Starting a career in writing is a great idea, but also a deceptively difficult one to execute. Given today’s free tools, anyone can write and, more importantly, anyone can publish. This creates a fierce competition between writers and limits the possibilities of success for all but the very best. Thus, I wish to share my thoughts on the first steps each writer takes and hopefully spare you a few days, weeks or maybe even months of frustration. The following advice is aimed to help the very beginners. If you are a seasoned wordsmith you will probably find it trivial, but who knows… maybe you should read it just in case.
So, you’ve just decided to become a professional writer and a published author. Here are some DO’s and DON’T’s you might wish to consider:
GOOD IDEA: WRITE REGULARLY
Writing a few hundred words is easy on a good day. You’ve just had a brilliant idea, thought up a great character or just feel like writing and the words fall into place all by themselves. It is on those days you don’t feel like writing that pushing yourself to strike the keyboard is most important. Keep a log of your progress and pay attention to stay over the 500 words per day target. To become a decent writer you need to write about 500 000 words and twice as much to become a master of the craft.
BAD IDEA: WRITE POINTLESSLY
Writing more words into your story just to meet your daily target makes your prose bloated and unreadable. If you’re stuck, write something else. Ask your friends or family for random words and turn them into a short story, a single scene, a joke or a poem. After a few such exercises, you’ll find you have many more original ideas on your own. Even if you don’t use this short scenes directly, they might trigger your creativity later in your career.
GOOD IDEA: MULTITASKING
Write down all your ideas for stories, scenes, jokes, poem, etc. If you’re stuck with one, develop another. In time, some of your ideas will naturally merge to create new, better stories, novels or possibly even a series. Working on several pieces simultaneously will keep you writing and, what’s important, you will never get bored or frustrated with your work.
BAD IDEA: NEVER FINISH ANYTHING
As obvious as it sounds, it is a pitfall of multitasking many writers stumble upon. Make a schedule keeping you in touch with your expectations of career progress. Thus, anytime you see a publishing deadline approaching, you can focus your work on the story that is closest to completion. In my opinion, one book (c.a. 100 000 words) per year is most appropriate for the first two years. If it is a novel divide it into chapters and work on 25 000 words’ chunks bimonthly. If it is a collection of stories, plan your work accordingly. Remember that you need at least two weeks of editing for every six weeks of writing.
GOOD IDEA: START WITH SHORT STORIES
Short stories are great for beginners and deceptively it is not because they are easy to write. They are actually much more difficult than a novel. A novel is like a long-term relation: there better and worse times, but generally you can make up for your mistake unless you go way over the line. A short story is like speed dating: you need to dazzle your reader and if you make a mistake there’s no time to make amends. However, short stories have a few advantages: if you write a bad short story you will have wasted a month, not a whole year, you can edit a short story in one evening and you can keep doing it until the story is good, a short story forces you to lock your thoughts in concise sentences and to apply logic and reason to your storyline. Overall, it is a great exercise to write one short story per quarter.
BAD IDEA: STAY WITH SHORT STORIES
One short story per quarter leaves you with two months of “free” time. Apply at least one of them to work on a bigger project. A novel needs planning and is a much greater challenge than a short story, but you should start writing one anyway. It is easier to sell a novel and before you start editing it, you will have become a decent writer anyway. Becoming an author is a marathon, not a sprint, but to complete it. you need to start running and keep at it until the finish.
GOOD IDEA: CUT UNNECESSARY WORDS, PHRASES OR SCENES FROM YOUR WORK
Unless you have a natural knack for concise writing, you need to review your work and eliminate redundant words (like “natural” in this sentence). Simple, straightforward prose will get you more readers and simultaneously teach you to formulate your thoughts in a logical manner.
BAD IDEA: DELETE ANY OF YOUR WORK
Every word you write is sacred. If it turns out you have to cut out a scene from your story, save it in a side file. You never know when it will come handy. It might trigger a new idea in your head or fit right into a different setting. In a worst-case scenario, it will serve as a milestone marking your progress.
