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Traits of Successful Authors I— Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Patience And Self-Discipline

It takes a long time to write a novel. No matter how fast you are, it takes a while. In fact, while some things like NANOWRIMO has people writing at a furious pace for a month and is a good way to get the writing down, it is also negative in that quantity is not necessarily quality.

The amount of time I spend writing a novel has actually increased the more I learn about the craft. Rather than making it easier, more knowledge makes it more difficult to write, as I try to make the book the best possible product I can.

Writers are often asked what their daily schedule is. I think it’s important to have the discipline to have a daily schedule and/or goal. It’s too easy to let the writing go and take care of everything else if you don’t force yourself to face that daily goal.

It’s different for many writers but here are some from writers I know:

5 pages a day; 2,000 words a day; 10 pages a day; six hours a day.

I think an external goal that can be measured is the best to go for. It’s a tangible goal and you know when you’ve accomplished it.

Beyond that tangible writing goal, I work seven days a week, anywhere from eight to fourteen hours a day. It’s hard for me to say how many hours a day I work because I am almost always ‘working’. If I’m not sitting in front of my computer, I’m researching or watching the news for interesting facts or simply thinking about my story, playing it out in my mind, watching my characters come alive. I have many of my best plot ideas while driving or riding my bike. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, which is why I have my iPhone with recorder next to my bed ready for instant use.

My cable bill is very high, with every channel, on-demand, and DVR. There are writers who say ‘kill your television’ but I disagree with that. There’s some very good writing in that medium. I watch movies and shows the same way I read books: analytically to see what the writers did and also what were the possibilities that weren’t explored. The #1 thing a writer must do other than write is read and watch movies and shows. It is work. It will take away some of your enjoyment of things as you can get good at predicting what will happen next under Chekhov’s rule of ‘don’t have a gun in act one unless you use it by act 3’. But note that I say ‘use it’ not ‘fire it’. That’s the key to great writing. To take what is expected and do the unexpected.

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterWriting is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. If you write only when excited or motivated you’ll never finish. You have to write even when it’s the last thing you want to do. Just put something down. You can always edit it later or throw it out (you’ll do a lot of throwing out and it hurts but it’s the sign of a mature writer; also, it’s one reason you don’t edit yourself to death on the first draft). I eventually average 500 to 550 pages of manuscript to produce 400 good pages in a final draft. A recent manuscript was 126,000 words long and then I cut it back to 90,000 words. To sweat over that many pages and then “lose” them hurts but not as much as getting the manuscript rejected or not sell if self-published. The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve become a fan of rewriting and editing. I’m also a fan of outlining and doing a lot of work before I write the first sentence of my manuscript, including doing extensive character development.

Overall, I’ve developed an inner “writing clock” that works in terms of weeks and months that lets me know how much I have to produce and how quickly. It varies its pace depending on the project at hand and it took years of experience to develop this inner clock. I force myself to put the time and effort in, even when I don’t feel like it. However, as I discuss in Write It Forward, almost every writer tends to underestimate the time it takes to complete a manuscript.

Experiment and find something that works for you in day-to-day writing. Maybe it will only be for one hour every morning before everyone else gets up—keep doing it. You’ll be amazed how much you can get done if you stick with it. One rule that’s hard for people is to TURN OFF THE INTERNET while writing.

All the thinking, talking, going to writer’s conferences, classes, etc. are not going to do you any good if you don’t do one basic thing: WRITE.

backgroundWhen I taught martial arts, I always found that the majority of the new students quit right after the first month. They came in and wanted to become Bruce Lee rolled into Chuck Norris all within a couple of weeks. When they realized it would take years of boring, repetitive, very hard work, the majority gave up. It doesn’t take any special skill to become a black belt; just a lot of time and effort to develop the special skills. The same is true of writing. If you are willing to do the work, you will put yourself ahead of the pack. You must have a long-term perspective on it. Under Write It Forward, your strategic plan, in essence, is where do you want to be in five years as a writer?

I think a hard part of being a writer is also knowing what exactly ‘work’ is. For me it was hard to accept that kicking back and reading a novel was work and I wasn’t being a slacker. Sitting in a coffee shop and talking with someone is work. Living is work for a writer in that you can only write what you know, so therefore experience is a key part of the creative process.

