My top ten writing tips

Here’s an article I did for WriteOnCon about staying power:

I used to think that having a book published was an approval stamp of my writing ability—like having stores carry my novel meant I had mastered the craft. Ah, what charming naiveté I had back then.

Truth be told, I knew very little about plotting when I started out. I got lucky that my first story came together without much effort on my part. That happens sometimes. But you can’t depend on it.

If I could attribute my success at being able to continue to sell novels to one thing, it would be all of the hours I’ve logged in trying to learn how to improve my writing. (Well, that and the fact that I seem to have an unending supply of embarrassing moments from my real life that I can use in my books.)

So here are a few of the most important things I’ve learned while writing the last sixteen books. (Numbers seventeen through nineteen will be out next year.)

1) Make writing a habit. Find a time every day to do it. I’ve written while nursing newborns. I’ve written while waiting for kids at swimming, dancing, and gymnastics lessons. (Did I mention I have five kids?) You don’t need to wait for inspiration. Write when you can and the inspiration will come.

2) Take advantage of other authors—no, not literally—I mean take advantage of the vast amount of information authors offer you. Right now I have over forty-five books on writing sitting on my bookshelf. You can find a book on any aspect of the craft that you need. Get some and read them. They will save you a ton of time on revisions.

3) Which leads me to a couple of points of craft that you really should know before you sit down to your computer: Don’t let your characters wander through your novel without motivation and goals. If you do, your reader will want to slap your character. Repeatedly. Whatever genre you’re writing, your main character has a problem and your book is the story of how they deal with that problem. Your character should have a goal and be working toward it. Check over each scene and ask yourself what conflict is going on in each one.

4) Your character must have reasonable motives for everything they do. Granted, in real life people do things without thinking. They often make no sense. Take, for example, Lady Gaga’s wardrobe choices. Or the fact that teenage boys are all currently brushing their hair forward so that it looks like it is attacking their faces. You see my point. However, your characters must always have clear reasons for the things they do or you’ll lose reader sympathy.

5) Have a satisfying ending. It doesn’t necessarily have to be happy (although most readers prefer that type) and your main character doesn’t have to reach their goal, but you as the author have an unwritten contract with your readers. You’re asking them to invest their time and money in your story and you in return need to answer your story question and tie up loose threads. Your ending is not a dream, it is not a jumping off point to your next novel, and whatever else you do, it is not some artsy non-ending where the reader is supposed to interpret for themselves what it all means. If readers wanted to come up with their own endings, they would write their own stories, not buy yours.

6) Learn to use point of view. Put us deeply into your character’s head and we’ll care about what happens to him or her.

7) All right, now I’m getting off the craft soapbox and going on to a few other things I’ve learned. Selling the book isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. Oh, I know you thought you were just supposed to sit back and write the book, but not so, my friend, not so. You’re supposed to be out promoting yourself. This means doing a website, contacting newspapers, bookstores, and any other venue that might be interested in your book. This means—in my case—getting up in front of auditoriums full of junior high kids and giving presentations. And what could be more fun than a crowd of antsy, hormonal teenagers? Well, sometimes live tarantulas, but that is beside the point—because very few tarantulas buy books.

8) Network with other writers. Pretty much everything I’ve learned about this business has been from fellow authors. They’ve sent me flyers so I can see what’s supposed to be on them, they’ve told me how to write proposals for conferences, and pointed me in the direction of people who can do booktrailers. They’ve listened while I’ve griped about revisions and cheered me up when I’ve been so burned out I was spitting out ashes. There are tons of email lists and critique groups out there. Find one you like and join.

9) Read a lot. Not only is it fun, it will help improve your sense of pacing. That’s like eating a Snickers bar and having it help you lose weight. (I keep eating Snickers bars, by the way, and so far it hasn’t actually helped me lose weight.)

10) Keep in mind that writing books will probably not make you rich or famous. In fact, it probably won’t change your life all that much—unless you count the fact that you will have less time to do housework. Write because you love writing


My top ten writing tips — 13 Comments

  1. Oh, thank you for this list. I’ve been having tons and tons of trouble with my current manuscript, and I think a lot of these were just what I needed to hear. Especially the part about goals.

  2. Thank you for posting this, Janette. I’ve put a link to it on the Nauvoo Workshop for LDS Writers forum. I hope that’s okay.

  3. I can honestly say I’ve definitely cared about your main characters. There are a few of your supporting characters I’ve wanted to slap upon occasion but that’s beside the point. 🙂 Thanks for all the time you’ve put into this. I haven’t loved every book but others I’ve ready so many times I’ve lost count and the binding is wearing out. I can’t wait to see what you come out with next.

  4. Thank for the writing tips! Sometimes you just need a fresh perspective and your blog filled the bill for me. I have to share a new book I came across that has really helped my writing, it’s called “The Thinker’s Thesaurus” by Peter E. Meltzer. It provides sophisticated and interesting synonyms. Who doesn’t want to find the right word?

  5. Thank you so much for posting this! I’ll have to print it out and add it to the notes I took on your presentation at the Tucson Festival of Books. =]

  6. I love this. I can endorse the “write every day” thing, because once upon a time I got into that lovely habit of writing whenever, wherever. Now I have to say “YOU IDIOT, GO AND WRITE.” But nonetheless, it has improved my writing so much.

  7. This list is just the thing I’ve been looking for! Thank you, thank you,thank you!!! I need a “gentle push” in even believing that I have a “book in me!” A book that is worth writing about, and that someone would actually want to plunk down money for and have the desire to read it! I’ve heard the process(-of writing that 1st book!)is akin to “Birthing your first baby!”
    I have so many questions swirling around in my brain about this “new chapter” in my life! I couldn’t imagine not being able to put ‘pen to paper’ about all of my dark takes on life,in general. in spite of having a deep, abiding faith in God.

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