First, just let me make clear that no one should consider me an expert on writing just because I landed a publisher. The advice I'm going to give you is what worked for me, and some of it is going to make my creative writing teachers want to disavow me -- so bear that in mind.
Before you begin writing: make sure you have a story to tell. You don’t have to know every aspect of the story, but you should know the premise and how it’s going to end. Conventional wisdom is that writing in 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. But for me, writing is 100% about the inspiration, because when you're inspired, you won't have to break that much of a sweat. I'm not saying you won't have to work, but the fact is that a truly inspired story will tell itself, while a story light on inspiration and heavy on perspiration will end up hopelessly contrived.
And that leads me to two very important tips. Expect that somewhere along the line the characters are going to want to go their own way and not where you intended them to go. Let them. Stories are like children, you may have created them, but sooner or later they're going to develop a will of their own. Your job is to guide them, not bully them into submission.
Even though every writer who ever lived will tell you that you have to write every single day, I say why torture yourself? If the words aren't coming, walk away. There are other things you can be doing to move the story along, like researching those pesky details that if not accurate will ring hollow to your readers. When I hit a wall with DEAR HEART, I researched the history of the San Francisco 49ers, and ran 100 Map Quest searches to decide where I wanted my characters to live. You have to stay engaged, but you do not have to write every single day.
Know your characters. Know what they look like, where they live, where they work, what they eat, and how they dress. I started writing DEAR HEART before I had a clear picture in my mind of who my characters were and it didn’t take long for me to hit a brick wall. When that happened, I stopped writing and took a good month to search online for actors I thought could portray my characters and photographs of the places they lived and worked. Once I nailed those pieces of the puzzle, everything else fell into place.
When you really get stuck, it probably means that you're on the wrong track. The hardest part about writing a book is deleting passages that you think are rapturous, and I was probably more stubborn than most when it came to throwing in that towel. I finally learned to ask myself this question: does it advance the story? If it didn’t, I deleted it, and found another road to explore. If I really loved the passage, I printed it out in hopes of using it somewhere else in the book, and then I deleted it from the manuscript so I wouldn't keep going back to it.
Sometimes even that doesn't work, and when it doesn't move on to another part of the book. Nothing says you have to write a book in chronological order. I wrote the ending for DEAR HEART when I was about a third of the way through it and then came back to where I’d left off. For SWEET HEART, I got stuck on the ending to the first chapter and couldn't figure out how to transition to Chapter Two. Meanwhile, I got an idea for the last chapter which excited me, so that's where I went. I wrote it in less than two hours and without having to open a vein. After that I skipped all over the book, writing what the spirit moved me to write. The end of the first chapter was the last thing I wrote.
Here's a tip I read somewhere that really works: never end your writing session at the end of a paragraph or chapter. Always end your work day in mid sentence. It'll be easier to pick up the thread of your story when you come back to it because you won't have to figure out what comes next. And when you get to the part that comes next, it will flow organically from the paragraph you just concluded.
One of the hardest things you'll have to do is find the right voice for your characters. Deirdre’s voice came naturally and I didn’t have to agonize over it. But it took me awhile to strike the right chords for Lee and Denise. It wasn't until I threw in a couple colloquialisms that I realized that Lee spoke far less formally than Deirdre. And Denise's voice came through loud and clear as soon as the word "pussy" came out of her mouth. I deleted it 100 times because I didn't want Denise to come off as a vulgarian, but there was so much more to Denise to recommend her that I finally capitulated and let her use the colorful language she wanted to use.
The second hardest thing you'll have to do is name your characters. Unless you want to make a point, as I did with Deirdre and Lee, or invoke a very specific feeling, as I did with Bill and Jean, I say name all of the other characters after friends and family. 99% of them will be flattered to have been named in your book (even if the characters are nothing like them), and it'll be one less thing for you to agonize over.
More than anything else, believe in your story. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to dissuade you from writing it. Don’t let anyone convince you to self-publish if you believe you can place your book with an actual publisher. Don’t let anyone scare you about copyright issues or lawsuits. Don’t let anyone try to minimize what you’re doing. If the person you want most in the world to love it doesn’t want to read it, or the person you most want to share the experience with changes the subject every time you bring it up, shrug it off. It will be hard and it will break your heart, but don't let it derail you. Believe in your story and believe in yourself.
I endured some of that and it was tough, but there were also two friends who constantly asked about the progress of the book and encouraged me to keep writing: DENISE LOWEY and JOHN SINGER. To my everlasting regret, John died just before I finished DEAR HEART, and that was a blow, but Denise traveled 600 miles to read it, and my lifelong friends, PAT MILLER and JILL BENDER SHADE asked to read it just before I started sending out queries. And here’s the wonderful thing about Denise and Pat and Jill: although there were some rough spots in the book that obviously needed to be smoothed out, they did not mention them. They focused on everything they loved about the book. If you want someone to read your book before you start sending it out, find friends like mine who love you enough to lie by omission because they believe in you. If you’re not totally oblivious, you’ll know what has to be fixed and you’ll be able to fix it because you won’t be crushed by the weight of criticism, which, trust me, is not going to help you no matter how accurate it is.
Which leads me to this last thing which I know is going to be controversial but here it is: do not ask anyone for constructive criticism. They will eviscerate your book because they think that's their job, or for darker reasons, like jealousy and self-interest. Believe me when I tell you you'll only end up demoralized and stymied, and no good whatsoever will come of it. When you finally get a publisher, he or she may be every bit as critical, and probably will be, but at least you can be sure that their only motivation is to help you get your book ready to market.
NEXT: The Launch Party - Part 1