Becoming a writer (Part 1)

In a recent post, I showed you how my writing has improved over the the past year, and now I’m back to tell you what I’ve done to hone my craft and to promote myself as a writer. One year into a career feels somewhat premature to be dispensing advice, especially since I have yet to achieve the traditional marker of success (i.e., publishing my novel), but I have insights into the process now that I won’t necessarily remember if I wait. So I’ll go ahead and share my thoughts, and hopefully others with more experience will chime in if they disagree with my approach or have things to add.

Initially, I was going to list all the activities I’ve engaged in, similar to this useful article on how to fake an MFA degree, but I noticed the activities could be grouped into six general categories. Thus, here’s my overall model for becoming a writer:

writingcomponents

You’ll notice that the first three (reading, writing, and rewriting/editing) are largely solo activities while the latter three (training, spending time with other writers, and business) involve interacting with other people to improve and promote one’s writing. I’ll focus on reading, writing, and rewriting/editing today and cover the others in a separate blog post (otherwise this will get seriously TL;DR).

I’ll note briefly here that these categories are not exclusive (e.g., spending time with other writers is useful for networking, which I would classify as doing business).

I also want to comment on my choice of the phrase “becoming a writer.” Coming from an academic background, I was hesitant to call myself a writer when I first started writing my novel. After all, I didn’t call myself a demographer the first day I walked into my PhD program when I knew little about the discipline of demography. I had to be trained, like first year medical students who go on to become doctors.

Now, I’m not arguing that formal training is necessary to become a writer or that anyone needs to achieve a certain degree of skill or accumulate a certain amount of text before they can call themselves a writer. As far as I’m concerned, everyone has the right to write, share their work, and call themselves a writer whenever they feel comfortable with the label.

But writing well takes effort, and writers have to decide for themselves what investments they want to make in the quality of their writing before it’s released into the public. I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a writer when I started my novel a year ago but am much more willing to identify myself as such now, the difference being I’ve invested a considerable amount of time in honing my craft and establishing myself as a professional.

So what did I do?

1. Reading

I decided to write a romance novel because I was interested in exploring the tension between love and lust. I arrived at this decision in March of last year. In May, another writer asked me who my favorite romance authors were, and the conversation took an awkward turn when I admitted I wasn’t sure if I’d ever read a romance novel (“Does Bridget Jones’s Diary count?” I asked). She graciously suggested a few authors, and I began reading romance novels at a rapid pace. And it was a good thing I did, because it turns out, I didn’t understand how romance novels work. In particular, I didn’t realize how sexy they are and that the plots tend to follow a similar structure.

The data available on my Goodreads account suggests I’ve read around a hundred books since last May. I read a mix of romance and literary fiction although the majority of what I read is romance. I read for pleasure, but I try to approach what I read from a critical angle as well. Before I began my own novel, I studied the structure of other romance novels. When I ran into problems with point-of-view, I reread some of my favorite novels to see how the authors handled third person. When I don’t like a book, I try to figure out what I dislike about it. Similarly, when I love a novel, I try to identify what attracts me. This process, coupled with daily writing on my part, has helped me to define my writing style.

2. Writing

Okay, so this is most obvious step to becoming a writer: sitting down and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

I jumpstarted my writing by participating in Camp NaNoWriMo in July of last year, completing a 50,000 word draft of a novel in a month. To accomplish this, I wrote roughly 1,600 words a day without engaging in any editing. There were a lot of problems with the manuscript I produced, but this was one of the best months of my life because I was able to let my creative brain run free and avoid the editing hell brought on by my perfectionist tendencies. That would come later…

Not only did participating in Camp NaNoWriMo help me produce a large amount of text in a short amount of time, it also made it easier for me to write short pieces. I learned how to sit down and write without constantly questioning myself. And I use this skill now in my rewriting process. I’ll throw out a section of the novel and set word count goals for a week or two to replace it.

To anyone starting out, I’d recommend a brief time where you focus on generating content without judging your work. Set daily word count goals you can achieve and watch your writing accumulate. Give yourself time to fall in love with this process because I’ve found it’s easy to feel defeated once you start critiquing your work.

3. Rewriting/Editing

Rewriting and editing are critical to the writing process, but I’ve included them as a separate category from writing because I think focused attention on rewriting and editing can improve one’s skills at a much more rapid pace than generating text alone can. Why? Because you have to sit down with your work and figure out how to make it better, and while you may succeed in making small improvements, what you end up with still might not be what you consider good. This is the point when you’ll want to consult outside sources (e.g., books on writing, other writers, editing workshops), which I’ll discuss more in Part 2 of this post.

For me, writing is fun while editing is uncomfortable, basically a lot of time spent trying to wrangle terrible sentences and paragraphs into submission. I remember spending about three weeks over the holiday season this past year editing a chapter in my novel that involved a lot of dialogue, physical action, and emotional reaction. Figuring out how to balance these things was painful, but when I emerged on the other side of the process, I had learned something valuable: how to write a scene that was scenic. And if I hadn’t spent a lot of time trying to improve that particular chapter, which I felt was at the emotional core of my novel, I think I could have written four or five novels without figuring out how to do this.

