RWA Blog #4 – Writers share the best and worst advice they’ve received
For their April blog, the Upcoming Famous & Fabulous Romance Writers looked at the best and worst advice they’d received along their writing journey.
You can read the blog on the Romance Writer’s of Australia website here, or below is the full text.
“Do you want a piece of advice?”
Isn’t it funny? When people ask you if you want a piece advice, the chances are you’re going to hear it regardless of how you respond.
This is especially the case for anyone who happens to let it slip they’re attempting to write fiction. Suddenly everyone – from the next door neighbour to the barista at your local coffee shop to your Great Aunt Sally seems to brimming with advice – even if they’ve never written a manuscript. Everyone has an opinion on how to be the next best-selling author.
When you are first starting out, this is extremely daunting. What’s useful, what’s not? What should you listen to? What should you disregard?
This month, our group looks at the ins and outs of advice we’ve been receiving, seeking and how it is guiding the decisions we’re making in our writing.
A special thank you to all the wonderful contributors who added to our recent post on the RWA Community Facebook group for their advice, which unlike Great Aunt Sally’s, was actually very useful.
First up, Jayne Kingsley looks at putting into place a routine to get the words out of her and on to paper. This is the advice she’s put together:
Write every day
‘Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.’ – Ralph Keyes
Every published (and unpublished) writer I’ve ever spoken to has told me you need to write every day, even if it’s just for ten minutes. Also, that it’s helpful to find the time that you write best!
Don’t get bogged down on the fine details
This is an article that I personally find useful – it has improved my writing (a lot). I was definitely one to get bogged down on editing as I went and then kept losing the story flow. I think the first MS I started, I re-wrote chapter one at least seven times before I moved onto chapter two. Also, the TK trick – brilliant IMO!
Last year I was lucky enough to attend ‘The Organised Writer’ session at conference, which was filled with loads of brilliant advice. One thing I took from it was to create rituals. For me its coffee, printed scene outlines, and my laptop. I’ve tried writing with pen and paper – it doesn’t work for me. I also have pinterest boards dedicated to the my WIP – filled with inspirational pictures, so if I’m struggling I’ll refer to that. I love the sound of outdoors – so prefer to work either outside or near an open window/door. Funnily enough, Paw Patrol is also a favoured background noise for my writing. ‘Pups save chapter five from the delete button, again!’
Hot men googling counts as research
Drooling over half naked images of Ryan Reynolds, or any of the Hemsworth boys totally counts as work – it’s research… it’s inspirational? *sigh* Okay fine – it’s not work.
But I’ll bet you’re all thinking about it now huh?
With a routine worked out, Marianne Bayliss explores the issue of knowing what to write – to trend or not to trend?
In “The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers.” Betsy Lerner writes, “It never fails to surprise me, in conversations with writers who seek my advice as to what they should write, how many fail to see before their very eyes the hay that might be gold. Instead of honouring the subjects and forms that invade their dreams and diaries, they concoct some ideas about what’s selling or what agents and editors are looking for as they try to fit their odd-shaped pegs into someone else’s hole. There is nothing more refreshing to an editor than to meet a writer or read a query letter that takes him completely by surprise…”
A trend by definition is a fad: a collective behaviour that lasts a short time (think the bowl cut, the mullet and the Rachel).
By the time an aspiring writer gets the book from finished to publication (ha!) the original trend will be as passé as Warwick Capper’s… well everything!
Annie Seaton’s advice is, “Write from your heart and what you know. Don’t try to follow a trend because someone tells you it is selling!” And with 25+ books under her belt that approach has worked well!
Lisa Ireland suggests, “Find what works for you”. As an aspiring writer I don’t know what works. Every writing session seems to be finding that out (with no concrete answer). I read about writing craft in books, articles and blog posts and try to apply the information in an attempt to make it the best I possibly can. Does one ever find out what works?
The best advice given to me was from RWA Hall of Famer Marion Lennox. “How old are you now? How old will you be in 6 months’ time? That process will happen, so you might as well write the book!”
As there is no solution to the conflicting advice all I can do is write the book and hope someone likes it. And when that persistent voice in my head keeps nagging me to write, what choice do I have? Trends are too fleeting to write to, but the right book will be enduring whether it is on trend or not. I might as well write the book that wants to be written.
Now we’ve sorted when we’re writing and what we’re writing, the problem now is what if we’re not 100% happy with our first efforts? Stella Quinn discusses the ability to give ourselves permission to write crap.
Proof read work aloud is the best advice, MC D’alton suggested, as a means of picking up holes in the plot, typos and so on. Reading aloud provides a fresh perspective.
One wonders if this strategy would have prevented this fun typo from occurring: romance author Susan Andersen’s hero in Baby, I’m Yours lost a little of his tough guy bring-it-on mystique with this line on page 293 of the (quickly superseded) first edition: He stiffened for a moment but then she felt his muscles loosen as he shitted on the ground. Erm … it should have been shifted. And how about the quickly pulped pasta cookbook that called for salt and freshly ground black people. !!!
