Several years ago, I scrounged up enough courage to take my first online writing
class. The instructor told us, “If you write, you’re a writer.” Sounds simple, but
that whole experience was huge for me. Prior to that, I had a few stories taking
up memory on several different floppy disks, but I never considered myself a writer.
I plodded along, writing when I felt inspired–either late at night after work or
when my kids were napping.
Then my sister rocked my world. She became a Golden Heart finalist, the equivalent
of an Academy Award nomination for romance writers, and she wanted me to attend the
RWA national conference. Wait, I couldn’t possibly go to a writers’ conference–everyone
attending was a writer and I’m, well, sort of a writer. Then, someone told me to
write what I like to read. That’s when I switched my focus from wholesome middle-grade
fiction to steamy, paranormal romance. I found my groove, also known as my writer’s
voice, and typed THE END the day before we jumped on the plane.
Can you guess what the moral of this story is–other than me being a little neurotic?
Keep trying different things, listen to your sister even if she’s younger than you,
and never underestimate the power of a deadline.
Where do you get your story ideas?
Bits and pieces from my normal life–mundane, everyday things–get expanded in my imagination
as I ask myself “what if.” I keep a small notebook in my purse–you know, one of those
cool ones you find at bookstores with the elastic band to keep the pages neat–and
jot down interesting things I see or read or that someone tells me.
For instance, as I drove through my small town the other day, I noticed a teenage
girl sitting alone in the middle of the sidewalk. She had a plastic shopping bag
from the nearby drugstore and, while she waited for the bus, she was painting her
toenails. Not her fingernails, like maybe you or I would do to check out the color
we just bought, but her toes! All of them. Right there on the pavement. What kind
of a girl would do that? A clueless girl who had no idea that what she was doing
was strange? A loner with no friends who didn’t give a crap what anyone thought about
her? A girl whose parents don’t allow her to wear polish so she quickly paints them
before she gets home? But why the middle of the sidewalk? I mean, you could go on
and on. I haven’t used her in a story, but that’s an example of what I’m talking
about. I made note of it in my little notebook and maybe someday I’ll use it. I also
have notes in there about Brett Favre, a poem about dandelions, and a story from
my son’s friend about his dog’s anal glands.
Can you recommend some good books on writing?
I love books about the craft of writing. Not every author’s methods will make sense
to you or me, but one little nugget could make all the difference. Here are some
of my current favorites.
Plotting and Story Structure
Save the Cat - Snyder
Plot and Structure - Bell
Goal, Motivation, and Conflict - Dixon
Break into Fiction - Buckham and Love
Writing the Breakout Novel Handbook - Maass
Revising and Polishing
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers - Browne and King
Manuscript Makeover - Lyon
Creating Characters - Swain
Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint - Kress
Heroes and Heroines - Cowden, LaFever, Viders
Rodale’s Synonym Finder
Character Naming Sourcebook- Kenyon
The New St. Martin’s Handbook - Lunsford and Connors
I want to write, but I’m not sure how to get started.
1. Read. A lot. Both inside and outside your genre. It will help you develop an innate
sense of story structure, where you’ll recognize those patterns common to all good
stories. Look for the W-plot (Inciting incident, Change of Plans, Point of No Return,
Major Set-back, Climax/Resolution) and notice the conflict, rising tension, pacing,
and ways the characters change throughout the course of the story.
2. Write every day. You’ve got to exercise your writing chops, make new pathways
in the brain. If this means working on your current Work in Progress, great!
If not, why don’t you try journaling like many writers do and get accustomed to getting
your thoughts down on paper?
If you’re not into that (I’m not), you can join an online forum with active threads.
Many popular books, movies, and tv shows have fan forums where fans get together
online to discuss various characters and plot points with each other. Are you passionate
about a hobby? I can almost guarantee you there’s an online forum devoted to it.
Make sure your posts are thoughtful and avoid netspeak in order to get the most out
of the writing practice. (I’m trying to find a Dr. Phil forum for my mom. She loves
him. If you know of a good one, let me know!)
Not into online forums? Join Shelfari or Goodreads to interact with other readers
and have thoughtful discussions on books you’re passionate about.
Check out the many fan fiction sites online. I don’t write fan fiction, but I have
friends who do, and, my gosh, they’ve blossomed into fantastic writers. They use
it as a way to polish their writing skills without having to create a story world
and characters from scratch. Of course, you can’t profit from it and some don’t allow
fanfic of their work, but I can tell you, many best-selling authors started writing
this way before they created their own fictional worlds. I’m not listing them here,
but if you check out other author websites, many talk about how they used to write
fanfic. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised. Star Trek, Jane Austen, Twilight, and Harry
Potter fics seem to be particularly popular.
Are you an expert or passionate about a hobby? Are you doing something that others
may find interesting (traveling to China, training for a marathon, rehabilitating
an injured animal, etc.)? Start a blog. They’re easy and it gets you into the mode
of deadlines and regular updates, while honing your writing skills. You’ll need these
skills when you become published.
3. Go to author signings and check out the programs at your local library. I’ve gotten
some fabulous writing tips from published authors at their signings or free library
workshops. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I always come prepared with a few questions
I want to ask ahead of time. Even if you haven’t read their work before, you may
still get some helpful tips on editing, world-building, writing habits, good craft
books, plotting, characterization, the publishing industry, etc. So go!
4. Join a professional writers’ organization. General groups cater to all sorts of
writers, like the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association, while specific ones, like
Romance Writers of America, focus on a particular genre. No matter what kind of fiction
you write, chances are, there’s a professional writers’ organization you can join.
Try to find one with an active local chapter, that way you can meet local writers
5. Join an online writers’ forum. Remember I talked about forums earlier? Well, there
are forums devoted only to writers. Imagine that! You’ll get scads of tips, support,
fun writing prompts, and industry information.