This is Ask Me Editing, a new writing and publishing-advice column where our writing-industry agony-uncle dispenses priceless advice.
Welcome to Ask Me Editing, the publishing advice column that has seriously never even heard of Reddit, why do people keep asking us that? Your literary agony aunt, Patrick Lenton, is ready to calm your fears about publishing and unintentionally fan your anxiety.
Q: How do I plan out my novel?
Hey Patrick! Growing up my answer to “what do you want to be when you’re older?” was an author, to which my teachers and parents would go “that’s nice, but what else?” (didn’t you love that response as a kid?). Anyway, I’ve noticed my writing habits tend to rinse and repeat; I get a burst of inspiration on a character or scene, write it out…then 1,000 words later I’m stumped because I didn’t think further ahead. I want to make my writing my career, it’s the only thing I have felt genuine passion and love for. Sadly, I just can’t get myself to plan my stories effectively. I never expect perfect first drafts, everyone knows they’re something you want to kill with fire, but I never even manage finishing a couple chapters. What are your thoughts or tips on planning out novels? Is it something I just need to push through and stop being so lazy?
It honestly doesn’t sound like laziness is your problem, because you seem to have the requisite passion to WANT to do it. It sounds like the first step you should take it learning how to plan out a novel. There’s obviously no one-way to do this, but even putting ANY thought into creating a structure will definitely help you out.
There’s this conventional wisdom that there are two types of writers – plotters and pantsers. Pantsers are people who write ‘by the seat of their pants’ and just let the narrative take them where you will. I am definitely a pantser when it comes to short stories. Authors that I’ve worked with who are pantsers will admit that a LOT of structural editing happens after the first draft, but they feel more comfortable just letting the words flow in the beginning. Plotters are people who plan the entire novel out – from intricate scene-by-scene breakdowns to merely sketching the bare bones.
I’ve written a novel and a novella in the last year (both unpublished) and I found that my plotting is a kind of skeletal structure for the narrative – I’ve got all the major bits (conflict, climax, etc) but I allow myself to play within that structure. I was lucky enough to learn plotting during my Creative Writing degree from the extremely talented author Dr Shady Cosgrove, who is the crowned queen of plotting novels. The biggest lesson I took from her, many many years ago, is to think strategically about your novel – what goals do your characters have? What’s stopping them from getting them? Where and how will this take place in the book? What themes are being expressed? How are they being expressed? What’s the timeline, the arc, the progression. Number it into chapters.
The other reason why I think spending some time plotting your novel is important is because of the fear that a novel inspires. It’s a big project, and for most writers, it’s seen as the apex of our craft. There’s something intimidating about the idea of sitting and down and writing a novel. Of course, that in itself is faulty logic – nobody can write a novel in one day. In fact, barely anyone can write a novel in less than a year. Sitting down and breaking up your novel into planned chunks means that you can start treating it as something you can actually manage to write. It’s like those competition to eat the biggest schnitzels in the world – it’s still a daunting project, but the guy who is cutting it up with a knife and fork is probably not going to choke and die like the guy attempting to swallow it all at once like a Boa Constrictor.
Q: Does anyone want to read my blog?
I dunno, is your blog any good? No, but seriously, this is actually a good marketing question, and one that authors ask me all the time. Basically, the time of the blog is over. Of course there are still a few hanging on, managing a decent readership, doing their thing – but like the high elves of Middle Earth, they know that their time is up, and the brash race of social media is swarming the earth.
Ten years ago, the advice was that an author should curate a readership for their blog, because it was doing exactly what every author needs to do online, which is create a community around them. People were subscribing to blogs, reading and sharing the posts, commenting, engaging, and then, hopefully, buying the next book the author put out.
And then basically that all stopped as a phenomenon, when Facebook and Twitter reached supremacy. Now, a blog is not the community hub for an author – different social media is. Does an author need a blog? Not so much – but it can still be useful. Writing and sharing content on your blog via your social media is still a great way of engaging people. It’s another weapon that the author can use in the online quest to be discoverable and engaging. But basically, very few people sit down and read a blog anymore.
Q: What to do with short stories?
I’ve been working on more short stories lately and submitting them for publication is an important part of that for me. I don’t have time to write as much I’d like to when I factor in my day job, so I want to go after the right opportunities. Career wise, is it better to submit to literary journals or focus on competitions? What’s going to pay off more in the long run?
Honestly, my first instinct was to laugh wildly at the thought of short stories being useful for a career, but that was a cynical and WRONG response. So, I’ve taken the liberty of passing the question over to committed short-story author Ryan O’Neill, whose next collection is called ‘Their Brilliant Careers’. Hopefully his answer will help you have a ‘brilliant career’ in short story writing. See what I did there?
This is a tough question to answer. Both publications and short story competitions can be good for your career, and can lead to other breaks, but there are no hard and fast rules. Both can be good for your profile, and attract the attention of editors. I know some short story writers who were picked up by publishers who had read their story in a journal, and others because they won a competition. In my own case, a story I had published in Best Australian Stories caught the eye of a publisher and led to a collection being published.
However, this was after I had had forty short stories published in various journals, and won a couple of writing competitions, none of which attracted the interest of anyone. That I was finally noticed was because a particular editor at a particular time came across a particular story and liked it. The one thing most writers don't mention in the story of their publication is luck, but luck is one of the biggest factors in getting published. This seems like a dispiriting thought, but it isn't. If you keep writing, and you keep submitting, you significantly shorten the odds in your favour.
As long as you are writing and submitting, I don't think it matters too much whether you are submitting to journal or comps. The important thing is to produce the best work you can, and try to get it out there. If it is rejected/doesn't place in a comp, then have another look, possibly revise and get it out there again. My theory is each publication builds towards a 'critical mass' where suddenly a publisher or an editor sits up and takes notice. For some writers, it might only be a year or two and a few stories before they reach their critical mass (I know of a few cases like that). For me it was six years and forty stories. You never know which story will be the one. That's why you have to keep writing, keep working on your craft, keep submitting, and keep your fingers crossed, and eventually, hopefully, one of your stories will leap out at an editor, either from a competition shortlist or a literary journal.
Patrick Lenton is your NEW PROFESSIONAL AGONY UNCLE. If he doesn't know it, he'll go and find out. ASK HIM ANYTHING! Send your questions to Patrick care of email@example.com or tweet them to us, and he'll respond with FREE professional advice.
Patrick Lenton is an author, works for Momentum books and runs Town Crier, a social media and digital marketing consultancy for authors.