People often ask me what advice I have for people who want to become writers.
I floundered around on this for quite awhile. Still do. But here's my best "advice".
I "taught" writing for a number of years through the Continuing Education Faculty at the University of Winnipeg. I am putting "taught" in quotes because what I was really doing was telling students how I, personally, approached writing a novel.
While there, I did something not all writers might necessarily advise, but which I felt was very important. I emphasized the necessity to learn the basic punctuation and grammar rules of English (to be broken only once they are learned!). To me, learning the language in which you intend to communicate (presumably important) information to other people, requires a knowledge of how that language works.
To me, it's like giving a person keys to a car and telling them, "Okay. Go ahead - drive it" .... and then walking away and leaving them to it. They might learn to drive it on their own. But they might not know it needs gas to run. It's important to know where the key goes, how the gas pedal works and the brake pedal (especially!) and how to generally steer the thing.
This is why we must teach young students not just to read, but also how to write with clarity. By teaching them the basics of their language, they might then be free to drive their creative car anywhere the want to go with confidence - and if they want to become writers, so much the better.
I also emphasized to the novice writers in my classes how important story is for me; both as a writer and a reader. And how vitally important character development is for me, as well. And also how setting is extremely important to many readers. I am also a visual artist, so I want to make my story as visual as possible for the reader -- and my settings as real, as "alive", as they can be.
If a story I am working on doesn't pull me through with an electric cord of tension, drama, changes and surprises as I write, then I soon lose interest in it - and I know the reader will as well.
And speaking of readers, I also tell writers to remember one thing. Don't write to satisfy some unknown reader to begin with - write to satisfy yourself. Tell yourself a damn good story - and you can be sure others will love it, too!
But take note! You will never ever satisfy every reader. It's impossible. Impossible. But if you can get a publisher interested and get the work out there, it will find its way to readers who will "get" what you wanted them to get.
My other "advice" to people starting out as writers is this:
Read, read, read. Especially the best writers of the kinds of books you would like to write. It's the first and best "advice" that I can give to new writers. If you want to write picture books, then read pictures books. Hundreds and hundreds of them. If you want to be a young adult writer, read the very best YA writers. If you want to be a mystery writer .... well you get the idea.
You will absorb many of the basics of writing if you read the best writers. They will definitely be your best teachers.
And I would suggest you get a collection of books similar to the ones shown above and read them. That way you can argue with a copy editor and know what you are talking about!
Then .... write the book that is in you to write.
Then revise, edit, revise, edit.
Enjoy the process. Writing should be the most fun you've had in years. If it isn't, why do it? If you're looking for fame or fortune, it's highly unlikely you'll find it in writing. It's the love of it that keeps most writers writing.
Iwould never ask more than one trusted person to read your work at a time, once it is finished. Perhaps a local writer whose work you admire - one who reads manuscripts for a fee. Listen to them carefully. However, if you disagree with them, then don't make any huge changes - unless you feel they are right.
Or get a second opinion from another experienced writer in the same field - always remembering that they are not you; they do not write like you; or think like you; but they can tell you things: such as; did your story keep their attention; did they connect with your characters; did it sag in places etc etc. And you may find that both writers point out the same things that aren't working in your novel that you were convinced were working!
I have to admit, I did not let anyone read my first work except my daughter. I sent it to two different publishers. That was when publishers were still taking unsolicited manuscripts. I was lucky. I found a publisher right away.
Either way, start finding out what people in the business of publishing/writing think of your work, by sending it out - but only when it is the most polished work you can make it.
And remember - to quote William Zinsser, "Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading."
NOTE: I plan to eventually add thoughts and quotes from other writers and their work in this section called "On Writing" - to show what others deal with in their own writing -- and whose work they like to read. I'll be adding my own comments as well. I hope you will, too!
"Let me tell you my story as it happens," they say. "Here I am, already in my setting, my world, see? I'll introduce you to the other people involved. So grab your laptop, or some pencils and lots of paper, and follow me! Oh, and by the way (this over the shoulder) we'll talk about mistakes you make later." They are always bossy....
And so, like Alice, I do their bidding - wide-eyed and curious about what's about to happen. But I also keep one canny eye on the situation as it develops. I am after all the boss in all this. I don't tell my character that, of course. They are so touchy.
