Friday, October 3, 2014

10 Tips For What Makes a Good Author

One of my birthday gifts this year was a list of blog subject ideas from very dear friends. Every blogger knows that subjects can be hard to come by on occasion, and this was such a blessing! I'll be tackling each subject in the coming months, and today, since writing is on the mind, I'm going to tackle a writing-themed one. Thanks to Sarah for the idea!

Being an author is an incredibly rewarding journey. The joy of craftsmanship, goals accomplished, and getting to work with characters we love is something that gets us up in the morning. Even for fiction authors it's not all amusement, though, and my ten tips will be ten tools that I have used again and again to keep going. Since my book work is primarily with fiction, I'll be slanting this article that direction, but most of these tips can apply to non-fiction as well.

1. Prayer
As I look back on my writing journey, I've never regretting time I spent praying about writing (not near as much as I should) and always wish I had done more. Writing is a wild, wonderful, weighty thing to do. It takes passion; persistence; and it's dangerous to put words on a page, because once they're out of your mind, they're public, and can't be taken back again. Plus, writing is a huge undertaking. Little people trying to imitate the Master Storyteller need a lot of help. God is there, and He cares about the entire process. I've come to Him again and again for stale action tags, plot holes, writer's block, tiredness, time constraints--last year pretty much every week was a running prayer of Dear Lord, please help me hit the deadline. And He did. Every single time. He lovingly and graciously offers us assistance when the villains get long-winded and two characters who ought to be friends just can't seem to get along.

Once you're done with a novel, it's not just a novel anymore. Each page could have a small book written about it with answered prayer, and it's a map of spiritual growth.

This is the first step that should be on any good author's list. And oh, I wish I knew it better.

2. Passion
This is one point that gets me out of my chair as a writer. I pull out my soapbox all the time. Writing requires a deep, gut-wrenching passion to get it right. Most times it's not understood why anyone should be passionate about playing with words. But we're not playing. We're in deep, deadly earnest, keeping alive the gift of stories in a world that very much needs good stories. Authors train the affections and capture the imagination--those two things are staggering in their extent. I commented on K.M. Weiland's post once, and made a passing comment that stories seemed rather frivolous work sometimes. She commented right back and said stories were most assuredly not frivolous--they were absolutely vital to civilization. I had never heard anyone say it with such confidence.

Passion means a confidence in the fact that God has given you the gift of weaving stories, and a deep-down, gut-wrenching, burdensome desire to do it with all your heart and might, for love of Him who gave you the gift.

If God gives us a talent, then it's worth being sold out for. Passion can be dangerous, because it's a living, breathing, double-edged fire--but that's the only way we should live as Christians--on fire for the Lord, trusting him to guide our hearts.

One of the off-shoots of passion is never being satisfied with status quo. We could settle for marginally good writing, but passion means that we go above and beyond to make the story a work of art. Passion means getting the nitty-gritty details right. The ones no-one notices that are the bedrock of your story. And taking all the time it needs to make it a work of art.

3. Grit
I said once in an email to a friend talking about writing that I felt like I had been in a fistfight all week, and I wasn't sure who had won--me or the chapter. Writing takes grit, and the further along you are the more grit it takes. The further you are, the more you know, and the more you know, the harder it is to measure up to what you know about good writing. This year I've been working on the grit principle--even though it feels like it's taking forever, being faithful day in and day out, writing session after writing session, will get the job done. As I heard recently at a writer's conference: those who get published are those who are persistent. Grit means a bulldog-like tenacity that this book will be good, you will get to the finish line, and everything will smooth out the more you polish away at it.

Another facet of this is that each story, like children, has its own growth rate. Grit means being willing to pour in all it takes to make that story successful. Some stories grow slower than others and just take longer--but being committed to them, however long they take, is what gets you to the printed copy in your hands.

4. Love for the characters
Love them. And don't be afraid of it. Love them like your sister or your mom or your grandpa. Love them so much that you know exactly what they would order when you walk into a restaurant, exactly what zingy comeback they would give when you're out in company. I know exactly how my characters would behave at family gatherings and what kind of things they would do or not do. Some of them are tough love, some of them are deep, warm affection, some of them are an anxious, mothering kind of love hoping they'll understand and get it right. I wouldn't trade a single one of them, and it just hurts in an odd kind of way that I'll never get to meet the people I've spent so much time crafting. But as one person said, "That is the curse a writer must bear."

