Friday, January 10, 2014

Guest Post by C.C. Dowling: Three Lessons to Keep Your Readers Up At Night

My critique partner, Scott—who’s great, by the way (no, he didn’t pay me to say that, but he should)—asked me to write a guest post for his blog.

I gotta admit, I was excited. No one’s ever asked me to write a guest post before. And then, the panic set in. Crap! People are going to expect that I have something to say.

As any good writer would, I spent hours (seriously, only ten minutes) searching for just the right quote by other writers that could epitomize my experience thus far. You know what I learned? No, no, besides that fact that people say a lot of crap.

Yeah, I learned that finding the right quote is harder than you might think. That, or I’m just not an efficient search engine guru.

What I am good at is creating stuff out of thin air—or the voices inside my head that won’t leave me alone until I write them down. I should be able to come up with something clever. Except, I haven’t.

That’s the thing about writing. It’s a process. Kinda like life. Sometimes things pop in, and they’re amazing. Other times, you struggle to find the right words. But everything, whether it’s easy or labored, takes hard work, dedication, and that special spark called passion.
When I was a kid I knew, with absolute certainty, two things:

  1. I would be a singer, and make enough money to change the world
  2. I would be a writer

I find it funny—and depressing—how, even at seven years old, I knew money was somehow not attached to writing.

Here’s the thing you need to know about both of those aspirations…they’re a craft. Yeah, I paid good money to my writing coach (worth every penny, by the way) to learn that one.

So, for this article, I’ll impart to you three hard learned lessons I’ve discovered while on the path to becoming, what I hope, is an amazing author who inspires people, changes the world, and pays her bills on time.

Lesson #1: Writing is a Craft.
Photo by Walt Stoneburner (License)
Have you ever picked up a book and started reading it a few hours before bedtime, only to find yourself up at 2:00 AM on a work night just to finish? Or the other thing happens, where you get one chapter in (if that far) only to discover you couldn’t be less interested? Both have happened to me, and just about everything in between.

Ever wonder what makes them so amazing, or suck-tastic? I didn’t either until I tried to become a writer. You want the answer?

That’ll be $100. No, seriously. And that’s a discount compared to what I paid to tell you what I’m about to for free.

The super long complicated answer is that it’s a lot of things. That’s when I’d go into telling you about voice, characterization, story structure, grammar, passive vs active, showing vs telling, etc…. And then you know what? Two years will have gone by and you’d still be reading this article and it wouldn’t make any sense. Okay, maybe a little sense. But not much. At least, that’s how it happened for me.

I spent a good two years playing with, and learning, these concepts in order to get a feel for them. It wasn’t something I could simply read about and understand. I had to try and fail—miserably, I might add—in order to get it. Just to be fair to you readers, I still have tons to learn. It’s exciting to know I’ll keep getting better. You should feel that way too. You don’t have to, but it helps.

The short answer to why you can’t sleep at night when reading a good book is craft.

Writing is a skill that must be honed. I’ll give you a few ways to do that. Keep in mind this is, by no means, a comprehensive list. Scott’s only giving me so many words for this article, and there’s other stuff I want to tell you, so…

  1. Read what you want to write. There is no way around this. Reading what you want to write gives you a sense of language, structure, themes, and pacing for your genre. Plus, when you write your dreaded query letter, you need to have amazing comparison titles for your work. If you haven’t read in your genre, how will you know where your book fits on the shelf?
  2.  Butt in chair. This is my writing coach’s motto. Even if you’re writing crap, or not working on your main manuscript, you should be writing something. Athletes practice. Musicians practice. Authors practice.
  3. The hardest and most important thing in your manuscript is the opening. That’s what people will read first—aside from the jacket cover and customer reviews. This is how you’re introducing your story. If you want to know how to do it well, grab 5-6 best sellers in your genre and study them. Read, re-read, and re-read again the first paragraph, page, chapter. Outline it. What works? What doesn’t? What hooked you? What kind of language did they use? How was the setting described, or character emotions? Did you want to read more? Why? Now, go and do the same thing for your story.

