7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Elisa Lorello

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Elisa Lorello, author of ADULATION) 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: Elisa 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: TakakoW won.)
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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 Elisa Lorello, author of ADULATION) 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: Elisa 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: TakakoW won.)

elisa-lorello-author-writer
adulation-novel-lorello

Published by Amazon Publishing, Elisa Lorello is the author of the
Kindle best-selling novels Faking It and Ordinary World, German
Kindle best-seller Why I Love Singlehood (co-authored with Sarah
Girrell), and ADULATION (Nov. 2012). She is very secretive about
her works-in-progress. Elisa continues to write and teach, and is
launching a workshop series this year as well as services as a
writing coach. Please contact her for more information. See her
website and find her on Twitter.

1. Set for “stun,” not “kill.” In other words, define “success” in and on your own terms. Do you want writing to be a part-time hobby or a full-time career? Do you want to traditionally publish or self-publish? Do you want a literary agent? Do you want to sell film and television rights, merchandise your characters, trademark your name?

Well-meaning people may tell you that you can’t and won’t make any money as a writer. And while I’ll concede that it can be a hard road to travel, knowing exactly what you do and don’t want will at least get you on the right road, and is the first step in making a plan to actualize it. And you must make a reasonable plan, give yourself a timetable. Also, be willing to take a few risks. Risks always produce something positive: either the reward if the risk pans out, or the lesson learned if it doesn’t, which can then be applied to future successes.

2. WWASD (What Would Aaron Sorkin Do?). One of my favorite pieces of storytelling advice comes from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin: Someone’s got to want something, and someone or something has got to be in the way of him/her getting it. That has become my starting point, as is the what-if. From there you’ve got to keep asking what’s at stake. What happens if the protagonist doesn���t get what s/he wants? What happens if s/he takes Door #1 instead of Door #2? What are the consequences? And once you’ve figured that out, you’ve got to keep raising the stakes and putting the screws to your protag’s thumbs.

(Meet literary agent Saritza Hernandez, who is an e-book agent specializing in romance.)

3. Always follow the rules of grammar, except when you’re not. I had a professor who commanded us not to use any form of “to be” in our writing. Ever. And after reading Stephen King’s stance regarding adverbs in On Writing, my Why I Love Singlehood co-author (Sarah Girrell) and I would admonish each other when reading our drafts: “Stephen says to lay off the adverbs.” Or, “Holy adverbs, Batman!”)

I have to admit: my writing improved tenfold when I zealously implemented these rules. I became a more conscientious reviser, and it yielded some fun exercises with my students. But depriving yourself of any aspect of language or style works about as well as opening up a toolbox and depriving yourself of the screwdriver, the socket wrench, or any other tool.

So what’s the rule, then? Read. Read closely. Every word in your manuscript matters. Every word has a purpose: To serve the story, serve the meaning, serve the reader.

4. When all else fails, take a shower. I have friends who insist that there’s no such thing as writer's block. (Try telling me that when I’m lying on my bed in a fetal position, moaning, “The suckage…Ohhh, the suckage.”) Some days the writing just doesn’t go well. And some days it doesn’t happen at all. You find yourself staring at your blank page in the same way you stand in front of a full fridge and can’t find a single thing to eat. And you’re not even hungry.

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)

I believe that fear is at the heart of all writer's block. Fear that it’s not good, never will be good, which means that you’re not good, and never were, and never will be, and you’re gonna die alone, too.

When that happens, it’s time to step away and stop thinking about the suckage, the deadline, the fear, all of it. Take a walk around the block. Go for a drive. Read. Turn on Food Network and watch Guy Fieri watch a guy named Louie make a meatball hero. Those seemingly brain-draining moments of down time are, in actuality, gold mines of productivity. Better yet, they quell the fear. Writing isn’t only about the physical act of sitting down with a notebook and pen or a laptop. For me, the real writing happens when, to the rest of the world, I’m doing nothing.

5. Rejection happens. It’ll come by way of form letters, emails, returned manuscripts from agents and/or editors, bookstores refusing to stock your book, or negative reviews, to name a few. Some sting more than others. Learn what you can from them, but move on and keep writing. If they persist, then you’ve got to sit down, figure out what’s wrong, and make a decision. If every beta reader fails to resonate with a specific character, for example, then you need to figure out why and decide whether to alter or eliminate that character altogether, even if you love it. And what doesn’t work in one story might work in another.

6. The internet is a giant high school bathroom. We now live in the age of exposure, and word travels faster than ever. Thus, you must think carefully about how you conduct yourself on the internet. You don’t want what you said when you thought no one was looking or listening or caring to be cyber-splattered everywhere. And it will happen.

It’s ok to engage in discussion with differing viewpoints, or disagree with someone, or stand up for something you believe in. It’s ok to make jokes too. I’m not advocating censorship. But be prepared to take the consequences, because once it’s out there, it’s out there. Your reputation, career, and book sales are on the line. A good rule of thumb before posting something is: “Would I say that to someone’s face?”

Also, publicly complaining about a reader’s negative review or taking the reviewer on directly casts a bad light on you and could cost you readers and followers. Ditto for overly criticizing other authors or books.

(Find a writers' conference near you and pitch publishing pros.)

7. Write a good story, and write it well. (DUH!) I saved the most seemingly obvious piece of advice for last, but it’s as crucial as telling people to eat their vegetables.

There’s always an x-factor to why a book does or doesn’t sell. And good writing is subjective—one person’s all-time favorite book is another’s insomnia remedy. So how do you know what makes a story, or the writing, “good”? The best way to learn is by reading as much as you can. After awhile you’ll absorb common characteristics: engaging characters, fluent dialogue, distinctive prosaic style, and other elements of storytelling. Good editing is just as crucial—not only when it comes to grammar and mechanics, but also clarity and brevity.

Once you do that, craft your style. There’s nothing wrong with adopting bits and pieces of other writers’ styles, but you’ve got to integrate it with your own.

Most importantly, you must write the story you want to read. The moment you try to please the market, the agent, the trend, etc., you’re doomed. You can’t please everyone no matter what you do, so don’t even try. But you also can’t expect even one other person to fall in love with your story if you’re not in love with it yourself.

GIVEAWAY: Elisa 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: TakakoW won.)

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