PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR BEGINNING FICTION WRITERS
First, understand this is an unlikely way of making a real living. Sure, we all hear about the fabulous successes of the J.K. Rowlings and John Greshams, but what you don’t hear is how long they struggled to even get published, and that people who make real money writing fiction are about .01% of all the writers out there. That’s 1/100th of ONE PER CENT! One in 10,000.
So, write for the joy of it… for the satisfaction of getting that story down on paper, no matter what. And if you work hard, and are lucky enough, maybe a career will develop on the way.
But if in the face of all that, you still want to write that novel, here’s some advice:
First, pick up a couple of books on fiction writing. Donald Maass’Writing the Breakout Novel, and Albert Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel, are two of a legion of titles available. Zuckerman’s book gives you a complete roadmap, from beginning to end. You can search Amazon or www.ABE.com (good, like-new used books, cheaper) or the library. While you’re at it, you should pick up Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which you’ll need later. Reading those first will help get you on the right track toward developing a successful manuscript.
Now, imagine the story you want to write, think of where it’s going and the characters that will take it there… and how you want it to end. Write a brief outline, chapter by chapter if possible, and make up 4 x 6 cards for each major character. Those cards should show each character’s physical appearance (eye color, hair, nose, height, build, distinguishing features, etc.), and who they are (personality), and a list of their various interests. The more complete you make these, the more your characters will take on real-life dimensions. And if while fleshing out your story, you add something to the character, add it to their card. You don’t want a blue-eyed gal to have emerald eyes later. Believe me, it happens.
Finally, it’s time to begin writing. Everyone does this differently. Our suggestion is to write the entire story before doing much editing. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar while getting the story down. Get emotionally involved with your protagonist and other characters, and let them take over the plot. As you write, let your novel change substantially from its original outline. Even the endings on a couple of mine got changed. In collaboration with my first editor, I made substantial revisions to much of the end of Trapped, although I preserved the very ending.
The hard work comes when you’ve finished the first draft. Your immediate task is correcting mechanical errors: spelling, punctuation, grammar, and sentence construction. Then look at the story. Did you create tension? Donald Maass asks, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters?” After coming up with that trauma, he asks, “What can be WORSE than that?” Wow! Even worse! Okay, you finally think of something really bad, and then Maass asks, “What’s even WORSE than that?” If there’s no jeopardy… no anxiety… no one will bother reading it.
Hewing to Mr. Maass’ admonition, traumatic or dangerous scenes are not written in a half page. For things to get continually worse, a single episode of danger should be several short chapters long. Make the reader worry, bite their nails, and rush through the pages, unable to stop until they find out how their hero escapes certain calamity.
Okay, now you’ve built lots of tension. Time to read the dialogue out loud. Does it sound contrived or natural? Join a critique group where you can read some pages, and listen to other writers read theirs… and develop a sense of what sounds good. Good dialog requires few tags. Readers should usually know who is talking, but if you need a tag for clarity, keep it mostly to “he said; she said.” And use contractions. People rarely say “I do not” instead of “don’t”…unless it’s used for emphasis.
Then, go back and find static words, replacing them with more vibrant ones. He “scurried” from the room, not “ran.” She “studied” him, not “looked.” The sun “burst” over the horizon, not “rose.” This is how you punch up your prose, and develop you own literary voice.
Finally, review your descriptive areas. It’s important for your readers to have a mental picture of how someone or someplace looks… but don’t over-do it. Some writers spend a half-page describing how a person is dressed. That’s way too much, and takes your readers out of the story. Find the middle ground.
Don’t think one edit or revision will do it, either. George Bernstein removed a complete side plot from his original version of Trapped. It was exciting, but it just didn’t add to that story. But it wasn’t a loss. He's using it in one of his new Al Warner detective novels, so that manuscript starts out already half written.
In the end, writing the first novel will be a huge learning experience. Few authors get their first novel published. Bernstein bucked that trend, since Trapped is his first novel. But he has written three others, and Trapped is so completely rewritten from his first draft, it might as well be his 5th…or 6th.
