This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jane Myers Perrine, author of THE WELCOME COMMITTEE OF BUTTERNUT CREEK) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
(Looking for a Christian agent for your inspirational book? See a list here.)
GIVEAWAY: Jane is excited to give away a free copy of her first novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).
Jane Myers Perrine has worked as a Spanish teacher, minister, cook, rifle instructor, program director in a state hospital, and been an active volunteer but she’s always wanted to write. She’s now writing a three-book series she loves about a young minister in a small town of Butternut Creek in the beautiful Hill Country of Texas. She likes small towns, warm, friendly people and humor. The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek, the first book in the series, published in April 2012. The Matchmakers of Butternut Creek, the sequel, was released in November 2012.
1. Don’t stick to one genre unless you sell in that genre immediately (actually, that “unless you sell” disclaimer should be added to all my comments). I love mysteries. I always think a dead body adds interest to a story. Sadly, I don’t write them well. My agent told me to try something else. I also tried fantasy but friends discouraged that as well.
“Those who know stuff” told me to stay in one category because editors would get to know who I was—from all the rejection letters I imagine—and I’d hone my craft. However, honing one’s craft in a type of literature one doesn’t write well or is being rejected constantly seems unproductive to me.
Very simply, if I’d taken this advice, I wouldn’t be published, wouldn’t be writing this three-book series for the wonderful people at FaithWords. I started writing sweet, traditional Regencies. At the time I was submitting, publishers in the traditional regency market were dying off, lines closing only days after I queried.
It took me time and a lot of false starts before I discovered I write stories about small towns best. I never would have known that if I hadn’t tried many different genres. Experiment!
2. Don’t stick to what you know. If we all wrote what we knew, there would be no paranormals or historical novels or murder mysteries. My friends who write this type of fiction have never killed anyone, as far as I know, or lived in an alternate universe or been reincarnated in a different century. They have great imaginations and read widely. With the internet, research is easier than ever. Do it!
(Should you sign with a new literary agent? Know the pros and cons.)
3. Stick to writing what you know. Yes, a contradiction but much of writing advice is contradictory. Often writing is both this and that.
My husband and I are both ordained ministers. We’ve served in churches in small towns and large. I know churches, church people, and small towns. One day, the opening of The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek came to me, the young, inexperienced minister heading into Butternut Creek in a tow truck, his car being pulled along behind. The novel didn’t immediately flow but I do know about churches and small towns and ministers so well that it came together fairly easily—for a novel.
But there are incidents and characters in that book I know nothing about. One of the main characters is an alcoholic Marine amputee with PTSD whose problems are way outside my experience. I did a great deal of research.
4. Find your voice. When I first started writing, I wrote what I read. My voice was boring because it wasn’t authentic. This wasn’t my voice. It belonged to those other authors. A friend read fifty pages of the novel I was working on. On page forty-two, she said, “There, Jane, that’s your voice.” I didn’t know what she meant. I didn’t realize I had a voice and my friend read forty-two pages before she identified it. Until you do find your voice—or voices—you won’t sell. Voice is what makes the novel uniquely yours. Who can’t tell the difference between a book by Kristin Higgins and one by C.J. Box?
What is your voice? How do you find it? You keep writing and learning.
Your voice won’t be the same in everything you write and during your entire writing life, but, whatever your voice is, it must be real, It has to be uniquely yours.
5. Don’t stick to that same old familiar novel you’ve been working on for years. Writing a novel is like dating. When I was dating, every time I broke up with a guy, I’d think, “Oh, no. I have to start all over.” We’re afraid if we break up—either a relationship or leaving a book behind to start another–nothing better will come along. For that reason, we cling to what isn’t working. Yes, you love the characters you created. They are so clever and the chemistry or suspense is so strong—but they aren’t real. You’ll find your true love but you must keep learning. That won’t happen in a book you’ve written and rewritten. At some time, you have to move on and find a new love.
6. Learn the craft. Most of us don’t sell our first novel. While I was still struggling to find my voice and write a book someone—anyone!—would buy, I went to every conference and workshop I could and took copious notes. Audio tapes helped me most. During my twenty-minute drives to and from work, I could listen to most of a tape on some phase of writing. I listened to the tapes so often I could quote sections. I learned by osmosis, my brain sucking in the information until I automatically used those tools in my writing. My writing improved.
Enter contests for feedback. Join a critique group. Take a class. Read a book or articles in a writers magazine that focus on your weak points. And, if or when you sell, keep learning.
7. When the book is finished, the conflict resolved, and all the threads tied up, stop.