Novelists Anthony Frances, E.K. Johnston, and Diana Peterfreund generously shared their expertise during the “How to Write a Damn Good Book” panel on Monday in Hyatt Embassy CD. The three talented authors spent the hour discussing the tips and tricks they’ve learned about writing during their writing careers.
Writers often hear the adage about having to write a few bad novels before being able to write a good one, but how many is a few? Francis said he only wrote one bad novel, but he wrote several bad starts. Johnston wrote a half-million or so words of fan fiction, one terrible novel, and one not-so-terrible novel. Her third attempt was published.
Peterfreund started writing romance, but the first four editors she sent it to told her, “You can write, but not romance.” She was only 22 at the time and not in a romantic relationship. She shifted gears and wrote a chick lit novel that worked.
Once you’ve written a novel, it’s your baby and you love it dearly. But how do you know if it’s really any good? Frances said you should rely on empirical evidence. It’s been published. It’s won some kind of award. Sales numbers are high.
Sure, but what if it hasn’t been published yet?
Johnston said to rely on other people’s opinions. Peterfreund added that she always thinks her writing is brilliant even when it isn’t, so she has learned to trust her writer friends. It’s important, she said, to have such friends or to belong to a critique group. The panelists agreed that, in general, close friends and family members are not ideal beta readers because they won’t want to hurt your feelings. Cultivate a set of good beta readers.
When selecting beta readers, it’s important to find a reader who likes the kind of things you write, Frances pointed out. Find a cheerleader of sorts. If they tell you something is wrong, you’ll know there’s a problem. You also need a person who picks the nits, he said, plus a really good creative who will “hold your feet to the fire.” A spectrum of different beta readers is critical whether you’re writing a novel or short story. Take their feedback, he advised, cry a little if needed, and then fix the problems.
To find good beta readers, Peterfreund recommended going online. “It’s a barter system,” she said, so you have to read theirs, too. She said she’s “been on a lot of bad first dates,” while searching for beta readers, but persevere and you’ll eventually find the ones you need. “Be kind to them,” she said with a smile. “Send them birthday cards and buy them drinks.” Frances noted that some beta readers can separate themselves from the genre they’re reading, so they can give still excellent feedback even if they’re not a fan of the genre, while others can’t.
The discussion turned to how many drafts the panelists write before they’re done, which varied significantly. The important thing, they agreed, is to do what works for you. Each book is unique. “Writing a book,” Peterfreund said, “[only] teaches you how to write that book.”
The panelists shared additional writing tips:
- If you can do it in one word, don’t do it in 10.
- Believe in yourself.
- Apply to workshops like Clarion.
- Use the writing community as a resource.
- You know when to stop when your editor says, “Where’s the book?”
- The best teachers for you are the stories you love. Study them.
- Sometimes a novel can’t be fixed. Start a new one.
- Even if you can’t write every day, try to keep the story in your head and keep chipping away at it.
- Ignore all writing advice unless it works for you.
- Readers won’t care how long you’ve lied to them or misdirected them.
- Don’t worry about copying. You’ll put your own spin on it.
- Try NaNoWriMo. Carve out time to write.
Although their techniques varied, the panelists agreed that if you want to write a damn good book, the most important thing to do is to keep writing.