Back to Basics, part I: Be a Writer


I’m back home after a terrific weekend at StellarCon, in North Carolina, and my mind is filled with thoughts on writing, on ideas for future Magical Words posts, and on my own work.  I’ll get to some of these momentarily, but I wanted to say first that it was wonderful to meet and see so many of our MW regulars at the convention — definitely a highlight of the weekend.  It was also a pleasure as always to have time with my fellow MW contributors (A.J., we missed you, and raised at least a couple of glasses in your honor).  We had a great crowd for our How To Write Magical Words launch party Saturday night, and all of our panels were engaging and well-attended.  Kudos to the folks at StellarCon, who put on a very successful con. Even my drive home yesterday was great — a storm had just swept through the Great Smokies.  The ridges were newly frosted with hoar and snow, silver clouds draped over the peaks and shoulders of the mountains, and water was cascading off the slopes in broad, pale ribbons.  Gorgeous.

We covered a lot of ground in our panels, but also in our group discussions of what direction we ought to take this site in the coming year.  One of the points raised by Todd Massey and others, a point reinforced by discussions I’ve been having on my Facebook page and by questions in our panels, was that sometimes simpler is better.  I know that in my efforts to present when I see as interesting posts, I sometimes get into issues that might be too esoteric.

And so today I begin a new series of posts on what I’m calling “The Basics.”  I’ll cover many different subjects with these posts, but I’m going to start today with something that is both simple and counter-intuitive.  Many of you who read our posts aspire to be professional writers.  I would like to suggest that the way to start is to act and behave and think as though you already are.  Professional writers do certain things that contribute to our writing and productivity and that help us in our relationships with fellow writers, editors, and agents.  You should think about doing these things, too.

1. Butt in Chair.  Yes, you’ve heard this one from us before.  Again and again and again. But the truth is, nothing is more important.  Writers write.  Simple as that.  Ideally you want to write every day, but that’s not always possible. Many of you have day jobs (and as A.J. pointed out on Friday, you should probably keep them).  Many of you have families.  It might not be possible for you to write everyday.  That’s okay.  You should at least set aside a regular time each week when you sit down at the computer and write.  The more often you write the better, but setting unrealistic expectations for yourself can be more damaging to your self-esteem and creativity than not writing often enough.  Pick a time to write, and do it every week.  Increase it when you can.

2. Read.  Almost every writer I know is also a reader, and you should be, too.  Read in your genre and sub-genre.  It’s the best way of learning the tropes and tone, voice and conventions that should inform your work, even if you’re taking those conventions and turning them on their heads.  Read non-fiction.  You’ll find ideas for stories and learn a ton of things that will help you with your stories.  Read fiction outside of your genre, outside of speculative fiction.  Seeing how other authors handle character, setting, narrative and other story elements will help you see what works and what doesn’t.  In every way, reading will improve your craft.  And if you’re not sure what novels to read next, I’m sure my fellow MWers and I can give you an idea or two…

3. Comport Yourself Professionally.  This goes back to Stuart’s wonderful post about, for want of a better phrase, being nice.  When you are at a convention hoping to meet and speak to professionals, you should show that you take your future career seriously.  Dress appropriately.  That doesn’t mean that your shouldn’t wear costumes.  Costumes are great fun — Misty wore costumes all weekend and looked terrific, as always.  But you should be sure that your costume doesn’t cross the bounds of propriety.  You want people to take you seriously.  You should also bathe and brush your teeth.  This may seem simple, but believe me when I tell you that you can’t take it for granted.  And when dealing with professionals, you should remember that lots of people are interesting in speaking with the guests.  Don’t get me wrong:  As someone who is often a guest at conventions, I love to meet and speak with readers and con-goers.  But you should make a point of not monopolizing the time of the con guests.  By all means, engage them in conversation, be friendly.  And then thank them for their time and let others have their turn.  Finally, if you are serious about networking, carry a professional-looking business card and plenty of them.

