7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by E.L. Tettensor

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by E.L. Tettensor, author of DARKWALKER) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: E.L. is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Aristomas won.)


EL-Tettensor-author-writer       darkwalker-novel-cover

E.L. Tettensor likes her stories the way she likes her chocolate: dark, exotic,
and with a hint of bitterness. She has visited fifty countries on five continents,
and brought a little something back from each of them to press inside the pages
of her books. Her debut novel is DARKWALKER (Dec. 2013, Roc), the first
paranormal novel about police inspector Nicolas Lenoir. E.L. lives with her
husband in Bujumbura, Burundi. Connect with her on Twitter.



1. Patience. If you thought writing your novel took a long time, just wait. No, really – wait. And wait. And wait some more. In fact, you should probably just take a seat.

For all the research I did on the business of getting published, I had no idea just how many steps lay ahead of me after I typed “The End”. First, there’s all the time (and work!) that goes into landing that agent, getting that manuscript polished, making that first sale. Then the real waiting begins. If my experience is anything to go by, it takes at least a year and a half from the time you receive the offer for the book to hit the shelves. So get comfortable.

2. Less is more. Everyone has their own style. Some prefer lean and muscular, others prefer something a little more florid. Both approaches have their merits, and their fans. That being said, I’ve never heard a reader say, “Gee, I wish there were more adverbs in this book,” and I’ve never read a review that says, “If only the author had found more synonyms for ‘said’.” There’s a reason for that, and I wish I’d figured it out sooner. These days, when I proofread a first draft, the number one thing I find myself doing is deleting adverbs and removing dialogue tagging, especially fancy dialogue tagging (of the “snapped, growled, interjected” variety.) My debut novel, DARKWALKER, was only just released, and already I see flab, extraneous words just begging to be nipped and tucked. My subsequent works are a lot trimmer.

(The skinny on why to sign with a new/newer literary agent.)

3. Don’t panic. This is always good advice, which I still have to administer to myself on a regular basis. My book will be too long! My book will be too short! How will I ever make my deadline? Heaven help me, I don’t know what happens next!!!

Deep breaths. Here, take this bag. This is totally normal. It’ll pass. Feeling better? OK. Now, back to work.

4. It’s the story, stupid. I first got the notion that I could be a writer because I could… well, write. That is, I could churn out a mean sentence, a snappy bit of prose. Bully for me. What I didn’t do as well – what I’m still learning, will probably always be learning – is how to tell a good story. Evocative description is all well and good, but what makes people buy the book, what keeps them turning the pages, what has them imagining the scenes as they fall asleep, is the story. Which leads me to the fifth thing I’ve learned…

5. Good stories all have the same bone structure. A bird is a bird, and a mammal is a mammal, right? But have you ever checked out their skeletons? Same basic structure, just different sizes and shapes. So it is with a good story – or at least that’s what I’ve come to believe. Since I started writing, I’ve become much more analytical about why I like what I like, in books, movies, and TV. What kept me turning the pages? What made me cry, or laugh, or want to throw the book out the window? What had me switch off a series for good? Understanding my own reactions as a reader or an audience member has really helped me out.

(What are the BEST writers’ conferences to attend?)

6. Authentic dialogue is everything. Nothing, I mean nothing, rips me out of the story like bad dialogue. (That goes double for TV and film.) When I first started writing, all my characters sounded the same. You could literally swap one for the other. (That’s probably where my early habit of over-tagging the dialogue began.) Nowadays, I work hard to make sure that each character has his/her own distinctive voice, and that the voice sounds real. I’ve read that some authors try to imagine famous actors speaking the lines. That doesn’t work for me, because I’ve heard plenty of awful dialogue from famous actors. I try to imagine someone I know speaking the lines. If I can’t imagine my brother saying it, or my husband or my best friend, then there’s probably something awkward about the dialogue that needs to change.

