Beth E - you are the winner of your brand spanking new copy of Talking to the Dead! You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your snail mail. Congrats!
I'm recently returned from a writer's conference - the second of three for me this year. This one was smaller than the first I attended (Mount Hermon, in California) and the focus was more on beginner writers.
I met with many fine folks at the conference and, after some time, certain themes appeared. I found myself giving the same advice over and over to different people. I'd like to share those words of advice here as a reminder and encouragement for new writers.
1. Read. Most people I met with didn't read broadly - those who did, didn't read like a writer. The first step to becoming a writer is to understand literature. This holds true regardless of the genre, fiction or non-fiction. Reading broadly expands your understanding of how literature works, the purposes it serves, and the nearly endlessly creative ways you can approach story telling once you understand it better. Novelist Jim Harrison gives this important advice: "Be totally familiar with the entirety of the western literary tradition. How can you write well unless you know what passes for the best; in the last three or four hundred years?"
Your creative worlds will open wider, and you will find more sure footing when you take the time (a lifetime, really) to understand the shoulders on which you stand.
2. Bones. This ties into the first point. Whenever I suggested to a new writer they should read inside their genre, I often heard a derivative of this response, "I don't like those books, that's why I want to write mine - it will actually be good!" Ouch.
Whether or not you "like" the contents of the books in your genre isn't the point. To read inside your genre should be a no-brainer, but, apparently, it isn't. So here is my advice - read inside your genre! It's not about content as much as it is about structure. I spoke to many people about their hopeful projects who didn't understand the mechanics of the genre they wanted to write in. This is getting to know the bones of a book. The scaffolding that holds up the content. How ideas are organized, focused, and layered. That sort of thing. Maybe you think the latest bestseller on parenting can't hold a candle to your project, but it's a good idea to study how it was put together - like it or not, it's selling well. Go find out why.
3. Be creative. The publishing world seems filled with rules. How to write a query letter. How to write a synopsis. How to hook your audience. How to explain your premise. How to craft your elevator pitch. How to approach an editor or agent. I met with many anxious writer-wannabes who were tied in knots over getting all the rules correct. So anxious, in fact, it dammed off their creative funkiness. They were so preoccupied with getting it "right" they forgot about great writing, amazing premise, and bang on creativity. While it is important to understand the language of ideas within publishing (proposals), it is even more important to fully unleash your creative talents and abilities in order to craft irresistible fiction. Being amazing is better than being technically correct.
4. Message driven fiction is boring. All fiction is spiritual in nature. It all points to something bigger than ourselves. When writing Christian fiction, it's important to focus on the story - not the moral of the story. Don't write a novel about redemption. Write a novel about characters who live and breath and experience redemption in a powerful way. Get out of the way of your story. Take your message and put it where it belongs - implicitly inside the movement of the story. This is the truest meaning of "show, don't tell". Show me a novel about redemption by taking me on a journey that highlights the complexity of humans in contact with grace. Plumb the unreasonable depths of humanity with your story. Let that be your focus.
5. All fiction is about the human condition. Several people I spoke to were interested in writing sci-fi and fantasy. Each felt that because the genres are "other worldly" it was impossible to focus the books on the human experience. They weren't writing about humans, after all. One dear soul said, "I'm writing about faeries - and the worlds they inhabit." My response is, "Faeries don't buy books." I am not a ravenous fantasy/sci-fi reader, but I've read enough to know that these genres arent' just about the human experience, but the best ones are the human experience stripped to it's barest elements.
6. Being a writer presupposes self-understanding. We don't have to be Carl Rogers. We don't have to have "self-actualized" - but writers have a good grasp of their own identity, and empathy for the human condition. Writers need to be about to understand the human condition through the kaleidoscope of experience. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Writers look on all of it with unblinking, caring eyes. We listen long and hard to the voices that are different from our own, to the cultures and sub-cultures that we don't understand and are not a part of in order to add to our knowledge and compassion for people.
Time, dedication, and respect for the craft work together to make you a wonderful writer. I hope these reminders encourage you today.
I bid you good writing.