Monday, July 26, 2010

Take Your Writing to the Next Level

Learning to write fiction well is a process. There are so many details of grammar and style that trying to learn them all at once is overwhelming. Instead, consider it an ongoing “continuing education” class. No matter where you are in the process, there’s always something else you can learn or perfect.

LEVEL 1: The first step in taking your writing to the next level is to get your writing out there—let others read it. By that, I mean other writers. Friends and family can give you reader feedback, but they can’t give you the specifics about what you’re doing right and wrong.

The best place to get feedback when you’re beginning to write is a critique group (either local or on-line). I can’t say enough about how much they can offer. My first critique group practically taught me fiction style from the ground up. It was tough getting critiques back with all kinds of color marking errors and denoting long comments. But I took their teaching to heart and began applying it. It took a while—and many more tough critiques—but eventually they went from pointing out basic errors to asking me when I’d be sending the next chapter because they couldn’t wait to read more.

At this level, it’s also a good idea to read as many books on the craft of writing as you can get your hands on. Joining writing groups (both local and on-line) is also beneficial. There is a great wealth of knowledge available through other writers. Soak it up like a sponge!

LEVEL 2: When I reached a level where other writers began to enjoy my writing, that didn’t mean I had “arrived.” I still had much more to learn. I had another major revision to go through, along with some tweaking and a several complete rewrites of the first two chapters before my writing was good enough to catch the eye of an agent. During this time, the feedback from my critique group was still extremely important. Instead of pointing out basic stylistic and grammatical errors, however, they focused on deeper issues: goal/motivation/conflict, deep POV, motivation-reaction units, and character development, among others.

At this intermediate level, it’s also good to enter some contests to get feedback from professionals. It’s also an excellent time to find a mentor or hire a professional to critique your work. Either option connects you to someone who can help you navigate through these deeper issues.

LEVEL 3: Getting an agent is an awesome accomplishment, but isn’t the top level…neither is publishing your first book. There’s still more to learn. We need to work on the issues where we know we’re weak. We can polish our voice and our style. And anyone who has ever worked with an editor knows that they almost always suggest changes that will make your
novel even better. Learn from them and apply these lessons to your future novels.

Even at this level, being a part of a critique group or having several trusted critique partners can be very valuable. There are also a variety of editorial services available to help you polish your manuscript.

LEVEL 4: Even multi-published authors need to be open to learning. It never hurts to review the basics. A good way to do this is to work with newer authors in some way. Mentoring or critiquing or teaching are good options. It helps keeps you sharp. Also, the publishing industry is constantly changing. Styles come and go, and writers need to be aware of what the current trend is. If you’ve always written with omniscient POV, but the industry is moving towards third-person POV, you might find yourself left behind if you’re not willing to continue learning and growing.

AT ALL LEVELS there are good courses available. Most are short-term and focus on only one issue at a time, which makes them easier to digest. Attending writing conferences is also something good to do no matter what level you’re at. There’s something for everyone at these conferences. The key, no matter what level you’re at, is a willingness to keep learning.

Suzanne Hartmann is the author of the pre-published books, THE RACE THAT LIES BEFORE US and DISAPPEARING MOM. She is an editor with Port Yonder Press and offers her own critique service. She also blogs about the craft of writing at:

Thanks, Suzanne, for guest blogging today!

Until next time,


Victor Travison said...

I know I learn more from gentle critiques than from harsh ones. The harsh ones I figure they have some kind of ax to grind, but a gentle critique makes me think they care about the quality of my work.

Therefore, when I'm on the critiquing end, I follow my own advice (the same as Suz's advice). I try to say as many good things I can about it before I point out the flaws. Just remember, with any critique, this is only the opinion of one person. Usually when more than one spot the same error, it's definitely time to rewrite.

~ VT

Tracy Krauss said...

This was some excellent advice. It is very hard to swallow criticism, but it is absolutley essential if we are to move forward as writers!

Suzanne said...

There is SO much to learn in writing, but following the advice of those with more experience is an excellent way to cut a few corners. Better yet, when we learn through critiques of our own work rather than through generic exercises, the lessons stick better.

Victor Travison said...

Those would-be authors who can't take criticism are those who never get published. Maybe it's not the only reason, but a big one.

I once tried to read someone's story, with alien characters containing lots of consonants, especially Q's, X's, and Z's. When I told him he needed to use simpler names to pronounce, he got all offended, saying something like "That's the way it is on another planet." But since he's writing for THIS planet, stories like this won't sell.

~ VT

Linda Yezak said...

Great points, Suz! I don't think anyone totally masters the art of writing. Like you said, even multi-pubbed authors can and do learn more.

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