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Helpful tips for new writers: 3

Posted in Just for Writers, and Tips for New Writers

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.

Image of confused womanI can't possibly touch on more than a handful of topics in a single session, so I'll just mention a few that I think are important:

* Evaluating Advice
* Priorities
* Marathon vs Sprint

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 five 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 just finishing the first book in a new series. I produce three or four novels most years, when I'm not concentrating on other aspects of the publishing business.

I'm an independent author — all my books are available worldwide, in ebook, paperback, and audiobook formats. I expect to bring most of the audiobook editions out next 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. My publishing business is evolving, too — I'm adding new imprints and authors in 2017.

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.

Evaluating Advice

So, you know what this blog post is? It's advice.

And you know what you should do with advice? Treat it very carefully.

No one has all the answers, and that includes me. The most well-meaning person in the world may be completely honest about telling you what to do, and the advice may be completely wrong for you.

Image of signs pointing directionsYou are going to have to make up your own mind about whether or not someone else's advice will work for you.

To do that, you need to know something about the other person, and a good deal more about yourself. If someone tells you “just let the ideas flow and the plot will take care of itself,” you may be more convinced if they actually write successful mystery novels instead of short stories. And even then, if you are much more comfortable outlining a story before trying to tell it, it might not be a good path for you to follow.

That's true for everything having to do with writing, from stylistic choices, process, length, genre, and so forth… all the way down to whether it's better to write in the morning or at night. The best anyone can say to you is “this works for me, and this is why,” or even “and I know these other things work for other people, and I think this is why.”

If you can distill that much out of all the conflicting directions people give you, you'll have achieved a great deal. Own your judgment — even if you screw up, it's better than making your mind a hostage to someone else's because you're too timid to choose for yourself.

Remember that, when you offer advice yourself. Just because something works for you doesn't mean it will necessarily work for someone else. But it might! Always good to hear what other people do — gives you a direction to try, sometimes.


Writing (and then publishing) can be large, complex activities if you break them down into pieces and think about them. The response to “tell me a story” includes the mechanics of establishing a point of view, coming up with something interesting, making sure readers can follow all the action, having some sort of clear structure, and controlling the language and making it do what you want to make another person's emotions resonate in a certain way.

When you put it like that, it's a wonder anyone writes anything.

The reality is that we all start out with very uneven skills in the writing toolkit, and each of our deficiencies may differ from someone else's. This person writes great characters who can't seem to do anything worth reading about, or that person can't manage dialogue that looks even faintly human.

You can't improve everything at once. So don't try. It'll make you crazy.

Pin down some space of the writing universe where you can start, and concentrate on that. Then, one by one, pick a skill you'd like to improve. Write a short story using that skill. Then write another one. All writing is practice — nothing is ever wasted. In many cases, you'll find you can sell or publish your practice stories, even if they seem very odd to you.

The natural consequence of this recommendation is: write. Write a lot. Keep writing. The two things you need most are volume and deliberate practice. The more tools you can add to your toolkit, and the sharper you can make them, the more they'll come to hand automatically when you need them, just like your hands get smarter on a musical instrument the more you play and improvise.

Marathon vs Sprint

Writing a short story might take a few hours, maybe a couple of days. Writing a novel that doesn't require much research, well that might take… let's see… 100,000 words is about a 300 page book and, at 500 words/hour, that's about 200 hours. Plus research, staring off into space, corrections, etc. So, even if you write near-final drafts (not a lot of rewriting), you're still looking at five work weeks (5 x 40 hrs).

Some books are shorter, some people are faster, some people write cleaner copy, but any way you look at it, that's a long time. Imagine playing the piano 8 hours a day for 25 days. In reality, most of us can't concentrate that long and consistently. There are exceptions at either end of the curve, but most full-time fiction writers can only put in a few hours/day writing new copy. (They can spend the rest of the time doing other tasks, like editing, or research.)

Image of a marathon runnerSo you have to look at a life of writing as a marathon, not a sprint. You have to look for joy in the process, so as not to find yourself staring at page 40 and wondering how you'll ever finish the thing.

It's not important how quickly you write, or how much time you have to spend on your writing — all of us have lives and others things that interfere. What matters is to bite off a little piece every time you can, and to enjoy the chewing and the flavor.

Enjoy your writing as you do it. Seek out the flow and encourage that. Writing should be fun, underneath it all, even if it can be frustrating when your skills disappoint you.

I look forward to my writing every day. One more scene, one more plot twist, one more clever bit of dialogue. It's as much fun as a video game, and much more rewarding.

Try to take that sort of attitude to it, and you'll be able to stay the course for the long term.

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One Comment

  1. Wish I’d gotten that first one way back 25+ years ago when I started writing. I actually wasted a lot of time trying to write like Lawrence Block – and he was exactl wrong for me.

    So, good advice.

    Yes, newbies have to learn. But they also have to learn to take everything with a large dose of skepticism. ‘Prove it’ is a good mantra.

    November 24, 2017

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