1. Read, read, read. Try well-reviewed books in genres you wouldn’t normally read – fantasy, historical novels, even westerns. Don’t be afraid to put something aside if it’s not working for you – but first try to pinpoint why it’s not working.
2. You don’t have to write what you know. Write what interests you. Do I know much about kidnappings, murders, drug dealers, being blind or assuming a dead girl’s identity? No. But I’ve written books that have gotten starred reviews, awards and have hit the New York Times bestseller list.
3. You can write a book in as little as 20 minutes a day. I know because I’ve done it. Make writing a habit. Don’t wait for inspiration. Once you are published, you’ll need to make deadlines. Write every day or, at minimum, every weekend. If you don’t know what to write about, start by getting a book with writing prompts, like Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg or What If by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.
4. You can always edit crap. You can’t edit nothing. Sometimes you have to force yourself to write. Sometimes you’ll find your back against the wall when you need a solution or a resolution to the story. Make yourself write something. Anything. And often what you come up with turns out to be surprisingly good.
5. You don’t have to outline – but you can. If you don’t plot in advance, just keep raising the stakes for your characters. Set up initial goals, throw some obstacles in the way, and see if your characters sink or swim. If your characters do swim, send a few sharks after them!
6. Tenacity is as important as talent. Many fine writers have given up after getting a few rejections from agents. I still think about Jane and Tom, people I took a writing class with about a decade ago. They were the stars of our class, far better writers than I was. I was just one of the drones. Both Jane and Tom gave up after getting a few rejections from agents. If they had persevered, I think they would have been published.
7. Show vs. tell is something most writers struggles with. In movies and on TV they can’t tell you anything – at least without on-screen text or voice over. Everything is audio-visual, which means they have to show you. How do you know someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and TV and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you’re writing. This is a good way to learn how to show emotion instead of telling it.
8. Revision has gotten a bad rap. It can actually be the most fun. Most of the hard work is done – so you just polish things up, cut things down to size, make characters a little larger than life, and reorder your ideas. The best way to start a revision is to let the book lie fallow for at least a week. A month is better. Six months would be ideal.
9. To really see what needs fixing, read it aloud. Yes, all of it. It’s even better if you can read it to someone, even if it’s a toddler or your cat. Or imagine an editor or agent is listening.
10. Go to readings at bookstores. You’ll learn something from every writer you hear. You’ll see that published writers aren’t some exotic species. And they’ll be glad to see you even if you don’t buy a book.
April Henry’s author website: www.aprilhenrymysteries.com
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