Hello, Fellow Book Lovers!
The last time I blogged about my new life as a writer, I described the chaotic world of being a newly minted self-published author. Stress out and self-conscious, I pulled my first published short story out of me, kicking and screaming. I’m proud of it, as my first published attempt at writing, but I must confess, I regard it as a ghost, a shade of what I once was. It is a testament to my fledgling talent, a benchmark from where I constantly propel myself higher up the entangled ladder of aptitude. It is during this arduous climb that I discovered ten tenants, which I’ve termed inalienable truths, which exist in writing.
- Writing isn’t a habit; it’s a compulsion
Our lives are ruled by habits. Some people exercise, smoke, bite their nails, or follow a set sequence of events every morning. Well, writers are no different. We have those little things we do, eat, or drink that allow us to focus on writing, things that if we forego, our creative process fails us. These little routines act as a kick starter for our brains, to get them into the mindset and open proverbial floodgates. I developed the habit of bringing out my laptop every time I woke up or got home from work. On weekdays, I changed out of my work clothes and grabbed my phone, computer, and lap pad, and dumped them off at my recliner before going to help with dinner. On the weekends, I did the same thing, and after breakfast, I refilled my coffee and sat down to write. It was a habit that developed rather unexpectedly. You hear it all the time, “Writing is a habit.” What they fail to tell you is when you least expect it, writing turns into a full-blown compulsion.
I couldn’t tell you the exact moment when my writing habit turned into a compulsory observance of literary meditation, but I undoubtedly knew it had, when, in my idle moments, writing became a mandatory as breathing. When I didn’t, I got antsy, which only subsided when I pulled out pen and paper, or my laptop, and wrote. I couldn’t sleep if I hadn’t written anything that day, the heavy feeling of failure weighing me down. The same feeling of failure that comes from neglecting to exercise, or feed your cat, or play with your kids. Every time I sat down, I was either writing my book or a blog post. I can’t remember the last time I’ve sat through a movie of TV show and did nothing but watch the TV. If I didn’t have my computer near me, I had a notebook and pen, always jotting down ideas, scenes, or blog posts. When I was waiting for an appointment or meeting to start, I was writing or reading. As a result, this compulsion forced me to acquire a couple of new talents.
The first one I acquired was the ability to write in a noisy environment. I’m no longer disturbed by the usual amount of noise that plagues my house and can fall into a writing trance quite easily with the TV on or my kids gabbing about this game or that. The second one is that I focus my attention quicker and make the most of every pocket of time I allot for writing. It may only yield a few hundred words, but it’s progress, and it just may be enough to break writer’s block, or spark a turn in the story.
- Writers do bleed
Earnest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” While most authors don’t bleed in the literal sense, unless you’re one of those who prefers to write using pen and notebook. (No shame, I do plenty of writing in this fashion and do occasionally bleed from papercuts.) All authors do, however, hemorrhage metaphorically. On every page and draft is the evidence of our energy and creativity. Hours of research, writing, editing, agonizing, and self-loathing grace each page. Our souls weave through each and every word, painstakingly chosen to tell our story. Can you imagine, if all of those elements were a different color, what a fantastic visual representation it would be? I believe writers see these hues, remembering every effort that went into each scene or dialogue. While we may not all see them as colors, we do see them, and they are all but invisible to our readers. So much mental exertion goes into writing a story that when one is finally complete, we are so exhausted that simple tasks, like having conversations or doing simple math, escape us. Writing is hard work, period. You will bleed. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.
- Deadlines are concrete, except when they’re not.
There is one aspect of self-publishing that is truly unique – you have complete control over the writing process, particularly your deadlines. It’s an excellent tool to have up your sleeve, but don’t let it make you lazy. It’s essential to impose deadlines on yourself if you are serious about completing a book. However, you also need to accept that sometimes it’s okay to break them. There are many reasons to push back a deadline, some of them are unavoidable, and it’s your prerogative as a self-published writer. However, you should make sure it’s a good reason before you tell your readers that you’re delaying the release of a book, especially if it’s a highly anticipated one. The rule of thumb, for me, is if it’s not an unavoidable circumstance, and the delay will provide the reader with a better reading experience, then it’s acceptable.
