Wednesday, October 10, 2012

“I think I want to write fiction. What should I do now?”


This morning I woke with the idea this was going to be a normal, productive, writing day. I knew I wanted to add a couple of things to my website, and I had some non-writing stuff to get out of the way first, but my main idea was to sit down in front of my computer and write for ten or twelve hours. 

Well, things didn’t quite work out that way.

I did my non-scribbling things hastily, driven by the need to take up the current novel where I’d left it last night. Then I spent an hour on my web update. Then the day-changer happened.

I e-mail with fellow fiction writers and my own readers fairly frequently. I spend quite a bit of time responding to the latter group. Hell, if they have taken the time and made the effort to write to me, I should do the same. So I innocently opened my e-mail accounts and worked my way through. Halfway through the last account (my web’s Contact Eric feed) I came across this…

[WHOA! Don’t worry, YOU! I’m not going to reproduce the whole mail, only the subject line]

“I think I want to write fiction. What should I do now?” !!!!

(the exclamation marks are mine…here’s a few more !!!!....!!...!)

What the ….???!?

Suddenly, all dreams of writing my novel until my fingers bled were swept from my mind.

Hell’s Teeth!!! What an opportunity!!!!!

The poor misguided soul who had posed the question was playing with fire here!!!!!

(Sorry, the exclamation mark key now has a mind of its own!!!!!!!!!!!)

Here’s my answer, YOU. (This is going to be a loonnngggg post, but please bear with me – I hope it will be worth your persistence).

If you’re thinking about writing fiction, DON’T (write, I mean, not think.)

If you find yourself unable to sleep at night because you are mentally writing huge chunks of exciting prose; miss your stop because you’ve concentrated on solving a plot point; tuned-out in a meeting because you’ve just had a breakthrough about how to put an incredible twist into your narrative… if you are irritable with your loved ones; don’t return phone calls; have withdrawal symptoms when you’ve not written something that day… THEN, you’re ready! Not before.

Novels feed off passion – your passion. Your emotions pass through the words in a sort of literary osmosis straight into the readers mind, stimulating images and excitement therein – or at least that’s how it should be. If you don’t experience the passion, stick to writing shopping lists... Please.

So what’s next?

There’s a humongous amount of books, blogs, courses, etc. out there telling you ‘all’ you want to know about writing. Some of it is glib and useless, usually written by ‘established’ authors who have forgotten the pain and sacrifice of their humble origins (How to win friends and influence people – chapter 47). Then there’s advice, often well thought-out and presented, from experienced writers with true altruistic motivation who want to help other aspiring writers. But, quite a bit of this is centred on the ‘old paradigm’ of ‘traditional’ publishing. While that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant, it can be unintentionally misleading, and is often deliberately biased. Then there’s people who are passionate about this whole business, and sufficiently down-to-earth to take an objective approach. These are the most useful, in my opinion. I hope, when you reach the end of this massive missive, you’ll class me as one of the latter.

What would I suggest? I’ll try to make it as simple as I can. 

