Great Nuggets of Writing Advice

Maria Schneider of Editor Unleashed celebrates the one-year anniversary of her blog by sharing some great nuggets of writing wisdom collected from authors, agents, and editors.

What writing advice do you have?

“Never give up, no never means no. Keep writing. As my mentor Howard Fast (author of Spartacus and 80 other novels) used to tell me when I’d say I had writer’s block: “‘Plumbers don’t get plumbers block. A page a day is a book a year.’” -Susan Sharpiro

“In many cases, authors understand the market for their book better than the publisher and can do a better job of reaching that audience. But they first need to understand that it’s now part of their job to do that, and they need to embrace it. Marketing can be fun!” -Michael Bourret

“Be generous. Spread ideas. Give things away. Write, share and repeat.” -Seth Godin

“I love real life. I love finding and telling stories, with the deep hope that it will somehow change the reader. Fiction can do that too, of course, but I have always wanted to find real stories and draw people to them, reveal something of life to them that they might not otherwise have a chance to see.” -Susan Orlean

“If you are clever, you’ll share the information that’s important to the audience, and not necessarily the contents of your book.” -Chris Brogan

“When it’s time to think of a new book idea, sitting in front of my computer and trying to squeeze something out just doesn’t work for me. But, when I’m running or on the bus or supposed to be writing something else, that’s when the characters come to me and the plots form. I try to just let myself be open to the flow and carry a pen with me.”-Julie Kraut

“If you’re a writer, then blogging should be a no-brainer for you. Read all the available resources on how to have a successful blog, then get going. Target your blog toward the exact audience you’re writing your books for.” -Rachelle Gardner

Continue

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Using the Internet to Write a Novel

Here’s a very fine how-to from Mashable for using the Web to write your novel – or nonfiction book, article, essay, etc.  It covers organization, research, writing, connecting with other writers, and publishing.

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A Roadmap to the Writing Process

Writing an essay, paper, report, or even a blog post can be daunting, unless you have a plan in place for organizing your work.  A good plan can act like a map that guides you along each step of the way.  Daily Writing Tips shares 5 valuable guidelines, beginning with . . .

1. Prewriting

Have you ever sat staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank document on your computer screen? You might have skipped the vital first stage of the writing process: prewriting. This covers everything you do before starting your rough draft. As a minimum, prewriting means coming up with an idea!

Ideas and Inspiration

Ideas are all around you. If you want to write but you don’t have any ideas, try:

  • Using a writing prompt to get you started.
  • Writing about incidents from your daily life, or childhood.
  • Keeping a notebook of ideas – jotting down those thoughts that occur throughout the day.
  • Creating a vivid character, and then writing about him/her.

See also How to Generate Hundreds of Writing Ideas.

Tip: Once you have an idea, you need to expand on it. Don’t make the mistake of jumping straight into your writing – you’ll end up with a badly structured piece.

Building on Your Idea

These are a couple of popular methods you can use to add flesh to the bones of your idea:

  • Free writing: Open a new document or start a new page, and write everything that comes into your head about your chosen topic. Don’t stop to edit, even if you make mistakes.
  • Brainstorming: Write the idea or topic in the center of your page. Jot down ideas that arise from it – sub-topics or directions you could take with the article.

Once you’ve done one or both of these, you need to select what’s going into your first draft.

Planning and Structure

Some pieces of writing will require more planning than others. Typically, longer pieces and academic papers need a lot of thought at this stage.

First, decide which ideas you’ll use. During your free writing and brainstorming, you’ll have come up with lots of thoughts. Some belong in this piece of writing: others can be kept for another time.

Then, decide how to order those ideas. Try to have a logical progression. Sometimes, your topic will make this easy: in this article, for instance, it made sense to take each step of the writing process in order. For a short story, try the eight-point story arc.

(Continue to Steps 2 through 5)

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Five Questions to Ask about Your Fiction

Great advice here from novelist Charles Baxter on what you should ask yourself about your story.

There are about five questions you can ask yourself about stories, and they’re not foolproof, but they’re useful. One is, what do these characters want? Second is, what are they afraid of? Third is, what’s at stake in this story? Fourth is, what are the consequences of these scenes or these actions? And the last one is, how does the language of this story reflect the world of the story itself?

Now, if a writer is writing a story and looks at you and says, “I don’t know what my characters want; I don’t think they want much of anything,” then the story is in trouble. If you don’t know what’s at stake in the story, it means that nothing stands to be gained or lost in the course of it. Something has to be risked. The characters have to want something or to wish for something. They have to be allowed to stay up past eleven o’clock and to make mistakes. If there’s a flaw that many beginning writers have, it is that their characters don’t risk enough. They are just sitting in chairs having ideas. I had a student a few months ago, when I was in residency at a university, who said, I don’t want my characters to do anything, I just want them to think through the problem of nature vs. culture.

