What I’ve Learned: Writing Edition

  • You can’t just sit down at a computer and crap out a book.

Okay, so this might seem pretty obvious to most of you. Writing takes work, right? But when I first started out writing several years ago, I didn’t get this. My first stories—most of them fanfictions—were posted online without any editing or proofreading. I pulled random plot twists out of my ass and wrote scenes because I wanted to, not because they contributed to the plot in any way, shape or form. Granted, I was twelve at the time. But my point is that back then, when I was first getting into online writing sites like fanfiction.net and wattpad, I saw people who frankly weren’t the greatest writers ever writing these stories/fanfictions that got tons of hits. And then I’d think hey! These people can just write a book and get popular! Cool!

But that’s not how it works. Sure, some lucky people write things that aren’t exactly the greatest and get their work famous/published, but that’s not something to aspire for. It took me the longest time to realize this, but once I did, it made me bitter. Which brings me to my next point:

  • Being bitter because {insert book title here} got published while you’re getting rejected over and over again won’t make you a better writer (or them a worse writer).

I’ll admit it: ever since I started writing online, I’ve been jealous of other writers. I’ve never been super popular; the most an original story of mine has ever garnered is 3000 hits, and nothing else comes even close to that. And that’s not because I didn’t work hard to try and bring my numbers up—I did. I responded to everyone and shared links on social media and used tags and made pretty book covers and did everything else, but nada. Zip. Nothing worked. And then I’d see a story online with a premise almost identical to mine, and the first chapter alone would have 3 times as many hits as my entire book, and that would make me wonder if I was really that good a writer. Cue bouts of crippling insecurity and self-doubt, which is always fun.

And when I got really serious about writing as more than just a casual hobby, this got even worse. I started focusing on those novels that were the one in the one-in-a-million—you know, the ones that got super-mega popular online, and some editor at one of the Big Five publishing houses saw it and the writer got a book deal? Yeah, those.  I’d hear about them and think oh my God, why the hell did this thing get a six-figure book deal when I can’t get an agent to consider my work? I’m not proud of myself for thinking that way. I’m ashamed, actually, that I was so shallow. But for the past year the only thing I have wanted is a book deal. And that’s what those people had, and I was so incredulously jealous of them. I basically became Cady from Mean Girls, except instead of constantly talking about Regina George, I was talking about these books and picking apart their faults.

But then I realized that the only thing I was accomplishing by being bitter about these books was wasting time—editing time, revision time, querying time. So I forced myself to not care about these fluke books, and it took a while, but it worked. Sort of. I’m not going to pretend that they don’t still irk me a little, but I’m pretty sure that’s somewhat natural.

  • Don’t pants it.

Seriously. This took me forever to understand. My first few original stories were written without any kind of outline or idea of what would happen next (AKA writing by the seat of your pants, AKA pantsing), and that was obvious. I mean, pantsing it might work for you, but I have ADHD and in order to stay on task, I need structure. Plus, plotting your novel out—whether it be with the 3-act structure or the Hero’s Journey method or the chapter-by-chapter method—helps get rid of plot holes. If you want wiggle room, try the basic three-act structure. Or at least keep a basic idea of your plot or how you want the story to end. I know worrying about the overall plot is more of a revision thing, but trust me: having at least a basic understanding of your plot and what will happen next makes your revisions a lot easier.

  • Get a critique partner/beta reader.

Seriously. I cannot stress this one enough. For the longest time, I didn’t listen to this advice. I wasn’t getting anywhere when I was the only one editing my story because I was just editing the same things over and over again without changing anything else. It wasn’t until I got advice from someone else that I started to make any headway. In short: you can’t rely on only self-editing because you’re too biased, and you won’t be able to pick out all the flaws in your manuscript. You need an impartial third party to help you, and that’s where critique partners and beta readers come in.

  • Kill your darlings.

Everyone tells you this, but honestly, I didn’t understand this advice until I got some feedback from an agent a few months ago. She told me (very nicely) that my story was good, but I had too many unnecessary subplots and my character was dealing with way too much. (In retrospect, early-revision Arielle was a bit of a crisis magnet.) That subtracted from the overall theme of FAIRY TALES and made it too messy. But one of those subplots was something that was based in part on something I had experienced, and even though a part of me already knew that it was hurting my manuscript, I kept it because it was so personal to me. Now that I’ve taken that subplot out, I can see how much better my manuscript is. I should have taken it out when I first suspected it was just bringing me down, but I didn’t. And that probably screwed over my chances with a ton of agents. Don’t do this. Please.

  • Learn about plotting.

The agent that gave me feedback also recommended that I read a book on plotting to help with my pacing, and oh my God. Hallelujah. Why didn’t I do this before? Seriously. The book she recommended was PLOT PERFECT by Paula Munier, and although I was a bit skeptical when I first bought it, that changed as soon as I read it. It’s probably the most helpful thing I’ve ever read. There’s a wall in my bedroom that I recently painted with chalkboard paint, so I used that as my canvas, and with the help of PLOT PERFECT, I outlined my plot—characters, themes, subplots, everything—on it. Yes, it looked like I was crazy. No, I did not care. It was extraordinarily helpful. And I really really recommend everyone read that book because it helped me so much.

  • Revisions suck major ass.

Like with the kill your darlings point, I only realized this when I started my most recent revision. My first two revisions were nothing but edits; I took out some grammatical errors and expanded some more, but I didn’t change anything. I didn’t change anything until the 3rd revision, and even then, I was just writing the same scenes differently. I wasn’t rewriting or taking anything out. Then, after I got the feedback from that agent—I swear this is the last time I’m going to mention it—and read PLOT PERFECT, I realized what revising a novel really meant. Now, when I look at my current draft of FAIRY TALES, it’s almost unrecognizable from the one before it.

  • Don’t set arbitrary deadlines for yourself.

This is a big one for me. I set so many impossible deadlines for myself—I must have this draft done by this weekend! I must finish editing 30,000 words in the next 48 hours! I must get my novel finished in a week! Yeah. You can see the problem with that line of thinking, especially with an ADHD kid like me who either a) super-focuses on the story for 5 hours without any food or pee breaks or b) OOH SHINY INTERNET. None of those goals ever gets accomplished in time. Don’t do this; all you’ll achieving is extra stress. I’m not saying to not ever set any goals for the rest of your life—I’m just saying to make sure the goals you do set are achievable.

  • You write better stuff if you’re passionate about it.

If you don’t know something, read about it. Tons of people way more quote-worthy than me have said that the best way to be a better writer is to read, read, and read some more. But research is pretty helpful, too. Try tumblr. I might be biased since I practically live on that site, but it has a lot of really good guides on how to write certain scenes/characters/etc. Especially if you’re someone like me, who’s writing relationships without ever being in one.

(Also, a bit of shameless self-promotion here: I wrote a three-part series a few weeks ago about how to create vivid characters. If you want to look at it, you can find all three posts here.)

  • Practice makes perfect.

Although a lot of people say that reading is the best way to become a better writer, I respectfully disagree. Writing is the best way to become a better writer. I’m sure all of you can look back at your early stuff and say wow. Okay. I’ve gotten a lot better. I do that all the time; sometimes I even cringe at my very early stuff, because it’s so cliché. But that’s okay. I’ve learned from my mistakes. That’s how you learn how to write—by making mistakes and learning from them. Learning what you like to do best and what sounds right. Sure, reading a ton of books can help you a lot, but at least in my mind, writing trumps.

Please feel free to share things you’ve learned along the way. Thanks for reading!

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