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This blog was featured on 07/09/2018
Tips for Building a Successful Career as an Author: Week One - Craft
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
20 days ago
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
20 days ago

The below guest post was provided by bestselling author Jamie Beck. This is the first of five posts that will cover amazing tips and advice from an author who has sold over a million copies. Her eleventh book, When You Knew, is available now. 

For those who don’t know me or know why I’m writing a series of posts about how to build a successful writing career, let me introduce myself. I’m Jamie Beck and, before I began writing romantic women’s fiction, I was a lawyer for a decade and then a stay-at-home mom for another. In 2012, I decided to pursue my dream of writing a love story and getting a traditional publishing deal. Six years and three best-selling series later, I’m now a member of the Romance Writers of America’s Honor Roll and am celebrating the release of my eleventh book, When You Knew.

There's No Right Way

When new writers ask for advice about how to succeed, my first response is always that there is no one “right” way because every author’s journey will be different. If there were a single set of rules that guaranteed a certain result, everyone would follow them and arrive at the same place. Sadly, it isn’t that easy. The best I can offer is an honest assessment of the things I did (and continue to do) that I believe helped me reach my personal goals.

I can divide these things into a few categories: craft, goal setting, perseverance, networking, and luck. Throughout the next several Mondays, I’ll break each down into more detail, beginning today with the most important of all: craft.

Craft

I’ll be honest. I wrote my first manuscript (which is tucked under my bed, never to be read by anyone other than my mother and my brave, kind friends) without the benefit of any knowledge about craft. When I say no knowledge, I mean it. The first draft was 124,000 words (about 30,000 too long for industry norms). It also was a not-quite-YA sweet romance, and it began with the heroine falling for a jerky hero and ended with her getting her HEA with a true hero. In addition to breaking many genre rules, it also didn’t follow any proper story arc method (or beats) because I simply wrote from gut instinct. Sounds like a complete disaster, right?

Well, yes and no. I don’t regret having done it that way because my ignorance allowed me to write without being intimidated. I didn’t agonize over every word and scene or become overwhelmed by process and rules. Writing it was an act of pure pleasure from the first word to the last. Of course, the end result wasn’t very good—not that I knew that at the time. It took some mediocre contest scores and a pile of agent rejection letters for me to understand that I couldn’t wing it. I admit, my initial reaction to that rejection and criticism could best be summed up as weepy dismay.

Stop and Learn

That was the point where I had my first serious choice to make. I could ignore the feedback and self-publish the story, or I could learn what I needed to know and then revise it—or write something better.

I chose education and began a campaign of reading widely in the romance genre. I joined Romance Writers of America (and my local chapter in Connecticut). I also attended RWA’s national conferences and my chapter’s monthly workshops to study from those who were ahead of me on the learning curve. The simple act of doing those things quickly showed me why my first attempt at storytelling would not cut it in the big leagues.

Additionally, I devoured craft books by folks like Donald Maass, Noah Lukeman, and Lisa Cron, applying their tips to my then work-in-progress, which was a completely new manuscript (and, ultimately, my first published book, In The Cards).

To this day, I still attend workshops and read books about writing. My primary goal with every new story is to sharpen my skills and write the best book I can at that particular time. I know I’m not a beautifully gifted writer (if I could channel Kristin Hannah’s prose, I would), but I never give up on trying to do a better job of showing versus telling, eliminating unnecessary modifiers, simplifying convoluted sentences, creating multidimensional characters, and building more tension in every scene. I also read authors I admire, hoping to glean things from their work that might help me with my own. I ask for feedback from beta readers and my agent before I turn in any manuscript to my editor. In short, I am never, ever satisfied. I credit part of my success to that commitment.

Author Voice

One thing that can’t be learned in a workshop, though, is author voice. This is the thumbprint that makes your books sound like you. If a book is well written, you might question why voice matters. Some might say it doesn’t, but I believe author voice is the thing that most resonates with readers. I liken it to the way music lovers connect with singers who do not have the prettiest voices, but who offer something textured and sincere in tone and messaging. Voice is that spark of authenticity that helps readers distinguish between stories that might otherwise be rather similar (think about the many small-town second-chances love stories out there that rely on similar, familiar tropes). You’ve likely read many good stories, but I bet the ones that stand out in your memory had an authorial voice that really struck a chord. The good news is that there isn’t a right or wrong voice, because each reader has his or her own preferences. You just need to use yours and cultivate an audience of readers who love it.

I said earlier that I don’t think you can manufacture voice (I will never write like Kristin Hannah, no matter how often I reread her work), but I do think you can clear a path to find your voice. First and foremost, do not try to mimic your favorite author’s voice. That’s the opposite of authenticity, and readers will feel the falseness of it. Next, do not try to sound “writerly.” When typing that first draft, tell your story the way you would describe it to your best friend (use those words, fragments, rhythms). You can tighten it later when you edit, but if you write the first draft from the heart without overthinking word choices, your voice should saturate the pages. Readers who love your voice will become your superfans, who will then shout their word-of-mouth recommendation to their friends.

Another thing that can help your craft is to listen well. Listen to what others say and how they say it in different situations. Listen to what they think is important—in their personal lives and in the greater world. When you sit down to write, try to remember what you learned about interpersonal dynamics from listening, so your stories will be meaningful and seem familiar to readers.

Write Every Day

Finally, write every day. It doesn’t have to be a set number of words or pages. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But make an effort to get decent words down on paper every day. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the importance of practice (10,000 hours to be an expert). A few famed authors have been attributed with suggesting that the first million words are just practice. We could quibble about this, but the bottom line is that practice is critical to improvement (and to finishing a manuscript), so park yourself in a chair and write.

I can’t guarantee you’ll write a best seller if you do all these things, but I can guarantee that you’ll have a much better chance than if you don’t.

I hope you’ll read the next four installments, which will appear each Monday throughout July. Until then, happy writing!

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