January 16, 2015 – Romance University Blog
With the ease of self-publication today, writers can easily fall into the trap of clicking the “publish” button before a story has reached its full potential. First time Romance University guest Ann Warner offers some thoughts about how to avoid publishing something you’ll later wish you hadn’t.
Forgoing the traditional imprimatur of agents or editors, authors who self-publish become the ones responsible for judging the quality of their work. The problem is that after passing through the creative maelstrom required to write a novel, the author’s judgment about the quality of their story is likely to be flawed. Rightly or wrongly, the author may be convinced that her story is
- So wonderful it would make Hemingway weep
- So dreadful it’s not worth even a penny
- Probably good enough
A and C are by far the most dangerous choices, because they are likely to result in premature publication.
On the other hand, if the conclusion is B, and the writer overcomes her discouragement, she may then begin to look for ways to improve the story.
I didn’t begin writing fiction until my mid-fifties, when my position as a director of a hospital toxicology laboratory ended abruptly with the closure of the laboratory. While trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life, I received a surprising nudge from my sub-conscious to try writing a story.
When I finished that story, it was, in my opinion, most definitely an A. Every one of its 125,000 words was perfect. Had self-publishing been a viable option at that time, I would have chosen it. Immediately.
But self-publishing wasn’t yet easy, something that was lucky for me, because the novel was most definitely not an A. I began to recognize its B status after a friend read the book (or perhaps only a few pages) and then brought me flowers and congratulated me profusely on writing it. Only later did I realize she’d said nothing about whether it was any good. I still feel an immense gratitude to her for so gently bumping me back to reality from my first novel infatuation daze.
Once she opened my eyes to the possibility Hemingway might weep, but not because the book was wonderful, I was able to begin making progress on my journey as a writer. And although that first novel ended up in a trunk, its gifts to me were two-fold: I learned that writing fiction was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I discovered I had the stick-to-itiveness to write an entire novel, regardless of its lack of wonderfulness.
With that insight, all I needed was to get better at both storytelling and writing.
What I Did Next
I talked a professor into letting me take a senior writing seminar in the MFA program at the university where I was a faculty member. Not necessarily a path I recommend.
I joined RWA and began attending my local chapter’s meetings and writing workshops.
I searched out other writers to serve as critic partners in person or on the internet.
I began querying agents and publishers and learned to cope with the subsequent deluge of rejection.
Most importantly, I started reading books and articles on writing craft, noting specific suggestions I could begin using as I started working on another novel. (One of the most comprehensive books on craft I’ve found is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer).
From this reading I gleaned a number of specific suggestions that I began applying during my revision process and while they may seem simplistic, I discovered they had a dramatic effect on the quality of my writing. They included:
Avoid overuse of names in dialogue: “Yes, Cassandra, I see the whale.” “Oh, I’m glad you do, Jonah.” “Of course, Cassandra, I’ll just move out of the— eughhhh!” Etc, etc.
Avoid dialogue tags like she screamed or he yelled in favor of the simple he said/she said and limit modifying adverbs (e.g. she said coaxingly, angrily etc.). Instead “show” these attributes by writing robust dialogue.
Limit the use of exclamation points!!
Limit adverbs, clichés, and thats.
Eliminate excess prepositions: (into the yard in favor of out into the yard, on the table better than up onto the table)
Replace non-specific words like some, a bit, many, a few with specifics: e.g. three boys wearing propeller beanies versus several boys.
Avoid repetition by choosing the best way to say something and sticking with it.
Utilize a self-editing site like ProwritingAid.com or Autocrit.com. I have found working through the suggestions of a site like his, although tedious, has been an excellent way to train myself to write better.
Through it all, I continued to write, working on my second book and then my third and then my fourth…
One caveat: all of the previous suggestions are best applied once the story is “finished.” That’s when it becomes the task of the analytical left brain to do its stuff, because in early drafts, which are the province of the right brain, hyper-awareness of “rules” can stifle creativity.
Storytelling, you see, is a right brain, creative activity. Whether it can be learned is an open question, but it can certainly be enhanced, and I have a two-fold recommendation to help with that enhancement.
First, teach yourself to pay attention to those flickers of inspiration presented to the conscious mind by the unconscious through dreams, daydreams, or random thoughts. The trick is to catch those quick glints and make a note before they fade. Otherwise, they will fade, and you will forget. Guaranteed.
My second suggestion is that you read Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story. I suspect if this book had been available when I started writing fiction, my writer’s journey would have been a much less meandering one.
When I first picked the book up it was, in part, because the subtitle appealed to my left brain—The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. But, don’t let the brain-science label scare you away. This is first and foremost a well-written, easy-to-read book that contains insights and specific suggestions that will help anyone seeking a way to tap into the creative power of the right brain.
Reading the book, I was pleased to learn that neurological studies have shown that our brains have a reward system in place that allows for the enjoyment of good fiction. This implies there’s a benefit to be gained from the fictional experience.
This benefit may well be that reading about characters dealing with tough situations adds to our personal store of knowledge…giving us a way to experience trouble without risk. In fact, Cron says it’s likely that as we read, we wonder, “If this happened to me, what would it feel like and how would I react?”
As an author, I love the idea that my stories, in addition to being entertaining, might help readers better understand and deal with the circumstances in their lives. But this also means I have a responsibility to always put my best work forward.
And that leads to my final two suggestions. The first is that you seek out two or three writers you trust to evaluate your finished story for plot holes, repetition, structure infelicities, and defects in characterization. The second: when you have finished revising, hire a professional editor.
Although following the advice in this post won’t guarantee you’ll never publish a book before its time, I hope it will help you to improve as a writer and story-teller so that when you do click “publish,” your book will be one you’ll be proud of.