Just Keep Writing

I’ve been reading a wider variety of authors than usual this summer.  And each one of them has a unique voice and writing style.  It’s always tempting for me to read Ilona Andrews and think I wish I could write like that–so many great fight scenes and such fun snark.  I just finished Patricia Briggs’s SILENCE FALLEN and drooled over her smooth, layered prose with all sorts of fae and folklore seamlessly stirred into the mix.  I recently read Mae Clair’s Cusp of Night and admired her poetic language and intriguing research.

I could go on and on.  I love Julia Donner’s Regencies for her mastery of words and dry humor and wit.  I’ve just started reading Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and her writing has a strong literary flavor.  It’s easy to think all of these authors decided to become writers, sat down at their computers, and voila!–their words flowed just as they do now.  But I doubt that’s true.  And it made me think.  How do we become the writers we are today?

I know for a fact that my writing developed because I let myself fail…over and over again.  And I just kept writing.  And the “just keep writing” is the most important part of the whole equation, in my opinion.  So, here are some ideas–and these are off the top of my head, so take them for what they’re worth–on how to become a better writer.

  1.  FINISH your work.  Make it the best you can at that point, but finish it.  And then move on to the next project.   You learn from each story, each book, you finish.  I started by writing short stories.   There’s not much of a market for them anymore, but I learned a lot from them.  Mostly, for me, I learned that I write better when I know the end of a story.  I can’t tell you how many times I got an idea that got me all excited, started to write it, and then found out it didn’t go anywhere.  I ended up with pages of words that didn’t add up to anything.  Even in a short story, unless it’s flash fiction or super short that builds to a punch line type ending, in a regular short story, you still need a set-up, a middle, and an end.  If I didn’t know where the story was going, my middle became a morass of fancy words that sank under their own weight to an unsatisfying ending.
  2. Learn from your mistakes.  In each book that I wrote back then, I concentrated on something different that I wanted to improve on.  My first book GOURMET KILLINGS (which had many flaws but a small east coast publisher bought it anyway–and thankfully no one can find it now), I concentrated on plotting.  And yes, I wrote mysteries with food in them way back then.  I used the old style printer paper for that book–the type where all the pages connected with punctured breaks that you had to tear apart–and used one sheet for each chapter of the book.  I listed what the protagonist was doing, what the antagonists were doing, and what the goal of each chapter was, along with the weather and time it took place in the story.  A tedious task, but it helped me hold everything together in my head and see how all the pieces worked to answer the book’s big question.  (I never said I was a fast learner.  I had to see how everything fit together to see how my book would flow).  I got the plotting pretty good in that novel, but I wasn’t happy with my pacing.  I thought the middle sagged too much, so for book two, that’s what I worked on.  I used a calendar to keep track of events and characters in that book.  For book three, I focused on developing characters.  I wanted to show more emotion, more internal dialogue.  DON’T DO WHAT I DID.  I can be a bit anal at times, but DO look at your work and ask yourself how you can make it even better.
  3. Read how experts get everything right.  A lightbulb went off over my head when I read Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure.  Then I went on to read Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.  For a long time, I made a point of reading two books on writing a year, just to jostle me into thinking about technique.  Now, there are great blogs on writing I follow.  Because I still want to keep improving.
  4. Read authors you admire and learn from them.  How does Ilona Andrews build up tension so that the LAST battle in the book has more import than the earlier battles the heroes fight?  How do your favorite romance writers keep you turning the page?  What makes X’s writing appeal to you more than Y’s?
  5. Rewrites are your friend.  No one writes a masterpiece in one go.  (Okay, if someone does, I already don’t like them).  Show your work to someone you trust–someone who doesn’t ravage your writing ego but can still suggest places you need to improve on.  I rewrite as I go, but many of my friends can’t do that.  They end up doing endless rewrites and never finish the book.  Most of them write with their editor turned off and then, when the book’s finished, dig deep into their story to make it better.  I have little patience, and I know myself.  I won’t take the time to do the rewrites I should if I have to face the entire manuscript.  Find what works for you.
  6. Be true to yourself.  There’s already a Patricia Briggs and an Elizabeth George.  But no one writes the way YOU do.  Learn from the best, but then be YOUR OWN best.

And happy writing!

P.S.  A fellow writer friend of mine, who teaches writing and is a master of noir, has written a memoir available on pre-order.  He specializes in crime fiction because when he was young, he was usually on the wrong side of the law.


Writing: never the same

I’ve been writing a long time, and I’ve tried a lot of different methods in search of the “perfect” combination.  I’ve plotted mysteries using a calendar to keep track of the pacing of the book.  I’ve used different colored markers for different characters to see if I was getting the balance right.  I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing my antagonist so that I had a worthy adversary for my protagonist.  And each method had its good points and its bad.

Now, I keep it simple.  Before I write, I know the inciting incident, the set-up, two plot twists, and the story’s end.  I know what I want to happen, when. The rest, I leave to my characters.  Most of the time, that’s enough.  But I finished an Ally/Dante novella at the end of November, and I fought that story every inch of the way.  Nothing in that story cooperated.  When I finally got it done, I felt like I’d survived a wrestling match, and I had the bruises to prove it.

I worried when I started a new, longer Babet/Prosper novella, thinking maybe the planets and Muses weren’t aligned for inspiration.  I wanted to get it mostly finished before the boys were out of school for Christmas break, but this time, the words flew.  Just like before, I had enough plot points, but they were stretched between more pages.  No problem.  This time, ideas popped up as I went.  One scene inspired the next.

Today, the boys went out with friends, so I started plotting a new novel I want to start in January, and I couldn’t type fast enough.  True, I’d let that novel “stew” for over a month while I wrote the novellas.  I’d written notes and jotted down ideas for scenes, so the book was waiting to burst out and get the attention it thought it deserved.  But I’d thought about the Ally/Dante story before I started it, too.   So what made the difference?  The sorry truth is, books are sort of like kids.  You can love them and guide them, but each one is different.

I went to a mystery writers’ conference once and Mary Higgins Clark was the featured speaker.  I’ll never forget it.  Someone in the audience asked her, “When did writing get easy for you?”  And she said, “If you really care about your writing, it never does.”  And she went on to explain that she didn’t think she’d even be able to finish the novel she was working on at that time, she was having so many problems with it, until her daughter brainstormed with her, and she finally saw how to get from Point A to Point B.  That was an eye opening moment for me.  I’d always thought that someday, I’d master each and every ingredient of writing, and I’d know how to make each story its best.  But that just isn’t so.

Stories that look like they’ll be simple to write, aren’t.  Stories I fuss over, flow.  And it doesn’t matter if I write outlines or wing it more than usual.  No two stories ever work the same.  I was on a panel with Shirley Jump once, and she said that she’d tried to “always make things worse” for her protagonist and had written herself into a corner where she had no idea how to fix things for a happy ending.  So, she put on her running shoes and trusted her brain to figure it out.  Which it did.  And that’s the thing.  Writing pushes us to grow, to strive to make scenes and characters come to life.  And it keeps us humble:)

P.S.  I played with my website a little, hopefully made it better.  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/