Someone recently asked me what pieces of advice I would give to a person who is considering becoming a writer. My first thought was that you do not become a writer, you either are one or you aren’t and inside, you know the answer to that already.
I put together this list of considerations that I think would help a person who is just starting out:
1) Have at least one lie or one truth or one song inside you. If you have a lie, write fiction. If you have a truth, write non-fiction. If you have a song, write poetry.
2) Have a good word processing program and an internet connection.
3) Know how to use a search engine effectively. No matter what you write, there will always be something you have to research.
4) Have a good working grasp of grammar, spelling, and style. If you do not have this when you start, be sure and learn these skills online or take a class so that you produce a well tuned product. I recommend the book “On Writing” by Stephen King.
5) Study the field and market of your choice. If you write poems, learn what is popular in the poetry market. If you write fiction, make sure you have read a lot of fiction. If you write non-fiction, know your subject matter intimately.
6) If you write non-fiction, know how to cite your references.
7) If you write fiction, do the extra work and research anything you do not know about the era, the location, and the traditions of the culture and setting of your story. Fiction without some foundation of legitimacy loses credibility. Do not write about Air Force life without being in the Air Force or interviewing people in the Air Force or researching firsthand accounts of life in the Air Force, for instance. Do not write with authority about places you have never been without researching the geography, the climate, and the customs.
8) Have at least one friend or loved one who can give you constructive criticism as a beta reader without killing your spirit and listen to them. That does not mean you have to do exactly what they say, but it does mean that someone read your work and has an opinion. They are now your target audience.
9) As Stephen King says, “Kill your darlings.” Do not become so enamored with your characters that your story suffers. Your character needs to take the bullet if the story demands it, not the book.
10) If you write fiction, you need an average or above-average understanding of people and how they work to write relatable characters.
11) Dorothy Parker famously said that writing is the practice of applying the ass to the chair. You have to have the discipline to sit down and do it, whether that is for an hour a day or ten hours a day.
12) Get over insecurities. In today’s market, someone will want to read your work. You just have to show them that it is there (marketing, marketing, marketing).
13) If the Divine has blessed you with a message, whether that message is in the form of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, you must not die with that message unshared. Do not let laziness or insecurity take away the birthright you were given to be heard. Just do it. Sit down and start writing.
Also, I have received many questions such as “How long does a novel have to be?” and “How many words do you have to write for a piece to be considered a short story?” Here are the industry standards:
• Under 1000: Flash fiction, or “short short” stories
• 1,000-7,500: Short story
• 7,500-20,000: Novelette
• 20,000-50,000: Novella
• Over 50,000: Novel
When you get over 50,000, the term is “uber-novel” and when you go over 100,000 words, you are now writing a “mega-novel.”
In Kindle Direct Publishing, the most used interface for e-book publication, you receive 70% of your book’s list price provided you set your book price between $2.99 and $9.99. Otherwise, your royalty is 35%. The general consensus is that for a book to be worth $2.99, it should have a minimum of 8000 words, preferably 10,000.
I hope this helps,
Updated: Wow! This post was up for twenty minutes and I had a ton of thank you message in my inbox! I’m glad you folks enjoyed it. Because there seems to be an interest, I am going to post two chapters of my book, “Get Your Book Published” here. These are specifically on how to get’er done. 🙂
Just Do It
It seems as though everyone I talk to has at least one book inside them, waiting to be born. Sadly, most will die without ever seeing the light of day. Why? At this point in our development as a society it is for nothing more than lack of time and/or motivation. The first lack is always fixable. Even if you carve out an hour a day to write, you can and will eventually get your book finished. Motivation is another issue altogether. The brilliant writer Dorothy Parker said many profound and quotable things in her life, but the observation that struck me most deeply and stayed with me for all of the years since I first heard it is, “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” The difference between being an aspiring author and a published author is often little more than sitting down and doing the actual writing.
In On Writing (considered by many to be the quintessential guide to professional writing), Stephen King advises authors to “write hot and edit cold.” Combine this with the advice from Parker and you have the best and most direct instruction for actually getting a book completed from two successful authors: just write. Do not outline just yet. Do not worry about anything between your starting point and your ending point. For that matter, do not even define your ending point just yet. Do not go back and rewrite to correct continuity or to accommodate plot changes. Just write your book from beginning to end.
