A Guiding Light

A few days ago, a fellow on the Facebook authors’ group where I hang out mentioned that he was working on his first novel and could use some mentoring. I replied that if he was serious about that, he should send me a personal message. I didn’t hear from him; I hope he found somebody suitable.

Possibly I was too modest and self-deprecating in my offer. But it set me thinking. If I were mentoring an aspiring author, what points would I emphasize? Without going into too much detail on any of them, here are my Power Point bullet points:

  1. Master the mechanics of English prose. Yes, having a professional editor go over your manuscript when you feel it’s finished is always a good idea — but you can’t count on an editor to understand what you meant to say if your writing is muddled. Also, some editors are not very good. They will miss errors, or “fix” things that you got right to begin with. Your name will be on the front cover, so you can’t pass the buck.
  2. Master the mechanics of storytelling. This is a distinct type of expertise, quite different from grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You need to know how to handle dialog tags and flashbacks. You need to understand conflict and rising action. You need to know about viewpoint.
  3. Read widely. Even if you’re writing genre fiction (as I do), it’s very worthwhile to dip into literature now and then. Even if you don’t care for the relaxed pacing of literature, you’ll learn what good writing looks like. Read nonfiction too! If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, a wide acquaintance with history and the variety of human cultures will be indispensable. How-to-write books are a wonderful resource.
  4. Know your own motivation. Are you writing just for your own pleasure? Or do you hope to find a commercial market for your work? (The two are not mutually exclusive.) If you’re hoping to market your work, you’ll need to understand the business — the markets, contract law, manuscript preparation, all sorts of stuff.
  5. Develop good habits! Write every day. Make daily backups of your work.
  6. Don’t be afraid to rewrite, or simply to throw out stuff that isn’t working. I keep a separate file called “scraps.” Whenever I delete a paragraph or a scene, I paste it into the scraps file. That way, if I change my mind, I’ll still have it. The larger point is this: Being too enamored of your own pearly prose is a recipe for failure.

I could enlarge the list, but that’s enough mentoring for today.

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