Nerine Dorman is a South African author and editor of SF and fantasy currently residing in Cape Town. Her YA fantasy novel Dragon Forged was a finalist in the 2017 Sanlam Youth Literature Prize, with her SF novel Sing Down the Stars a finalist for the 2019 prize in the English category. Her short story, “On the Other Side of the Sea”, was shortlisted for a 2018 Nommo award. The Firebird, a fantasy novella, was a semi-finalist in the 2019 SPFBO competition, and was shortlisted for ‘best novella’ during the 2019 Nommo Awards. In addition, she is a founding member of the SFF authors’ co-operative Skolion and is the curator of the South African Horrorfest Bloody Parchment event and short story competition. She kindly agreed to write a guest post for this blog.
Over the years I’ve coached many writers on their journey towards bettering their craft, so I’ve figured a few things out for those of you who want the short, dirty tips to becoming a better writer over all. You don’t need to shell out piles of clams for these, either.
I mean, this is a no-brainer, right? You wouldn’t have embarked on a stellar career in publishing if it weren’t for the fact that libraries were your gateway drug. Ask any seasoned author whether reading plays a vital part in improving your skills, and you’ll probably get a raised eyebrow or a stern lecture. Or maybe both, accompanied by a slap upside your head. Reading familiarises you not only with the conventions within your chosen language, but the more you read, the larger your pool of knowledge from which you can draw. Watching the movie doesn’t make you an expert on plot and character development, in other words. Reading offers you the chance to develop cadence, improve your lexicon and syntax (that’s vocabulary and sentence structure, for those of you who’re too lazy to google), and understand the tropes present within particular genres.
Don’t only read within your chosen genre, however. It doesn’t matter whether you write bodice rippers or tension-filled thrillers, having read a selection of classics all the way through to some of the latest best sellers will offer you a broad, general knowledge of literature. Who knows, you may want to add a dash of romance to your detective novel or subvert your fantasy novel with elements of noir. Understanding literary conventions can only enhance the toolbox at your disposal.
Join an online writers’ group, watch YouTube interviews or writing masterclasses
So many writers I’ve spoken to end up shelling out oodles of clams for fancy writers’ classes often hosted by publishers or even literary agencies. Or they end up going to a manuscript doctor when they really can do much of the work with a small group of peers. To those of you born after the internet: you don’t know how good you have it. In my day… LOL. No, I’m not going to bore you with any pre-internet sagas, suffice to say that when I showed promise as a writer, folks were at a loss as to suggest what I do to improve my writing.
Do your due diligence. There are tons of online writers’ groups on Facebook or in the www where you can connect with other writers. Off the top of my head, I can suggest The Dragon Writers on Facebook [full disclosure: this is my writing group – Tallulah] and the Absolute Write forums. Get to know other writers who’re at the same level you’re at. Make friends with authors who’re early on in their career. Offer yourself as a beta reader to writers. Learn about offering constructive critique and learn how to deal with it when it comes your way. In the beginning, you might find yourself ‘paying your dues’ by offering a critical eye to more folks than who’ll read your stories. As you grow together and gain more experience, so you’ll create your own tight-knit circle of word warriors who have each other’s backs. Find your tribe, in other words.
By all means follow your favourite authors on social media but for the love of dog, don’t glomp onto them expecting them to read your manuscript or offer to critique your short stories. Like you, they have lives. Except theirs are even more complicated as many of them juggle not only a day job and family, but their writing career too. Trust me on this. Full-time, published authors are the exception, not the rule. (You’ll hear me say that last bit, often.)
So many times I get writers asking me about whether they need a degree or some sort of tertiary qualification in order to become a writer. My answer to this is no. Look, if you’re privileged to go to varsity or do some industry-accredited course, that’s awesome. Good for you. You’ll most likely find a lot of enrichment that way. But.
Of course there’s a but.
Going to university is no guarantee that you’ll be an awesome, best-selling writer one day. I’ve invigilated university students’ creative writing theses, and I promise you, I’ve seen better writing from folks who only have high school level English.
And some of those short courses? Well, I’ve seen a few that charge a small fortune for resources you could find on the internet and YouTube, absolutely gratis. You need only employ your Google-fu. Let’s not forget podcasts. Hundreds. If. Not. Thousands. Of free resources. All you need to do is get your butt on a chair and put in the hours.