Love them with all the passionate joy you're capable of. It will brighten your writing, for you'll get to write about people you love all day. It will help you stay committed to the crafting process. And it will turn out a more beautiful, more audience-engaging final project. That love will show on paper, and your audience will applaud you for it.

5. Support Partners
Writing is a team process. That's the theme of the writing conference I went to this year, and I learned how willing people are to be a team with writers. I'm awed at every person I met who chooses to support me in my writing. Some days I go around asking why in the world, and thanking the Lord that they're willing to stick with me. A big thank-you to all of you who have done that for me!

 Find a team of people to be support partners for you, and be support partners for them. Sometimes that's a prayer partner. Sometimes it's a critique partner. Sometimes it's a brainstormer or a cheerleader. I'm incredibly blessed to have abundant prayer and encouragement from friends. And a lot of times it's that one comment. One line. One phrase written by someone who loves your work  that fuels you to go the next mile of writing. We're not designed to be alone, and having people around to help with writer's block, perspective, and gentle nudging when we're wandering is a blessed experience. Every author needs a Samwise, so don't ever try to get to Mordor by yourself. And if you see a Frodo setting off alone, then make sure you follow after him--he'll be glad you did.

6. Lots of Reading
Tolkien said something about your writing being richer if you have a rich leaf mould in your mind. Each book is an added layer that composts down into black gold. Everything you read, as long as it's good literature, whether or not it's connected with the subject matter you're writing about, will be helpful to you. I count L.M. Montgomery, Ellis Peters, Charles Dickens, and John Buchan all influences in my novel, and two of them are opposite poles of subject matter. But they all combine together to give me exactly the mindset I need in crafting my story. It's hard in a busy life to find time for reading and writing--but reading even as much as fifteen or twenty minutes a day will get more done than you think, and give a daily mental lubrication that is vital in crafting stories. Plus, I think the more characters you meet in other people's works, the more variety you'll have in crafting your own. Read fiction, read nonfiction, read inspirational and scientific, historical, relational, mystery, historical--all these things are vital for whichever genre you prefer to write in.

7.  Break the Rules
That sounds like we're a bunch of hippie rebels sitting up in an attic spouting off about free society. Ain't so. Writing is made of rules and structure, and lots of excellent books have been written about that. It's important to study structure, and then when you're writing the story, just let the subconscious carry the structure and write the story as you see it playing in your mind. Focusing on structure too much can make a book drab and flat, and kill the creative process. No structure at all will make it wander all over the paper and give you a heap of re-writing to do. But once you know the structure, if you set your mind on auto-pilot, it will generally stand you in good stead.

Also, if you're a constant reader, some of your subconscious already knows what you like in a story and will carry that structure through automatically. Plot holes can always be fixed. It's the fresh and ready wit, wonder, and excitement that are vital to get down, and that's something no structure book will be able to give you. It comes from your heart, from your love of the story. Know the rules, know why they're in place, and then bend and break them--with good, solid reason for doing so--to make a better tale.

8. Vulnerability
I've said this once before, but it bears repeating. Writing on paper, especially for certain story types, is a very vulnerable experience. I'm a private person with an over-delicate sense of dignity, and clumsy character actions are almost more traumatic for me then for them. But good writing requires a willingness to mess up: in front of critique partners, in front of yourself. Some of the metaphors of what showing what writing feels like just aren't appropriate to say in public, but it can feel like exposure. I get anxiety attacks just experimenting by myself sometimes--making a character say something sweet, putting in a gritty action tag, or exposing a piece of myself with the character struggles. Even behind the bedroom door, it's not my favorite part. But the risk factor brings my writing to a whole new level. It's like an actor who constantly experiments while they're acting--yes, sometimes it's embarrassing when something goes south--but those times are more than made up for by the dares that are wonderful successes.

Writing requires emotion. Live and hurt and laugh and love all over that paper. And don't be afraid to let people see you're doing it. Dare to make mistakes--they all get you a higher skill level, and give you a thicker skin. Both good things.

