I have always been a writer. In high school, I served as yearbook editor. In college, I sequenced in a series of English classes. Early in my business career, I took creative writing after work. In recent years, I've worked for several magazines as a freelance writer. So, writing a novel should have been easy. Right? Hmmm. Not so much. Actually, writing the novel was not the hard part. Writing a good novel was.
Don't Get Upset. Listen
When I wrote my first manuscript, I was very excited. I sent out query letters. I attended writing conferences. I got some interest. Hooray! But then I came down to earth. How do I know the book wasn't very good? Well, the rejection slips were one way but more importantly, an agent was kind enough to write me a long letter and tell me specifically what was wrong with it. First, she said, the book was too long. In fact, that manuscript was twice the length of what most debut novels should be. Second, she said the story was interesting but the pacing was slow and the action took too long to happen. Finally, the chapters were overly wordy and (surprise!) too long. But, she also said there was potential in my writing. I had just buried it in too many words. Thankfully, I listened.
To learn to use words economically, I entered short story contests and, happily, earned some awards. I truly believe this is a great practice for writers who are developing their writing style. Not only will you challenge yourself, you will get honest feedback from the judges. Choose contests with varying lengths. Can you tell your story in 2500 words? 1500? How about 500? I also took on freelance writing assignments that were often limited to 1000 words. Essays, too. Today, I find word limits easy but only because I listened to constructive criticism from someone who was in a position to give it.
My new novel, A GuiltyMind, is built on short chapters to create suspense. This aspect of my writing style is the direct result of the work I put in on contests and freelance assignments. And how do I know it works? Well, I have been fortunate to speak with several book clubs that have chosen A Guilty Mind and one recurring comment is how they enjoyed the short chapters. As a writer, I love when someone says, "Well, I was super tired but the chapters were short so I thought I'd stay up and read just one more…"
Don't Be Intimidated and Test Your Work
Sometimes, it's easy to be in awe of another writer's ability and lose faith in yourself. I once took a creative writing class where one of the students was so good, such an intuitive writer, that the rest of us hung our heads. Our work probably wasn't all that bad but when she read her stories out loud, she took us all to another place and time. Yet, in spite of her skill, I've never heard of her again and don't know if she is still writing today.
Don't be intimidated by rejections either. Try to learn where you can improve your style. While your friends and family are wonderful, they may not be qualified to tell you where your style needs work. Test your style on your writing group, beta readers, or even your book club if they are willing. My own book club read the first draft of A Guilty Mind and their feedback, questions, and criticism helped shape the final manuscript.
Don't Be Afraid to Start Over
Starting over can be anything from a rewrite to starting an entirely new novel. This is what I did. While I haven't permanently abandoned that first manuscript, a new story was buzzing in my brain and I couldn't wait to write it - especially with all that I had learned. That story, A Guilty Mind, was born. Still, it wasn't a cakewalk. I wrote several drafts. I chopped chapters. I added an entirely new character in one of the later drafts. The point is, don't be wedded to the words. Starting over, whether it's just a paragraph or several chapters allows you to tell the story in the best way possible, always honing and developing your style over time.
Your Style Will be Your Own
While finding the time to work on my next novel is sometimes a challenge, finding my style isn't. Writing this book in a voice that fits the genre and me is easier than ever. All it took was listening, practicing, and not giving up.
Kellie Larsen Murphy is a freelance writer for several regional and southern magazines. An avid reader and book club enthusiast, she'd enjoy meeting you on her blog where she posts about her publishing journey. A Guilty Mind, the first in a series of psychological suspense novels featuring Detective Michael Cancini, was published in September. You can follower her on twitter @aguiltymind.