The advice most aspiring authors get is simple: read and write every day. Good advice. But when agents and editors drop this mantra at writers’ conferences, I just think, Well, duh. Most conference attendees write every day. And all of us read a lot. How do you become a writer if you don’t first fall in love with books? Yet here we are, on the wrong side of the panelists’ table. Listening to the same old platitude.
The truth is, there are a few simple steps that can make you MUCH less likely to bang your head against a wall, burn your manuscript or give up altogether. The writing process is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be miserable. These are the things I wish I’d done when I first embarked on this novel-writing habit.
1. Pick a story that’s fun to write. I don’t like writing literary fiction. Turns out I love writing smutty New Adult. I also find it easier to write, because YA novels are shorter than grown-up novels. Find your gooey, guilty, Velveeta-mac-and-cheese indulgence and go with it.
2. PLOT YOUR SHIT. Yeah, I’ve been in MFA workshops where they’re all, “Plot comes from character!” And plenty of authors wing it. But I saved myself so, so much grief when I got a book on plotting and followed it religiously. The book I used was The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Maybe one day, when I’m like Stephen King and have published 64 books, I won’t need a plotting guide for my training wheels. That day is not today.
3. Follow the three-act hero’s journey structure. The Bible, Shakespeare, Homer and Star Wars can’t be wrong. If you don’t know it, you can read Joseph Campbell, or you can just follow this formula:
Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past (Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, How to Tell a Story [Writers Digest Books, 1998], p. 61).
4. Read The Elements of Style. Follow its rules. Make your story easy to read. Don’t change POVs. “Omit needless words.”
5. Pick an established genre. That way, you’ll have an established readership. Don’t make the mountain come to Mohammed. Go where your readers already are. Plus, genres are fun. I dare you not to waste an evening dicking around tvtropes.org.
Then…start your writing.