Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Your advice needed!

I'm going to several writing conferences in the next few months. In the course of these conferences, I'm meeting with writers who've sent pages ahead of time.

Some of the pages indicate the writer is a very very beginning writer.

Odd as it sounds, I don't have a lot of experience with writers at that stage. If they query me, it's usually a quick rejection.

And frankly, I don't want to terrify them by telling them all the things they did wrong.

What I want to do is tell them how to improve.

So, here's where you come in.

When you were starting out, what advice did you get that REALLY helped you? And I mean both helped you improve as a writer, and helped you deal with the sense of failure and frustration when you wanted to do something so bad you could taste it, and it wasn't working.


Monica Valentinelli said...

Hi Janet,

I offer quite a bit of advice for new writers on my blog at and also at conferences and the like. Usually I provide bullets like: how to be professional, the benefits/drawbacks of online/offline critique groups, writing what you want to write (rather than just taking everything that comes) etc. Typically, the biggest concerns new writers have is: Am I "good enough" to get published? and of course Can (if not when) will I make a living or small fortune off of this.

I usually say this line: If you want to chase the rainbow, buy a pair of running shoes first.

MeganRebekah said...

Luckily, I never actually sent my horrendous early stage writing to anybody. Not my family, friends or crit group. And definitely not an agent. Those scenes are currently under lock and key.

But what helped me learn the most was:
(1) Joining a crit group and beta reading for the other writers. I had to turn on a critical eye and examine each of their words and sentences. And if I didn't like something I stopped and analyzed, figuring out why. Then I applied that to my own knowledge
(2) Reading books! I read 2-3 books a week usually and it helps immensely with gaining a natural understanding of pace and flow.
(3) Some of the most helpful blogs are ones that deal with editing tips. Like Editorrent, my all time favorite editor's blog. Debut author Janice Hardy also has an amazing blog with tips and actual examples of how to tighten your writing.
(4) Finally, I learned what polish was. No it's not the language spoken in Poland (I was shocked too!). When I truly understood, I was amazed at how much better my writing was turning out, even on my scary first drafts.

I don't know if that helps. Good luck!

Vacuum Queen said...

Um, if it's actual storyline...I think it's useful just to have someone play devil's advocate or something like that. If they have a girl who's babysitting a kid with magical powers, you could ask, is the babysitter the MC or the kid? Why are the powers important? Is it only when she babysits? Does the kid have powers around anyone else? Etc.

The idea is to help them hammer out the background on everyone. I think at first some writers just dig in and start writing when they haven't figured out what's important to the storyline or not.

if it's actual writing...tough one. Sometimes people suck.

As a teacher, the best I can do for those people is at least help them with their format and grammar, but you just can't help voice much.

Robin said...

I rewrote my query letter every time an agent was kind enough to tell me why they were turning me down.

I read as much as I possibly could, there are SO many great agent blogs and networked with other authors. Just being around other writers was and still is encouraging...

Tanya Egan Gibson said...

My two cents (or thereabouts) for beginning writers who are trying to execute something they're just not experienced enough to pull off yet:

1. Open 5 or 10 of your favorite books and choose a passage from each in which the author *does* execute it. (*It* being anything from "How to get a character into a house without writing, 'He walked up to the door. He put the key in the door. He opened the door. He stepped through the door. He closed the door...'" to "How to move gracefully between a character's thoughts and dialogue and actions." Take notes on how different authors do these things. Practice patterning passages of your own after these passages. The object isn't to use these passages in your final product, but rather to use them as exercises.

2. Beginners sometimes don't understand how much of writing is rewriting. Assure them that it is normal to have to rewrite something 5 times or more.

3. Beginners sometimes confuse proofreading and rewriting. My writing improved significantly when I approached rewrites by looking at a blank computer screen (instead of one on which I could just cut and paste) with the last draft printed out next to me. The act of having to type everything anew made it far easier for me to "re-vision" the draft (and leave things on the cutting room floor, so to speak) rather than take shortcuts.

MeganRebekah said...

The word I forgot to mention in my previous comment: interactive

If you only have a few minutes with a newbie, tell them to get interactive and pay attention. Interact with other writers, with their own manuscript, with people in their community.

If they isolate themselves in a dark room with a laptop and a stack of Idiot's Guides to Writing, they will never reach that next level.

They have to interact!

Maria Zannini said...

Tell them if they're serious about improving their craft to stay away from the cheerleaders, those crit partners who tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. They're a crutch and they could hold you back for months, if not years.

Alissa said...

I don't know if it was ever advice that I received, but what helped me the most in my writing journey was finding an online writing group that more than anything taught me how to write and revise my own work during the years I was active in the group. I was a member of the Critters writing group, which specializes in science fiction, fantasy and horror. I'm sure there are other writing groups out there in other genres. Perhaps try steering new writers to decent writing group, would be valuable advice.

RCWriterGirl said...

That's a tough question, because everyone is so different and had different strengths and weaknesses.

The things that have resonated most are the ones I needed to hear. For example, ones that defined a problem I could sense myself, but couldn't quite put a name on. So, if I felt a part of the story dragged a bit, I might know it, but not know why, and just overlook it. But, if someone pointed out: you really stopped the action here by doing this (introducing too much backstory), I found it helpful.

So, it might be helpful, if you're not required to offer a written critique--if it's just something verbal, to ask what they think the weakneses with the work are. And then, based on that and your notes, go through and give them some specifics that relate to the weakness they see.

Also, point out anything tha violates any big industry no-nos. I know writing is subjective, and really good writers can get away with breaking the rules. But, if you're worried about hurting their feelings because the work is so new and not ready, they're not at that stage. Nobody wants to feel like a fool, or I guess I should say, I don't want to feel like a fool. So, any tips that say, this really isn't done in the industry, or this is really frowned upon, I appreciate. Doesn't mean I have to agree. Does mean, I learn I'm doing something out of the norm and it's going to be an uphill battle to sell.

I hope this helps. And good luck with helping the newbie writers. With any critiquing, the key is to mix the bad with good. You've also got to find things they're doing right, so they don't feel it's all bad news.

Wendy said...

Get a critique partner with different strengths than you, they help on every level.

Read lots and research the net for info. put every blog you can into your blog reader and listen to what gets said. This also helps you see other writers and authors as human beings who didn't have a clue once either. That helps a lot.

Sit down and write, a lot, every day and practice because the more you improve, the better you feel and the more confident you are. If you really want it, you find time.

For practical things: Learn to show not tell, check out the Chicago Manual of Style. Read lots and pay attention to the details as well as the story. Read your writing out loud and compare it to what you read of others work.

Pay attention to the ways you're improving. Keep old pieces to look back on and go "aww I was just a wee baby writer back then."

And don't give up. Only difference between someone who is a success and someone who isn't is that the successful person never gave up.

Lazy Writer said...

I'm still in those beginning stages, but the best advice I ever got was to not query too soon. Study the craft, research the industry, have others look at your work, and be as sure as you can be that your writing is as good as it possibly can be. When you get to that point, always, and I mean always, remember a rejection is not personal.

Jaymi said...

Wow! I am still at that stage, but my favorite advice was the query information on Query Shark (thats not just me kissing ass).

I had no idea where to even start when my manuscript was "done". And of course I didn't know it wasn't done until I got online and started reading blogs.

My advice to anyone in my situation would be- 1)get online and read read read like a crazy woman/man for months before you even start thinking about writing a query.

2) Get some good friends to read your manuscript, and don't be defensive about their advice.

3) Just know that you are going to be rejected. It even happened to Stephany Meyers. Thats life.

Write because you love it. Not because you plan to have it be your only means of income.

KLM said...

As a(n aspiring) writer and an agent, I've always found this part hard. New writers are always so close to their work--their baby--that they can't see the forest for the trees. This is the advice that I found most helpful and most often give.
1. Think of your sentences directing a movie camera. Every detail, every adjective, is one full second on the screen. Now, how long is that scene you just wrote? Do we need to know the height of her heels and the brand of her purse? No. Only show what's important.
2. Show, don't tell. There's a reason we keep trotting this out. It matters.
3. Remember your reader. They are first and foremost, not what *really* happened (in "fiction") or what you're *trying* to do. Try less, show more.
4. Kill your darlings. The more you love a turn of phrase, the more it has to go.
5. If you're anxious about revision (as I always am) cut and and paste your edited sentences into another document, and save it. See if you ever go back to it. I never do.
Hope that helps!
Kate McKean

T. Anne said...

Use Pink Octopus as a go between. People respond well to vague humor from the seemingly psychotic. I'm sure they'll be gone in no time.