Ultimately, though, as the late Bryce Courtney said, you need a large dose of bum glue. Gluing yourself to that seat and writing.

The Ability To Organize

As those pages pile up, you’ll find yourself weeks, months, maybe years away from having written that opening chapter. That’s where your organizing skills come in. We’ll cover outlining later on, but in essence, the way you organize your life, is the way you will initially organize your book. So if your life is all over the place, you might have some problems. Yes, there are those natural talents who can just ‘stream’ a book, but they are few and far between. Most of us cannot keep an entire book in our head.

You have to keep track of your characters, your locales, and the action, to make sure it all fits. I’ve used many different tools to write a novel, but one thing I’ve done with every single manuscript is use what I call a story grid. This is an Excel spreadsheet where I can put the entire book on one page, scene by scene (for a really big book it might go to two pages). This spreadsheet is not an outline, but rather something I fill in with a pen each day as I write, to help me keep track of what has been done. Every day I then update the spreadsheet and print it out. It sits to the left of my keyboard (I’m left-handed). It helps when you need to go back and look up a specific part or change something.

I also keep numerous indexed binders with all my research material handy. I spend a considerable amount of time organizing my research material so I can find what I’m looking for. Details drive a story, and the more details you have accessible in terms of research, the more options you have in your plot. Right now I have two four-inch thick binders: one for people; one for events.

Some writers use programs like Scrivener or Onenote to keep track of their research, but I’m still old-fashioned and use Word and Excel and binders.

These practical tools are part of my process as a writer.

What practical tools are part of your process?

The Basics for Being a Successful Author—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Write a lot

Before writing a lot, be a voracious reader

I also am a big fan of watching a lot of movies and TV specials and series. There are writers who dismiss the television, but there are great writers putting out excellent product in that medium. And we all can learn from any artistic medium. Studying a different medium can also allow you to see new ways of looking at your writing

Learn the proper way to do business things in the world of publishing such as having a strategic plan for your career, which is covered under my Write It Forward program and book

Why should you read this rather than one of the many others books and blogs and articles about writing? I suggest that you read this in addition to those other works. However, the advantage of this is that I began writing this shortly after my first novel was accepted for publication in 1990 and have been adding to and modifying it ever since as we move past the midway point of the second decade of the 21st Century. Thus this book presents a spectrum of my experience, not just my current experience.

In here you will find me writing in present tense about things that in real time happened years ago, but I’ve kept many of those passages because they offer insight from varying levels of my writing experience and thus give other writers at various levels more opportunities to connect their experiences with mine. I’ve learned more about writing in the past couple of years than in my first two decades because I’ve been more open to change.

If I wanted to be an architect I should not be satisfied that I only had grand visions of what the design for my buildings should be. Nor would anyone be impressed with my visions if I couldn’t put them into the proper format. Nor would anyone be interested if my design was so impractical that it couldn’t be built. I would have to learn the craft of design and also the business of building and then apply my vision to that. I would also need to understand how the people who actually construct the building operate, and interact with them in a professional and knowledgeable manner. And, perhaps most importantly and most often forgotten, I would not have any success if no one wanted to buy my designs.

Remember something about the art of writing: It is the only art form that is not sensual. You can see the colors and strokes that make a painting, feel a sculpture, and hear music. The manner in which each individual piece in those fields impacts on the senses is different. But every writer uses the same letters on a piece of paper. You have twenty-six letters that combine to form words, which are the building blocks of your sentences and paragraphs. Everyone has the same words, and when I write that word and you write it, that word goes into the senses of the reader in the same way. It’s how we weave them together that impact the conscious and subconscious mind of the reader that makes all the difference in the world.

A story comes alive in the reader’s mind. You use the sole medium of the word to get the story from your mind to the reader’s. It is the wonder of writing to create something out of nothing. Every story started with just an idea in someone’s head. Isn’t that a fantastic concept?

In essence, writing is no different from any other profession. It’s a simple rule, but one that every one wants to ignore: the more you write, the better you will become. Practically every author I’ve ever talked to, or listened to, or read about in an interview, says the same thing. I saw Stephen King on C-Span and he said the most important thing to do to become an author is to write a lot. One writing professor said you needed to write a million words before expecting to get published. I’m currently around word ten million and still learning so much.

