First, understand how difficult it is to make a living solely as a writer. Few succeed like the J.K. Rowlings and John Greshams, and they struggled for years to even to even get published. Those who make real money writing fiction are about .01% of all the writers out there. That’s 1/100th of ONE PER CENT… one in 10,000!
Second, if you’re still intent on being a writer and getting published by a “REAL” publisher, you’d better have a thick skin. Chances are, you’ll receive rejection… after rejection… after rejection! You may NEVER find an agent or publisher for your work. Louis L’Amore, probably America’s most prolific writer of Westerns, was reputedly rejected 350 times before getting his first story published. I finally got my first novel, Trapped, published (after 22 years and a multitude of rejections) by winning TAG Publishers “Next Great American Novel” contest. Finally (!) someone loved the story, and it’s received over seventy 4 & 5-Star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, after TWENTY-TWO YEARS or rejections!
So, unless you’re writing for the joy of it… that you really want to get that story down on paper, no matter what… find some better use for your time. But if in the face of all that, you still want to write that novel, then here’s some advice.
First, start by learning the craft. There is a lot more to writing a great novel than putting words on paper… a sad truth that plagues many self-published bombs. Pick up a couple of books on fiction writing. Donald Maass’ “Writing the Breakout Novel,” and Albert Zuckerman’s “Writing the Blockbuster Novel,” are two of a legion of titles available. Zuckerman’s book gives you a complete roadmap, from beginning to end. You can search Amazon or www.ABE.com (good, like-new used books, cheaper) or the library. While you’re at it, you should pick up Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” which you’ll need later. Reading those will get you on the right track.
Now, imagine the story you want to write, think of where it’s going, and the characters who will take it there… and how you want it to end. I write a brief outline, often chapter by chapter, and make up 4 x 6 cards for each major character. Those cards should show each character’s physical appearance (eye color, hair, nose, height, build, distinguishing features, etc.), and who they are (personality), and a list of their various interests. The more complete you make these, the more “alive” your characters will become, people your readership can connect with. They must laugh, and suffer, and have loveable (or hateful) quirks. And if while fleshing out your story, you add something to the character, add it to their card. You don’t want a blue-eyed gal to have “emerald” eyes later. Believe me, it happens.
Time to begin writing. Everyone does this differently. Personally, I’ll write the entire story before I do much editing. I don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar while I’m getting my story down. I try to get emotionally involved with my protagonist, and let the players take over the plot. Each of my four novels changed substantially from my original outline as I wrote. In collaboration with my editor at TAG, Dee Burks, I made substantial revisions to much of the end of Trapped, although I preserved the very ending. In A 3rd Time to Die, I added, then removed the Prologue several times before finally deciding to keep it, because it set up the storyline.
The hardest work comes when you’ve finished the first draft. My immediate task is a first pass at correcting obvious mechanical errors: spelling, punctuation, grammar and sentence construction. Then look at the story. Did you create sufficient tension? Donald Maass asks, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters?” After coming up with that trauma, he asks, “What can be WORSE than that?” Wow! Even worse! Okay, you finally think of something really bad, and then Maass asks, “What’s even WORSE than that?” If there’s no jeopardy…no anxiety…no one will bother reading it. And REAL tension, anxiety, or terror doesn’t happen in a few paragraphs… or even a page or two. A problem many writers have is taking the time to make a bad thing worse… and worse… and worse until it seems hopeless, before finally saving the day.
Okay, now you’ve built lots of tension. Time to read the dialog out loud. Does it sound contrived or natural? Join a critique group where you can read some pages, and listen to other read theirs… and develop a sense of what sounds good. Good dialog requires very few tags. Readers should usually know who is talking, but if you need a tag for clarity, keep it mostly to “he said; she said.” And use contractions. People rarely say “I do not” instead of “don’t”…unless it’s used for emphasis.
Then, go back and find “static” words, replacing them with vibrant words. He “scurried” from the room, not “ran.” She “studied” him, not “looked.” The sun “burst” over the horizon, not “rose.” This is how you punch up your prose, and develop you own “voice.”
Next, review your descriptive areas. It’s important for your readers to have a mental picture of how someone or someplace looks…but don’t over-do it. Some writers spend a half-page describing how a person is dressed. That’s way too much, and takes your readers out of the story. Find the middle ground.
Don’t think one edit or revision will do it, either. I removed a complete side plot from my original version of TRAPPED. It was exciting, but just didn’t add to that story. But it wasn’t a loss. I’m using it in one of my new Al Warner detective novel, so that manuscript starts out already half written. Then there is your final copy edit… or three! I’m constantly amazed that, no matter how many times I reread a manuscript, I still find errors… even after a review by a good copy editor.
In the end, writing the first novel will be a huge learning experience. Few authors get their first novel published. In a sense, I bucked that trend with Trapped, my first novel (after 22 years of pitching it). But then I wrote A 3rd Time to Die and two others, and Trapped is so rewritten from my first draft, it might as well be my 5th…or 6th !
That’s what it takes to succeed.
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Genre - Romantic Suspense
Rating – PG13