Friday, July 30, 2010

Kaye's Top Ten Writing Tips

Week One of:

Tips from those who have gone before us

By: Kaye Dacus

Huge thanks to Krista for inviting me to guest post in her spot while she’s on maternity leave (and many prayers for the Phillips family).

Krista asked me to share some of my favorite writing tips that I’ve learned over the years, so here are my Top Ten Writing Tips that I’ve learned over the years, through the seven years I spent learning the craft and honing my skill as a writer and the last two years since becoming a published author.

10. YOU are your best source of motivation.

No matter how many writing groups you join, no matter how active you are in them, no matter how many blogs you write and read and comment on, no matter how many writers’ forums you participate in, when it comes down to it, writing is a solitary venture. Unless you put YOUR butt in YOUR chair and start committing words to paper (whether electronic or wood pulp), your story will not get written. Even if you don’t “feel like” writing today, do it anyway. Don’t give in to the temptation to double-up on word count tomorrow. Sure, you may find that you’re writing drivel that you’re eventually going to edit out in a future revision—but more often than not, you’ll find that once you make yourself sit down and do the work, the inspiration will come.
“You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.” (from The Music Man)

9. Write your passion—but keep an eye on the market.

This is a hard balancing act. Are you seeking merely to be published and chasing the market, or are you looking to tell the story that’s on your heart? Is there a way to do both? Yes. But one takes much longer than the other. If you have a good grasp of the market, of what’s selling, and you can write in a genre that’s selling—write from the heart, not just “knock something out”—and you have a good grasp of the craft of writing and storytelling, you’ll probably find success a lot sooner than someone who’s truly writing the story of her heart. “Heart stories” are typically those that don’t fall neatly into any existing publishing category. They’re not always easy to market. But if you hone your craft in addition to writing the best story you can, you may eventually be able to sell it. What you shouldn’t do, though, is choose to write a certain genre because you’ve been led to believe that it’s the “shoo-in” genre or one that’s easier to get published or easier to market. You must believe in what you’re writing.

“The artist, like the child, is a good believer. The depth and strength of the belief is reflected in the work; if the artist does not believe, then no one else will; no amount of technique will make the responder see the truth in something the artist knows to be phony.” (Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water)

8. Write for you first. Edit for others later.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had so many conversations or read e-mails from multi-published authors, of whose talents I stand in awe, who say they are sure that with every manuscript they turn in, it’s the worst one they’ve ever written and will be the one that ends their career. So, you see, those fears and doubts never go away.

So allow yourself to write stinky prose. Allow yourself to write info dumps. Allow yourself to use clichés and ignore punctuation and write scenes of dialogue with only he-said/she-said attributions. Allow yourself to draw _______________ blank lines in places where you need to research something or you can’t think of the right word. Write longhand and scribble things out and ignore the margins.

It can all be fixed later.

“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it . . . If one of the characters wants to say, ‘Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?’ you let her.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird)

7. Make lists.

Something every successful con artist or pathological liar knows—you have to keep track of the details; you have to know whom you told what and when. Since those of us who call ourselves writers know that what we’re doing is basically telling lies for fun and fortune (okay, maybe not so much fortune as farthings), we need to remember what we’ve made up. So write it down. Explore software like Scrivner (for Mac) and Microsoft One Note (for PC). Buy a new spiral notebook or journal book for each new project. Put sticky notes up all over your walls. But, for goodness’s sake, write it down.

6. Don’t think, just write.

Try to shut off the left side of your brain when writing. When you’re writing you want to tap into your creativity—the right side of the brain. The more we learn about craft, the harder it gets to write. That’s because learning about craft strengthens the left side of the brain. And that’s a good thing. Really, it is—except for when you’re trying actually trying to create.
“When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.” (Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water)

5. Story trumps craft.

My local writing group has adopted a line from Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean when it comes to the “rules” of writing: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” It doesn’t matter how many writing how-to books you memorize and how skillfully you apply the rules you’ve learned from them—if you don’t have a good story, none of the rest of it matters. Yes, the guidelines of good writing are important, but don’t let your story get lost in an attempt to “follow the rules.”

Does that mean you can ignore all of the guidelines about showing vs. telling, Limited Third Person POV, using active rather than passive language, varying sentence structures, eliminating as many adverbs as possible, not using embellished dialogue tags? NO, of course not. Just like a contractor needs an architect’s blueprints to go by BEFORE building a house, you need to learn the guidelines of good writing and current accepted style before you’ll be able to express your story in writing well. So do study the craft. Just think of the guidelines as a shepherd’s crook guiding you to a wide-open, grassy meadow rather than a dogcatcher’s tight leash dragging you toward a cage.

The storyteller knows that success in writing is the intangible thread that connects the reader’s and writer’s hearts through the written word.

4. Read five published novels in your genre for every one craft book you read.

So many writers, especially new writers, get caught up in “learning the craft” and they lose sight of “writing.” You can learn more from critical reading of published novels (breaking them apart, learning how/why they work or don’t work) than you’ll ever learn from reading a how-to book.

While it’s great to read books from throughout the ages, from classics to dime novels of the late 19th/early 20th century to mid-century pulp novels to 1990s experimental fiction, it’s very important to make sure you’re reading new releases in your genre and from the publishers you’re targeting—it’s called market research (thus, you can write those purchases off come tax time!) and it’s something every writer and published author needs to do. It keeps us abreast of current trends, current styles, and what non-writing readers are out there enjoying.

