Unsolicited Advice

Over the past several weeks I’ve found myself engaged in numerous conversations about the craft and business of writing, and it got me thinking about how I started out and how I fumbled around because of all the things I didn’t know.

(There’s still a ton of things I don’t know, BTW. Indie authorship still is and I suspect always will be a learning process. If I feel I’m not learning anything new, that’s the time to start worrying.)

So I decided to jot down various points I’ve discussed with other authors, established and aspiring, as a sort of living master post of advice to writers — and I’m going to stress now that these are all my thoughts and opinions and they should not be taken as gospel. In fact, I’ll make that my first point…

  • No one’s rules of writing are the be-all and end-all and should not be taken at face value. What works for one writer might not work for another, so figure out what does work and adopt it, and ignore any advice that doesn’t work for you.
  • You do NOT have to write EVERY DAY. Get that out of your head now. I know authors love to throw that one out — “You must write every single day! Even if you don’t feel like it!” — but it’s BS. Artists are not machines. Our creative energy ebbs and flows and it is not limitless. Sometimes what you need is to step away from your project, go do something else, and clear your head. It is okay to not write every single day.
  • That said, you do need to write. I know that seems like an absurdly obvious statement, but I’ve met so many aspiring writers (emphasis on aspiring) who spend more time building their social media presence (more on that later) or world-building or polishing their outlines than actually writing their book. I don’t know if they have a serious procrastination problem or a fear of failure or what, but they seem destined to always be in pre-writer mode and will never actually finish a project. Don’t be that person. Write your story.
  • Cover art featuring CG pseudo humans. My god, don’t. They are always, always terrible and cheap-looking. Note that I am not talking about digital art as a medium, I am talking specifically about anything that features a fakey, cheesy, PlayStation One-era video game cut scene-quality figure. I don’t want to pick on any one cover as an example, so instead I’ll send you over to Lousy Book Covers so you can bask in the awfulness of the site’s “pseudohuman” tag.
  • When you’re looking around at publishers and small presses in particular, remember the Neil Gaiman rule: money flows toward the author. If you’re asked to shell out money for anything — editing, formatting, cover art, printing, distribution — you’re either dealing with a shady publisher or a self-publishing platform masquerading as a publisher. When dealing with any entity calling itself a publisher, your sole responsibility as the author is to write the book, not finance its production.
  • On a related note: there is a predatory cottage industry that’s sprung up around indie authorship — everything from writing contests to pay-to-play fake awards to marketing and publicity services, all designed to capitalize on authors’ desperation to succeed. Be skeptical of anyone who asks you for money, and question the value of whatever they’re offering.
  • Sending press releases about your book to the media is the second biggest waste of your valuable marketing time. I say that as someone who worked in the media for 15 years. Large outlets don’t care about Joe Nobody releasing his self-published book because they have bigger fish to fry, and smaller outlets need to be convinced to care because a lot of people are competing for not a lot of space, so the outlet is going to be very particular about what they give free publicity to. Besides, even if you do get some ink, chances are you’re only going to reach a tiny fraction of your target audience. It’s just not the best ROI.
  • The biggest waste of your marketing time? Throwing up promotional posts on any Facebook page that claims to connect writers with readers. They don’t. They’re all just echo chambers, nothing but authors all shouting “Buy my book!” to other authors too busy also shouting “Buy my book!” to give a toss about what everyone else is pitching.
  • Speaking of social media, there is this (to my mind) baffling philosophy among new writers that before they release their first novel, they first have to create a massive online following so they have a fanbase ready to scoop up their book when it drops. If you’re an as-yet-unpublished author and you’re spending as much time on establishing an online presence as you are on finishing your first book, STOP DOING THAT and finish your damn book. One, publishers and agents considering your work are going to consider your work, not how many followers you have on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Two, if you’re going the indie author route, you can only string people along for so long. If your release date is weeks away, and is firm, and you have good stuff like excerpts and cover art to post to rev up interest, then go for it, but you can’t start talking yourself up months or even years in advance and expect everyone to stick around until you finally get off your ass and finish your book.
  • Part of this job is talking yourself up, but you can do that without sacrificing honesty or indulging in puffery and self-aggrandizement. Getting a positive review from one guy in Australia does not make you an “internationally renowned author.” Receiving a pay-to-play award from some nonentity does not make you an “award-winning writer.” Cracking the top twenty of some tiny, obscure subcategory on Amazon does not make you a “best-selling author.” You should be able to promote your work based on its merits rather than front-loading your pitches with artificial accolades.
  • Also? Avoid backdoor promos of your work. I belong to several online writer groups and some of them have a strict “no self-promotion” policy to keep the spam down, but there is always that one guy who starts every post with, “As the writer of the Such-and-Such Trilogy, I think…” There’s a time and place for self-promotion; the time is not all the time and the place is not everywhere.
  • Writing the middles of stories sucks. Beginnings and endings, when you’re setting all your pins up and then knocking them down, have an energy to them. Middles, when the ball is rolling down the alley, are boring. I always struggle during the second act, as do a lot of writers. If this is you, take heart — you are not alone.
  • Quality, not quantity. It’s true that indie authors need to be fairly prolific, and putting out a decent number of books in a relatively tight time frame can be very beneficial, but it’s not a contest to see how many books you can churn out. Stephen King, considered one of the most prolific writers of the modern age, has produced 59 novels — over the course of 44 years. That’s about 1.3 books released per year. And he has the luxury of being able to do nothing but write. Not everyone can be Terry Pratchett.
  • Do not ever dub yourself the King/Queen of (Insert Genre Here). Just don’t. It’s pretentious and presumptuous as hell, more so if you’re producing crap. Let someone else give you an impressive sounding title after you’ve earned it.
  • Test readers. Get some. Use them. Listen to them. Having test readers is not creating art by committee, as I’ve heard some claim. As the author, you quickly grow blind to your own story’s flaws and faults, and the best thing you can do is get fresh eyes and outside opinions on your work. That does not mean you have to implement every suggestion you receive — you are still the ultimate arbiter here — but test readers are your eventual reading audience in miniature; their issues with your book might well reflect issues others are going to have with it.

Have any tips or advice for writers? Post them in the comments section!

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