I wrote the first draft of my first short story one snowy night over Christmas break in 2009. It was a silly little story about alien abductions from the aliens’ point of view. It was eventually published at The WiFiles under the title of Breeding Ground, and it’s worth a look if you want a quick sample of my fiction. (Unrelated note: In the original version, the number 2569 was used instead of 3201. I regret making that change, as I feel 2569 would have been much more effective.)
Anyhow, like all of us, I’ve learned so much from when I first started writing. I’ve had a few minor accomplishments and made a ton of mistakes along the way, as well.
So here are seven writing lessons I’ve learned in the seven years since I started writing.
1. It’s okay to discovery write short stories. It is not for novels.
Part of the fun of writing is discovery writing. Put your fingers on the keyboard and allow yourself to surprise yourself. Let your characters take control and see what happens. I used to think that planning out a story was for suckers. Thats it’s boring to plan out a story in advance. That “real” writers shouldn’t need to do something as silly as writing an outline. We’re writers, not computer programmers, right? (Thank you, Stephen King.)
Well, here’s the thing…that works for some people, and really, it still works for me when I write short stories or flash fiction. But for novels? No way. If I’ve learned anything in the last four months attempting to clean up my latest novel, it’s that discovery writing does not work for me when it comes to novels.
But what about Holy Fudgesicles? You discovery wrote that?
Actually, I didn’t. I might have thought I did at the time, but in reality, I planned the whole book out in advance. I didn’t write down a physical outline or plug it into any recognizable three-act structure or anything, but I spent plenty of nights lying in bed planning out every major plot point in my head.
And you know the funny part? If you read the book, it follows The Hero’s Journey structure every step of the way. I just didn’t know it at the time.
2. Think twice before short stories to royalty-only markets.
First, though, let me make a disclaimer. I don’t regret publishing in any of the royalty-only paying anthologies or ezines I’ve been published in. I just wish I understood the market a little better back then. In theory, they’re a cool thing. But the problem with royalty-only markets is that there is no guarantee of payment.
While there there plenty of honest small publishers out there with good intentions, I know for a fact there are a few that are not. I think the cautionary tale here is to confirm beforehand that financial statements including profits will be sent out on regular basis. If no royalty payment is made, then you’ll at least understand why.
Another thing for me is that in a few cases, I jumped at the chance to submit to a royalty market before shopping around elsewhere. It’s fine if a royalty market fits the story, but it never hurts to try a couple of pro or semi-pro markets first.
3. Don’t screw around. Don’t stall. Write everyday, even if you don’t want to.
There are a few things more important than writing. But not too many. One of the problems many new writers face is “writer’s block.” I put the quotes there because I’m not so sure there is such a thing. I think “motivational block” is a more appropriate term.
Anyhow, there are so many things that will get in your way and distract you when you should be writing. Discipline is something all writers have to continually practice, and hiding behind “writer’s block” became an early excuse to go to Facebook instead of Microsoft Word, far too often in those first couple of years.
4. Don’t go into NaNoWriMo without a plan.
Oh my. My first attempt at NaNoWriMo was a mess. I went in like this: 1667 words a day. No prob. I’ll just pick something easy to write about. Like UFOs. And the Vatican. And the President. And Marilyn Monroe. “Write what you know, right?” Wrong. After about 9,000 words and several missed and frustrating days, I found myself 6000-7000 words behind and freaked out.
So I admitted defeat and quit the contest that year. But let’s face it, the “NaNoWriMo way” isn’t for everyone. Some people can just free-write 50,000 words and call it good. Other people can’t. I can’t. The next year, however, I went in a little more prepared and produced Holy Fudgesicles. So, yeah, you can learn from your mistakes.
5. Start your book promotion before the book is published.
And speaking of Holy Fudgesicles, it got published. The only problem was that it was published by a small press publisher, and like most small press publishers (and some “large press” publishers), there wasn’t much of a promotion and marketing plan.
This is fine, as part of being a writer is being able to sell your own book. The problem for me, however, is that I wasn’t prepared for it. The lack of proper pre-release promotion definitely hurt overall sales, as I didn’t get much of that initial new release burst that one could expect.
A couple of things I should have done, for example, were seek reviews before the release. A lot of the review sites want to see the ARC several weeks (or even months) before the publication date. I also should have sought out some other writers to leave an endorsement on the back cover. It’s all a lesson and if I go small press again on the next book, I’ll make sure some of this stuff is taken care of beforehand.
6. Finish things.
In those first 2-3 years, I’d go from story to story, adding a hundred words here, a hundred words there, but rarely got to the end of story. It seemed like I had a folder full of files containing a setting and a character, but very little actual stories.
I just had to start going through some of the basics to fix this: Who is the protagonist? What does he want? What gets in his way? That sort of stuff.
Sill I wish I would have read a book or two on plotting before hitting the ground running. Those first couple of years could have been better spent finishing a handful of short stories instead starting a couple dozen that never went anywhere.
7. A shitty first draft is okay.
I cringe when I think about how many nights I spent writing and rewriting the same sentence over and over. This held me back for a long time. In fact, there was a time in those first couple of years where I didn’t think revision was even necessary. “Just write it well the first time.”
This might be one of the most important things to accept, actually. Your first draft will very likely be terrible. If you try to make your first draft “perfect” you’ll never finish it. One strategy I’ve found is to just use parentheses and placeholders if I’m working on the draft and having trouble coming up with the best wording. For example, writing (she saw the monster and ran away) is a perfectly acceptable thing to do if you don’t know how to write that scene, but want to keep pushing the plot forward.
And just for fun, let’s throw in one more…
8. Keep at it. This stuff will pay off eventually.
And that one goes to you too! Keep writing. The ones who make it are the ones who never gave up.
So what about you? What have you learned since you first started that you wish you could go back and tell your past self?
Leave a comment and let us know!