7. Seeing your manuscript in book form helps. When I’m nearing the end of a first draft, I like to put into book format on a tablet, like an iPad or a Kindle. I change the font to something a little more bookish and read it in bed, as if it were an e-book. For some reason, I find that a very effective way to spot errors, and to see where there’s flab that needs cutting.

GIVEAWAY: E.L. is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Aristomas won.)


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We bundle them together at a discount in our shop.


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12 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by E.L. Tettensor

  1. ClementineElin

    I absolutely love reading tips and hints from other authors. I think that it is so inspiring.
    I also love the idea of paranormal mystery books. They seem so intriguing and it broadens what audience it appeals to.
    Great advice.

  2. texaslepfan

    Valuable tips! I am in the midst of my first novel, and see a lot of use in these suggestions. My favorite is the tip to examine yourself as a writer, then write what you like. This is what has brought me to being excited to work on my first manuscript. For the longest time I have thought I need to write what people would expect me to write….self-help, romance, religious…these are the things people expect of me. I’ve started each of them several times, but never felt the passion or excitement. I have many unfinished works in those genre. My favorite genres to read are fantasy and sci-fi, so that is what I am finally writing. I’m excited to write, and I have conversations with my characters, so they are finally real to me. There’s no reason I can’t fit some of those other elements into a sci-fi book, right? Thanks very much for the insight!


  3. KSJones

    All great advice from E.L. Tettensor, but I’d like to add to the #7 tip: After I create my “book” thru Kindle, I use my older version Kindle (#2 perhaps?) where I have the option of using Text-to-Speech and then I read along with the reader. You’ll be surprised how many errors your eyes miss that your ears will catch in audio mode!

  4. beardedstar

    In my creative writing class I was often told that I needed to add more detail. I would often counter this statement by telling my teacher that I did not want my reader to get to wrapped up in the details, I wanted them to get wrapped up in the emotion. It is during this emotional state that has more focus on how a person feels than what kind of design the wall paper is.

  5. Aristomas

    I could not agree more with the “less is more” statement. I write to tell a story and pray that I don’t over detail the things going on around to paint the picture I want, rather than allow the reader’s imagination do some of the work. So much can be implied and I need to remember that.
    Great advice!!!

  6. Nelson258

    Looks like you are off to a good start, I noticed you have 5 of 5 star rating on Amazon already, OK, two of them so far, but a great start nonetheless. I have bookmarked it for a future purchase. But I also agree with you that minimalist is often better. As a side note, I found you through the Preston and Child website I belong to, a big fan of the Pendergast novels. I am not a ‘novel’ writer, although I do write articles for magazines. I build models and share the techniques and photos to other modelers. Good luck to you, hope to see more work from you in the future.

  7. Clae

    Great advice, especially on using familiar voices to keep the dialogue distinct. I always have trouble differentiating voices without making them sound absurd. Thanks for the excellent idea.

  8. spirthful

    This advice, particularly “less is more” is something I need to be reminded of often, so thank you! I only recently discovered this site and I am finding it enormously helpful 🙂

  9. Teresa

    Thank you! This is much more comforting and inspiring to hear than stories of those who have agents fighting over them and a bidding war breaking out over their debut novels. I really needed to read this today. 🙂

    And thank you for the giveaway!

  10. vrundell

    Thanks so much for the great insights. As always, staying true to the story is the most important thing an author can do–for me dialogue is key, too. I’m a huge fan of colloquial speech, so when a New Yorker sounds British, or a Chicagoan sounds southern, I get a bit….stabby? Snarky, at the very least.
    Anywho, gook luck with the book, and establishing yourself as an author!

  11. Lina Moder

    Totally agree with her, that it’s the story that’s important. More than adverbs or description, it’s what keeps readers engaged and wanting more pages to the book:)

    LOVE the idea of a paranormal mystery series:)

    Thank you for this lovely advice:)

    linamoder at gmail dot com


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