Eleven Tips for Beginning Writers

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“What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?”

Because I’m asked this question more often than I am any other — including most recently in an interview I did on Friday that should be appearing here in the next week or so — I thought I would put together a list of my 11 best tips for beginning writers.  Why eleven?  Because this is a very good list.  It goes to “11”.  If you don’t understand, go see the movie Spinal Tap…. Without further ado:

1.  Write. Pretty basic, I know.  But you’d be amazed by the number of people who want to be writers, but are waiting to start writing until God-knows-what happens.  Write everyday.  Even if it’s just 100 or 200 words.  Make a habit of it, the way you would an exercise regimen.  If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.

2.  Read. Also basic, and also something that beginning writers often ignore.  We have to be readers as well as writers.  Being a reader teaches us what works and what doesn’t in storytelling, in narrative, in character development.  The more you read, the better equipped you are to teach yourself how to write.

3.  Share. Once you’ve started writing, it’s not enough to keep your work to yourself.  You have to get used to showing your work to others, to hearing their responses, to putting your ego and feelings on the line.  Writing is not for the faint of heart or the bashful.  Show your work to friends and family, to fellow writers, to a crit group — anyone.  But show it.

4.  Listen. Actually, shut up and listen is probably more apt.  You’re going to get feedback from your readers.  At least you should hope that you do.  When it comes, listen to what they say.  Don’t react defensively, don’t explain what you were trying to do, or why they’re wrong in what they’re saying.  Just listen and learn.  Your book isn’t perfect; it probably never will be.  But they can help you make it better.

5.  Edit and revise without sentimentality.  Kill your literary darlings.  You know the ones I mean.  The little turns of phrase and details that you just adore and can’t bear to cut.  Kill them.  Not all of them.  There will be some you can keep.  But you’re going to need to get rid of some of them in order to get your manuscript where it has to be.  Be merciless as you edit.  You’re trying to create a coherent story, not a boutique of precious prose constructions.

6.  Think of yourself as a parent. Pay attention to the needs of your characters.  Listen to them.  Give them the freedom to grow, to surprise you, even to take the narrative in directions you didn’t anticipate.  But remember to be firm.  There are times when you can let them roam, and times when you have to rein them in and exert control.  You’re the only person who can know where to draw that line.  Assume responsibility for them and use your judgment.

7.  Maintain focus and pace. Your narrative needs to flow all the time.  When it slows too much it stagnates and you lose readers.  Remember Vernor’s Law (named for the great Vernor Vinge, Nebula Award-winning author of science fiction, who first articulated it): You need to keep things moving forward, which means that you need to develop character, further your plot, and explain background pretty much at the same time.  Certainly you should always be doing at least two out of the three. When you find yourself doing one of these things to the exclusion of the other two, you’re going too slow.  If you’re not doing any of them, you’ve lost your way.

8.  Send out your work. No one ever published a story that they didn’t send out for publication.  No one is ever going to knock on your door and say, “Excuse me, I’m putting together an anthology, and I was wondering if you happen to have a spare fantasy story lying about,” or “I’m starting up a publishing house and was looking for an unpublished novel to print,” or “I’m opening my own literary agency and was canvassing the neighborhood for aspiring, but incongruously shy writers…”  You have to make it happen, which means that you have to send out your stories for consideration.  Suck it up and send it out.  But….

9.  Check the guidelines first. All publishers and agencies have guidelines for submissions.  Find them on the web or request them by mail, and follow them to the letter.  If they tell you to send three chapters, don’t send them the whole book.  Send three chapters.  If they say that they only read fantasy, don’t send them Military SF because you’re convinced that your story is so good that you can change their minds about the genre.  Follow the GLs.  If you don’t your book or story will be rejected.  They won’t even bother to read it.  Be professional; be smart.  Follow the guidelines.

10.  Remember that all money flows to the writer. Do not allow your desire to be published to cloud your common sense.  There are crooks and charlatans out there waiting to take advantage of your dreams.  If you find an agent who wants to charge you money to read your manuscript or who recommends a “Book Doctor” who can make your books publishable for a fee, run away.  Money flows to the writer.  Yes, an agent will take a percentage of what your earn.  That’s fine; that’s a fee taken from money that is otherwise flowing to you.  But you do not pay out of pocket.  That’s not how this profession works.  For more on this, go to Writer Beware.

11.  Love it. As we’ve told you before and will tell you again, this is a tough way to make a living.  Anyone who tells you different is lying.  If you think you want to be a writer because it’s kind of fun and an easy way to make a few bucks, find another line of work.  If, on the other hand, you have to write, you have to give voice to those characters in your head clamoring for attention, then by all means, write.  But do it for the love.  Be ambitious, to be sure.  Try to write the bestselling, award-winning novel that burns inside you.  But remember that you love it, even when you’re ready to tear out your hair.  Telling stories is fun, damn it.  Keep that in mind.

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24 comments to Eleven Tips for Beginning Writers

  • David said, Kill your literary darlings. You know the ones I mean. The little turns of phrase and details that you just adore and can’t bear to cut. Kill them. Not all of them. There will be some you can keep.

    When I was rewriting “Mad Kestrel” for Tor, my editor had an issue with one of the characters constantly referring to Kestrel as Mad Kestrel. When I wrote it, I thought it was a charming romantic tease, but when my editor commented on it, I realized it was just plain annoying. I ended up cutting all but one or two mentions, and I’m glad I did.

  • In rewriting the book I was working on earlier this month (the rewrite is basically done, by the way!) I had to cut a ton of stuff that I had just LOVED in the original version. It hurt like hell, but the book is better for the changes I made. It’s something all of us have to do.

  • “Telling stories is fun, damn it. Keep that it mind.”

