So you wanna write a book, eh? Want to know the secret to getting it done? Read on!
When I tell people that I'm a writer, I get a variety of different reactions, many of them not so nice, ranging from boredom to disdain to doubt, and everything in between. But when people find out that I have finished a novel and that it has actually been published, I get a much different response. For some odd reason, it seems to give me more credibility and inevitably, many of them divulge that they, too, have aspirations of being a writer, but don’t quite know where to begin. The most common comments I get are as follows:
“How’d you do it?”
“I've always wanted to write a book; I just wish I knew how.”
“I have so many great ideas for stories, but I don’t know where to start.”
“I started writing a book, too, but I can’t seem to finish it.”
“I wish I knew the secret to writing a book.”
I have to smile when I hear comments like these because, at one time or another, I’ve probably made those same remarks. But the truth is, when it comes to sitting down and writing a book, there is no trick. There is no special secret. There is not even a magic formula. It just takes two normal, everyday “D” words: Desire and Dedication. Sounds trite, I know, but sometimes the truth is trite. Without real desire, there will be no dedication. Without real dedication, there will be no book with you listed as the author. Enjoying writing isn’t enough. Jotting down a few words every so often when you are in the mood, is not enough. You’ve got to really, really want to do it, and you have to be willing to sacrifice time and effort to get it done. Otherwise, you are doomed from the get-go. There’s a big difference between wishing for something and really wanting something. Take for example the big Bike Race to be held in my neck of the woods in July. I love to ride my bike. I especially love to ride on a cool day, when the is sun shining and a nice gentle breeze is blowing, and I don’t have to sweat my butt off or fight the weather. Double especially if the place where I’m riding doesn't have too many hills, and is not too challenging. Triple especially if the scenery is pleasant, and there is no traffic (the Boardwalk, for instance). On the day of the Big Bike Race, I will probably go and watch At one point, I might be inspired enough to say something like, “Gee, I wish I could compete in a Bike Race too,” or “Wow, I wish I had all that cool gear and could handle a bike like those people.” But the fact of the matter is, while it’s a nice idea, it’s just a wish. In reality, when I consider all the preparation and hard work that is necessary to compete in and finish a grueling bike race, it’s a deal buster. Could I do it? Sure—physically, I have the potential. Will I do it? No, because it’s not that much of a priority in my life. I don’t want it that badly. I don’t have a strong enough desire to drive the dedication necessary to commit myself to the grueling hours of hard work necessary to get in good enough condition to compete in such an event.
It’s that way with writing. If you really want to finish writing the book you've had tucked away under your bed since you wore bell bottoms, then you will do it—so long as you have the big Double D: Desire and Dedication. That’s something you have to decide first. Quite honestly, writing a book can be hard work, and it takes time a lot of time. Sometimes, it can be tedious and not all that much fun. Ultimately, though, for me, there is no bigger kick that watching a story in my mind come to life on paper. It’s an astounding, amazing, and nearly miraculous experience, second only to childbirth (and sometimes, just as painful). When I stare at a blank page on a computer screen, I see sheer, unadulterated potential—it’s exciting, it drives me, and when I’m in the middle of writing a book, it comes pretty darn close to being an addiction. In fact, do you know why I haven’t Blogged in 95 days (or at least that's what my GoDaddy meter tells me)? I’m deep into the sequel to TURN OF THE SENTRY, and it’s all I really want to do. My kids have to remind me they are still here and haven't gone off to college just yet. My husband is getting darn sick of take-out. The hamster’s cage has gotten so dirty, she’s hired a cleaning lady. The dogs have started taking themselves for walks on the treadmill. I have to be reminded to shower, eat, get up and move so I don’t throw a blood clot…well, I exaggerate a little; no one ever has to remind me to eat. But you get the picture. It’s what I want to be doing—it’s my Desire, and the Dedication follows naturally.
