Today, copywriter and blogger Alex Limberg is back with a post that’s a bit different from his typical “how-to” writing advice. In this one, he spills the beans on how his own writing process came together. Here is the link again to his wonderful e-book that will help you create a tight and intriguing story by asking “44 key questions.” Check it out! And off we go…
Over the last several months, I’ve had the great pleasure of publishing ten guest posts here on Kristen’s fine blog. They were posts about all kinds of technical writing topics like characters, action scenes, how to introduce information, plot, etc… (look them up).
But for my eleventh post today, I thought it was time to switch gears.
Yes, it’s time for me to stop hiding behind the mask of the teacher and show myself to you bare-naked. But fear not, this post is still not X-rated. No need to hide it from the kids.
I’m just saying that this is a much more personal post than the ones before it.
Today, I want to report from my own writing journey and highlight for you what has advanced me most in my writing. Hopefully these lessons will help you too, especially if you are at the beginning stages of creating fiction.
Any look back on a passion project must always be personal and a bit awkward. That’s because it matters so much to you.
When you start out writing, like with any new skill, what you are doing just feels clumsy and deficient. The ugly truth is, the beginning stage is painful for novices of any field. You have no clue about anything, and you don’t even have a feeling for what’s missing. You feel out of balance, like a bear starting to practice riding a unicycle.
In my case, that clumsy bear phase began when I was 14; that’s when I started writing with serious intentions. Gladly, while writing, I didn’t realize how far I was from where I wanted to be. Like the donkey following a crunchy carrot, it always seemed to me my goal was just around the next corner.
Internet was still a few years away, and I didn’t have any information about the most effective ways to sharpen my skills. I just followed my gut and did what my passion told me: To keep writing and pushing forward.
But looking back now, I can point out the four specific things I did that helped me more than anything for my fiction writing. Let’s take a look at them.
Oh, and I almost forgot: Like always, if you want a comprehensive, no-holds-barred list about what I learned makes a good story, download my free ebook about 44 test questions to make your story great.
Putting a Lot of Hours into Writing
If you take just one single thing from this post, let it be this one: You only learn by doing!
By far the most important thing you can do to get good at a skill is to practice it relentlessly.
Theory can be a shortcut, and it’s a good idea to study a bit how people more skilled than you have done it before you – but don’t get stuck with it. You will never be able to write well just from reading theory. That would be like trying to become a world-class tennis player by sitting on your couch, watching tennis and eating potato chips.
No, here is the only way to get good: You have to sit down on the cheeks opposite of your face and actually do it!
There is a rule that says you need about 10,000 hours to excel at a skill, and I found that number to be remarkably accurate: After roughly 10,000 hours of writing, I started to become really happy with the quality of my writing and my stories.
But back then, of course I didn’t know about that rule. I just knew that to have a finished book that I loved, I would need to have a finished book first.
And so I wrote. When the novel was done, I read it, and my heart sank to my knees – my writing was a lot worse than I had thought. But I still loved the story. So I wrote it again. And again. All in all, I wrote that novel four times.
And while putting in my hours and actually doing it, I became good.
Reading a Lot
Just like you probably do, I loved books, I loved stories, and I loved to withdraw and immerse myself in different, fascinating worlds. I was intrigued by exciting plot, strong characters and skillful dialogue.
I had started devouring books at age 6 and never stopped. By the time I started writing, I had already been through many bookshelves worth of literature, with many more to come. I just followed my passion. But what I didn’t know was that observing my role models shaped me excellently.
When reading fiction, your subconscious automatically absorbs the language, the patterns, the three dimensional characters, the plot structure.
When you constantly immerse your brain in stories and language, you can be sure that deep down a killer instinct for writing is built. You can’t help but learn.
You will be able to draw from this reservoir for all of your writing career. Even if it’s not a career.
Being Brutally Honest with Myself
You won’t find this one in many writing manuals, because it’s hard to do: Being able to admit to yourself what you have written is plainly bad. Admitting it is especially hard when you have no idea how to make it better and how to navigate the maze that is writing a good story.
Me, I’m a critical and sometimes too critical mind.
I’m usually able to confess to myself when work I have done sucks. To be honest, for many years reading my prose was an utterly depressing experience. My pulse quickened and my palms got sweaty when I realized everything it lacked.
