I’m not saying I’m perfect. In fact, I’ve made most of these rookie mistakes myself. And I wish someone had laid it on the line before I first put my manuscript out there, because I got beaten up by publishers, agents and seasoned editors. So here’s what I’ve learned–and what I still observe–for those of you just starting out.
1. Making Your Protagonist You
It’s natural to want to write about an experience you’ve had, especially when it has been significant or unusual. And everyone’s heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” But there are many very important reasons why you do not want to make you–the author–the protagonist.
You may have heard the phrase “Truth is stranger than fiction?” That is because it is. Just because something happened “in real life” doesn’t mean it’s plausible in a fictional construct. Crazy things happen for no reason in real life, but in fiction you have to make it believable and it must fit into your plot.
Point two: I’m going to be harsh here. No one cares more about your own life story more than you. Well, maybe your mama. Think on that. Your own life story is most important to yourself and your mama. Outside of that small circle, people will care less than you do. Maybe you’ve decided to write a memoir. Well, that’s fine for therapeutic purposes, but don’t expect an agent to be interested unless you are a celebrity.
And three: You will get writer’s block. Why? Because you will not be able to give your hero the freedom to live a life outside of your own. What happens when it’s time for your character do something embarrassing or intimate, and then you, the author, becomes conflicted because your friends and family will read it? Blocked. What happens when you have to take your hero down a path that “didn’t really happen” in real life? Blocked. I guarantee you will get blocked if you make your hero you, because your fictional world will butt up against your real world and your head will explode.
That being said, you can take your story and pepper it into your fiction. Use small observations, traits and examples of yourself and people you know to round out your characters. I have put bits and pieces of my life and my personality into many of my characters. So spread the love.
2. Pen to Publish
Unfortunately, nowadays, anyone can publish with the click of a mouse. That has created a plethora of published work that is bad. Bad, bad, bad. The biggest mistake a writer can make is to write and then immediately self-publish with no other professional reading or editing the manuscript. No one–not even the best writers–publish work that has not been read and edited several times over. I use two types of readers: professional (writers/editors) and lay readers (people who love to read my genre). Yes, professional editors cost money. They have also taught me how to be a better writer.
If Author X suddenly becomes a best-selling author because she came out with something completely unique and desirable, sure enough there will be copycats. Remember the vampire decade? Ok, maybe it was half a decade. After a while agents were like, “Do NOT submit ANYTHING with a VAMPIRE in it!” Be original. My mom always said, “It’s better to be a first-rate you than a second-rate her.”
Which brings me to…
4. Writing to Sell
If you choose a genre or storyline just to sell books, you’re not going to love it. You’re not going to fall in love with it. And that’s what an author has to do to write well: fall in love with your characters, their story and their world. When an author is fully in love with the world they create, they write better.
5. Writing a Series
Yes, I’ve written a series. And I’ve made this mistake. Because I fell in love with my characters and their world, I couldn’t let them go after the first book. Writing a series is not a bad thing…in fact, many readers love a series. We’ve been conditioned by television to want “the next episode.”
I know of one author who wrote a series of ten (10!) books before he even submitted it to agents. That’s fantastic that he’s so prolific. But agents and publishers cringe when a query letter states the author has written an entire series prior to publication. It’s a sure-fire sign of an amateur. They want you to submit ONE book. If it’s great and gets picked up, then you can continue with that world. So if you have already written your series, then don’t continue. Put it all aside and concentrate on making Book One the strongest it can be to submit to agents. And don’t tell them you have nine more ready to go.
6. Anyone can write!
There are three elements to being a successful artist–in any medium: talent, practice, and technical training. A lot of people skip that last one, they don’t learn the craft. I made that mistake. I was creative, and because I was an avid reader I thought I could sit down and write a book. But I wasn’t trained and it showed in my writing.
There are rules for fiction, and even more rules for each individual genre. Many, many, rules. And the rule to rules is that you can’t break them until you prove you can follow them. Very rarely can a rookie create any kind of art, break the rules, and be applauded. People will think you didn’t follow the rules because you didn’t know them. And in most instances, they are right.
Yes, technically, anyone can write. That doesn’t mean anyone can write well. When I turned in my first manuscript, my agent said “I suggest you take workshops on fiction writing and join a critique group.” (Basically, she was saying my writing sucked, but she’s a nice person.) I took her advice to heart and did my homework. I didn’t have to go back to school and get an MFA. I bought books on writing and read many articles on the internet about character building, dialogue, scene setting and plot construction. Only after I educated myself on the craft, did I understand what I did wrong. If you haven’t been trained, it will show in your work.
It’s not easy, you can’t wave a wand and become a great writer. But here are a few ways you can begin to learn the craft of writing:
- Read books about writing. I recommend the Elements of Fiction Writing series and Digital Ink.
- Take a writing workshop with a seasoned author.
- Go to writers’ conferences. They’ll have various workshops and meet n’ greets with agents and publishers.
- Join a critique group with either mixed genres or for your particular genre.
- Keep practicing.
7. Writing a story from the perspective of a dog or a cat.
I don’t know why this is so appealing to rookie writers, but it is. And it’s so cliché at this point, it’s become a joke in the industry. Just don’t do it.