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Helpful tips for new writers: 4

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.

I 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:

* The dubious romance of being a starving artist
* Your first million words
* Read like a writer

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 nine novels in three series and several shorts stories and bundles for a total of twenty-three titles. I produce three or four novels most years, when I'm not concentrating on other aspects of the publishing business. (This year, I'm producing my first translated title, into German.

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 translations and 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've started publishing other authors in 2018.

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.

The romance of being a starving artist

Look, I get it. You'll do anything to get your first short story or novel or poem into print. We all understand. “Maybe if I give it away for free, someone will enjoy it and look for other things I've written. It'll be great publicity.”

Bad idea.

Image of Starving Artist posterIt's much more satisfying to be a paid professional than a starving artist, as any starving artist will tell you.

What you write has value, even if that seems incredible to you when you're first starting out. You are a craftsman, and people will buy your craft. It may take a while, and you might have to make several different things to sell and build up a reputation, but that's true of any field. If you write fiction, you provide entertainment. If you write non-fiction, you provide knowledge.

There is a famous rant by Harlan Ellison, an American writer of speculative fiction, called “Pay the Writer“. Warning — the language is profane and blunt, but he's absolutely correct that the ocean of amateur writers desperately filling the market with free work sets an expectation that buyers don't have to pay for what they want.

“But how do I compete with people who give away their work for free?”

Think about this as a practical issue for a moment, rather than a moral one. If you don't charge a reasonable fee for your work, how will you keep producing it? You can't live on air — why waste your time pretending that it's possible to do so? Your business is to find out how to induce people to buy your work.

Let's say you write a short story. You can look for a commercial market to sell your fiction (Ralan, Duotrope) into periodicals or anthologies. You can bundle it with more short stories and indie-publish a collection. You can provide it as a reward to someone who signs up for your mailing list. All of those things earn money or an indirect benefit better than “free publicity.”

For example, my first series includes 5 short stories. Each of them is independently published. They are also published in a collection. They are also part of two different book bundles for that series. Over five years, one of those stories has sold 54 times as a standalone (earning $2), 70 times as part of a collection, and 67 times as part of a bundle. That's 191 times, or about $150 dollars for its share of those earnings. If I had sold it to a periodical, as I did for another story, it would have earned another $200-250. That's a lot of meals to keep me from being a starving artist.

I could have said, instead, “oh, it's just a little 15-page story. It's not worth anything much. People won't pay me for it.”

You have to look at each work you craft as something of value, over time. Once you write enough titles. the aggregate over time really does add up. But if you start with the attitude that it's more noble to just give it away, or that no one will pay you for it, then you're defeated before you even begin. If you don't value your work, why would anyone else?

Your first million words

Image of hand & pen on paperThere you are, writing your first novel. If you're like me, it's a big boy of 150,000 words (fantasy novels can be lengthy). You finish it. You publish it, and lean back with a sense of accomplishment. “I did it — that wasn't so bad.”

Then someone says to you, “You don't know anything — you haven't even written your first million words.”

Gack! Four years later, I crossed the million-word mark with my 8th novel.

What did I learn from my first million words?

  • I learned how not to be afraid of a lot of things.
  • I learned that if I wrote “into the dark” without an outline, that I could come up with interesting stories.
  • I learned that if the story made me excited while I was writing it, it would still excite me when I read it.
  • I learned that there were real people out there who were willing to pay me actual money for my work, and who seemed to even like it.
  • I learned that if my subconscious took a dislike to a particular plot development or character expression, it was right, and there was no use pretending I could just ignore it.
  • I learned that if a phrase nagged at me every time I read it, I was never going to like it, and I might as well rewrite it the first time it bothered me.
  • I learned confidence in writing a certain kind of story in a certain way at a certain length.

And I learned that I had a lot more to learn, that I was using only a few of the tools in a writer's toolbag — important ones, perhaps, but there were lots more tools to learn about, and I had better start digging in and learning more.

Read like a writer

You have to read copiously in the genres you're writing in. You have to absorb, at a deep level, the conventions of the genre, what makes a good story “of this kind”.

As you start to understand more about plot structures and milestones, you'll begin annoying your friends and family by calling out predictions about what's going to happen next when you watch a movie or television show, especially when your watch tells you it's half over.

But how can you really learn from the best books in your genre?

First, you have to read the book like a reader, willing to be carried along by the writing. Then go back later and read it a second time, like a writer, and analyze just how the author achieved a particular effect, the one that made your reading so pleasurable.

If you were sucked into an action scene, look at the words that were chosen, the focus on movement, the removal of distracting description.

If the tension of an unfulfilled romance tore at you, try to figure out how, exactly, you were sucked into the suspense, and what made it so absorbing.

If you found yourself skipping over beautiful descriptions that you forgot two pages later, determine how and when description was absorbing (perhaps as experienced through a character's eyes and thoughts), and when it was just getting in the way.

As you begin to learn how a writer you admire achieves these effects, you can begin applying the same principles to your own writing.

It's an endless quest. Be a reader first so you know what works, and then tear it apart afterward to see if you can use the same techniques yourself.

Your readers will thank you.

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