Taragl said...

Three pieces of advice that helped me:

Put your butt in the chair. -- James D. Macdonald
I talked about writing for years before I ever put my butt in the chair and started typing on a regular schedule. This is the hurdle I find hardest to overcome... ignoring a thousand daily trivial tasks and actually sitting down to write.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. -- Voltaire
This is my first-draft mantra, otherwise I go over and over what's already there instead of moving forward. Keep moving, don't look back, and don't re-read. No editing on the first pass. Just get something down on paper and don't overthink it.

Get a trusted beta reader.
I thought my husband was going to be the perfect beta reader. He smart, sarcastic, and loves me to bits. But he's a terrible beta reader. Possibly because he loves me to bits. I have a pen pal in the midwest who is much better at asking, "WTF were you thinking?"

(My first non-fiction book, a trial run at being an actual paid writer who meets deadlines and writes every day, came out in March. I'm working on my second book now.)

Jaymi said...

What conference should a new writer attend if they could only pick one?

I assume they’re not all created equally.

ORION said...

To keep writing...funny as that sounds I thought good writers were good right out of the gate. To know most writers don't have their first books published was heartening...
What a kind thing to do Janet...

Liana Brooks said...

Find a critique group.

I started writing, finished my first draft, and was looking for agents to visit nearby because I was going to drop by their office and show them my printed manuscript... >.<

I'm so glad I found some agent blogs before I did that and started reading. One pointed me to a critique group online ( and from there I started learning what I needed to do to work toward publication.

Little things, like have the manuscript finished and don't stalk the agent's office, are good to know.

So, I'd advise gently pointing the new authors in the way of critique groups and maybe give them a list of industry blogs to read. Basic homework for new writers.

Pepper Smith said...

Wow. That's a toughie. I really can't tell you from my early, early experience, because I was nine when I started, and that was almost forty years ago.

As a suggestion, I would look for something, anything, in the pages that you might be able to commend to start off with, even if it's just a turn of phrase or word choice, because it helps cushion the blow when you tell them they've still got work to do.

The most useful bit of advice I got was from a rejection note, where I was told I was too wordy. It helped me really look at my stuff and tighten it up quite a bit. You don't need to go into tremendous detail about what's wrong, just pick something, like maybe encouraging them to work on mechanics, or grammar, or whatever it is that needs work most strongly. And then restate the commendation but make it plain that they've still got a ways to go yet before they're ready for prime time.

Lisa and Laura said...

Honestly, we learned the most from agents who took the time to teach us about the basics:

-showing vs. telling (aren't you supposed to tell a story?)
-adverbs = bad (who knew!?)
-basic plot structure (so conflict is important?)
-voice (what's that?)
-POV (so you can't just hop from one head to the next? crap.)

Good luck! And remember if they really want to succeed they'll lap up whatever advice you give them. So really, you can't go wrong!

NAP said...

This is amazing by the way. I think you can never go wrong with the basics. Tell them the best thing they can do is join a critique group, keep attending writing conferences and take the time to learn about the genre they want to write. Oh yeah, a thick skin helps. It's tough out there, you have to remember what it was that lead you to want to be a writer, that's what keeps you going when the rejections roll in.

beth said...

1) Being told that sometimes you have to write a "practice novel."

2) And that this was a practice novel.

3) Suggestions on how to fix big-picture things (i.e. add a motif, use the gun on the mantle, make your characters smarter).

4) Suggestions on getting and using a critique group.

5) Honest feedback that it isn't ready, and that revising means more than fixing grammar.

Heather Lane said...

I think that as long as you let them know that they have promise as a writer, then you can be honest with them about what steps they might want to take in their writing to get there. I would want someone to be honest with me. That is assuming that they do want to evolve their craft.

Letting them know about online resources is good too. When I went to my first conference, I had no idea that these blogs and writer communities existed.

Sarah said...

My toes curl when I think of what two very kind individuals read for me years ago. The advice they gave improved my writing. It also helped me keep writing.

Their advice focused on trends:

-passive verbs (yeah, it was that bad)
-specific, descriptive "showing" vs. general, "telling" narration
-trimming every unnecessary word

Each gave me one or two examples of what I'd done poorly and a few examples of what to shoot for. Then they told me to do that through the entire MS.

Each, bless them, found one thing to compliment. Those compliments made me think I might be able to learn to write after all.

It was sobering to realize how much I needed to improve. What helped was having an idea of how I could begin that process.

I think this first round of boy-does-this-need-work feedback separates the people who only want to be published from the people who want to write.

Good luck! You realize this doesn't help the salacious badass part of your reputation, right?

terripatrick said...

Beginners are usually delighted at specific advice. What I do, when judging writer contests, is congratulate them for what they've done (write and get it out for review), then I suggest specific books on ONE topic where their writing can be improved. Most beginners haven't delved the world of books on the craftsmanship of writing and could be intimidated by the many available.

Take a few minutes and look at each submission and see if you can pinpoint one thing, plot, character arc, dialogue, etc., that would benefit that story. Then suggest a specific craft book, to begin their journey.
One book will hopefully lead to another.

This is what I got from Harlequin editors decades ago, each rejection had a specific focus for me to learn, while also mentioning my strengths. Eventually, I submitted enough to go through each stage of writing story, to the point where what were my strengths had become my weakness, because I hadn't studied the craft on that - yet. LOL!

And it's funny, because just before your post here, I was thinking about targeting a Harlequin line for a current story.

Kim Kasch said...

Advice from a great chef/writer:

Writing is like baking a cake.
It takes multiple ingredients to be successful: flour, eggs, milk, butter, baking soda/powder, vanilla, cinnamon, sugar and then you have to cook the batter for what seems like a long time - all the while smelling the aroma.

Writing a story you need to have characters who become people we fall in love or hate with, plot, punctuation, conflict and a meaningful resolution - miss one ingredient and it's a disaster. Plus, you have to let the story simmer for a long time, even though you may want to pull it out of the oven and change it at the last minute. If you do that, the cake might fall. But, you can always bake another cake or write another story. And, sometimes your first story is like that first pancake - it's the tester.

Blee Bonn said...

The best thing I found that really helped me out was SCBWI and the Blueboards - those are for children's writers but I'm sure there are some organizations and boards out there for adult writers. These helped tremendously.

I also found this great little site with tons of tips about writing and have since passed it on to others. Not sure if I'm allowed to post a URL but here goes:

This is called Inspiration for Writers and they actually do editing too but give a whole lot of free GREAT advice!!

Rick Daley said...

Be gentle but true.

Horserider said...

The best advice I got as a beginning writer was to join I've learned so much in the nine months I've been there and grown so much as a writer.

Jenn Johansson said...


A wise person once told me--Stephen King said the first million words are practice. That sounds daunting, but it's really not. All you have to do is keep writing.

Thanks for that, by the way, it helped me immensely. :)

Stef said...

Well, being that I'm still a fledgling writer, I'll do my best to let you know how I'd like to be approached.

I'm all about the honesty. No sugar-coating, no pats on the back, no A for effort. Of course, it is really a hit to the ego if someone just stares at you and says, "I cannot do anything with this drivel."

As a beginning writer, receiving comments at all is an honor. Usually they just toss you aside and say, "No, but thank you." Sometimes they're not even as cordial as that. So to me, any comments at all mean that they see something in me worth the effort of a response.

As far as advice that helped me improve as an author... It would probably be that a published friend of mine made absolutely clear that the business is HARD. You have to face a lot of rejection, and, most of the time, you have to do everything yourself. You have to put in the effort consistently or else writing anything will be a complete waste.

So to sum it up I am most helped by honest but not harsh answers and the reality of the business.

I hope that helped, even if it was only marginally. hah


jmartinlibrarian said...

Sadly, I've been there. A year ago, I sent off my Ithinkitswonderfulbutitsreallyyucky 2nd draft to a few agents. Then, I joined DFW Writer's group, Agent Query, and read a lot about the craft.

Best advice I've received?

1. Read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by King and Browne. Put the advice into practice.

2. Join a writer's group.

3. Keep trying to learn.

4. Rinse and Repeat.

Laura said...

As a composition professor, I have to rip into students' babies on a regular basis.

