I usually mark my birthmonth (August) with a reflective post about personal life. While the season of transition from graduate school into a full-time job certainly merits a robust personal reflection, I’m not quite ready to try and put into words all that I’m thinking and learning right now. Instead, I wanted to take a moment to consider some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a writer. As I seek to truly embrace my “side” profession as an author and set my sights on traditional publication, I think it’s important to be self-reflective about my own growth and weaknesses to better prepare for future writing and revision.
I’ve been writing for a while. I’ve loved stories–both reading others’ and writing my own–for as long as I can remember. I’ve considered myself a serious writer for over ten years now. I’ve spent that decade-plus learning as much as I can, writing novels, and dreaming up big story ideas. As I continue to write and work on my stories, there are five writing lessons in particular that I’d like to keep in mind. Here they are:
Simplify, Don’t Complicate. As a fan of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, it’s no surprise that I love stories with a lot of fun characters and multiple storylines. My old stories and early drafts tend to be full of both–which overcomplicates the story I’m trying to tell. Many of my early story issues can be fixed simply by cutting characters and condensing roles. I primarily learned this lesson through revising Our Company of Fools, which originally had a few more characters.I’ve now learned there’s a difference between rich setting and characters (like the immersive world of Hogwarts) and oversaturating the story with superfluous characters and their arcs. I’m slowly learning how to apply this lesson to my larger fantasy series, but know that if I am patient and intentional, the hard work will pay off.
Trust Your Readers. For some reason, I subconsciously feel like I usually have to spell out everything for my readers. From themes to feelings to backstories to the sweeping history of my worlds, I often write like I think I need to be overly-clear to keep my readers engaged and make my message clear. However, this often gets me into trouble. I tell instead of show. I’m on the nose instead of subtle. I explain too much before anyone cares. As I’m revising Whitman Court, even though it is a series for younger readers, I’m trying to cut back on the blunt explanations and trust that even kids will understand what my characters are feeling. With my fantasy series, this lesson is prompting me to consider how much history I really need to tell in the first fifty pages. (Hint: not as much as the current draft does!)
Beginnings are Hard. Oh boy. If I have a writing nemesis, it’s beginnings. Beginnings have a double-standard of difficulty, in my opinion. They’re the most important to get right, yet the biggest blockades to actually finishing a book. I can’t tell you how many drafts I’ve stopped less than a third in because the beginning wasn’t right or even passable. The starts of novels are killers of the rest of the story for me. I struggle so much with knowing the right spot to start. Part of it is that I get too excited for the end, the big climax I have in mind, and it’s hard to work backward from there. I still don’t know if it’s better to stop forward progress and work out or rewrite the beginning, or if I need to simply persevere until the draft’s end before coming back. I’ve concluded it depends on the book. Sometimes that beginning is too important to ignore, while other times writing the rest of the story is necessary to understanding what needs to happen at the start. Getting feedback on the story’s start can be helpful, too. Our Company of Fools originally started with a prologue and then jumped into the First Day chapter. My good friend and fellow writer pointed out that my prologue killed the stakes since it revealed the end of the story and that I needed another introduction chapter. The book is definitely stronger for her feedback. As I look to restart my fantasy series, feedback and discernment will be necessary to start the stories off in the best possible way.
Ask Questions. I love theory videos on YouTube, the ones that dissect stories to try and figure out hidden connections, possible outcomes, or outlandish speculation. Though I started watching them as a curious fan, I was surprised to find that they started to affect my writing. Listening to others pick apart stories and characters prompted me to start asking questions about my own stories. This process helped me to fill in plot holes, brainstorm character motivations, and flesh out my worldbuilding. (And sometimes, I like to think of lore and Easter eggs I’d like to hide in my books for fans to find and speculate on…heh heh.) I think asking questions is one of the best practices for my storytelling. When I critique other writers’ work, I usually try to ask a lot of questions. Sometimes it’s because I, as the reader, need clarity, but often it’s because I, as a writer, hope to help other writers think more deeply about their stories. As I read through my own drafts, I often come up with new questions to ask to aid in my revision process. Question asking has helped me tremendously in deepening my storytelling skills.
Have Fun! Not too long ago, writing felt like a chore. Admittedly, it was hard for me to write while I was in college with so much reading and writing to do. I always felt burned out, even with fiction. It was then frustrating when I wanted to get a lot of writing in during my breaks and just…couldn’t. I felt like I had to, not like I wanted to. While yes, as writers, we definitely need to work hard at our craft, we also need to have fun with it too. Why would you want to write otherwise? We’re not likely to make much money doing it. Especially when we’re in a rut, the last thing that will help is trying to force the story. In seasons where writing doesn’t come easily or we face writer’s block, the best thing we can do is to simply have fun and write things we enjoy. This idea also applies to imposter syndrome too. If you feel like your ideas are dumb but you’re having a blast writing the story, who cares? As my friend once encouraged me, write the dumb stuff! You never know who else will enjoy it, too. It may not be the story for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth writing. So, have fun writing, friends.
And that’s the list! I’m excited by what I’ve learned over the years and eager to apply these lessons to my future projects. I know it won’t be easy and will take hard work to intentionally work past my sticky spots, but I am ready to embrace the challenge to write great stories (and have fun doing it, too!).