At the request of a colleague, I'm spending some time talking to some writers far, far away that she's working with, and I thought it would be useful to collect the presentation in a blog post for them, and for anyone else who might be interested. You can find all the posts in this series here.
* Stages of a Career
* All Writing is Practice
* Read in Your Genre (and Read the Best)
As question/answers are added during the talk, I'll update this.
I'm Karen Myers, and I've been a writer of fantasy and science fiction books for four years. I came to this late, after an official career building computer software and services companies that lasted four decades.
Today I have eight novels in two series and several shorts stories and bundles for a total of twenty titles, and I'm halfway through the first book in a new series. I aim to produce about four novels/year — that's what I did in 2016.
I'm an independent author — all my books are available worldwide, in ebook, paperback, and audiobook formats. I'll be bringing most of the audiobook editions out this year (only one is currently available).
As an independent author, I'm in charge of all aspects of publishing, from writing and editing, to layout and formatting, covers, audio recording and production, distribution, marketing, and all the finances of the business. Almost the only thing I don't do myself are the cover backgrounds and titles (though I do the Photoshop work that adds my author name, imprint, and blurb to the work from my cover artist and I make all the output formats). Independents work with various third parties for those parts of the publishing business that they can't or won't do themselves, and different authors have different needs for those services.
This is not the only time I've taken on serious work in the arts. I picked up a violin for the first time in my 30s, and a camera in my 50s, so I know what it's like to go from nothing to reasonably competent. I'm finding it's no different for writing fiction, now that I'm a few years into it. You can see some of my other interests here.
Just about all the best advice I've ever gotten came to me from people just a little further along on the same path, and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to do the same in my turn.
Stages of a career
I listen to the advice of others, especially those who have been writing for decades. I've only been writing fiction for four years, but I've read thousands of books in my genre and know what I'm aiming at in the stories themselves. From a skills perspective, I think of myself as an early middle-stage writer. I'm past my first million words, but not by much yet, and working on about 400,000 words/year at this point.
One of the hardest things for me when I started was trying to get a feel for what a typical career would be like for someone like me. That's one of the great unknowns — it's not like a business path, where the career goals are well-understood.
People come to writing for all sorts of reasons and with all sorts of goals. I can only talk about how it works for me, and what I've heard from others that resonates with me.
Beginners — Don't get discouraged!
We all start out as beginners. If you love classical music and pick up a violin for the first time, it's a deadly disappointment. Most people give up right away. It's a cliché that all artists think what they're producing is no good, and will never be any good.
Go see part one of this series for more on this topic. You have to understand that the beginning of any career in the arts is like this, and most people feel like unworthy imposters for much or all of their career. You have to learn to just keep on going anyway. If you just keep at it, and work on improving, you really will get better. It works for writing just like it does for everything else in life.
Got a few books done? — Believe that it will get easier to live with the anxiety.
If you've ever acted on a stage, you may remember what stage fright felt like. But if you perform the play every night for a month, it wears off. You may always feel anxious before the curtain goes up, but you know that you'll get through it all right, and the whole prospect becomes easier to bear.
Writing is like this. You're afraid to let others see what you've written, worried that it won't measure up to your vision (and it never can). You care what others think about it. You rewrite it obsessively so you can get it just right (which is impossible). All you can see are the disappointing bits where you think you failed.
But that's not what readers see. They get sucked into a story, fall in love with the characters, rage at the villains, and look to see what else you've written. No reader thinks, “If only there'd been fewer adverbs on page 23.”
Once you've been stuck, unable to advance in a scene, and broken the logjam, it's less terrifying the next time it happens to you. Once you've rearranged some sequence of scenes and modified your careful plot, and no one seems to have noticed it was ever any different, you'll breathe easier when it becomes necessary in another book. Problems once overcome are less scary the second or third time around.
Let yourself learn, with each published book, that you will always feel anxious about the reception of the book, but try to learn not to care too much about it. The more confidence you can build in what you're trying to do, the more you can focus on technical improvement and the less each book will be a huge event, fraught with peril and fear.
Make each book less important to your internal psychology. That will let you make them better, professionally.
Settling in to write as a career — Don't forget to keep learning
Experiment with different approaches, like plotting vs writing into the dark. Use 4-act structures or try-fail sequences or other overall novel architectures. You may find ways of producing stories that suit you better than the ones you started with, but you won't know unless you try different things.