  1. Write your novel! Just get it down on paper! Don’t bother about spelling, grammar and the rest of that stuff; concentrate on telling your tale. How? We’ll this in of itself is another mind-blowing question. My simple answer? Read at least 2 of James N. Frey’s books: Read the generic “How to Write a Damn Good Novel” (Amazon link: http://amzn.to/QdiDeF) and the nearest genre-specific one to what you want to write (‘How to write a Damn Good Thriller’ was and is one of the best investments I have ever made.) James has a no-nonsense style of explanation; his books are chock full of superb pragmatic advice. You can do no wrong here, bro.
  2. Write until your fingers bleed. No, I don’t mean that literally, but writing isn’t something you do for ten minutes every other day, when it’s raining, and the dog isn’t clamouring for a walk.
  3. Make constant (every ten minutes) saves of everything. When you get to the end of a chapter (or end of a day’s writing) make at least one copy on a thumb drive and keep it on your person – that way if your PC overheats (through writing so much) and sets your house on fire, you won’t lose months of work. That has happened to me, minus the resultant house fire, though.
  4. Don’t discuss your story with anyone at this stage. That includes the wife/husband/lover/co-worker. The only exceptions? The dog (or cat). If you find yourself listening to their advice – for God’s sake, take a break!
  5. Once you’ve written your tale, run it through your word processor’s spell-checker, with all the options turned on. Take your time over this; don’t blindly except the suggested corrections – think about them and learn.
  6. Then run it through some self-editing software, such as Stylewriter (well worth the investment – link: www.stylewriter-usa.com). Again, make sure all the options are switched on; especially check that it is set on Fiction (you’re not writing term papers now!) and that the correct English set is selected (US, UK etc.) This will also take some time – probably days. It’s well worth it – again think before making ANY changes.
  7. You should now have a decent First Draft. Good, but this is the start… Print it out, double spaced, single-sided (yes, on paper. Seriously) and switch off your computer. I said unplug it!
  8. Go do something non-writing related for a couple of weeks. Snail-wrangling in the Peruvian mountains is a personal favourite.
  9. Then, find a quiet room, away from your PC. Lock yourself in; no interruptions. Read your First Draft aloud – interpret the dialogue, live the words. Make changes, add stuff, cross out whole paragraphs/pages (painful, isn’t it?)… EVOLVE your work! You’ll pick up things that don’t work; dialogue that sounds stilted; tangent storylines that go nowhere; pacing that doesn’t do what you want (if you’re yawning, imagine the hell you’re putting your readers through) and a long etcetera. This is one of the best and most productive steps in writing a novel; believe me – do it once and you’ll convince yourself.
  10. When you have finished reading the whole manuscript, not before, go back to your PC (it will have cooled down by then) and apply the changes. Don’t worry if you find yourself changing even more stuff as well – that’s just creative juices flowing.
  11. Repeat steps 5) and 6). Now you’ll have a Second Draft.
  12. Find some people and coerce, threaten, blackmail them into reading copies of your tale and providing you with DETAILED comments and suggestions. Tell them, in no uncertain terms, you will never speak to them again, babysit, walk their dog or whatever unless they give you a no-holds-barred critique. If what you’ve written is crap, they should say so – AND tell you why! Real friends will reveal themselves at this juncture in your life.
  13.  Read through all their suggestions – apply those you think will improve your work. Don’t discuss what you are doing, even with the dog! (at this stage it's got its own agenda!)
  14. Repeat steps 5) and 6) again. You’ll be seeing the text in your worst nightmares by now with stuff highlighted as infinite corrections dance before your eyes. Good. That’s progress.
  15. Find a professional, experienced Editor, ideally with several books under their belts in the same genre as your own– this will give them a better feel for the market segment and how to tweak the text to home in on your potential readers. This is expensive; the good ones aren’t cheap. They usually charge by the word for a full line edit, so if you’ve written a 150,000-word epic or a five-volume fantasy you want to publish all at once, prepare yourself.
  16. Apply the changes you feel warranted. Remember, editors will help you polish your prose, make it more efficient and acceptable to Joe Public, but they won’t have your passion for the tale.
  17.  Repeat steps 5) and 6). Yeah, I know: by now you hate the book. Good. We are almost there.
  18. Repeat steps 7), 8), 9), 10) and 11) – now you’ll have a Final Draft.
  19. Now it’s decision time. How do you want to publish it? Basically if you want to get your work out to a paying public, you have three options:   a)   Self-publishing, or the Indie route, b) Traditional publishing, or the patience route or c ) which is a while waiting for b. If a) is your choice, then find a reputable, experienced platform (many of the good ones are free) that have tools to help you get covers designed, text formatted, etc. If it’s b) then Patience. Start sending out Query letters to Literary Agents. Patience. Send out more query letters. Patience. Try to find an agent that works in your genre. Patience. While waiting, do step 22). If it’s c, read on.
  20. Decide how you want to market your book. You’ll need to do this irrespective of which route you took in the previous step. Check out the options. Note: it’s never too soon to market. I’m already writing about ‘the CULL’ and it’s not out for 2 months yet and ‘Leaving Shadows’ and that’s not out until May of next year! Generate some undercurrent today! “But hey, I chose route 2 – don’t the big publishing firms do your marketing?” you say. Simple answer; NO! Complex answer: NO, not with the passion you’ll put into it!
  21. Take a blank sheet of paper. Write out your expectations for your novel (copies sold, royalties, anything else you want). When finished, burn that page! Take another sheet of paper, halve the previous figures, then halve them again. Lastly, halve them! That’s reality, babe! Any improvement on what you have now, is GOOD NEWS!
  22. Write another book!!!!!!!!!!!! (damn, it’s happening again!!!!!) Here’s a super, secret, highly confidential marketing tip: Books sell books! (Don’t tell anyone!) Yeah, you’ve got it. You find a writer on Amazon; never heard of them (that’s you, now). One book to their name. Okay, you’ll give them a shot. Great read, want more, but… Take a look at the bestseller lists – most have multiple titles to their name. Plus, to become a better writer you need to write often. What’s your objective here? Simple: you want your readers to love you, not just [insert the title of your only novel]. Remember, people talk about Lee Child’s latest novel, not about another book by that guy who wrote whatsitsname. They call this Branding – personally I hate the phrase, but the idea is sound.
  23.  One magic day the postman will deliver a parcel, or maybe you’ll log on to Amazon and download it to your e-reader. It will be YOUR NOVEL. There’s nothing like that feeling! You’ll only get it once, so savour it. Even when it’s book two, or three, it won’t be quite the same.
  24. Another magic day will come. Again the postman with a letter this time, or maybe, if you’re lucky (yes, this is a friendly dig at my chums at Amazon KDP) it will be an EFT transfer. It is your first royalty payment! It won’t be much, but it’ll have an emotional value greater than Pure Gold!
  25. Grab your loved ones (remember them,? You’ve been ignoring them for months now; they may not even be on speaking terms anymore; they may have even moved house.) Take them out for a celebration – blow the royalties cash that day –all of it! They deserve it – hey, and don’t forget your writing partner – the dog!
  26.   Repeat 1-25. Welcome to the Writing Life!
More tips on my website!

      Eric @ www.ericjgates.com
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