Writing Insights Part One: Becoming a Writer
I started writing my first novel when I was twelve years old. I was thirty-three when I completed my first rough draft. That’s twenty years of wanting to do something and not knowing how. Twenty years of failure and frustrations and giving up.
A big part of the problem is that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know which questions to ask, much less who might have the answers.
These days, people write to me as if I know what I’m doing. Or like I have a shortcut to success. I’m not sure either is true. One thing I’ve learned is that luck plays a massive role. But what I do have are some insights today that I wish I’d had twenty years ago, tips and pointers that might’ve saved me a lot of headache and heartache if I’d known them sooner. Maybe it’ll help some aspiring writer out there if I jot them all down now.
I’m going to share what insights I have in four parts. The first part is a list of all the things I wish I’d known about becoming a writer before I set out. The second part is tips and tricks for completing that first rough draft. In the third part, I discuss the important art of turning a rough draft into something worth reading. And finally, I share some tips on how to get your story out into the world.
These are my insights now that I’ve written over a dozen novels, sold a few million books, been published in over forty languages, and have seen all angles of this complex industry as a reader, bookseller, writer, editor, and publisher. My first novel was published traditionally through a small press; I’ve self-published many on my own; others are with some of the biggest publishers in the world. I give this advice knowing how much it would’ve been worth to me while understanding that it all might be worthless to you. I only have my own experiences and observations. I wish you all the best of luck.
Insight #1: Anyone can become a successful writer; the only person who can stop you is you.
I spent twenty years stopping myself from becoming a successful writer. The biggest obstacle I faced is thinking success meant selling a ton of books, which meant writing something that millions of readers would enjoy. As I began writing my first attempts at a novel, watching the sentences form on the screen, I knew the words weren’t good enough, and so I stopped in order to spare all those readers from what I was writing.
The problem is that I had the definition of “successful writer” all wrong. A successful writer is one who finishes what they start while striving to improve their craft. It’s as simple as that. And the only one who can stop you from doing this is you.
Imagine if NBA all-star Steph Curry attempted to learn to play basketball with a million people watching. Or if the first pickup game he ever played was his only chance to land an agent and get signed to an NBA team. This is the pressure writers put on themselves, and it makes no sense. Basketball players will put all the hustle and energy into a thousand practice games before they ever get a shot at turning pro. Most will spend a dozen years playing almost every day of their lives before they make it onto a high school or college team. Writers should have the same expectations. Perhaps you write a dozen novels before you write one that blows you away or becomes a bestseller. The point is to finish them all. Play all four quarters. Steph Curry played a thousand games to the end before he turned pro. Every game he finished was a success. He didn’t stop himself, and neither should you.
Insight #2: You can’t compare your rough draft to any of the books you’ve read.
If you’re just starting out as a writer, there’s a good chance that you’ve never read a rough draft in your life. So don’t compare what you’re working on to what you’ve read from your favorite authors. Their rough drafts were nowhere near as wonderful and polished as the final product that you loved as a reader and that made you want to become a writer. Just like you, they had to get the words down on the page first. And then they had to go back and rewrite much of what they wrote, several times. At this point, they probably gave it to their spouse or a friend to read, and that person saw lots of room for improvement. Which meant another revision. The same process took place again with their agent. And then their editor. Each time, the rough draft got better and better. So will yours.
The books that made you want to become a writer were rewritten and revised as much as a dozen times, with the input of several other people. You don’t get to see all of the mistakes and boring bits – all of that has been cut away. It’s just like when you take a thousand photos on an epic vacation and only share the thirty or forty very best ones. This is what it takes to be a successful writer: You have to learn how to write the good and the bad all the way until the finish. Trust the revision process. No one will have to see your rough draft but you. And you can’t revise a work to perfection until it already exists. So make it exist.
Insight #3: There is no special qualification required.
I used to think writers belonged to a special club that had all sorts of requirements for admittance. You had to graduate from a special school, or live in the right city, or own a turtleneck. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best writers have the most diverse backgrounds. They come in all ages, all genders, all races, all sexual persuasions. They all have unique things to say. Anyone can be a writer, if they put in the work. Like most things in life, it takes lots of practice. How much practice you get is entirely up to you.
