Christina Cole Romance

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Advice to Aspiring Authors – Ten Tips

As a published author, I’m often asked to give advice about the art and craft of writing. When I make guest appearances or do interviews, one of the questions I hear frequently is “What one piece of advice would you give an aspiring author?” I’m also an active participant in the Lovestory romance group at the Internet Writing Workshop, offering critiques on romances from all genres.

I’ve been writing for many years — fiction, non-fiction, and poetry — and over those years, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, Mistakes, of course, can be useful if we’re willing to look at the problems and learn from what we’ve done wrong.

I’ve learned, too, from authors and editors, from writing instructors, classes, workshops, textbooks, and of course, from readers.

Whenever I hear questions about giving advice to aspiring authors, I can draw upon a great deal of personal experience. The challenge in the question is choosing only one bit of advice. There are so many things I wish I’d known when I first began seriously writing for publication.

Today, I’m gathering up a collection of what I consider the most important lessons I’ve learned about writing, not only about the writing process itself, but about the industry, and about what it means to be a writer today. I’m presenting my thoughts in no specific order.

As I point out when doing critiques, what you’re reading here is opinion. Maybe you’ll find some of my remarks helpful, or maybe not. Please take what is useful and toss the rest in the trash.

MY ADVICE TO ASPIRING ROMANCE AUTHORS

  1. Learn the fundamentals of the language. Words are your tools. Knowing how to use them correctly is essential. A carpenter can’t build a house without knowing how to hammer a nail. As an author you need to know how to use words correctly, how to construct a sentence, how to punctuate. Grammar is important. So is spelling. If your skills are weak, check out resources that are available to help. You’ll find websites devoted to grammar. You can also check out books from your local library or attend classes. Don’t shrug it off and say “Oh, I’ll just have an editor fix it for me.” If you want to be a writer — and get paid for writing — you have to first master basic language skills.
  2. Write what is meaningful to you. If, like me, you love historical romances, don’t jump headlong into writing erotic paranormals just because somebody says they’re selling. Don’t push yourself to write what’s “popular”. The romance world is huge. There’s room for every kind of story, from the innocence of young love to scorching hot erotica. Write what you enjoy reading. Create characters you’d like to spend time with. Write with your heart.
  3. Don’t expect to be an overnight success, and don’t set unrealistic expectations. Whether you self-publish your novels or have your stories accepted by a publisher, you’ll still need to build a readership. It takes time. It takes effort, too. Writers often complain that “I want to write, not promote.” Many of us feel that way, but the simple truth is, the market is saturated. Thousands of books are being published each week. If you want your book to be noticed, purchased, and read, you’ll have to work hard to make it happen. Even then, there are no guarantees of success. Always remember that old adage about loving what you do. If you don’t love writing, if you’re not willing to invest long hours for little return, if you don’t have patience and persistence, you won’t make it as a writer today. Blunt? Yes. True? Yes.
  4. Support your fellow authors. Join writers’ groups. Get to know other authors, especially those who write in the same genre as you. Promote their stories with the same enthusiasm you would your own. When your work is ready to publish, they’ll be glad to help get the word out about your writing. Other authors can help you find potential publishers, answer questions about the business, and introduce you to prospective readers.
  5. Write the best book you can. This goes along somewhat with #1 — learning how to use the language. It goes far beyond the basics of grammar and spelling, however. Learn the techniques for writing good fiction. Read up on characterization, plotting, story structure. Ask other writers to recommend books they’ve found helpful. Check out every book your library has on how to improve your writing. Practice. Practice. Practice. Always keep learning.
  6. Read. This is a simple one. The more you read, the better your writing will be. Read books from the genre in which you’re writing, but also read outside your genre. Expose yourself to classic literature. Read poetry. Read essays.
  7. Make your characters miserable. Happy characters are boring characters. Put your hero and heroine into difficult situations. Challenge them. Force them to make painful decisions. When things are all “hunky-dory” for fictional characters, readers have no reason to turn the page. It’s when things go wrong that readers are hanging on to every word, eager to see how the characters will overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they face.
  8. Don’t forget to set the stage. Too many times a scene devolves into little more than “talking heads”, one line of dialogue following another. While the exchange might be interesting, it’s not enough to draw a reader in. Readers need to see what’s going on and where it’s happening. Good scenes include information on when and where the events are taking place, the locations and movements of the characters involved, the lighting, the temperature, and a wealth of other sensory details.
  9. Understand POV. That’s Point of View. You can also call it character perspective. Most traditional romance novels use the 3rd person limited point of view with scenes written from both the male and female perspective. That doesn’t mean you can’t use another POV, but if you do, be sure you’re using it correctly.  Above all, avoid “head-hopping”. Don’t say “famous authors do it all the time.” No, they don’t. They may use multiple points of view. They may change points of view in the middle of a scene.  They know how to do it without disrupting the flow of the story.
  10. Stop trying to sound like a writer. Sometimes the simplest way is the best way. Strive for clarity above all else. A reader can’t enjoy your story if she can’t understand your meaning. Stop trying so hard to be unique and concentrate instead on communicating your thoughts. That’s what telling a good story is really all about.

 

10 Tips

So, there you have it. Ten tips for aspiring writers, culled from my personal experiences as a reader, a “critter”, and a romance author.

