Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Advice for Aspiring Writers

First off, I’d like to announce that I submitted my manuscript! Woohoo! I’m not scheduled to start panicking about it for a few weeks, so in the meantime I can try to accomplish something else—like shoveling out my wreck of a bedroom. My six-year-old daughter gets scared at night sometimes and will come lie down on a blanket on the floor next to my bed. The other night she came in, but was still scared—thought it looked like there were scary things in my room. I can’t blame her. The place was rather a house of horrors, especially if you have a junk phobia. But I worked in there for a while yesterday, and in some spots, I actually—are you ready for this?—found the floor.

Anyway, onward to today’s blog topic. I got a message the other day from a daughter of a friend. She’s finished the first draft of a book and is seeking advice on editing and publication. I thought, hey, this would make a great blog topic! Then yesterday, I was reading Julie Wright’s post on the Writing on the Wall blog and found that Julie was discussing that EXACT topic. Whoa. I now feel this cosmic connection with the universe—the same connection that ensures that, if my husband has Mexican food for lunch, I will, on that very day, make Mexican food for dinner.

So here’s my advice for aspiring authors: go to the Writing on the Wall blog and read Julie’s post, where she quotes advice from author Phyllis Towzey. Then come back here and I’ll add a few thoughts of my own.

. . .

Okay. Now that you’re back, here are a couple of other things to consider. In addition to seeking outside feedback, make sure you’re thoroughly educating yourself on fiction technique so you can evaluate your own work. Back when I first started writing, I don’t remember thinking about fiction technique. I’d always loved reading novels, so I could write one . . . right? It wasn’t until I had a partial manuscript that was going off in too many different directions that I picked up my first fiction technique book and started to realize how much technique goes in to writing a novel. Anyone who has heard me teach is probably bored that I keep beating the same drum, but I feel I owe so much to writing guru Jack Bickham, so I’ll say it again here—his The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) is priceless. Same for his Scene and Structure. And there are countless other books out there on fiction technique.

I’ll now echo both Julie Wright and Phyllis Towzey in emphasizing that outside feedback is VITAL. Different authors seek it at different points in their work—some work with critique groups and get feedback along the way. Others wait until a manuscript is complete and send it out to test readers; some do both. You find what works for you, but it’s vital that someone besides YOU has given you feedback on your manuscript before you submit it. No matter how careful of a writer you are, you’ll miss things, or things will come across differently than you intended. You need outside eyeballs to take a look at your work. Your test readers don’t have to be other writers—just readers willing to be honest with you. And I recommend seeking test readers who enjoy the kind of book you write. If you give your sci fi novel to someone who only reads romance, or vice versa, he/she might have a hard time telling you what is or isn’t working in the book. In this blog post I listed the questions I sent out to my test readers with my last manuscript. Some of them apply more to mystery/suspense fiction than other genres, but it will give you an idea of questions you can ask test readers to help them spot what is/is not working in your book.

Revision is vital to producing a polished manuscript. Be willing to look at your work over and over and fix what isn’t working and improve what could be better. Don’t be afraid to cut things out if they aren’t benefiting the overall novel. For instance, you might have a wonderfully well-written scene, but it’s redundant and slows the pacing—don’t be afraid to delete it. If you can’t stand deleting big chunks of your work, cut and past them into a “rejects” file. That way, the words are still there if you decide you want them.

If your novel is aimed at the LDS market, then you don’t need a literary agent to sell it for you. The LDS market is too small for agents, and authors deal directly with publishers. Here is a list of LDS publishers provided by LDS Storymakers. Make sure to research publishers before submitting. Detemine which publishers would be the best fit for your book. Look up the publishers’ websites. What books are they publishing? How many books? What is their distribution like—i.e., do you see their books for sale in the major LDS bookstore chains (Deseret Book and Seagull Book)? If you live near an LDS bookstore, go look at books similar to yours and see who published them. If you don’t live near an LDS bookstore, you can find publisher information listed with books on When you’ve determined where you want to submit your book, make sure you follow the submission guidelines (available on publishers’ websites). And brace yourself for rejection—rejection is, unfortunately, a normal and expected part of being a writer. Persistence is vital for success. Even if your book is marvelous, it might not be what that publisher is looking for, so try submitting it somewhere else. And try again. And try again. If you get feedback from publishers (which means they REALLY paid attention to your book--most rejections are just form letters), think about it hard and see if you can use it to improve your book. Don't give up!