General rule of thumb: find SOMEthing positive to say first, then move in for the kill (of course in a constructive way). This can mean telling a student his formatting is lovely... if that's all that's positive about the paper. You can usually find something that has potential if you dig deeply enough.

Find that bit of good and polish it up, then focus on that, telling them the rest of the work needs to rise to that level-- even if it's just one sentence, character, or plot idea you can point to. (Yes, I'm ending with a preposition. I side with Churchill on that one!)

Laurel said...

People seeking critique are most likely going to be receptive. If they aren't, that's not your problem. You're giving them what they asked for.

I liked Rick Daley's blog about critting where he recommended the sandwich approach: open with a positive, put in your two cents for improvement, and close with a positive.

If the story is there but the writing isn't quite ready, maybe they should write another book and come back. It's the best way to keep a great story from getting lost because it was the first effort.

Good luck! I'm sure some lucky people will leave with jewels of knowledge they can apply to their work.

Dominique said...

A good start is to point them in the way of learning. For example, giving them the names of some good agent or writer blogs where they can learn useful skills will be very helpful in the long run. It can also help them find others going through the creative process with whom they can share the pain and pleasures of writing.

In terms of improving their writing overall, you could also mention the sort of basic mistakes that they are making (maybe overuse of adverbs, detail over share, etc.) If they know that there are certain flaws in the opening pages, it can give them a whole new level on which they can edit their MS.

Tabitha Bird said...

I never sent my first stage, should-never-be-let-out-of-the-house writing to ANYONE. But I did read a heap of writer, editor and agent blogs. Then I grabbed books and just read and read and read. But the best advise I picked up was, keep writing. Put that first draft/baby to bed and write another book. And DO NOT query with that first book. Give it to your Nan. She will love it...

Being Beth said...

yaknow, when i first started out, what I really REALLY wanted to know was whether or not I had any potential - if I could write, if I had enough raw talent to eventually make it as a professional as opposed to writing as a hobby.

Two pieces of advice that helped the most:

"You're writing is at about 80%. Keep working at it."

"Based on what I see here, I am sure you can do better."

That's all I needed to hear. Of course, it would have hurt to hear otherwise, but I wanted to know the truth, and would have accepted the hobby verdict with gratitude for the honest appraisal from a writing professional.

Keith Popely said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matilda McCloud said...

I agree with Laura. Find one good thing and focus on that and then say that you want to see more of that. I wouldn't try to go much beyond that with detailed criticism and so on. I would suggest some good basic books like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers or The First Five Pages. I would also suggest to her that she make reading as important a part of her life as writing (I think some writers forget to read.)

Victoria Dixon said...

Find a critique group or partner who refuses to hold the punches. If your newbies are like I was, they will need to be pounded with a meat tenderizer many times before what's left tastes good.

Heidi K. Rettig said...

Reading always helps - and if you can read publications directed at the audience you envision for your work, even better.

But working with an editor helps even more, I think. I do this often on business writing I do for my arts consulting work. It's helped me learn the difference between a good draft and a final product, where my weaknesses can be found (long, rambling paragraphs).

I found a great editor, retired from a newspaper, who doesn't charge enough - and I've learned to really appreciate what she does for my final product.


Weronika said...

Visit the library and check out every single book on writing it has and read them all the way through -- twice. Absorb everything there is to know about writing.

In a few months time, do it again -- you'll see everything you forgot the first and second time around.

Write constantly. Write, write, write, write, write, and write -- write until you've written every possible word in you -- and then write more.

Write a few full-sized projects and rewrite them before you begin to consider querying/publication (there are exceptions to this, of course...).

Go to writing workshops and listen to the criticism, then apply it.

Also, for specific projects, I would think it'd be a good idea to point out some of the areas with which the writer struggled. What general suggestions do you have for the project? In general?

I was always looking for the specifics and the generalities relating to my writing. Where could I start with this project, and what was my overarching goal?

Livia said...

Tell them to
1) Read in their genre, alot.
2) Join a critique group

Also, perhaps you could point out 2-3 specific things that they could improve on.

D. Michael Olive said...

Grammar, drop the adverbs, and both the power of and the need for a consistent point of view. I'm a scientist and criticism is the name of the game with us geek types, so personally, I appreciate honesty in a constructive manner. No sarcasm!

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Well, lemme see … there is an art to dealing with the inexperienced. Pick the most outstanding weakness, the one that most effects their writing. Then do the following: 1. Give what commendation you can. It should be realistic commendation. 2. Identify the weakness. 3. Identify the root cause of the weakness. 4. Present a solution. 5. Explain HOW to apply the solution. 6. Close with encouragement.

Also, if you use questions, do not reject an answer if it is only unresponsive. As an example, if you ask a question that starts with “how” and they answer “what”, you pause, and say: “Well, that tells me what. But notice my question was how.” That validates their answer and redirects them to the point.

NotAnotherExit said...

During my very first manuscript critique (and my first step outside my own personal writing circle of me, my mom, and my best friend) JoAnn Mapson shredded my manuscript. She wasn't brutal, or cruel, but it stung a little until she said "keep writing."

Two easy words, but it made me think I wasn't beyond hope.

Angela J Reeves said...

To really be helpful, I think you have to say something like, "You need to improve your writing to be much more mature and polished." And then take one or two specific things -- probably start with one poorly constructed sentence or one cliche, explain how to improve it, and then say, "Do that everywhere, and it's a start. In the meantime, read Query Shark and Writers Digest, etc."

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

There are so many good suggestions made in the comments. Perhaps you could make a tip sheet of basics to handout when you meet with people.

BCB said...

Whoa. I'm a bit stunned by all these people telling you to, in effect, be nice. I think there's value in terrifying new writers. Makes them aware of and receptive to the need for hard work and improvement.

But hell, I'm still "starting out," so what do I know? Though I do have some suggestions of a general nature.

It's not enough just to join a writers' group. You have to participate, attend meetings and workshops, listen to and learn from speakers, and get to know other writers (esp. those who are published). They will tell you invaluable things. Like, you know, that a ms should be double-spaced. (Yes, I cringe at how green I once was.) Not quite sure what everyone here means by "critique group." I'd suggest an organization consisting of professionals, or those who aspire to be. RWA (Romance Writers of America) is an excellent choice and their definition of "romance" includes those writing just about anything other than a soliloquy.

Read fiction. No, really, read more than that.

Read industry blogs. Not just the one written by your favourite author, but those of agents and publishers. If a certain agent were feeling benevolent, she might offer up a list of URLs.

Attend a conference or two so you can meet writers and agents and editors, oh my, and discover that they're just people who love books. Except when they're large aquatic life forms. With sharp teeth.

Okay, so those all are fairly basic suggestions, echoed here by others. But they're important and I've discovered there are no shortcuts. You MUST learn the basics and the best way to do that is by taking the simple obvious steps others have taken before you. Plus you asked for basic and I am ever obedient. Ooops, typo. I meant "never."

One thing really stands out as a turning point for me. My RWA chapter hosted a meeting with a couple agents and an editor, who all agreed to hear pitches after their presentation. I knew my work wasn't really "ready" for this step but the opportunity presented itself so I pitched to an agent (first time ever) and she requested a partial. I slaved over that damn thing for months until it was technically perfect. But still, something just seemed off. I sent it to a few friends for feedback and they loved it. But I knew something was wrong. Had no idea what it was. So I screwed my courage to the sticking point and sent my submission to Bob Mayer [ ] for a paid critique. Best thing I've ever done in terms of a career investment. Most valuable feedback EVER. I'm still re-writing and damn glad for it.

I don't know of any other multi-published NYT best-selling author who offers this service (though I've heard of a few squicky "other" sources who do). Really, it's incredibly generous of him to do so, never mind the nominal fee. I would strongly recommend that any writer on the verge of submission get a critique/take an intensive interactive class from someone (ahem, strongly recommend Bob Mayer) who is not their parent, sibling, spouse, friend or even chapter mate. Find someone who has experience -- not just with writing, but being published -- and who won't feel compelled to shower you with flattery before they get to the tough stuff. Because there will be tough stuff. If you're lucky.

And finally, be patient. Ignore all those well-intentioned people urging you to hurry up and finish the damn book and submit it already -- so you can get rejected and obtain RWA PRO status (as if that matters). Pffft. Slow down. Yes, keep writing, and write on a consistent basis, whatever that means for you. But take the time to learn. Writing is a craft. Be an apprentice for a day or two before you aspire to mastery.