What I wasn’t aware of at the time was how many people go for half-hearted outcomes, only to tell themselves it is okay and good enough. But self-deceit hardly ever leads to success.
You grow most outside your comfort zone. You grow when you set yourself goals and work towards them. And in order to establish these goals, you must admit that you are not there yet. You have to be able to take a good, hard look at your writing and realize what is missing.
Only then do you allow yourself to become better.
Knowing My Characters as Well as My Best Friends
Your characters are driving your story. That also means when you have great characters, they will drive your story for you.
They will take care of who they are (characterization), what they do (plot), what they say (dialogue), and what they see (description). That’s still not your entire story (above all, you also have to learn how to handle language), but it’s a huge part of what makes your story.
Hence, if you know your characters really, really well, it will help you enormously.
Once I realized this, I started to write out long character sheets for each main character before even writing one single word of the main story.
I wrote out deep psychology, background, attitude, speech patterns and more. Then I put my characters into single scenes totally unrelated to the story, just to see how they would behave. How would they react to winning the lottery? To their brother insulting them? To gaining weight?
Minor characters would get shorter character sheets and even very small characters would have a couple of sentences dedicated to their personalities.
So write out your character sheets, and then lean back and let your characters do all the hard work for you…
In summary, follow these four cornerstones: Write relentlessly, read, be honest with yourself and know your characters like your best friends. I followed these rules intuitively, and only looking back do I now realize how important they were for my writing.
If you do just these four things, you have come a long, long way. Your writing will improve fast and the quality of your stories will skyrocket. Till one day you notice… writing doesn’t feel clumsy anymore at all.
Now it feels effortless.
Got it, Alex.
Kristen here. Now tell me: What do you think of these four points? Is there something else that really helped you getting better at story writing? Why can it be so brutal to read your own story? Do you ever wish you weren’t in the room when you read it? Could you maybe say you have gone outside for a smoke? Do your characters even like you?
Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Polish your tales to greatness with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and in the movie industry. He has lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.
Check out the other NEW classes below!
All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.
Blogging for Authors (August 26th) will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.
I am here to help with that 😉 .
We are doing ANOTHER round of Battle of the First Pages!!! August 5th
The first time we did this we had some tech issues doing this new format and we’ve since worked those out, but for now I am still keeping the price low ($25) until we get this streamlined to my tastes.
LIMITED SEATS. This is an open workshop where each person will submit his or her first page of the manuscript for critique. I will read the page aloud and “gong” where I would have stopped reading and explain why. This is an interactive workshop designed to see what works or what doesn’t. Are you ready to test your page in the fire?
Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages August 12th
The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is 90 minutes long, 60 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.
Your First Five Pages Gold Level
This includes the webinar and a detailed critique your first five pages.
Your First Five Pages Platinum Level
This includes the webinar and a detailed critique of your first twenty pages.
Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd
All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.
This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.
Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold
This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
Enjoyed this post immensely. Thanks, Kristen and Alex.
That’s good to hear, thanks.
Great post. Learning to be brutally honest with oneself, is probably the hardest to do, but the best thing to do. Each day it gets a little easier.
I read, read, read. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m more of a reader than a writer. But it can’t possibly hurt to have all this reading behind me when I do sit down to write.
Effortless. Only 10,000 hours or 416.67 days of non-stop writing. I believe that after that much time of practicing something, it could be effortless.
Although, much like my golf swing, I wonder if I keep practicing it incorrectly, if it will produce quality results.
Still, I do find all of these things useful. Writing does make you better at it (look at most author’s debut novel versus their tenth book).
I think reading makes you better, but to really get something out if it, you have to think about what you read. Passively absorbing might get you something, but not as much as digging a little more. Why did or didn’t you like the characters? Did you care what happened? How often did you skim to get to the “good” parts? Did you ever really feel like you were there? How did the author do bring you there? It’s always nice to have someone to talk with about these things, but just thinking about them can help.
I so agree about characters. They’re why I read the story. Whether to seem them get their happily-ever-after, or, in some cases, hoping for a really ingenious way to off a character I particularly hate.
Interesting question with the golf swing.
I don’t think you can practice art “incorrectly” though. The more you practice it, the closer the result will be for what you set out to create. You are setting your own standards, so to speak.
I think number three is the hardest for me. I vacillate between two extremes: this is the best thing I’ve ever written AND this is crap. Sometimes I can have one thought about a scene one day and the next week, I’m at the other end of the spectrum (about the same scene of course).
