Monday, March 29, 2021

How do you get better?


I recently received a query from a new writer.

It was clear the writer was committed to building a writing career; intent on making a success of it.


I passed on the query with a form rejection but then heard back from the writer.


The essence was "if this isn't working, how do I get better?"


I was taken by the gracious reply to what can feel like heartbreaking news, particularly at the start of a career.


So, how do you get better?


The writer thought maybe working with an independent editor was an option.

I disagreed.


The time for an editor is when you've got good stuff on the page.

The question right now is HOW to get good stuff on the page.


These were my initial ideas:


1. Write more. Looking back over 10+ years of almost daily blog posts, I think I got a lot better (slowly to be sure, but overall.)


2. Read more. Read with a writer's eye. How does the author introduce characters? How do they twist the plot?


3. Force yourself to WRITE the assessments of books you've read. Having to explain something in writing really helps you clarify things. Then assess your writing of the assessment. Is it clear? Focused? Logical?


4. Type out word for word a novel you think works really well. It gets you into the novel at a granular level.



These are my things.


What are yours?


Please feel free to contribute in the comment column.


KMK said...

Read out loud -- especially dialogue scenes. I started writing fiction seriously after 20 years of writing radio news, which gave me the ability to "hear" a scene and a sentence. The best way I know to get there is to read things out loud, and really listen to what works.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

When I first swam into the Reef years ago, I wondered the same thing. I had been reading and writing and my stuff was not quite there yet. I got a few nibbles but ultimately kept falling short of the prize.

All of the advice Janet gives is spot on. Read lots especially in your genre. Read the stuff that is getting published today. Remember publishing is a business. Agents will only concern themselves with what they think they can sell. That's the reality. So read with awareness. But read. A writer that does not read is probably not going to be a very good writer.

Write lots. Even if its gibberish. Write blogs, journals, letters, emails, short stories, song lyrics. Anything and everything that will get you writing every day. Stephen King was NOT lying in "On Writing". The first ONE MILLION WORDS is just practice. That was the hardest realization for me.

Study the craft. Stephen King's "On Writing" is not the only craft book but a good one. I would also strongly recommend Jeff Somer's Writing Without Rules. It soothes the crumpled path of your writing woes.

Even if you love the current book you are querying, if it is not getting any interest, put it aside and write something new. That is another hard lesson. I know multiple writers who ended up selling the 3rd, 4th, 5th or later book that they wrote. Only a handful say they sold the first book they wrote. Then there are others who gained an agent with a 2nd or later book but sold the first book with that agent. So keep writing.

Enlist beta readers. Workshop your early drafts if you can. Attend writer events (workshops, conferences) online and in person as possible. It really helps. No one can support writers better than other writers. They understand the struggle.

Be persistent. If you really want to be a writer, do not give up. No matter what. This can be a very long journey. And quite discouraging at times. Do not judge your journey by what you see. It will seem that others are coming right out of the womb and publishing. Those are the exceptions. Your journey is yours. It won't look like somebody else's. So keep swimming.

Karen said...

What Janet said, especially the write more.

I agree, too, with KMK. Read out loud. I'd go even further and say read out loud to a friend, or have them read out to you. It's amazing how many clunky things you pick up when you hear the text. (Also, a lot of fun to do with a co-writer friend and a glass of wine over a leisurely dinner.)

Come back to work after a decent time away. 3-6 months. That long perspective highlights a lot of problems.

C.S. (Not so much delurking, but deciding to comment again after a long time of just reading the comments. Hi, all.)

Eileen said...

Find yourself a good critique group! Of course, you’ll benefit from objective feedback from other writers, but the flip side of that is just as important. Learning how to read and critique others will improve your own writing. Plus, you’ll get constant encouragement, gentle nudging when needed, and if you’re lucky, deep friendships.

Karen McCoy said...

I think E.M. Goldsmith summed it up rather nicely (e.g. dropped the mic on all of us, lol), so the only thing I'll add here is to be sure you start striking a balance between knowing when to be flexible versus when to stick to your guns when it comes to your own work. Beginners often think that other, more experienced writers know more than they do, but when it comes to story, especially one you've written, remember that you can perhaps see more of the moving pieces than others can. So, as soon as you are comfortable, develop a way to figure out what is working for you, and what isn't. Goodness knows I wish I'd done that sooner.

