Writing Tips

Write the novel that’s in you. Don’t try to force yourself into a genre that isn’t for you.

I realize that I constantly tell people what to write. I talk about genres that are popular and trends in publishing. We discuss different techniques and the different ways they can be used. And this is useful information to use when revising or trying to decide where to send your manuscript when you are ready to look for publishers or agents.

But, and this is a big but, none of this is remotely important when you are writing that very first draft. Then you need to write the story that is in you — the one you need to tell. When you first sit down to that computer, typewriter, or piece of paper, you need to forget that editors want Egyptian fantasy, especially if you can’t stop thinking about that teen problem novel.

After all, two of the biggest kid series in recent times — Harry Potter & Percy Jackson — were not written with the market in mind. In fact, when Harry Potter came out, kid fantasy was considered dead. Just think, you too might be responsible for the revival of a genre.

To get your one page summary started, try writing a single sentence for each chapter that highlights the main event.

Trying to write a summary for your own work can sometimes be a daunting task. This is a simple way to get yourself started if you hit a roadblock. It can also help you determine if you’ve missed something in your plot.

When writing a genre book, especially a mystery, be sure to research, research, research.

Now obviously you don’t want to read so many books in your genre so many times that you start subconsciously plagiarizing them, but you do want to be familiar with your genre’s conventions. As an editor (and as a reader), there is nothing more frustrating than reading a book that you expect to work out one way, only to have it somehow mess up out of ignorance. It’s one thing to have a book consciously flaunt its genre’s conventions and work. It’s quite another to accidentally omit hallmarks of the genre and have the piece not work out.

Do not assume your readers know as much about your topic as you do.

Naturally, the tip applies to both fiction and non-fiction books that tackle a particular subject like hockey. Now, you may love hockey and think it’s the greatest sport in the world. All your friends love hockey. You can’t think of a single person in the world who doesn’t know what a slap shot is. Well, I don’t. I live in Texas where, Dallas Stars notwithstanding, hockey is not a big event. We worship football here in the Lone Star State. So, I don’t know a lot of hockey jargon. Most of the kids I know don’t know a lot of hockey jargon. If your book uses jargon without defining it, many of your readers might not be able to follow that pivotal hockey game where your character realizes she loves the ballet-dancing boy not the jock she felt was socially more acceptable. By the same token, if you had too many pliés and possés, the readers who understood the hockey might not understand the ballet section of your book. Although you happen to be an expert in both fields, no else might be. You don’t want your readers (or your editor) throwing the book down in disgust because they cannot figure out what is going on.

That was the obvious interpretation of my tip, but it applies to more than just jargon and acronyms and other areas of specialized knowledge. It also applies to genres. All genres have similar attributes within themselves. Mysteries have red herrings. High Fantasies (think dragons and swords) have mentors. Most readers who pick up a book in a specific genre have expectations that the author has to meet or deliberately break. And authors in these genres often write for readers already acquainted with the particular conventions of their genre. And for the most part, a majority of their readers are familiar. But what about the reader who isn’t? At one time or another, everyone has been new to a genre. Even if you’ve now read every fantasy book ever written, at one point you had to have picked up your first one. And in that first one you probably didn’t realize the green-eyed character was the villain until they did something villainous. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Remember to write for all potential readers.

(Oh, and I’m tired right now, so I can’t remember if green eyes means you’re the hero or the villain in a fantasy. Feel free to correct me if I got it wrong.)

Don’t write until you wear out.

This is not really my tip. It’s something I learned from one of my creative writing classes a while back — I believe from A. LaFaye, but I could be wrong. Anyway, the point is not to write everything in your head until you’re drained. The idea is to leave a little something for you to think about, and more importantly, dream about. That way you have something to start with when you go to write the next day. This tip works regardless of whether or not you’re a disciplined writer who works exactly 2 hours a day or you’re a sporadic writer. However, if you’re afraid you’ll forget that brilliant plot twist you’re saving for the next day, be sure to make a note of it somewhere. Life sometimes has a way of chasing even the most memorable ideas out of your head.

Learn standard copy edit marks.

If you go here to the Chicago Manual of Style, you will find a page of standard copy edit marks. They’re useful little beasts that will make it easier for you and your critique group (or editor) to communicate. Nothing is more confusing than trying to explain to someone what you think a work needs without using standard marks. So learn them. Love them. Make them your own.

