One question that comes up from beginning writers is “how are we supposed to get the help we need?” It would be great if experienced, professional novelists could read your work and give you advice but for most of us, that’s time and effort taken from our own writing that we just can’t afford.
So I thought I’d share with you the things I did in order to get to the position of selling a novel.
In a nutshell, my path consisted of joining a writing group, reading and attending workshops, getting involved in small press publishing and along the way, making some wonderful friends who were prepared to beta read stories and manuscripts for me.
I started writing with an aim to be published in 2000. I had some success in placing a couple of short stories, but my aim was always novels. I finished the first novel and got some people to read it (not writers, just friends) and then based on their “Oh I love it” started to submit it. After a few polite rejections from agents, I decided that maybe I needed to look at little more carefully at what was involved in this whole writing thing.
Initially, I had two things going for me in my writing – I’ve got a natural feel for spelling and grammar (thank goodness, cause I went to primary school here in Australia in the mid to late 70s and back then, grammar was considered experimental) and I’ve always been pretty good at the worldbuilding thing. I knew there were other things, but I didn’t know what or how.
In 2002, I discovered the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild and started getting and receiving crits of my work. And I realised the areas I needed to work on: characterisation (not too much, pretty good), plotting, and particularly I needed to learn how to revise and edit my own work.
So, I attended classes and workshops, mostly organised through local writer’s centres – Jack Dann’s workshop in Canberra in 2003 was particularly useful, because for that we did get to submit a piece of work to a master writer and it was critted not only by him but by the rest of the workshop participants. If you want advice or feedback from an established writer, this is the way to do it – several of them do workshops, so research who and where and what and be aware that you’re going to get honest feedback. I made the silly mistake of allowing my story to be critted last, at the end of an exhaustive weekend, and we were running out of time so everyone was short and brief and I was hammered. I cried for at least an hour on the way home. But I have to say, it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and eventually it inspired rather than rejected me and I became a better writer because of it.
I bought books, I studied them. I knew as a teacher it was best to set myself up to focus on one thing at a time.
2003 was when I wrote the original drafts of Balance of Power, and this trilogy was also where I taught myself how to revise and edit. Based on two books – Beginnings, Middles and Endings by Nancy Kress and Getting the Words Right by Theodore A. Rees Cheney – I devised a program on how to revise the novels. Each one was written in a month (I wasn’t working back then, so 60,000 words a month – they were short novels – was easy). Then for the next three months, I went over each novel using the same plan – firstly I sat down and wrote out each scene, who was in it, what happened, what it did for the story and whether it worked or not. Then I did a character sheet for every character in the novel – stuff like what they were good at, bad at and so on. There were a couple of other things that I can’t quite remember, and then I re-wrote the book. After those three months, I then went back and did a finer edit of those books – things like just reading out the conversation to make sure it flowed, reading the entire book aloud, spell checks and so on.
2003 was also the year that I decided if I was going to make money from writing, I should freelance, so I contact local newspapers. That resulted in me getting a temporary job at the local paper filling in for sick leave or when things got busy; which turned into a part-time job there which led to me all but editing the bi-monthly Senior Lifestyle magazine; which then led to a full-time job at the free paper here in Canberra. I left journalism in January last year, but the things I learnt there about passive versus active writing, getting things clear and easily understood and being able to condense a huge story into a few words (hello, synopsis!) have well and truly stood me in good stead.
In 2003, 2004 I started to get involved in publishing, particularly slush reading. I was the slush wrangler for two CSFG anthologies (Elsewhere and Encounters), and joined the Andromeda Spaceways Collective, which publishes Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (ASIM). There’s nothing quite like having to read and judge hundreds of short stories to make clear in your mind what makes a good or bad story. In 2005, 2006, I dropped out of writing a lot to pursue an interest in editing. I edited the CSFG anthology The Outcast and Issue 25 of ASIM. Over the course of eighteen months, I worked with twenty-nine different authors, teaching myself to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of their writing while learning about my own.
In 2007, the CSFG started up a novel critting group for those of us who were wanting to move on from short stories to longer works (despite the good start, I’d had meagre success in short stories – not quite where my talents lie, although I am still forging on). Apart from Gillian Polack, who had one novel published and another in the process of being published, none of us had sold a novel. I chose to go with the first novel of the fantasy romance trilogy I’d written all those years before. The first month, we critted each other’s opening chapters, and then we took turns to present our novel and be the sole focus of the crit group for that months. I think my novel was about the fourth looked at, cause I had some work to do – in between that initial crit and when I presented it for my month, I added another 20,000 words to the book. There’s nothing like having a group of four people sit down and pull your novel to shreds to see what’s working and what’s not.
With their thoughts in my mind, I started working on the novel again in earnest. From it’s inception to the point I started submitting it, a total of ten drafts were written. I had two lots of readers go through it – fellow writers, with a range of experience, my fabulous beta readers. From everything I’d done over the years, I knew how to revise, I was stronger on characterisation and better at plotting. Finally, in November last year I started to submit it to publishers, and as we now know I sold it to HarperVoyager in July.
So, that’s how I got the feedback and help I needed to get good enough to write a story good enough to sell. They’re nearly all things anyone can do – find a writing group (or make up your own if you have to), read text books and attend workshops, get involved in publishing – without having to bug a big-name author. And becoming a professional in another writing field – journalism, copywriting, technical writer – will teach you a lot of the skills needed for fiction as well.
The most important thing, however, is to recognise there is learning to do (and it never ends), that you have to work hard to get better and in order to do this, you have to accept that at first you won’t be good at stuff and you need people to point the bad things out in order to identify and improve. That means people will say bad things about your writing. Just smile at them then jump in the car and bawl your eyes out, if you have to, but then get back to the task at hand – learning what you don’t do well in order to get better at it.