Unknown said...

What's difficult is that as a writer, you're always on that tightrope between being aware enough of your own failings to improve and having the confidence to keep going. In my experience, the most talented authors are usually very modest and freely admit to making mistakes. I don't think it's possible to write well if you don't have the ability to self-critique.

It sounds like every cliché in the book, but I think as a writer, you need to embrace change and growth. You have to accept that everything you write will have flaws and room for improvement without getting those flaws get in the way of moving on to the next thing. Like a shark, a writer needs to keep moving forward.

April Mack said...

I agree with write more. Get used to the idea that writing well means throwing away (or at least pasting into a separate file, unlikely to be used again) A LOT of words. So, so many words.

I've also found writing shorter fiction helped me with my longer fiction. I'm an over writer and naturally bent towards writing by the seat of my pants. But by writing flash fiction weekly I've learned to write tighter scenes. It's shown me how plotting makes my novels better because I don't have to wade through words to find the story anymore; my scenes connect to each other better when individually they're tighter.

BrianH said...

I can only comment for myself, of course, but writing consistently has been the single most important thing. I remember feeling elated in fourth grade when this writing thing suddenly seemed to click. And then it unclicked, and reclicked and so on with more growing and writing.

Reading is a close second, though perhaps for a slightly different reason than Janet mentioned. Recently, reading Kurt Vonnegut has been exceptionally helpful because knowing that his writing is "good" seemed to give me permission to be myself in my writing. Now my work-in-progress is a little more absurd, a little sillier, and a whole lot more me. Odd how we can learn about ourselves by learning about others!

But yes, I'd say deliberate practice is the most productive way to get better. I seem to remember psychological studies that found brains effectively become "re-wired" with steady immersion in just about anything. You don't even need to call an electrician!

Good to hear from everyone again!

Katja said...

For me, reading has really helped. Although I am still not reading as much as I would like and probably should, but that's because of my life circumstances and not because I don't enjoy reading!
I only started reading after a few drafts of my first book.

Now I'm writing the second. And I have the same Reefer read bits of it as I'm writing it as I had while I was writing my first book.
I remember being hurt when I first received Reefer's feedback! But now I know it helped me to improve.
Just a couple of days ago, Reefer told me "this is GOOD". I was so happy. (Still am!)

So, other people (non editors) can help us get better, too.

I don't understand your 4th point, Janet. Could just be an English language thing for me.
Or is there a 'why' missing in the sentence? Like, type out word for word WHY a novel... ?

Sara said...

All the things people said, but also, it's okay to take a break when you need it. You need to be in a good place. If life, or rejection is getting you down or overwhelming, it's okay to step away for a week or a month or whatever you need. Then come back with fresh perspective and clear head. It is not giving up. It is not wrong to need a break. I tried to keep pushing myself and writing while dealing with a special needs kid. Everything was terrible because I had nothing left to put on paper. I was wrung out. But I felt bad for not writing, bad for writing terribly, and just bad. I had to finally say it was okay to take a break and pick it back up when life was better.

KariV said...

Yes to all of this advice.

Also to add something that helped me specifically: seek out an understanding of what story is (and what it isn't). I had read widely and written a decent amount (not Stephen King's 1 million words, but quite a lot more than nothing), but my writing didn't take off until I found craft books that specifically defined story. I recommend anything Lisa Cron and also The Anatomy of a Story.

So many craft books are mechanical - do this, do that, and a great story emerges and writer gets book deal. Well, that wasn't working for me. But once I understood what a story was, in essence, I was able to better utilize other craft advice. And my writing is very much improved from it.

Colin Smith said...

Uh-huh... uh-huh... uh-huh... what have I got to add to this? Not much. Absolutely numbers one and two are: write and read. Anything beyond that is gravy (as they say... I'm not sure who... but I'm sure it's not just me).