4. Open Your Eyes.  I always have a notebook with me.  In it I jot down ideas on everything from character names to narrative points and all in between.  I find that I am constantly looking at the world around me and searching for new ways to describe the things I see.  When I find them, I write this down, too.  I describe landscapes, people, pretty much anything I encounter.  And I tuck these things away in my journal and in my mind.  Eventually, they will find their way into my stories and books.  Learning to see the world through the eyes of a writer is an important step in becoming a professional.

5.  Open Your Other Senses, Too.  I often have to push myself to use my other senses, to bring in scent, touch, taste, and sound to my descriptions.  But just as I have taught myself to see as a writer does, so I am now forcing myself to explore my other sensory perceptions, too.  My journal is beginning to fill up with descriptions of food and smells, sounds and textures, and I will be a better writer because of it.

6. Keep Moving Forward.  Ask Faith, and she will tell you that you are not a writer until you finish something — a story, a novel, something.  And she’s right.  I know so many aspiring writers who reach that tough section in the writing process and either retreat into rewrites or give up and start something new.  Revisions are important; the new-shiny is a great part of writing.  But writers finish what they start, and you need to keep moving forward with your Work In Progress.  Writing isn’t easy; part of the process is fighting through the stubborn sections of a work, finding that solution to a nagging plot problem.  Keep moving forward.  Finish what you start.

7.  Share Your Work With Others.  Ask me, and I’ll tell you that until others read your work, you’re not an author.  Writing is an interactive art; writing the story or book is only half the creative act.  The other half is allowing it to be read by others — friends, beta readers, reviewers, utter strangers.  Yes, it’s scary.  It’s also enormously helpful.  Move past the fear.  You can’t sell anything until others read it.  And even if you never want to sell anything you write, there is nothing more gratifying than hearing that someone who read your book was moved by it.

8. Appreciate What You Do.  On the way home yesterday, I reflected on how privileged I am to make my living (such as it is) doing something I love, and how fortunate I am to have been befriended by people like Faith, Misty, Ed, Stuart, and A.J.  I am blessed.  And in part what I mean by “Appreciate What You Do” is to be grateful for every accomplishment, every milestone, no matter how small it might seem.  Finished a short story?  Fantastic.  Savor that accomplishment.  Sold a story?  Wow!  Celebrate that.  But I also mean that, as I’ve said before, you should read your own work and appreciate the good qualities in what you’re written.  Yes, you should read it critically, but you should also take pleasure in what you do well.  Writing is too hard; take some satisfaction in what your accomplishments.  Appreciate what you do.

9.  Love it.  Writing is not a great way to make money.  It’s difficult to do at all and really, really hard to do well.  And most of us are far more likely to pay attention to the negative feedback we will inevitably get, than to the praise.  If you don’t love to write, you should find another way to spend your time.  If you do love it, well, then put your butt in the chair and get started.

David B. Coe

29 comments to Back to Basics, part I: Be a Writer

  • It was great seeing you and everyone else at Stellarcon. I feel like I need a few days good sleep before I’ll be back to myself. Two things about this post — First, the whole Be Nice thing did not come from me. I merely used it during the MW panel discussion. And second, No 9 all the way. You gotta love doing this otherwise it’s pointless. In fact, if you don’t love it, you’ll make a lot more money and be a lot happier in just about any other job. But, alas, I have the sickness. I do love writing — and to date, I’ve found no cure. Even getting published doesn’t fix it. You just want more.

  • David, it was a joy to be with all you guys and all our MW people too! And a huge shout out to our new pal Larry, who drove many miles to get a pic!

    I too am energized and feel like I got a huge kick in the butt at this con. I want to write!!! I have a short to finish, another to write, and a novel to plot out and stuff to do! Whoowhoo! (Oh — and some rivers to run this week! We got us a storm and the rivers are high!)

