Me Write Pretty One Day

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?


Kaye M. said...

This is a lovely post, Julie. I'm the type of writer who beats herself up all the time for not having a novel ready yet for querying, not perfect the first time, etc. But looking back, I really did learn from every single one.

At one point, in middle school, I had an old-school floppy disk of 100 drafts - most of them fairy tales, all of them incomplete - and that taught me that I had to stick to an idea, and not get called away by the siren song of 'something better' that would also eventually be abandoned.

My WIP of last year was the first to be temporarily trunked, and then pulled back out. It was my first 'serious business' idea; the one that I still have hopes on, the one that a published author actually took a gander at and sees some potential in.

But I beat myself up too much about it at first. I tried to please everyone, and ended up not pleasing myself. Now, after taking some steps back, I'm focusing more on myself and the blank page.

workofheart09 said...

I love this. It's so easy to get lost in the publication part of the journey, when really it's the writing itself that's at the heart of it. Every book is a learning experience all of its own, and I've always thought that's such a beautiful thing. Even when the lessons are tough to learn, they're consistently helpful.

Good luck with FOTL this year!

Connie Keller said...

About ten years ago, I had interest in a novel I wrote from one of the big five publishers. But now I'm so, so thankful it didn't end up going anywhere. I've learned so much more about writing and I feel much more prepared. On the other hand, now I don't have an interested publisher. One of the ironies of life, I guess.

Tiana Smith said...

I think you might be being hard on yourself (or your MSs), but still, it's good you've learned from them each :) I feel like I've learned, but man, it's a rough, long process!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You've learned a lot the past few years.
True to the vision of the book. Yes, you have to hold on to that when considering suggested changes. Only you know what you're really trying to convey.

Marisa Hopkins said...

You've written so much these years - go go go Julie! How inspiring to see your progress through the years, and it definitely keeps me going seeing my writing friends from years ago, trekking along, despite it being HARD WORK, and just getting better and better. Can't wait for your books to grace my bookshelf!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Oh, yes! Every book has taught me something about the craft and art of writing, the process of creation, and myself.

The current project is teaching me to trust my process and stop trying to circumvent it. I always accepted that my first few drafts were terrible and imperfect, but I had to live through them to discover the story and get to know my characters.

Now I'm writing on a deadline and I want to get it right faster. So this WIP threw roadblock after roadblock in my path, just to remind me: that's not the way I write!

Medeia Sharif said...

That's so awesome you learned lessons from each project. I definitely noticed the same with pacing, characters, and suspense. I also learned from sending things out; some agents and editors were nice enough to give me feedback. I also learned a lot from my CP's. I love the progression I'm seeing with each passing project. I can write edgy, romantic, funny, and so much more. I hope to tackle even more genres and subjects.

Nicole said...

That's awesome! You've cranked out so many different books, and it definitely sounds like you've learned from each one.

Theresa Milstein said...

This April, I'll be writing for 8 years. I have at least that many novels behind me. I've learned something from each project, and I hope they're not all dead. I hope that I'm closer than I think to getting an agent.

I wish you luck as you continue. You'll get there.

Crystal Collier said...

I hear you on the pacing thing! Having readers in a serial environment really opens your eyes, eh? I honestly wish I could publish every book that way, one chapter at a time, but I think I'd kill myself with revisions if I attempted it.

It's amazing how much you learn from each draft...and equally amazing how much you learn from just reading in your focus genre.

LD Masterson said...

Whenever I wonder if I've grown as a writer, I pull out one of my earlier attempts and see all the mistakes. The fact that I see the mistakes tells me I'm a better writer than I was then. I wonder what I'll see five years from now when I look back at my current WIP.

Margo Berendsen said...

This totally makes me want to go back over my four novels and see what I learned from each of them! I went through the same research madness for late antiquity Greece (300 AD), and I only used about 3% of in the novel, but I believe it was still worth it! I am SOOO itching to read your Perseus story now.