I first started dreaming of being a writer after reading Ender’s Game. I was around twelve years old. This novel blew me away, because the heroes of the story were children my age. It made me think there were no limits to what I could do. At the end of the novel, there was a brief biography of the author, Orson Scott Card. I was shocked to read that he lived in my home state, North Carolina. I always thought writers lived far away in little shacks in the woods or tall glass towers. I always thought kids had to wait to be adults to do amazing things. This book got me thinking that both assumptions might be wrong.
Related to this insight is the idea that there are too many novels out there in the world. This is rubbish. There are always readers agonizing that they can’t find something great to read. Maybe your next book will fill that void for a reader. Or it’ll be the book that leads to the book that fills that void in many other readers. Either way, there should be joy in the act of creation. My mother started knitting for the pure joy, then grew her talents until she was giving away works, then having people pay for them, and then owning and running her own yarn shop. The lady at the farmers’ market you buy tomatoes from started gardening to see if she could. Steph Curry enjoyed shooting hoops with his dad and grew hooked on the sound a perfect swish makes. There is nothing wrong with starting something as a hobbyist and asking for compensation for your art. We can all turn pro whenever we like.
Let the readers decide if you’re worth supporting with their time and money, not the cycicism of other writers who don’t want you playing ball with them.
Insight #4: The best writers are the best readers.
There aren’t any shortcuts around this. Successful writers read. They read a lot. And the best writers read a wide variety of books. It’s impossible to stress the importance of this insight. When aspiring authors ask my advice on making it as a writer, this is my most common first response: Read.
Writing is a lot like singing. There’s a musicality to good writing, and I don’t mean florid writing like you might encounter in a literature course. I mean the simple flow and cadence of sentences, how they run together, how long paragraphs should be, how much dialog to sprinkle among the action (or action among the dialog). Every sentence in this blog post is an example. I listen for the rise and fall of stresses, the iambic pentameter, mixing short punchy sentences with long comma-filled breezy ones. It should come naturally. You don’t want to even be aware that you’re doing it. Eventually you won’t.
Of course, your style will be different than my style. This is called “voice,” and we’ll talk more about voice and constructing sentences in the next part of this series. For now, it’s important to know that you’ll have a very difficult time creating pleasant prose without absorbing years’ worth of it first. Books are like tuning forks. We hear the pleasant ring of words on key, and it helps us recognize when our own pitch is a little off. The avid reader will know when a sentence needs more tinkering.
It would be convenient if we could dismiss this advice and say, “I’m going to write my own way, rules and tuning forks be damned.” But it doesn’t work that way. There are millions of effective voices and styles, but all share a common framework. Just as there are an infinite number of songs in a single guitar, but that guitar needs to be properly tuned. The way we tune our writing instruments is to read, and to read as writers. Recognize sentences that make you smile, or think, or laugh, or cry. Pore over them. Ask yourself how this writer made you care about the protagonist, or feel revulsion for the antagonist, with so few words. Where is the conflict in the story? How are the characters different at the end of the novel? This is the craft that we’ll discuss in the next part of this series, and it’s what we should look for as readers.
It’s never too late to start. And it’s impossible to do too much of it. Above all, branch out. I wrote my first novel after months of reading and reviewing detective and crime fiction for a friend’s website. These were not my preferred genres, but I was reading and reviewing a book a day. I learned so much about intricate plotting, misdirection, tension, danger, and the crafting of horror. These elements now appear in my young adult novels, my science fiction, my romance. Every type of story has many elements of all other types of story. Study all the genres deeply. You may even uncover a new passion or write a completely different kind of novel.
It also helps to not be too deeply immersed in the types of stories you want to write. If you only read within your writing genre, one of two things will happen: You’ll write something derivative and unoriginal, or you’ll be so terrified of doing this that you’ll be closed off to exploring themes that your colleagues are also delving into. Both are terrible risks.
As a science fiction author, I’ve found it better to read non-fiction. Many of my story ideas come from newspaper articles and the latest works of science and philosophy. History books are a great inspiration, because they reveal the cultural patterns that forewarn the future. Satire is impossible without a deep understanding of history.