And that includes CPs and beta readers. *shock* *gasp* I know. The consensus wisdom seems to be that you need to have CPs and/or beta readers. And it's not a bad idea. I used them for both novels I've tried to get published, and even my short fiction has been read by eyes other than mine and my wife's. But this is not a hard rule. Jeff Somers says he never uses CPs. And he's not alone. Plenty of writers edit their own work, perhaps run the 20th draft by their spouse, and then ship the "final" ms to their agent. The thing with writers like this, however, is that they've written a lot and they've got a good level of self-awareness. They know their own foibles, bad habits, and ticks, and have tricks to mitigate against them. Most of the time, anyway. I mention this to say: don't feel like you *have* to get CPs. Not everyone is socially comfortable enough (even online) to build that kind of trusting relationship. If you have CPs or want CPs, go for it. They can be a great help to your writing. But it's not a must. You can find an agent and get published without them. An agent isn't going to sign you on the basis of whether or not you have CPs. A publisher isn't going to require a list of your beta readers before sending you a contract. They care most about the finished product. If it's a great book, the chances are it'll go places, regardless of the process you used to write and polish it.

Katja: Janet meant literally typing out your favorite novel word for word, page for page. The idea is that when you're copying a work like this, you are paying closer attention to word usage, structure, and style. Some writers have found this to be very instructive.

Anyway, there's my tuppence. :)

Elissa M said...

Something that helped me enormously was writing critiques of other writers' works. I had to learn to see exactly what wasn't working, then convey what I saw so the writer(s) could see it, too. As I got better at critiquing, I got better at seeing what wasn't working in my own writing.

Craig F said...

Practice will not make you a perfect writer, because there is no perfect writer. It will get you closer to perfection.

Another thing I do is go back and critically read my previous stuff. It keeps me from backsliding into things like circus dialogue (stilted).

Katja said...

Thanks, Colin, for clarifying the 4th point of Janet's. I will have to pass on this one - I would NEVER get to write or read anything if I typed out a whole novel like that. 😱
Not enough time in THIS life at least.

As for CPs and beta readers: also make sure these fit your purposes!
A beta reader/CP might not work for you if they don't read/write in your genre and you might not work for them.

Also, there are other reasons why I wouldn't go with just any beta reader. How much do they know about writing, really, really, even if they've written for years themselves?

When I joined a local writers group, I was the youngest age-wise and thought wow they must all know SO MUCH.
But as I kept attending the meetings and monitoring the feedback and work, I was getting more and more frustrated.

"Sets the scene nicely"; "Another solid chunk": "you've got a typo in that paragraph" was the usual, and ONLY, feedback from those people.

I started noticing so many things that didn't work in others' writing (9 characters being introduced in one chapter; the all annoying As-you-know-Bob dialogue; flat characters etc.), but I knew that nobody wanted to hear the truth!

It was a waste of my time, so I left the group after 2 years.

Luralee said...

Get lots of feedback!

As a new writer I didn’t know where to get critiques of my story. I didn’t know any writers. The local writers group were mostly all writing memoirs and some were actively pushing their self published books at the one meeting I attended. I knew my writing needed improvement so I finally admitted to my family that I was writing a novel. Several of them seemed happy to read it but then hardly mentioned it again. Almost none of them finished it. That was a big red flag that something wasn’t working but I still had no idea how to improve.

In the meantime I read many craft books and became acquainted with the writers vocabulary (show don’t tell, etc.) and what kinds of things to look out for. I fixed a few things, got rid of a lot of extra “that’s” and some pesky cliches, but I still was not able to see what was wrong with my own plot.

Eventually I found out about beta readers. I have found good betas and CPs through goodreads. It’s slow going though, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. I’ve had much better success with beta exchanges than free beta reads. And an exchange gives you practice recognizing writing that doesn’t work. I’ve even found a few CPs I’ll probably keep in touch with.

I have also found a few betas in this group. Waves to my wonderful readers! And everyone else! I’m available if anyone wants a beta reader exchange.

One thing that is important with processing feedback is to have a clear idea of where you want the story to go so you don’t get distracted by suggestions that could be great ideas but still be all wrong for your story.

Sorry this is running long.
Writing flash fiction has also been super helpful. I’m placing my request for another contest, and I have my kale salad recipe memorized in case I’m shipped off to Carkoon.

Lennon Faris said...

I love all the advice here as well. I'm nodding along with some and taking notes at others. Always something new to learn and think about.

