Before You Write a Novel, Start With Something Shorter

Write short stories to master the art of fiction writing

May is short story monthMay is short story month. I share this news in advance so you can consider how you want to celebrate. You might want to spend the month reading short stories or perhaps focus on writing a few. But regardless, give short stories some consideration in the month of May. Doing so will inform your other writing, whether you write fiction or not.

I know many beginning writers who sit down to write a novel. They have a vision and enthusiasm, but not much else. They start writing but soon give up in frustration. And for the few who do finish, their story isn’t that good.

I’ve often heard that novelists write several bad novels before penning a good one. Those first books serve as training for them to learn what works and doesn’t, to find their voice, and to hone their craft. They need to figure out plot and structure and story arc and character development and dialogue and a slew of other things. And they write several practice books to get there.

Why not write several practice short stories instead?

I took that path. In fact I focused on flash fiction: short stories with fewer than one thousand words. I experimented with first person and third person, present tense and past tense. I even wrote a second-person, present-tense short story—something I’d hate doing for an entire book.

Using short stories, I fine-tuned my dialogue. I worked on intriguing titles, strong openings, and satisfying closes. I practiced “show, don’t tell” and worked on word choice.

I did all this in preparation to one day write a novel. You see, I didn’t want to waste several novels practicing. I used my short stories for that. I got feedback from critique groups, hired tutors, and studied.Writing short stories prepares us to write novels. May is short story month. Click To Tweet

Then one day I wrote a piece of flash fiction. It started out as 900 words. But I liked the premise and added to it to produce a 2,500-word short story. I fell in love with the characters and wanted to write more. I did write more, a lot more. By the time I finished my story arc I had a 28,000-word novella. But it needed more. Next I added two secondary story arcs and the length grew to 46,000 words, enough for a short novel and about perfect for the YA (young adult) genre.

So my 800-word piece of flash fiction grew into a 46,000-word novel.

But the story isn’t over.

Last year, for NaNoWriMo, I wrote a 49,000-word sequel. Then I mapped out a series. I’m ready to start writing books three and four.

Writing short stories prepared me to write novels. And writing fiction helps me write better nonfiction and memoir.

So celebrate the short story. May is short story month. It even has its own Twitter account: @ShortStoryMonth, which often uses the hashtag #shortreads.

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When Should You Enter Writing Contests?

Participating in writing contests can offer 6 key benefits

When Should You Enter Writing Contests?I used to enter writing contests, but I haven’t done so lately. Writing contests are fun when you win, and I had a few wins early on. Interestingly, as I’ve improved as a writer, my success rate has dropped to zero. Hence I’m now less motivated. Plus, I’m now a lot busier writing other things.

Nevertheless, don’t automatically dismiss writing contests. Here are six reasons you should consider submitting content to a writing contest:

1) If Deadlines Help You Write: I always write with more intention when I have a due date. However, I’m also a disciplined writer and would be writing anyway, just perhaps not with as much purpose. However, other writers need a deadline to produce content. If submitting to a contest helps you write, then that presents a sufficient reason to do so.

2) If Your Submission Can be Repurposed: Everything I write nowadays can work in multiple situations. That way if the first contest or publication falls through, I have a second source to consider. That way none of my work is ever wasted.

3) If There is No Submission Fee: Some contests carry submission fees; others, don’t. Sometimes the fee is small; other times, not so small. I have submitted to both kinds. Going forward I will never pay to enter a contest unless it meets the next criteria.Receiving professional feedback on your writing may be worth the cost of the contest. Click To Tweet

4) If the Pay-to-Play Contest Provides Value: I understand that some contests will give you feedback on your work. I’ve never encountered those contests, but I hear they exist. Receiving professional feedback may be worth the cost of submission, even if you don’t win. But you might be better off to skip the contest and just pay someone for his or her opinion.

5) If You Want to Expand Your Bio: Being able to say you won a contest looks impressive in your author bio. However, most people have never heard of that particular writing contest so winning it carries little prestige, even to people in the industry.