1000th.monkey said...

I think I start every new novel with a list of things in my head that I 'suck at', and then proceed to write a novel incorporating them...

So yeah, ever novel teaches me something :) Thankfully, most have taught me that I shouldn't not try (sorry for the double negative) something I 'think' I can't do... and some have really driven home that, yeah, some things I should stay far, far away from...

cough cough (romance?) cough gag yack

sorry, hairball...

I still hope that one day you'll send me one of your stories to read all the way through :)

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm just checking in to see how your writing is going. Hope you're doing well.

mshatch said...

This is an interesting question! I think I could write a whole blog post about how each of my books has helped me grow as a writer. Hey! Good idea!

Thanks :)

Crystal Collier said...

My goodness, YES! I learn more with every book, and the study crammed between. This last book was an exercise in EPIC plotting, and it turned out even better than anticipated according to beta readers. That's always nice to hear, right? When the reader'd mind is blown by not just one, but several twists? Here's to pressing forward and learning as we go!

Cynthia said...

I see a lot of self-awareness in this post, Julie, and I admire you for being able to look back and consider the phases you were at during certain points of your journey.

I had to chuckle inside when I read about your experience writing Rice Flower Memoirs.

One thing I've learned through the years about writing is that I don't have to listen to all the feedback I get. I have to judge for myself what is good feedback, and what is feedback given with good intentions, but not necessarily useful at the given moment.

Julie Dao said...

Kaye: I'm so glad you feel the same! Don't beat yourself up. Most people never even FINISH a novel, so you should be proud that you're able to <3 I have similar folders on my old computer chock-full of abandoned drafts and ideas. Writing for ourselves is something I'm still working on, myself!

Shari: It's so easy to caught up in that stuff. And that's not why I started writing in the first place. I don't know why it's so hard to remember that! :) Thank you!

Connie: I've heard so many stories like yours. Maybe things really do happen only when the time is right. And I am crossing my fingers for you that you get interest. If you've worked that hard on improving your writing, it just HAS to happen. <3

Tiana: It's such a long, rough process. Funny how I used to think it would be so simple to get a book published, just because I was halfway good at writing and wanted it so badly! :)

Alex: I agree! It's hard to stick to my guns when I don't know whether it's the "right" thing to do. I also want to take critique seriously and into consideration. It's a delicate balance!

Marisa: Thanks, M <3 It keeps me going seeing you and my other writing buddies finish books! It is hard work, but we have to remember that it's not for nothing. Something is happening. We are improving!

Dianne: I'm glad your current project is teaching you trust! I think that will be the lesson with my current book as well. It's hard to accept that the rough draft will be, well, rough, but once we get to a certain point where we've written enough of them, we'll accept that that's the way they are and should be!

Medeia: Agent and CP feedback is gold. It's so hard just looking at a book yourself, and super valuable to have people who know about books and writing give you tips. I'm sure you will tackle many more genres!

Nicole: I sure have! It's nice to have my own little "library" too :)

Theresa: Congratulations on your writervarsary! I think we are both getting closer with each year, and with each book. Good luck to you!

Crystal: Oh yeah, having serial readers is such an eye-opener! I think there's something to be said for how much you learn about pacing by writing a book that way. I know what you mean about revisions though! Oy!

L.D.: It's so nice to have old work to pull from and see how much we have improved. I totally agree!

Margo: You should do it! It's such a great way to see how your writing has changed over the years.

Monkey: You should never not try ;) And that is so sweet of you to offer. I'm currently querying ELEGY, but there's always a chance that I will need some extra eyes on it for another round of revisions. I'll definitely keep you posted!

Marci: No problem at all! I'll have to go see whether you wrote one ;)

Crystal: EPIC plotting is the way to go! ;)

Cynthia: Thank you for saying that <3 I hope that I am self-aware, and that I can try to be subjective and impartial when it comes to knowing my strengths and weaknesses. Not having to listen to all feedback... that's something I'm still learning!

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