At the awards ceremony, I had the good fortune to share a table with Alan Schleimer and we chatted about our respective writing careers. I found his story fascinating and invited him share with Seekerville. Enjoy!
Quick note: Alan plans on visiting in Seekerville as much as possible. His wife is ill and her comfort is most important. Your prayers are appreciated!!
My Rookie Season: Three Lessons from the Road to Being Published
Welcome to today’s topic: The top 147 inviolable rules to remember simultaneously while being creative. Why are you staring at your computer screen like that? Sure, you’ve never heard it put that way before, but isn’t that what we have to do? To paraphrase the perennially inept secret agent Maxwell Smart, “Is 147 too many, Chief? How about 87? Would you believe 27?”
I think writing is like learning to drive. At first, we have to monitor our mirrors plus the speedometer, while also keeping our eyes on the road “at all times.” Obviously, something has to give, but without the benefit of experience, how do you know which? The good news is if you make a mistake writing, you won’t run into any brick walls. At least not literally. If you focus on 147 things, you haven’t concentrated on any. So what is really important in the process of becoming a published writer? What is most important to concentrate on, and what can wait as we mature?
To answer those questions, I’ve boiled down those 147 rules (I didn’t really count them) to three lessons.
Lesson 1: Don’t rush it. Consider it an eleventh commandment to get the storyline right. Invent your story like you would pass a police car; take it slow. Don’t settle for the first idea. It takes a long time to write a book. Why spend all that time on a rushed, flawed, uninspiring concept? I’ve read some mediocre books by some of my favorite authors. Readers will cut an established writer some slack, but most of us don’t have that luxury. How do you know when the story’s main concept is outstanding? When you give a short pitch to someone, and they say, Wow—I want to read that book. It’s what’s called a high-concept. Without it we’ll struggle to get the book query read.
Like the story’s concept, don’t rush the story’s development. You started with a great idea, let it percolate before you commit to writing. You can’t be creative trying to implement all 147 rules. Leave them for the editing stage. Even then, you don’t have to do one hundred plus things at once because you can make multiple passes. I battle the tendency to scrub everything squeaky clean in the first draft of a scene. The trouble comes later when you have to shoehorn in a truly cool idea into scenes that were already polished. It wastes time. So don’t rush into editing, and don’t accept the first ho-hum storyline that comes to mind.
Surprise even your characters, and they’ll surprise your readers. Don’t rush your development as a writer. I’m going to cover ways to do this below, but accept the fact that perfecting your skills will not happen overnight. Even the highest high-concept storyline has to be well written. Convince yourself that if you aren’t ready to write your story superbly yet, then developing it at a snail’s pace isn’t a problem. The corollary is: don’t rush your submission.
One final thought on not rushing it. Don’t let negative thoughts get you down and force you into accepting mediocrity for the sake of time. Psychologists call it negative self-talk. When you hear yourself whining something like: I’m too slow, or I stink at this, or worse. Challenge those thoughts as if they came from someone you don’t like very much. I know. I know. We are supposed to love everybody, but you wouldn’t accept their grossly generalized negative opinion of your writing, right? You’d prove them wrong. So find evidence of a brilliant sentence or paragraph or scene and present it to yourself. Keep a positive attitude.
Lesson 2: Soak up all the help you can (afford) and use it. Let’s start with criticism, since I appeared to have belittled that just above. I didn’t condemn all critiques. Generalized negativity is less than useless, but pinpointing specific needs give us areas to concentrate on. We all have weaknesses requiring work, but they are hard to find on our own. Join a critique group or get a partner or ask a friend to read your scenes. Personally I like group critiques where multiple people comment on the same passage. It’s amazing how many times, what one person loves, another will tear apart. Your job is to take all their comments to heart and evaluate their applicability. There is typically a kernel of wisdom in every comment you receive. My rule of thumb is the more the critique pains me, the more it is probably on target. Another avenue is contests. Get your work out there, and get your ego bruised. The ACFW has contests where each submission gets feedback. It’s inexpensive and invaluable.
Speaking of cost, some instruction can be acquired for as little as the price of a book. There are great craft books on every aspect of writing. Get some recommendations and pick a book based on your greatest need whether it’s plot, structure, flat dialogue, or cardboard characters. Devour craft books in detail, but don’t just read them. Pick a few favorite novels in your genre and analyze those books against the instructions from the craft book. I have done spreadsheets analyzing every scene in novels looking for the advice I found in craft books. But don’t stop there either. Now analyze your wip, and apply what you learned. Here’s an example. One book on craft described a scene as having three critical jobs. I re-read a favorite book and listed each scene, then wrote out exactly how the author did each of those three things for every scene. I really learned a lot doing that. It can be done with movies, too. Watch a scene, pause the DVD, then make notes.