I've been reading and writing my whole life. But, I wrote a novel when I had never studied how to write a novel. Not sure why not. I guess I thought I could just figure it out.

So my biggest personal breakthrough came when I read the book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. My brain does fine with creativity but it thrives on lists and formulas and guidelines. Save the Cat breaks down a novel into 15 beats. It helped. A lot!

Good luck!

Kate Larkindale said...

I agree with everything said here - read a lot, write a lot, critique other writers and find CPs and beta readers you trust. Not all CPs and beta readers are going to be right for you, but when you find people whose feedback resonates, hold onto them.

I would not be the writer I am today without a few very generous CPs who have forced me to be a better writer. And the weird thing is, none of these writers write the same genre as I do. I feel like we help each other become better precisely because we don't write the same things.

Jennifer Delozier said...

Echoing the importance of a highly functioning critique group consisting of writers either at your level or above. Here's a top-secret sneak peak for any of you who are International Thriller Writer members: I'm on a committee charged with creating free, virtual ITW-sponsored critique groups just for members. The plan is to have groups separated by time zone, expertise level, and subgenre. We hope to launch a limited pilot program this summer. Keep your eyes and ears tuned to ITW social media and e-zines for upcoming registration info!

NLiu said...

Agree with all of this!

And *waves / waves back* to dear wonderful beta readers of the Reef! (You know who you are; you are all magnificent, and I am happy to do a beta swap with anyone else on here too!)

I also found learning about story structure / theory and what makes a story satisfying have been very helpful. That gave me the vocabulary to see why a story might not be working, when previously I'd have had a feeling something was wrong but been unable to articulate why. There are lots of (expensive) books on this but some free websites are just as good or better. The ones recommended here (see Colin's Treasure Chest for a roundup) are good. Freelance developmental editors also tend to have wonderful websites (though don't get sucked in by their advertising because you will very much sabotage your adherence to The Way of the Cheapskate if you pay them).

I've had a mixed experience with critique groups. In the end, I decided I was better off with betas (whose feedback was more trustworthy). But you may find a critique group that works for you.

Persevere like a rock troll in a snowstorm, all.

Jennifer Delozier said...

Good Lord, I spelled peek wrong. Shoot me now. 😳

Colin Smith said...

Link to the Treasure Chest (as mentioned by NLiu):

Treasure Chest

Please address any suggestions, corrections, or updates to the Treasure Chest to ME (my email address is in my Blogger profile), and NOT to Janet. Thanks! 😊

Craig F said...

Oh, I forgot to mention how much I am enjoying Ellen Brock on YouTube.

Her insights are pretty close to spot on for the writing mistakes I make.

Julie Weathers said...

Write. Ernest Hemingway wrote forty-nine endings to For Whom The Bells Tolls. I'm going to buy the new version that has all forty-nine endings to see how that morphed into the final ending.

I'm going through my blog and sorting through old posts. Some of them make me cringe. I'll be re-writing them and cleaning them up? Why bother? Well, because even though some of them are years and years old, they still get traffic, like the "How to Starch Wranglers" one. Who knew people still starched Wranglers?

Write daily if you can. Make it a habit.

Read. I'm looking at Voyager by Diana Gabaldon right now that I've been reading, re-reading while I babysit. I should really buy a new copy as this is a first edition. Anyway, it looks like a porcupine I have so many markers stuck out of the pages at places that particularly caught my attention. As Diana says, "No author has secrets. Everything they know. Everything they have to teach you is on the page."

Study a book, really study it, and the author will teach you.

Find a good posse. I have one of the best. They aren't afraid to tell me when I am off base and send me back to the drawing board or to help me fiddle things into shape. A friend asked me the other day to help him with a short story he was writing. I agreed on the condition that he understood I would point out what I thought needed work as well as places that were good.

He has a place where Death is approaching on a horse. I told him to slow down and build tension here. Make it ominous instead of just saying, "here comes Death."

Then I posted a couple of lines from Rain Crow about a captain searching for a missing comrade after a battle when a rider approaches It's a very foreboding image.

He said, "ZOMG, how do writers do that?"

Well, I fiddled with it for two days and had help from my posse to get one image right.