    That gave me a good laugh this morning. If that doesn’t sum up the passion and the unending frustration we writer’s feel towards our chosen profession, I don’t know what does!

  • Thanks, Jennifer. Glad it gave you a laugh. And many thanks for quoting my post — you helped me find and correct a typo!!! Didn’t I say that a writer ought to edit….?

  • David, my fave is: *Listen. Actually, shut up and listen is probably more apt.*

    Oh Yes! That is it! SO many people think they are God’s gift to the literary world and all they want to do is argue. I heard recently of a perfect case of a first time writer who was offered a contract, (with TOR, mind you), *if* she would do a rewrite first. She…(morbid bass drumroll)…refused. Her agent dropped her for being an idiot. Pride goeth before publication. Almost always. This gal still has her pride, tho. Lots of pride. No book contract, but lots of pride.

  • I’m going to do the same thing here I did over at Deadline Dames (post a link to an amazingly related article released on the same day).

    http://www.deadlinedames.com/?p=1576 Five Easy Steps by Dame Devon

    I’m thinking this is a sign from the Muses I should print out the articles and frame them for insporation…

  • Yes, Faith. There is nothing like the pride of an Artiste! And, well, if the work he/she produces isn’t worthy of such pride, that’s not the fault of the author. The work is unappreciated, it’s too complex to be readily understood. Right. Listen to your readers, people. If your work isn’t getting through to them, chances are rewrites are in your future. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Few of us get it just right the first time. This isn’t easy and none of us is perfect.

    Axisor, many thanks for the link, and for linking to us from their site. That’s an excellent article and well worth reading. Seems Devon and I have somewhat similar advice to offer.

  • Hi David,

    I’m the author of the link Axisor posted above.

    I love your list, and laughed out loud at the “incongruously, shy writer” part. Magic door-to-door trunk-novel solicitors–hee!

  • Thanks for stopping by, Devon! Nice to see you here. And yes, wouldn’t it be nice if just once the publishers and agents came looking for us?

  • David, we’d think they were stalkers and have them arrested.

  • Well, that would be fun in it’s own way, too.

  • I think that has the makings of a story idea…. door-to-door literary agent meets angsty unpublished author who calls the cops. All sorts of whacky hijinks then ensues. *grin*

    Great post btw! It encapsulates the tips I’ve heard in one pst quite well.

  • I think we know what Mark’s next book is going to be about…. [Wink]

    Thanks, Mark. Glad you liked the post.

  • Dawn Y.

    David,

    What a great list of advice. I’m working on my first full-length WIP. It’s been bugging me the last few weeks – too slow paced. Need to amp it up – it’s not meant to be an insomnia cure! It’s such a great learning experience, working on my first. I read a wide variety of genres. I know what I love to read and what turns me off. So I’m drawing on what I like/don’t like while working on my own WIP. In theory, sounds great. In application, things are seeming to move too slowly for my plot/characters. Whenever I write for contest submissions, seems I always put in too many words and cut out 2/3 before I think it is submission worthy. Looks like I’m doing the same with my WIP. I hope, as I write more, I will gradually write tighter from the get-go, so there will be less tightening that will need to be done later.

    Thanks for such a great article! :)

  • Back from vacation just in time for this and C E Murphy’s post on career planning. I plan on making quite a bit of progress writing-wise for the remainder of this year and have been rolling around in my head lately a sort of five year plan of my own.

    Share is next on my list. I’ve identified two potential beta readers from amongst my family (they are both spec-fic genre fans and not the least bit timid about expressing their opinions) and am currently looking around online at some of the more reputable online workshops.

    I’m not sure at what point a manuscript should be shown to a workshop though. Do you try and get it as perfect as possible or do you post the first couple of chapters of draft one?

  • Thanks, Dawn. Glad the list was helpful. Tightening up a manuscript after it’s written is nothing to be ashamed of. Different people work in different ways. Some write quickly but roughly and edit later. Others, myself included, polish as they write. Some sketch things out and then go back to fill in detail, while others write down EVERYTHING they’re considering and then prune later. It sounds like you do this, and that might just be your process. Sure, it would be great to tighten more the first time through, but if that’s not how you’re wired as a writer, then this might just be something you have to deal with. And that’s okay — repeat after mer: “There is no single right way to do this.”

    Welcome back, CE. That’s great that you’ve found Beta readers. Hope the sharing goes well. As to when to show your work to a workshop group, that I’m not sure of (since I don’t do much online workshopping myself. A lot of it, I would imagine, depends on the workshop itself and the expectations of its members. And a lot would have to do with you — when will you feel comfortable sending work out, and when in the process do you think you’ll benefit most from that kind of feedback. If anyone else has advice for CE on this front, please feel free to chime in.

  • Your bit in #9 about not sending military SF to a fantasy house inspired this…

    12. You can change how you tell a story if the story requires that change.

  • Indeed, Alan. Am in the process of doing that for a second time in as many months. Grrrrr.

  • Lily

    Great advice! Thank you so much for sharing! You guys have helped me so much with my writing!

  • That’s nice to know, Lily. It’s rewarding for us to hear that our advice is doing someone some good. Thanks for visiting MW!

  • […] I move on to what I really wanted to talk about if you are interested in awesome fantasy writing tips the authors over at magicalwords really do a good job of laying out some interesting workshop style […]

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  • Steve Handa

    My wife has convinced me that I need to step out of my comfort zone and actually write a story to get published. I’m so glad I stopped by this site, your tips were wonderful. Thank you.

  • Glad you found the post helpful, Steve. Hope you’ll stop by Magical words again. We have new posts just about every weekday, all of them geared toward writers who are just starting out. Best of luck with the story!