Here is a case in point. I currently have a book out for editing and beta reading, with a projected publishing date. I’m also under the mentorship of a more experienced writer, and she agreed to look at my book and give me her thoughts, but she has her deadlines and wouldn’t be able to get to it right away. Since I respect her deadlines as an author, and I also value her opinion, as she has helped me improve my writing so much just in the last few weeks, I’ve decided to push back the publish date, if need be. Why? In my opinion, it’s better to issue your publication in its best form the first time, rather than issuing multiple revisions and editions. You always risk some readers missing out on the new revisions, and it may make people skittish to run out and buy your book immediately if you are always reissuing the book soon after. (That is our goal, right?) I am focusing on quality over quantity, and I believe that her input will significantly improve the quality of my story, and my readers will appreciate it.
- Characters and muses don’t have a watch
I started writing to create an outlet for my creativity. I never thought that the choice would enable my mind to run wild with ideas… at 2 am. When someone chooses to become a writer, they doomed themselves to never sleeping again. If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’re familiar with these two common scenarios. The first, you’re fast asleep having a great dream, when all of a sudden, the perfect story idea/character comes into your head. Your mind is weaving the story, developing awesome dialogue (we all know how difficult that is to create). You’re in awe, so you wake yourself up, grabbing the first writing instrument found (usually eyeliner) and the nearest piece of paper, and scribble down what you just created. Afterward, if you’re lucky, you fall back asleep, excited that you saved another great idea from floating away into the ether. This interruption has happened to me many times. My nightmares are brainstorming sessions for new book ideas, and much of my better writing comes to me at night. I have taken to sleeping with a pad and pen on my bedside table for such emergencies.
In the second situation, you are sleeping, and one of your pushy characters starts poking at your brain with a stick, wanting to tell their story. You try to ignore them, so they start reading the phone book so you can’t get back to sleep. What do you do? You get up, in the middle of the night, and you write, because you know that is the only way this character will shut up. I’ve had one, in particular, do this to me, whom incidentally, scares the crap out of me (see the next section). In my situation, I ultimately confine him away until I was able to deal mentally with the story he wanted to tell me. I could still hear him, but he wasn’t loose to wreak havoc with my other dreams (again, see the next section).
- People who don’t write will think you’re insane
I know you’ve heard it many times, but I believe it’s something that needs to be reiterated: Characters are real people to a writer. It’s true some are created using a character interview to develop a well-rounded character. Unfortunately, you can always tell those kinds of characters from the one’s that I’m speaking about now. These are the characters that drive that pivotal transition from story maker to storyteller. There are no character interviews for these entities. They are telling us the story, so they will tell us how they’d react. We don’t have to guess. We converse with them as if they were flesh and blood. We laugh at them, cry with them, and fear them like they’re real. At the same time, they talk to us regularly, telling us the stories we need to write, because, after all, that’s what we are – storytellers. They are entities, developed in our minds over months or years, molds that we attempt to manipulate, but ultimately settle on their forms and personalities without help from us. They are who they are, unyielding and unapologetic.
When I talk about my characters to my husband or other non-writers, they look at me like I’ve lost my mind. When I got frustrated because one had scrapped my first draft of the story, and I tried to explain my despair to my husband, he couldn’t understand. He thought I had rejected the draft. He doesn’t know that my characters are real, and they do as they please, and we are only there for the ride. Many authors have the same experience, and it can get frustrating at times because, while we may joke about being crazy, on some level, we are just a little. There are always voices in our heads. Our characters are the reason writing is such an isolating process and drives us to friend other authors, people who know and understand our madness. People we can discuss and gripe about our characters with like you would have your children with your other friends.
I have one such character that formed in my subconscious, the one I referred to in the last section. His name is Jack Casey, and he is the antagonist in my upcoming thriller trilogy. The problem with Jack is that he is pure evil. There is nothing he wouldn’t do to get his way, and frankly, he’s terrifying. I had several chapters of a draft written, which he came through and tore it to pieces. It wasn’t the story I was going to tell. I had to tell HIS story, which meant I had to go into his mind, a frightening place to be. For a while, I couldn’t deal with him. I needed to prepare mentally to write that kind of story, so I put Jack in a cage and locked him in a dark closet in the back of my mind. He still screamed at me from time to time, and I hated him, but he was my monster and sooner or later I would have to tell his story. Eventually, I was ready to write it, and I committed to draft it during NaNoWriMo. When I reached out to inform him it was his turn, the closet was open, and the cage was empty – I’d let the monster out.
