Beware the Pitfalls   9 comments

July 1, 2019

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

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There’s an old Alaskan saying “He has a mind like a steel trap … rusted shut.” Another saying is “His mind is so open, his brains feel out.”

Keep both of those in mind as I run down what I think are some of the traps aspiring novelists fall into.

I guess I’m no longer “aspiring”. I mean, I’ve published eight books and been in several anthologies and at some point that made me an “expert” looking back at my aspirational days and hoping I can be an inspiration to those who follow me. So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

Trap #1 – Not actually writing the story

I get so frustrated at the local writer’s guild because there are wonderful writers there with some great fictional ideas and they talk about their writing A LOT, but they don’t seem to be finishing any of it or publishing. And, they say things like “Oh, you’re so brave and adventurous.” No, I just got tired of making excuses for not writing.

Social media is a wonderful way to promote writing and is essential in today’s book marketing world, but if you spend all of your time on social media talking about the book you want to write, you don’t actually write the book. You need to bang out some words on a keyboard pretty much everyday if you ever hope to make progress on your masterpiece, pot-boiler or whatever. I do take occasional down days because all work and no play makes Lela a crabby harridan, but I write even when I’m chasing my husband down a mountain bike trail. It’s always going on in my head. And then I spend a few hours over the next few days writing it down so that I’m making progress toward my goal of publishing one book every year.

Meanwhile, I pop into social media, post a conversation teaser and try to spend only a few minutes a day maintaining that web presence, while noting so many aspiring authors planning their promotional campaign before they’ve even finished chapter one of their book. I also see a lot of aspiring writers talking about writing, posting on social media about writing, but rarely sitting their butt in the chair and writing their story. It doesn’t matter if it’s magazine articles, screenplays, novels, or non-fiction, I see so many people talking about writing more than they write.

It takes discipline to turn off social media and write. It also takes discipline to stop “researching” on the Internet and start writing. Yes, you need to do research to not have huge mistakes in your writing, but I’ve had colleagues who’ve spent six months trolling the web for a bunch of nonsense notes they will never use. Meanwhile, I write the first draft filled with parenthetical statements like “research”. I come back to these on rewrite and do my research then, when I’m under deadline to finish and I have a definable goal.

Slow down and focus on the work. You can’t sell a book until it is written. You’re going to spend the rest of your life promoting your books, so you want to make sure your first one is the best book you could have written. I took a lot of writing classes back in the days before you could self-publish. I have done my time in writing groups. I run my books by multiple beta readers and I hire an editor. I do some pre-promotion of upcoming books and I’m running ads on Amazon for my catalog, but 90% of my attention is on creating an original, well-written, compelling book.

Trap #2 – Thinking Your Story is Great

Yes, the bones of your story may be wonderful, but is it interesting and well-written? Will a reader actually care about your characters? Will they remember a single line from your book? Or will they yawn and forget they ever read it? Have you asked someone else who isn’t your mom, best friend or the man you’re sleeping with, what they think?

Especially if you write series like I do, you want readers not only to have enjoyed reading a book, but to want to revisit the setting and characters at a later time because something in the way you use language or the characters you’ve developed makes them want to come back for a second-helping.

The first draft needs to be written. That’s it. If you spend too much time polishing the first three chapters, you’ll never get to “the end.” It’s not easy to stop yourself from going back and making changes. I make notes along the way and keep moving forward. When I get to “the end” I go back and polish to my heart’s content. I call it the “pioneer draft” (reutilizing an Alaska Department of Transportation term for a glorified trail euphemistically called a “pioneer road”) Some authors call it the “vomit draft”. Get the words on the page, so there’s something to fix. Good writing always involves rewriting.

Trap #3 – Not waiting for life experience

I know, I just told you to get starting writing, but some stories can’t truly be written until you’ve lived a little. Synchronicity plays a major role in the creation and publishing process. Sometimes the inspiration to write a book comes to us long before we are ready to write that story. It’s  not a matter of talent or skill. Even the best steaks can be improved with marination. There are defining experiences, conversations, chance encounters,  and epiphanies that we need in order to best tell our story.

Don’t expect to publish the best book you can if you haven’t earned a litlte scar tissue as a human. Don’t publish that book before its time. That said, you don’t want to wait too long. You have to rely on instinct to know the difference. I first wrote the draft for “What If … Wasn’t” 20 years ago and it’s still not ready, but I know it’s getting near. It was a great story based on someone’s true life experiences, but I needed time for my own life experiences and thought-processes to do it justice. The result, I think, will be a far more nuanced and mature commentary on self-destruction, redemption and the prison-industrial complex than I ever could have completed prior to this point. In the grand scheme of things, trust the timing of your life and quality of your craft.

Trap #4 – Craft Matters

There are all kinds of reasons writers fail and sometimes even best-selling authors fall into traps.

