Sunday, September 16, 2012

The five bad habits of good writers

I did a guest blog in the spring for Jane Perrine on the Five Bad Habits of Good Writers, and thought I'd move it over. I start with the person/writer and end up with the businessperson/writer.
 1. Bad habit: Thinking that you have only one book in you. Many writers start out because they want to tell one particular story, a story that’s been inside them for a long time. They write that story in a white heat, and then… then what? Are they done being a writer now that they’ve written that one book? No. If you have one book in you, you have more than one book in you. In fact, now that you’ve gotten this story down, the story that has preoccupied you for years, you might find that you’re liberated now to invent new stories. And you’ve learned something about your writing process and about the structure of a story that will help you when sheer inspiration fails. (And besides, you can always write a sequel to Book #1. Did the Harry Potter series end after his first year at Hogwarts?)

2. Bad habit: Writing 3-chapter proposals, one after another. It’s tempting, yes, to just move on if an idea doesn’t work or a proposal doesn’t sell. But don’t get into that habit. Serial quitting wreaks havoc with our writing process, makes us feel like impostors instead of real novelists, and leaves us empty-handed when an editor says, “What else you got?” And now, when we can sell our books directly to the reader with indie publishing, it’s great to have a few uncontracted novels to put up for sale. But no one is going to buy a dozen partial books. Try to push past that third chapter and finish at least a sketchy first draft. You’ll probably find you fall in love with the book!

3. Bad habit: Deciding you’re good enough and have nothing to learn. You’re never good enough. You’ve always got more to learn. We all do. The moment you decide you know enough and write well enough, that’s the moment you stop being a writer and become a hack. You don’t want to be a hack, do you? Of course not. So with every book you start, determine what you want to learn, whether it’s how to design an action scene or how to hide clues or how to embed more metaphor into your verbs. And then apply yourself to that lesson. Do research. Experiment. Find models in authors who do that aspect well. This will make the writing process more interesting, and will also help individualize each book. And finally, this will help you stay current with what’s going on in fiction, as you’ll be open to new ideas and new techniques.

4. Bad habit: Making business relationships personal. Your agent is not your mother, and your editor is not your friend. You might think they’re terrific. They might think you’re terrific. But let me brutally frank here. You have to be emotionally able to fire the agent if she stops working for you. You must be ready to stay with a publisher that has fired your favorite editor.  Loyalty is a virtue, but temper that with discretion. Too many writers have thrown their lot in with another industry professional who doesn’t in fact have the writer’s best interest front and center. (Nothing wrong with that—everyone must deal with her own career.) This is not a big problem unless you make the relationship personal, so personal loyalty is expected on one or both sides. I’m speaking as someone who made this error and couldn’t fire an agent who just about tanked my career. (We were best buds! How could I fire her when she was losing all those other clients? Was I going to be a traitor too?) Business relationships are about business. Save your love for your family and friends.

5. Bad habit: Forgetting that this is all about the reader. When we start to write, quite naturally it’s all about us. We have a story to tell or a problem to work out.  Then when we start to submit, it’s going to be all about the agent and editor—we want to craft the query letter and the book to capture the attention of the elite industry professional who can make our publishing dreams come true. That’s all perfectly normal. The danger comes when we forget that the whole purpose of writing novels is to connect with readers. When we do what touches or moves or surprises our reader, we will be fulfilling our mission. This means we have to stop being defensive. If our work doesn’t entertain the readers, we should find out why. Often we can make that connection without losing what we personally love about our story—but we can’t get to that point if we decide the reader doesn’t matter. The reader matters most of all. That’s why we write.
The publishing world is changing radically, and we have to change with it. So next year, I might have five different bad habits to report!

So— can you add to this list? What are bad writing habits you notice in yourself and other writers?


Anonymous said...

"Bad habit: Forgetting that this is all about the reader." Excellent!

And I had forgotten. Again. Aargh!

I already know the story. I have lived with it for so many years in my head.