- You’re always honing your craft, or you should be
Writing is a skill that acts like a muscle, getting stronger the more practice. Simply put, the more you write, the less crap you put down. When I first started, I ended up tossing an entire first draft to start a story over. It was nothing but a dreadful collection of words. Now, I just have to add to and tweak it. My rough drafts are less rough and more of a draft now. Likewise, your individual style of writing is fluid and always evolving, influenced by new writing styles, rules, and genres. A writer should always be on a mission to refine their work, searching for perfection in their writing. There are many ways to develop your writing muscle: read a book, attend a class or workshop, find a mentor, talk to other authors, whatever it takes to make your next book better than your last. Never be ashamed to reach out to those you admire and ask for help or advice, and seek out strangers to read your books because they will tell you the unbiased truth about your writing. We love our friends, but they do come with a pre-existing element of bias. There’s something about a stranger reading your book and providing their opinion that really hits home.
You should also review other books, making sure you go outside your preferred genres or comfort zone. The better critic you become, the better writer you’ll be, learning to anticipate those things that readers dislike, and avoiding them. Don’t just give glancing reviews, though. Sit down and think about what’s great about a book and what are its flaws, making sure you point out both. Remember, always use constructive criticism. Don’t say you hate something and move on. Say why. Tell the author what about the character or plot rubbed you the wrong way, and have a legitimate reason. Train your eyes to weed out irrelevant opinions and zero in on those elements that make or break the story. Don’t bash a character just because he’s gay and you don’t believe in homosexuality. That’s just like saying you don’t like a character because he’s Russian. It doesn’t lend anything valuable to the further development of the writer’s abilities. Will the author be a better writer if their character wasn’t gay? No, so don’t mention it. That’s a reader’s personal preference and not every book is written for everyone. Now, if the gay character has an unrealistic character arch, brought on by the author leaving out essential elements that make the transition reasonable, then that’s something to point out. All of these things will help you hone your writing skills, as well as provide valuable feedback to others.
- Have goals, no matter how small, and for goodness sakes, meet them
Whether you’re a novice writer or a seasoned veteran, goals are useful. They can help you fight writer’s block and keep you on track. Your goals don’t have to be lofty; just little daily ones will go a long way towards helping you complete your book. Sometimes your goal could be a word count, such as writing two thousand words a day. Some throw word counts to the wind and focus on completing one chapter or scene a day, while others aim to spend an hour a day on writing. However you’re motivated, set your goals and make sure you meet them, without fail. If you do this long enough, you will become more efficient in your writing and will soon be more productive. If you’re feeling particularly industrious, try participating in NaNoWriMo. The simple act of being accountable for your daily word count works wonders and if you’re doubtful of your ability to write 50,000, much less in a month, give it a try. You may surprise yourself. I did. Before NaNo, I only wrote short stories because I couldn’t get in the headspace to formulate enough material for a novel. I participated in NaNo and won, reaching my 50,000-word goal. The book I just finished, not my NaNo book, is pushing 71,000 words. You see, all it took was one time forcing myself, to break that barrier. Now I can write 250-300 page novels with ease. The great thing about the whole “NaNo effect” is that you can do this any time of year. There are Facebook groups that push these goals year-round, so you can always be productive and accountable with group support.
- Your ability to create new story ideas isn’t a limited resource
When I first started writing, I wrote down every idea that came into my head out of fear that one day I would wake up and be unable to come up with a new story idea. As I started looking at the world with a writer’s eye, I realized that I could find a story in anything. The simplest thing, a picture, or a comment someone says, can kick my mind into writing mode, filtering the small input through all of my filters and manipulations to yield another story. As it stands now, if I release two books a year, which isn’t entirely impossible, my writing calendar is booked up for the next twelve years. Yikes! Not to mention there will be other ideas that come up and will inevitably cut in line. I still write down everything, but not out of fear that I’ll run out of ideas. I jot them down so my mind can begin to chew on them subconsciously for a while. It’s my way of telling my brain that I believe this is something worth pursuing.
