The first novel I wrote was brilliant.

Seriously.

I posted serialized chapters of it on a Fiction Board, where throngs of readers raved about my talent. And why wouldn’t they? Each week, I devoured up to six romance novels, so I figured I had a good handle on how to write one. My plot was super-complex and I took pains to include a boatload of vivid description. A thesaurus, thick enough to be wielded as a deadly weapon, became my new best friend. I ditched pen and pad, trading them in for (what was then) the wonders of modern technology. MS Word Grammar-Check? Yep. Spell Check? You betcha.

 

Genius

 

And what author’s office would be complete without artfully displayed volumes on writing craft? I had more than a few, and they added literary atmosphere to the place – gave my bookcase a real writerly feel. Oh, I skimmed some and picked up the high points, but it would have been criminal to fence in a natural ability like mine with stodgy rules their suggestions. I was so busy writing that there was time for little else.

Besides, I already had fans.

I caught wind of a short story competition several months later. Bolstered by accolades from my readers, I dashed off a piece to Amber Quill Publishing’s Heat Wave Contest and, a few weeks after, danced around my office when they announced me a winner.

“Yes!” I shouted and fist-pumped the air.

Winning meant a publishing contract. So cool! I signed the necessary documents and AQP assigned an editor, who subsequently sent an email with an attachment. Ready for a heaping of more high praise, I opened the file.

One gasp later, a noxious ball formed and rolled in the top of my stomach. Then it plummeted. But I went numb before it hit bottom. I stared blankly at the screen, dumbfounded by the explosion of red typeface splattering the pages.

It officially blasted the twinkle right off my star.

Miss Perfect…wasn’t.

I was lucky in the beginning to have found a Fiction Board where, I discovered later, readers were not allowed to leave negative comments. Don’t laugh, the fawning kept me writing. And I was lucky to have won AQP Heat. It must have been the story because it’s doubtful it was the prose. Yes, I was lucky, but not dumb. Only ignorant. And smart enough to know that I needed help.

The sheer number of books on writing craft is overwhelming, so where does a dejected newbie begin? I figured, seeing as how I’d just been slam-dunked by an editor, anything about editing would do.

I cast a sidelong glance at the bookcase serving as set-decoration in my office, and a slim volume that looked like it might provide fast answers virtually jumped out.

  • Again it was slim, so it could be digested quickly, unlike a few of the 400+ page hardback wonders shelved nearby
  • It was written in simple language, meaning no techno-speak for a beginner to slog through
  • Most important, it had EDITING in the title, which was a tip-off that editing would indeed be mentioned in the book

Eureka. I held in my hands the little miracle, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. My lucky streak was suddenly on steroids.

Light bulbs clicked on in my head as I read, highlighted and reread each chapter, and this time actually completed the exercises. The authors showed with examples and rewrites just what makes good writing good and good writing better. This was such a great book, a fabulous book, and I was beyond fortunate that it was the first one I took seriously.

Sadly though, it triggered an addiction. I stood in front of the bookcase, stared for about thirty seconds, and began yanking the shelves clean. What else had I missed in the neglected craft books now piled on my desk?

Fake fans be damned, I decided to find out.

Sol Stein’s On Writing and How to Grow a Novel became my trusty highlighter’s next victims, followed by Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, and James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel, both I and II. Did amazon.com have more? Yes. In full attack mode, I plowed through Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story, Robert McKee’s Story, the phenomenal Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, Jessica Morrell’s work, and a good chunk of the Writer’s Digest book list. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and sequels. Christopher Vogler. Holly Lisle. Noah Lukeman. Orson Scott Card. Martha Alverson. The list streamed on and on.

Two hundred and fourteen writing books and courses later, I can answer the following with a modicum of authority.

 

Oopsie

 

Why, yes. As it turns out, there are. Lots and lots of them. And once your head is fully packed with do-this and don’t-do-that, you find:

  • The rules are always changing. Not at light-warp speed, but subtly shifting in response to societal tastes and influences.
  • If you know the rules, you can break them. Does this even make sense? Yeah. It’s part of what they call style. (Some people balk at calling them rules, preferring the term, guidelines. Um, no. I disagree. But call the quibble fodder for another blog post.)
  • The more that you know, the more you know you don’t know.

In other words, it’s important to read and reread craft books and, of course, to keep current in your genre (it reflects shift).

 

Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading.  –  Ernest Hemingway

 

Hemingway was referring specifically to symbolism in his fiction, but the idea applies to craft books, in a general sense, as well. Where you are in your writing skill set, mental frame, and receptivity will affect how and what you’ll absorb.

In short, your baggage matters.

Mine sure did.

Publicly posting 70,000 words of self-indulgent tripe, finding it wasn’t brilliant, and then receiving an editor smack-down was kinda motivating.

It made me want to do better. I hope I have.

 

So, how about you? Have you read a book on writing craft that dramatically changed your work? If so, what influenced you to select it? How did it affect your writing? What made you pick up a craft book to begin with? How many have you read? Reread?

Share the love and tell about your favorites. You’ll be helping others with your recommendations.

 

I’d really like to hear from you!

 

 

Thanks for the Oops Girl picture, Michal Marcol

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31 Responses to The First Novel I Wrote Was Genius. Not.

  1. Hahaha – great post! I think we’ve all been there. I’m very impressed with the number of craft books you’ve read! There’s some on that list that are still on my TBR pile.

    • Erica Miles says:

      My TBR stack for craft is depressing, and yet it mysteriously keeps growing. As for the number of books I’ve read, the Robin Williams line in Good Will Hunting comes to mind- I said I knew this stuff. I didn’t say I was good at it. 😉

  2. Agreed, great first post! Congrats.

    I love to read writing books by James Scott Bell he’s an awesome teacher and a master of the craft.