You can never plan too much.

Well, I suppose you can overstress yourself with planning. But, in general it’s always better to plan things out in advance. If you’re the type of writer that outlines, then your story’s plan starts there. If you prefer the more write-as-you-go method, then you need to start planning as soon as your first draft is done. Regardless of when you start your plan, you’ll have to make sure your story has a plot arc, character arc, and if it’s fantasy, that your world follows all of its rules. Even after you’ve finished your revisions, you have to plan where to send the manuscript. Once your book is purchased, you have to plan the marketing and publicity. And then you start all over with your next book. It never ends.

Future father-in-laws do not make good party planners.

Now at first glance this does not appear to be a writing tip. I appear to be about to ruminate on the difficulties of letting my future father-in-law plan the rehearsal dinner phase of my wedding. But first glances are decieving.

Just as my future father-in-law does not know enough about my wedding party to make all the ultimate decisions about my rehearsal dinner, your agent or editor or critique buddy ultimately does not know enough about your manuscript to make the final decisions concerning its form. Agents, editors, and critique buddies are there to guide you and to make suggestions. They are there to make your manuscript better than you dreamed possible. But in the end, the manuscript is yours. You are the one who has to decide whether or not to make the changes. I’m not saying to lightly disregard your critiquer’s input, especially if it’s an editor or agent. We are paid professionals, who contrary to popular belief, know what we are doing. The suggestions made are not for our entertainment or to see how many hoops an author will jump. But if you just do not agree with the direction being offered, you don’t have to take it. It’s a closely guarded secret, but the truth is, you can say no. You had better follow that no with a nice long explanation of why you feel this way, but you can say no. Your work is yours, and you should never let anyone change that.

Do not overextend yourself.

This advice is just as true for writers as it is to marathon runners and stockbrokers. You do not want to write yourself to exhaustion. And I don’t mean just physical exhaustion. I mean to the point that you hate your characters so much that you want to kill them all off in book 4, not because it’s germane to the story, but because it would just be so gosh-darn fun. It’s when you’ve promised to write 7 reviews, 2 magazine short stories, and to get that novel rewrite to your editor all in the same week. It’s when you sign a book deal for a 8 book series when you’ve only planned out the first 2 books. Overextending yourself can drive you insane and push your stress level to new, unfathomed heights. You know your limit. Listen to it. When you find yourself reaching it, pull back. If you find you’re going to miss a deadline, give your editor or publisher lots of advance notice, and then just deal with it. Trust me. Your characters (and editor) will thank you later.

If an editor (or agent) asks for your full manuscript, send them the entire thing.

Do not just send the chapters they haven’t seen yet, unless they specifically ask you to. You don’t want us having to dig around our desks or slush piles to try and find those three chapters we read 4 weeks (and 200 manuscripts) ago.

Characters are Real People Too

Now I haven’t developed that disorder where I can’t tell reality from fiction. I don’t mean that I take my characters out to the movies or sit down to share a refreshing cup of tea. My characters aren’t the tea drinking sort.

What I mean is that all of your characters are real within the confines of your fictional world. They have pasts, presents, and (if they aren’t killed off) futures that you as their creator ought to know about. These backstories probably won’t make it into your actual novel, but they will help you know how your characters react. They give you a reference point for grounding each of your characters, no matter how insignificant or minor the character is for this particular story.

And knowing this backstory might someday provide you with a whole different story to tell.

Immerse yourself in your subject.

Now when you are writing a book that requires lots of research like nonfiction or a historical novel, you obviously have to learn all about your topic. If you don’t, you will have a hard time writing a convincing book.

But even if you have written a contemporary teen mystery, you should be well versed in other books in that genre. Not only do you need to know the competition, you also need to know what others have written so that you can modify your story to keep it from being too similar.

However, you do have to be careful that you aren’t overly influenced by the books you read. You don’t want to subconsciously be plagiarizing someone else’s work. So, I recommend reading similar types of books before and after you write your work, but saving comparable works in your genre for the editing phase.

For example, if you are writing a midgrade mystery, read some adult mysteries while you are planning and writing your book. This will acquaint you with mystery conventions without directly influencing your work. Then, while you are editing, read a few midgrade mysteries to see how other authors handle issues that are unique to children mysteries as opposed to general mysteries.