Now, after reading all that, if you still think you want to write a book—if you’re pretty darn sure that you’ve got the Double D—then keep reading, because even with Desire and Dedication, it’s easy to get stuck. And while I have no secret recipe for writing a best-selling novel (and if any of you do have that particular recipe, don’t be a hog—pass it along!) I do have a few tips to help you move forward and finally get those words on paper. These four strategies have helped me stay on track:
Know Your Points Some writers draft meticulous outlines for their novels, some just have a sketchy idea of what’s going to happen. Despite what others may tell you, I propose that there is no right or wrong way—it depends upon your own taste and style. For me personally, outlines don’t work. It saps most of the fun out of writing. I like to be surprised with what happens in my story. Still, I do strongly suggest that you at least know your Plot Points. You need to have an idea of where the story starts, where it will end, and some of the major milestones that happen in between. It gives you something of a general road map to work with, and then it’s up to you to fill in the lines in between. I’m not saying you need turn by turn directions, like some sort of literary GPS (unless writing that way suits your style), but you do need some dots to connect along your route. Otherwise, you could wind up wandering aimlessly, never getting anywhere with the story, and that will make you give up. Of course, unless your Moses, nothing is written in stone, and the plot points can change or develop (or even disappear entirely) along the way, but that’s okay—despite what my first grade teacher tried to drum into my head, there’s always more than one way to connect the dots. But having them there will give you progressive handholds to reach for when climbing onward with your story.
Know Your Characters Always remember that you don’t tell the story—your characters do. Regardless of what point of view or perspective you choose for your book, never forget that your main characters are the ones who drive your story. You may be the navigator on this road trip, but they are behind the wheel, and they direct the lines which connect your plot points. In order to give your characters that kind of control, you have to know them and trust them. For that, you first have to be interested in them. Unless you are genuinely interested in your characters—what they are like, what they do in their spare time, what motivates them, what moves them, what’s their favorite flavor of ice cream, and so on, your story will likely become one-dimensional and tedious and eventually stall out. Chances are, you will be spending a lot of time with your characters along this journey, so get to know them first—take them to lunch, buy them a drink, ask them their opinions on politics. I know, I know; some of you may feel silly talking to characters that exist only in your head, but it’s okay—just don’t talk out loud (unless you have a Blue Tooth hooked over your ear—then go for it). When you develop a relationship with your characters, you are invested in them, and it will really help to fire up that all-important second “D” of Dedication.
Dance Like Nobody’s Watching And write like nobody will ever read it. Sometimes when I write my first draft, I find my mind wandering into the “what will they think” bog. I start wondering if I have a sharp enough hook, or whether I’m painting the right picture for the readers, or if I'm burdening them with too many adjectives, or whether I'm giving them the right information at the right times, and so forth. That’s a great way to get stuck in the muck. Free yourself from the worry of what other people will think by playing the “it’s just for me” game. In other words, write the story that you want to read, and write it as if you are the only person on Earth who will ever read it. Ultimately, this may or may not be true, but pretending that it is can be your gateway to freedom! There will be plenty of time to worry about the details later, and there will be many revisions to come where you can polish the writing and hone the story. But your first draft should be your time to explore and have fun.
Stick to Your Limits This point, although last, is oh so desperately important. You MUST set a word limit for yourself—a minimum amount that you will write on a daily or weekly basis. Personally, I prefer a daily limit—weekends excluded—it keeps me honest. But everyone is different and you have to find a limit that suits your schedule and you need to keep it realistic. Don’t expect to sit down and do 10,000 words a day. Granted, I know some amazing writers who can do that in a blink, but not many. Start with something like 500 words a day (or 2,500 words a week, if you do it five out of seven days). Or maybe 300 words every other day. How about 600 words on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays? The idea is, find something that will work for you and that you know you can live with. Then STICK TO IT. It’s like going to the gym—when you first start, it will be easy, and you will be pumped up and motivated. But then you will reach a point when you get a little tired of the routine, and you're tempted to find reasons not meet your limit. That's where the Dedication part comes in. Car broke down? I don’t care. Stomach bug? So what? Relatives are visiting? Not an excuse (actually, for me, it's an excuse to write more). Poison Ivy all over your hands? Type with your toes! Okay, I am exaggerating again, but the point is, don’t give in to excuses. Do all in your power to stick to your commitment. Some days the words will flow like gravy on roast beef, and you will write above and beyond your limit. But there will also be those days when the words will flow like frozen molasses, and you'll want to give it a rest, knowing tomorrow will be a better day for writing. Don't succumb to that lie. Write anyway. Even if it’s gibberish, put something on paper. Your Muse is like a spoiled child—the more you let it play hide and seek, the more it will elude you when you need it most. Force yourself to write even when uninspired and eventually, your Muse will get jealous and come out of hiding. And, if you stick with your limit, you are guaranteed an end in sight. For instance, if you write 500 words a day, five days a week, in 36 weeks (that’s about nine months, people) you’ll have a 90,000 word first draft novel completed. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, I can tell you, it feels even better.
