writing advice

Six Critical Insights From a Book Coach

Common habits of new writers that are unhelpful to their growth.

Part 1 of the GREATER THAN series.

"If you want to master something, teach it."

In order to explain something to a beginner, you have to understanding it completely. Being a book coach gives me precisely that insight. In order to guide others through writing a novel, I have to understand each property, how it functions, and—most importantly—how they work together.

That’s truly the hardest partjuggling all those aspects at the same time while you’re drafting. But I do it daily, with multiple stories at a time. Stories that weren’t conjured in my brain. Which is what allows me to see through the intoxicating miasma of creativity, and into the workings of the machine itself.

Often, the first thing we need to do is get the bugs out. This comes before we go further into the actual writing, or else they can become blockages. There are several bad habits clients tend to come in with and I try and address these things immediately.

Observing these habits in yourself and working to correct them will give you a head start amidst writers who aren’t even seeking help yet.

These are the common practices I try to undo in writers:

1.) They need the most story help on the front end.

The majority of the time, when a new client comes to me with an already-completed draft of their novel, it’s a rewrite. And nobody likes that. They don’t like having to hear it, and I don’t like having to tell them. It’s a lot of work and can be quite discouraging.

The reason this happens is that by the time you get to 85,000 words, any issues or bad habits are deeply ingrained in the story. It’s not usually as easy as plucking them out or revising a few scenes. It comes down to a fundamental understanding of key story elements. If you don’t have those off the bat, it will show in the finished product.

This is the biggest reason we created our Building a Story Workbook. We recognized how important it was to get these foundational pieces in before the drafting. Our workbook guides writers though the creation of a viable outline from idea to draft.

Think of it like ignoring the importance of planning before you go on a big trip. If you brush it off and assume you’ll wing it, it won’t be long before you’re standing in the middle of a foreign city with a half-baked itinerary and a forgotten toothbrush. Planning head is just as important in drafting a novel. Don’t let it slip by.

2.) They underestimate the power of emotion.

Writers often want to focus on the action. After all, when they read that novel that blew their mind, what they took away from it were the obvious bits. The gasp-worthy setting, intricate worldbuilding, badass characters, and the cool moves they use to thwart the bad guys.

The more subtle aspects of the novel go unrealized. They forget to ask why they were so attached to these things. It was not all the drop kicks. Or the talking sword. You can get those anywhere, truthfully.

What wriggles into a reader’s subconscious and connects them so deeply with the story is the emotional thread. Even while characters might be lost in a treacherous desert inhabited by flying cannibals, they are still going through something internal that we can all relate to.

New writers overlook just how important this factor is. You do not have a story unless the main character is going through something very personal. Think about how we go through our day. Our to-do list is not the primary challenge. It’s the crappy thing your friend said to you last week. Or the lack you see in yourself. Those are the real journeys of life.

3.) They speed draft.

Okay, this one’s touchy, but I’m quite opinionated on it. I constantly run into the mindset that you have to churn out as many words as you possibly can in as short a period as physically feasible.

This came from the success of a number of self-publishing authors who learned that the more books you put out, the more profit you make. To be clear, I’m not saying they’re wrong. You can’t sell what doesn’t exist, right? There is definitely merit in being swift and getting your titles out in a timely matter. Plus, everyone depends on their bank account. You gotta do what you gotta do.

However, there’s a significant amount of truth in “quality over quantity.” That rule has never changed. As a professional editor, I can 100% tell when someone was slap-dashing their way through a draft. The writing becomes so sparse and tight that it ceases existing for pleasure and becomes borderline technical.  

I have to approach this subject carefully because my intention is not to stop people from writing quickly, but to encourage them to pump the brakes just a little and give their pace some breathing room to be thoughtful. Especially in sci-fi and fantasy where so much of our story resides on creativity.

Your emphasis should be on writing a story that’s compelling and reflective, rather than churning them out like popcorn. That means making space for beauty and spontaneity.

4.) They worry their ideas are flat, but for the wrong reasons.

Many writers have confessed to me they’re concerned their stories are just regurgitated versions of famous ones. I reply with the age-old saying that no thought is truly original. Our ideas are influenced by a lifetime of input. They don’t exist in a vacuum.

Terry Pratchett said that literature is a cultural stew. You eat from it. It nourishes you. Then, you add your own ingredients to the pot, so others can enjoy them.

There is no getting away from producing what is a rehashed version of something already in existence. It’s impossible. The more important question is to ask how your ingredients can be the most flavorful.

How can you bring your personal flare to the table? How can you propagate ingredients that are a blend of current ones? How can you transform an already-known trope? It’s not about creating something from the ground up, it’s about building off of existing foundations in a way that sparks awe.

5.) Their understanding of scene anatomy is incomplete.

This is often where we find ourselves in a rewrite. The writer didn’t know how to create tension. Or how to pursue more than just a single objective in a chapter. Or that there needed to be emotional movement.

When you read a scene in a book, you come to the end of that scene for two reasons: because you were invested in the outcome; and because additional promises were made that there was more to come.

Readers become invested in the story when tension is kept high, when the stakes are captivating, and when they can see a glimpse of themselves (i.e. their struggles) in the character. The writer makes additional promises by making sure there is a consistent rhythm of plot progression (completing sub-hurdles to make room for new plot factors to enter) and likewise by creating a full plot thread devoted to emotional growth.  

When you sit down to write a scene with a singular goal, the scene will act only to complete said goal. You have to ensure your scenes are also working to fulfill these other needs.

6.) They’re highly resistant to rewriting.

Can you imagine if you just got inside from mowing the lawn, only for your someone to tell you to go out and do it again? Oh my Lord, the agony.

It feels not so different telling writers to rewrite something. They do not want to. And sometimes they will flat out tell me no, even with all my experience and credentials.

I don’t tell people to rewrite because I like watching them sweat and their shoes turn even greener. I do so when it’s obvious to me they didn’t know where they were going when the chapter started out.

If you sit down to a blank page right now, very little planning in place, and write me a 3,000-word scene, it’s going to come off a little sloppy. You’re going to think you know what you want it to be, until you’re at 1,000 words. Then you’ll have a new idea. By 2,000 words, the end will be in sight, but it’ll be different than you anticipated because the structure was undecided from the get-go. What you wind up with looks different in the first paragraph than it does the last.

If you then take that scene, and created it fresh? This time, you start out knowing exactly where you’re going and you can conceive of better ways to get there. As an added bonus, the mental energy that would have gone into deciding organization, is now free to spend on other things, like description or dialogue quirks.

Trust me. It comes off way better when written with insight to proper planning. (See point one of this article.)

Being in a position to help beginners has allowed me to pick out the most common ruts new writers find themselves in. Spend some time thinking about how these six things might have impacted your work without you realizing. If you decide you need a coach to analyze your story skills, we’re just a click away.

Or, see the Introduction to the Greater Than series.

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