Thursday, April 8, 2010

Advice For Writers


Over the past three years or so, I've gotten a lot of questions about how to get into writing, how to get published, etc.  I thought I'd take a little time and give some advice to those of you interested in writing. 

Reasonable Expectation:  Let me clear one thing up right up front, I'm not a writer. I'm an accountant that writes.  I have a real job.  You'd probably be surprised to learn this, but there aren't a lot of writers out there that write for a living.  If you're thinking about writing a book, be realistic about your expectation.  Even if you have a fairly successful book, it's probably not going to generate enough income to pay your bills.  So unless you come up with something that compares to Harry Potter or the DaVinci Code you're best going into it thinking of it as a hobby.

Just Do It:  Believe it or not, the most common question I get is if there are any books I'd recommend on writing.  There are a lot of clever writers out there that write about writing, and a lot of wannabe writers that want to read about writing.  You're not going to learn how to write by reading about writing.  The best way to learn it, is by doing it.  The more you do it, the better you get at it.

Get Input:  Find somebody to read your stuff that you trust--a friend, relative or former teacher that knows their rhetoric inside and out.  Somebody that will point out the fact you don't know how to use a semi-colon properly (that's why I don't use them very often), or you're using the same word over and over again.  You need somebody who is honest and objective, and the writer needs to be thick skinned enough to take the criticism.

Read:  The best writers are readers.  Know your genre.  If you want to write suspense fiction, read suspense fiction.  I like to write about history, so I read  a ton of history. 

Set Time Aside:  A lot of wannabe writers make excuses about why they don't write.  They're busy, they have a child, they have a demanding job, etc.  That's not going to change.  If you really want to write, then make the time.  I started writing my first published book a few days after my daughter Katie was born.  It was 2 a.m. and I was up with the baby for about the millionth time that evening.  I decided if I was going to be up all night anyway, I might as well find something constructive to do.  I hadn't written in a long time, but I had an idea, and I started planning out my book between diapers and bottles.  By the time I returned to work six weeks later, I had a book outlined, and about fourteen months later, I had Famous American Freemasons: Volume I done.  Since then, it's been a balancing act. I work full-time, when I come home, I spend time with the family until Katie goes to bed at 8, and then 5-6 nights a week I work the "night shift" between 8 and midnight.  Twenty to twenty-four hours a week, and in four years, I've written four books, and am working on the fifth. 

What makes that shift so productive, is I also spend an hour a day planning what I'm going to write that evening--I walk on my lunch hour, and I plan out the scenes I'm going to write so when my night shift starts, I already know what I'm doing and I can just start pounding it out. 

Have a Comfortable Place to Work:  I wrote my first book at the kitchen table--I have a very patient wife.  When my daughter graduated high school, and went off to college, my wife couldn't move me and my mess into her old room fast enough.  She painted it, bought shelves, and a nice radio--she made sure that room was so comfortable I'd never want to work anywhere else in her house again.  It's nice because I have a lot more room to spread out.  But on weekends, I sometimes take this show on the road though--I like to write on the patio of my local public library.  Starbucks works for me too sometimes.  I've even escaped a time or two and written a chapter at our Secretary's desk at my Masonic lodge--that's usually a very quiet and peaceful place on a Sunday afternoon, and when I'm writing my books about famous American Freemasons, it provides all kinds of inspiration.  Find a good place, or several good places, and write.

Write the Book First:  I get a lot of questions about how to get books published, and finding an editor, and who designs my book covers, etc.  More often than not, they haven't even written the book yet.  Don't put the cart before the horse.  Write the book--I hate to say it, but most of my ideas don't work out.  I think they're brilliant, I put a lot of time and sweat into an idea only to find out it wasn't such a good idea after all.  I have an entire file cabinet full of twenty years worth of ideas that didn't pan out--that's right, I published my first book in 2007, but I wrote my first book in 1986. 

Know When It's Good Enough:  You're never going to write the perfect book.  It's never been done.  The trick is to write a good book . . . do your research, do your best writing, and get a good editor!  But it's never going to be perfect, and most writers have a tough time letting go of it.  I've got a friend that's been writing and re-writing a book for ten years.  He'll never finish it, because he's never content with it.  There's no reason to write if nobody ever reads your books because you can't finish them.  I can't think of one single book I've ever read that I didn't find at least one small mistake in.  Mine are no exception.  When I published Famous American Freemasons, I went over it and over it and over it . . . my editor went over it and over it and over it.  It was published, and I got that copy of the book in the mail, I found a mistake so obvious I can't believe we didn't catch it.  It's on every single even numbered page and it makes me crazy each time I see it. . . the header on every even page says Great American Freemasons not Famous American FreemasonsGreat American Freemasons was the working title of the book--I'd changed it early on in the project.  But do you know how many people have caught it?  Not one.  So don't sweat the small stuff.

The Best Advice I Have:  Know your subject!  If you're writing non-fiction, don't skimp on the research.  Most writers hate researching--I happen to love it.  I enjoy few things more than digging in the musty and dusty records of a library archive department.  That's me though.  Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, a bad fact will blast your book faster than anything else.  In my most recent book, I researched guns, old Ford trucks, small town police departments, strip mining practices of the 1930s and 40s, Victorian houses, Vietnam era military snipers, Savannah, Georgia, etc.  One of my first published short stories was first rejected by an editor because of a bad fact (I think I was about nineteen at the time)--I got a note that said ". . . the Colt Peacemaker is a revolver, and revolvers don't leave shell casings behind.  If you're not going to do your homework, don't waste my time."  Five minutes in the library, and I had my facts straight--the next editor that got it published it.  I keep a notebook handy, and when I'm writing, and a question pops up--some little fact I'm not sure about--I write the question down, and keep going.  I'll look it up later so I don't blast my writing session with a distraction.  Most light research these days can be done on the internet--there's no reason to be lazy when you can get the fact straight in two minutes.  It's not like you have to run to the library.

There's no great secret to writing--it's about ideas, research, hard work and dedication.  If you're not willing to make the time and put in the effort, it's probably not for you.  If you are, I encourage you to sit down for an hour or two every day, and work on it.  It's a huge field, and there's a niche for everyone.  It's a great hobby for those of you looking for a creative outlet.  That's why I do it--there's not much creativity involved in accounting.  But the first step is to stop reading about it, and talking about it, and start doing it.

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