And, very simply, don't quit.

Um, you don't have a word limit over here, do you?

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

As a book reviewer, I'm kind of at the far end of the process, but I did edit for a few of the Chicken Soup books and we had a lot of first-time writers submit stories. My primary advice to them was to just keep writing. The best way to improve is to do it a lot and understand that what they think is great now they are going to look back at in a few year and laugh at.

Enjoy the conferences!

Daisy said...

I like all the suggestions here, and I'll just add one thing I've found very helpful: read the work out loud to yourself. It's amazing how much the ear picks up that the eye misses.

BronzeWord said...

Sorry to be so late and I hope this can still help. A lot of good suggestions and you only have 10 minutes. Correct?

Read a lot of how-to books on writing, querying and living the life of a writer until you know enough to be able to write one of your own. They have all the answers. In fact, put together a list of books you recommend and pass it out.

Especially read The Forest for the Trees by B. Lerner. She explains every aspect so clearly and compassionately. She has a chapter on rejection that will make you gulp the whole while you read it and the most fabulous last line ot her book. You'll never forget it. She's sensational. Her book should be mandortory reading for all students.

Of course she doesn't speak about spelling which I couldn't do to save my life. lol

And the gentle advice. You wouldn't have asked this question if you didn't have that in mind already. Thank you for the consideration.
Jo Ann Hernandez
BronzeWord Latino Authors

kcoombs1 said...

Although most newbies don't want to hear it, because many people think if they can talk they can write and then sell what they write, it helps to kindly remind beginners that writing is a profession. As in any profession, you must serve an apprenticeship. Sometimes it can last one or two years, sometimes ten or fifteen. For most aspiring writers, however, persistence eventually pays off.

While serving your apprenticeship, read, read read.

Then buy a copy of "E.B. White's The Elements of Style and read it at least five times. Better yet, memorize it!

Once you believe your work is ready to be seen, join a kind, encouraging critique group.

When you finally submit to an editor and receive a rejection, remember it's just one person's opinion.

What makes me survive rejection is to say, "Well, it's their loss. One day that editor will be sorry he or she rejected that manuscript." Then I get back to work making it even better.

An opening that we use in our critique group that is both encouraging and realistic is to announce very enthusiastically. "This an an excellent first draft!" The emphasis is naturally on the word first.

Caroline said...

I think someone's said this above, but there's an easy three-step rule for this kind of situation and it works for writing, annual appraisals (which is where I learnt it) - pretty much any kind of feedback.

1. Praise the things that have been done well.

2. Point out weaker areas (a.k.a the 'but' bit).

3. Help formulate a strategy to improve weaker areas.

New writer goes away feeling that they've received some useful advice rather than 10 minutes in a pit with a hungry polar bear ;o)

L-Plate Author said...

Not sure if this has been said above but the best (and worst) thing I was told by an agent who had just signed me was to take three months off! She told me to pick my favourite ten books and pick them apart, why did I like them, what was it about the plot, what was it about the characters, could I twist things further?

I made myself a spreadsheet with the same questions for every book and eventually after reading a few, I began to pick up things. It was a really good experience and one I would highly recommend because for the three months, I didn't write a word and it took the pressure off. It also meant that when I did sit down to write again, I was really looking forward to it. I still have the file, I called it book detective!

L-Plate Author said...

And may I add that I have Bob Mayers book, it has fallen apart I have read it so many times. Up until recently, every time I drafted a book, I reread it. I can highly recommend it for anyone starting out.

Valerie said...

Some of the best advice I heard over and over again was READ. Read good writers, see how they put sentences together, how they get you to connect with their characters and how they pace their story.

The bulk of my formal writing education was in screenwriting, so I'm very big on understanding plotting and story structure. I think if a writer can get down the basics of things like the three act structure or the Hero's Journey, (Call To Action/Inciting Incident, Point of No Return etc.) they will be better able to judge whether or not their story is working, and if it's not, why.

Third, I learned that you must be honest with yourself. Take a good hard look at your work. Is it quality or are you settling for good enough? Can you make it better? I think most new writers know when their work isn't up to par, but hope for the best anyway.

And finally, one of the most helpful things I was told - one of the most important things every new writer should know: ADVERBS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS!

Jenna said...

I like what some people have said here, but I think you should be honest with them.

Thank them for sending pages, let them know that they are a very beginning writer, and that everything you say will seem overwhelming. Pick 2-3 major gripes to inform them of, suggest they read your blog for info & links to other blogs, and tell them to get a crit group.

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

Depending on how loose you think the writing is, cut the word count by X% - ie - if you think it is wordy - tell them to consider cutting each paragraph / page by 50% and see if the story and action becomes tighter.

Oh, and read your and Nathan Bransford's blogs...

JES said...

Writing advice: Until you're writing so often that it becomes almost an everyday habit, you will probably never be much of a writer.

Career advice: Eye on the prize. Always.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I remember overseeing some comments written by a judge on a friend's story. It said, "This author is a young writer. With experience, the potential is there to be great."

That stuck with me, particularly the young writer part. It's as if we need seasoning, and the encouragement early on to keep writing.

BJ said...

A lot of great advice. Here's my 2 cents (CDN, so take it for what it's worth):

There are basically two kinds of beginning writer: the Rebel, who flies in the face of criticism, and will work their butt off to show you you're wrong; and the Wallflower, who has shown their work to very few people, who aren't sure they have what it takes, who wilt when faced with particularly negative criticism.

I know more from the Wallflower's side, so Ill talk about them.

Wallflowers need more encouragement than criticism. I'm talking about the writers who have written (or are in the process of writing) their very first novel ever, and who have shown their work to very few people, if any.

These writers are at a stage where any criticism is going to start or end their career. No pressure!

1. If you think they have a chance if they really work at it, tell them. If you don't think so, don't tell them they don't.

2. Point out what's good, even if it's just the idea they're working from, or a character, or a descriptive scene. Tell them what you like about this good thing. These writers respond better to what works, rather than what doesn't. Tell them what they're doing right.

3. Find the big flaws in their work. Mention that a MC has to have some redeeming quality from the outset to get the reader to want to follow them. Or that their too wordy here and here. Don't get picky about word choice or grammar at this stage (not that you would, but some might!)

The biggest problem you'll probably find is lack of style or polish. In this case, you might talk about the need to write and keep writing to develop their style. One million words, and all that.

4. Suggest a critique group. If you know of any specific groups you like, you might recommend them. Critiquing other writers can immeasurably help one's own writing, and most critique groups will encourage a writer to keep writing.

5. Tell them to keep writing. Only by writing can they become better writers. Practice makes perfect, and all that.

You'll know you have a Rebel, though, if they outwardly disagree with your criticism. These don't need as much careful handling. They're going to go out and do it anyway.

With a Rebel, you can give more direct criticism, though again specifics aren't needed. Rebels might even react best to 'you'll never make it' - but that needs to be used very carefully.

Of course, most writers have a bit of each type, so I think it's best to start assuming the person is a Wallflower.

A sense of humour is also important, by the way. Make a person smile, and they'll take the criticism better.

Les Edgerton said...

The best advice I received was to "write the book you want to read that no one has written yet--so you have to write it." In other words, don't worry about what you think the "market" wants.

The second best piece of writing was that "good writing is rewriting." When I was in the MFA program at Vermont, one of my classmates was a Booker winner who told me she rewrote every one of her short stories a minimum of 100 times before she sent it out. That's a bit excessive, perhaps, but that's also the competition out there--folks who rewrite stories 100 times or more. As an editor for several litmags over the years, it becomes easy to see who sends in first drafts--about 95% of writers. A good reason why they don't get published, perhaps...

The third best piece of advice was that there is only one way to become a good writer... by writing. I often look out at participants at workshops I'm conducting and think, "Why aren't you home writing?" That seems contrary to why I'm there (to conduct workshops) and perhaps it is. The truth is, I wish more people wouldn't stay home writing. Who needs the competition? Also, part of that advice (to write) includes "to read." Read everything you can get your hands on. James Harrison's advice to writers was to read the past 400 years of Western literature, and, if you live long enough, read the same amount of Eastern literature. "For," as he says, "if you don't know what passes for good (or bad) in writing, how can you know if yours is good?"

Firefly said...

