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.

(To keep up with news on my books and have chances to win free copies, please sign up for Sneak Pique, my newsletter emailed every other month.)

23 comments:

Richard Mabry said...

Brandilyn,
So much truth in a small space. Thanks for sharing--and affirming what some of us are also learning.

Tina said...

What a great list! Yes, I agree with Richard. Some of us are also learning these lessons, even at book two instead of twenty. :-)

Deborah Vogts said...

Thanks for sharing this, Brandilyn. I'm going to print it out and post it at my writing desk. You are an inspiration! Blessings to you. ;)

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Thank you. Wonderful advice.

Liberty Speidel said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Brandilyn! Although I'm not a full-time novelist like you (or even published for that matter), in the decade+ I've been writing fiction, I've realized I won't ever learn everything there is to know about the craft.

#8 struck a cord with me. I don't know how many times I've made an off-hand comment to my husband that I think is completely normal due to seeing everything through the lenses of a mystery writer, but I look at him and it's obvious he believes I've lost my mind!

Nicole said...

Profound.

I especially relate to this one:

"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."

This also speaks to my knowledge of the Lord.

Laura Frantz said...

What an amazing post! As a writer of many years but only recently published, all of your insights really resonated with me, particularly the part about God gifting us to write and His handling of all the details. Bless you for sharing your heart and wisdom here!

Jen said...

Thank you for the insight. I follow you on Twitter, and part of why I follow you is that my 9 yr old wants to write a book with me. I don't know much about writing as a craft, but lists like this, and input from other writers, is so valuable to me! I appreciate yuor taking time to compile this and post it!

Robin Bayne said...

Great post!!!! I found it while procrastinating: )

Megan DiMaria said...

Congratulations on a great decade of writing and learning, and blessing that your next writing decade will be even better.

A prisoner of hope,
Megan

Denise Miller Holmes said...

Thanks for the great info, Brandilyn.

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. What a lovely article.

Sherrie Lord said...

Excellent! Bravo!

NancyMehl said...

Great info, Brandilyn. Taking it to heart...

Teri D. Smith said...

Congratulations on your success and thanks for sharing what you've learned. I can relate to the aspect of the longer you go, the more you realize how much there is to learn. I've been reading the Bible for over 50 years and still have only scratched the surface.

Blessings.

Lea Ann McCombs said...

Hi Brandilyn,
I loved the tip about writing to your smartest reader! I'm an avid suspense reader and am working in that genre now. Great advice!

Reba said...

Brandilyn, It's very difficult to imagine a day when you were just learning how to write fiction. It seems like I've been reading your seatbelt suspense novels forever!

Thank you for sharing yourself with us so we can learn and grow!

Marilyn said...

Thanks for confirming my suspicions. I am in the midst of procrastination, one I am finding out how much there is to learn, and that writing well is not easy. I promise I will now go and write something, more than this.

Jill Nutter said...

Love that list of 10, Brandilyn. The older I get the more I realize I'm never going to be a grown up. But when I was a teenager I thought I knew soooooooooooo much. In the writing world I feel like Mork from Ork. :)

Nanoo, nanoo.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This is a great list I can relate to. I might need to hang this by my computer!

Beth Wiseman

Lynn Squire said...

I love this, Brandilyn. Thanks for sharing the list with us.

Linda Yezak said...

I appreciate your insight. Thank you for sharing this with us!

Karen said...

Just returned from Proverbs31 SheWrites conference and your article is the only thing missing. Thanks! Mystery is my passion.