Wednesday, February 27, 2013

FAQ: Any Advice for a New Writer?

Several times a week, I get a question like this:

Hi G.P! I've read all of your books and love them. I've wanted to be a writer since I was young, and I heard you are self-published.  Any advice that you can give me as I start out writing my first book?

I always struggle with this question because it's a loaded gun. Truth is I have abundant advice for new authors, and I would like to share it with you. Practically though, I can't do so in the course of a few paragraphs without misleading you.

But here are a few things to think about:

First things first, should you pursue a fiction writing career? 

Writing, like many of the arts, is a job where you do all of the work up front and then try to sell it. There are some exceptions to this rule but, if you are asking me about self-publishing, likely they don't apply to you. That means that for an extended period you will have to devote time, mental energy, and some money to a create a product that is not guaranteed to produce any income. Ninety-nine percent of the people I talk to who close the book they are reading and say, "I could do that," never do or can't. Some never start. Others never finish. Still others rush through the process without allowing their work to develop and, therefore, the resulting manuscript ends up in an early grave.

Are you ready to be a writer?  Ask yourself these questions:

1) Did you enjoy writing lengthy assignments for school? 
Remember that ten page paper your teacher gave you analyzing a certain work of literature or historical figure? Did you balk at the challenge? Ten pages! Wow, that's long. Did you get frustrated trying to edit or format those pages to your teacher's specifications? 

My average book is around 300 pages long. Not only do I plan and execute the writing of those 300 pages, I edit, format, and market the content. Even with the help of an editor, I as the author have to decide if the edit suggested is right for my style.  That means understanding the rules and knowing when I can break them and when I can't. The process can be exhausting.  And, frustratingly, errors still make it through because finding a missing article in 300 pages can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

For me, I love the process but you have to understand that, when I was in college, I LOVED long papers. My favorite classes were the ones where a paper was the final exam.While the work is difficult, it's ENJOYABLE for me to work for several months on a writing project.

If you can't honestly answer yes to this question, think again about wether this is right for you.

2) Do you need regular feedback to feel good about what you are producing?
When I worked at a corporate job, I had regular meetings with my boss when he would hear what I was working on and give me guidance. I'd bounce ideas off of him. I'd get credit when credit was due. 

Writing is not like a regular job. While you might have a critique group that can give you some feedback on your pages, more likely than not that feedback will be contradictory, untimely, and maybe even destructive (more on that later). Think of it this way, the people who actually have the know-how to really help you are too busy or in demand to do so for free, while the people who have the time are often also new or unsuccessful. 

The hard truth is that with writing, for the most part, you row your own boat. It's a thankless job. Are you okay with spending several months creating a manuscript that might not be salvageable when complete for the sake of learning how to write? Are you okay with not receiving regular encouragement on your writing? 

If you need regular feedback, think again about pursuing this career.

3) Are you disciplined?
Look at your schedule. Can you realistically devote one hour per day, five to six days per week on your craft?  Lots of people start novels. Few people finish.

If you can't be disciplined, or your family won't respect your writing time, chances are you will not finish your book.

4) Do you have a thick skin?
I'm talking rhino tough, people! I don't care if you have your MFA in creative writing, as soon as that book comes out you will be criticized in one way or another. Too literary? Your work is inaccessible. Too accessible? You write like a third grader. Too mainstream? Book is boring. Too much action/sex? Your book is escapist. Believe me when I tell you that you can not win with the critics out there. There are people who love to hate, not to mention that writing is subjective. 

If you don't believe me, look up any phenomenal success and read the one star reviews. I recommend the Harry Potter books, The DaVinci Code, and the Hunger Games. Each of these books had a team of editors and the backing of traditional publishing and they have THOUSANDS of scathing one star reviews.

Aside from reviews, you, as a new author, can not expect to write perfectly from day one. Your first draft will be crap, and that's okay. But unless you are willing to to take criticism from editors, a trusted partner, and/or the reviewing public, you will not survive in this business. 

If your spirit is easily crushed, walk on.

One more thing I need to address here. Rarely, I get a note that says something like this:

I have a GREAT idea for a book. Definitely a bestseller.  All I need is someone to write it for me.  Would you consider writing my book with me for a percentage of the royalties.

If you've been paying attention, you now know how ridiculous this question is. Great ideas are a dime a dozen, its the execution of the idea that's difficult. Unless you are James Patterson, willing to give both your name and your idea to a project, you probably won't find a writer willing to go for that deal.

Are you still with me? Are you a rhino-skinned, self-motivated introvert who loves the process of writing and is willing to devote regular time and energy with likely no return? If yes, welcome aboard! You can do this!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, G.P.! Right on the money! It seems like saying some of these things is discouraging, but it is realistic and will save people time and heartache. You are 100% correct on the process. Maybe I should add, though, that there are some who will learn to develop that rhino skin. I used to be highly sensitive to criticism, and still am, to an extent, but I love to write and have my writing read by others, so I've *had* to develop thick skin. I can let some stuff roll off easily now, that would have eaten at me before. However, there are still times when it hurts. Perhaps I'm a sadist, but it is just something I am compelled to do.


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