6) If You Need to Learn How to Deal with Rejection: Face it. Most people who enter writing contests don’t win. It hurts to hear “No,” but it’s a reality of being a writer. Each time we hear a “no” toughens us up a bit more and prepares us to do this writing thing for the long haul. Plus, as they say in sales, “Each ‘no’ brings you one step closer to ‘yes.’”

Writing contests have value, but only pursue them if they make sense for you and your situation.

Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your Writing

Avoid using “it was,” “that was,” and “this was”—among other things

Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your WritingI hired a developmental editor to give me big-picture feedback on my novel. Though her comments overall encouraged me, I have several things to work on and fix.

One was that I used the innocuous phrase “it was” too often. How often? It popped up 126 times, which was an average of once for every 365 words. Interestingly I discovered I used it in spurts, with the phrase being absent in some chapters and plentiful in others.

As I set about to fix the problem, I realized I could simply replace “it was” with “that was” or “this was,” but doing so solved one problem by creating another. I would need to find and replace those phrases, too. While “that was” occurred only twenty-one times, “this was” showed up fifty-six times, for a total of 203 instances for all three.

  • The ideal correction involved replacing these trite phrases with a more powerful verb.
  • If that solution alluded me, a secondary option was replacing “it,” “that,” or this” with the noun they referenced or a suitable alternative.
  • A few times I couldn’t find replacement wording that would convey the same meaning without ballooning the sentence in size or structure, so I left it as is.
  • Last was dialogue. I reasoned I could often retain these phrases in speech because that’s how people usually talk. Even so, I did clean up some of the conversations in my story, too.

Develop a writing habit to avoid boring and trite phrases. Click To TweetWhile I could have slavishly reworked every occurrence of these offending phrases, I felt inclined to leave some in to maintain the flow or clarity of the story.

In the end I left “it was” in twelve times; “that was,” three times; and “this was,” four times. This reduced my total number of offenses from 203 down to only nineteen, a 94 percent reduction.

Now my next task is to develop a habit were I don’t use “it was,” “that was,” or “this was” in the first place. While I long ago put my writing on a “low-that” diet, I suspect this new skill will take a bit longer to develop.

When We Should and Shouldn’t Self-Publish

Writers need to balance the considerations of self-publishing and traditional publishing

When We Should and Shouldn’t Self-PublishThere is much debate in the writing community about going with a traditional publisher versus self-publishing. Neither is a panacea. Both have their advantages and their disadvantages. Considerations include career objectives, time investments, speed to publishing, potential revenue, and personal goals. Though I am pursuing a traditional publishing deal, I will also self-publish (indie-publish) other works.

The key is to know when it’s the right time to self-publish.

Here’s When You Shouldn’t Self-Publish:

  • Publishers Reject Your Book: It’s an unwise reaction to self-publish your book just because a couple publishers said “no.” Some well-known books and classics were rejected scores of times, but their authors didn’t give up and kept trying new avenues. And I’m sure they continued to work on improving their book in the process.
  • Agents Won’t Sign You: The same thing applies with agents. Agents only make money when they sell books, so if they don’t think they can sell your book, they won’t take you on as a client. Not being able to land an agent may be the worst reason to self-publish because you’re probably not ready.
  • You’re Tired of Hearing “No”: Rejection is a part of writing. It’s often a sign that you or your book isn’t ready. Self-publishing prematurely will just give more people a reason to reject your book.
  • You’re Weary of Waiting: Traditional publishing takes time and requires patience. Being impatient with long production times is not (usually) a sound reason to self-publish.

Here’s When You Should Consider Self-Publishing:

  • You’ve Written The Best Book Possible: When your book is the best it can be you might want to consider self-publishing it. This means you have carefully edited and proofed it, you’ve received feedback from others, and you’ve hired people to make it shine.
  • Your Book Has Been Professionally Edited: There are three types of editing and you need a different editor for each type. Usually you need to hire these people. If someone gives you free editing, you often get what you pay for. First there’s a development edit (the big picture stuff), copy-editing (sentence structure, flow, and word choice), and proofreading (grammar, punctuation, and typos). There are three types of editing and you need a different editor for each type. Click To Tweet
  • You Will Invest In Your Book: In addition to hiring editors, you will need to pay for a front cover design. Since “a book is judged by its cover,” don’t skimp on this. Other considerations include the book jacket, the interior layout, and file conversion. Each one costs and your book will look “off” if you try to do these yourself.
  • You Are Ready to Market Your Book: Successful self-publishing requires marketing. While traditional publishers will also expect you to help promote your book, when you self-publish, it all falls to you.