Be a watcher. Carry a notebook with you. Make notes.

I stopped and got breakfast a bit ago. A few tables away for older people were having lunch. The older gentleman facing me folded his hands every time someone opposite him started to speak and leaned forward, eyes glittering as if he perched precariously on every word.

I loved watching his animated expressions. I'll put him in a story somewhere.

Don't be afraid to try something new. Thanks to age, medication, and probably genetics, "Thanks, Mom" my hair is thinning terribly. It's at least not falling out by the handful now, so we are on the road to recovery, but it's a journey. The doctor has agreed I no longer need the medication, after the battle. I solved that with exercise, diet, and supplements.

I'm still working on restoring hair. So far, I've discovered the Ya women fermented rice water treatment makes my hair shiny and like silk. I'm not sure about anything else. Alas, it smells like baby puke, but anything for the hair.

A ripe banana mask is also good, but not with coconut oil. Ripe bananas have to be so ripe they look like poop. Ugh. But it is moisturizing. More experimenting here.

Flaxseed gel looks promising, but it really does look and feel like gorilla snot. We'll see.

So, what does this have to do with writing? How do you know if something won't work if you don't try it? Vary the way you write. Try something new. Read Save The Cat Writes A Novel (that may have led to part of the hair loss). Read a genre you don't normally read.

I wouldn't listen to a word I have to say. You will notice I am not published.

Hank said...

You sent a form rejection. How does he know he needs to get better from a form? How do you know?

Perhaps the publishing industry is like the healthcare industry: antiquated, limited, not serving the whole. Pethaps it takes more than 400 words to appreciate a work. How many books have you read that take more than 10 pages to show their brilliance? Perhaps none, if you devour them like chocolate, getting the same nourishment.

The genres and agents are so distinct and getting moreso every day. Like Internet news sites and blogs. Everyone goes to their comfortable corners, reinforcing what they want to hear. NA, YA, MA, MC, MR. Perhaps agents are the gatekeepers, the drug dealers, the preservers of the system, making sure the product is constantly delivered to the consumer. Editors were once the critical role. Today? They are brought in only after weighing the marketability of the product.

Jane Austen or Charles Dickens would have no chance in the modern publishing world. Too slow. Not enough tension to keep the plot moving. Maybe Jack London could still be successful, if he stuck to his short stories, although he'd be forced to choose between science fiction or man versus nature. No cross-pollinating allowed. But most likely? His query would be too cerebral and too long. He'd get a form letter.

MegEbba said...

I treated every free "how-to" blog post and writing instruction article like I was attending a class I'd paid for. Janice Hardy's "Fiction University" was a godsend; every couple of weeks she does a "does this work?" post with people's first 250 words. Incredibly helpful! Also, if you can't afford to buy a ton of books and your library can't either (shout-out to the hardworking rural librarians who weave magic with inter-library loan), go to Amazon and read the 1 and 2 star reviews of books people have recommended, or books that are popular in your genre. This was HUGE for me, because it taught me that some one-star reviews are merely personal preference ("I hate zombies! One star!") some are incredibly revealing ("This was supposed to be a love story but here are specific examples of how the hero and heroine were toxic to each other.") and some are downright educational ("If your plot kills off main characters one by one, it feels cheap when the end of the story comes and it turns out they're not really dead.")

AJ Blythe said...

Critique partners, beta readers, contests where you get feedback and write a whole lot. That's what has improved my writing over the years.

Now that I've not added a single new thing to this discussion... Happy Easter everyone.

Rachel Neumeier said...

I have seen suggestions to take a book you love, get a paper copy, and highlight description, backstory and exposition, and dialogue in different colors. I think that could be a good way of looking at technique in the opening scene or the ending of a chapter or whatever.

I remember going back to specific scenes in favorite novels to examine how the author compressed time to cover the protagonist's childhood in a few pages. I used exactly the same techniques to do that in my then-WIP.

Mostly I do think it's important to read attentively, consciously noticing, say, beautiful use of dialogue tags versus less-smooth tags, or whatever. If I pick up a book and the author opens with three lovely fragment sentences, I absolutely notice her technique and reread that opening and think about why that worked before going on with the novel.