When you're a writer looking for advice on how to improve, it doesn't matter where you go: an established author's blog, a conference, a book signing, a writers' group... One of the first pieces of advice will always be: "Just write." The more you write, the more you learn and the better you will be.
You know that saying about not seeing the forest for the trees? Well, I think I've been so focused on big trees - like writing the perfect query letter, finding the perfect agent, and just, you know, my LIFELONG DREAM of seeing my name on a real, live book - that I've lost sight of the forest. After all, the whole point of this crazy attempt of mine is to become a better writer. I want to write something one day that resonates with somebody. I want them to wake up and think about my story. I want them to read a sentence I've written and say, "Dang. This girl can write."
So I got to thinking. I've been writing books nonstop for the past six years, but have I become a better writer? Have I learned anything?
SECRET NOVEL: I've been writing forever, but this book was my first written as an adult. I was 22, trying to pretend I was happy and actually wanted to be a doctor. I worked in a medical research lab, but this was my real experiment: writing secretly at night, posting chapter by chapter online under a pseudonym, knowing that the reception would make or break my decision to pursue publication.
It is thanks to this novel that I wrote other novels. I learned about pacing, because writing a story in serial format - and having people want to read more - is not only just about hooking the reader, but keeping them hooked. The need to pace the story evenly became the need to outline my chapters, so I would know exactly what was happening and when. And now I can't imagine writing without an outline!
RICE FLOWER MEMOIRS: This book taught me about characterization. A lot of writers pull inspiration from people they know in real life, but the skillful ones do it in such a way that no one can tell who they're supposed to be. When I gave chapters of RFM to some of my family members, EVERYONE knew who they were supposed to be. And some of the descriptions were less than flattering. It was terrible! I learned to borrow defining characteristics, but to mold the characters into unique people in their own right.
PUMPKIN PATCH PRINCESS: I knew the basics about young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG). I had read widely in both categories. But I never really understood them until I started writing this book, which began YA and became MG. The difference between them might seem really obvious to you, but when I started writing, I had to learn the hard way that YA vs. MG is not just about age. It's about the characters' viewpoints, their goals, their dreams, and what drives and motivates them.
Noelle's wide-eyed exploration of the future - and the very tentative romance - made the book much too young to be true YA, and I'm ashamed to admit it took several CPs, agents, and an editor to make me realize that it should have been upper MG all along. But upper MG it eventually became!
ELEGY: This was my first attempt at a ghost story, and it was a crash course in the art of suspense. I winged it, wrote a truly terrible rough draft, and had to struggle through various rewrites before it became anything resembling something exciting enough to keep reading. I had never written anything with high stakes or the supernatural - witches, maybe; fairy godmothers, yes; but never ghosts or curses - and so it was a tough lesson in juggling smooth plotting, world-building, and tension all at once, all the while making sure my characters were behaving the way they should.
I also learned - really learned - that it is impossible to make everyone happy. You can write nice characters and people will say they're too Mary/Gary Sue, and you can write not-so-nice characters and people will say they're too unlikable. You can kill someone at the end, and people will say you need a happy ending, and you can let them live, and people will ask "Why?" I learned how to absorb and apply feedback, but to also stay true to the vision that I have for the book.
THREADS: My NaNoWriMo 2013 project was based on Theseus and the Minotaur, and I did a crap ton of research before I started writing. I thought that if I tried to learn everything about everything, and to incorporate it in my book, that it would be a better book. I wrote about the texture of linen, and the taste of the wine (always watered down in ancient Greece; it was considered barbaric to drink it straight), and the architecture of the buildings, but got so bogged down with trying to include everything that the story suffered a lot. (It definitely helped the word count go faster, though!)
The manuscript has been gathering dust on my desktop ever since, because I'm too scared to look at it, but I learned a lot about doing thorough research and then choosing what to include, rather than dumping it everywhere.
FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS: This is my 2014 book. I've got several chapters written, so I probably haven't learned anything yet, but I have a feeling that all of those previous experiences will help make this novel a lot better than it might otherwise have been. It's an epic fantasy, and I want it to span multiple books, so even pacing will be a must; as always, I am pulling inspiration for characters from real life, so learning what to include and what not to include will be needed; and all of the research I have done will need to be distilled and sprinkled into the framework of the story, bit by bit.
Have I become a better writer? I'd like to think so. There's so much left to learn, but I'd like to think that I've learned something from all of my stories and that I'll be bringing the experience with me to every book I write from here on out.
What has writing your books taught you? Are there any specific lessons you've learned from each one?