Let’s look at the positive side: The odds are strongly against getting traditionally published or succeeding immediately with indie publishing. But simply by taking the time and the effort to learn from these words, you are increasing your odds. By continuing to write beyond your first manuscript, you vastly increase your odds. Many writers gush over the amount of money John Grisham made for The Firm but they forget that A Time To Kill was published previously to lackluster sales and failed. What is important to note about that was that Grisham realized he hadn’t done something right and worked hard to change. Note that Grisham did not bemoan what his agent/editor/publisher etc. didn’t do to help the novel. He didn’t complain that the reading public didn’t understand his brilliance. He worked on the one person he knew he could change: himself (a tenet of Write It Forward).

From talking with other published writers, I have found it is common that somewhere between manuscript numbers three and six, comes the breakthrough. How many people are willing to do that much work? Not many, which is why not many succeed. But it is how you can vastly increases your chances of beating the odds. Publishers do not want to make a one-time investment in a writer; nor do readers. When a publisher puts out a book, they are backing that writer’s name and normally want to have more than one book in the pipeline. Multiple book contracts are very common; with their inherent advantages and disadvantages. As soon as you type THE END on your first manuscript (and I mean THE END after numerous rewrites), the first thing you must do is begin writing your second.

Publishing has changed drastically and there are new opportunities for writers to get their novels into the hands of their readers. Traditional publishing isn’t the only viable option for the 21st century author. Self-publishing is quickly becoming the new medium for mid-list authors, and new authors. Amanda Hocking self-published her way into a two-million dollar contract with St. Martins Press. Myself, Connie Brockway, Barry Eisler, LJ Sellers and JA Konrath have all either written ourselves out of NY contracts or turned down a NY contract and ventured out on our own and have been successful.

The key to our success is two-fold.

  1. Write the better book; then the next and the next and the next
  2. Become part of Write It Forward

I discuss what I would do regarding self-publishing for a new writer in Write It Forward, but suffice it to say, I believe you should have at least three manuscripts under your belt before venturing out there; not much different than getting traditionally published.

As someone who wants to be in the entertainment business, you have to study those who have succeeded and failed in that business. Read interviews with people in the arts and entertainment industries and you will find a common theme: a lot of years of sweat equity put in before the big “break” came. I’ve read of and heard actors and comedians talk about spending decades working in the trenches before they became famous. Musicians who sang backup for years before becoming lead. Painters who toiled in squalor (and often died) before their work was recognized.

Study the lives of writers. Read interviews with authors and see what they say. Go to conferences and talk to them. Listen to them talk about several things: how they became authors, how they live, how they feel about writing, how they write. Many worked very strange jobs before getting published. Almost all struggled and spent many years of suffering before they succeeded. I say suffering in terms of financial or career terms, not in terms of the writing itself. Most writers enjoy writing.

People seem to think that writers are different and, while in some highly publicized cases they are, most published writers have spent many years slugging away before their first novel was published.

Simple perseverance counts for a lot. I think many people with talent lack the drive and fall out of the picture and people with maybe not as much talent but more drive take their place. It’s the difference between having a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. People with talent often believe they know all they ever need to know, therefore their mind is fixed. Those who believe there is always something more to learn, have a growth mindset.

TNWIFConference(6)Let’s get back to where I talked about people in other professions doing a work practicum. Besides writing novels and reading, the other advice I would give would be to attend conferences and workshops. It is a worthwhile investment of your time and money to go to workshops and conferences. Not just to learn, but also to network. Because of that, the first Write It Forward book my publishing company released is How To Get The Most Out Of Your Time And Money At A Writer’s Conference.

A college student once interviewed me and she asked me what she could do to become a better writer. I replied with my usual “Write a lot,” then thought for a second, looking at this nineteen year old woman. Then I said: “Live a lot. Experience life, because that is what you are eventually going to be writing about.”

