TIP NO. 1
I thought I’d share a few thoughts about writing, from my own experience. So many people tell me they have a story they want to write. It can be done – I promise you. I started by writing short stories. For me, it was a less intimidating way to get back into fiction writing after a long hiatus than to try to attack a novel. Working on a short story trains you to come up with a beginning, middle, and end, develop characters, create dialog, and do it all within twenty or thirty pages. The chapters in a typical novel are like short stories, held together under the umbrella of a larger tale. So starting small is a great foundation for eventually writing that novel.
TIP NO. 2
Join a class of writing group. It worked for me! I took a fiction writing class at night at Fairfield University, while I was working as a corporate attorney, and that’s what got me back into writing as an adult. I wrote short stories in my “spare” time (at night, on weekends, on airplanes), had some of them published, and then finally tried my hand at a novel, which became The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café.
TIP NO. 3
Keep a notebook and write down ideas you get for stories, characters, settings, dialogue, etc. I always have a pad and pen on my bedside table, because I’ve found that those brilliant thoughts I had just before I went to sleep evaporated with the morning light. When I’m writing a novel I also keep a binder with different sections for each of my characters. As I think of traits, habits, and other bits of their personalities I want to use, I write them down in there. Don’t trust anything to memory! It’s a fickle friend.
TIP NO. 4
In a 1997 interview with The Paris Review, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim said, “Art is craft, not inspiration.” I truly believe that. A writer becomes better by writing – by just grinding it out. It’s like any other skill. Athletes and musicians and artists all improve their craft by practice, and writers are no different. Sure, some people may have more innate talent at it than others – that’s the case with anything – but writers at every level can and will improve by writing. So try to write something every day. Work on that story or book you’ve got going, or just sit down and describe your favorite place to read or relax, or how the rain sounds on your roof at five in the morning, or the night your dog got attacked by a skunk and you had to buy all those bottles of tomato juice. You get the idea. Just write!
TIP NO. 5
My good friend and mentor, Jamie Cat Callan, recommended several books to those of us who took her fiction writing class at Fairfield University years ago. The two at the top of the list were Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. I bought them, read them, and loved them. And I still do. Jamie also recommended Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, which I used a ton when I was sending my short stories to literary magazines, hoping to find a home for them. Some of them did find homes. And yours will, too. Keep writing!
TIP NO. 6
Even if you’re working in another job to pay the bills, you can still write. History is replete with stories of famous writers who had day jobs but wrote “on the side.” While composing his short fiction, James Joyce was a singer, pianist, and an English teacher in Europe. Robert Frost was employed in a light-bulb filament factory when he sold his first poem. Harper Lee supported herself by working as a ticket agent for two airlines. And the list goes on. When I was a corporate attorney, I wrote at night, on weekends, while traveling on planes, and at any other time when I could squeeze in a few pages or even a few paragraphs. It all adds up!
TIP NO. 7
It’s hard to be an editor of your own work, especially if you’ve created beautiful metaphors, dialog you feel is spot on, or descriptive sentences that just sing on the page. It’s tough to slice through your own sentences and press that delete key. But sometimes that’s what needs to be done, in order to move the story along, maintain the right tone, or improve the piece for any number of other reasons. What always helps me is to put my writing away and come back to it at a later time – even later the same day. I’m able to view it with fresh eyes and it’s easier for me to see and “hear” what needs to be fixed.
TIP NO. 8
Keeping your work in a drawer or on your computer won’t get it published. You’ve got to send it out into the world. It may seem daunting, but the more you do it the easier it becomes. There are great resources out there, such as Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, which provides information on magazine and book publishers and guidelines on what they accept, agents, writing contests, etc. And don’t forget local resources – I know people who have won writing contests sponsored by their towns or local organizations, and others who’ve pitched ideas for columns to their local newspapers and were hired to write them. When I returned to writing as an adult, I began with short stories, submitting them to literary journals I identified largely by using N&SSWM. I found the key was to always be sending out work. It’s like that saying: “If you throw enough spaghetti on the wall, eventually some of it will stick.” So increase your chances of something sticking – send the work out!
TIP NO. 9
Sometimes it’s difficult to reach out to other people for help, but if you know someone who can assist with your writing career, ask. Most people are happy to lend a hand if they can, in terms of writing tips or publishing contacts or maybe even getting your manuscript to the right person. If you ask, you have a 50 percent chance of getting a “yes” response. If you don’t ask, your chance is zero.
TIP NO. 10
It’s been said that if you show a manuscript to ten different editors you’ll get ten different opinions. I don’t think that’s surprising, however, as we all have our own views of the world around us and of what we read. The key is to carefully consider the suggestions you receive from editors, other writers, avid-reader friends, and the like, and then decide which ones will strengthen the story or the characters and which ones you don’t feel are necessary or you just don’t feel right about. Be open to making changes, whether it means cutting or adding things you hadn’t considered. A good editor will come up with creative suggestions and explain why they make sense. A good editor will also be willing to compromise. So be ready to suggest alternatives. And above all, trust your instincts and don’t make changes your gut says you shouldn’t. Remember, it’s your story.