Romance novels benefit from books on psychology. A thriller featuring a tortured couple gets new layers by reading self-help books meant for those going through a divorce. Even fiction authors have to do research. Certainly read enough in your genre to understand what readers expect (even if your goal is to defy expectations). But don’t get trapped. The more adventurous you are with your reading, and the more avidly you read, the stronger your writing will become. There is no better writing advice than this. All writing advice, in fact, presupposes the truth of this: that we must be readers first and foremost.
Insight #5: This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Despite what appears to be exceptions to this rule, writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. You don’t sit down, bang out a rough draft, and watch the money flow in. Your first novel will quite likely not be your best. When I was starting out, I gave myself ten years to see if I could make this work. Ten years! The plan was to write two novels a year, twenty novels in total, hoping that eventually one of them would be decent.
I get emails all the time from writers who have heard this advice from me and credit it for the success they eventually found. It helped them to not give up. It’s exactly what this philosophy did for me. It also allowed me to concentrate on the writing and not the promoting. Promotion is a waste of time until you have enough material out there for each one to feed on the other. It’s not like those books are going away or growing stale. Wait until you have five or six novels published before you start to spread the word. Pour every spare minute and every ounce of energy into the writing while you can.
This is one of those bits of advice you simply must trust and believe in. I was lucky to stumble upon the truth of this early on in my career. These last two insights truly distill what a writing career is all about, and the simplicity can blind us to the quality of the advice: Read and write. Just keep doing this and you will surprise yourself.
Insight #6: Whoever works the hardest will get ahead.
This insight is for those who measure their success as a writer by readership, sales, and the ability to make a full-time living from their craft. The biggest, most daunting, terrible, awful truth working against this type of success is this: There are only so many readers. It really is as simple as that. If there were twice as many books being consumed, there would be a lot more seats on the bus to successville. Ten times as much reading would be even better. You’d have ten times the chance of making it as a writer. There’s a lot we could do as a society to increase the number of readers, but that’s a blog post for a different time.
Because of the limited number of readers, and the ever-growing number of distractions and hobbies that aren’t reading, only a limited number of people can find an appreciable audience and make a living with their writing. But there’s good news as well: A larger share of the readers’ dollars are now going to writers, which means more writers today can make a living than at any time in the past. The other bit of good news is this: Not many writers are willing to do what it takes to make that living. Which opens the door for you.
I know a lot of people who make a living with their writing. Many of my close personal friends are among those who do. And this isn’t a self-selected sample, where I end up meeting other writers at writing conventions, so all my friends are successful writers. What I’ve seen happen over and over is people who want to know how to get this done, and then go out and do it. What they all have in common, bar none, is a work ethic that borders on obsession.
This is true of all careers with more dreamers than open slots. Going back to sports, imagine the number of times Lionel Messi kicked a soccer ball off a brick wall, passing back and forth to himself, while his friends played Nintendo or watched TV. Successful people find a joy in the thing they do that allows them to do more of it than their peers. I guarantee I’ve read more books than 99.9% of aspiring writers. For many years of my life, I had a goal of reading a book a day. I did this throughout college and most of high school. And when I started writing, I carried the same obsession into my craft. I joined a writing group, read writing theory and advice, and wrote two to three novels a year, plus many shorter works.
This meant getting up at four in the morning to write before work. I wrote over my lunch break. I wrote all weekend. I revised my rough drafts a dozen times. I hired, traded, and begged for editing advice. And I’m not even a good example of proper work ethic. I have friends who write, revise, edit, and publish a novel a month. Year after year. I have friends who have published over fifty novels in their first handful of years of writing. Both of my friends who publish a book a month make millions of dollars a year, and they are among the best writers I know when it comes to craft. I can’t put their books down. They pass like Messi.
When I hear writers brag about how little they publish, or how long it takes them to finish a novel, I hear Steph Curry brag about how little he shoots hoops, or how he only practices once a year. I turn on the TV to watch athletes who obsess over their craft. I admire writers who have the same level of obsession. This is what anyone who wants to make a career at writing should expect from themselves. Stop listening to anyone who brags about how little they write and how much they procrastinate. Surround yourself with the Messis and Currys of the writing world.
