My Top Ten Tips for Writers

I’m always trying to improve my writing, so I went to a site that had tips from published authors. I have to say that I was surprised by some of them. For example:

The first twelve years are the hardest.

Well, that’s probably encouraging for aspiring writers to hear.

Don’t have children.

Okay, that’s just bad advice. Writing can be a 24/7 job. It can easily fill all of your time.  That doesn’t mean you should let it.  So I’m offering my own tips to writers.

1) Don’t let writing consume your life.  Life is about relationships, not books. Don’t sacrifice your relationships for your work. (I do recommend letting some of the housework go, though.)

2) It takes a lot of hours to learn any craft and even more hours to master it. (Does anyone ever master writing? I’m not sure.) In the book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become successful at a specific task. (I am well over this limit when it comes to eating chocolate.) Don’t quit writing too soon. Put in the hours (but see rule number one).

3) Learning the craft requires you to practice—to actually write stuff—but it also requires you to learn the rules of plotting, characterization, dialogue, etc. I’m always surprised at how many people want to publish their first manuscript when they’ve never read a book on writing, never gone to a class on the subject, etc. This would be like teaching yourself to play the piano without ever taking a lesson from someone who already knows how to play the piano. You can do it, but you’ll be a lot better if you learn from a pro.

4) There are some things about writing you can only learn by reading a lot. (Pacing, for example.)  If you want to write, read lots of novels. Learn to analyze what you read. Ask yourself what worked and what didn’t. You’ll learn to avoid the things that you dislike in other books.

5) Remember that publishing is a business. Yes, editors and agents love books. That’s why they’re in this business, but they buy/represent books for one reason: they think they’ll make money. Because of this, a lot of things that happen in the writing industry have to do with the business and not with you personally. You can be a great writer, and still get rejected. In fact, all the great writers have been rejected.

6) I suggest a degree in marketing. Getting published doesn’t guarantee your book any sort of success. Your book is competing against literally millions of other titles for readers’ time and money. Unless you are one of the few lead titles at your publisher, you won’t get much help from them to market your book. If you know how to market, you’re already ahead in the game.

7) Do what you can to market your book, but refer to rule number one.

8) Remember why you started writing in the first place. It was because you loved writing, right? If it wasn’t, this is perhaps a good time to quit and find an easier career. No rejection letter, no horrible revision letter, no bad review, no absentee marketing team, etc. (and there will be lots of etc.) can take away the joy of writing. Writing is magical. Write because you love the magic.

9) Be kind to other writers. They are your tribe, not your competition. They understand. Develop friendships with them. They need you too.

10) Keep on writing. Only one person can determine whether you’re a writer or not. You.

So you’ve written your book–now what?

One of my most common emails (that I get, not that I send–just clarifying) is from people who have completed their novel and they want to know what to do next.

My first response is: rewrite it.

I don’t tell people that because I don’t want to discourage them. They’ll get plenty of discouragement from agents/editors/publishers. Besides, for all I know said optimistic writer has already rewritten the thing 17 times.

I usually tell people about agentquery.com It’s a great resource for authors. You can search agents by genre and the site gives you all sorts of useful information like the agent’s submission guidelines and what sort of chocolate to send in order to bribe them. Okay, the website doesn’t really tell you about agents’ favorite chocolate, but it should. If I was an agent, that’s the first thing I’d have listed there.

Anyway, here is the checklist I should give people before they submit anything.

1) Have you read any books on writing? If the answer is no, you’re not ready to submit. If the answer is yes, but you’ve only read one or two, you’re also probably not ready to submit. Writing is like playing the piano. Most people who are self-taught are not going to be all that good at it.

Here are some great writing books for novelists:

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham (Actually anything by Jack Bickham)
GMC Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Deborah Dixon (You need to go to the publisher’s website for this one.)
Anything by Gary Provost
Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

If you write non-fiction or picture books, get and read the books that pertain to those genres. Ditto for romance books, westerns, whatever. Blogs on writing are also very helpful. For example, if you need to write an action scene involving angry grapefruit, you’ll want to read my last blog.

2) How many times have you gone over the manuscript yourself?

If the answer is twice, you’re not ready to submit. For first time novels, you need to send that baby out to lots of readers for critiques. Don’t just send it to your mom or friends. They’ll tell you that it’s great–and they might even believe it. After all, they love you. You need to have a network of fellow writers or well-read friends that can give you tough love. If you don’t have that, pay for it. Revising is the difference between selling and not selling.

3) How long have you let the manuscript sit, unread?