Consider both of these lists before you self-publish your next book.

Do Your Part Before You Ask Others For Help; There is No Easy Button

Too many novice writers don’t invest in the craft and expect seasoned authors to give them an easy button to publication

Do Your Part Before You Ask Others For Help; There is No Easy ButtonI post on this blog, send out a writing newsletter, and speak at conferences because I want to give back to the writing community, to share with others what I have learned over the years. By helping others the best that I can, I help myself. As I give, I also grow as a writer.

Though I can’t help everyone who asks and my time is limited, I do give a higher priority to those who are part of my writing community, those who journey with me to become better writers and share our words with others. These are the folks who put in the hard work to improve as writers, study the craft, and learn about the industry. They are worthy of receiving help. Not everyone is.

Recently a friend asked me and some others to review her manuscript. This is a big ask, and I had misgivings. As far as I know, my friend isn’t part of a writing group, doesn’t attend writing conferences, fails to write regularly, and neglects to study writing and the industry. Instead she seeks those who have put in the hard work for help so she can skip doing the hard work herself. She’s hoping for an “easy button” to turn her rough draft into a publishable book.Too often I’ve tried to help people who asked for advice but weren’t ready to hear it. Click To Tweet

And I’m not too excited about helping with this. I prefer to invest what time I have into writers who are putting forth effort to improve. Too often I’ve tried to help people who asked for advice but weren’t ready to hear it. They lacked the basic tools to receive, consider, and apply my input.

They wanted an easy button, but in writing there is no easy button.

We Need to Balance Formal Education with On-The-Job Training

While a college degree in writing has value, it is not a requirement for a rewarding career

We Need to Balance Formal Education with On-The-Job TrainingLast week I talked about the appropriateness of hiring others to help us on our writing journeys. This has been a reoccurring theme in my career as a writer and my vocation as a publisher.

When it comes to written communications, I am self-educated: I am a self-taught writer, a self-taught editor, and a self-taught publisher. It’s not that I eschew formal education – I do have advanced degrees, after all – it’s just that they don’t happen to be in the field of communication.

I took one freshman writing class and one freshman literature class, both required in my engineering curriculum. That was it. I never suspected I’d end up working as a publisher, editor, and writer. Being an author was not part of my career plan.

Since I am decidedly finished with college I am left to design my own writing course, one propelled by real world needs and bathed in actual application. This pursuit is both practical and effective. It includes:

Magazines: I subscribe to magazines about writing and publishing. These periodicals arrive with predicted regularity and feed me practical advice in bite-sized chunks. I look forward to each one.

Books: I also tap books for extended focus on particular topics. Though these are helpful, I have bought more writing books then I have read. Some are boring, and for others it seems the authors are more concerned with impressing us than educating. Maybe it’s just me. Nevertheless some writing books are most helpful.Listening to podcasts on writing is my go-to method of learning. Click To Tweet

Podcasts: Listening to others discuss writing is my go-to method of learning. I consume several hours of podcasts each week, listening to them while driving, doing mindless work around the house, and during lunch. They fuel me and give perspective.

Writing Groups: Being part of a writing community is a great resource, not only for learning but also for support and encouragement.

Online Courses: I also take advantage of online learning opportunities in the form of webinars and classes. The pinpoint focus of each allows me to pick topics of immediate, practical application.

Conferences: My goal is to attend two writing conferences a year. (This year will be three.) I look for those that provide value and are within driving distance (no airfare), and local (no hotels) is ideal.

Best of all, my educational path has no tests, finals, or grades. The only studying I do is in actually applying what I’ve learned. I’m pursuing a self-directed writing education.

Why Should You Pay Others to Help You Improve as a Writer?

