When it comes to writing, like all writers, I’m learning as I go. I was working on White Collar Girl, my fourth novel, I became aware of few crucial things. Let’s just say I debunked some popular writing myths and have learned some valuable tricks that I’d like to now pass along.
This guest post is by Renée Rosen. Rosen is the author of White Collar Girl, What the Lady Wants and Dollface, as well as the young adult novel, Every Crooked Pot. She lives in Chicago. Visit her online at ReneeRosen.com, on Facebook, and @ReneeRosen1.
Photo credit Charles Osgood.
6 Myths of Writing
1. Word count equals progress.
False. Many of us set word count goals each day. Personally, I consider 2,000 words a day to be a good, solid productive day of work. However, I’ve recently discovered that sometimes you’re better off not writing. What!? It’s true. Sometimes you need to put the pen down or step away from the laptop and do nothing. I know that sounds counter intuitive, but a big part of writing is thinking. There are times when you need to really think about your characters and where your story is going. These are times when you need to stop, slow down and do the necessary behind the scenes work that is required. Otherwise, if you’re just blindly cranking away to make your word count you could end up writing yourself into a 20,000-word corner. I know this because I’ve done it far too many times.
2. Writing has to be difficult.
True and False. Sometimes yes, it’s excruciating. But trust me, pain is not a prerequisite of good work. While we’ve all suffered for our art and will continue to do so, I have found that some of my best scenes—particularly in my upcoming novel, White Collar Girl, practically wrote themselves. They were a joy to write and required very little revising. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because something comes easy, it must not be any good.
3. Dialogue is cheating.
This goes right along with Myth Number Two. I used to think that allowing my characters to reveal themselves and move the story forward with just dialogue was cutting corners. I was forever junking up scenes with unnecessary dialogue tags and frivolous stage direction. Lighting cigarettes, taking sips of coffee, deep sighing for no reason other than you don’t think your dialogue is strong enough on it’s own, does not justify those extraneous and often distracting activities. What I’ve learned is that good dialogue is really, really, really hard to do. If you’re lucky enough to have an ear for it and can pull it off, go with it and don’t clutter it up with unnecessary extras.
4. Writing books is a solitary process.
True and False. Of course, unless you have a co-author, at the end of the day there’s only one set of hands keystroking in all the words, but I don’t know anyone who writes a book, fiction, non-fiction, or even memoir in a vacuum. Speaking for myself, it would be impossible for me to write without the valuable feedback I get early on from my agent, my critique partner, my trusted friends and first readers. I may think I’m being perfectly clear and communicating exactly what I want, but that rarely happens all the way through the first couple of drafts. The truth is that we as authors get far too close to our material and we simply need feedback from other people we trust in order to create the best stories we can.
5. You don’t really need an editor.
False. In the age of indie authors, it’s easy to think this and assume that editors don’t really edit anymore anyway. Trust me—they do and yes, you need one—hopefully one who pushes you. While I’m sure there are some editors who have a lighter touch and some who have a heavy hand, I’ve been extremely fortunate to find the perfect balance with mine. In every single case my editor has taken what I’ve given her and helped me make it so much better than I could have imagined. Her keen observations and critical questions have helped me take each book to the next level. If you don’t have a good editor, don’t worry. You can get one. There are a number of excellent freelance editors who will help whip your manuscript into shape. I am convinced that had I not sought the help of an outside editor back in 2011, I would have never gotten an agent or a book deal for Dollface.
6. There’s a difference between writers and storytellers.
True. You can tell someone’s a writer when their prose is so poetic, their imagery and metaphors stop you cold on the page because you can’t believe their brilliance. And okay, so maybe there’s not much going on in terms of plot, but you don’t care because you’re so enthralled with the language and the craft. That’s a writer. Then we have storytellers. Word for word, it could be a little flat, filled with clichés and a lot of heavy handed telling but man oh man, the story is just so gripping that you can’t put the thing down. That’s a storyteller. Personally, I would love to be both a good writer and a good storyteller. Few authors have perfected both crafts, but I think it’s something that we should all be striving for.
So those are the top myths and why we should not let them dictate what we can and can’t do on the page. Now let me shift gears and share a few of my top tricks that I used while writing White Collar Girl and my previous novels.
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5 Tricks to Better Writing
1. What to do when your story has stalled.
We’ve all been there. We’re looking at an empty page and we don’t have a clue as to what happens next. If you find yourself in this predicament it’s because you don’t know your characters well enough. I actually learned this from the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Michael Cunningham. He said whenever your story has come to a dead end, you need to go back and spend time developing your characters. For every one detail you include about a character, make sure you know ten more that will never make it into your book. This valuable exercise has gotten my story moving time and time again. After you breathe a certain amount of life into your characters, listen to them. They have a destiny and they want you to fulfill it for them.
2. Stop writing in the middle of a scene.
This is an old Hemingway trick and it works. When you’re really cruising and you know exactly what’s going to happen next—that’s when you stop for the day. Stop in the middle. It’s much easier to get your butt back in your chair the next day when you know what you’re going to write, rather than facing a blank page.
3. Deadlines are your friend.
Remember the old saw “work expands to fill the time allotted for it?” I’ve come to believe this is true. My first book took me seventeen years to write. Dollface took ten. Then I landed a contract for What The Lady Wants and had to deliver a manuscript in 12 months. I was terrified and people will tell you that for one year I was never more than three feet from my laptop. I even took it to diner parties in case there was a little downtime and I could sneak in a few words. I made my deadline and wound up with another one for White Collar Girl. Even if you’re not under an official deadline, set a self-imposed one and I guarantee you’ll see your productivity pick up.
4. Keep a word count log.
Now despite what I said earlier about word count, sometimes you do need something concrete that assures you that you’re making progress. Here’s a look at the log I kept early on when drafting White Collar Girl (then entitled Above the Fold). I did this until I had a basic working draft with a beginning, middle and end. I’ve done this for all my novels and they’re a reminder of how hard the process can be and that you will prevail.
5. Get up and do something mindless.
When I feel stuck on a scene or a sentence and I’ve been staring at the computer screen and coming up blank I get up and do something like fold laundry, start fixing dinner or go for a walk. I usually don’t get too far or get many clothes folded because just that act of using my brain for something mindless frees me up and gets the words flowing again.
So there you have it. A few writing myths and some valuable tricks that I’ve learned along the way. I hope you find these helpful and that words flow like running water.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.