That’s not exactly a story, is it?

That’s what I tried to tell her. But she was determined to write a story about issues. I mean, this is an old thing to say, but if you want to write something about issues, write an essay. That’s what essays are for. If you want to see the consequences of ideas, write a story. If you want to see the consequences of belief, write a story in which somebody is acting on the ideas or beliefs that she has. But that’s why it’s important to have a sense of what your characters want.

(Via Jane Friedman)

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How to Learn How to Write

As usual, literary agent Rachelle Gardner gives some great advice in a short amount of space.  This post is on learning how to write.  How do you do that?

The advice below is really good, but I’m also inclined to believe that some people are born with a gift for writing – a natural talent or inclination.  I suppose almost any skill is like that.  Some people pick up certain sports, or subjects, or skills easily, while other people have to work really hard to achieve the same (or lesser) results.

Any thoughts on that?

I think the answer is that you have to be scrappy, and you have to learn any which way you can. You piece it together. You take the lessons where you can find them. This could mean:

→ You read books on writing, and books in the genre in which you write.

→ You are a member of writers’ organizations and online forums.

→ You take workshops offered whenever and wherever you can find them.

→ You take creative writing classes, like at a local community college (although I’ve heard these can be a waste of time).

→ You have a critique group (this may or may not help, depending on the qualifications of your critique partners, as well as your own personality).

→ You submit your project to agents and editors, hoping for scraps of feedback.

→ You pitch your project at conferences, again hoping for feedback.

→ You enter your manuscripts in contests, hopefully getting feedback as part of the contest results.

→ You take advantage of the “paid critiques” offered at most writers conferences.

→ You hire a professional editor to evaluate or edit your project

→ You find someone to mentor you and walk alongside you for a time.

→ You simply write and read and write and read and trust your instincts.

So like I said, you piece it together. Wish I had a magic bullet for you, but I don’t. You have to make it happen.

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Myths vs. Facts about Literary Agents

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner corrects the most common myths about literary agents.  For example,

1. Getting published is a catch-22.
I hear this all the time… it’s probably the single biggest myth about publishing and it drives me CRAZY because it’s so untrue. People say, “You need an agent to get published. But you can’t get an agent if you’re not published.” Writers believe this lie and then spend all kinds of time and energy fretting about it.

Closely related is another myth, “Nobody’s taking on any unpublished authors.”

Both are complete and utter hogwash. Sure, it’s hard to break in to publishing. If you’re unpublished, it’s a difficult road. But understand this: There is a huge reading machine out there that needs to be constantly fed. We need new content, and we will always need the infusion of new voices. I’m still a newer agent; I’ve sold 26 books and of those, 21 were from debut authors. So don’t believe the ridiculous myth that you have to be published to get an agent, or that nobody’s interested in unpublished authors. It’s just harder, that’s all. But you already knew that.

She exposes four more here.

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Before Writing a Book, 6 Points to Consider

White Books
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Tony Morgan shares 6 points to consider before writing a book.  Good advice. (HT Michael Hyatt)

Since I’ve been involved in several book projects, I’m frequently approached by aspiring writers who are interested in the process. I’m certainly not the expert on getting a book published, but I have learned some things over the last number of years that might be helpful for you.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts for you to consider…

Don’t write a book. Begin by writing in your journal. Write blog posts. Get your article published in a magazine or on someone else’s website. If your idea and your writing aren’t strong enough to be published in a magazine or on a website, it’s not strong enough to be published in a book.

Don’t assume if you have a book, someone will publish it. People who get published rarely go looking for a publisher. Typically, the publishers go looking for the authors. Or, the authors have literary agents who handle those conversations. If a publisher isn’t approaching you about writing a book, that’s a pretty good sign that you probably don’t have a book to publish.

Don’t start out to write a book. Start out with something to say. For lots of people, the goal is to get a book published. That shouldn’t be your goal. Your goal should be to spread good stories or ideas. If you don’t have a good story or idea to spread, you need to start there.

Don’t write a book if you’re not a writer. At the end of the day, if you can’t write you can’t get published. And, just because you can get up in front of people and talk, doesn’t necessarily mean you can get behind a keyboard and write. There’s an art to writing. Some people have it. Most people don’t. (If you have a strong idea or a good story, you may need to find a writer to help you get it published.)

Don’t try to write a book if you’re not willing to get disciplined with your time. Manuscripts just don’t drop out of the sky. You have to outline. You have to draft. You have to rewrite. You have to edit. You have to promote. You have to sell. It takes time. If you’re unwilling to prioritize your time, you shouldn’t write a book.