  • Stuart, my apologies. So who did write the “Be Nice” post? I’ll have to go back and check. But yeah, you’ve got to love writing to make all of this worthwhile. Great seeing you, as always.

    Faith, ditto. Glad to hear that you’re energized. I feel that I’m more productive now (this year), more creatively energized than I’ve ever been. Feels great. Enjoy the rivers!

  • Lance Barron

    Sounds like StellarCon was great. David, I’m looking forward to this series. I appreciate the advice, *be professional.* I hear that from different sources, and I approach writing with what I hope is professionalism. Your nine elements provide good reinforcement.

  • It was great, Lance. Sorry you couldn’t make it. And thanks. I hope you enjoy the future posts, as well.

  • Honestly, I appreciate the esoteric posts. I don’t often see those issues covered in other blogs, but I do see them here at MW and I *learn* from them.

    Of course, this stuff is nice to have reaffirmed. I agree with all of these points. I have found it hard to read as voraciously as I used to, what with balancing the job and writing and Reality. Books of short stories have been exceedingly helpful for when my work is really busy, and I’ve been getting better about setting a novel down rather than staying up until 3 a.m. to finish. (p.s. Guess what I bought last week? 😉 )

    As for point 8 (and points 6 and 7) I would love to see a post about self-esteem. I’m getting better about it myself, but sometimes it is hard. Doubt sets in so easily with this solitary practice. MW helps.

  • Thanks for the feedback, Laura. I’m sure I’ll be back to the esoteric stuff soon enough — I enjoy it, too. But these basics are crucial, and part of what we talked about over the weekend was the fact that in the end the simple things can be hugely important, both when it comes to our writing and also when it comes to how we present ourselves. And yes, I think that a post on self-esteem and keeping our confidence intact would be a good addition to this series. Again, thank you.

  • Unicorn

    After point 1, the invincible BIC, to me the most important are points 4 and 5. Even if our stories happen in other worlds, to make the other worlds real they have to be a bit like ours. And it’s so much fun contrasting Another World to Earth. I was about to write, “Even if the other worlds are peopled with vampires or gryffins or kraken, the sunrise is still the same,” when I began to wonder what it would be like if the sun came up in a blaze of silver and green one morning…
    I love my weird, weird art.
    Thanks for the post, David. Looking forward to another great series.

  • David, Always a pleasure to hang out with you and the gang (and AJ, we raised numerous glasses in your honor), and what a blast the book launch party was. I know I’ve never signed so many books in such a short time as we did that night. Taking your advice in #8 about appreciating what we do, that really was a lot of fun.

    Great list you’ve got here, too. The esoteric stuff really is the icing on the cake, and as much of a difference as it CAN make, if you don’t have the basics of flour, milk, and eggs, you’ve got no cake to put all that lovely icing on. The basics should never go out of style, never be marginalized, never be forgotten.

  • Unicorn, thanks for the comment. Four and Five can certainly be the best parts of writing. Experiencing the world with the senses wide open is intoxicating. Writing about that intoxication in ways that no one has ever thought of before is in many ways the best part of this business.

    Edmund, right back at you. Great to see you. And yes, the launch party was a Large Time. I like the recipe analogy, particularly because there was a birthday cake waiting for me when I got home.

  • Costumes are great fun — Misty wore costumes all weekend and looked terrific, as always.

    *blushes* Thank you, David.

  • David, lists like this are great because they act as reminders of the things we nd to do. Then if I find myself missing out on something, I can make adjustments. Lately, Butt in Chair has meant sending out novel queries, subbing short stories, and catching up on critiques for folks I’ve exchanged novels on. All writing-related, but not generating any new words. Time for me to refocus and make BIC = productive writing.

    Glad you all had fun at StellarCon. Hope to swing down to Carolinas someday…


  • Thanks for “the basics” posts, David. I need them, as I’m new to the fiction writing gig. I’ve been a writer and editor for years, but it was all non-fiction. Fiction is a totally different game, and Magical Words has already been helpful. (I loved Stuart’s monomyth articles.)

