Writing seems effortless to me most of the time. Getting published was something else again.
When I was 21, I wrote my first novel and mailed it off to Doubleday and Company. The next week, I got a pleasant phone call from an editor there who had enjoyed the book and wanted to publish it. Wow! That was fast, I thought.
The only problem was, the company had an editorial board made up of a bunch of editors each with their own projects for the current month. Apparently, mine was seen as something they could put off.
The gentleman called me and explained the situation and asked could he try it again next month? Sure, I said, why not?
After six months of this, the guy called back and said I would probably have better luck selling it elsewhere. He could not seem to get anyone else interested in the book. He said he would try again but I should also try other publishers.
I thanked him for his efforts and blithely sent the piece out to another publisher. Then another. Then another.
Soon, I had other books going out as well. Then the number of publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts dwindled and it became a task to engage an agent.
The first agent I contacted passed on book after book until I reached a reference work I had recently completed. He was excited! We signed a contract.
He explained he handled non-fiction and his partner handled works of fiction, and he passed me along to her. She passed on every book I had completed and even the ones I was currently working on.
So, I asked her what sort of fiction she was interested in handling. And she asked, “Have you written any romance?”
At least one of my works had an advocate and he thought he would have it sold within the month. But the months passed.
Near the culmination of the contractual year, he called to say there was no one interested in the volume even though he knew there was a need for such a volume.
He suggested I try and find another agent or query publishers on my own.
Again, no further attempts even got that far.
At a book show, an agent suggested – without even glancing at my manuscript(s) – that I pick out the best one and send it to a “book doctor”, a professional published author who could point out the weak areas in the work.
Using a writing reference, I found an author and sent the manuscript along with the fee for his time. A month later, his critique came back with the manuscript and my check!
Not only could he find nothing wrong with the book, he said he wished that he could write dialog as well as mine. What he did suggest was trying to write in a different genre because science fiction was a limited market.
In the early days of my writing “career” – before I turned twenty – I studied several books by writers on how to write novels. And I had tried the outline method, the detailed writing method, the quick first draft and massive re-writes method, and so forth.
So, if you’re looking for tips on how to write a novel, this may not be the best place. My method works for me but may produce disastrous results elsewhere. Okay, you’ve been warned…
I keep an idea file. If a title idea comes along with the snippet, I include it. I used to do this on any scrap of paper I had handy, so the file was a little messy at best. My brother tried to help me once by typing up a list of all the ideas in the file. It was quite an undertaking (my “in a hurry” hand is difficult to read, even for me sometimes!) and took close to twenty type-written pages.
The darndest thing, I looked over the list and none of the snippets meant anything to me. I scratched my head to no avail. Everything was drawing a blank. He opened the file to one reference in particular to see if maybe he had not typed the entirety of the heiroglyphic message. No, it was all there. I pulled the piece of paper from the file and was astonished that by merely touching the scrap I was able to remember where I was when I wrote it, the inspiration that brought on the idea, and most of the plot for the story the short note represented.
And, no, I am not psychic. I cannot touch objects and figure out what other people were thinking or doing, but it works on my own notes.
Anyway, the ideas fester awhile in their compost bin until other ideas attach to the original. These are jotted down and stapled to the original. Of course, since the computer age began, I rarely do much writing on paper anymore but I still get the same memory imprint on the ideas in a digital file. Go figure.
After a plot – of sorts – has assembled itself in my mind, I jot down the characters. Sometimes giving them a genealogy pays dividends, and sometimes a map of the fictional area helps as well. Any other scenes that come to me are added to the file.
Eventually, the characters start clamoring in my head and the plot boils over. That’s when the writing begins. And the fun.
More often than not, I have a pretty good idea where the story is going but the characters sometimes go in unexpected directions and the plot becomes a free-for-all as my muse dictates… and I type as fast as I can.
One recent novel found me four chapters from the end when a violent twist occurred in the plot. I was flabbergasted. The idea was brilliant, I thought, but now I was going to have to go back through the rest of the book and make sure the foundations had been created for this turn of events. That’s when a second shock came.
For some reason, I had already written all the foundation for this twist – without even knowing I had. Is that too cool or what?
Like I said, this technique probably won’t work for everyone but it is what I have found to work for me.
Other tricks I use:
When I am writing feverishly along and come to a word that does not immediately come to mind, I write a short phrase for what I mean it to say and enclose it in brackets and highlighted. Later, I go back and write the proper phrases. I do not stop the flow of creation over minor mechanics. While the muse is hot, I let the thing stumble along.
Scenes and character sketches. I frequently write these snippets long before I actually write the book. Then I find appropriate places for them along the plotline. Sometimes, they never really fit and I cut them. But that is rare.
Outlining and plotting. This I don’t usually bother with. When the characters and the story is ready, it seems to birth itself as an organic process.
Massive re-writes and second and third edits. This I never do. I have read so many writers who do this to extreme. Re-writing every line in a story can very quickly kill the “voice” of the writer. Typos and such should definitely be removed and sentences that are clumsy need some first-aid for sure. But don’t try and make every sentence a masterpiece. Even the greats (Faulkner, Williams, Hemingway and Fitzgerald) all admit that they had to fight the compulsion to keep fiddling with a book. At some point you have to “know” it is finished.
And that is what being a writer is all about: knowing when your voice has come through and communicated what it is you wanted to convey.
No matter the genre of writing, the style, the content, a book should enhance the reader in some way. Whether they are now more informed, more capable, happier, sadder, whatever. If the passion you had for the idea of the book – what it is that drove you to SAY whatever the book is saying – does not come across, you have missed something. Over-editing can do this quicker’n most hatchet jobs.
If you don’t know what your voice is, trying writing a lot.
One thing I did was write poetry. Sure a lot of people scoff at the stuff but if you can find the emotional wavelength in yourself that comes along with writing various styles of poetry, you can that much quicker come to find the emotional wavelength you need to write on whatever topic you want.
Of course, the wavelength would change depending on the view of the story – first person is quite a bit different than third person – and it should also change during the story. No one likes monotonic tales. A story should generally rise toward the climax but there have to be other crescendoes of lesser size throughout the story.
So, that’s a little of how I write. If any of this helps, great. If not, well that’s great too! At least you’ll know what does not work for you.
The best way to know for sure is to try out the different styles and techniques. Whichever pieces from all of them work best for you, well that’s what you should use.
Regardless, the best way to write well is to write a LOT. Write as much as you can, show it to friends or family, or post it on blogs or chatrooms, and get feedback.
After a while, you can have a good handle on you as a writer.
Me? Even though I explained how I write, it often times seems as though I am nothing more than the secretary to the muse or the characters in my head.
So I still don’t know what I’m doing. But it works for me.
Now, how do you get published?