Make a habit of writing every day
All through my high school career I studied music. Which meant I had to put in the hours each day to practice my scales and pieces, and to prepare for exams. Much like music, writing takes practice and dedication. However you don’t have to work on a novel from the get go. Short stories, flash fiction and poetry are great ways to practice your skills without the long-term commitment. They’re also easier and quicker to read through and polish. Do consider also keeping a journal where you can jot down ideas. The trick is to get into the habit of writing every day. Even if it’s only 100 new words, that’s something, and it’s better than most who only ever talk about ‘one day when I write my novel’. Some folks like having a set time, and even half an hour first thing in the morning is excellent. Especially once that first cup of coffee has kicked in.
The trick is to write every day, even if it is a little bit. I’m a huge fan of writing often in small bites than nailing myself to my desk for twelve hours straight. That’s not to say I don’t admire folks who’ve got that sort of determination. But that’s not me. A few years back I wrote a 96k-word novel in a month. I’ve proved to myself I can do this, and poop out a novel each month, but to be quite honest, I don’t want to. (And for the same reason, that’s why I’m a firm no-NaNoWriMo’er.) Writing for me is something I do because it sparks joy. So set writing sessions that suit you, so that you don’t kill yourself and you also have time to do those other things that fill your creative well, be it walking the dogs or seeing friends.
Don’t take criticism personally
If you’re starting out, you’re most certainly not have reached the lofty pinnacle of your literary peak, so to speak … (haha, see what I just did?). You’re going to make newbie mistakes. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find peers along your way who’ll offer you constructive criticism (or concrit, for short). Or you’ll wake up to an editor letter from a publisher that offers you a laundry list of things that argh! Are WRONG with your story.
First thing, don’t reach for that flame thrower. Instead: take a deep breath. Step away from the criticism. Go for a walk. Weed your garden. Do the laundry. Do something that is not writing. Now, when you’re calmer, realise the criticism is not aimed at you. It’s been given to you by someone who’s just as passionate about making and shaping words as you are. I always tell my authors that they never throw away words. They always have earlier drafts of their novel to refer to, but try these changes out and see what works. 99% of the time, if the suggestions were made by a trusted professional, a story will be stronger for the work completed.
It’s not you. It’s the story. And you’re in charge of how that story changes. And if you’re serious about your craft, you’re going to attract piles and piles of editor notes. Grow rhino skin and get used to it.
And if you ever have negative reviews of your novel, do the same. Chances are good that most reviewers can’t see past their own likes/dislikes when reviewing a novel in the first place. So keep that in mind. Repeat after me: Don’t take it personally.
I tend to glance at reviews, and if I see that a particular technical aspect is called out often (for instance not enough try/fail cycles rushed world building), I’ll look at the work as objectively as possible to assess whether these comments hold water. And if they do? Well, then I see where I can work to improve my writing, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Don’t dwell on your reviews, in other words.
This is one of the things many newer writers struggle with. If you’ve never had professional editing, where the hell do you even start as a newbie? A bunch of really valuable resources exist on the internet. Free. Gratis. Mahala. If you know your punctuation is dodgy, go look up the rules. Refresh your knowledge whenever you feel as if you are out of your depth. Sites such as https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar will give you piles of tips. Otherwise, flex your Google-fu skills. Even typing in ‘examples misplaced modifiers’ and voila! Bob’s your uncle and all the rest.
Get together with fellow writers, print out your work and make time to edit and discuss each other’s work in real time, face to face. It helps to have physical copies to work off. Read your work out loud. Watch out for dropped words, repetitions, sentences that are too long and convoluted. Be aware of inconsistencies, like blue eyes that miraculously turn green a chapter later. Make use of MS Word’s ‘read aloud’ function. You’ll thank me later. Also, don’t rush your writing: if you finish a story, allow it to lie fallow awhile. When you come back to it later, you’ll do so with fresh eyes. Don’t be afraid to cut entire passages or rearrange the order of events. Experiment by merging characters. And when you do get professional editing, apply what you learn so that you continue improving.
In closing, I’m going to share this much: all the authors you look up to had to start somewhere. We all have stories that we trunked or burned. We all made similar errors when we first embarked upon our careers as wordsmiths. Hell, we still make mistakes. But the most important thing is that we never stop learning, never stop finding ways to improve our writing. We don’t take criticism personally, we are curious about the world within and without, and we persevere.
Overnight successes are the exception, not the rule. Don’t ever compare your career to someone else’s. You are a special star whose progress is uniquely your own. Now go out and write the stories that make your heart sing.