“7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” (this installment written by Ruth Emmie Lang, author of BEASTS OF EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCE) is a recurring column where writers at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction, as well as how they got their literary agent—by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
1. Don’t Write to Sell
A few years before I wrote Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, I went through this phase of writing screenplays I thought I could sell. What resulted were several unfinished, unsalable, very unfunny scripts that now live in a folder on my computer titled What Was I Thinking? These stories are terrible for many reasons, but the fatal flaw they all had in common was that I wrote them for someone else. I didn’t care about the characters or their stories. I was just writing what I thought other people would like, and I failed miserably. Once I put these hackneyed projects to bed, I started writing a story just for the fun of it. I had no agenda, no audience in mind other than myself. That story would eventually become my debut novel.
2. Let Other People Read Your Work
Sometimes we get so close to what we’re writing, that we can’t see its flaws. We think that writing a chapter entirely in hashtags is the cleverest thing ever until our friend tells us it gave her a headache. After a day of nursing our wounded egos, we realize that our friend was probably right, and we start over. My husband has always been my first line of defense in the editing process. He’s rescued me from countless bad ideas and has made the good ones even stronger. We don’t always agree, but I trust his opinion, and my writing is stronger for it. It can be scary, sharing your work with other people. As writers, we like to hunker down in the echo chambers of our own imaginations. We are protective of our stories. We don’t want them (or us) to get hurt. Take it from someone whose feelings have been hurt a lot: constructive feedback builds character, both for the writer and her work.
3. Rejection Isn’t That Bad (Once You Get Used to It)
The first time you are rejected by an agent, an editor, or a literary magazine, it can feel like a harbinger of complete and utter failure, like there is some omniscient literary deity who has determined that your career is dead on arrival. I'm happy to report that this is not necessarily the case. Sure, it stung at first, but over time, the rejection letters began to feel like ordinary junk mail. I'd throw them in a pile with credit card offers and pizza coupons, and move on. After my first full manuscript request from an agent, I realized that rejection wasn't necessarily indicative of the quality of my work. I began to think of my book as a puzzle piece. There was one exact spot where it belonged, but I wouldn't find it right away. I'd have to try it out in a few different places first—even try to force it somewhere it didn't belong– until finally finding the right fit.
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4. Specificity is Your Friend
One of my creative writing professors in college used to drill this idea into my brain. Ever since, be specific has become a mantra of sorts for me. When I’m writing a scene, I try to avoid generalities. Instead, I home in on a small detail, something seemingly inconsequential, and give it more significance. For example, I recently wrote a short story in which a girl finds out her mom is being released from prison. When she discovers the news, she is peeling an orange, and the acid from the juice stings the skin under her thumbnail. It’s a small action, but I think it adds to the tension in the scene. That being said, I think it’s easy for us as writers to overindulge in the details. I usually opt for a less is more approach. One or two tightly-worded sentences can often do the work of five or six circuitous ones.
5. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
One of my fears before publishing Beasts was that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a writer. I was worried that because my book is whimsical and silly in places (see: a pig with a horn on its forehead) that I didn’t belong on the same shelves as more serious works of fiction. I thought being a writer meant brooding in coffee shops or hitchhiking across the country with nothing but a notepad and five dollars in your pocket. It wasn’t until I embraced the fact that I had written an unashamedly “feel good” book that I began to relax. After Beasts was released, I started receiving messages from people telling me that they’d had a rough week and my book had made them feel better. I recently went through a very rough patch myself, and books helped me through that time, so to know that something I wrote has had that effect on other poeple means a lot.
6. Be Your Own Casting Director
Sometimes I have trouble finding the voice of a particular character. For whatever reason, they just don't jump off the page like they should, or they have qualities I don't like and want to rethink. This is where casting comes in. I close my eyes and imagine my story as a movie. What actor could play the character in question? Better yet, which three actors? Then I “audition” them. I read over what I’ve written so far in the voice of each actor. Not literally –I’m terrible at impressions– but I can hear them in my head, see their expressions. From this point on, the character takes on a whole new life. Dialogue is easier to write, as are idiosyncrasies. The character’s motives become sharper, their emotions more authentic, because I can now put a face to a name. Many times, however, I’ll find that the deeper I get into the story, the less I imagine the actor I chose in the role. As the character himself fleshes out, I don’t need an actor to fill in the gaps. Casting the character was just a tool to help me figure out who the character really is. So, I thank Bob Odenkirk, Jemaine Clement, or Kumail Nanjiani for his service, and promise to call him someday should the film-version ever be greenlit.
7. Practice Empathy
This is a good practice for life in general, but I think it also applies to writing. It’s important for me to be able to empathize with my characters, and that means putting myself in the shoes of people who have different life experiences than I do. I’m not a fan of the adage “write what you know,” at least not in the strictly literal sense. However, I do subscribe to a philosophy I’ll call “write what you feel.” As humans, we’ve all experienced heartbreak, joy, anger, loneliness, disappointment, embarrassment, etc. These feelings are universal, regardless of our background. As long as we stay true to the way an experience feels, it doesn’t matter whether the character we’re writing looks, talks, or even processes emotion the way we do. Even if I’m writing an unlikeable character, I try to find something about them I can relate to, because even though I wouldn’t act the way they would, odds are I’ve felt the way they did at some point in my life. I believe that practicing empathy not only makes us better people, but it makes us better writers, too. It’s a win-win!
Ruth Emmie Lang was born in Glasgow, Scotland and has the red hair to prove it. When she was four years old, she immigrated to Ohio where she has lived for the last 27 years. She has since lost her Scottish accent, but still has the hair. Ruth currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband and dreams of someday owning a little house in the woods where she can write more books. Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance is her first novel.
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