*Originally Posted 6 December 2017
I have read online blog and social media posts where people claim that you don’t need to have a university or college degree to write a book. I believe this is true. However, you do need to know your craft.
The first time I wrote a book I thought to myself, “I have a language and literature degree. I can write a book. It couldn’t be any worse than some of the ones being published right now.” I should qualify that, at the time, I had just read two or three books in a row that were poorly written and/or edited, and it was ticking me off.
Guess what I learned when I wrote my first book? It’s not as easy as it seems.
Even though I have a degree in literature and language, I’ve been a French teacher for the past 18 years, so I hadn’t been exercising those particular mental muscles very much. I read a lot and watch movies regularly, so I have an understanding of how stories work, but this can only get you so far.
At the most basic, nitty-gritty level, there are questions like, what style guide is widely used for novels these days (Hint: it’s the Chicago Manual of Style)? Where do commas go? How do you format to differentiate between narrative and flashbacks, dreams, letters, and so on?
On a slightly larger level, there is, should you outline? What point of view should you write in? How many point-of-view characters should you have? When is it okay to switch between point-of-view characters? Are you including all the necessary scenes and elements for your genre? What’s the correct way to structure a story? Are your characters developed enough?
The list of questions goes on and on.
Some of you might think, “Wait. Isn’t that what editors are for?”
Well, yes and no.
As an author, it’s your job to make the story as strong as possible before it is sent to an editor. The better it is, the less time it will take for an editor to complete and the lower the cost will be for you. Also, there are many different levels of editing (which I will get into in a later post). You need to have an idea of where your story is to know what level of editing you need.
Here is a cautionary tale for you. I have two editions of my first novel. Why? Because as I started to learn more about my craft, I became convinced I could improve on what I’d written. I could have done better at showing versus telling, for example. So, when I decided to get a cover artist to create my logos and redo the cover so that the planned series will be uniform, I decided to improve the story as well. In the end, I added almost 12,000 words to my novel.
But, hang on. I paid an editor a lot of money to do a substantive edit. That means they were supposed to do a structural and a copyedit. So, why didn’t my editor tell me about my weaknesses and how I could improve my story before I hit publish?
Long story short, I used an assisted self-publishing company to help me publish my first book. While I was happy with most areas of my collaboration with them, editing was the one area that was lacking. I had a project manager through whom I communicated. I never had direct contact with the editor, and so had no place to ask questions or get clarification. I tried writing my questions in the comments section of the manuscript but, in the end, several of my questions went unanswered.
Now, this has much to do with me being new to self-publishing and not knowing any better than to accept what I got for editing. But I could also have avoided having to rewrite my story if I’d taken the time to learn more about the craft first. Knowing my craft better would have helped me figure out what questions I should have been asking (myself and the editor) to begin with.
I’ve learned a lot since then. And as authors, we should always be striving to improve our writing and to learn more. Does that mean you should wait until you think you’re an expert before putting pen to paper or fingers to keys? No, not at all. But always be open to learning more and improving your craft.
*Since I have an interest in almost all areas of writing and self-publishing, I spend as much, if not more, of my time reading, watching informational videos, taking online courses and workshops, etc. as I do actually writing.
Here is a list of some of the books and resources I have found helpful: –Outlining Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland
–Structuring Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland
–Creating Character Arcs, by K.M. Weiland
–Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print (2nd Edition), by Renni Browne and Dave King
–Manuscript Magic (for editing and understanding story) www.writingblueprints.com
–The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne
–Story Grid Online Workshop and Resources: www.storygrid.com