Think about the lifestyle of an author, the lifestyle you are hoping to achieve. Most people want the end result: a published novel in the bookstore or online, but they don’t pay much attention to the life that produces that end result. A writer’s life is one of paradoxes. You have to be interested in people, yet you work in one of the loneliest jobs there is and you are probably an introvert (extroverts rarely can sit alone long enough to produce 100,000 words). You need inspiration and passion, yet also possess the self-discipline to trudge through writing 400 pages of a manuscript. In other words you have to have a split personality and be slightly nuts. So you will need therapy and lots of it.

Are you willing to persevere?

Common Traits of the Successful Author—Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

It’s not normal to sit alone and write 100,000 words. So let’s get that out of the way. You aren’t normal. You aren’t in the bell curve and you aren’t necessarily on the good side of the curve. You’re cursed. You write because you have to. You will have to go to therapy. Sorry. That’s the reality of being a writer.

If you desire to write a novel because you want to have a bestseller and make a bundle of money, my advice is to play the lottery; it will take much less time and your odds will be about the same, if not better, and I can guarantee that the work involved will be much less. The publishing business makes little sense and it’s changing faster than ever before; the “gold rush” of the self-published eBook is long past. However, I do believe that the more you know, the greater your chances of success. The vast majority of writers are flailing away at the craft and the business blindly. Armed with knowledge, you greatly increase your ability to rise above the rest.

This book is focused on the craft of writing. I cover how to be a successful author, selling your book and the business of writing in my companion book Write It Forward. I believe it’s important to have two separate books, because too often writers put the cart before the horse: business before craft. The first thing you must do as a writer is create a great book.

You write for you. You write because you have a story in you that has to come out. This is the core of the art of writing. Pearl Buck said:

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create—so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out his creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency, he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

I believe that passion which fuels long-term perseverance to be the single most important factor. I also believe that too much discussion on the topic of creativity can actually stifle the drive in some people. They start thinking that they have to do and think exactly like everyone else in order to succeed and that is not true. That is why I say that there are no absolutes, no hard and fast rules in writing. Follow your path.

I have listened to many writers speak, read many books on writing, and while much of what they say is the same, there is often something that is very different. Usually that different thing is part of their creative expression, the way they approach their writing. However, on a core level, I think most creative people operate in a similar manner.

I see people who do something like #nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where they try to write a certain number of words each day, every day and I have two views of that: it’s good they are getting words down. But are they the type of writer who works that way? I know writers who don’t write every day, but work in creative bursts. They might not write for a week, then knock out 20,000 words in three days. #nanowrimo doesn’t work for them. Stephen King says he writes 10 pages a day. That’s great for him. Does it work for you?

Additionally, that is what he says. Does he actually do it? Probably, but maybe not. He’s the only one who knows the truth. Most writers feel a subliminal degree of guilt over getting paid to sit at home and create stories. So sometimes we says things to make it more apparent that we ‘work’. Because it’s hard to explain how hard it is to simply be sitting still, doing nothing, while we develop blinding headaches trying to work our way through our plot while remaining true to our characters. So we use things like word count and page count instead, even if they aren’t true.

When I discuss how to write a novel, I talk a lot about the craft of novel writing. The art is woven into the craft with deeper insights and when you take craft and twist it by breaking rules. But the first rule of rule breaking is to know the rule. Thus we must learn craft before we look to art.

Craft is the intellectual aspect of writing. The art is the emotional aspect. A great writer engages both the reader’s thoughts and emotions, thus being both a good craftsmen and a good artist.

One of the paradoxes of writing, and something to keep in mind when going through this: I am going to present techniques, ideas and formats that are the accepted way of doing things; yet the accepted way makes you the same as everyone else who can read a writing book and follow instructions, and your work has to stand out from everyone else’s. So how do you do that? How do you do things the right way yet be different?

Everything mentioned is a template; do not allow anything to stifle your creativity. Remember the paradox. The best analogy I can come up with is that if you were a painter I am telling you about the paint and the canvas and lighting and perspective, but ultimately you are the one who has to decide what you are going to paint and how to paint it.

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterAnother thing is to understand the techniques and methods, and then use your brilliance to figure out a way to change the technique or method to overcome problems and roadblocks. To be original—an artist—with something that’s already been done. Also to mix techniques and methods in innovative ways.

I call my book on writing a Writers’ Toolkit because if you pick up a hammer when you need a saw, that doesn’t invalidate the hammer as a tool. It means you made a mistake as a craftsman.