Of course, the first draft of a novel is only the beginning and there are many revisions on the road to publication. But don’t let that scare you. A first draft is a great accomplishment in and of itself. At the very least, if you stick with it, relying on your Double D’s, pretty soon people will look at you and say, “Wow, I always wanted to write a book—what’s the trick?”
As always, that's just my opinion.
A. M. Boyle
WARNING! RANT IN PROGRESS—PROCEED WITH CAUTION!
Naivety strikes again. When will I learn?
Writers groups. Why do they exist? The most logical of reasons comes to mind: to help writers. It has always been my belief that writers' groups were there to offer a leg up to writers, especially newbie writers and debut authors, by providing a forum in which to ask questions and network with other writers. I always pictured them as safe havens of sorts—places where advice could be found, network opportunities abound, and anew writer could find support and encouragement along the way.
So why is it that so many writers’ groups (especially the “big,prestigious ones”) actually put up barriers and hurdles for the newly published author—do they think we haven’t encountered enough roadblocks already?
I am especially peeved about the elitist attitude several of these “big groups” maintain (who shall remain nameless—but I’m pretty sure they know who they are). Among their membership there is a nearly constant cry of “foul” against the large publishing houses and overly-bloated literary agents because of their exclusionary attitudes and reluctance to give new talent a chance to flourish. Yet, these same writers’ groups erect unanticipated and unwarranted barriers themselves against new authors who are just trying to get themselves and their work “out there.”
Recently, I tried to join a couple of these writers’ groups,feeling relieved and ecstatic that, at long last, as a “published author” I had finally earned my stripes. However, I was quickly chastised when I applied “for the wrong type of membership.” Apparently, although I am technically a “debut author” published by a traditional publisher, my publisher was not one of “their”recognized publishers. I was not entitled to have my book posted or promoted on their website as a debut novel,nor was I entitled to membership as a “published author” because my publisher was not recognized as legitimate.
Give me a freakin' break.
Not recognized as legitimate?
Why? Simply because they don’t meet the groups exclusionary and arbitrary criteria.
My publisher, Wild Wolf Publishing is based out of the
Yet, upon application, they were turned down—twice—since they did not meet the criteria established by the particular writers’ group to become an “accepted publisher." And so, the author suffers. The author becomes a second-class member, paying higher fees for a second-rate membership and, by association with an “unrecognized publisher,” is not considered worthy of any kind of honor, recognition or promotion.
What a certified load of crap.
Another big-named and “prestigious” writers’ group insisted I was not entitled to a membership status that recognized the fact I was a published author because I didn’t make enough money on my book. Apparently, since I did not get paid an advance and my book did not earn enough in sales (by their standards), I was not entitled to be placed in the ranks of a legitimate and recognized “published author.” Again, I would have to settle for a second-class (and more expensive) membership because, in their eyes, the fact that I had published a book (even one that's gotten some excellent reviews) wasn’t worth diddly-squat.
Makes me want to puke.
Don't get me wrong—not all writers' groups are created equal, and there are many out there (especially the smaller, local ones) that are extremely supportive of new writers and the debut authors. Kudos to them for all the good work that they do, the encouragement and advice they deliver by the truck-loads! But this post refers instead to those "other" groups out there (and, as I said, I refer to mainly the larger ones who may have grown too big for their own good), whose supportive endeavors are being increasingly overshadowed by their elitist attitudes.