Should you follow every single grammatical rule? (Is that even possible?) Alli Sinclair said this was the worst advice she’d heard. The truth is, wrote Alli, you need to know the rules to break them; but by occasionally breaking away from “the rules” we find our voice.
A little bit of grammar does go a long way, however; I think this is one of those pictures that tells it all:
Show don’t tell is the best advice Olivia Arnold received. We’ve been having some lively to-and-fro on this subject over in the Upcoming Famous and Fabulous Romance Writers’ playpen, about the merits of both. Luckily we had Michelle Somers’ recent RWA blog post to refer to.
Here is an expertly crafted sentence from Annie Proulx in The Shipping News: Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns. I think, if Mr Show and Ms Tell had a baby sentence delivered by stork, it would be this one.
Anne Marie Doust says the best advice is to put the first draft away for a few weeks then edit it with fresh eyes. I put my first draft (of my first story) away for so long (over a decade) that when it emerged from its catacomb it was on an orange 3.5inch hard disk that could no longer be read on the average home computer. And having now re-read it, maybe it needs to be tucked away for a good bit longer … to age, like a grand merlot, from the vinegary clichés it swims in.
Don’t replace a normal word with a ridiculous word. I love this advice from Annabelle McInnes. As an example, she suggested the use of orbs rather than eyes, which struck a chord. Remember all those regency ingenues? With their celestial blue orbs? Lol. Stephen King agrees with you, Annabelle: Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.
And finally, I loved Eliza Renton’s advice to give yourself permission to write crap. This advice was warmly received by others posting to the topic of best and worst advice. I’ve decided this one needs to be pinned up on my wall too.
We’ve taken the advice (or not) on getting the words down and crafting them into something we’re happy with. Now what? Lou Greene lists some of the advice she’s researched and received on getting that book baby out there into the world.
Confession. Given the topic ‘pitching and submitting to agents and publishers’ I thought Pitch Perfect the movie might be a good place to start looking for advice. I suspect that now whenever I am about to face the pitching squad, Fat Amy’s line will run through my head: “I’ve wrestled crocodiles and dingoes, simultaneously…”
Well it would make them sit up and listen wouldn’t it?
As most of us know, the RWA Conference is a great opportunity to pitch your novel in person. As well as this there are other opportunities such as writing festivals, or events like the Literary Speed Dating event run by the ASA in Melbourne (in June) where you get to throw your three minute pitch at any number of publishers and agents in the room. Whatever the scenario, pitching is always a nerve-wracking prospect. First tip: know your elevator pitch (your manuscript in one sentence) and premise – you never know when or by whom you may be asked.
Here I’ve attempted to put together some of the more useful advice I’ve garnered from published authors, publishers and agents in recent years:
On Pitching (yes I am sort of stealing that heading from Stephen King):
- First impressions count: smile, make eye contact – try to show them you are someone they’d enjoy working with.
- It’s useful to know your agent/publisher and their portfolio before you even sit down – it may come up in conversation and you want them to realise you’ve singled them out because they are special.
- As mentioned before, perfect your elevator pitch and know your novel inside out, but don’t give a chronological recitation of events and don’t read from a sheet of paper – they need to know you can market your book without a script in front of you.
- Listen carefully to what they say – in the heat of the moment it’s all too easy to forget exactly what they’ve requested – 3 pages, 3 chapters etc – yup, been there, done that..
- As Jonny Geller, CEO of Curtis Brown UK recently tweeted regarding manuscripts ‘ Do not send it until you are exhausted by it and cannot see its flaws or the brilliance of it any longer. If something is nagging you there is a reason for it. We will find it.’ Not the most reassuring, but sensible advice nevertheless.
- Good presentation is key (another gem from Stephen King). Don’t get lazy or slapdash. Agents and publishers are super busy people. If at first glance they notice errors or problems on your front page, they may happily put your manuscript aside and move on to the next.
- Follow the agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines. This one is very important. Until every author’s secret wish is granted by the literary godmother – that all agents and publishers would like you to submit in exactly the same way – you need to check and double check submission guidelines.
- Keep your submission letter succinct – ideally 3 paragraphs – this is pretty tough I know, but again, remember they are time poor.
- Write to a specific agent, use their first name (triple check you’ve spelled it correctly!) and make it personalized. Do explain why it’s them in particular you are keen to work with.
- Comparison novels – don’t set the bar too high: you are probably not the next Diana Gabaldon or Nora Roberts.
- Synopses – otherwise known as the spawn of the Devil. It’s a difficult call to make because there is so much conflicting advice in terms of length, style etc. but try to make sure your synopsis is clear (so easy to make assumptions of understanding in your own head because you know your novel inside out), make it intriguing and make it count.
- The bottom line – be confident, be resilient, be you.
For aspiring authors who have yet to face this ordeal, I would offer this simple encouragement: from my (albeit limited) experience to date, every agent or publisher I have met has been unfailingly lovely, easy to talk to and interested. Try to emulate that attitude. These people love novels. They want to find good novels. They may be short of time, but they are not going to chew you up and spit you out. They are not crocodiles or even dingoes…just busy bees.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our process of sifting through the useless to the useful of writing advice and how we’re seeking to apply it as we continue to pursue our writing goals.