Thursday, July 30, 2009
Ten Things I've Learned as a Novelist
Today I am finishing the epilogue for my 20th book. A suspense novel (of course) titled Deceit. (Releases May 2010.)
My first book was written in 1993-1994 and published in 1995. A Question of Innocence was a true crime about a nationally watched murder case in the California Bay Area. QofI is my only book that's now out of print. (If you enjoy true crime, this is an amazing story. Find used copies through Amazon and other used book stores.)
A Question of Innocence was written in the middle of my learning how to write fiction well enough to be published, which took the entire decade of the '90s. I finally sold my first novel (Cast a Road Before Me), a women's fiction, in late 1999. It was published in the spring of 2001. Once I sold Road, I sold other novels in quick succession. Two were already completed--Color the Sidewalk for Me, a follow-up to Road, and Eyes of Elisha, my first suspense. Sidewalk sold in a two-book contract, with the second book being "blind"--that is, we agreed I'd write a third book for the Bradleyville series to follow Sidewalk, but I had no plot at the time of contract. Eyes of Elisha also sold in a two-book contract, with a "blind" sequel. In that same time period I sold my nonfiction book Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors on a proposal. Suddenly I had that nonfiction and the two blind novels to write.
My life on deadline had begun.
Now a decade and twenty books later, it's a good time for some reflection on what I've learned.
1. I know much less now about writing than when I started. As an aspiring novelist I thought I was downright good. At least I was certainly far more talented than other aspiring novelists. I thought when I sold my first book, my journey of learning the craft would end. I'd have made it. But that's when my learning truly began. Now I know I'll never stop digging deeper into the craft of fiction. The more I learn about the craft, the more I understand how very, very hard it is, how demanding it is. And the more I see how little I know.
2. Writing to deadline is entirely different than writing before having sold. On a deadline I have to write--whether I'm sick, tired, or just sick and tired. Whether I feel creative or not. As an aspiring novelist I relied on inspiration. Now I rely on perspiration. Then I could quit, walk away if wanted. Now I cannot. Now I must rely on knowledge of the craft more than ever, because day to day, inspiration can be coy and ephemeral.
3. I can write a good book even when I'm not feeling passionate about writing. Sure, I'd rather feel the passion. But it's not always there. This is where the rubber hits the road. It comes down to dedication and knowledge of the craft. Dedication means an unwillingness to settle for less quality than I'm capable of producing. Knowledge of the craft requires constant study of plot structure, characterization, dialogue, etc.--the basics of Story.
4. I need other novelists. Writing is a lonely occupation. I'm in my cave--before my computer--most of the time. I need social interaction with people who understand me. I need to kick ideas around. I need to vent and rant and rejoice with others in my profession.
5. A review is merely one person's opinion. When it's positive, I can rejoice in that. If it's negative, I can say, "Okay, it wasn't for her. But many others like it." And perhaps that negative review makes a point I can learn from. I will never please everyone. What I can do is work as hard as possible to please my readers and my target audience.
6. Always write for the smartest reader. As a suspense author, I'm writing for a wide variety of readers--from those who've never picked up a suspense before to those who are avid suspense fans. Readers not used to suspense aren't familiar with its conventions. They haven't yet learned the complexities of foreshadow and red herrings. Avid suspense readers know these conventions well. If I wrote even to the median of these two extremes, I'd be writing beneath the clue-hunting level of avid suspense fans. They'd be bored. And after all, that end of the spectrum is where the majority of my target audience lies. Plus--the smartest readers of my genre are the ones who will keep me on my toes. If I can surprise them with my twists, entertain and enthrall them, I've accomplished something.
7. Estaliblish a schedule for writing and stick to it. In today's social media world, even for a full-time writer it's so easy to procrastinate. I have a set time for dealing with Facebook and Twitter and email and blogging. Then it's time to write.
8. I view the world differently than those who don't write fiction. The "normals" look at the world and see what's there. I see what isn't. What could be. The what if. I see a drop of dew glisten on a spider web and tuck away the memory as a future metaphor. I see a cargo hold in a private plane and think, "You could hide a corpse in there." (Yes, I'm warped--blame it on my genre.) I eavesdrop on conversations, memorize a stranger's unusual gait, notice faces and expressions. Everything in the world is fair game for a story. Even my own pain and weakness. Especially my own pain and weakness.
9. Never take my readers for granted. With Twitter and Facebook it's easier than ever to stay in touch with fans. And if a reader emails me, I always answer promptly. I consider it a great kindness for someone to contact me and tell me how much they've enjoyed one of my books. Of course it takes time to answer. But they deserve a response. Besides, without readers, where would I be?
10. Give my talent to God. He created within me the ability and yearning to write in the first place. Therefore it's not a huge step to believe He knows best what to do with it. And when I have a problem in my writing, which is often--well, hey, He hung the sun and moon. He can surely handle this.
Next week--on to writing my 21st book. And soon I will enter my second decade as a full-time novelist. No doubt I'll revisit this list in ten years.
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