7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Marian Palaia

Marian Palaia, author of 2015 novel THE GIVEN WORLD, talks about the top lessons she's learned about writing, including how to use words and write scenes.
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This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Marian Palaia, author of THE GIVEN WORLD) 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.

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Column by Marian Palaiaauthor of debut novel THE GIVEN WORLD
(April 2015, Simon & Schuster). Marian lives in California and in Montana,
where at one time she was the littlest logger in Lincoln, and neighbors with
Ted Kozinski. She is currently working on novel number two: The Hello Kitty
Justice League. Connect with her on Twitter.

1. It’s never as bad as you think it is. Something can always be salvaged, even if it just the situation or the ideas, and not necessarily the words you used to illustrate them. Even if it’s not as awful as you thought it was, it can always be better. Always.

(Learn how to start your novel strong.)

2. If you are beginning the work with some grand (or, god forbid, clever) idea, rather than with characters and a situation (however mundane) and a setting, you are going about it wrong. I stand by this. Why? A. It’s probably been done before. B. Stories about grand and clever ideas usually lack soul, and stories that lack soul are usually bad. I’m sure there are dozens of examples of grand and clever ideas that have been turned into great stories or novels, but that is out of the millions that have been attempted. Long odds. Very, very long. Start small and work your way up, as long as your plot and characters can support it.

3. Every word counts. If you think you are overusing a word, you are probably right. Do a document search for (for example) “that.” See how many places you can remove it, keep the original meaning, and improve the rhythm and/or the impact of a sentence. Pick on random sentences and experiment with removing random words, or replacing them with simpler ones. See what happens. If a particular passage or sentence is giving you fits, see what happens if you leave it out altogether.

Overwriting is easier than underwriting. Use words with care and frugality; not explaining too much; believing and operating on the assumption that what you leave out is often as important as what you leave in; trusting your reader to not be an idiot who doesn’t want to do any work.

4. “Write crappy first drafts”—a very popular bit of council—is not necessarily a gospel admonition to which everyone should adhere. If writing badly makes you extremely uncomfortable, trust your instincts and try your best to not do it. Often, writers who allow themselves crappy first drafts neglect to remove all of the crap in subsequent drafts. Of course, you are going to write crappy sentences, just to keep moving forward, but if you can’t get more than a paragraph ahead without finding yourself back at that crappy sentence, tinkering to fix it, by all means, fix it. If you do this throughout a draft, you will be that much further toward completion. It’s really hard to fix two or three hundred pages that have been allowed free reign to suck.

(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)

5. You cannot write your way out of a corner or a dead end. If you arrive at a place you know is not where you were headed, or not where you should be, you must back track and erase your tracks. Don’t just keep writing yourself further and further into the forest or the swamp or the desert or whatever inhospitable place you have wound up. Get out of there and take your garbage with you. (The practice of this method in state and national parks is called, “Leave No Trace,” and you should do it in those places too.)

6. As much as possible, write scenes. Also, sometimes, known as “showing not telling.” Exposition and backstory are both necessary (in most works) and can be very engaging. But scenes, unless you are some kind of clever experimentalist, are what readers, for the most part, want to read.

“Scene” does not mean “dialogue,” but that is a common conclusion some novice writers jump to. Scenes are just that: scenes; whole ones. They should include sensory detail, movement, something reflective (commentary, maybe, from the narrator or one or more characters), and people talking and interacting. Be very careful not to deliver information through dialogue that is better delivered another way, or not delivered at all.

7. The publishing world isn't perfect. Even after you sell your book, you will find yourself frustrated by things that go on (or do not go on) in the publishing world. However, no matter what happens in your writing life, pretty much the only thing you can do about any of it is to keep writing, like you mean it.

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