As a beginning writer myself, I will tell you what I would want you to tell me if this were me. The truth. No cushioning. Start with some encouragement and end with some encouragement -- but tell me exactly what I need to work on.

magolla said...

It take s 10,000 hour to get proficient at writing.
No writer is going to get that with his first book.

Steve Ulfelder said...

1. Use only "said" as a dialog tag.
2. If a chunk of dialog runs more than 3 lines on the ms page, it's probably too long.
3. Prepositions are bad; chop them when you can ("She rose" or "She stood," not "she stood up"). Double prepositions are doubly bad; at least one of the words can nearly always be cut ("She stood up from the couch and went out to the car" becomes "She rose and went to the car").
4. Short sentences are good. When in doubt, type a period and start a fresh one.
5. Every scene must advance the plot or reveal character. If you (a beginner) try to do a lot of both, the scene gets muddy. Before writing a scene, decide whether it focuses on plot or character and downplay the other.

alexisgrant said...

Being honest is the best thing you can do for them. Tell them (nicely) what didn't work in their piece -- and make sure to mention a few things that did.

Nice of you to take the time.

DakotaBlues said...

Tell them to take it SERIOUSLY! I'm on the verge of completing my first viable ms. and thus my weekly critique group consists mostly of beginners. NOT ONE studies the craft. The more I read about how to develop a story, the more I revere the elements that go into writing. Tell them to study!!! I recommend Blake Schneider's "Save the Cat" on screenplays but SO related to writing a novel.

Christina Lee said...

I can't add much more to all of this great advice, except to say, this is really great of you to ask, Janet-you're a softie after all. ;)The best help I've gotten is when someone used actual examples to help me undertand what they were trying to tell me.

Camille said...

The best advice I received was to really "see" your characters. Go to up and coming model/actor websites and give them an actual face if needed. Scope out their likes, dislikes, ticks, family, background etc. Know them better than you do yourself. Once this is done stick these quirky, 3 dimensional imperfect people in a situation, any situation, and let them work through it. They might fumble, and possibly get further screwed up in the process, but isn't this imperfect struggle what the best fiction is often about?

Dana King said...

I'm probably not representative, but my background is as a classicla musician, where you may be called out politely but publicly (at least in front of your peers) at any time. Quick development of a thick skin is mandatory. Be kind, but honest.

Piggybacking on some of the above comments, just about every writer can benefit by trimming. I often phrase it as , "Look for places where you used seven words and five will do, or ten words where six will do." Among the best advice I have been given (courtesy of Renni Browne's and Dave King's excellent book, SELF-EDITING FOR WRITERS) is to resist the urge to explain. New writers want to be sure their reader "gets" it, so they explain. They need to make sure the necessary information is woven into what's already there, and cut the explanation.

CKHB said...

Tell them to go listen to Mur Lafferty's podcast, I Should Be Writing, "a podcast for wanna-be fiction writers." It has valuable craft lessons like: it's okay to suck in the first drafts, because you have to write SOMETHING before you can edit... but it also has industry lessons like: go read Miss Snark, and don't ever call an agent who isn't YOUR agent. It's a resource that has the right mix of encouragement and practicality.

Amber J. Gardner said...

The best advice I got that didn't destroy me was probably how this was all part of the process. How editing, rewriting over and over, how all authors have to go through it, that they are in the beginning, but are making progress so they should keep at it while focusing on the process and not the outcome.

That way, when they make it, they wouldn't realize right away cause they were so busy.

After that, all the advice from the other comments are pretty good.

Rubenesque Writer said...

We were all in that place once! I remember submitting a very early piece of writing to an agent/critiquer before my very first conference. I was scared to death to hear what the agent was going to say, so nervous that I almost didn't show up to our scheduled critique! Luckily, I did...The best non-soul-crushing tips I've received...
1. Start in the place that is different. (In reference to the very first line of a novel)
2. Read out loud. (as the pp mentioned, it's amazing what the ears pick up that the eyes do not)

I can't overemphasize the importance of the good old sandwich method of critiquing, either. It's always easier to hear the "down side" of your work after you've been praised for something. Even something as simple as formatting the page correctly!

christicorbett said...


The "Sandwich" approach.

Start by telling them something they did right, then spend a bit of time explaining some of the things they could improve on (ie: some of the things that are so horrible as to make you cringe) and then finish off the critique by telling them something else they did right.

Kind of softens the crushing blow of complete rejection... a bit.

Then, you can end it by saying "Nothing worth having ever comes easy." OR "All writers have a beginning point, what you do from there is entirely up to you."

Then, push them out of their chair and wait for the next huge embarassing failure to amble by, and repeat the above...

writtenwyrdd said...

I know it would be hard to say and hard to take as an aspiring (but not seasoned enough) writer, but, "I'm sorry, but this is not yet good enough writing," might be the kindest thing.

Of course, in telling someone who thinks their stuff is wonderful and ready for publication that they need to go take a couple of courses, or go read more, or join a critique group like critters might also work. I think it depends on the individual what you suggest, and I really don't envy you in having to say something!

Peaches said...

Read well-written books. If you can see sloppy writing in a book- innumerable cliches, cookie-cutter characters, stereotyped attitudes, inability to express thoughts without profanity- boycott the author. You don't need to burn their books, just stop reading stuff that's going to teach you bad writing habits. And 'well-written' doesn't necessarily mean 'Shakespeare'. Dr Seuss is well-written.

Mystery Robin said...

I think it's ok to say "this needs work - here's a good bit (because they need help sorting the wheat from the chaff) and here's a bad bit. Right now the bad bits are choking the life out of the good bits. Revise"

You basically said that very thing to me, and it helped tremendously.

And you didn't even see the book *before* that - makes me shudder to go back and read it, but honestly no one piece of info helped me be a better writer - it was just more reading, more writing, more critiquing.

Julie Butcher-Fedynich said...

The best newbie advice I can remember is your character never gets a second chance to make a first impression. Your MC must be introduced in the course of action that defines who he is not what he looks like.
This is from my brother's live journal.

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately. By establishing your character firmly, you'll make the whole process of virtual-story-world-creation move more quickly and easily. There are multiple techniques for planning a strong introduction, but I'm only going to hit on the strongest one: CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION.

A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is.

Lethal Weapon 2 starts off in the front seat of a stationwagon during a police chase, with Mel Gibson howling in excitement and pounding on the ceiling while Danny Glover fumbles for the siren, tries to talk on the radio, and tries to convince Mel that they don't really need to be doing this. It strongly establishes both characters as cops. It demonstrates Mel's love of wild action, Danny's cautious approach to his work, and the relationship dynamic between the two. (I liked it so much that I borrowed shamelessly from it to start off Grave Peril.)

Every Bond Pic that opens on the "opening mission" template does the same thing: it shows you Bond being a heroic spy and engaging in lots of danger and action.

Your character is a frustrated high school nerd? Then have him come on stage late for his school bus, which promptly drives away even though the driver obviously saw him coming. (IE, Spider-Man.) Your character is a titanic lumberjack? Then start him off towering over the north woods and felling fifty trees with each swing of his axe.

Make the introduction count. This is something you can't afford to screw up."

I hope this helps.

Terri said...

You have to open with something a little positive like,

"This has potential . . ."

Just about everything has potential. A rock in the middle of the desert has the potential to become sand, in about 50 million years.

"However, it needs some work . . ."

What doesn't need work? There are two kinds of projects - perfect and finished.

"Are you part of a writer's group?"

Suggest online resources or that they look into local sources. In Alaska, they could live with polar bears.

Find one little good thing.

A veteran author who hangs at my writing group talked about doing consultations at conferences back in the 1980s and how painful some of the meetings were. He said that some of the manuscripts barely rated a comment like "Well, I really like how you capitalized the first word of every sentence." However, he tried to find a thread to encourage the would-be scribe.

With the folks that you think have potential, don't be afraid to be honest. At my last conference, a well pubbed author in my genre started his critique with "you know, you are good . . ." and then proceeded to tell me why most of my five pages sucked. It was a well-needed swift kick in the backstory. So, instead of going into the trunk, that novel is back on the drawing board.

At this point the sincere will be writing it down and the delusion will be saying "I don't need no steenking agent, Publish America will put me in every bookstore in the universe."

Thank you for this post. It is heartening to see that agents can be a little unsure as well. Have fun and pet a polar bear for all of us!

Susan Adrian said...