When you want to advance as an author, the cost-effective solution is to hire outside help

Why Should You Pay Others to Help You Improve as a Writer?Tip #7 in my post “10 Tips to Improve as a Writer” is to not be afraid to pay for help. As a financially frugal person this was a hard lesson for me to learn. When I entered the publishing industry in 2001, by purchasing Connections Magazine from its founder, I approached my new business with entrepreneurial zeal and no publishing knowledge.

One of the first things I did was pay an established industry consultant to point me in the right direction. At $200 an hour, I had to make every minute count. Though expensive, his advice was golden, helping me to avoid costly errors and dodge common traps. It was one of the best investments I could have made.

To save money, though, I did all the editing myself. This was a mistake. Every issue had errors. In one column I lauded my designer as a “creative genesis” instead of a “creative genius.” Another time I contrasted a shotgun to a riffle, not a rifle. Readers who knew me would laugh at my errors. To ease my embarrassment I hired an editor to do proofreading and copyediting. Though I still do all the substantive edits (macro editing, as I call it), I defer the minutia of details to someone who is able to pick out typos and knows grammar and punctuation.

Though I’ve learned much in this area and now do my own proofreading for online content, I would never print something without the seasoned eye of a professional proofreader first reviewing each word and scrutinizing every sentence.

I have also paid people to provide an assessment of some of my books. Sometimes this is to point out weakness in the work or identify writing habits I need to correct. Other times the goal is simply to answer the question, “Is this work viable?” and if not, “What do I need to do to fix it?”

Most recently I hired a former college writing professor to provide feedback on my fiction work, starting with short stories. With ease and confidence he answers questions that have perplexed me and caused my writing peers to equivocate. He confirms what I do well and shows where I can improve. His tutelage is invaluable. Paying for expert writing advice is like designing our own, personal writing course. Click To Tweet

Whenever I hire someone to help me with my writing, I view it as designing my own, personal writing course, one to provide direct, tangible assistance in the area where I need it most. This saves me from trial-and-error discovery of what works and what doesn’t. This keeps me from wasting time and helps me to get better faster.

Yes, nothing can replace the lessons learned when we just sit down and write, but seeking professional help when we need it, makes our time spent writing less frustrating and so much more effective.

10 Tips to Improve as a Writer

To progress as an author requires hard work and diligent focus

10 Ways to Grow as a WriterI’ve been writing my entire adult life. In the early years my primary goal was to write faster, but for the past decade or so, my focus was on writing better. As I attended to learning the craft of writing, my writing has steadily improved. Along the way I have also begun to write with increased speed.

Here are my ten tips to improve as a writer:

  1. Write: The most essential step is to just sit down and write. Some aspiring writers put off this tip waiting until they are ready. Guess what? I doubt anyone is ever ready. Not really. So start writing. Do it on a regular basis. Take it seriously. Make your writing time sacred. When I did this, my writing blossomed.
  2. Study Writing: We must study the art and craft of writing. I read about writing, listen to writing podcasts, learn from the masters, and go to lectures. If you’re in school, take writing classes.
  3. Read Broadly: Reading informs our writing. We see what other authors do. We learn what we like and don’t like. We need to read in our genre and outside it. Read for fun, and read to learn.
  4. Watch Movies: Cinema informs my writing almost as much as reading. Movies reveal insight about plot development, effective openings, memorable endings, character development, effective dialogue, and more.
  5. Attend Conferences: Writers often complain about the cost of conferences: registration, airfare, hotel, and incidentals. I get that, but tap into local conferences to eliminate the travel and lodging expenses. Some events are even free.
  6. Participate in Groups: Join a critique group, support group, accountability group, or some collection of other writers who have a shared goal of improvement.
  7. Pay for Help: If you need help, don’t be afraid to pay for it. This may be for edits, critiques, story development, or any other area where you struggle. What if you can’t afford it? Find a way. Be creative. Swap services. One enterprising writer “paid” her editor by cleaning her house.
  8. Give to Others: Share what you can with other writers. Give to the industry and the industry will give to you.
  9. Work in the Industry: If you have the opportunity to find employment that intersects with writing or publishing in any way, grab it. This may be part time or full time; it may pay well or little (and some gigs are volunteer). But the key is to put yourself in a position to interact with other writers. You will learn from your environment; by osmosis you will grow.
  10. Write: I end my list with the same tip I began with. That’s because too many aspiring writers become so busy, so fixated, on tips 2 through 9 that they skip the writing part. They don’t have time, become too distracted, or put it off. If you’re serious about writing, never stop. Writing is the most critical step to being a writer.