    Best of luck to you.

  3. Great post. Yep, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but a head full of dos and don’ts can hurt your brain.
    Oh yeah, where is that magic web site? I could use a dose of “You are the greatest.”
    Tee hee

  4. GREAT first post! Seriously! Congratulations. I love James Scott Bell. I learned so much from him. I agree with your three rules, absolutely. There are so many rules…you can forget the craft itself!

  5. Interesting! Now I’m glad that I’ve shied away from groups like the one you mention above. I agree with you that “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” is top-notch. Another one I find helpful is “The First Five Pages,” by Noah Lukeman. For those of us who seem to travel a little differently to the beat of the proverbial drum, “Spunk & Bite” is just what the doctor ordered.

  6. A.E. Huppert says:

    Congratulations! Great writing voice 🙂 I, too, love Bell, especially Plot & Structure. Larry Brooks’, Story Engineering, rescued me from my pantser ways and made cranking out the hits suuuuper easy. Great to meet you!

    • Erica Miles says:

      I love Larry Brooks. I read the e-book version of Story Engineering before it was pub’d by WD, and ended up combining his method with Martha Alverson’s. Finally a system that really works for me.

      Glad to meet another plotter. 😉 Thanks for commenting!

  7. Elaine Smothers says:

    Wow, 214 writing books! You’re a walking encyclopedia of the craft. I write NF and my favorites to date are Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer, Writing & Publishing Personal Essays by Sheila Bender, Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story by Jennifer Grisanti & Writing Spiritual Books by Hal Zina Bennett. Awesome first blog post – congrats!

    • Erica Miles says:

      I’m going through Story Line by Jen Grisanti right now. I really, really like it. It’s one of those that you HAVE TO do the exercises chapter by chapter to get any benefit, though.

      I definitely want to check out Writing Spiritual Books. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. corajramos says:

    When I started writing I didn’t read any how to books, the inspiration carried me for a while, then a writing teacher gently molded me, so as not to shock me I suspect, until the smack-downs began in critique group. I was amazed that there were rules for writing, imagine that.

    Great first post–witty and makes me want to read more.

    • Erica Miles says:

      Cara- Welcome to the club. It’s sounds like we kinda had the same experience. On the positive side, bet you’re lot more gentle when helping newbies because of the experience. And that’s an excellent thing.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Rabia says:

    Great post. You had me cringing and laughing all the way through.

    I have a few writing books, but I’ve absorbed most of my writing know-how through blog posts, online articles, forum posts, and an online critique workshop. My beta readers keep me grounded, too. I’ve also taken Holly Lisle’s two huge writing courses–How to Think Sideways and How to Revise Your Novel–and they are both AWESOME. And a ton of work.

    But I’m still working on refining my own writing process. It doesn’t help that it seems to change for each book!

    • Erica Miles says:

      Ooh, ooh!!! Holly’s the best! I was in her charter HTTS class, and you’re right about it being a lot of work. I’ve been putting off HTRYN because of the huge time investment. Someday…

      As for refining a process, oddly I found my own not so much by reading craft books, but by rereading them. But that’s another post.

  10. Oh my I’m sorry I was laughing while reading this. It was so me! I still can’t believe Writer’s Digest didn’t claim me a winner and not just a winner but the best they’d ever seen.
    Diana

  11. I think we were channeling each other. I was laughing so hard my wife came in to see what was going on. Great blog!

  12. Wonderful Post, Erica!

    Yup! I wrote TWO (yes, two) manuscripts, went through the query process, clicked my heels when fulls were requested, wanted to throw-up when the “thanks, but…” missives arrived.

    Thanks but what? No clue? No morsels? No sage cousel? Was it a sentence? A word? A paragraph?

    I took several trips through rewrite hell without packing a clue about what the heck generated those rejections.

    I’ve since read too many Craft books to mention, but Donald Maass certainly rocked my plotting and character development world, and Margie Lawson (Lawson Writing Academy) is THE GO TO PERSON for bringing characters and emotions to the page-turner. And — LUCKY ME!– I live close enough to belong to Kristen’s WWBC Crit Group.

    Congrats on your debut post.

    • Erica Miles says:

      Wow. Two manuscripts like that. Your tenacity is amazing.

      I’ve taken three of Margie Lawson’s classes and recommend her highly.

      As for Kristen’s WWBC Crit Group, I’m envious beyond belief! Lucky girl, you!

  13. Oh,now this is painful! But only because it’s just so ME! My 1st novel truly was incredible. Genius isn’t even a big enough word. I would re-read pages and want to weep for the stunning beauty of my words … I can still recall the shock and horror of finding out just how off the mark I was with my illusions of grandeur! One day I intend to take my 1st born pages out of the back of the closet — but only because it should make good kindling for the fireplace. Dreadful … although this post is not — it is excellent 🙂

    • Erica Miles says:

      I had to laugh at your words, ‘I would re-read pages and want to weep for the stunning beauty of my words’. ME TOO!!! Sometimes I spent more time doing that than writing. Embarrassing.

      Thanks for making me smile.

  14. Debbie Morella says:

    What a great 1st post Erica! You should be proud! I like the layout of the site and I enjoyed your writing voice. Can’t wait to hear/read more.

  15. Jeanne Ryan says:

    Can totally relate! Only, it took me, um, five manuscripts to get a contract.

    You’ve covered my favorite two craft books, Writing the Breakout Novel and Save the Cat. Both were game-changers for me.

    Congrats on your first post! You’re off to a great start!

  16. […] Erica Miles wrote about her journey as a writer and some of the great books that helped her along the way in “The First Novel I Wrote Was Genius. Not.“ […]