Advice to a New Writer from a Slightly Less New Author

Today John (AKA Terry in my books) grabbed me when I entered the dog park and dragged me over to the water-pump where an attractive young lady not quite old enough to be my daughter stood.

“This is (insert name) she wants to publish. You two should talk.”

“Oh? What do you write?” I ask.

Whereupon this very nice young lady whose name I can’t remember (though her dog is Stella) tells me she’d like to write Dystopian Sci-Fi but doesn’t have a concept yet. “I’m at the word-vomit stage,” she confesses.

At this point she had to leave, so we could not continue talking. Meanwhile my brain started churning with all my thoughts about being a good writer and I had no one to pontificate to. Which is why I’m writing this post.

I’ve only been writing since 2010, self-published in 2011. I have watched dozens of others who started this enterprise the same time I did. Some have always wanted to write and even had old manuscripts they could drag out of their trunks. Some, like me, said “Hey, I’d like to write a book,” and went for it. Among my friends are writing newbies who are now making six figure incomes.

My income? Like I’d tell you. I will say sitting around in your sweats with a dog under your desk is a fine way to pay the rent.

I’m not all about money. Money equals sales, which equals readers, which is what we all want.

So here is my list of tips for anyone who wishes to succeed as a writer.

1. Write every day. Set an easily achievable goal and do it. You really do have time. Most people can knock out 500 words in the time they waste watching a Star Trek rerun. You don’t wait to exercise until you are inspired, you don’t go to work only when you’re in the mood. Treat your writing the same way you treat every other important thing in your life.

2. Create a structure for your writing habit. If you consistently write in the same place at the same time of day, your brain will be ready to write when you sit down at your desk. Just like my dogs are ready for their afternoon walk at the same time every day and will disrupt whatever I’m doing to make sure it happens.

Make sure the environment is pleasing to you and conducive to your productivity, and stay consistent. write with the same pen in the same chair or on the same computer and get ready with coffee in the same funky souvenir cup on the same coaster. Use the same word processing software.

These little details become signals that ready your writing neurons and get you salivating. It’s like AA in reverse. They tell you to get rid of that cool leather jacket you always wore bar-hopping and not to drive past your favorite bar on the way to church, even if it is shorter, for the same reason. We are all Pavlov’s dogs. Use it to your advantage.

3. If you don’t have a book going yet, start a blog. Blogs are great for getting your writing juices going and will provide an outlet for your word-vomit stage. There’s a side benefit. If you wind up with a big blog following, you will have a pre-made audience for your book when it comes out. Nick Russell’s Gypsy Journal RVing blog readers put his first novel, Big Lake, on the NYT best seller list.

4. Pick a genre and concept and stick to it. In my writer’s group (80 + self-published authors), some folks wrote series and some folks wrote multiple books in multiple genres. The books that took off were all in a series. NONE of the stand-alone books has achieved any traction. Even successful writers lose traction when they take time out to write in another genre. Granted, it’s not all about the money. Remember, money equals readerage, and that’s a good thing.

5. Yes, you need to have an original hook. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

Pick your favorite genre, the one type of fiction that you’ll read and be entertained, even when the books are mediocre.

If you are truly ready to be an author, you will be vaguely unsatisfied with much of what you read. Some writing will be too violent, some not racy enough, and some will lack description or likeable characters. You’ll follow plots and think, “If I were writing this, I would (fill in the blank).” Your niggling complaints reveal what you want out of a book. Use that.

Next look around you. Places you’ve lived, careers you’ve had, disciplines you’ve studied. How can you add your experiences to your concept?

Write what you know. Veracity of detail makes for better books, and lack of knowledge will make you look like a buffoon. I recently read a romantic thriller by a best-selling author where the final confrontation took place in a natural ravine in Chicago. You ever been to Chicago? There’s not a natural ravine within fifty miles of the city. There were other details that made no sense in the context of the story and its location. I can only surmise that the author farmed out this book to a ghostwriter who didn’t bother with research.

Toss all the things you know and love into the blender and see what you come up with. Somebody had to invent Jane Austen with Zombies. Please yourself, and there are sure to be others who appreciate what you do. Try to play to the market, and chances are you will please nobody and be miserable doing it.

6.  Respect structure. Don’t sneer at the basics. You want to be different? Great. The roof still goes on top of the house. You will never see a building with a roof in the basement.

You can go crazy reading all the how to books out there, but winging it without any knowledge will likely end up in an overblown mess. My favorite books are:  Write your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King and Hit Lit by James W. Hall. I also like Fiction Writing for Dummies by Peter Economy and Randy Ingermanson.

7.  If you don’t have a good grasp of grammar and spelling, find a retired English teacher to proof-read for you. Spell-check alone is not enough. Nora Roberts may get away with a dozen spell check errors in one of her books. You will not.

8. Know your process. Some folks are avid out-liners and never write the first word until they’ve decided what happens in every chapter and where the postman’s nephew was born. Others are (seat of the) pantsers and begin their book with nothing more than a basic premise.

I’m in the middle-ish. I have my cast of characters and a few ingredients I’m going to throw in the pot, Like a kleptomaniac Beagle or a neighborhood Fourth of July parade. I know who’s going to die and I know Lia and Peter are going to catch a killer in the end. I know where they’re going to find the body. Beyond that, I honestly can’t figure out what happens next until I write it.

Figure out what works for you and don’t make yourself miserable trying to do the other way.

9.  Understand your characters. Nothing turns readers off like characters who don’t act in line with their motivations.  It’s the first thing beta readers will point out to me. Even if your story is a plot driven thriller, your characters still have to make sense.

A writer I know once wrote a billionaire going incognito to a ball game, driving a twenty year old station wagon and dressed in farm clothes. Then a vendor in the stands treats him rudely and said billionaire snarls, “Look at me, boy, Don’t you know WHO I AM?” Huh?

Someone recently told me about a book that got hundreds of bad reviews based on characters that acted inappropriately, starting with the romantic hero lusting after the hot babe he just met, with his best friend’s newly (and violently) deceased body lying nearby. Um, yeah, I’d sure be thinking about sex at a time like that.

You’re not four years old, and while Barbie might be a paleontologist one day and Supergirl the next, your characters may not.

The benefit of knowing your characters is that they can then tell you what happens next. When my mind goes blank, all I have to do is consider how each of my characters is reacting to what’s happening, based on who they are.

10. Have fun. I shouldn’t have to explain this, but the more fun you have writing, the more fun your readers are likely to have reading what you write.