GOOD IDEA: LEARN FROM THE GREATS
Until you have become a revered writer remember to work on your craft. Read a lot and read diversely. Don’t confine yourself to one genre and step out of your comfort zone. If you like romances – read an action adventure (a great one here). On the other hand, if you like action adventure read a social drama. Mix the classics with contemporaries and don’t hesitate to reach for foreign writers. Apart from the above, read a lot about writing, storytelling and character creation.
BAD IDEA: MIMIC STYLES AND COPY IDEAS
Vampires, elves, dwarves and werewolves crowd fantasy. Morally torn androids and teen insurgents fill the sci-fi pages and shabby, drunk detectives solve crimes in crime stories. Step away from the cliches and create your own characters. Find your own voice. Don’t try to write like Hemingway, Palahniuk or Bukowski, they have already been published, read and revered. It’s your turn now.
GOOD IDEA: KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS
Not every scene is easy to write. Some writers are better with storytelling and some are better in writing dialogues. Some like to set their stories in the past and others prefer the future. Identify your strengths. For example, I am much more comfortable with telling the story from a third person perspective and setting it in the past than with a first person perspective in a present tense. Exploit your strengths to a maximum. Exploit them. Thus, you can concentrate on the story and not think about the form.
BAD IDEA: DON’T WORK ON YOUR WEAKNESSES
Your writing will be better if you become proficient in many different styles of telling the same story. Ask your beta-readers what are your weaknesses and work to eliminate them. If your dialogues are awkward – practice writing dialogues about any subject possible. If you lack creativity – think about the stories of a few objects within your sight. Imagine how would they end up in your room had they belonged to someone famous. Move out of your comfort zone and write outside your preferred genre and never stop working on your craft.
GOOD IDEA: EXPAND YOUR READERS’ CIRCLE
Unless you write just for the sake of writing, sooner or later you will want someone to read your story. It is not easy to make people want to read your story because there are countless free stories available, many more than can be ever read (more details on this phenomenon here). Hence, you need to find people who might be interested in your work and shout out to them. Use social media (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.) to promote your work and a blog to convince your audience you can write 🙂
BAD IDEA: LOSE YOURSELF TO SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media are addictive. With a constant torrent of great content, they can take over your life and incapacitate you writing-wise. If you ever find yourself giving up more than an hour of your precious time daily – alarm bells should go off in your head. Social media are great, but your stories are infinitely more important. Remember: you can quite easily sell an insightful, well-written story without any prior engagement in social media, but you will never sell a bad one even if your social media accounts are bulging with followers.
GOOD IDEA: WRITE GENRE-SPECIFIC STORIES
While you might think writing a historical romance crossed with sci-fi time-travel adventure and a side crime plot is a ground-breaking idea, I must warn you your readers would prefer a clear genre setting for your story. Don’t get me wrong: a good book is always a good book (a bad one is always bad for that matter) but a clear statement “this is (a romance, a crime story, a thriller, etc.)” will tell your readers what to expect, allowing you to focus your marketing efforts on a specific group of customers.
BAD IDEA: LIMIT YOURSELF TO A SINGLE GENRE
Mixing all the genres in one story is difficult and should be tried only if you either feel there is no other way to tell the story or you feel genuinely sure you can pull it off (which is the same in so many ways…). Unfortunately, if you limit yourself to only one genre, soon your writing will become one dimensional and flat with no ability to show a scene in a different perspective or resolve conflicts in any other way than the routine one.
GOOD IDEA: KEEP YOUR DAY JOB
While it is beyond doubt your books will be bestsellers someday, this may come later than you expect. Keep in mind a realistic estimation of your future revenues and keep your day job in the meantime. Making money off your writing starts well into the second year of work and becomes a significant source of income about a year later. It is safe to assume you will be able to live off your writing no sooner than after publishing your second full-length book and possibly not even until the fifth one.
BAD IDEA: STAY AT YOUR DAY JOB
Having a job is crucial for your writing career, after all, it would be difficult to write while you’re starving. On the other hand, a job closer to your passion for writing will benefit you in more ways than just the financial one. Try moving towards working with words: editing, copywriting, teaching literature, working in a library, etc. Each day will make you a better writer twice.
I hope all the advice above will help you in your quest to become a respected writer. Remember to follow your passion and good luck 🙂