Writing guidelines can help us climb that “book mountain”
by Ruth Harris
A breath-taking article about a Polish team of mountaineers planning to climb K2 in the winter—a risky-to-the-max feat that has never been accomplished—reminded me that every book is K2, a mountain that has never been climbed. Like expert climbers, writers make progress step by step, or, to be precise, word by word.
Writing guidelines for climbing Book Mountain
We start at base camp, familiarize ourselves with the terrain and altitude, thread our way through ice falls and high mountain passes, we set our own ropes and carry our own gear. We drag ourselves through the middle, crawl to the summit, enjoy the view from the top, then do our best to survive the perilous descent (aka write the ending).
Struggling and suffering, we endure setbacks and doubts, make mistakes and mis-steps. We depend on our equipment and our team, but, in the end, we (usually) climb our mountains alone. The good news is that (usually) climbing the book mountain won’t kill us (although sometimes it feels that way) and we will live to climb again. 😉
Between us, Anne and I have been climbing book mountains for decades. We have written under pen names and our own names. We’ve have successes and failures and, along the way, we have made every mistake (and then some).
We are too old (and too experienced) to think that rules, which tend to be rigid, work when it comes to something as risky and unpredictable as writing a book (or climbing a mountain).
Much as we are wary of rules, especially stupid rules, we have learned (the hard way) that certain general writing guidelines apply. Rules (with a few important exceptions) are rigid and come with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. Guidelines, however, have the advantage of being flexible and customizable.
Here are our own thoughts and those of our favorite gurus and bloggers on guidelines that work:
Start with the first step. Preparing for the ascent.
The writer’s consciousness is a library of memories, observations, emotions, all residing in our subconscious waiting for us to use.
- An idea, a character, a theme, that won’t let go.
- It can be sad, funny, tragic, epic, super brilliant or dumber-than-dumb, but it works its way into our mind and sticks like a burr.
- It can be triggered by an overheard snatch of dialogue on the street, in a restaurant, at the supermarket.
- Perhaps a phrase in the newspaper, in a book, in a meeting at work will be the trigger.
- Or a random memory that springs up unexpectedly while we’re driving, folding laundry, listening to music, exercising, chatting with a friend, fighting with a roommate.
The writer’s job is to take the necessary steps turn this roiling stew into a story that will engage readers. From brainstorming to writing the first sentence and polishing the final draft, there are techniques and guidelines that will help on the way.
Turning a vague idea into a usable story idea.
Starting with a fuzzy notion but no clue where to go from there?
- Karen Wiesner, the award-winning author of ninety books, suggests ways to keep ideas flowing, even when “blocked.”
- Sci-fi author, Veronica Sicoe delves into the details of brainstorming your story idea into a working concept.
- At Fiction University, Janice Hardy offers an easy tip for developing story ideas from hazy to usable.
- To get you started, here’s a list of 24 mind mapping software tools.
Pants? Plot? Or something in between?
One size does not fit all.
- Our guest blogger, top freelance editor M. J. Bush contributed an invaluable post on the subject: 25 must-read tips on plotting from top authors and editors.
- Then there is Libby Hawker’s popular guide to plotting, Take Off Your Pants.
- In Writing Into The Dark, prolific author and USAT bestseller Dean Wesley Smith guides you through the joy of writing a book without an outline and explains the value of cycling.
- Chuck Wendig zeroes in plotting and prepping with index cards, the zero draft, beat sheets and tentpole moments.
- NYT and USAT bestseller, Russell Blake, uses a spreadsheet to plot his action/adventure/mystery thrillers and explains why he doesn’t for his NA stories.
- From story discovery to knowing your characters, author and writing coach, Jennifer Blanchard explores the value of pantsing.
Begin at the beginning. Or not.
“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” said Stephen King. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” Plus a list of 50 best first sentences to inspire you.
- Anne unpacks the elements of first chapters that keep your reader in mind.
- In this post, Anne lays out six first chapter no-nos and explains why she writes the last chapter first.
- From Huh, what plot? to Where are we?, Ruth has suggested tips and fixes for first chapter blues.
That &$%# first draft.
Hemingway said, “All first drafts are shit.” However, you can’t fix, revise, rewrite, edit something that doesn’t exist.
Bottom line: no first draft, no book.
Hold your nose and type: getting the first draft done. Speed kills, or does it?
More thoughts on the maze of the first draft.
“I don’t fiddle or edit or change while I’m going through that first draft,” says Nora Roberts. She explains her process, says character is everything, and writes three or four drafts.
Editors, editing, revising.
- Ruth, a long-time editor, goes into the nitty-gritty of the editing process.
- Our guest, Jami Gold, Paranormal Author and star blogger, knows all about beta readers.
- Anne explains seven ways beta readers can help improve your book.
- Wanna DIY? Gurus explain the ins and outs of self-editing.
- NYTimes bestselling author, Jerry Jenkins, provides a 21 item check list.
From Trimalchio to The Great Gatsby. How to choose a title.
Sometimes the perfect title for your book is there from the beginning. Sometimes you have to name the baby. Here’s help:
- Anne drills down into the art and craft of choosing a title.
- Seven tips for finding the right title.
- The 101 best book titles.
- Author and friend-of-the-blog, Tara Sperling, explores book title generators.
Rules that DO work.
- Anne lays down the laws of the (Amazon) jungle—Eight Rules Authors Need to Know to Stay Safe
- You will be judged (harshly) on grammar and spelling. Spell check isn’t perfect, but it’s your friend. Grammarly will help, too
- Learn to keep a style sheet! Ruth explains how and why a style sheet will save your a$$.
- Avoid the mistakes that red-flag a newbie writer.
Mistakes, Misery and Surviving The Enemy:
- Anne confesses 10 mistakes she made so you don’t have to.
- Because she learned the hard way, Ruth tells writers how to survive Hard Knocks U.
- Ruth takes on rejection and lands a knockout punch.
- Anne gives some advice about how to get out of your own way, i.e. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.
- Anne’s writers’ enemy list takes names and kicks butt.
- Stress? Burnout? Ruth has some suggestions.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
“A SPECTACULAR, RICHLY PLOTTED NOVEL. Racing to a shocking climax, this glittering novel is first-class entertainment, a story of love and money, and how both are made, lost, and found again.” ...New York Times
EMERALD THEATRE 10-MINUTE PLAY CONTEST $10 ENTRY FEE. Theme: “That’s so gay.” A character must say the words, “That’s so gay.” Two to four characters. No children’s shows or musicals. Ten pages (10 minutes) max. Will be staged in strict “black box” style. $300 prize Deadline June 30, 2017
Haven Writers’ Retreat. “Come find your voice in the woods of Montana with New York Times best-selling author, Laura Munson, and find out why over 400 people say that Haven Writing Retreats changed their lives. Offering special discounts for readers of this blog for both June retreats. June 7-11, and June 21-25
New American Press Fiction Book Contest. A prize of $1,000 and publication by New American Press is given annually for a book of fiction. Lori Ostlund will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a collection of short stories or flash fiction, a novella, or a novel of at least 100 pages with a $25 entry fee by June 15.
20 Literary Journals that publish new writers. Compiled by the good folks at Authors Publish magazine.