The Best Advice I've Ever Received by Tara SullivanI’ve received a lot of good advice over the course of the past half-dozen years, but I would say that the best advice I’ve ever received has been: keep writing and let yourself be edited.
I was once at a conference where someone made the point that we (writers and artists) are the only professions that give ourselves permission not to work just because we’re not feeling like it. This author (whose name I wish I could remember!) said, “If you called a plumber and they said, ‘Sorry, I can’t work today, I’ve got plumber’s block,’ you’d never put up with it! So why do we, as authors, give ourselves permission not to work?” She went on to encourage everyone to write through blocks, not stop for them. If you feel we can’t write more of this particular scene or know where to take that character, you can write something else if you have to but, no matter what… keep writing!
I’ve found this to be amazingly helpful advice. I, just like so many other creative people I know, often hit places where I have absolutely no idea what comes next in the story or what the book needs to move forward. When I have allowed myself the luxury of stopping “to think it through” or “to wait for inspiration”… invariably nothing gets better. I freeze up. I can’t write. I have no way to look beyond the big brick wall in front of me. Waiting for a writer’s block to dissolve on it’s own isn’t going to help you. DO something. And so, following this colleague’s advice, I make myself write until I’ve pushed through to the other side…
Plot problem? I make myself write 1000 words a day, even if they’re terrible. I force my character put one foot in front of the other (often literally!) until I find something meaningful for them to do.
Flat interactions? I write secondary character journals. Secondary character journals are something I’ve found helpful when I can’t get out of my MC’s head enough to be able to run a good dialogue. I find a picture online that looks like my secondary character and then write a one page, first-person account of their life as they see it unfolding for the time-lapse of the novel. (Invariably they don’t agree with my MC about which things are important, or what the goals should be!) I then tape these to the wall behind my computer and reference back to them so that their words in my dialogue are in keeping with who they really are, not who my MC wishes they were.
Voice inconsistency? Sketchy backstory leading to shaky motivations? World-building problems? … The cure is the same: write, write, write! You can always go back and cut out the processing junk later, once you’re back on track, so don’t be afraid of it.
And, speaking of going back to cut and process…
Let yourself be edited.
The main difference I’ve found between people that are in love with their stories but never got them published and those who are in love with their stories and did get them published is how willing they were to change when they received feedback.
It is really, really difficult when you’ve worked hard on a manuscript to hear that your characters are coming off as one-dimensional, or your plot strains credulity, or your voice is inconsistent. It is easy to feel that these are criticisms leveled against you: that the person sharing the critique is somehow devaluing you as a writer or saying that your story isn’t good enough to be out there. However, to be successful, you have to understand that the opposite is true. You have to view feedback through the lens that your crit group member (or agent, or editor) is valuing your writing by taking time out of their busy day to try to help you improve your story, so that it can be put successfully into the hands of more readers.
It’s a hard thing to do, as a writer, especially if you’re new to writing, but learning how to accept critique well is really key to become better—at any stage of your career! One thing I’ve found helpful in learning how to accept critique is to break apart the feedback from the recommendations. What I mean is: People often offer suggestions of how to fix a problem with their critique—For example, “It doesn’t read like YA. Maybe you should include a romance?” or “He doesn’t seem to land on his feet at the end. He should become a firefighter like his hero,” etc. Even if you completely disagree with their fix (“A romance?? No way! That is so not where my MC is right now!” or “The whole point is that he doesn’t become a firefighter!!”), learn to pay attention to the critique that preceded it. Why is your book not feeling like YA? Is it your MC’s voice? Is it the topics and themes you’ve chosen to bring out or not bring out? And, once you diagnose the problem… do you want to fix them? Or do love your MC’s voice and decide to cut down the word count to keep the voice and turn what you’ve written into your first middle grade masterpiece?
Bottom line, you don’t have to take anyone’s bad advice. But look closely at any feedback you’re offered. Maybe your MC will never be a fireman, but if you can listen to the fact that your readers want more emotional closure from your ending, you’ll end up with a better book.
ABOUT THE BOOK
For fans of Linda Sue Park and A Long Way Gone, two young boys must escape a life of slavery in modern-day Ivory Coast
Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. For two years what has mattered are the number of cacao pods he and his younger brother, Seydou, can chop down in a day. This number is very important. The higher the number the safer they are because the bosses won’t beat them. The higher the number the closer they are to paying off their debt and returning home to Baba and Auntie. Maybe. The problem is Amadou doesn’t know how much he and Seydou owe, and the bosses won’t tell him. The boys only wanted to make some money during the dry season to help their impoverished family. Instead they were tricked into forced labor on a plantation in the Ivory Coast; they spend day after day living on little food and harvesting beans in the hot sun—dangerous, backbreaking work. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive—until Khadija comes into their lives.
She’s the first girl who’s ever come to camp, and she’s a wild thing. She fights bravely every day, attempting escape again and again, reminding Amadou what it means to be free. But finally, the bosses break her, and what happens next to the brother he has always tried to protect almost breaks Amadou. The old impulse to run is suddenly awakened. The three band together as family and try just once more to escape.
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About the Author
Her first book, GOLDEN BOY, was selected as a top-ten book of 2013 by YALSA, Kirkus reviews, and the Wall Street Journal. It is the winner of the 2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People Award. Her second novel, THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET, is due out from G.P.Putnam/Penguin in early 2016