Please note here again that making a career at writing is very different from being a successful writer. They’re two different goals. Successful writers are out there completing works and making those works available to readers. These writers might dream of making a living one day, but unless they are outworking everyone they know, their chances are slim. A dream is not a plan. There’s nothing wrong with writing for the pure joy of creation. There’s nothing wrong with shooting hoops with friends, or playing in a community basketball league and wanting to win every game without ever being paid one dime. Know your goals, and know what it takes to achieve them.
Insight #7: Competition is complicated
It might be true that there are a limited number of readers, and that you have to outwork your peers to turn writing into a career, but that doesn’t mean we’re all in competition with each other. We’re only competing to a certain degree, and then we’re in cahoots. Believe it or not, this is a team game.
Steph Curry played for Davidson College, not far from where I grew up. I watched him play college ball. Steph was competing with every player on his team, and every player in his division, for a spot in the NBA. But once he made it to the NBA, he was now reliant on not just his teammates but on his opposition to advance his career. The better Lebron James played, the more spectators and the more money Steph Curry enjoyed. And vice versa. Every NBA superstar grows the pool of viewers, hence advertising dollars, and so all NBA pros benefit.
I see a lot of writers get this wrong, claiming it’s a zero-sum game and we’re all competing with each other. This is nonsense. None of us can write fast enough, or a wide enough variety of material, to please all readers. We rely on our fellow pros to keep interest in the hobby high. JK Rowling did so much for all writers when she increased the number of young avid readers. I rely on my colleagues to keep people reading while I’m working on the next book. Just as Steph and Lebron both work to keep ratings high, advertising dollars flowing, and salary caps increasing.
The biggest fear NBA players, team owners, and executives should have is that viewers might change the channel. The real competition at this level is the NFL, MMA, CNN, the great outdoors, and so on. The paradox is this: You compete up to a point, and then you rely on each other. This means it’s never too early to foster great relationships with fellow writers. Which leads me to the next insight…
Insight #8: Be helpful and engaged
If there’s a shortcut to writing success, it’s here. Be helpful to other writers, and you’ll find your generosity will pay dividends. It’s not the reason you should try to be helpful, but it doesn’t hurt to know that being a good person will be rewarding. I’ve seen it over and over in this industry.
One author I know was a brilliant illustrator. While still working on his first novel, he started helping indie authors with their cover art. He did much of this work for free, and then for much cheaper than he should, all because something most of us find difficult came very easily for him. His generosity and kindness made him incredibly popular. When Jason Gurley finished his novel Eleanor, there was a long line of people eager to give it a read, offer blurbs, and promote the hell out of it. Your novel still has to be good, of course. But you won’t believe how difficult it is to get even family and friends to read your work. Writing good material is a necessity, but it isn’t enough.
Another friend of mine got her start by being a beta reader for other writers and later an editor. You could learn how to format ebooks and offer this service. Or start a blog reviewing and promoting new releases (I’ve watched several bloggers move into writing; it was my path as well). You could join a few writing forums and contribute as much as you can to the helpful discourse among writers. Be yourself. Be kind. Form relationships. Share your journey. Soon you’ll meet and get to know those who want this as badly as you do. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find yourselves on opposing teams one day, realizing that you are now both colleague and competitor, but that you only go as far as you can lift each other up.
Insight #9: Know your readers
My first reader was my cousin Lisa. Other people had read my rough drafts and manuscripts before her, but Lisa was the first person who – under no obligation to read my work – sought it out, loved it, and started asking for more. She also – crucially – began telling all her friends how much she loved my debut novel and asked me if she could send copies to them. At the time, my book was just a Word document. I told her to feel free to send it to anyone. By the time I received a book deal and had the novel ready for pre-order, Lisa had dozens of friends and family excited about the release and securing their copies.
