There is no secret sauce that will make you a successful writer. The definitions of success as an author vary from person-to-person. I am asked often, “What tips do you have for someone starting out?” My snarky response is, “Seriously consider a different hobby or profession.” Writing is not easy. It is not for the faint at heart or the thin-skinned. It is a profession where you essentially carry on conversations with people that don’t exist, or wonder if that dude you just passed is a serial killer. It is a festering storm inside your head that when it comes out, is a jumble of emotions, words, blood and tears. It often is a hot-mess that only you, as the author, understand. Yet it gives you warmth and comfort.
I’ve heard it said everyone has a novel in them. That isn’t the same as, “They should write that novel.”
No one helped me be an author, so I have no problems answering direct questions from would-be authors. No, I won’t read your stuff, don’t bother to ask. It hit me though, there are some pretty basic tips that could help fiction and non-fiction authors. So here’s my list of unsolicited advice…
Write every day. Keep a journal; write a blog; pen a column for the local newspaper – just write something! In fact, the more varied your writing, the better. I have done science fiction, true crime, military history, business leadership, computer books, a wide range of genres. I have written for newsletters, trade journals, magazines; you name it. Even this blog is a writing exercise for me, forcing me to compile posts weekly.
Writing requires discipline. It is easy to come up with excuses to not write. You need to have the discipline to apply yourself to get the next paragraph done. I have always been surprised talking to new writers who will carve out time to watch a TV show every week but refused to do the same with time dedicated to writing. Schedule yourself…make it happen.
Set your ego aside. I am shocked that some authors ask for feedback then say, “I’m not changing it.” Look Hemmingway, you’re not that good. Editors, publishers, (even agents) usually have some good insights as to why you should make changes. Listen carefully and don’t dig your heels in on the premise you are some sort of artist. The only exception I allow myself to this is my sense of pride about the entire body of my work.
Have a place where you write. You need a place where you can do your work – preferably different than where you do other work. For me, I move my chair three feet to a different desk to do my writing.
Write stuff you would like to read. You need to be a fan of your own stuff. There are scenes I write in fiction that I actually get excited reading. In non-fiction, I make sure I capture the right tone and feel that I like reading.
Everyone thinks they are an English major. Be prepared for people to tell you that you don’t follow some bizarre rule their 3rd grade teacher told them about the English language. They will comment that you are not using appropriate grammar, your use of English is poor, your editors all sucked, etc. Some of my editors have master’s degrees in English, but some moron on the internet knows more than they do…or so they will insinuate. Look, part of being a writer is to push the limits of our language to create illusions and characters that don’t exist. Don’t let these idiots wear you down.
You need thick skin. The internet sucks and so do people. There are people that feel compelled to give you negative feedback. This is not about you, but about their own insecurities. If you want to write, there are always going to be those that try and tear you down. On top of that is our society thinks that every opinion needs to be posted and is somehow valid. Ignore these negative people. Remember this, they will never write something as good as what you did.
Plot is important – not as important as characters. When I started doing novels, I put most of my effort on the plot. As I have matured, I have come to learn that what is remembered is not the plot points, but the characters you write about. People want to identify characters, not storyline. Create real and compelling characters, and the plot will really pop.
In non-fiction stick to the facts and let others arrive at their own conclusions.It is tempting to say, “Here’s what I think,” in writing non-fiction. Assume your reader is smart and they will come to their own opinions and perspectives. Your role becomes presenting those facts in an engaging manner.
Rewriting is part of writing. Every good author has to rewrite. Some comes from the publisher, some from the editor, some from your own gut instinct that there is a better way. Resisting this is the path to arrogance. Some chapters I will rewrite three times before anyone even sees them. I have had editors that ask for additional scenes, changes, tweaks. You do them because ultimately it makes you a better writer. Listen to them and learn.
In fiction – use all of your characters senses in a scene. My most seasoned BattleTech editor told me once that I was describing what people saw – but not using all of the senses. What did the characters smell? What did the air feel like? I found that advice useful and have leveraged it where appropriate ever since. It made me a better writer.
Internet facts are not facts. Oddly enough this applies to fiction and non-fiction. Go to source material, not what you read on some web site. It takes more time, but it is worth it in the long run.
Understand the industry. Traditional bookstores are dying. The age of agents and big publishing houses is waning. I had one would-be author tell me that he had to go with a major publisher rather than KDP because, “You’re only a real author if your book is in a bookstore.” Sorry kid, it’s not the 1980’s. With print on demand (POD) and Kindle Direct Publishing, anyone with talent can publish their book. Easily 50-65% of book sales are digital. Bookstores can stock your POD book. Get to know the business.
Critically read other authors. One of those uh-duh tips – I get it. It isn’t enough to read other authors, you have to stop and ask yourself, “What is it about this part of the book I really like?” Pull apart one of your favorite books to see why you loved it and you will learn a great deal about what you should be incorporating into your own books.
Promoting your work is part of writing. Make yourself available for podcasts, interviews, etc. I don’t enjoy this aspect of the work personally, but it is part of being an author. We all have spent that humiliating time sitting at a lonely table at a Borders books as people walk by. (Yes, I am dating myself there.)
Talk to other authors. Don’t ask them read your stuff…God I hate that. Network with other writers so that you can get advice about the industry, tips, stuff like that.
Anyone charging you money to help you get published is ripping you off. I have never seen this work out for the author.
You have to start somewhere. Too many authors presume you should start at the top. True story. I had someone reach out to me wanting to write a BattleTech novel about two months ago. He’d never had anything published professionally, had no background in writing in the universe, but wanted one of the prime assignments you can get – a novel. Some authors bust their ass for years to get a shot at a novel, but you want one handed to you because, and I quote from this individual, “I have an idea no one has ever seen for a book.” I suggested that he reach out and see if he can get a gig doing some fiction for sourcebooks or tech readouts, to prove himself. “That sounds like it will take a long time. I don’t want to do that – can you just send me the editor’s email?” The reality is you can’t just show up the Olympics without qualifying, and expect to run in an event. It is lazy and arrogant of anyone to think they can just jump in with their first work as a book. Oh it does happen now and then, but these are flukes or genius authors. In the real world, you need to develop your skills, learned to work with editors, earn your stripes…you have to put in the work.