Continued Learning

on March 25, 2013

Last week, I shared a link on Twitter to Jodie Renner’s terrific blog post about writing tense action scenes. I found the way she shared the information to be clear and helpful, particularly because she provided examples (much like MSW friend Margie Lawson does in her workshops!) Since I learn by example, I love this approach.

I particularly liked Jodie’s article because I was in the middle of editing a fast-paced novella and reviewing her checklist helped me remember the important aspects of thrillers. I’ve written 20 books and sometimes, while I subconsciously know what to look for in edits, I can have tunnel vision and miss big picture problems. I also think that no writer is perfect, that every writer is (or should be) learning on a regular basis. Does this mean taking classes? Maybe, maybe not. I rarely take classes, though there are some where the presenter is particularly strong or the subject matter something I need help with, where I’ll sit in at ThrillerFest or RWA. But I love reading articles that speak to the way I learn (i.e. examples.) Since I don’t have time to take a lot of on-line workshops or go to every conference and sit in on all the interesting panels or workshops, I read a lot.

Jodie seemed surprised that I read craft articles, but honestly, I think every writer can benefit from continued learning — articles, workshops, brainstorming sessions with friends, classes, reading the masters — every other profession does it, why not us?

Teachers have continuing education; realtors; doctors; etc. My physical trainer has continuing education to keep her certification, and she constantly reads about nutrition and exercise programs so that she can provide her clients with her up-to-date expertise. It just makes sense that writers don’t lock themselves in the room and think they know everything or the best way to do something.

I suspect, as an author grows in their career, they need less craft guidance–but that doesn’t mean we need NO improvement. I’ve learned so much about writing from my two editors that I hope I’ve applied what I’ve learned to my manuscripts. Does this mean I don’t need to be edited? Hell no. I expect to be edited. I expect to continue to learn not only to write sharper, cleaner copy, but to learn how to tell better stories.

Sometimes, I get annoyed with aspiring authors, who are frustrated by the slow publication process (which is, sometimes, needlessly slow) and say they’re going to self-publish. Or, they’re upset because they’ve been rejected and they watch their friend’s making money by self-publishing. I would argue that not all books should be published. I thank God that self-publishing wasn’t a viable option when I finished my first book. I, too, may have grown frustrated by rejections and the entire process and put the book out there–under my name, thinking that I had written a masterpiece. Because at the time, HOT LATTE (yes, that was my self-titled book) had finaled in a couple of contests, my best friend told me she liked it, and I thought it was a great story.

It wasn’t. It was a romantic suspense that used every trope in the genre from virgin heroine, stalker guy, psycho-ex-girlfriend, evil ex-fiance, embezzlement, mistaken identity, and more. It had everything you’ve ever seen in romantic suspense, including the PSYCHO angle where the primary villain killed his mother and left her rotting corpse in her bedroom. The writing itself was adequate, but not strong, and certainly not publishable. Yet at the time, in 2002 when I wrote this book, I thought it was terrific.

The book would have really set a low bar for my work, making it difficult to gain an audience and build a writing career. Sometimes, traditional publishing knows when an author or a book isn’t ready.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot this past week. Last Tuesday I flew to the fabulous and hospitable Greater Detroit Romance Writers to present my “Thrills & Chills” workshop about writing romantic suspense and thrillers. During Q&A, someone asked my opinion on self-publishing. I said–basically–that writer’s need to treat it as a business, and that means not sacrificing on content. Write a good book–but don’t trust only your opinion. I told my HOT LATTE story (in brief.) Make sure the book is strong for the target market. There are so many self-published books out there, how can you stand out? The bare minimum is a well-edited book, and I don’t just mean copyediting. Hire a good story editor, get opinions from people who can give a good opinion (i.e. — don’t just have your mom or best friend read your book), prepare good cover copy, hire a quality cover artist, and be prepared to spend a little money — probably $2-3K for the “package.” This is your career, and publishing inferior books doesn’t help build your business. Recognize that while some self-published authors can be a huge success with one book, most who are successful published 5, 6, 10 books before they started seeing consistent sales. And again — remember that this is a business. And it’s a business for those of us in traditional publishing as well. We’ve made decisions based on our experience and individual situations and are sticking with traditional publishing or a hybrid. There is no one right choice–every author has a different path, and we should all respect the informed decisions our fellow writer’s have made.

I recently went to a self-published author’s webpage for some reason I can’t remember. She had self-published two romantic suspense titles listed and I read the opening chapters she’d posted on her website. I ignored the typos, though there were too many to be acceptable. Her grasp of grammar was adequate, but needed a good line edit. However, the story itself wasn’t there. The writing was labored, over-descriptive and the characters didn’t grab me. The action was told, not shown (detailed descriptions aren’t necessarily “showing” anything.) (As an aside, I’m not a “show, don’t tell” purist. Some things NEED to be told. You don’t have to describe how a character brushes her teeth, for example. Just “tell” that she brushed her teeth — or better, leave it out unless it’s important. And frankly, I’ve gotten tired of the romance convention about how to describe characters but staying true to POV. Author intrusion IS acceptable on occasion. Lee Child writes deep third POV and yet will simply state: “Jack Reacher was the big man in the brown coat.”

There are many self-published authors out there who take a lot of time getting their work to be the strongest it can be–using an editor, a proofreader, and sometimes beta readers. You can’t skimp on outside review. It shows. And it shows both ways–both those who recognize that what they pen isn’t perfect and get the help they need, and those who think that they alone know what’s good.

This is why I’ll always continue to learn. I’ll always read articles that grab my attention like Jodie’s. It’s both a refresher and a learning process. The worst thing I can do for my books is think that I know it all, and then grow complacent.

Now for something completely different … two fantastic things happened this week! First, RECKLESS, a Lucy Kincaid novella, made it to the NYT e-book and combined print/e lists, and the USAT list. I was very happily surprised!

And second, my fourth baby (Mary) turns 10 today. For her birthday, we gave her a kitten. She’s been asking for months, and even put together a binder on how to take care of a kitten by printing out information from the Internet. She’s probably read every brochure on the SPCA website! Yesterday we went to the Sacramento SPCA and played with three kittens, but it was the first who won our hearts, a 4 month old stray that someone brought in and was just put out that morning to be adopted. Fate! She’s being spayed now, and we’re picking her up late this afternoon. We don’t have a name yet (we’re leaning toward Minnie,) but I have pictures! Unnamed kitty joins Nemo (our 2-1/2 year old cat) and Lewis (our 2-1/2 year old black lab) and Daisy & Nugget, our chickens. I’m nearly as excited as Mary!