Lesson #2: Writing is Rejection
As I mentioned before, when I was a kid I wanted to be a singer. The cool thing was that I came from a musical family who nurtured that side of me. So, from the age of two all the way until I took a vacation from school when I was twenty-one, I pursued a music career. (Yes, I went back. Yes, I got a degree. No, it isn’t in English or Writing.)

I gotta tell you, music is all about rejection. When you take the stage, you’re putting your talent on the line for everyone in the audience to judge. It’s rough when they don’t like you. It hurts. It’s personal…at least, it was for me. But I was good at it—good enough to make it into a prestigious music university. I loved it. And music gave me something that no amount of rejection could take away. It gave me a voice.

So, when it comes to writing, I should be a seasoned pro at rejection, right? Right?

Yeah, no. Dead wrong. In fact, getting rejected for my writing was like 1 x 106 times worse than getting rejected on stage, or at an audition.

There was a point in time when I was “in the trenches,” so to speak, where I was actually depressed from doing what I was most passionate about. I was depressed because I wanted so desperately to be good at writing, but I knew I wasn’t. The story I told myself is that I should feel sad, and angry, and hurt, and desperate about my writing. That everyone struggles. After all, isn’t that what makes me a good writer?
Stick with me. I’m getting to the point and to the tasty, crunchy bits at the bottom of the box.
So here’s the answer you may or may not like. Yes. And no.

Being hungry and passionate and aware that I need improvement makes me better at what I do, every day I do it. The depression and endless pit of despair doesn’t.

Every time I got a critique back that basically told me my writing sucked, I’d get despondent, dejected, withdrawn. I’d question if I was good enough to do this. Maybe I should just quit? A lot of people do. That’s why less than 1% of stuff written gets published. [Fact check: I just made up that statistic. The actual percent is probably less.]

Here’s what you should keep in mind:

WRITING IS HARD! If it wasn’t, everyone would do it, right? You know what, scratch that. Just about everyone does write. Let’s rephrase.

BEING A SUCCESSFUL WRITER IS HARD! There, that seems more accurate.

It’s okay to struggle to get better. It isn’t okay to lock yourself in a dark room and cry for three weeks straight with nothing more than a roll of toilet paper and a tub of ice cream.

Now, here’s the nugget that flipped my frown upside down.

If you look at every critique and rejection as an opportunity to get better, to learn something, to collect your “NOs” as a friend of mine would say, suddenly, everything gets exciting.

That’s it. It’s that simple. A shift in perspective makes everything better. And that goes for life, not just writing. If writing is your life, then you’re ahead of the game.

I’m not saying you won’t feel disappointment. You will. I’m saying it’s not the end of the world. It’s the beginning.

Lesson #3: Social Networking
I know. I rolled my eyes too, for about a year. I was one of those hold-outs when it came to Twitter. I felt like Twitter was the Borg and I was resisting assimilation. I’ll admit, I’ve made fun of the word “Tweet” and enjoyed Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon’s Hashtag parody.
Follow CC here: @CCDowling

But here’s a secret, in case you didn’t know. There’s an amazing community of writers/editors/agents/publishers all available in one hundred forty character or less. What I’ve learned is that almost everyone is supportive and wants to help you succeed. Every critique group I’ve participated in has come from contacts I’ve made on Twitter. I’ve learned about contests, agent, publishers, and all kinds of stuff I probably would have never found on my own if it wasn’t for this social media tool.
It’s a tool. Use it!

And guys, Twitter is just one option. One! There are so many more avenues I haven’t explored. Explore them. Then come back and do a guest post for Scott so I can learn about them.

So, there you have it. Three things I’ve learned on my writing journey that have made me better at my craft and propelled me forward in doing what I love.
What are some of yours?

C.C. Dowling lives in America’s finest city, San Diego, with her toddler (who plays in the yard with Faeries), her husband (the financial shaman), her Aussie (with mesmerizing blue eyes), and a pet dragon (who is the real reason the neighbor’s dog barks incessantly at night).

When she’s not working in the field of neuroscience, she’s writing fantastical short stories and novels about blood-drinkers, shape-shifters, soul reapers, and demons hell-bent on redemption. You can find her on Twitter at @CCDowling, on Facebook, and on the web at

For more information about her amazing writing coach (who is responsible for the information in lesson #1) please visit

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