These self-proclaimed beacons of the industry, these champions of the author, these bastions of quality literature in a literary world that favors cookie-cutter paperbacks and name recognition over new talent, have sold out to the same elitist mentality which has drained the life out of so many aspiring writers. They have turned into Chumps.
And as I slam my nose into yet another closed door, I have to wonder what the future holds for the new author. I was inspired by the growing “grass roots” emergence of micro-presses and small publishers, believing them to be the eventual salvation of an industry riddled with pigeonholes and seemingly blinded to new talent. But if these small presses must wear the scarlet letter of illegitimacy since, by their very nature, they are not big money-makers, that small wellspring of hope will quickly run dry. When a new author who has sufficient talent to actually get published in this difficult environment, is quickly rebuffed for failing to earn sufficient royalties, it pisses me off. It’s a classic “Catch 22”—the writers’ organizations that hold the key to fast-track promotion, recognition, awards nomination, and overall validation are penalizing the new author who is struggling to find bona-fide avenues of promotion, recognition, awards nomination and overall validation.
I’m sure the members and powers that be who run these groups can cite reasons upon reasons to justify their right to exclusion, and some of them may even make sense. But that doesn’t make it right—not by a long shot. It’s like being trapped in a house of mirrors, where each mirror claims to be different, but offers only a reflection of the others.
Okay, I know I promised this blog post last week, but sometimes life gets in the way. Better late than never, though—right?
Anyway, the idea for this topic came to me after a post that I put on one of the Writer’s Boards earned me an embittered “tongue lashing” by a few fellow writers. Writer's Boards can be brutal at times, even though (I thought) their primary purpose is to offer mutual support, encouragment and amicable networking opportunities. Just me being naive again, I guess.
Here's the gist of what happened: My editor and friend, Catherine Rudy, runs a very small independent publishing house called “Wolf Pirate Publishing.” Catherine is one of the most gracious, philanthropic, and munificent people I’ve ever met. She shares her time and considerable talent generously with others and has a genuine love of literature. She has a quick wit and a somewhat sardonic perspective on life, and her skills as an editor are, in my opinion, unmatched. Like many small publishers, her business has floundered amid the crashing waves of economic turmoil. Still, her passion for literature and her desire to promote talented writers and their work, has not waned. Although her publishing endeavors have fallen a tad short (or perhaps because of that fact), she has decided to defy the odds and undertake a very unique venture called “The Wolf Pirate Project.”
In brief, the Wolf Pirate Project offers authors of contemporary literature a real opportunity to sharpen their skills, polish their work and perfect their craft while providing writers and readers a unique forum by which to connect and interact. The idea for the Project (a non-profit endeavor) arose from Catherine's genuine desire to encourage literacy and bring readers and writers together in an appreciation of literature as a worthy form of art. The Project hopes to accomplish this goal in part through creative writing courses and through its writer’s workshop (the latter designed to take talented writers through the entire pre-publication editing process—this is the workshop that shaped TURN OF THE SENTRY into a publishable novel). The Project seeks to encourage reading skills and help to promote reading as a viable form of entertainment in a society that has largely lost touch with the simple pleasure of a good novel. A love of reading develops early in life, and consequently, the Project seeks to focus on young (middle grade) readers, helping to foster a genuine passion for reading by providing material that will inspire and engage them, rather than bore them to tears. Towards that end, the Project is developing a reading text book which will (hopefully) be used by middle grade students and young adults.
Which (finally) brings me to the point of this blog post. Catherine is seeking submissions for inclusion in the textbook. She is looking well-written short stories of all genres. The catch, however, is this: since this Project is a nonprofit (charitable) endeavor that is just now being launched, there is no money available to contributing authors. In fact, Catherine is operating at a loss in order to get this project up and running, shelling out a good deal of money from her own pocket to see it through. Many people find this incredibly hard to believe (i.e that someone would care enough about a charitable project that they’d be willing to lose money on the deal) and when I posted a request for submissions, explaining that this is a non-paying project (although the author would get full credit for the story, retain all rights, and hopefully receive some positive exposure), Catherine (and yours truly by association) got blatantly accused of “taking advantage” of talented writers by refusing to pay them for the work that they do. Some of the comments got downright nasty.