That’s what it takes to succeed.
TIPS ON BECOMING A BETTER WRITER
So you’ve written your novel and edited the heck out of it, but how do you get it good enough to actually get published? George Bernstein went through that problem for a long time, slowly getting to where he had to be. Below are some suggestions, now that you’ve got a workable product. How do we turn an everyday Volkswagen into a Lexus?
Our first suggestion to every new writer is to find a GOOD writers conference (or 2 or 3), hopefully somewhere near enough to drive to…unless you’ve got cash to burn. Then we recommend you fly to Maui. That’s the Cadillac of conferences.
A well-run conference is usually operated by local writing groups. The Florida Writers Association, for instance, hosts a 3-day event every October, usually in the Orlando area. While these better conferences will almost always have several agents and editors to whom you can pitch your work, the real reason for going is for the classes. You’ll find a plethora of sessions on every phase of writing, publishing, promotion and how to find agents and editors. More classes than you can possibly attend.
Once you start listening to professionals show you what makes great writing, you’ll be stunned at how little you actually knew. There often are critique sessions, too, and you’ll have a chance to network with other aspiring writers, and maybe establish some critique partners. And if you’re lucky, you may connect with an agent or editor who will be willing to read your work. Personal contact can get you past their slush pile, even if they don’t eventually take you on. At least you may get some real feedback. But be prepared for disappointment. Agents and editors privately admit they attend conferences primarily for the chance to network with their brethren. They RARELY take on new clients, even after agreeing to read your work.
Okay, you’ve attended a conference or two, and are fired up over transforming your work into the gem you know it should be. Here are a few things to make your novel stand out as professional.
The first thing to do is to go back and shorten your chapters. Three to five pages each, sometime even less. Occasionally, one may need to be a bit longer, but even a tense scene can be broken right in the middle of the action. It creates a momentary Cliff-hanger. And start a new chapter every time you change a point of view. The novel, Trapped, has several chapters of little more than one page.
Look at the works of writers like James Patterson and David Baldacci. You’ll see that even though it’s all the same basic scene, there are frequent chapter breaks. This makes the story more immediate, and keeps the pages turning. Instead of wishing this damned chapter will finally end so you can go eat, the reader wants to stay with the next short one, just to see how things pan out. Believe me, it works.
In the same vein, keep paragraphs short… seldom more than 3 sentences. This keeps white spaces on the page, and makes everything easier to read. Nothing is more daunting than looking at a paragraph that’s a half-page long.
And anything you want to stand out… to make important… should be on its own line.
Keep dialog brief and punchy. In real life people ramble and make many verbal pauses, but that’s a no-no in a novel. Use contractions, as we all do in everyday speech, and don’t overdo accents that are tough on the reader to follow. It will take them right out of the story.
You want your audience to know who is talking without adding too frequent dialogue tags by using pacing, and maybe colloquial words, like “y’all,” and “Miz Maren,” as the character Kevin does in Trapped. Use a tag only when it’s not clear who is talking.
And speaking of tags, stick as much as possible with “he said; she said,” when you do need it for clarity. Readers don’t even notice them when properly done. But tags like groaning, muttering, shouting, cursing, etc., should be used sparingly, if at all. Let you reader know the speaker was “groaning” by how it was said, not by describing it. Direct inner thought is usually done in italics, compared to described thoughts, that are in regular fonts.
i.e.; What the Hell’s going on? How can he treat Kevin like that?
Challenge yourself on your dialogue. A popular technique is to read it out loud to someone else. You may suddenly see how stilted it might sound.
Then, in your final edit, change static words into more descriptive action words. He “shambled across the room,” rather than “walked.” She “studied his face” rather than “looked.” He “darted out the door,” rather than “ran.”
Cull out extra words, and try not to repeat a descriptive word in the next sentence. “That” is a word often overdone. Use the “find” search, and see how the sentence reads without it. For instance, the above could be written, “‘That’ is a word that is often overdone.” See what I mean? All little things that may help differentiate you from the pack. Good luck.
