What I’m learning about writing, April edition

Just finished Jeff Vaandermeer’s ‘Wonderbook’. It provided me with just the right inspiration to knuckle through some short stories in the past couple of months. I was going to try to summarise everything it taught me about writing, but the book hasn’t been my only influence this month. I’ve also been doing Writer Victoria’s 5 month emerging short story course online, and I’ve started the process of using beta readers, as well as attending and workshopping with my local writer’s group.

As a beginner, I’m having revelations on a regular basis, or remembering old wisdom which somehow feels different in the process of getting things on paper. In the past two months I’ve gained a lot more confidence, and then gotten despondent when I realised that even as my work gets better, there’s still more to learn.

So here are just some of the things I’ve learned this month.

The Work

  • I’m pretty good at dialogue (which makes sense because I talk a lot)
  • I’m improving my foreground/background balance, and figuring out how little detail background really needs to flesh things out for the reader
  • I’m figuring out how to give my characters heart, and let them lead. Through this process I can take a fairly flat or generic story and make it not suck
  • I’m learning to let myself go wild in terms of speculative elements. When I was plotting my 2019 Nano I was afraid to take off on tangents, sticking to a strict hero’s journey structure. There’s a lot of that structure that didn’t quite work, and the novel hasn’t felt right. I now realise that I know the characters for a lot of my short stories better than the MCs of that novel.
  • I work extremely well to deadlines. I will write, and get absorbed for hours, even if I ‘don’t really feel like it’ before I start. That’s why nano and other challenges work well for me, and writer’s groups and courses.
  • I’m learning when I’m done with a piece, and it’s more of an emotional response than a rational one. For the first time I workshopped a piece until I found it frustrating getting yet more feedback – even though the feedback was getting more positive!
  • Something the Wonderbook talks about is ‘taking off the training wheels’ and using writer’s critique groups selectively. I learn just as much from reading other people’s work and critiquing that. The first fiction piece I published didn’t go through a rigorous workshop process. Sometimes I don’t want criticism, or I’m meeting a deadline for submission, but I also knew when I was done.
  • My confidence goes up, my confidence goes down. I know I’m cresting the ‘conscious competence’ part of the curve, but I didn’t think I would be so emotionally invested. The more success I get, the more invested I am.
  • Apparently I don’t enjoy writing the kind of books I like reading. I wanted to write YA but I started and adulting just started happening. This favours ‘write what you know’ – I identify most strongly with my 20-something self, and had some very adult themes in those years.

Publishing and marketing

  • Being published is the best motivation EVER. I don’t know how people slog away at novels for years without knowing that they’re on the right track. I guess that’s what writing courses, editors, crit groups and agents are for.
  • A lot of authors I respect were writers for years before publishing their first novel. There’s a lot to be said for getting it right the first time.
  • A podcast I listened to recently said that self published novelists who do well generally start in traditional publishing, which makes sense to me.
  • Self publishing is shitloads of work and marketing strategy. Trilogy, first one free, write all 3 before publishing the first to quick release, know your amazon genre well… you also have to find a great cover artist and editor. Trad publishing has better editors.
  • According to all the advice, getting an agent is the bomb diggity. They help clean up your work, can tell what ideas have commercial value, and can be great sounding boards which I didn’t realise – I thought they just acted like booking agents.
  • Agents, the market and young adult readers give a shit about diversity, but a lot of spec fic writers don’t. As a marketer, I know to use any edge, so I’m quite surprised by this, but maybe shouldn’t be. I’m not specifically writing to be published but I have a strategic mind so strategy is always ticking along in the background ‘just in case’. As an example of this, I’m writing because my skills with my other passion (acrobatics) are quite poor, and will only get worse as I age. I decided to invest in something I was already better at than most of my graduating highschool class, as a sample of the overall population.
  • If you set your book locally you’ll have a better chance of being promoted by local groups.
  • It’s great to start being published! But it also counts *where* you’re published.

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