9. Organization
I have a very odd way of organizing things, and in some cases, it's not nearly as efficient as I would like it to be. Files are in out of the way folders, bits of inspiration are tucked hither and yon, and sometimes it's a process just trying to find the piece of conversation I'm looking for so I can write the next thing. I would encourage you, if you're an author, have a really good organizing system, and make sure you keep it up to date and in place. Characters folder, inspiration folder, a writing software--whatever it takes to have everything within easy reach, that will really help you maximize the effectiveness of the spare moments you get to write. Can you write without it? Oh, certainly! But organization is a valuable tool to have in your arsenal, and one I really need to look at soon. :)

10. Recharge Time
It's okay to go on Pinterest. Make that character bucket list. Do that interview. Look at those character pictures. It's okay. The recharge time is important. It plugs in your batteries and lets the brain soil lie fallow, restoring the nutrients so that you can write even better than you would have otherwise. If your writing feels worn-out, then take a little time to treat yourself and be nice to your hard-working brain. Especially if you're a driving perfectionist or have a lot of adult responsibilities and other engagements on your plate.

Also, I find music to be a source of recharge as I write. Having that melodic, other-person creativity pour into my ears and heart as I pour out is a source of recharge on the go.

Writing has been a journey for me, and one I hope that will continue for years to come. These are some of the lessons I've learned, and tips I would give to other authors. I hope they're an encouragement to you, that you're not alone in some of the things you feel, and other authors out there are going through the exact same creative process.

What would you add to this list?

Lady Bibliophile


  1. I loved this post Schuyler!! Thank you for going in deep. All the tips really helped and were very interesting to read. :)

    1. Thank-you for the idea, Sarah! I just remembered about your story--I hope it's going well for you. I'd love to chat more with you about it and hear how it's progressing. :) Happy writing!


  2. Loved all the thought that went into this post! I especially enjoyed #4 and #6. Loving your characters is so special and it's really sad that you never get to meet them in person. :( Though, like you've said before, every character is a part of the writer and his life, so they are real, in a way.

    And on point 6 I think it's very important that we do lots of reading, but also in Scripture. Even if we don't remember all of it as we read, it still forms the rich leaf mould of our minds. Not only with morals, but with character arcs and knotty issues that we wrestle out as we write.

    I love your writing and I can see you applying these principles as you write. Keep up the good work! :D


    1. Very good point about Scripture reading. I've found that through years and years of reading the Bible--it builds up layer by layer until you know much more than you think you do.

      I can tell you love your characters, too. Especially the ones we've been talking about lately. <3


  3. These were all so, so good. I loved the first four especially. I've come to know this year more than ever that prayer is the first and most important work in writing.

    Organization is an area in which I need to grow. It makes a night-and-day difference, especially in projects that require lots of research. I will be sorting through many files and folders of information myself this week, Lord willing....

    ~The Philologist

    1. Prayer is a vital part of writing, and the main part of the work. Sometimes it feels like it takes too much time, but taking the time to pray while working on other things makes writing time so much more effective when the spare pockets come along.

      And Scrivener is a pretty sweet way to organize. :D


  4. Thank you, Schuyler, I loved that post! Anything about writing and a writer's life. :)
    I think another thing that makes a good author is imagination. You need to be able to look at someone and see the hero undiscovered, or the empty house and the happy times that were in it. When you work yourself to the bone or are in pain to the point where you almost faint, you must be able to then put it into words in your character's context, in a way that your readers will feel it as if it had happened to them. You must have the eyes to see stories around you, and to recreate them accurately and originally.
    And that, in my opinion, is one of the most enjoyable parts of being an author as well. :)

    --E.H. ;)

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

      Excellent point about imagination--and it makes real life so much easier to handle, too, when you can take the omniscient perspective and apply it to your characters. Living a rich, real life while you're away from the computer will make the times at the computer a lot more vibrant.

      I was driving home from election training a couple of weeks ago, terribly hungry--at first I was inclined to complain, but then I spent the rest of the drive glad that I could use the feeling for one of my characters eventually. :) 'Tis all part of being a writer.

      I was praying for your writing this morning, and hope it goes well this week!



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