PROMOTING YOUR NOVEL
Let’s face facts. Today, promotion is the author’s responsibility. Even the giant mainstream publishing houses do very little actual promotion… not even for top authors. Their main thrust is getting their sales force out to pre-sell to the book stores. When the book finally launches, they dump all those presale orders into a very compressed time period, and presto: a N.Y. Times best seller is born. However, the Times doesn't report how many of those books are eventually returned to the publisher, unsold.
Yes, the big houses will promote a hot media name or celebrity, but that’s usually because they’ve paid them a big advance they are desperate to earn back. Mid-size and small publishers do virtually nothing. In fact, if you make a direct submission to most of those, one of the questions they ask is: What’s your “platform” as an expert, what have you previously SUCCESSFULLY published, and what is your marketing plan for the book?” They want to know, in advance, in what niche you are already known and recognized, and how YOU are going to promote your book. They don’t have the budget or personnel to do this for you. This is a major reason unknown authors, with no real publishing credits, are almost always turned down. You may have produced a gripping novel, but it’s valueless if it doesn’t sell.
The good news is, there ARE ways for a debut author to get noticed, but that success requires three separate things: A really good, can’t-put-it-down novel; a concerted and relentless social media campaign by the author; and luck. The first two are in your hands, and the last is in God’s. The two previous articles will give you a start in the right direction for the first item. Do the work, learn the craft, and write your blockbuster.
The second item is the main subject of this article.
There is no magic formula. What works for one may do little for another. But there are some basic things you can do to try to gain recognition:
Start a blog site on Facebook, Linkedin, and/or Wordpress. The account would be, for instance, www.facebook.com/yourname. If you’ve got the time, do all three. But a blog is useless without followers, so you need to develop a following by posting everywhere you can, and you must post something at least once a week… more if you’ve got the time. Done during pre-release, you can stoke interest with details of what’s coming, and even post excerpts.
Start a Twitter account, with all the same activities as above.
Set up an Amazon author’s page: www.amazon.com/author/yourname. Your book(s) and an author’s bio will be shown here. Do the same thing on Goodreads. These can be done in lieu of a personal web site. There are also ways to turn your Facebook page into a web site, or you can do an actual site with companies like GoDaddy, at very little cost. As you publish more books, your own site makes sense. You will arrange “countdown sales” for your e-book version, and giveaways for the print, on both sites to try to develop a fan base.
Contact review sites to gain reviews, pre-publication, if possible. Many sites will ONLY review books prior to publication, and you may have to order several Advance Reader Copies (ARCs). Some sites provide free reviews, but many charge modest fees, and you do need reviews. Many promotion sites require a minimum amount of reviews (often 5) before they’ll consider doing a paid promotion.
Be prepared to participate in one or more Virtual Book Tours (VBTs). These can run from a few days to several months long, and can cost as little as $25 to as much as several hundred dollars. You will supply a cover image, author interviews, blurbs about the book, and possibly a post or two about writing. In return, you’ll get lots of exposure, and many of the VBT bloggers will write reviews and post them on Amazon and/or Goodreads, as well as their own blog sites.
Contact local media, bookstores, libraries, and book clubs to try to arrange interviews and possibly book signings. Not an easy thing to accomplish, and often with disappointing results… especially signings… but you’re trying to build exposure.
Depending on your personal budget, you can also arrange advertising campaigns through many book and reader sites. Again, these can have mixed results and can cost anything from $10 to $200. Most of these are geared to your e-book (Kindle or Nook). Some of the most successful sites, like Booksends, are pricy but usually result in a net profit… plus hopefully adding fans. You can also arrange a giveaway raffel of your print edition on Goodreads. This gets a lot ove signups, and those that don't win often add the book to trheir "to read" list.
These are just some of the things that one can do to try to kick-start their sales. GnD Publishing LLC will help develop a plan, and in some cases, implement some of the above activities, but the success… or failure… of your campaigns will largely depend on you, the author. Results are reflected by the effort you put in.
GnD Publishing LLC