Are these the top ten tips of all-time? Probably not. If you asked me tomorrow for ten tips, you might get ten totally different ones. I do hope you might find something of value in these tips. I hope, too, that you’ll share a few writing tips of your own.

WHAT’S THE BEST WRITING ADVICE YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN?

 

 

 


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What Do You Want?

One bit of advice I was given about writing

was to post a sign on the wall above my desk asking:

What does your character want?

The next bit of advice was, whatever your character wants, don’t let him have it.

No, I don’t actually have such a sign hanging up in MLWR (My Little Writing Room), but the idea behind it is solid. Good stories are built from conflict, and the two essential conflicts we all face in life are:

  • We have something we don’t want
  • We want something we don’t have

Learning to make a character miserable is one of the key principles for fiction-writing, but I’m not actually here today to write about my stories.

I’m here to answer another question from my handy-dandy little “Question and Answer” book.  Yes, it’s a question about what I want. When I read it, I felt a bit like a character in one of my novels, someone who’s being denied something I desire.

The question in full reads:

What was something you wanted today, but couldn’t have?

I find that a very awkward question since it’s not yet even 9:00 AM. Maybe the book is meant to be read at night. For me, it works better at the start of the day, so I’ll have to tweak this one a bit to make it work.

I could look back at yesterday. Was there something I wanted but couldn’t have? Maybe, but I can’t think of anything at the moment.

What about this morning? Have I wanted something I haven’t been able to get? Again, I’m sitting here staring off into the distance, unable to think of an answer.

Do I lead a charmed life? Do I have everything I want? No, of course not. I do, however, lead a very contented life. I’m happy with what I have.  I’m reminded of another sign I’ve often seen. I don’t have one of these hanging on the wall either, but maybe I should.

happiness-quotes-16

I do believe this is true. Life offers so many beautiful moments for us to enjoy, so many treasures to experience.  Our world gives us blue skies, rainy mornings, gorgeous flowers, briliantly-plumed birds. We can laugh at the antics of playful puppies, curious kittens, new-born foals. We can know the love of tenderness of family and friends, and can be touched by random acts of kindness from others.  What more could we want than what we’re given?

Oh…I can think of a few things. I’m sure you can, too.

I wish I could snap my fingers and my messy house would instantly be in perfect order. I wouldn’t mind having a few more dollars in my bank accounts, and sure, I’d love to make the NY Times best-seller list.

If I had unlimited funds, I’d renew my subscription to Strategy and Tacticsa war-gaming magazine that I thoroughly enjoy but which is a bit pricey. I’d buy a lot more books, too. I’d make generous donations to my favorite charities and organizations, including Reach Out and ReadThe Cat House on the Kings, and the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.

If money were no object, I’d probably splurge and buy myself lots of fancy kitchen gadgets, and I’d probably go crazy buying bath towels, bed sheets, candles, and oils. Yeah, there are lots of things I’d enjoy, but I see them as little luxuries, not necessities for a happy life.

Maybe as the day unfolds, I’ll think of something I might want…but can’t have. Right now, I can’t imagine what it might be. Unless…

Aha! I’ve got it. What I wanted this morning but couldn’t get was an answer to this question!

 


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Listen!

I saw a memorable little quote earlier while browsing around.

Listen

 

 

If you’re like me, the first thing you’ll do, of course, is glance at the letters and see that it’s true. Both words do, indeed, share the same six letters.  The second thing you might do is reflect for a moment on how important it is to remain SILENT and LISTEN to what others are saying.

Most of us, I’ve been told, don’t really listen to what others are saying because we’re too busy thinking about what we’re going to say next. I know from my own experience, that’s very true.

Learning to listen is a valuable skill for any individual in any field. It’s especially critical for authors who hope to create “realistic” dialogue. But…keep in mind, there’s a big difference between “realistic” and “real”.

The dialogue we write, the words we put into the mouths of our characters, serves many different purposes. It should move the story forward, provide information, show conflict, and reveal aspects of a character’s personality. Dialogue can also be used to establish setting, and to give insight into motivation. When contrasted with a character’s thoughts, dialogue can show hidden conflicts that will keep a reader turning the pages.

What dialogue shouldn’t do in a novel is waste the reader’s time. Yes, our real life speech is filled with meaningless garble, routine “how-do-you-do’s”, idle filler, and small talk.  Exchanging pleasantries is part of the human experience when we meet, greet, and interact with others. We don’t need all the pleasantries in fiction-writing, though.

An excellent tip for writing dialogue is to READ IT ALOUD. Better yet, ask someone else to READ IT ALOUD to you while you keep silent and listen. 

As you go about your day today, make it a point to listen to conversations around you. Notice the different qualities of speech, the tone of voice, the tempo, the rhythm. Describe the voices you hear. Are they harsh? Nervous? Authoritative?  Consider the differences you hear in vocabulary, speech patterns, and grammar.  What about the speaker’s attitude? How is that reflected in the words they speak?

An excellent writing exercise is to sit down at your desk at the end of the day and create a fictionalized account of a conversation you had with someone. Can you re-create their way of speaking and give them a truly distinct voice?

The ability to write good dialogue is a skill that can be developed. It begins with listening.