    I’m learning as fast as I can about the craft, but I’m being careful not to use the learning curve as an excuse not to write. I’m moving steadily forward on the first draft of my book, practicing what I learn as I learn it. I’m sure my first draft will need a lot of work, but hey, that’s what first drafts are for, right?

    Anyway, thank you, and please keep it coming. Your efforts are greatly appreciated.

  • My pleasure, Misty. Was great to see you.

    NGD, thanks. One of the things I plan to focus on later in the year is the fact that we can be working and not writing. Promotion, research, reading, preparing submissions and drafting queries — all of these things are writing work, and all of them count as BIC. Now you want to do as much of the creative stuff as possible, obviously. But those other things are crucial, too. Hope to see you at ConCarolinas one of these years.

    Daniel, thanks very much for the comment and congrats on the progress you’re making with your first draft. I hope that some of the subjects I plan to touch on with this series will prove helpful.

  • Razziecat

    I really need to work on 4, 5 and 6. I used to be so much more aware of the world around me instead of just the one(s) in my head. Time to wake up and look around again! Moving forward – yes, it’s hard for me to finish one thing because I keep being distracted by the new ideas. I need to be more organized and methodical. But I have completed some things, and my work shows improvement over where it was a couple of years ago. Very much looking forward to learning more on Magical Words!

  • I’ve officially called my WIP the final and now I’m jumping on number 6 moving on to the next manuscript. Hoping this one comes together faster than the first…

  • …final draft… Ugh, my head’s too full of synopsis writing.

  • Razz, I should have mentioned in my post that even those of us who have been doing this professionally for years need to work on all of these things. They’re basic because they’re important, not because they’re necessarily easy. Finishing projects, especially when the new shiny is begging for attention, is really hard. Being able to see the improvement in your own work is great. Seriously. It shows not only that you’re improving, but also that you have the ability to critique your own stuff. That’s invaluable. Keep working!

    Daniel, congrats on completing the WIP and best of luck with the new manuscript. And yuck: Synopsis head. Nothing worse.

  • Wonderful post, David. As usual!

    Here’s something I do which really helps tie #6 ‘Keep Moving’ and #8 ‘Appreciate What You Do’ together, and reminds me why I #9 ‘Love It.’ I keep *everything* I’ve finished in a loose-leaf notebook, including those early writings unworthy of submission/publication, in chronological order. Whenever I get that I-Can’t-Write-Who-Am-I-Kidding feeling, I go back and read some of my old stuff. I see how I’ve grown over time. I find a gem in a phrase, a passage, a bit of dialog. I rediscover that I CAN write, and sometimes I’m pretty damned good at it. I remember why I love it.

    And then I put my #1 and write.

    David – on another note: Absolutely loved, “The ridges were newly frosted with hoar and snow, silver clouds draped over the peaks and shoulders of the mountains, and water was cascading off the slopes in broad, pale ribbons.”

  • Tom Berrisford

    First, I want to say that I had a blast at StellarCon because of all the wonderful, friendly and professional people I got to hang out with – you know who you are! The launch party really was great and I had a great time. The panels I attended were informative and encouraging. I find that I think of story ideas or twists sometimes in panels even if they aren’t at all related to what I’m working on. Can’t wait for ConCarolinas!

    So many people have already commented on specific numbers and they’re all great to remember. I can’t pick a favorite (unless it’s #1). I may have to jot them down and tape them to the wall in my office. While I was reading #5, I thought about going to the mall or somewhere with lots of people and closing my eyes to force myself to observer with my other senses. I’ve never done this but think it would be a good exercise from time to time. But it all comes back to BIC in the end!