When I FIRST started--I mean I had about 3 scenes under my belt--I posted a bit on a public forum. Then I bit my nails and watched the screen.

The slams came. I'd done this wrong, this was inaccurate, this was sloppy...

If I didn't cry, I wanted to.

And then Diana Gabaldon herself posted--she was and is one of my literary heroes for her writing AND generosity--and shushed them all.

She said, "Hey, she SAID she just started! Settle down!"

Then she said to me: "You're doing fine. Just keep writing. Don't worry, you'll get it."

And THAT was the best writing advice I ever got. :)

Pepper Smith said...

I second the idea of a tip sheet that you could hand out. It might include useful writing books, blogs, writer help sites online--I'm sure you can get plenty of suggestions for what to put on it. It doesn't have to be specific to each person.

LIRW said...

I can't remember the first piece of truly useful advice I received, but if I had the chance to give advice it would simply be this: be open. Be open to feedback, criticism, and praise. Be open to workshops, retreats, conferences. Be open to every learning experience that comes your way, because the surest way to get nowhere is to cut yourself off from potentially great advice. Oh! And check e-bay for rhinoceros hides to curl up in for protection -- you're going to need one!
~Jen McA

Lisa Katzenberger said...

When I started writing, I didn't fully understand the concept of a clear conflict. Of asking what does the character want? What is her obstacle? What's at stake? I just wanted to write words, but I didn't know yet how to form a story. Once I learned more about craft, then all the pretty words I wanted to create had something to stick to.

My work also got better the more I learned about what genre I was passionate about writing in. And it's women's fiction -- shoot me if you like. But now that I know that, and can follow what's going on in that particular genre, and read other women's fiction writers (and also read outside of my genre to learn from them), I'm able to focus what I want to say and how to say it.

I think it also helps to hear that as a new new writer your work is probably going to suck. And that's ok, everyone's does. Do not expect perfection, or really, a book deal on the very first novel you ever write. Write that second book. Keep cranking out those short stories.

If you are serious about writing, you must practice. It's like piano practice or training for a marathon. You have to give yourself some time to learn, for your body and brain to figure out how it all works. It will get better with time.

Stephanie said...

"Keep writing" is what I say to everyone who shows me anything for feedback. It works for "I love it; give me more" as well as "you're not ready yet so practice."

I would also suggest that the writer find a writing buddy or writing group (either online or live) b/c they're really invaluable. And free.

Natasha Fondren said...

I agree with Susan. At that stage, probably the best advice is to keep writing. If it's their first or so novel, then all that's needed, in my opinion, is a bit of encouragement and a request to hear about their next book when it's finished.

There are just some things that can't be learned without practice. If you tell them now, they won't get it.

Brigid said...

Don't sugar coat it. That's my advice.

The absolute best advice I ever got actually came from you, in the rejection to my full manuscript. You said, "Hey Brigid, there's no plot here." You then proceeded to say encouraging things while simultaneously kicking me in the ass.

It was fantastic. I will never forget it. You're my hero.

People have a tendency to coddle beginning writers a little too much, and I'm all for positive reinforcement.

But sometimes people need that kick in the ass.

Diana said...

Everything that has been said here, I've either read in a book about writing or in a writer's forum. I would say something like, "The potential is there. I suggest joining a writer's group or online forum and get feedback from your peers."

slweippert said...

Best advice I ever got came from P.N. Elrod. Go to your local library and read every book in the "How to write" 808 section. I followed that advice and my writing skills improved greatly. I pass this tip on to as many people as I can, it's THE advice to give to beginning writers, IMHO. :)

Amy said...

Nice of you to ask.

I think the thing to remember is through hard work a writer really can improve. I've had fellow classmates whose beginning work was terrible, only to produce some great stuff later.

I would focus big picture and give him/her one thing that really needs work. For instance, a first person narrative filled with "I...I...I..." or tense changes. Encourage him/her to look into the local university for writing classes or joining an online critique. Don't feel like you have to point out everything. Encourage them to keep writing, it's the only way to improve.

Karen said...

Hi, Janet.

I didn't read through the other 90+ comments, so I don't know if anyone said this already, and I know it sounds obvious, but the very best advice anyone ever gave me about writing was to read more. And not just in the genre I'm writing.

I've read books I liked and books I hated. But along the way, I have gained valuable insight into what works in a story and what doesn't, how to craft characters that readers will care about, and what devices help move a plot along.

I've learned more from reading more than I ever learned in a writing class.

RRuin said...

Remind them writing is rewriting.
Writing is editing. Be prepared to cut what you love and keep what you need as long as it serves the story.
Remind them a book doesn't spring from a writer's head like Athena from the head of Zeus fully formed and ready for battle.

PatriciaW said...

Read with a critical eye. What kinds of books raise goosebumps on the writer, and what about them evokes that type of response?

Study authors the writer really enjoy (not necessarily the most popular or NY Times bestselling). Take their books apart. How do they do what they do?

Read craft books.

Take online writing courses. Many offered, as inexpensively as $20.

Frequent the blogs of writers who talk about the craft of writing.

Most of all, keep writing. The more one writes, with a mind toward improving their craft, the better one gets.

Diana said...

My writing buddy and I (can't really be a writing group with two people, right?) were just talking about this yesterday.

If you can find anything good to say, say it. Can you see the hint of a good story in there? Do you like the word choices they make? Anything positive helps.

Ask questions about the work if you're meeting with the person in person. My writing buddy said that she realizes now her first effort was awful, but what made her keep going was that the agent who critiqued her work asked a couple of specific questions that showed he really read her pages. Also, the answers the writer gives you might help you in giving guidance - anything from "you may want to read..." to "have you thought about doing..."

And if these are newbies, it is almost guaranteed that you'll be able to say, "The secret your English teacher never told you is that just because an adverb exists doesn't mean you have to use it...your writing could be so much more powerful if..."

Cameron said...

Agree with Amy there - but I would have two things: If they did ANYTHING well, give em that as a prop, and pick the WORST thing they did and mention that as an area to improve in their NEXT work, so as to indicate they should continue writing. Over-criticism is only for the thick skinned, over-fluff never helps anyone - a nice balance is good for someone new.

Peg McGuire said...

Here's what helped me:

What does your protagonist want? If that's not stated up front, you're lost.

Screw up lots of times. Throw the pages away. And start again.

Whatever you write, cut it in half. Then do it again.

Find a writer's group that has a bunch of great writers (all way better than you) and join them. When they rip your pages apart, say "thank you and can I have some more?"

Stop thinking about your future interviews with Terri Gross and Oprah. Only the outstanding get to go on NPR and Oprah. The rest of us mortal souls must write in isolation with little encouragement or praise.

Now about our poor feelings: Criticism hurts. There's nothing you can do to stop the pain. But, the beginning writer needs to hear and accept the truth.

Start with what you liked and then go to what needs work.

If the writer wants to be successful, he or she will swallow their pride and take it. They won't like it, but it could be the blessing they've been waiting for.

Nathan said...

It is always harder to jump in the sand.

Look to the basics, the foundation for good writing.

1. Show, don't tell. Nobody wants to be told. (We learn that from our parents.)

2. Change the way you read your favorite books. Every successful, popular novel is a textbook for effective writing. What makes them good/enjoyable?

3. Lastly write, applying those effective writing elements into your own work, by mimicry at first if you need to until your own style emerges.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I think the best advice is to keep writing, that in writing, practice doesn't make perfect but it does make it better.

I would have hated to have someone I trust mislead me. Many new writers think a first draft is the finished product. They don't know the power of the editing pen.

I think, if you thank them for allowing you to read their work (because it's not easy for everyone to do that) - and encourage them to write, write, write and to read, read, will be giving them more to latch onto than a laundry list of do's and do not's.

Plus, when you say "keep writing" it's encouraging. Even pages that sucked may have come from someone with incredible potential.

This is a lot of responsibility for you, isn't it? You want to be helpful but not misdirect or misrepresent.

I would say be honest - smile - and maybe remind them of the incredible writing community online where they can get a lot of support.

Good luck!

lale said...

What Anne Lamott said: Write shitty first drafts. And only write what you can see through that little one inch frame- don't feel pressurised to barf up a five hundred page manuscript in one sitting.

DCS said...