Don’t plan on making money. Unless your name is Rick Warren or Joel Osteen, you’re not going to make money writing a book. At best, you may get a platform from writing a book. Of course, the challenge there is that you have to have a platform before a publisher will even consider your book.

I know. You’re skeptical. So, for those of you who write books or publish books, I’ll let you chime in and tell me where I’m wrong.

Until then, don’t write a book.

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Charles Dickens’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer

Charles Dickens
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Jane Friedman shares some words of wisdom here about the process of becoming a writer, illustrated by a letter written by Charles Dickens.  She’s right, you’ll have to be bad for a while before you become good.

Ira Glass has some of the best advice I’ve ever read for writers, at least in relation to great storytelling. He’s said that you have to be willing to be bad at what you do for a long time until you actually can achieve the vision of perfection you have in your head. He even puts himself out on a limb and offers recordings illuminating how bad he was at radio when he first started.

I was reminded of Ira when my writer-friend Teresa Fleming shared with me the following letter from Charles Dickens, where he responds to an aspiring writer.

Tuesday, Feb. 5th, 1867.
DEAR SIR,

I have looked at the larger half of the first volume of your novel, and have pursued the more difficult points of the story through the other two volumes.

You will, of course, receive my opinion as that of an individual writer and student of art, who by no means claims to be infallible.

I think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt. Evidences of inexperience in every way, and of your power being far below the situations that you imagine, present themselves to me in almost every page I have read. It would greatly surprise me if you found a publisher for this story, on trying your fortune in that line, or derived anything from it but weariness and bitterness of spirit.

On the evidence thus put before me, I cannot even entirely satisfy myself that you have the faculty of authorship latent within you. If you have not, and yet pursue a vocation towards which you have no call, you cannot choose but be a wretched man. Let me counsel you to have the patience to form yourself carefully, and the courage to renounce the endeavour if you cannot establish your case on a very much smaller scale. You see around you every day, how many outlets there are for short pieces of fiction in all kinds. Try if you can achieve any success within these modest limits (I have practised in my time what I preach to you), and in the meantime put your three volumes away.

Faithfully yours.

Yikes, right? (You can read more Dickens letters here.)

Here’s the secret, though: If you’re the writer, do you read this and think: I should just stop trying.

Or do you read this and think: He doesn’t know how wrong he is!


Writers in training know they’re not good, but they know they’re getting better. And they go on to fight another day.

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John Grisham’s Rejections

Based on this interview several years ago, it seems John Grisham received at least 24 rejections before someone took an interest in his book A Time to Kill. Persistence is a virtue for writers.

”I sat down with my secretary and we made up two lists,” he said. “One contained the names and addresses of 30 publishing house editors; the other, 30 names and addresses of literary agents. Having already put together a package containing a query letter, book summary, and the first three chapters, I had the secretary make 10 copies of each. She was to send a copy of each to the first five editors on the first list and the same to the first five agents on the second.

“When a rejection came back with the material we had sent, she simply crossed that name off the list and immediately sent the package with a new query letter to the next one on the list. This way, we always had some going out as others were coming back. The rejection letters were filed and I would read them when I went to the office each weekend.” The first dozen publishing companies and about the same number of agents all sent their regrets. Through it all, though, Grisham said he never got depressed. “I never thought of quitting. My attitude was: ‘What the heck, let’s have some fun.’ Honestly, I believe I would’ve sent it to several hundred people before I would have even thought of giving up.” Good news came one week in April when three agents called.

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6 Steps to Writing a Non-Fiction Book

The writing blog A Book Inside lists 6 essential steps to publishing a non-fiction book.  Here are the first three.

1. Planning is the first and most important step. It means asking yourself all the tough questions about the book, from “Why am I uniquely qualified to write this book?” to “Is there a real market for it?” The most effective way to plan is by writing a book proposal, which has a dual purpose: to help you think through the book and to provide you with material you will use later in the process.

2. Writing is the nuts and bolts of producing a book, and it takes blocks of time. This is where all of your planning pays off. The chapters are the heart of the book and, of course, take the most time. They are the reason you are writing — the cake. All the rest is frosting. Begin with Chapter 1, if each chapter is going to build on the one before it, or with your favorite topic, if it doesn’t matter what order you write them. The first chapter you write will help you find your voice, pace, and style. If you submit your proposal to a publisher, the chapter you attach must provide a sample of your best writing and of the caliber of the whole book. In addition to the chapters, you will also have to write the introduction, preface, table of contents, and “back matter.”

3. Professional Assistance comprises all the people who help make a book come to life. You may not need all of them, but consider different kinds of editors, graphic designers, book reviewers, publicists, agents, and attorneys. If you self-publish, you will definitely need a graphic designer. If you prefer a conventional publisher, you will probably need an agent.

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