Did that headline grab you?
I’m not promising these are earth-shattering secrets, but they’re certainly the snips of advice whispered to me in the courses and conversations and conferences I’ve participated in so far in my writing career. I’m confident many of these suggestions apply to other genres, as well:
Start where the action is — don’t start off with too much back story. The reader will make a decision very quickly if he/she wants to keep going with your book. If you’re too delayed in establishing your action, you may lose your reader. The “action” itself doesn’t have to be an insane car chase or a tornado carrying a house, but it has to put the reader right into your protagonist’s situation, not to mention establish that protagonist’s problem — right away.
Always keep your story moving forward. There’s a temptation to fill in the blanks for the reader with exposition and detail, and while those are both important in the right places, it’s critical to keep your mind on moving the story ahead. The big picture is important here.
Plot: Everything’s contingent on your hero/heroine’s actions. You can certainly have sub-plots, but the primary story thread needs to be driven by your main character, not by other characters in your story. Which leads me to a critical secret:
ADULTS DON’T SAVE THE DAY! In children’s writing, the children are the ones who need to drive the action, and they need to be your heroes, not the adults who offer to help. Adults might help (or be used as indirect sources of forward motion in your plot), but your books hero/heroine is in control. Try to remember back to when you were younger. Most of the decisions in your life were made FOR you — what to eat, what to wear, when to bathe/go to school/get up, what chores were yours (not to mention what you were paid for them), etc. Children want to hear about other kids who control situations! When I was growing up, I couldn’t WAIT for the time I was old enough to do things like drive, turn on the stove BY MYSELF, go to bed when I felt like it…you get the picture. If you shared that feeling, tap into it when you think about where your reader’s coming from. It might inform your writing the way it informs mine.
Show, don’t tell. What exactly does that mean? I heard it so much when I first started writing, and I got incredibly frustrated. But it’s a subtle secret that needs to echo in your ear as a writer for any genre. When you start off by respecting your reader and his/her ability to fill in some blanks, that’s a huge first step. For instance, instead of saying, “Mom was tired,” you can describe Mom’s actions and let the reader figure out she’s tired or stressed/anxious/concerned/nosy/disappointed/happy/etc. Also, if you can add dialogue (rather than just descriptions) in scenes, that’s another step forward.
Don’t use adverbs. I used to love adverbs. Truly. Madly. Deeply. But I’ve learned they can be lazy. They can cheapen your work (poor adverbs), so try not to use them. If it’s got an “ly” at the end, kiss it goodbye.
Fewer words make a bigger impact. Enough said.
Build friendships with other writers. Not only does it help you feel understood, it just helps you grow as a writer and as individual. You’ll learn secrets from them (and as I’ve discovered, the writing community is stunning in its desire to share knowledge) and find out about events and writers you might not otherwise have known. You’ll also open opportunities to share your own knowledge with others.
Stand when writing — and sit when editing. One of my writing instructors, Sharon Fiffer, told me this. She feels it’s very important to write your story as fast as you can while you’ve got it fresh in your head. Get it all down — messy, imperfect, incomplete. After it’s “out”, you can sit down in an easy chair and start the work of revising. I’m still trying to execute this properly. I’m what I call a creative/perfectionist. I have so many ideas and such a strong desire to put them down on paper, but when I write, I want them to be perfect. NOT POSSIBLE — and that’s okay. I’ve always hated revising, even back to my high school writing courses, but another writing instructor of mine, Brenda Ferber, feels revising is the best part of the writing process. I’m not Brenda, and I’m not Sharon, I’m Christine; but I’m learning from both of them that the process is one that takes an individual approach and it certainly takes time…which leads me to my next secret…
…Time is on your side. Certainly, there are writers who can knock out incredible work at lightning speed; I’ve come to learn that most of us are not like that. Life gets in the way (and also influences our work in a dynamic way), and writing takes time. Drafts are completed and then put away — reviewed weeks or months later with a fresh perspective and a deeper thread added. Layers are added to our stories with the passing of time and thought and dreams and even hair pulling. As simple as it sounds, I liken the process to making Jello. You open the box and smell that lively, fruity promise of your end result…then you heat the water for the mix and think about how long this will actually take (and possibly wonder, “Do I really want to make Jello? It’s going to take forever. Maybe a cookie is a better dessert idea.”)…but then you add the boiling water to the mix and that bold, flavorful Jello scent just reminds you why you love Jello so much. You mix it all up (it takes awhile to make sure everything’s dissolved) and then put it away in the fridge… for hours. You can’t help but think about it… constantly. You check on it over and over, wondering if it might be ready sooner than the box says. You consider other dessert options; you’re tempted, and you might just cross over and have that cookie, but it doesn’t thrill you like you know the Jello will. Now, if you pull the Jello out before it’s totally set, you know it, and you feel guilty. It’s not as firm and confident as a fully-developed Jello is; it sort of slides around on your plate, not holding its shape. You’re sorry you weren’t just a little more patient, a little more disciplined…but oh, you just couldn’t wait. BUT, if you’re the one who DID wait for that Jello to firm up in your fridge, you pull it out and slice those squares and put them on your plate and — if you’re really a Jello lover — you add some whipped cream. Yes, it’s just Jello, but it’s been an exercise it putting all the right ingredients in, letting them mix together properly, and giving them all enough time to combine into the desired effect.
Speaking of Jello, I think I’ll go get a snack. Hope these little secrets help you.