Writing is the most critical step to being a writer. Duh! Click To TweetFollow these tips to become a better writer. Pick one and implement it. Then add another. Keep going until you are doing all ten. You will be amazed at the results.

Writers Need to Learn By Doing

Knowledge about writing has value only when we put it into action

Writers Need to Learn By DoingAt the risk of offending all writers who are pursuing or want to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree in writing, let me share some concerns. Yes, I look at writers with MFA degrees with admiration, even through the eyes of envy. And as a person who has earned the right to hang letters of accomplishment after my name, I understand the heady allure and practical benefits of doing so. Yet I have also wondered if an MFA degree is worth the effort and the cost, both in terms of time and money.

This week in listening to one of the many writing podcasts I follow, the accomplished guest (sorry I forgot your name; I can’t even check because I don’t recall which podcast it was) put things very clearly for me. He (yes, I remember that much) said something to the effect of “Don’t waste your time on an MFA degree, where you will spend years writing one book. You’re better off spending that time writing many books.”

That makes sense, especially given that most authors have to write several novels before they pen one that’s marketable. That’s a big reason why I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this November to write my first novel. I want to get it out of my system. I need to move it from my head onto the page, inching me closer to authoring a book that is worthy. Of course if my first novel is good I won’t complain, but I’m not expecting that outcome. But by the time I finish the series (two sequels and a prequel) I hope I’m ready.

I’ve been moving toward this for a couple of years: reading fiction, receiving instruction, opening myself to critique, and writing fiction. I started with short stories. Though each of these steps is essential, the final one matters most, the actual implementation. During the practice phase, theory becomes real. When we apply head knowledge, it becomes art.We must practice: most authors write several novels before penning one that’s marketable. Click To Tweet

I often run into wannabe writers who have stuffed their heads with theory but have never bothered to apply it by actually writing. Their ideas mean little and their critiques carry questionable merit because they lack the practical experience that turns education into work that matters.

Yes, learning is critical – and writers who refuse to learn are not really writers at all – but working out that head knowledge as we write is even more critical.

Writers spend their time writing and poseurs spend their time learning.

How Can a Writer Conform to Industry Expectations and Still Stand Out?

Trying to follow every bit of writing advice can push writers into a no-win situation

How Can a Writer Conform to Industry Expectations and Still Stand Out?I listen to many podcasts, follow blogs, read magazines, attend webinars, and study books  so that I can become a better writer. But somedays I wonder if it helps. Somedays my head spins with confusion, and I want to give up – not give up writing but give up trying to figure out the “right” way to do it.

My biggest struggle comes from seeking a balance of the seemingly ironclad, unwavering set of industry expectations with the near constant plea from agents and editors to submit something unique. How can we rise above all others while doing what everyone else does?

The answer, I am realizing, is that we can’t. And that’s the rub.

Slavishly following today’s “standard writing procedures” makes our work formulaic, predictable, and boring. Yet in breaking from those requirements we run the very likely outcome of rejection for not fitting in. Either way, we lose.

In trying to obey the dictates of publishing experts I have sacrificed my vision, degraded my voice, and sapped my spirit. Yet in going with my instinct I have encountered criticism and rejection. The first is disheartening; the second is discouraging.Make informed writing decisions: break rules when you must; follow them when you can. Click To Tweet

I’m now charting a middle ground. Yes, I will still seek to conform, to obey today’s expectations. But I won’t do so blindly. Going forward I will make informed decisions on my writing, choosing to confidently break the rules when my instinct tells me I must, while following them without question whenever I can.

The result, I trust, will be conforming enough to garner attention but differing enough to stand out.

What writing “rule” really bugs you? How can you make your writing stand out?

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