This guidance applies whether you are writing a fiction or a non-fiction book. Of course, you will want to consider basic points to cover, but the idea is to be very flexible about what the book might want to say in its own voice. Although my primary genre of writing is non-fiction, I recently began a series of fantasy fiction. I was surprised to find that my character and events drove their own story. I naively believed that I was in control of the direction of the book, but they quickly let me know who was boss. I found myself eager to get back to writing, not only because I wanted to complete the book, but because I wanted to find out what happened next! Give your fiction room to breathe and take on its own life. The story it tells when you give it the freedom to do so will be far beyond what you can accomplish within the confines of a rigid outline.
Your First Two Drafts Belong To You
Do not bring others into your writing process until the rewrite (and yes, you will have a rewrite) unless it is necessary. Your book should be purely in your words and follow your own projection. Although you may want to change minor points as your book fleshes out, for the most part, you should write your book linearly, from start to finish with very little backtracking. If you come to a part of the book that simply is not working, take a break for a while (an hour, a day) and come back to it. You may need to take it in a different direction or just power through the project, pacing a bracketed space-holder at the trouble area like this:
[Fix this later]
[Find a way to segue these chapters]
[How the hell did Donovan get back to the house after the train wreck?? O_O ]
Then jump to the next part and fix the trouble area in the rewrite. Sometimes, when you take the book all the way through to the end, the solution to the trouble area becomes clear. Regardless, there is no harm in skipping difficult areas and returning to them later with the benefit of a completed book behind you. You can also identify research you need to do in this fashion as well:
[Get statistics for print book versus ebook sales for recent quarter]
See? Unless the information is vital to the remainder of the book, it is often easier to catch it in the final draft. You want to “slow your roll” is little as possible when you are moving through the first burn of the book draft. Like Dorrie from “Finding Nemo” says, (paraphrased) “Just keep writing; just keep writing.”
Once your book is finished, step away from it for at least a day – preferably, a week. I know about deadlines and how eager most authors are to move on to the next step, but in order to achieve a quality result, you should give the project some room to breathe. Once you have taken a short break from the book, try to come back to it with new eyes. You now know your book intimately because you have followed it from beginning to end. You know its weaknesses. You know its strengths. You know how long you want the chapters to be and you know what parts you need to rework or research. Finalizing that first draft is your golden ticket. From there on, it is easy stuff.
Using your fresh, rested eyes, re-read your book from start to finish, every single word. You will find yourself often rewriting or rearranging and that is fine. Now that you know the exact trajectory of the book and the shape it has taken, you have greater insight into how it should flow. The book has now told you its story and now it is up to you to perfect the package.
By now, you have completed your first draft and your first rewrite and the book likely only needs spit polishing and formatting. If your rewrite involved significant restructuring of the book, I suggest yet another read-through to make sure everything flows and your message is intact. Once you feel comfortable with the flow and integrity of the book’s package, it is time to turn it over to a new set of eyes.
To recap: write your first draft and at least one second draft, then bring in your editors and beta readers.
OPEN THE DOOR
Stephen King advises writers to write with the door open and edit with the door closed. The first draft and rewrite are yours alone. After that, you need to get a second opinion. Choose your beta readers and editors carefully. You can pay hundreds of dollars to have someone edit your book for you or you can take a chance that you have a clue what you are doing. If you are good with networking, you may be able to find people in your circle of acquaintances who are willing to help you out. Unless you are writing for children, you should be crafting your book at or above an eighth grade level. If you know English majors or middle school/high school/college teachers/professors who might be willing to give it a look through, is worth asking. Almost everyone knows an uptight grammar Nazi who would shiver with joy at the chance to take a red pen to a piece of your literary heart. There are many grammar sites on the internet that can get the basics to you and I urge you to refresh your memory on the basics from time to time. MS Word also has a function to check for “style” and “grammar” in addition to spelling and I have found it to be very helpful.
Choosing an Editor or Beta Reader
To be clear, a “beta reader” is someone who is reading your book in the finished, early stages so that you get a sense for how well you convey your story and message. If the book were a movie, the beta reader would be your “test audience.” They give you feedback on areas that are particularly enjoyable or are difficult to understand. Remember that you know your story and what makes sense to you with the full picture in your mind may not translate out well to text. Your beta reader is there to tell you these things.