- Failure is inevitable
There, I said it. You will fail. Some will have small setbacks, and others will have epic fails. It comes with the territory. One type of failure is the bomb. You may write a few good books, and everyone loves you, and then you write the one. The awful brain fart of the literary world. The one that makes all your fans scream, “What were they thinking?” It even happens to NY Times Bestsellers, and I’ve read plenty of their literary bombs. On the other hand, some writers don’t sell a single book, at first, and then book number four takes off, and people can’t get enough of them. Failure will happen, and it can occur at any time, so if you haven’t had a failure yet in your career, mentally prepare yourself for when it does come. Know that you will not always be awesome, and push past it. Don’t get hung up on the failure and stall, fight through it and keep writing. Sometimes books are written out of time. Just because it fails now, doesn’t necessarily mean it was an actual failure. Twenty years down the line, readers may love it. It just means that your book wasn’t written for the people of today, but it was written for someone.
Another type of failure is in meeting your goals. One way to minimize goal failure is to have realistic objectives. I don’t mean mediocre ones like sell five books in a year, but reasonable goals that do push you to work hard, but aren’t so outlandish that you crawl under a rock and cry when you don’t meet them. If you’re not selling as many books as you’d like, then reassess your marketing strategy and turn it over with a critical eye, weeding out the unproductive elements and trying new combinations. Don’t have a marketing strategy? Get with someone who does and get some pointers. Everyone needs a plan, and the same one won’t work for everyone. Different genres require diverse types of marketing because their target audiences don’t hang out in the same places or respond the same way to promotion parties and such. Know your audience and their tendencies and go after them.
- Never deprive your work of the necessities
Now I’m not one to tout purchasing anything, as I’m a tightwad myself, but there are a couple of things that I have put my foot down on and open my wallet for – editing and book covers. While there are many things you can spend money on for writing, most of them aren’t a necessity. You don’t need a fancy computer or printers, or writing software, etc., but you do need an editor and a great cover. There is no getting around that.
Let’s put your book into perspective for a minute. You spend hours a day, for months, maybe even a year, to write the perfect story. You’re proud of it, and you see it as the one that will springboard your career. Everyone will love it! So you run your spell check one more time, and you even run a grammar program through it for a triple check. Then you slap a cover on it and post it. Fast forward a few months and you’re receiving reviews about plot holes, inconsistencies, and errors in grammar. You triple checked everything and ran all the programs to catch problems, so where did you go wrong? You deprived your book of the necessity of a good sound edit. No matter how many programs you run, nothing replaces a human eye, or two or three. You didn’t let someone else read your book. You had no editor or beta reader to catch those inconsistencies. Editing is a necessity that you should make concessions for. Why spend all that time creating a work, and don’t put its best foot forward? The good news about this is that there are plenty of affordable editors out there, and often you can get beta readers for free if you just ask. If you can’t afford any editor, then seek out someone you know who has excellent grammar skills or a college student studying English or Journalism and pay them a small amount for their assistance.
Now, in this same scenario, you also notice that very few people are reading your book. The other thing you need to consider is your book cover. Did you use one of the free images available that won’t let your book stand out from the thousands of others a reader has to search through to find you? If so, that could be a problem. There is a debate going on over whether book covers matter. Well, like it or not, they do. Unless you’re Stephen King or JD Robb who can sell books based on their name alone, you must, absolutely must have a cover that will make your masterpiece stand out from the others. Readers don’t have time to read every synopsis for every book to find one to read. They have to narrow down their search first. They do this by selecting a genre, then scrolling through until a cover catches their attention. Then they read the synopsis. It’s an ugly fact of life, but it’s true. Think about it, would you go to a job interview all psyched up, having done your research on the company and practiced answering interview questions, then dress in sweatpants? No, of course not! Putting a mediocre cover on a great book is like you going to that interview in your sweats. It’s a no-no.
There are many places online that will provide you with decent covers at a reasonable price, and you can also find them floating around on Facebook. Just find an author who’s cover you like and ask them who did it. I get my covers from a site called Fiverr.com. You can often find graphic designers on there that will do an excellent cover for $25 or less. However, it doesn’t matter where you go, just make sure that your cover doesn’t look like a hundred others out there, and it’s one that you would pick up and read.