3. Start something new.

To help you clear your mind of the manuscript you just finished, one of the best things you can do is start working on another story. It may not be writing—it may be collecting images of characters and settings, doing research of the time period or of the careers you want these characters to have. It may be meeting with your critique/accountability partners and brainstorming story ideas. It may be reading books you’ve determined are similar to or will give you ideas for your new idea. The important thing is to move on to something new as soon as possible. Write something new.

Don’t make the assumption that finishing one or two manuscripts is going to give you the skill-set you need to become a professional author—when being a professional author requires one to be able to churn out multiple manuscripts, one after the other after the other. For example—with three books to write each year I have, at best, four months to write each one. This year, because of due dates, I’ve only had a little more than two months for my two contemporary novels. I couldn’t do that if I hadn’t trained myself to immediately start something new upon finishing a manuscript before I was published.

By writing multiple manuscripts before you’re published, not only are you honing your skill at the craft of writing, you’re doing your internship at being a professional author.

2. Put your manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can after you finish the first draft.

You want to forget as much as possible about it before you start revisions—that way, you can be more objective about it. When we’re in the midst of writing a manuscript, we’re so close to it, we can’t see misused or missing words. We can’t see where we’ve used telling language instead of showing. We can’t see info dumps or excessive explanation or description. It isn’t until we’ve cleared the manuscript from our minds, until we’ve allowed ourselves to move on to something else for a little while, that we can begin to see the things that need to be addressed.

The easiest way to burn out on a story—or to completely ruin it—is to smother it with attention as soon as it’s finished. Give it some breathing room. Clear your mind. Start something new. Work on other non-writing projects. Then, after a few weeks or even a few months, come back to it, and you’ll be amazed at how much more objective you are about your own writing.


Don’t stress out about perfecting your opening hook before you have your entire story written—because until you get to the end, you don’t really know what your story is about, no matter how detailed your outline/synopsis is. It’s all well and good if you can write great openings, three to five great chapters. It’s fantastic if you can win contests with them. But if you never actually finish a manuscript, winning contests is all you’re ever going to be able to do.

How will you know if a story has enough plot, enough conflict, to sustain an entire 80–100,000-word novel unless you write the whole thing? The only way you learn how to write a novel is by writing a novel. You’ll never be a professional author if all you ever write are snippets and snatches and opening chapters.

“Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other. Some writers tinker over their words endlessly, perhaps fearing the end result. It might stink.

Yes, it might. But it’s the only way you’re going to get better.
Finish your novel." (James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers)

Kaye Dacus is the author of the Brides of Bonneterre and Matchmakers series for Barbour Publishing and The Ransome Trilogy for Harvest House Publishers. She holds a Master of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and is a former Vice President and long-time member of American Christian Fiction Writers. A Louisiana native, she now calls Nashville, Tennessee, home. She is currently celebrating the release of her two latest titles: Love Remains (Book 1 of the Matchmakers series from Barbour) and Ransome’s Crossing (Book 2 of the Ransome Trilogy from Harvest House). To learn more about Kaye and her books, visit her online at


Diane said...

Excellent points, each one. Thank you for the encouragement! :O)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

OH MY GOODNESS! This is one of the best posts on writing advice I've read. Seriously. This is one of those posts you print out and read over and over. It's things that need to be ingrained in our brains. EXCELLENT!

I love what you say about reading 5 books for every 1 craft book. LOVE that! It's amazing how I analyze the novels I read, whether good or bad. One thing I really haven't done is read from publishers I am considering targeting. (Well, I haven't really gotten that far in my journey...need a few more books under my belt, but someday I will definitely do it.)

Thanks again for an incredible post.

Mia said...

Thank you so much for this post, Kaye! I agree with Sherrinda; this is something you print out and linger over.

#1 is the thing I'm struggling with right now. I've finished books before, but I'm having a hard time with this particular manuscript. Oh, well. One day at a time :)

Casey said...

I TOTALLY agree with Sherrinda, Kaye this is great and so to the point. Just what I needed, I loved it all and just reinforces some of what I have already been doing. Thank you for being here today!

Jason said...

Kaye = Brilliant.

Pepper said...

Everyone else already beat me to telling you -but this is awesome information. Thanks so much for sharing it. It's encouraging and a kick-in-the-pants all at the same time :-)

#1 is vitally important, and something I find difficult to do. I have SOOO many ideas, it's easy to get distracted by another set of characters who seem so appealing :-)

I think author Mary Connealy once said, "the sign of a true novelist is someone who actually finished a book" LOL. If she didn't say it, it sounds very much like something she would say ;-)

So many stort little time.
Thanks for this timely and poignant post, Kaye. As always, your words are thoughtful

Kaye Dacus said...

Mary Connealy is someone I cite when I talk more in depth about finishing multiple manuscripts prior to getting contracted/published as the way to train to become a multi-published author. Mary had about 20 finished manuscripts before she got her first contract. I believe on her website, she says that the year she got that first contract, five or six different manuscripts of hers finaled in or won contests. Talk about an "apprenticeship"!

I didn't really start learning what I needed to know to become a professional author until I was thirty years old. I love being able to share tips and advice like this so that others don't have to wait as long as I did to discover the joy I've found in my writing journey since then.

Mary Curry said...

Really wonderful post, Kaye. I just read this tweet from an agent at RWA:

Definition of "hope" = just met an author who shopped manuscripts for 15 YEARS! This year - sold nine books.

Paul said...

Great post!! It's really all inclusive. Thanks!