But what triggers a character to show up at all? Is it something I've read? A photo? An event? What is the "kiss" that awakens a character in my head? Sometimes I know right away, because I've been researching something that interests me, and up they pop -- but other times, it can be a photo, an article, a dream, or finding something in an antique store - and it's only later that I figure out what the trigger was. In Who is Frances Rain? Lizzie showed up shortly after I found a pair of old spectacles on an island near our cottage.
Two posts from Facebook friends recently, made me think about a couple of things regarding character. One post was about naming your characters, and one was where a colleague said she was about to have "a meeting of minds with her main protagonist." I've had those. It can get ugly.
If you are like me, before I start a story around a character, I have to find out their name. Naming a character is as important as naming your own child. A baby can't tell you - unborn or too small to talk as they are - and, in some cases, you might even be forced to pick a name that someone else likes better than you.
I have found the characters in my novels generally refuse to tell me their name until I figure it out for myself. If a name doesn't fit, and I go with it anyway, my protagonist finds devious ways of letting me know it's wrong, wrong, wrong. When I finally hit the right one, we're both happy. And the character often gets a little smug about it, too.
As an aside, I find it hard to attach certain names to characters, especially names that are popular at the time. I won't list them here for fear of hurting feelings. But, to me, there are, to my way of thinking, names that seem to diminish a primary character somehow.
I like names with character. I named my first fictional character after my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, known as Lizzie to all. From what I hear, my grandma was a character!
I named another main character in the book, Frances, because Frances is an old name, but mainly because it means, "free" and, if you've read the book, you know why I chose it.
I personally think names that are in fashion for awhile, and then vanish (thank goodness) can also "date" a book pretty quickly. Names can say a lot about a character before you even learn what makes them tick. So I avoid names that are connected to fruit, light fixtures, planets, desserts etc; and often those that are not spelled traditionally. I avoid weird spellings of traditional names, like Elizabeth, when they are morphed into atrocities like Elissabith. I signed a book for a woman once, "To Elizabeth" only to find out it was Elissabith. She was quite annoyed. As was I...
After saying all this, I do have a lot of odd names in my fantasy trilogy, so really who am I to talk? Names like Cill, Ailla, Leto, Mennow, Jowan, Caul, etc - many of which I made up. But these characters live in fantasy worlds, so anything goes. Besides, I'm the boss, remember....
In the first novel of my fantasy series, The Watcher, Emma's mother has named her two girls Summer and Winter. Winter is my main character. She has pale skin and white hair. She hates her name, because she is constantly teased about it and her looks. So she announces one day that her name - from that day forward - will be Emma. Her mother says, "Are you aware that Emma means "grandmother?"
Emma doesn't care. She just wants to be plain, simple, straightforward Emma. Despite the change, Emma is anything but plain or simple, but she does remain Emma -- and she also remains straightforward throughout the three books. Being Emma gets her through some pretty harrowing adventures trying to beat The Game, once she falls into a number of very strange worlds!
Once the name-game is over, I know other conflicts will come between my characters and me. And the "meetings of minds" meetings grow in number as the pages grow in number.
After a story gets rolling, my characters and I get along pretty well on the whole. But now and again we suddenly take off in different directions, and that's when we go into head to head combat. The character sometimes wins. But it's when they take a seriously wrong turn, like Emma does in her deadly games in The Watcher's Trilogy series, that I know I have to take charge and redirect a story and get my character back on track.
Actually that happens a lot in rewrites. But by then, I am in full control, and I always get the last word. I am the boss after all!
And of course, each of my main characters has a different personality, so I am dealing with a variety of needs and wants - depending on their upbringing and the story. I've been thinking a lot about characters and their development in stories.
After going head to head with a main character recently, I began to wonder about chickens and eggs (maybe because my character's family has some in their city backyard in 1907) - but there is this strange "which comes first feeling" in a story where characters cause events to happen in their lives, but then, events outside of their control also happen as well - and both of these forms, involving plot, change that character's personality and their needs and wants. Mmm. Something else to muse about ...
As it is, I'm already thinking about some changes in my new mss.
To Outline or Not to Outline....