If it’s only a few days or a couple of weeks, you’re not ready to submit. One of the truly weird things about writing is that you can’t see your own mistakes when you write them. This goes for missing words but it also applies to unclear dialogue, bad description, etc. The story works beautifully in our minds, and so that’s what we see on the paper. Let your manuscript sit for a month. Two or three months is better. (Which is why it’s great to send a manuscript to an editor and then not get the revision letter for a couple of months. By that time you can look at it with fresh eyes.)

4) Have you ever gone to a writers’ workshop or conference?

If not, why not? If you want to publish you probably should go to a conference that addresses your genre. You’ll meet people who know about the industry. You’ll get advice from pros, and you’ll get tips about what’s selling and what’s not. If paranormal is a hard sell (which it is right now, by the way) and you’re pitching your paranormal romance, you may run into problems. Not knowing why something is rejected is one of the most frustrating things about this business. Stay up to date about what’s going on.

Besides, a good writers’ conference will energize you. That’s why people go back year after year.

5) Have you bought all my books?

Actually, this step might not really help you, but it would help me so I’m including it.

Happy submitting!

11 Ways not to start your novel

I’m about to read a lot of first pages from hopeful authors. I’ve done countless critiques over the years, and so I both look forward to and dread this job.

Opening up the pages of a book is a bit like opening up the front door for a blind date–except that it requires no effort on your part . . . such as doing your hair, or sucking in your stomach so you look thinner, or whatever else you do on your blind dates. (Really, it’s none of my business, and I don’t want to know.)

The point is, you’re hoping for something good and you’re often disappointed. In the gentle-hearted spirit that I am well known for (Oh, all right, Sarah Eden still refers to me as Attila the Hun because of a certain edit I did for her) I’m going to offer fellow writers a few tips.

Here are a few ways not to start your novel.

1) With your character waking up.

I wake up at least once a day. You could say I am a veteran at waking up. I never like it when I do it, and I probably won’t like it when your character does it either. Give me something more exciting.

2) With your character running away from someone or something.

One would think that this would nicely take care of my first objection, and it would–if I hadn’t already seen it about a hundred times. A good chase scene is nice, but not at the beginning of a book because A) I don’t know enough about your character to care if they get away and B)I’m pretty certain your main character won’t be killed off in the opening scene as that would make for a very short novel. So it isn’t really a high tension opening anyway.

3) With huge chunks of back-story.

Yeah, I know, Charles Dickens gave us character life sketches right off, but styles change and this sort of thing doesn’t work now. We also don’t wear top hats anymore. Go figure.

4) With action that is so confusing I don’t know what the heck is going on.

Sometimes an opening starts with people being bombed, or someone being attacked, or just people sitting around talking about other people. Whatever it is, it has to make sense. I’m already doing the brain-intensive job of transforming printed words into a lush and vivid landscape in my mind. Make it easy for me. This isn’t the place to be obscure or mysterious.

5) With so many characters I can’t keep them straight.

It’s always better to start with a limited amount of characters until the reader has time to get people straight. Opening with lots of characters feels like one of those parties where you meet fifteen people at once and you know that no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to remember any of their names tomorrow.

6) With a mean character.

Hey, if I’m going to step into a character’s skin and be that person for hours or days, I don’t want to be someone I don’t like. Ditto for stupid characters. And while you’re at it, please make me pretty too.

7) With a run-on sentence.

This is akin to getting your first glimpse of your blind date and noticing his shirt is dirty. If he didn’t take the time to fix that, the rest of him is probably not going to be much better.

8) With a statement that doesn’t have anything to do with anything else.

For example, if you start your first chapter with the sentence: Betty’s ghost was not the forgiving type. (Which, by the way, is a great first line. I should use it sometime.)You should let us know about the ghost and why it’s holding grudges fairly quickly. Don’t go on and on describing Veronica and her trip to the mall. Your reader will be gritting her teeth and thinking, “Who’s Betty? Did Veronica kill her? What is her part in all of this? Is this author trying to irritate me?”

Probably not, but the result is the same anyway.

9) With a bland sentence.

I have enough bland sentences in my life already. They’re sort of like dust and they settle on everything. If the first sentence isn’t good, what are the chances I’m going to find captivating ones later on?

10) With a flashback.

If you need to flashback in the first scene, you probably haven’t started your book in the right place. Plus, editors and agents tend to hate flashbacks. Many of them were bitten by flashbacks at some point in life, so you really can’t blame them for this prejudice.

11) With the phrase,”The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.” (Apologies to Scott Westerfeld) Okay, it’s original, but I have a large supply of cats, and now any time one of them throws up, I think, “Um no . . . I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the sky that color . . . I wonder what Scott’s cats have been eating?”

You just don’t want to do that to your reader.