And have fun!


At 12/08/2010 6:41 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

Have fun, you say. I thought I was having fun until this past week. During a conversation, my husband said, "He uses the perfect words." Hubby was referring to the Tom Clancy’s writing while holding up one of Clancy’s 900 page novels. Those words bugged the kringles out of me, so I started flipping through the first few pages of the aforementioned book--oh, I didn't mention which title, did I?--anyway, I also flipped through Methods of Madness again too and saw a common thread. Of course, they're both excellent, pit-sweating books, but I noticed something in the taglines that I thought was a complete no-no. Instead of always using the fades-into-the-background "said" with the dialogue taglines, you, and Clancy, (and I suspect other Frog-bloggers as well, but I haven’t researched this yet, so I’ll keep my accusatory fingers pointed away from them,) used wonderfully descriptive words, like, "exclaimed," or "offered" or "called," you know, words that Sol Stein, the famous “master editor of the most successful writers of our century” clearly discourages writers from using in their manuscripts.

Have I misunderstood something important? Is it proper to allow the occasional “Zack repeated,” or “Brent exclaimed,” as long they are few and far in between? Could Sol be wrong? Do I now need to go through 300 pages of manuscript and search out a few places where I might take advantage of this possible newfound freedom of speech?

Stephanie, my two readers didn’t have a problem with “she said,” (the times that I actually used taglines. Mostly I left them out completely, unless there are several characters in conversation,) but I felt bound by the “rules” I’ve learned over the past two years or so. Tell me, in your first book, The Believer, did you stick with “the rules” all the way, and then after you were published, established, did you break the rules and actually used other appropriate verbs? I’m getting so many mixed signals that I’m spinning in circles.

At 12/08/2010 8:03 PM, Blogger Precision Editing Group said...

I love Jack Bickham's books!

At 12/08/2010 8:49 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Great question, Debra. Jordan McCollum talked about this very topic in her blog yesterday:

Here's my take on "the rules" regarding dialog tags. Yes, it's best to use "said" most of the time. But it's not wrong to use another word occasionally if it fits smoothly into the narrative and isn't distracting. I just picked up Believer and flipped through some pages. Looks like I used said most of the time or no dialog tags at all, but I did find a whispered and a muttered, and I know there are other non-said words in all my books.

When we're counseled to use only "said," I think it's because editors are tired of seeing excessive, distracting, non-said dialog tags, like this:

"I love you," she whispered.
"I know," he exulted.
"Now get off my toe," she whined.
"You're always complaining," he reproached.
"You can stand on my toe if you want," she simpered.

And then you get the physically impossible dialog tags:

"I love you," she beamed.
"I know," he laughed.

Very distracting, right? That's what you want to avoid--distracting or annoying your reader and taking them out of the rhythm of the story. If "murmured" or "whispered" fits smoothly in the narrative--by all means, use it. The rules are guidelines, not straitjackets, and there's no one "right" way to write a novel. But don't feel like you need to go back through your book and add non-said words--using only said or stage directions instead of tags is great.

At 12/08/2010 9:20 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

Thanks, Stephanie. I appreciate the counsel.

I've also heard of Jack Bickham, though I don't have any of his books. My budget is small, at this point.

At 12/08/2010 9:25 PM, Anonymous Emily M. said...

IMO, anything besides said needs to be sparing. A little goes a long way. Too much of "exclaimed" or "whined" and I start to tune out as a reader. Especially when there's one favorite non-
"said" word, like a book I'm thinking of in which the protagonist "wailed" constantly. I skimmed it to find out what happened, but I couldn't get into it at all.

At 12/08/2010 10:26 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

I agree, Emily. Used sparingly--effective. Used frequently--distracting. If in doubt, just use said (or no tag at all).

At 12/09/2010 12:44 PM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

Great advice! Jack Bickham saved me :)

And hey you found your floor! Congratulations! I haven't found my floor yet, or my counter tops, or my table top, but you know . . . I'm working on it . . .

At 12/09/2010 1:18 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

I just gave myself an early Christmas gift. Two, actually. I ordered Jack Bickham's books.

Merry Christmas!

At 12/09/2010 5:07 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Awesome, Debra! I think you'll love those books. I found them incredibly helpful.


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