I'm still in that stage--I hope that I'm nearer the end than the beginning, but here is what I've learned:
1. Be patient. Some days the words will fly off my fingers, but not always.
2. Read a lot, especially the genre I want to produce, but not exclusively. Think about how the writer does his thing while I am being entertained. Be critical of established writers. They aren't perfect.
3. Resist the urge to query too soon. This is advice I would never have taken at the beginning, however.
4. Be my own critic but don't fear to enlist others. I still need to be unafraid of killing my own babies.
5. Re-write, re-write, re-write.
6. Finish the book. (Thanks to David Housewright for this one.)

Les Edgerton said...

One other piece of advice for this subject. Early on in my writing career, I happened on a quote from Harry Crews, who says that when he writes, he "tries to leave out the parts people skip." Best advice ever!

mcp1776 said...

Since you're meeting with these writers, it would be best for you to be helpfully honest with their work. It is possible to be negative in a positive way.

Point out their errors, in a similar fashion that you do on Query Shark (I wish you’d review my query that I sent, but I’m not going to mention which it is – that would be too self serving and that is not why I’m posting now – okay my shameless plea is over and will not repeated again! LOL), as well how to improve. I'm sure you've noticed many common errors they have made as a group. Those are what I would stress.

If these folks are spread out across the nation, perhaps a handout showing the common errors made and suggestions to improve. It would save you time and it would give them something they can study (after the shock of not having written the world's best novel has worn off).

Instead of telling them to go to the library, give them two or three books for them to begin their research. That should get them started. If not, then perhaps they weren't writers at heart.

I was lucky when I took an editing class (online) and had my manuscript reviewed by the instructor who is also a published author and professional editor. She took my 400 page plus novel and told me it was good, but waaaaay to long; she commented on my dialogue and said it was excellent, but still offered a suggestion or two on how to make it better; told me my use of backstory was good, but said I used it too much throughout the story; however, she liked the way I opened up with backstory; she told me that I use much too much narrative and while it was written well, it would bore readers because today’s readers aren’t into narrative; and, a few other helpful comments.

She went into the story itself, but mostly on structure and not content. Yes, it was a shock to read some comments, but after much thought and study, her comments made me see my story in a different light. All-in-all, she had about 20% negative comments, but it was the way she told me about them that reduced the sting and increase my desire to improve.

I used her comments as a spring board and dove into the story. I made a series out of it, change it all around, made a ton of revisions, and chopped like mad, leaving enough left over for book two. My new manuscript is about 115K.

By the way, she listed two books for me to read. I did, and now have a library of writing books of my own.

It was how the negative was presented that made want to improve. And I believe that is what you really what these writers to walk away after meeting with you.

Ca.ll.y said...

Story by Robert McKee. Brilliant.

Ca.ll.y said...

One other thought. One thing that really helps me is when I sit down to start a new manuscript, I really have to think about what I want the story to BE before I ever put a word on the page. What do I want people to say about this book? Is it a light, fun read? Is it a literary masterpiece that will pull at their heart strings? Is it a sexy thriller? Having a good grasp your tone before you get started is a must.

Maria said...

Mostly at that stage, what a writer needs more than anything is feedback. You aren't the right person for that (especially in that setting where the writer would be crushed). I think that is what I would tell them--"Check out these websites. Get some honest feedback on your writing--I can't give it to you because this isn't the time or the place--refer them to a few posts on your own site of why you don't give feedback.)"

Probably the best you can do. Newbies don't know how newbie they are--and getting feedback is very, very difficult at that stage--no one wants to give it.

Good luck!

Charlotte said...

I am so new to writing in English everything is still painful to me, but I have to say the things that helped me the most were:
- people pointing out specific weaknesses of MY style, and my strengths. The problem with generic advice (be real, no passive voice, etc.) is not only that I've heard it a million times, it's also a bit counterproductive for me (sometimes I just get the urge to litter my writing with adverbs to annoy the Apostles of Hemingway). Except The Elements of Style, which are a bible (I guess because they're not presented in moral, "ADVERBS ARE THE DEVIL" terms).
- The question of the narrator is important, but the "who is the narrator talking to" changed everything. It begs the "why would anyone care" question - which is somewhat important.
- Finally, the most fantastic thing is having a friend who's a great reader - meaning when I'm trying to do something and failing, he's able to point me at examples of people who have succeeded. Hugely inspirational. If you're able to point young writers at their "family", you;ll change their lives!

Aetheric said...

Ask them if they're tough enough to be a writer.

Spending months or years on a story, rewriting and polishing and pushing yourself to make it worth reading - that's hard. To then take your story and hand it over to someone else who may rip it to shreds in front of you - that's worse. It's like having your heart yanked out and crushed.

If they know how hard it is, and they know that the fruit of their work may be tossed aside like so much rubbish, and they STILL want to become a published author, then they've got what it takes no matter how bad their writing is.

Anyone can be taught to write well, if they are willing to learn and practice a lot. Anyone can join a writer's group, go to conferences, read books. But there's nothing on earth that can teach courage and self-confidence enough to keep writing after your heart's story gets slammed. So before they even get to being a good writer, they have to toughen up and be ready to pick up the pieces when their stuff gets shredded.

Van Halen said it best.

*sings* You gotta roo-oooo-oooll with the punches to get to what's real...

kitty said...

Maybe this Dilbert cartoon will help.


jseliger said...

When you were starting out, what advice did you get that REALLY helped you?

After 90 comments, I'm guessing that you've probably got all the advice you want. That being said, I wish that a) all of the following books had been written and b) someone pointed me to them:

—James Wood's How Fiction Works
—Francine Prose's Reading like a Writer
—The two collected volumes from the New York Times, Writers on Writing.
Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Those five are the major ones. A few others that might be worth leaving off because they could be overwhelming:

The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House

William Zissner's On Writing Well

Martin Amis' The War Against Cliche

Steven King's On Writing

It's still popular to argue that writing can't be taught, but the more experience I accumulate, the more I begin to doubt that advice. I can see that someone two comments above me has said the same thing in different words: "Go to your local library and read every book in the "How to write" 808 section."

If the writer takes this advice, they'll learn more than they ever could in 10 or 15 minutes with you.

Morgan Dempsey said...

Still a newbie writer.

There are two things that have helped me above all other things, books, advice, exercises, et cetera: honest, well-paced criticism and encouragement.

With the first, I mean criticism that pushes me just past the level I'm at, but not too far. Criticism that demands I walk when I'm crawling, and run when I'm walking. Criticism that is specifically about the writing, and not putting a judgement call on me as a writer. It's especially helpful when it points out what I do wrong, as well as what I do right.

I know people harp on sugar-coating and the "sandwich" method, saying it's pussyfooting around. But hearing "This sentence was beautiful" "That scene was wonderfully executed" "That was a perfect moment for this character" helps me fine-tune my self-editing radar just as much as hearing "This sentence is clumsy" "This scene needs to be tightened/thrown out" "Your character would NEVER do that."

And with the second... I'm singularly lucky to have a group of writer-friends who are all significantly better than I am (one of whom is a client of yours, in fact), willing to put up with my noobishness, and tell me, "Yes, dear, you're not quite there yet, but you've got something and all you need to do is keep polishing." If I didn't have these wonderful people as my cheerleaders, I'd probably never try to get published, and just keep writing for my own enjoyment.

... that was much longer than I intended it to be.

SundaySoup said...

Read. Read. Read. And then read some more. You'd be surprised how many newbies do not do this because they think it takes away from their writing time.


dylan said...

Dear Ms. Reid -

A dear friend and mentor told me long ago to think of the first draft as quarrying a chunk of marble from the hills above Tuscany.

Every step after that is chipping and polishing until the chunk more resembles the Statue of David.

Writing is what happens after the first few drafts are completed.

If I was to advise young writers I would tell them to get Strunk & Whites "Elements of Style" (there were at least 23 used paperback copies available today on Amazon starting at $.01 cents + $3.99 shipping) and chain it to the toilet paper roller in your can.

Re-read Whites section frequently for pure pleasure and education and Strunk's for pure information.

Next I would suggest that they attain a copy of Roget's Thesaurus and force themselves into the habit of mining it whenever they are in doubt about a word or needing a better word.

There are also many of them available used on Amazon for one penny plus shipping.

And any good dictionary. Use it.


Joelle said...

You have a unique platform while giving advice to a new writer, which is wonderful and awful at the same time. Whatever you tell a new writer will sound like the voice of God.