Hmmmm….interesting. Apparently some writers don’t feel that they should contribute their writing—the sweat of their brow, their product, their primary source of bread-and-butter—for “free,” nor did they believe Catherine and The Wolf Pirate Project are on the up and up, suggesting that perhaps they are hiding buckets of money in the back room, looking only for slave labor that they can later cash in on.
It’s natural that people, writers included, want to get paid for the work that they do. Hell, I do. Writing is often hard and tedious work. It's my craft, my trade, my vocaton—of course I hope to earn money doing it. But aren’t there times when a writer should consider contributing their talent towards a worthy cause without the expectation of monetary compensation? Isn’t it, to some degree, our responsibility to do so?
I was a lawyer for 17 very long years before retiring to pursue my more peaceful existence as a writer. For two of the states in which I was licensed, it was a requirement for every attorney to log in a certain number of “pro bono” hours—that is free legal representation purportedly for the good of society. In the state where it wasn't a requirement, it was a very strong suggestion. In
Alas, I’m afraid that many in our society have a bit of selfish streak that prevents them from engaging in this kind of overt "sharing and caring." At the risk of sounding like my mother, I see a lot of the "what's in it for me" mentality reflected in our younger generation. I’m not even talking about our teens and preteens so much as I talking about the 20-30 something crowd. And I've seen it among my colleagues to an alarming degree. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places or meeting the right people, but as a "for instance," 9 times out of 10, when I talk about the mission work that I do with my church (i.e. spending my own time and money to fly to Louisiana to help strangers rebuild their houses, or spending a Friday afternoon serving lunch to homeless people in my area), I get the most puzzled looks along with some version of the question, “what do you get out of it?” Not everybody, mind you—some people get it. But many do not. And it is this same attitude that causes some writers to go ape-shit on me when I suggest that they actually submit one of their stories for use by a nonprofit project without getting paid.
Maybe I’m totally wrong. Maybe every author should demand top-dollar payment for each and every quality piece of writing they produce. Maybe, as some of my critics have pointed out, it is attitudes like mine that keep writers trapped in the cycle of slave labor, where they routinely don’t get paid nearly enough for the work they produce. Maybe I’m just too naive and altruistic for my own good, and it is people like me that are perpetuating the problems so prevalent in the literary industry and perhaps even society as a whole.
Or maybe not.
I don’t know.
But I do know that I have never woken up at 3 a.m. unable to sleep worried that I’d given too much away “for free;” to the contrary, I wake up wondering if I've done enough. Money, in my view, offers only a fleeting illusion of security and while it may be a necessary commodity to live in this world, there is oh, so much more to this life than the “almighty dollar.” And if I resign to only give of myself—my time, my talents, my writing—only in exchange for a few pieces of green paper….well, that’s what I really consider “slave labor.”
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
P.S. I apologize if this Blog post is “too long” for your taste (yes, I have been criticized for that as well), but writing is my most comfortable mode of communication, and I wasn’t aware of any regulations limiting the number of words I choose to use to express my opinions. Thank you for sticking with me, though—I hope it was worth the extra cup of coffee.
PSS: If you want to read more about The Wolf Pirate Project, and explore the workshops and creative writing offerings that are available, visit their website at http://wolf-pirate.com/
Let me start this post with a disclaimer. Everything in here is just opinion. More specifically, it is my opinion as it pertains to writers of fiction, such as myself. None of this is based on science, statistics or medical evidence of any kind. Nor is any of this meant to apply to that rare and admirable breed of writer who takes on the challenge of non-fiction. So, all that being said, feel free to read on.
The other day, I posted a quote on my Facebook status that read, “
You, brave readers, are bearing witness to the Alpha Post. It is the first, the beginning, the primary, the leader, the unchallenged—well, you get the idea. The question is, do I?
