The Inexperienced Author
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a lot like I was a few years ago: full of ideas, tormented by the need to string something together that is both eloquent and concise—and having no idea how to do it. Maybe you’re passionate about a social issue, and your social media platform just doesn’t pack the punch you need to make a change. Maybe you’re crafting a universe, and your characters are talking to you. Maybe you find the combination of blogging and sharing recipes appealing, and you want to start up your own page for that purpose. You want to write magazine articles? Fantastic! You want to publish a textbook that is both informative and entertaining? Amazing! You want to do something avant-garde, and have words that bleed into the pictures and run around the page? Run like the wind with that idea!
And if you don’t know where to start...well...you’re in good company.
Writing, especially when it comes to large works, is a journey. Be willing to let another set of mature eyes land on your work. Yes, it’s nerve-wracking. Authors are represented in what they write, and separating our work from our person comes with the territory. Your written voice is just as important as your content, and I could write an entire article about that subject alone. But if you are new to writing and ready to grow, here is a list of things I’ve learned since I started my process.
Write something. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a good idea or not, if it’s speaking to you, write it down. Ideas will only gnaw at you for so long before they give up and sink into your subconscious where they cause other problems. If you want to be a writer but never write, I have bad news: you’re doing it wrong.
Your voice is your experiment. Your sentences might pack a punch! Or you might be one to waltz through bouquets of words, tumbling and weaving through paragraphs like a streamer in the wind. Maybe you’re the sensory guy that needs to see bad guys and bullets on page one! Perhaps you’re the cerebral type who writes high and lofty works that one must pursue ardently to understand. You might be the guy that stands in the belly of a monster absorbing every minor scrap of detail, and showing it to us in your words. You could have the power to turn back time and sit with us while we experience your memories. All types have value, and all have room to improve. But as I said, it’s your experiment. You have to discover your voice for yourself.
Learn the rules of writing. I know, it’s obnoxious. You’re not a kid anymore, why do you need to learn more rules? As one who likes to think of rules as guidelines, I can say with authority that the rules are useful for the moments when writing feels dry. Just knowing how to compose a piece can help you push through writers’ block. And if you’re the kind who likes to rebel, then think of the rules as something necessary to learn so you can discover how to expertly break them.
Do your research. Authors are encouraged to write what they know, but if your story takes the character somewhere you have never been, you MUST research. The super-secret spy character is flying to China? How long does it take to get there? What is the population of the country? What region are we going to? What is housing like? What is the market like? What does dog meat taste like? What does it smell like? Would your character partake of it if he was offered a taste? How far outside of the city limits do you have to go before you aren’t constantly bumping into people? It matters. Even if you don’t include all of those details in the story, YOU have to know it, because those are details that will influence every scene in this section of the book. The noises, smells, flavors, nuisances, terrain, all of those are details that both your character and your reader will have to absorb on a subconscious level.
Feel free to experiment. Say you just learned about a technique, and you want to implement it in your own work. It is okay to take a section of what you’ve written, plug it into a separate document, and rewrite it using that technique. For example, changing passive voice to active voice. You take the scene, “Kimberly loved her father. All she ever wanted was for him to notice her.” and fiddle with it until it says something like “Kimberly tugged on her father’s sleeve, bouncing on her heels. She had to stifle a whimper as he jerked away, sloshing his coffee with the motion. He yelped and set it aside with a ‘clink’, quickly burying his arm in a dish towel with a scowl. The heat of his anger only goaded her. It tased her like a cattle prod when he turned his back. ‘You’re never home!’ she said at last. ‘You’re always leaving, always!’” If you like that better, plug it into your story. If you don’t, toss it, and move on.
Find a writing partner. It is a useful thing to have another set of eyes on your work, especially an honest, encouraging, but truly helpful set of eyes. Don’t look for accolades. Look for someone who can tell you the truth, and give you useful information on how to improve. Expect to return the favor. And look! You made a friend.
Read. Reading will teach you how to write. Major houses only publish what sells. You can learn a lot by noting another author’s writing styles and formatting. It offers new ways to conjugate sentences. It helps develop your voice. And, side-win, it gives you the benefit of another author’s research!
Surround yourself with people who can help you with your journey. This one is hard sometimes, because life is life, and obligations are obligations. An easy way is to join a writer’s guild, where you’re guaranteed to run into someone interested/actively writing in your genre of interest.
When you work up the courage to share your work, don’t take criticism personally. Think of criticism like a gym membership: it hurts. It leaves you breathless for a while. But keep at the commitment, and you walk out of it stronger.
Time will not lend itself to you willingly. If you don’t carve out time to explore an idea, it will not grow. Even if you don’t put your pen to paper (or hands to keyboard) mulling through thoughts will help with this process. If you can’t dedicate the time to write a piece in full, jotting down notes is effective.
Be in the habit of reading your old notes. You may have had an idea five years ago that you couldn’t write at the time. But since then, you’ve gained experience and discipline. The beauty of writing is that ideas mature with us. Even if you have to lay aside a thought for a time, you can come back to it when you’re ready. As a bonus, it also helps to look back and see how you have changed since you had the idea.
Write small things. If you are working on a large piece like a novel, give yourself the encouragement of small works to share and publish. Personal essays, short stories, magazine articles, blog posts, and poems are a rewarding outlet. Written words are valuable, and writers are made to share them.
Don’t begrudge your hidden years. It takes time to build a portfolio and develop your voice until you’re comfortable sharing it. Your time preparing, growing, and evolving will pay off if you can stay the course. In an age where social media has enabled trolls to a detriment, it’s better to let yourself become the writer you want to be while you’re hidden than it is to air out work that’s easily pulled apart before you’re confident.
Your journey will be different from mine. An artsy history-buff that relates well with middle schoolers is not going to have the same writing or learning style as a math-maniac that happens to be into beat-poetry. All kinds of people can, and do, become writers. Take what you like from this list, chew the meat, and spit out whatever you consider bones. Or maybe you have ideas to help an author that’s closer to your style.
Look at that. I gave you something to write about.
Hannah Krienke is a story-teller, teacher, and writer. Her passion is to keep people interested in things that matter, and strives to keep them entertained at the same time.