This is why reader input is crucial for me. Not that I take every suggestion my beta readers give me, but they will definitely ferret out the true crap. And leave me with some decent feelings about the scenes that were phantom crappers.
“Phantom crappers” – ha! Good phrase! I vacillate too, but I spend most of my time at the “this is unreadable bilge” end of the spectrum.
Love the advice. Being critical without becoming destructive to one’s own work is a fine line to walk for me. Lot’s of times it takes walking away from it for a bit. Sometimes, when I come back to it a week/month later, I realize it wasn’t as bad as I thought! 🙂 Of course, if it does need work, then I’ve got a better perspective on it.
Definitely a great idea to have beta readers! They are worth their weight in gold;-)
Reblogged this on Swamp Sass and commented:
This might be the single best blog entry I’ve ever read. Way to go Kristin Lamb! And kudos to the guest blogger, Alex Limberg.
That’s a really nice compliment, thank you!
It was a great blog post. I hope you don’t mind that I re-blogged it. I gave you credit. Keep it up!
Reblogging with the credit included is always welcome. Cheers!
Absolutely fantastic post!
Well, at least I’m reading lots :-s
I find getting to know my characters the hardest thing. In my current WIP, all the characters populate my mind with almost crystal clearness – except the main character. I keep thinking ‘no, she wouldn’t say that’ – but then I don’t know what she would say. More spadework ahead, I fear.
Very good and very basic ( Yeah I know, don’t use the word “very”) It’s easy to forget the fundamentals when you’re in the thick of it. That’s why you switch hats from right brain writer- creator to left brain editor-critic after you’ve written. Load knowledge and forget it when you create, bring it all when you edit.
Great reminder. I think I might be overindulging with the ‘being honest with yourself’ bit. Reading the comments, it’s great to see I am not alone swinging between “what a beautifully written scene” to “garbage, bin, garbage.” Will it ever end?
Very useful post and this is very lucidly explained. I explained the same thing to my students and they liked it too.
Thanks Kristin! I found Alex’s four crucial points to be a helpful reminder.
Thanks for sharing great post. 🙂
With 35 years of journalism under my belt, I’ve taken to interviewing my characters after I write my first draft. We have a story to share and the characters can (and do) tell me all about themselves as well as what’s wrong with my story and why. Now I’m still in the bear on the unicycle phase of novel writing but I think I might be starting to get the hang of it. Thanks for the wonderful post.
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
A writer can always find good stuff on Kristen’s blog. This guest post is no exception to that rule. Great points.
Reblogged this on Mysticalwriter.
I love when Alex guest posts. You can learn and laugh – excellent!
I love the advice here, especially on characters. I’m going to take that and use it wisely! 😉
I’m working on taking a lot of advice these days. Being brutally honest is excellent advice, but hard to do sometimes. I think this ties together with something I remember that someone–a famous writer I guess–said. Write as if no one will ever read it, except you. I feel self-conscious when I’m trying to put down feelings that are close to my heart, so if I treat the writing as I would a diary, I think I might stand a chance of being honest and getting those feelings nailed to the page.
I read loads, fiction, non-fiction, how to be a “proper” writer etcetc. The one thing I’ve learned though, (because I’m a neurotic apprentice novelist) is never to read anything about “how to” write/structure a novel/story/scene when I’m working on a book because I begin to think that “I’ve got it wrong” and start to unpick everything I’ve written and in doing so lose both my way and my voice. There is an incredible amount of really good stuff out there to help develop as a writer but my mantra is read and learn from it all before and after a project.
This post made my morning! Thanks for that, Alex.
Pearls of wisdom threaded with common-sense that made worthwhile reading for anyone interested in writing. Thank you for sharing.
Reblogged this on Jeannie Hall Suspense and commented:
4 Secrets To Making Your Writing Great
I agree with these but would add “get feedback from other writers”. Being brutally honest only works if you recognize your own mistakes. Having brutally honest friends is more effective for me. I tried writing in solitude, and the improvement came much slower than when others gave me feedback.
And a caveat to this caveat would be to get feedback from skilled and experienced writers. Too many amateurs in the kitchen makes for a mess 🙂 .
I want to try a different scenario for my characters. I think some in depth questions for them would be good.
I love all your blogs. ?