Every author—new, seasoned, or somewhere in between—is warned of the necessity of "social networking." It's like a mantra—you must use Facebook, you must set up a MySpace, you must learn how to Twitter, you must set up a Website—and so on. Honesty, I've heard it so often for so long, I'd become numb to it, like a teenager hearing for the tenth time, "take out the trash," who responds with a shrug and a "yeah, yeah—I'll take care of it later." With the publication of my new novel imminent, "later" is NOW, and the need for social networking has taken on a new sense of urgency. Like a good little soldier, I set up my Facebook, my Twitter, my Website, my MySpace, and so on. But for me, the most intimidating aspect of the whole social networking scene was the idea of the ominous BLOG. I kept it until last, approaching it with about as much gusto as I approach my next dental appointment. I mean, I've seen blogs, read blogs, even commented on blogs, but to actually host one? How could I? What would I say? How would I get people to actually read it? Where would I find time to update it? All good questions and truthfully, I haven't really answered any of them yet. But Blog I must.
In considering what to do about this thing called Blog, I researched others and quickly realized that most blogs have a theme of some sort. Some are designed to teach their readers about something, pass along useful information, or challenge their minds in some way. Others are designed to spark debate about relevant (or sometimes not so relevant) issues. Still others take on a sort of a "day in the life" format which, for me, would result in a very short, boring blog indeed (woke up, got the kids to school. Ate breakfast. Checked my e-mail. Typed. Ate lunch. Typed some more...*yawn*). So I was faced with a decision. Did I want to go the practical route and join the ranks of other writing professionals who try to educate and inspire? After all, I've been a writer for many years—I could tell my readers about the process of writing, how the ideas gradually make their way onto paper, and what to do about it once they finally get there. I've also served my time as a literary agent—I could tell my readers what it's like to see the writing world from both sides of the fence, explain what many agents look for in a query letter, and tell them what really happens to a manuscript once an agent gets it in hand. I've also been a ghostwriter for some time—I could tell readers what it's like to write stuff and get no credit for it outside of a paycheck, or how one goes about finding clients to ghostwrite for to begin with. I'd also earned my keep as a lawyer for 17 years before leaving it behind to pursue my dream of being a writer—I can tell readers what it was like to make the transition, how my legal background has helped along the way, and how it felt to go from princess to pauper, all for the sake of happiness.
On the other hand, my non-practical side might have something to say as well. After all, I spend most of my days in a fabricated world, locked up in my office, bouncing against the walls of my imagination. I have thoughts and theories about life, death, and the worlds unseen by the human eye. I have ideas and speculations that just beg for revelation. I have a background in philosophy, and thrive on debate. There are so many aspects to existence that need to be explored, examined, and discovered—maybe my blog should serve as the vehicle through which such exploration and discovery could take place.
Which avenue to take. Quite a conundrum.
Then, somewhere around my fifteenth gummy bear, it hit me: why not do it all? A new idea was born: a blog with no boundaries. No labels, no preconceived notions, no hard and fast structure. After all, it is MY blog, so why should I spend my time sitting in a prefabricated pigeonhole waiting for the day when the Omega blog is finally written? There really is no need to, and I've never been one to conform to expectations. So, as you may have noticed, I have included a header at the top of my page to read "No Pigeonholes Allowed" (in fact, I had toyed with the idea of inserting an image of a pigeon, but it just didn't fly—okay, bad pun). What that header means is simply this: I will not limit myself to a set category of topics to cover on my blog. One day, I may feel like explaining how an agent does what an agent does, and what really goes on behind the mysterious curtain; the next day I may feel like expounding upon the theory of a toroidal universe. One day, I may want to review ways to ensnare your readers within the first five pages of your novel, but the next day, I may want to discuss the nature of evil and how it came to exist in our world to begin with. Who knows? I may even throw in a political tirade or two, just to shake it up a bit.
Either way, my goal is to host a blog that will always keep you guessing, and will hopefully keep you coming back. I have a thick skin and an open mind, so I encourage all readers to exercise their free will and right of free speech without reservation. Questions, comments and suggestions are always encouraged and welcome.
And so it begins. The rest, as they say, is history.
p.s. I learned my first real lesson of blogging about an hour ago, when I accidentally deleted this message and had to re-write if from scratch. Always save the Blog before clicking on anything!