day. Hooray?
Note to younger self: never, ever, ever submit a story you just finished. Take a two-week break and read it again. Trust me on this one.
Rejection number three was discouraging, but included invaluable gems of advice. Most importantly, I learned my plot line needed a respirator, heart monitor, and around-the-clock army of specialist doctors. And I had no idea where to find what I needed to bring it to life from zombiehood…and that’s when I discovered RWA.
I’m of the humble opinion that Romance Writers of America should be a requirement for all aspiring writers before the tap-tap of that first word, whether the story includes romance or not. I’ve kicked myself in the head so many times for not knowing about and joining RWA a decade ago. Oh, the heartache I could have avoided. Maybe I could have quit my day job by now (one can dream). I found classes on everything I needed to fix my story and discovered bad writing habits I didn’t even know I had. I joined the Futurist, Fantasy & Paranormal chapter because of their Mud Puddle critique group and haven’t looked back since. Interacting with other writers is invaluable (Savvy Authors, anyone?).
A year or so of classes later, I had a short story published. A few months later, I landed the amazing Brittany Booker of the Booker Albert Literary Agency. A handful of months more, and Swoon Romance picked me up. My debut novel, Wonderfully Wicked (the story initially rejected for the failing plotline) is due to be published this year. I might be persuaded to do a dance now.
I’d like to share five timeless tips I’ve learned climbing that ladder from I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing writer to where I am today, which is the status of there-is-so-much-more-to-learn crispy new author. If there happens to be one writer out there who might learn from my years of ignorance, I’m all over it.
It’s all about connection, baby. If your reader doesn’t relate to your character, you’ll likely lose them. Using the senses – all of them – will draw the reader into your world. Some are harder than others (such as smell), but capable of evoking vivid memories in the reader. Bring the surroundings to life through the character’s fingers, ears, eyes, tongue, nose, and don’t forget instinct. Give your character unique personality traits and layers a reader will understand or share. Make emotions physical. Let the reader experience the story through your character and you’ll snag ‘em.
Dissect the books you love. When I read a book, especially if it’s one I adore, by the time I’m done there are so many sticky notes it looks like a rainbow porcupine. I mark phrases, characters, scenes, emotions – anything. Figure out why you love a book and you’re a step closer to writing a book others will love too.
Plots have a pattern. I never knew, although I suspect my subconscious might have recognized it. Leave out a turning point, and a reader will notice, even if they can’t pinpoint why the story feels off. Main characters need a personal growth arc, something I hadn’t considered. There are acts, pinch points, crises, black moments, climaxes, and all sorts of available charts for guidance. I took an intensive and amazing deep story class taught by Carol Hughes. Rocked my pantser world.
Make it Tight. There are a gazillion unnecessary words used by innocent writers, and I was definitely guilty of this crime. Words such as could, just, really, totally, etc. – all my favorites. It’s also totally J unnecessary to say when a character sees or hears or thinks, etc. The reader is in the perspective of the POV character and automatically sees, hears, thinks what she does. No spelling it out required. Watch dialogue tags – leaving them off often improves the scene. Pay attention to two culprits of tight writing: adjectives and adverbs. Adverbs can almost always be eliminated while a superior noun may replace adjectives. And watch for unnecessary body parts. “She shrugged her shoulders” can be shortened to “She shrugged” and “He clapped his hands” can be “He clapped.” Want more help in this area? Rayne Hall wrote a book called The Word Loss Diet. I’ve taken several of her classes. She’s just really totally awesome…and would kill me for using that sentence.
Fresh and balanced. Push yourself to be creative, to go beyond the old, comfy slipper phrases into some new-fangled, funky boots. How many times have you heard the ol’ “his heart hammered” or “a chill slithered down her spine”? Leave your couch potato self behind. Taking the extra effort to be inventive will be noticed, as will balancing your writing. Examine your own writing and be aware of large blocks of dialogue, backstory, or setting, all of which can bore the reader into skimming. Or snoring. Neither of which will earn brownie points or fans.
I wish someone would have pushed my twelve-year-old writing self in the right direction and saved me years of floundering on dead end lanes. The good news is it’s never too late for dogs of any age to learn, and the craft of writing is an unending journey. Time for some horn tooting – tell us about one person, teacher, organization, or class that impacted you as a newbie writer. Share the love!
CJ Burright blames her love for reading and all things Medieval on her father, who plied her often with fantasy novels ranging from Sir Lloyd Alexander to Piers Anthony. Her love for romance, however, lies completely at the feet of her best friend Michelle, who dared to give her a romance novel for her birthday. She smiled, politely said thank you, and tossed it in the corner, where it gathered dust. In a moment of desperation, when only the revolting romance remained in her almost-always toppling stack of awaiting books, she sucked it up and read the romance. Doomed.
She started writing fantasy and paranormal romance for the cathartic experience, decided she liked it, and after two overlong, horribly written novels joined RWA and the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal special interest chapter. Best classes and critique groups ever. Double doomed. Now, writing is a necessity, not just a hobby.
In her spare time, when she’s not writing or reading or actually working, CJ might be found in the dojang (4th Dan Black Belt, baby), rooting on the Mariners (who will some day win the World Series), working out (P90X, anyone?), gardening (a little dirt never hurt anyone), or playing Music of the Night on the piano (without mask or cape). She lives in Oregon with her fabulous husband and daughter. Not to mention her minions, a herd of cats.
WONDERFULLY WICKED is CJ Burright’s first novel, due out in 2014 by Swoon Romance
A dreamcaster with the ability to channel creatures from her nightmares, headstrong and cynical Kalila Montgomery longs for a peaceful, picket-fence life…until the man literally of her dreams kidnaps her. Survival quickly becomes her number one goal, yet a growing attraction to the man featured in her nightmares is impossible to ignore. While she fears he will kill her, other, more terrifying enemies surround her, and Kalila succumbs to his scheme to escape.
She may be his one hope for freedom…
A deadly combination of power, cunning, and cold-hearted charm, Lydon v’al Endrian fears nothing. Feels nothing. Chained to a brotherhood of men with the supernatural ability to invade dreams, he hunts dreamcasters to be harvested for their dreams and killed. His target: Kalila Montgomery. But Kalila awakens an undeniable dark desire and a longing for a freedom long-lost. To gain everything he craves, Lydon must seduce Kalila before his plot is discovered…a hopeless challenge which, if failed, will earn him a death-sentence.
Caught up in a dangerous world of secrets and obsession, doubt and betrayal, Kalila and Lydon face the nightmare of their lives, where love will either deliver them—or destroy them both.