You may find that you are happiest with novels in a particular genre being a particular length — that's the length you like best when you read, perhaps, so when you create stories, that's what comes easiest. You may like long forms best, or entire series, or you may pine for the exquisite focus of an ultra-short story. It's your work — find out what suits you.
Remember, what works for one writer may not work for you, and vice versa. Beware of people who tell you “this is the only way to do…” whatever. It's never true, and sometimes it isn't useful for you. Keep an open mind, but decide for yourself.
All Writing is Practice
You look at your WIP (Work-in-Progress) and you think, for example, “I'm terrible with descriptions. Really bad.”
Ignore the little voice inside that says, “And you'll never be any good.” Instead, make a decision to improve. Pause for a moment with your WIP. Read up on doing good descriptions, reread a book by someone you admire who does great descriptions, and then write a short story where you focus on creating the best descriptions you possibly can. Maybe the plot is silly, or the characters wooden, but those descriptions are really thorough. Maybe write a second story, and a third. Maybe they're related to each other, or maybe not.
Don't go back and try to fix your current WIP, not seriously (remember, it will never be perfect). Just make the new words work better at description, until it becomes part of your internal toolkit.
This is like doing scales on the piano. It's practice.
The good news is — you can sell your practice work. It's never wasted. There are magazines to submit to, there are collections of stories you can put together, and you can just publish the story directly, as an independent author.
Of all the arts, only in writing are people afraid of practicing, of doing focused work to make themselves better. They think that the more words they write, the less worthy they are, somehow. There's a lot of scorn for people who crank out high word counts, as if those who write less must be better. Would you say such a silly thing about a musician? Of course not.
Let's say you're not very happy with the quality of your practice story. You don't want to submit it or publish it because it's not good enough. People who see it will think less of you.
Nonsense. Do you think any magazine editor remembers the stories that didn't work? They see hundreds of them, all the time. They only remember the ones they liked.
Same thing is true for readers. A story is inexpensive. If they read one that doesn't grab them, they'll just move on to the next.
Now, of course you have to develop enough judgment (by experience) to not be satisfied with less than a minimal level of quality, as best you can tell. But you have to remember — the writer is often the worst judge of their story. They know what they meant to say, and they can't always tell if they didn't actually say it.
But if you read a lot in your genre, you'll know when a story seems off or incomplete, and that's about the best you can hope for. There are no perfect books. None. You won't write one, either. Just do the best you can, and move on to the next work. Think of it all as practice. Always be looking forward to the next piece of writing, not back at something that can never live up to impossible standards of perfection, rewrite it how you may.
Rack up the word count. Write as much as you can, and use short works for concentrated practice on individual issues.
Read in Your Genre (and Read the Best)
Once you start writing fiction you'll find yourself reading like a writer instead of like a reader. (And you can become a real annoyance to your friends and spouse when you begin predicting all the plot points in a TV show.)
But when you get sucked into a book and start reading like a reader again, come back and look at it later. Try to figure out how the writer did that. Read it once for pleasure, then go back and analyze. (Then go write a short story and practice the technique until you understand it. And sell the story.)
To benefit from this, you need to read the best in your genre, in your own judgment. No point modelling yourself on the not-so-greats.
Me, I'm a little mean. I find it instructive to look at writing that failed in some way. In fact, I have a whole category of Irritated Reviews that I write when I'm especially stung by something. Sort of a warning to myself, “Don't ever do that,” whatever it was.
My personal pet peeve is having something throw the reader out of the story — I think breaking the reader's immersion in the story is the worst sin. After all, that's what we are — storytellers. We've got to keep them under our spell.
Questions from the session
Any thoughts on writing memoirs?
There's always the danger of writing memoirs when you're young, of leaving yourself open to wanting to do another one later, and another one after that. It's possible to do that, of course. Just remember — your life may change…
Beware of using memoirs as a vehicle for proving you are right. Your parents were wrong; your boyfriend/girlfriend was so wrong; everyone is wrong about you. This is an all too common pitfall. Memoirs can have many purposes and various style, but self-justification is not generally an appealing tone.
Remember, you should be telling a story, not formatting your diary. You have to shape your memoir as a story — not by inventing incidents, but by selecting events and their consequences that are structured the way a story is.
This website has two blogs. The main one is for my readers. This article is posted in my secondary one: Just for Writers. I recommend going through that and seeing if any of the other topics covered are of interest to you. More articles in this series can be found here.
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Feel free to contact me with follow-ups or general questions. Always happy to chat.