  • mudepoz

    Mm. I like this. One question, though. What kind of business card? Mine says something about me being a horticulture tech:)

  • You know, we were considering showing up as our Zombie Britney Spears Tribute Band, “Not The Ghouls Next Door”, but now I see we were right in opting for business casual. We may, however, have to rename our group “The Zambies”, due to a certain conversation at one of the panels.

    It was such a pleasure to meet all of you at StellarCon–the MW gang was definitely what made this convention such an awesome experience. I feel like I not only learned a lot, but was finally able to ask some of the questions I’d had in my head. Like many have said, I left the convention feeling like I’d swallowed helium and needed an ankle-leash to keep me on the ground. I’ve never felt that great after a convention, and it was largely because you all were so friendly and personable and willing to chat with us.

    I already started reading my super-special collector’s copy of the Magical Words book (thanks, Faith!)

    Review status: percolating.

    Take care, and I hope you guys recover from Post-Convention Syndrome soon.

    Lauren “Scribe” Harris

  • Sarah

    I have the exact same question as Mudepoz. Should we have an author card? What, beyond name and contact information, should it have on it? What does a professional writer’s card look like?

  • Sarah, my author card has my website, the MW website, and my email address. I used to list my phone number too, but I decided it was probably more information than I needed to hand out right away.

  • Brand new to the site, so hello everyone.

    BIC is what I’m working on right now. I’m doing my own personal Nanowrimo and hope to finish the novel by the end of this month. But #4 and #5 are the ones I really need to work on. My head is up in the clouds most of the time, which explains why my writing is so flighty.

  • Mudepoz and Sarah — my card has my name, writing website, podcast website, and e-mail address. Don’t put any other contact info besides your e-mail address on the card. Too many people out there will abuse that type of info. If you meet a contact that you want to give out a phone number or address, you can always write it on the card which also has the benefit of giving it a personal touch that might stick in that contacts memory.

    Michelle — Welcome to MW! Glad to have you! BIC is the only way to make it happen, so keep at it.

  • Wow, sorry to let the comments pile up….

    Lyn, I love that idea. At one point I posted at greater depth about appreciating our own work, and suggested that writers take a look back at their earlier pieces, just to mark their progress. But I like your idea even more. And thanks for the kind words about my Facebook post. The mountains were just beautiful on Sunday.

    Tom, a pleasure seeing you, too. Glad we had a chance to catch up. I think your idea about #5 is a great one, but be careful you don’t get yourself arrested by mall police….

    Mudepoz and Sarah, As Stuart and Misty have already said (thanks guys), your writing biz card should be simple and classy looking. I would include your name, website, blog url (if applicable), any other information that will get people to content that you want them to see (podcast site, for example), and your email. The heading on my card says “David B. Coe Author” But if you want to be more specific about genre or subgenre, you can be: “David B. Coe Author of Fantasy” “D.B. Jackson Author of Historical Fantasy” “Stuart Jaffe Author and Podcaster” or something like that. Some people use graphics on their cards — I often have cover art from one of my books. That’s fine — better than fine if it’s eyecatching and sets your card apart from others — but be sure that it looks clean and professional. Better plain and simple than cluttered and sloppy. Hope that helps.

    Lauren, it was wonderful meeting you at the convention (and Raven and Corey, too). Thanks to all of you for your great questions during the panels, and for coming to the launch party. Glad you found the convention so energizing — that’s terrific. Looking forward to seeing you all again at future cons.

    Michelle, welcome to the site! I find that using the senses is the most effective means I have for drawing readers into my stories and worlds. And the first step in that process, for me, is keeping my eyes and ears etc. open to the world around me. Hope all of this is helpful. And best of luck with your novel!

  • David – Thanks for the congrats. 🙂 Hopefully the query letter wasn’t total junk and will at least garner a response. With luck I’ll have to do more revisions soon. Hehe! I have no delusions of grandeur and if further revisions will get it picked up I’m on it.

  • That’s the right attitude to have, Daniel. Here’s hoping you have good news to share with us very soon.