I’m no expert on the subject of writing. If I were, I’d be selling a lot more books. But I’ve been at this a long time, my stories have always been reasonably popular, and I suppose that makes me a reasonably reliable source. So here goes: 5 small pieces of advice for the newbie writers out there — the folks who are wondering how to whip their story into decent shape before they plunge their toes into the ice-cold water of indy publishing.
1) Write what you know. You may be dying to write about the life of a New York City detective, or an ER nurse, or a lumberjack, but if you’ve got no clue about the ins and outs of those professions, and you aren’t willing to thoroughly research them… don’t go there. Readers who are more savvy than you are will object. A lot. If you’re a student, write about student life, or small-town life, or young love, something you understand right down to your gut. If you’ve got a mundane job, write about that, or family relationships. Don’t just “make shit up.” Unless, of course, you’re writing Sci Fi. Then, by all means, make shit up.
2) Listen to people when they talk. Everywhere. At work, on the street, at the mall, on TV and radio. Pay careful attention to what they say and how they say it. Does your wife (or your mom) actually say to you, “I would like you to stop at the store and pick up several items”? Don’t be afraid of contractions. Develop a sweet love affair with contractions, and figures of speech. If you’re unsure whether your dialogue sounds genuine or fake, read it out loud. Seriously: READ IT OUT LOUD, at a pretty fast clip. Then ask yourself: do people talk this way?
3) “Just because” is not a good reason for something to happen. Your characters are human beings. Don’t force them to do things no normal person would do, just because it sounds good, or it fast-forwards the plot. Yes, in the BBW/Paranormal Romance genre, perfectly sensible women walk away from their lives, their jobs, their friends and family to live in the woods with a pack of werewolves, but if you’re writing non-PR fiction, your readers will be a lot happier if your characters display some common sense.
4) Don’t get fancy; just tell the story. You may adore The Road with every fiber of your being… but you’re a newbie, not Cormac McCarthy. Elaborate styles and fifty-cent words don’t make your story better, all on their own — unless you’re skilled at handling them, they’ll actually bury your story. Remember the acronym KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid? That’s your best bet. Don’t hit “publish” on something that’s going to prompt readers to ask… WTF?
5) If you can’t spell and punctuate properly, find help. I’ve read a number of times recently, “If the story is good enough, I’ll force myself to overlook the mistakes.” But why put a reader in that position? Particularly if you’re asking him or her to part with some hard-earned cash in order to read your story. Take pride in your work! Make it as perfect as you possibly can. You might not be the best writer in the world — but you can make sure that your housekeeping is done. Publishing a story that hasn’t been cleaned up says very clearly to the reader, “I didn’t care enough to make this look its best.” If you can’t afford an editor, offer to swap skills with somebody. Offer to beta-read their story. Offer to mow their lawn, or paint their front steps. Do whatever it takes to present the best possible product to your potential customers.
A final bonus tip:
DON’T GIVE UP. Don’t let anyone tell you, “You’re not a writer.” If you’ve got a story to tell, tell it. Then tell another one. And one more. As one of my writing mentors instructed me years ago: WRITE YOUR FACE OFF. With practice, you’ll get better.
I promise. 🙂