An “editor” has a more specific job of correcting your sentence structure, your grammar, and your syntax while preserving the integrity of your message. The degree that you wish to have an editor work on your manuscript should be set up in advance and understood by both sides. Your editor may also have suggestions for how to convey your message more clearly.
As with any input, it is always up to you, the author, to accept or reject the advice you receive. Ultimately, a book is your baby and you are under no compulsion to blindly implement the ideas your editors or beta readers provide to you.
When you turn your masterpiece over to someone else to read, there are necessary guidelines to establish on both sides:
– Be clear in your mind what you want them to do. Are they checking for grammar, syntax, and flow? Style? Spelling? Are they looking for continuity and fluidity? Are they fact checking? Let them know before they start reading your book what you want them to do and how you want it presented to you. Do you want them to read a print copy and make notations with pen? Do you want them to use an editable Word document and note their comments in red print? Do you want notes separate from the manuscript? Be specific.
– Make sure your beta reader/editor is a reader. Only a voracious reader and lover of books can give an intelligent and objective criticism of a book.
– Make sure your beta reader/editor knows your genre and your subject matter – Be careful about who you allow to see your book before it is published and always, the person previewing it should have a proclivity toward the contents. For instance, you would not give a technical manual on plumbing to a person who knows nothing about plumbing and expect them to provide an intelligent, critical review. You would not give your science fiction book to someone who does not enjoy that genre. Know your audience, even in beta readers and editors. A book is not a fruitcake, so do not employ the tactic of, “I know you don’t like science fiction, but you will surely like my science fiction!”
– Discuss a time frame. Nothing is worse than handing over your precious manuscript to a reader, then waiting…, and waiting, wondering if you are not hearing from your reader/editor because they have not yet gotten to the project or because they are trying to figure out how to tell you it’s terrible. When you offer your manuscript for preview, ask your reader how long they expect it to take so that you will have reasonable expectations.
– Ask for a review blurb. If your reader/editor enjoys the book, (and we are certain they will, right?) ask them for a few flattering sentences to include on the book jacket. This not only gives you a marketing tool, but also gives the person providing the words some exposure.
– Open your mind. It can be very hard to accept criticism about a project that has taken so much of your time and effort. When you hand off your book to for review, understand that it is not only possible, but very likely that the person doing the reviewing will have some suggestions. Take helpful criticism without being an ass about it. That is, after all, why you are having them read the book. If someone hands you the book back without a mark on it and says, “It’s perfect, don’t change a thing,” would you not be suspicious that the reader is being insincere or possibly did not read the book at all?
Expect comments such as:
“I had trouble relating to this part of the book”
“These paragraphs did not make any sense to me”
“I wanted more detail on this.”
Graciously accept the feedback you receive as a way to improve your book. It is not a personal attack. If it is, you did a crappy job of choosing your target beta reader/editor. Strongly consider what your readers tell you, especially if you hear the same observation from more than one person. You are not under contract to accept or employ any advice you receive. Ultimately, your book is yours to print as you choose. While you may consider it to be a privilege to preview your new book (and it is), critical reading and evaluation of a manuscript takes time and energy. Smile and say thank you, even if you do not invest in the suggestions you receive. A nod in the Acknowledgements section of your book is a gracious turn for those who have acted as preview readers.
– Accept that the book may not be perfect. I am an avid reader, primarily of Kindle books, and I regularly find books from well-known writers with glaring grammatical and editorial errors in them. I have had people point out errors to me in my books that I published months before and had literally thousands of copies sold. Yikes! For a Virgo, that is maddening. You cannot catch everything, even with a team of editors. You want to get your manuscript as close to perfect as you can, but things can still slip by. Sloppy editing is one of the fastest ways to take a beating in the comments section for your book and get poor ratings. Take your grammar and formatting seriously and do the best job you can. Get your manuscript to editors if possible and move on to the production phase when you are confident that you have the best presentation you can have. On the other hand, avoid becoming so obsessed in producing a perfect product that your book is in a constant state of nitpicking paralysis. Balance is key.
If you would like to read this entire book, please contact me for a PDF copy: firstname.lastname@example.org
One thought on “Writing Advice”
Sage advice, all of it. Also, I can recommend a skilled proofer… 😉