Finally, there’s the big kahuna of learning. Be sure to attend a respected conference (or two or three or more over time). They will speed up your development in innumerable ways. Yeah, they’re expensive, but you get to ask questions in the seminars. Most books on craft don’t give us that opportunity. At least not yet. And here’s a tip on picking sessions to attend. Obviously you want to listen to the topics of your greatest need geared to your level of proficiency, but you will always learn more from the person who is the better teacher. Gifted teachers have a way of imparting wisdom with every word, even if you’ve heard it before. Also, choose conferences that provide exposure to editors and agents. When they recognize you have been putting in the time and treasure to learn, they’re more apt to read your material. Even if your writing isn’t ready in their opinion, if you handle yourself professionally in their presence, there is a high chance you will make a potential friend who will follow your improvement over time. Remember don’t rush it?
Two more things on conferences; if you can’t go, buy selected CDs of the sessions. And then schedule listening time. If you do attend a conference, take advantage of what the ACFW calls a Paid Critique. I submitted work three times to seasoned pros, and aside from receiving excellent advice during the critique meeting, check out what else happened. The first became a good friend and is a super encourager. The second insisted an agent read my submission. A few months later, I signed with that agent. The third Paid Critique occurred after I received a contract, but the critiquer forced her editor at a major house to read my twenty-page submission for future reference. That’s the power of networking at conferences.
My third lesson is: Make it count. That could be said about paid critiques, conferences and everything else I’ve listed so far, but here I mean every page, every scene, every character. I’ll explain with an example that demonstrates making every character and scene count, the sin of rushing it, and the importance of critique groups. You have probably heard that you need an objective for every scene. (It’s one of the 147 rules.) I don’t think that is complete. My advice is every character needs an objective in every scene. Here’s how I learned that. In my current book, I have a scene where my objective was to have a major character (Sarah, a cop) transferred to another case so she’d meet the hero.
I wrote the scene pretty fast because I knew exactly where I wanted it to go. I submitted the scene at a group critique and three of four people said it was nicely written. All the grammar was correct, the description achieved a nice balance, and the dialogue was snappy. I was happy because my objective for the scene was met; Sarah was transferred to the right case. However, one lady in the group said, “Sarah gave in kind of easy. I think she’d have fought harder to stay on her previous case.” My first reaction was 3 out of four liked it. But then I realized the fourth critique person was right. See, Sarah’s fiancé was killed on that original case, and she’d worked unsuccessfully all weekend without sleep to catch the killer. Sarah’s objective would be to stay on that case no matter what. I rewrote the scene making her resist harder, and also strengthened her boss’s conflicting motivation to reassign her. The scene sizzled with tension. It made her character and that scene count.
So don’t rush over speed bumps, listen to your GPS, and make every gallon count.
Make sure you leave a comment today. Alan is offering an E-copy of his debut book, The Q Manifesto. Check out the Weekend Edition for the winner!
Bio Alan Schleimer writes suspense thrillers. His debut novel is the first in the Ezra Chronicles series and features former Wall Street whiz-kid and desert survivalist Jay Hunt. The Q Manifesto is an ACFW Genesis winner and was selected the #1 inspirational novel for 2012 by Daily Cheap Reads. Graced with expert writing advice from today’s top Christian Fiction writers, The Q Manifesto weaves a spell-binding plot around the ultimate what-if question. Alan believes good stories entertain, but great stories can change lives. He strives to only tell great stories. A former analyst, commodity trader, and entrepreneur, Alan infuses his high-stakes fiction with real world implications. Like an actor who does his own stunts, he has studied martial arts, finance, police work, and the divine source of all truth. He is married and lives in Houston.
The Q Manifesto Disenchanted with his profession, Jay Hunt gave up a lucrative Wall Street career to become a backcountry tour guide. Soon after, an ancient manuscript is uncovered that reveals the Gospels were an orchestrated fiction written by a first-century sect at Qumran. Though its revelation stuns the world, Jay ignores it until his father, a retired Dead Sea Scrolls expert, gets in over his head investigating the scroll. Suspicious of numerous accidents, Jay follows a trail of clues that uncovers evidence of a grand plot that will tip the balance of world power. Marked for death by unknown assailants, Jay soon learns that the world’s only chance to survive Armageddon depends on him deciphering cryptic messages in his quest for the truth.
An award-winning thriller that sprints from Arizona to Jerusalem, Paris to the Caribbean, and Houston to Amman. Your fingernails don’t stand a chance.
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