But the reason I got started in the first place (ok, one of the reasons) was that I thought there was something in having it available for the audience I have in mind. That there would be people to whom the story might give a sense of hope, and a sense of completion.

Those people don't get it unless I write it down, polish it to the best of my ability, and get it out there where a reader can see it.

I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy in spite of its many faults. I love Peter Jackson's movie version. I would have neither of these if they hadn't done an enormous amount of hard work to make that story available to ME. A writer's job is to put into words what many feel but can't write for themselves.

Bad habit: not putting the writing first, especially when I know that the energy for writing, once used for something else that day, doesn't return.

Bad habit: being scared of how hard it is to get it right, so putting off writing until I FEEL like it, feel braver.

Thanks for providing today's kick start.

Stina said...

I don't think #3 will be an issue for me. I'm a writing craft book/workshop addict. I seem to have the opposite problem to the person who thinks they have nothing to learn. :D

Tracy Lucas said...

Excellent tips, and good things to remember. We fall into the psychology of writerisms so easily that we forget to, well, WRITE. Thanks for the reminder. (Came here via Passive Guy, but I'll be back!)

Mona Karel said...

"Only one book" Oh yeah, way too many writers. And they write that same book over and over.
I would add, at least for me, a lack of confidence in myself and my books, sometimes caused by comparing myself to other writers at different stages in their career. I can only take care of my own stories!

Leah Griffith said...

Great list of things to avoid. My bad habit is probably editing and writing at the same time. I'm trying to break that habit.

Sara said...

These are so great! I saw #1 on thepassivevoice and immediately clicked over. Thanks so much!

Alicia said...

ABE, I always keep thinking that if I love it {a scene, a character), the reader must to.
But it's not always true.
And I totally agree-- we have to put writing first. How many of us leave that to the end of the to-do list?


Ksenia Anske said...

Bad habit #6: Beating yourself up for mistakes. I suffer from this all the time, forgetting that making mistakes is GOOD, it lets me learn on them, pick myself up, dust myself off, and get back to writing. Just my two cents :)

JC said...

This article is brilliant in a "common sense everyone seems to forget" way. Probably the most important one to me is number 5.

You can write only one book if you really want. You can flesh out a proposal at the last minute if you must. You can get by on "good enough" if you don't actually suck. And you might just get lucky in mixing business and personal relationships.

Maybe. If you're extremely lucky, and you don't mind things really, really sucking for you for a long time, you could be successful, at least once, keeping these habits.

But the minute you forgot your audience, you might as well stop trying to publish. Why write, if not for your audience?

Gerry Skoyles said...

Bad habit #? Believing you must follow a particular style to impress instead of having the courage to stick with your present tense screen adaptation. These trendy little novellas are catching on due to so many book-lovers not having time to get stuck into a full blown novel.

D.B. Smyth said...

Love #4 and #5. Thanks for the dose of reality. :)

Bad habit: Only doing "enough" because you think your editor will fix everything else.

Stephanie Bittner said...

Bad habit: Revising over and over again instead of sending the book on to a critique group or approaching an editor because you're afraid they won't like it.

Starting on writing the next book instead focusing on refining the one you just finished.

Gerry Skoyles said...

Two more bad habits: Using too much self-promotion in forums, blogs and groups not designed for that. Making the excuse you're too busy marketing to get on with the next project.

Jami Gold said...

Love this post, Alicia! I *think* I'm avoiding these bad habits, but a lifetime is a long time to not make a mistake. ;)

Jami Gold said...

Love this post, Alicia! I *think* I'm avoiding these bad habits, but a lifetime is a long time to not make a mistake. ;)

Anonymous said...

Tear up the script if you have to. If your characters don't want to go the way you've prepared, listen to them. (Hint: It isn't really them, you know. It's the true writer inside you struggling to be heard.) And if it works, your editor won't mind the departure from the agreed outline.

Rinelle Grey said...

I thought I only had one book in me, but sure enough, once it was on the page, I discovered all these others that are now competing for my attention!