August 2009

So … you want to write a novel.

But what the heck does that have to do with blackberry jam?


blackcurrant jam


Aspiring novelists often ask, “How did you do it?” My answer will always remain the same … writing is a personal journey, and no two writers will approach their craft in the same way. But I’ll share what I know from experience, and, things gleaned from conversations I’ve had with other writers.


Nobody knows if a writer is born or made, but the majority of people I’ve met feel that writers are born. I tend to agree. I believe that classes can make someone a better writer, but I don’t think they can turn a person into one.


Many writers are introverts. If, like me, you grew up in a rural area where there was nobody to play with but your imaginary friends, you probably began developing dialog at an early age. Many writers are highly sensitive, and there are many who had peculiar, painful, or disruptive childhoods—Truman Capote, Pat Conroy, Jeannette Walls, and Augusten Burroughs—to name just a few.


So, no matter if you had a stockpile of imaginary friends in your closet, your parents moved every twelve minutes and you never established a sense of home security, or, if your mom had a nervous breakdown when you were eight years old, smeared blackberry jam all over your hair, and made you sit in the flower garden during a thunderstorm, go ahead and cheer Eureka!—because you just might have the soul of a writer. And, if you happen to have a quirky sense of humor too, all the better.



Storytelling -vs- Writing


Captivating storytelling is a gift—good writing is an art. By understanding how to combine those two elements, we can save ourselves from a whole lot of headaches. There are many books that can help a writer hone his/her talent, and I found the following to be of value: A Writer’s Coach by Jack Hart, and Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark.



Dig through your past



Make note of the things in your life that were funny, the things that hurt or caused embarrassment, and the feelings you experienced on both ends of the emotional spectrum. Venture into the attic of your mind and dig through the joys and ruins of your past, I’ll bet some treasures are waiting to be discovered. After gathering together some great images and memories from years gone by and writing them down, it’s time to get off your butt, go somewhere, and observe the world around you. Visit the bus station and the local Salvation Army Thrift Store, then go the opera or the symphony or a country fair. Expose yourself to people and cultures that are not part of your usual daily life. Watch people intently, eavesdrop on conversations, and listen to the cadence of voices. Train yourself to notice even the tiniest nuance in mannerisms.


Then ask yourself: how did these people get to this place in life, where are they headed, and what would throw them off course? Ask yourself tough questions about your character’s fears, dreams, and motives, and then answer them. More often than not, you’ll be surprised by what you come up with.




“Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”—Katherine Mansfield

When you write, try to remain open to possibilities. How your story wants to evolve might be quite different than what you originally intended. Imagination is the life force of a writer—don’t get in its way, but don’t let it take you from the sublime to the ridiculous, either.


Some writers have an elaborate outline for their book, while others might only have a general idea. I do nothing more than a basic outline because I want to stay open to the flow. Plus, my characters dictate a great deal of where my story will go, so I try to give them as much freedom as possible.




Think outside the box


Think outside the Box

Yeah, yeah, I know, that’s a cliché and I should electrocute myself for using it, but when it comes to writing a compelling story—it’s true! Agents, editors, and publishers long for excellent writing and a story that’s told in a unique way.




Is it Writer’s Block


Could it be the lack of Discipline?


Every writer will experience a lull—a strange feeling of emptiness and sometimes a terrifying lack of inspiration. I believe that happens so creative energy can replenish itself. When I have difficulty with a scene or character development, the best thing I can do is get out of the house. Something as simple as a drive into the country or an afternoon with a girlfriend can clear my head. Inspiration is everywhere, and when I least expect it—WHAM—I’ll see or hear something, the reservoir fills up, and the muse is back.


One thing I learned in the early stages of writing my novel was the difference between writer’s block and the lack of discipline. When I looked at writing as a career and not a hobby, my energies shifted. Writing became my fire—it wasn’t something I’d do when in “the mood”—it was what I needed to do. I suspect many a would-be novelist has kicked the bucket and left behind a file cabinet crammed with unfinished and unedited manuscripts. Talent is the number one element a writer must possess, no doubt about it, but the second is good old-fashioned discipline. Writing is a job—a hard job, and it takes tenacity to see a project through.




Hallelujah, I’ve typed THE END!

Um, not so fast…


The End



When you’ve finally, blissfully, typed The End and think you’ve got a bona-fide novel in your hands—I can pretty much guarantee that you don’t. Not yet. So don’t lay rubber on the road to get your masterpiece to the post office. Instead, step away from you work for week or two, then go back with fresh eyes and edit with a ruthless hand. Hiring a professional editor/proofreader to give your manuscript a careful going-over  before you submit to a literary agent will be money well spent.


And here’s another tidbit: read your manuscript out loud. By hearing your story, you will immediately pick up any bumps in the road. In my opinion, nothing can help you edit a manuscript better than reading it aloud.




Scout out the business … aka do your research!



I know you’re chomping at the bit to send out your query letter(s), but please don’t. You desperately want to enter the world of publishing, so now is the time to learn all you can about it before you contact a single soul. Scout out everything you can, especially who is representing whom. I found Publishers Marketplace, Publishers Weekly, Agent Query, and Absolute Write to be treasure troves of information about agents, publishers, and editors. Make a list of agents who you feel would be a good match for your writing style and genre. Read their submission guidelines and cross-reference each agent with the editors/publishers they’ve sold to in the past. I promise that by doing this research, you’ll save yourself months of anguish and perhaps even embarrassment. Plus, you’ll learn so much about the business of publishing that you’ll feel like an insider.



Literary Agents


Once you’ve decided upon the literary agents you want to contact, it’s time to write a killer query letter—and I mean killer. Top agents receive a staggering amount of queries each week, and if you can’t make the hairs on a literary agent’s arms stand up with your one-page query, then she/he will never read your sample pages. Keep in mind that you’re about to present your work to some of the brightest luminaries in the literary world, so make certain it’s as polished as it can be. Nowhere is that old adage truer than in the publishing business: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”


When the magical day arrives and you receive an invitation to submit your work, be gracious and timely in your response. It is an honor to be asked to submit a sample of your manuscript, so don’t get emotional and tell the agent your life story. Agents don’t give a flying flip that your aunt Myrtle’s proctologist thought your book was the best thing he’d seen in a long time, or, that you spent fifteen years writing it in the musty-smelling cab of a 1943 Ford pick-up that your grandpa keeps out in the barn. In the beginning stages of speaking with a literary agent, keep your private life out of the conversation at all costs, unless, of course, you are asked.


If an agent requests three chapters, send only those three, not a single page more. Respect their guidelines and keep all communications short and professional.






When someone said that I must feel lucky to have had my book published, I about laughed myself sick. Luck has nothing to do with writing a novel, landing a top agent, or having your work snatched up by a brilliant publisher. It’s all about creating a product born from years of hard work, the sheer love of story development, and extraordinary discipline—which includes numb hands, sore shoulders, and blurry eyes. If a writer waits for good old Mr. Lucky to tap her on the shoulder, then she’ll never reach her goals.


Lastly, believe in your work, believe in yourself, and try to maintain a spirit of joyful anticipation. Each day brings a gift, and that gift just might be a phone call, a letter, or an email from the literary agent of your dreams.




Enjoying the sun