I’m honored to have one of my favorite people joining us on the blog today–K.M. Weiland. I think of her as The Queen Of The Outline! She offers her thoughts on all things writing on her blog Word Play and has just released her newest book, Dreamlander.
An author can have no greater teacher than his own stories. Every book I write teaches me new lessons about both my craft and my life. Just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, I start a new story, and—bam!—I realize I still have so much to learn. My journey with my just-released (yay!) fantasy novel Dreamlander was a twelve-year adventure that taught me more than any book I’ve previously written. Joy, sorrow, excitement, frustration, despair, and confidence—it was all there. Now that I stand at the end of that journey, I can look back and identify some of the most important writing lessons I learned. Here are ten:
1. Prepare. Most of us are going to be eager to skip the prep work and get right down to the fun of writing that first draft. But Dreamlander’s sprawling epic of story (which spans two worlds) drove home to me the importance of planning early on. Every writer’s prep work will look a little different; for me, it looks like a detailed outline, which allows me to chart my course safely through the sometimes choppy storytelling waters.
2. Listen. None of us are experts—even when it comes to our own stories. We lose our objectivity somewhere around the first completed page. Sharing our early drafts with knowledgeable and honest beta readers is vital. But, even more than that, we have to be willing to listen to those readers’ advice. Take a little while to let the sting of criticism wear off, then analyze their comments for the truth they will inevitably offer.
3. Persevere. Stories aren’t written in a day, and they’re not edited in a month. You may not need twelve years to bring your story to fruition, like I did, but it’s my opinion that any book is going to need at least a year or two to brew. To truly perfect a story, we have to grow and gain distance from it. During that time, we’re going to be discouraged. We’re going to believe the book will never shed its gray feathers and transform into a swan. But we just have to keep at it. Perseverance conquers the unconquerable.
4. Research. Writers may dwell in the realm of make-believe. But that doesn’t negate our responsibility to the facts. This goes both for research into topical matters (firearms, linguistics, cultures, etc.) and for research into our chosen genres. Don’t just read your genre—study it. Find its clichés, find its opportunities for originality, and use your knowledge to transform your story.
5. Find the magic. Magic is our stock in trade. But sometimes, as we’re slogging through our fifth revision, it can be difficult to remember why we fell in love with this story in the first place. If you find yourself dreading your story, take a break for a while. Take a bit of time to play with it in your head, just for fun, like you did in the days when you first conceived it.
6. Find the conflict. We all know it: no conflict, no story. Dig deep and find the conflict that powers your story. What do your characters want most? What’s keeping them from achieving it? That, right there, is going to be the heart of your conflict. Hit it for all your worth and don’t spare your characters.
7. Find the theme. Once you’ve found your conflict, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the arc your protagonist will take over the course of your story. Once you’ve found the arc, you’ll be able to identify the demons your character will have to overcome. And once you’ve identified those demons, you will have found your theme.
8. Be patient. Sometimes getting to know characters takes time. Sometimes getting all the plot points right takes tries and retries. Realize that and stave off discouragement. View every word written, every word deleted, and every word revised as one tiny step that’s carrying you closer to your end goal of perfection. You don’t have to get everything right the first time. You just have to get it right the last time.
9. Be humble. Writing is tough on egos. We usually react in one of two ways. We either cave beneath criticism and fall into crippling depression. Or we figure we know it all and brush off all other opinions. Both are wrongheaded approaches. Always stay open to learning about your own shortcomings. Don’t box yourself into the prison of thinking you have it all figured out.
10. Be fearless. By the same token as the above, don’t let your own imperfections get you down. The only writers who succeed are those who dare much. Throw everything you’ve got onto the page. Acknowledge your fears about your level of talent and people’s perception of your work—and then face them fearlessly.
In the spirit of #9, I’ll tell you right off that these lessons are all WIPs in my own life. I suspect I’ll still be learning some of them after writing my fiftieth book. But, thanks to Dreamlander, and all the books that have gone before, I’ve learned a little more about myself and the writing life—and I’m ready to apply all those lessons to the next adventure!
K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.