When Lisa talked about what she loved in the book, I listened. As readers began leaving Amazon reviews, I read them closely. I started a Facebook page primarily to connect with readers. I’ll never forget the day I friended my 1,000th reader and realized I was reaching well beyond friends-of-friends. Now I was connecting with strangers from all over the globe. Cultivating these relationships, and giving back every ounce of the love and passion that was streaming toward me and my works, was profoundly satisfying and paid enormous personal and professional dividends.
Connecting and getting to know your readers is critical. Set up platforms that allow this as early on as you can. The important thing is to make it easy for readers to find and connect with you. Don’t waste time trying to win over new readers by spamming social media; this does not work in a sustainable manner. Instead, spend your creative energies writing more works. And use your downtime to connect with the readers you already have. Other readers will come. It all starts with one, like my cousin Lisa.
Insight #10: Know your industry
My last insight is a peek ahead at the final part of this series, but it’s one of the things I wish more aspiring writers thought about before they began honing their craft. The writing industry is a business. Whatever your goals and aspirations, you should learn as much as you can about how books are made, distributed, sold, published, edited, translated, purchased, read, shared, and recycled. Working as a bookseller gave me an advantage that I didn’t appreciate until many years later. When I realized how little most writers knew about their industry, I was shocked at first and then later dismayed. Dismayed, because I saw how many writers were taken advantage of or disappointed simply by not knowing very much about the field they’d devoted their creative lives to.
Most students who go into medicine have at least some idea of the work that will be involved, the hours, the expected pay, the time it will take to get through their residency, the fact that they’ll be working graveyard shifts before they ever catch a whiff of their own practice. Before they take on several hundred thousand dollars in student loans, they look into what an anesthesiologist might expect to make in the state of Indiana upon graduation.
Very few aspiring authors know how much they’ll earn from every paperback sale. Or that most works of fiction are now purchased as ebooks. Or that most physical books are now purchased online. If the goal is to sell enough books to raise a family, the dream should be to have a great online presence for one’s books, and to concentrate on ebooks. However, if the goal is to place books into bookstores and submit for awards in particular genres, the plan should be very different. Understanding these choices and managing expectations will be the subject of the fourth part of this series. For now, my advice is to start learning as much as possible. Read Publishers Weekly, The Passive Voice, Kristine Rusch, JA Konrath. Spend time in bookstores. Follow authors who blog about their experiences. Know what you’re getting yourself into.
Those are the top ten things I wish I’d known before I got started. Next up, I discuss what I wish I’d known about finishing my first rough draft. Maybe it’ll help you, however far along your own writing path you happen to find yourself.
Many of the challenges and frustrations you’ll encounter along the way are the exact same as those felt by every other writer. The exact same. Writing requires long stretches of uninterrupted concentration. This sort of time has always been difficult to carve out. We have children, pets, and spouses who require our attention. We have day jobs to work around. We have the stress of bills, mortgages, student loans, rent, empty gas tanks, empty stomachs. We berate ourselves for not writing more. We judge ourselves when our works don’t sell. We watch as other writers get ahead, as markets change, as retailers come and go.
Every generation of writer thinks that their challenges are unique, and that every other cohort of writer had it easier in the past or will have it easier in the future. That’s because the past highlights those who succeeded there, and their success seems to have come all at once, without the failures, frustrations, and challenges that all writers feel in the moment. The present for a struggling writer is certainly suffering, but this never stops being true. It’s always been true.
The only thing that truly changes over time is the stories and rationalizations that we tell ourselves when we feel these universal pangs of self-doubt, envy, and exhaustion. We tell ourselves it’s because Barnes and Noble is killing indie bookstores. Or that it’s Amazon destroying B&N. Or that it’s Amazon introducing a new program. Or the Nook not doing enough to compete. Or James Patterson and his stable of co-authors. And so on and so on and so on.
The excuses and the stories we make up vary. The challenges don’t.
The fact is that the writing landscape today is as vibrant and viable as it’s ever been in the history of mankind. Authors have more power and control over their careers than ever before. They have more access to readers, to each other, to foreign markets, to the tools of publication, and to the infinite manufacture of goods at almost zero cost. Ten years ago, it was almost impossible to reach readers. Ten years from now is a complete unknown. Seize the day, my friends.