Evolving as a Writer: When Great is Bad

08bucks-napkin-ready-blogSpanIt’s funny, from having written or co-authored 4 published nonfiction books, contributed to a number of others, served as an editor for a few bestselling books, and co-authored a Kirkus Best of 2012 novel, you’d think I’d know everything by now. But I don’t. Not even close.  And, to me, that’s a strength.

Kristen Lamb, whose blog on writing is one of the best out there, recently began posting a series called Enemies of the Art, which outlines the things that often get in the way of a writer’s success. The latest one, on Pride, touches on a point that’s often ignored but SO  important.

For years, I’ve gotten numerous requests from friends and strangers (all first time authors) asking me for my thoughts on their manuscript. A few seemed to have potential, and just needed some honing. The humble ones understood that, and took my advice to study up on various aspects of the craft (though I gave some starter tips).

But it’s the other ones that made me shake my head — the ones that were rambling, with no clear purpose or intended audience, or with no sense of structure or knowledge of the craft, and yet the authors wouldn’t budge. Those were the ones, more than likely, where the authors said they thought their book was GREAT, and they couldn’t imagine why they weren’t getting any bites from agents. When I offered some possible reasons, they had an answer for everything.

Even though I’d written a number of nonfiction books and had done some freelance editing, I’d always had an interest in fiction, and was an avid reader of books on the craft. When I finally set out to work on a novel, even after several drafts, I realized there was much more to learn. So did my co-author Ed. We pored through countless books on writing and story. We rewrote and rewrote. We got feedback from industry experts and select friends (only the ones we knew could offer an unbiased critical view — and they certainly did).  And we rewrote some more. It’s why the whole process for our first book took three years.

And you know what? We’re STILL learning, and will be for the foreseeable future. Like Kristen Lamb says in her blog, even perennial NY Times bestselling authors continuously study the craft.

The rub is, even once you’ve immersed yourself in the craft and have done your due diligence, there will still be readers who don’t like your book. Maybe they don’t like a decision you made with the plot, or the style you chose. And that’s their right. Truth is, though most people (including professional reviewers – they’re people too) fortunately liked the books I’ve written or co-authored, I’ve learned a lot from the handful of negative reviews. Of course, sometimes they just didn’t get the intent, or it was just personal preference, but more often than not, there was an element of truth in what they said.

Even with that, you could have a great book that most people love, and still have trouble landing a publisher for a while. After all, as they say, writing is an art, but publishing is a business.

So, here’s my advice if you feel you have a book in your future. Learn the craft. Write a lot. Get feedback. Learn some more. Try out the new skills and write more. Whatever you do, don’t submit your manuscript to anyone until you feel you’ve at least reached a basic understanding of things like plot, structure, dialogue, pacing, POV, character arcs, suspense, conflict, and so on. Then get feedback from critical test readers (not your friends and family). Also learn about the query and publishing process.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of the books on writing that I’ve found immensely helpful. Ed has also read many of these, so when we collaborate, we can almost talk in shorthand because we’ve read the same books. And I’d venture to say that most of the biggest selling authors have probably read many of the same books, even if they’re already extremely successful. They didn’t get successful on their own or learn the craft through osmosis, that’s for sure.

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (Kindle) – by John Truby

Writing the Blockbuster Novel – by Al Zuckerman

The Writer’s Journey:Mythic Structure for Writers – by Chris Vogler

Writing the Breakout Novel – by Donald Maass (also his associated workbook)

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (Kindle) – by Alexandra Sokoloff

Save the Cat – by Blake Snyder (also Save the Cat Strikes Back and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies)

Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense – James Scott Bell

Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish  – James Scott Bell

Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated – by Nancy Kress

Writing Dialogue #1-5: A Collection of Articles for Fiction Writers (Kindle)- by Paula Berinstein

On Writing – by Stephen King

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing – Elmore Leonard

How I Write – by Janet Evanovich

Elements of Fiction Writing: Character and Viewpoint – by Orson Scott Card

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting – by Robert McKeee

The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity – by Lissa Warren

We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media – by Kristen Lamb

Happy reading — and writing!!

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