What “tools” do you rely on for your process as a writer?

Why Write? Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

78% of Americans believe they can write a book. I’d be willing to bet 77% of them will die regretting they never did. However, in this age of eBooks, more and more are actually doing it. Pouring their stories into the content flood. Some of them are great stories, well written. Okay, let’s amend that to say a few. The vast majority aren’t. The reason: few people are willing to learn the craft of writing and work hard at it.

You have only one thing stopping you from writing the best book you are capable of. You.

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterThis is a Toolkit because no tool is wrong. If I need to fasten two pieces of wood together and instead of picking up a hammer and nail, pick up a saw, it is not the tool’s fault. It’s mine.

I’m going to lay out numerous writing tools on these blogs (and in the book) that will help you develop your craft as a writer. However, becoming an artist is up to you.

Point of view is the most critical style element in writing. It’s also important in following the way I teach writing. I’ve been making a living writing for well over two decades and with each year and every new manuscript come new lessons learned. Over that time period I’ve taught writing novels and getting published at various workshops and for numerous organizations. I’ve attended many workshops and listened to other authors present. I’ve read many books and watched many movies and shows, constantly analyzing the writing, to learn new ways of creating. I’ve seen numerous ideas, stories and manuscripts in the course of teaching, helping other writers, and judging contests. I’ve been published by eight different TimePatrolAmerican publishers, many foreign publishers, worked with over two dozen editors, and have had four primary agents. I’ve been traditionally published by the Big Six in New York, and non-traditionally published through my own imprint. I’ve been published by Amazon’s science fiction imprint 47North. I’ve had hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, print on demand, and eBooks published across the range of possible platforms.

The words that follow are my experiences and opinions. They were born out of my desire to give those I taught something solid when they attended a seminar or class or bought a book.

Too many people lament the state of publishing and the “crap” that fills the shelves in the local bookstore or has been uploaded as an ebook. My goal is not to complain but to explain; to tell you about the craft and art of writing so you can accomplish your goals.

The world of writing is a very diverse one and there is a place in it for just about everything and everyone. Things are changing rapidly, faster than ever, and I think it’s an exciting time to be an author, with more opportunities than ever before.

The bottom line is I write because I enjoy it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The one commonality I have seen in every successful writer I’ve met is that they work very, very hard. There is a large degree of craftsmanship required to write a novel. It’s not magic; it’s hard work combined with the ability to constantly accept being critiqued and to critique one’s self.

There’s an advantage to the information I am providing. It was written over the course of my writing career so you are going to get information written when I was tightly focused on craft, and you are also going to get information when I was tightly focused on the art of writing. Most writing books give you one or the other–here you get the whole deal. I’ve learned more about the craft of writing in this past year, my 26th as a published author, than in all the years previous, because I’ve been more open to learning than ever before.

backgroundAdditionally, in the last several years, I’ve focused on what it takes to be a successful author, not just in terms of the writing, but in terms of not only surviving, but thriving in the world of publishing. Most of that is in my Write It Forward program and book, but I will cover some of that here when it’s needed.

The bottom line is the book. I love books. I love reading them and I love writing them. So if you love books, the words that follow are a glimpse behind the mysterious curtain of how they are born in the crucible of passion and idea, then written, and published.

I will take you step by step on the journey from original idea to the completed manuscript.

“I am always doing that which I cannot do in order to learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso.

Anything that upsets you, makes you feel bad, makes you angry, touches any emotional button is something you must focus on. We get upset whenever we hear or read something that affects us. Because we are hearing a truth, we react defensively with emotion. Our strongest defenses are built around our greatest weaknesses. As a writer, you will only get better by addressing the weakest parts of your writing. We all tend to want to focus on our strengths, but a book is only as good as the weakest part.

“I’m convinced fear is at the root of most bad writing.” Stephen King

Often it is fear that keeps us from achieving our goals. It is fear that keeps us from writing. It is fear that stops us from living our inner dream. But fear is the seed of regret.

So. If you want to write, remember: No regrets.

Live your inner dream.

So it’s a single, simple question:

Why do you write?

(And feel free to sign up for my newsletter to the left– we only send it out every couple of months, but it always contains links to giveaways and other cool stuff!)


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