One part of the rewriting/editing process I found frustrating initially was the difficulty I had setting goals and tracking my progress. Unlike writing alone, where I just had to meet a daily word count, rewriting and editing involved subtracting and modifying words until I thought the improvements I’d made were “good enough.” Talk about vague! Now I’m trying to adhere to a strict rewriting/editing schedule (e.g., tomorrow I’m scheduled to rewrite chapter thirty-two of my novel), but I’m not sure this would have worked for me when I first started the editing process. I needed protected time to figure out how to write and what constitutes my style (I’m not done with this, BTW).

The rewriting/editing process is where I’ve felt the most defeated, but it’s also where I’ve experienced my greatest victories. There’s nothing like starting the day with a chunk of text that kind of pisses you off and ending the day having turned it into something witty and emotional. I love sending my writing group chapters I feel confident are the best I could write at the moment.

And that’s why rewriting and editing are so important, because the best thing you can write is not necessarily the first thing you’ll put down on paper but admitting that can be hard.

I’ll be back soon with Part 2 of this post, detailing how training, spending time with other writers, and focusing on the business aspects of a writing career were essential steps on my journey to become a writer.

In the meantime, if you have any advice on becoming a writer, please share it in the comments. I’m especially keen to hear your insights on the rewriting/editing process.

One year into the novel: my writing then and now

I started writing my novel on July 1st of last year and wrote the first draft within a month as part of Camp NaNoWriMo. I’d hoped to have it finished within a year, but it turns out there was a lot I needed to learn about writing.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s a paragraph taken from something I wrote about a year ago:

She grabbed two bottles from the 12-pack they’d picked up the night before at the grocery store but failed to make much of a dent in yet and rejoined him on the porch.  They sat close together on the porch swing watching the sunset over the tree tops continuing their conversation from before and alternating with periods of silence where they just enjoyed their proximity to one another.  After they finished their first beers, they each had another before they went in to make dinner.

Here, I’ve revised the paragraph (FYI, this is not from the novel):

Melissa grabbed two beers from the fridge and then walked back to the porch. Brad sat on a wooden swing, staring out across the hilltops.

 

“Here you go.” Melissa handed him a beer.

 

“Thanks.” He shifted to make room for her. “It’s a beautiful night.”

 

She sat down and took in the view, rolling hills shaded blue, the sky awash in waves of pink and gold. She’d heard life described as a series of peaks and valleys. This was a mountaintop moment.

 

She turned to Brad. “I’m happy to be here with you.”

 

He smiled and put his arm around her, drawing her tight against his side. They sipped their beers and watched the sun slip below the horizon while night collected in the sky. A quiet settled between them, a silence unlike any she’d ever experienced, one that stretched beyond comfort to intimacy.

 

Only when the moon had reached its full brightness did she mention dinner, and it was still several minutes after that when they abandoned their perch for the warmth of the cabin.

I hope you will agree that the second version does a better job of transporting you the scene. What have I done? I’ve given more detail about the physical space (the porch and their view) as well as their position in it (sitting next to each other on the swing, his arm over her shoulder). I’ve eliminated weird prepositional phrases that undercut the action (e.g. “After they finished their first beers, they each had another before they went in to make dinner.”). I’ve added dialogue. I’ve adopted Melissa’s point of view and relayed her thoughts. Most importantly, in my opinion, I’ve conveyed why this moment should be included in the story: Melissa has never experienced an intimate silence like this before. There’s something special about her relationship with Brad.

I’ve yet to complete a second draft of my novel with a coherent storyline, but I have made some critical advances in my writing style. Here are what I consider to be the three most important lessons I’ve learned this year:

1. Don’t solve conflicts too quickly

I’ve written about this before, but to summarize, in my initial draft, I would set up a problem in one chapter only to disregard or solve it in the next. This led to a story that was not very compelling, characters who weren’t given a chance to fully develop, and hypothetical readers who would have been insulted by the way I undercut the conflict. In particular, if I ask readers to believe something in one scene only to throw it out the window in the next, they aren’t going to trust my story.

2. How to write in third person

I was working in a coffee shop in November of last year when I realized my novel needed an entire rewrite.

I texted a friend: “Novel editing in Columbia, SC, today. Wishing I would have made stronger choices about point of view in my first draft and initial edits. Whereby stronger choice, I mean a choice. So confusing.”

Despite being a long time reader and having read at least one book on writing, I didn’t understand how to write in the third person before beginning my novel. I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of both of my main characters, but instead of choosing one of them as the viewpoint character for a particular scene, I would go back and forth between the two in the same scene, doing what is known as head jumping. When I began to grasp how to write in the third person, my novel improved dramatically. Suddenly, I knew where I was in the scene, inside the head one of my main characters, and it became much easier to describe what was going on because I was filtering the scene through their eyes. Whereas before I was afraid to go too deep into my characters’ thoughts, now I was able to share what my viewpoint character was thinking, and in particular, how they perceived the other character. My romance story began to feel emotional and intimate!

3. Showing versus telling

Last week I planned to do some quick revisions to earlier chapters in the novel. I began my edits and realized right away these scenes weren’t scenic enough. It seems in the past few months I’ve finally begun to understand how to show rather than tell. While my earlier chapters were interesting, they lacked immediacy. Instead of unveiling the events as they unfolded and transporting the reader to the scene, I’d summarized them (similar to the old version of the porch scene above). Now, some summary is necessary, especially to keep the book moving along, but there were parts where I was cheating the reader out of a good scene.

I’m hoping to write a longer blog post about the things that I’ve done this past year to become a better writer, but for now, I’ll recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King to those looking to improve their writing. I read this book last month. I wish I would have read it much sooner.