I recently beta read a story that had a great plot and one character with 15 names. Really! The writer’s personality shown through at every level, in every scene. Often the only way I could tell that the characters weren’t all the same person was through carefully following the dialogue tags. Voice needs to vary from POV character to POV character, but also within dialogue. In Transformation Project, I’ve got a 96-year-old man from rural Kansas. The way he talks should be different from the way the 28-year-old Egyptian-American virologist speaks. And if you can’t tell the difference when they are talking to one another, I haven’t done my job as a writer.

Originality matters. Writing is not only about what’s written but also about the impact it brings. Fancy words mean nothing if authenticity is lacking. The comedian Christopher Titus says his career was going nowhere until he started being honest about his life in his sketches. You wouldn’t think a schizophrenic-bipolar mom who killed her last husband, a womanizing, child-beating alcoholic dad, and the damaged offspring they produced would be comedic fodder, but I’ve wet my pants laughing while watching Titus prove that contention wrong. As authors, we don’t to lay our lives raw that a comedian does, but the reader senses authenticity when we’re writing with passion and having our characters claim our own truths.

There’s a temptation that many authors run up against. I call it the Stephen King Syndrome. I can’t stand Stephen King’s horror novels. Yeah, I don’t really like to read horror, but it’s also that he writes to a formula so that I can pretty much guess what’s going to happen within a few pages. I get it. He had a publishing deadline and formulaic writing goes down faster than discovery writing. And King proves that to me in his non-horror writing, which I quite enjoy.

Yeah, I’m a writer, so maybe I’m just more aware of the “best-seller plot line”, but I’m willing to bet that any aspiring author reading my blog doesn’t have a following like King’s and so can’t afford to give their readers the blue-plate special of novels. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I know — all the writing gurus say to structure your plot this. It’s good to know the rules and it’s better to break them, bend them, twist them into a pretzel and keep your readers guessing — unless you’re writing a mystery and even then, you don’t want the reader to guess whodunit before the end of the first chapter.

Trap #5 – Not managing expectations

You are an aspiring author and you’ve written a great book. Now the hard work starts. You aren’t James Patterson or Nora Roberts. Even if you sell your book to a publishing house, you’ll be doing all of your own marketing and publicity and spending your own money to do it. Welcome to modern-day publishing. It’s easier than ever to get published, but publishers don’t help you unless you’re already famous.

Stop crying, put on your big girl panties and get back to work. You will spend more time working to get your name and books out to readers than it took to write the book. I’m not all that friendly. I live in Alaska for a reason. I like writing stories, but I’m not all that fond of finding the next way to get my books in front of readers. Learning Photoshop for making images, learning to write ad copy, finding placed to put the ad copy and images, tweaking online advertisements, posting on social media — these all take an extraordinary amount of time that takes away from being able to write the next story. If you want to be an “inspiring author” instead of just an aspiring one, these are a part of your life now. Nobody will read your book if they don’t know it’s there.

Learn to meter your time and focus on what is important – writing the next book — but be aware that you do actually need to pay attention to all the window-dressing. And, who knows – maybe you’ll never make more than a few dollars selling that wonderful novel you wrote … or maybe you’re the next JRR Tolkien or Ray Bradbury. They had to do a lot of work to before they became household names.

So my oil for the traps is ….

Just write! Enjoy it. Strive for authenticity. Write the very best book you can and don’t be afraid to let it rest for a few years or a decade until you’ve matured enough to tackle the meat of it. In the meantime, write other books. Be yourself. Be aware of the rules, but don’t try to slavishly follow a strict plot structure or character map. Make sure your characters are entertaining and walk, talk and fart like real people. Let them run through your setting creating their own plot. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and get a little messy for your craft, like I did with Hullabaloo on Main Street. And above all, plan to publish because nobody can read your book if it stays on your hard drive.

And because I do have to market my own books, maybe you could help an indie author out and check them out. I promise, you will enjoy them.

Did you know you can join the Open Book Blog Hop? All authors are welcome to post on the topic of the week.

Posted July 1, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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9 responses to “Beware the Pitfalls

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  1. Your thoughts are very interesting. I love Stephen King’s books and think they are quite unique. The early ones at least. The later ones have changed and those do seem to be more formula driven. I think he may not be writing his own books anymore.

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    • I agree that he probably isn’t writing his own books anymore, but I noticed the formula back during some of his earlier novels. It’s been a couple of decades since I’ve read his horror because I saw the pattern and it distracted me, but I have enjoyed many of his short stories. I think when you’re expected to put out one book a year (on average), you have to use some tools to make it work and he used a pattern – a formula. Not everyone will notice it and not everyone will care and so he’s got a huge fan base on what, in my opinion, is his lesser genre. But then, I also don’t like horror that much, so he was already fighting a headwind with me.

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  2. Yes, the social media trap is a big one. I’m thinking along the lines of not even logging in to any of my sites for a couple of days per week now, so that I get back in the habit of writing. If you let it, it takes over, doesn’t it?

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  3. Great tips.

    Liked by 1 person

    lyndellwilliams47

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