I find in judging contests that the majority of young writers have serious POV issues. When critiquing the work for the contest, I focus on one big thing for them to improve and always try to point out at least one or two little things they do well. Most young writers need the praise for even the smallest thing (perhaps you might say "I like your use of adjectives") Only after the reassurance that they do something well can they actually process the critique to improve their writing. And more than one big thing will never help. It just confuses and dismays and leads the aspiring writer to consider taking an ax to the computer or to the critiquer.

Of course, you might end up with the rare find...a writer who wants the negative. You never know!

Have fun! Hope to see you in Indy for Bouchercon.

Joelle Charbonneau

jimnduncan said...

Be honest with them. Tell them it isn't ready yet. Encourage them to find not only one or two or more other people who can offer direct, honest feedback, but people who offer encouragement as well. I prefer the brutal feedback. It helps me to improve my writing far more than gushing words. Tell them they need patience, lots and lots of patience. Read a lot. Write a lot. If they are dedicated, truly dedicated to the craft, they will persevere and improve, hopefully to the point of being publishable.

Amy Platon said...

Hi Janet,
I just wanted to add that I think the most helpful gauge for inexperienced writers is to get published locally. Practice on shorter pieces and hone the skill before attempting to write a novel. Even starting a blog to get used to writing will help. Then like many have said, reading is the biggest help (and inspiration).

But be honest with them (I know you will). You don't have to crush their spirit, but don't mislead them either. That is your biggest gift!

Good luck!

mulligangirl said...

I will be forever grateful to the person who pointed me in the direction of Cheney's book: Getting the Words Right. After that, no one had to tell me what I was doing wrong. It was as clear as a bell. You could start by focusing on a few positives (if nothing else, persistence & professional commitment might be qualities you can admire) and suggest almost all writers can benefit from a long and thorough revision process. Probe to see if they've done that. Ask them what resources they have used. Suggest others they haven't tried. If they’ve been through (more than one) workshop and critique group and books, blogs, etc. and still scream beginner, then they probably need the brutal honesty of someone like you, because no matter what they say, they aren’t really listening. If they are serious about their career, they will thank you some day.

Anne MacFarlane said...

Be specific. As a beginner someone told me I "overwrote." Not useful because I had no clue what she meant. Had she circled a couple of phrases or pointed out my over- abundance of adverbs and description I would have understood.

An editor went through a first chapter and made a list of problems, with pg#'s and quotes from my work. 17 points. Tough on a newbe but the best learning experience ever.

kitty said...

Read "Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing."

He's gotten a ton of criticism for its brevity -- you can practically count the words -- but it's still a great book on writing. And its illustrations are good, too.


Jenn said...

Lots of good stuff here already. I'll add that the best adivice I got came from four books:
"Self-Editing for Writers" Stephen King's "On Writing."
"The First Five Pages"
"Writing Tight"

I'd agree that most beginners need to hear something positive to keep going, and also concrete ideas like pointing out where they're "telling" when they should be "showing," using unnessesary adverbs and adjectives, and/or using weak verbs (was, were, etc) too much...A writer can't help but improve (IMO) when they try to tackle these three things.

Beginning writers also need to hear, "Read in your genre and join a critique group"...I think online ones are more productive than in-person ones since feedback can be ongoing instead of once a month. You're also more likely to get varied feedback and feedback from already published writers in online groups. (I love Critique Circle)

Mira said...

This is very kind of you, Janet.

Here are my suggestions:

a. I would be very honest that I felt they weren't ready for publishing yet, but that they had potential.

b. Then I would tell them everything they did right. I would spend the bulk of the conversation on that.

c. I would then pick the single most important flaw and show them how it impacts their writing.

d. I'd then encourage them to keep writing, and to ask for feedback over time from a critique group.

Good luck! I really appreciate that you are taking your power in the situation seriously, and trying to use it to benefit the writers. They are lucky to be meeting with you.


A little late to this game but...

I believe in the power of speaking in the positive, saying what we want, repeating what we want, harping on what we want. They swallow and digest they request willingly, and we swimmingly receive what we want. Done.

dylan said...

Dear Ms. Reid

Oh, one more thing.

From John Gardner's "On Becoming A Novelist", his standards for good fiction:

...creation of a vivid and continuous dream, authorial generosity, intellectual and emotional significance, elegance and efficiency, and strangeness.

I think a young writer could do worse than to consider and reach for these.


Mommy C said...

Being a writer is like being a rodeo cowboy. You've got to have a mile wide ego to get you through. It isn't a matter of if you get hurt, but when (when you get a rejection, when you get a bad review). You've got to be prepard to get your teeth knocked out and your ass kicked. Most of that will be in the practice arena when no one is watching. It takes a lot of rides to stick one, and even more to score enough for a buckle. And, the truth is that many will never get a buckle, let alone go pro. But, you do it for the adrenalin, the fantasy of it all, the compulsion that won't let you stop, and the applause. Win or lose, you have a whole whack of stories in the end, and perhaps a drinking problem, too.


suzie said...

you're so nice Janet :)

Julie Korzenko said...

Best advice I received from a multi-pubbed author:

"Well, look at you. You're a writer. Congratulations. Now, hon, you have a lot of work to do. So let's get started..."

She proceed to give me one positive and one negative.

Now, in the pay-it-forward frame of mind, I've attempted to help newbies in similar fashion and have been met with either gratitude or a "you have no idea what you're talking about, my dreck is brilliant."

Best of luck. And huge kudos for putting yourself out there and offering this fantastic opportunity.

Southern Writer said...

That's easy. Two words: Miss Snark.

Sam said...

The best advice: attitude. Don't take cricism personally. Criticism is the fastest way to improve because we can't see our own mistakes. If you can find somebody who will read your writing and tell you what they really think, treat them like gold.


Show, don't tell

Active versus passive sentences

He said/she said versus he/she groaned, shouted, wailed, hissed, etc.

Get rid of extra words

Beware of VERY... if you walk very slowly, you crawl, etc. VERY means you need another verb.

Beware of the LY words...

Beware of being too nice... it kills your writing

Best wishes to you, Janet!

Steve said...

Write another one.

I started in screenplays, and the minute I was done with my first script I started asking what I thought was the most important question: How do I get an agent?

A coworker who liked my writing was kind enough to forward this (entirely newbie, ignorant) question to an agent she knew. His email response was one sentence long.

"Tell him to write a great screenplay."

And that's what I've been trying to do every since. Now I know that my first script wasn't ready for an agent. No one could have sold it. The agent knew that without even reading it. His advice made me focus my efforts on writing. That's what I can control.

Telling a novice writer to write another script or manuscript takes the focus off of one project and places it where it should be - on learning and perfecting the craft. Plus, finishing new projects has a way of illuminating the flaws of previous work (because of how much a writer learns just by continuing to write).

Of course this advice is best for writers who demonstrate the potential to become good with practice, but I also suspect that writing a second (or third?) project might act as a weeding-out process. Do you love writing enough to spend the time it takes to get good? Are you devoted to telling stories and telling them well? Or are you just infatuated with one pet project? It could be an effective litmus test.

Good luck.

(Love your blog, btw.)

Dave Cullen said...

The best advice I got by far, was to get in a writing program, or writer's group, or SOMEthing.

That may sound like a cop out, like a radio shrink telling a really screwed up person to get into therapy. But they really need therapy. Their problems are not going to be solved in one phone call. New writers' problems are not going to be solved in any one thing you tell them, or even in a 30-minute conference with you.


For me, that advice got me to take a nighttime course at SMU, which gave me enough joy and confidence to seriously plan for quitting my job and going back to grad school, which led to writing for a living, a book deal, etc.

I'm having trouble remembering any other great advice I got which made a dramatic difference. That advice changed everything.

Sam said...

More thoughts:

Read your work out loud. Ask a friend to read it to you. You will immediately hear stilted dialogue, wordy sentences, etc.

Write every day whether you feel like it not, even if you just write a paragraph. Treat writing like paying your bills or going to the office.

Writing is all about rewriting.

Get together with other writers. I belong to a writing circle that meets on Sunday afternoons. We say hello, chat for 15 minutes, and write in silence for several hours.

Jolie said...

An important thing I learned from my undergrad writing teacher, who gave me a second chance (and then a third ...):

As a writer, you can almost always start over. Take that any way you want. It's often true in both big ways and small ways. You have the freedom to revise, reinvent, revisit, or start from scratch.