Today I'm picking the brains of bestselling author, Janet Evanovich, with the help of her book How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author. Here are a few of the things Janet has taught me (or reminded me) about writing this week:
1. "Don't fall into the trap of rewriting chapter one until itâs perfect. And don't discard everything you write halfway through because you're sure it sucks. Writing stuff that sucks is part of the learning process!"
I needed this advice this week. Everyone gets to a point with their work-in-progress where they think it isn't working. Instead of throwing out my half finished novel I'm learning from it, and looking for ways to get it back on track.
2. "A character's dialogue and actions should be unique to him."
We all have phrases and actions we overuse in our fiction. But that's actually OK, as long as we use this as part of our characterization. If a character regularly uses the word "ludicrous" or constantly tugs nervously at her braids, that's fine. It helps develop the character. Just don't have everyone using the same (unusual) word or having the same nervous tic.
3. "Names are critical. They really can set up and define a character."
Uncle Scrooge, Professor Snape, Holly Golightly. An aptly named character is worth a whole paragraph of description.
4. "Engage all the senses when describing a place."
This reminded me of an old writing tutor who set us the exercise of writing a descriptive passage without any visual description. We could include sounds, smells, textures and tastes and even emotions/intuition, but nothing that required the power of sight to observe. Try it. You'll often be surprised at how powerful a piece of writing you produce.
5. "Dialogue defines a character. Even in the most basic of conversations between two people, there will be distinct differences in how they speak to each other."
This is an extension of number two, but is particularly relevant to writing dialogue. Everyone speaks differently. Everyone has their favorite words, phrases and speech patterns, their quirky turns of speech, even their own way of pausing mid sentence, or starting sentences in the middle. When you find a character using an unusual word or phrase, or speaking in a certain way, make a note of it. Make sure he speaks this way throughout the novel and give all the other characters their own way of speaking too.
6. "A good plot draws its energy from the reader's curiosity."
If you're ever stuck for 'what happens next?' ask yourself what the reader is curious about at this point, and explore that. You don't have to reveal the answer to the reader's current questions. Now may not be the time for that. Maybe it's the time to build on them a little more.
7. [First drafts are] "a gift to a writer. The fact that no one but you will ever see your early work - unless you want them to - lets you pour onto the paper whatever damn words you choose, knowing you can go back to fix them later."
Another thing I needed to hear right now. I was getting self-conscious about my writing. Why should I be? It's a first draft. It's for my eyes only. I can fix it later.
8. "Write something every day, even if it means getting just a few sentences on the screen."
Or even a few notes in your notebook. Never let a day go by without writing something. Don't let yourself start to get out of the habit.
9. "Is the ending important? Hey, this is where your reader will decide if he should buy your next book."
Or as Mickey Spillane once put it:
"The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book."
10. "The odds are stacked against a book thatâs self-published. Itâs hard enough for a general trade publisher to find distribution."
If you know me well you may be surprised to read me stating that (although of course itâs Janet's statement, not mine). I'm a fan of self-publishing and an advocate for self-published authors. I'd even go as far as saying that for non-fiction in particular, I believe traditional publishing is fast becoming a way to hand over a big chunk of money to someone else and still have to do all your own marketing.
But Janet is talking about fiction, and that is a trickier market. Self-publishing works best for non-fiction books that focus on a niche that the author has already established credibility in and a built a platform around. Self-publishing fiction is a bigger challenge and a bigger risk. Does that mean you should never self-publish fiction? Not necessarily, but be aware that Janet does have a good point here, and you will have to work hard to find distribution and sell lots of copies, especially with fiction.
Janet herself goes on to point out there are some very successful books that started out as self published fiction books, from A Time To Kill through to The Tales of Peter Rabbit. The odds are stacked against self published fiction, but they're not insurmountable. Few things ever are.
Grab your copy of How I Write here:
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