A previous article, How To Become a Full-Time Writer, inspired some (including myself) to stop procrastinating and begin publishing my stories through Amazon. However, there were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to write effectively if they didn’t care deeply for what they were writing.
So we asked around to see if other successful writers would like to offer their own advice and provide hope for those of us that would prefer to write what we know. Our very own Annie Grace wrote a great article about How To Become A Ghostwriter, and Storm Constantine replied to my email request with this little gem:
7 Tips for Aspiring Writers
I was asked for my thoughts on whether it’s possible to be successful as a writer while preserving your integrity. After all, the demands of the market can be extremely narrow and subject to fads. If you are fuelled – if not consumed – by the desire to write, is it essential to bow to these pressures and end up writing stories or novels you don’t even like, merely to maximise your chances of making a sale?
Personally, I don’t think so. To approach the art of writing with the desire to make a fast buck almost always dooms you to disappointment. Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: very few authors make their living entirely from writing. They generally have to support it through other sources of income. There are many extremely talented writers who never make it big, just as there are countless others of lesser talent who find enormous success. It’s hard to pinpoint the cause – is success merely down to being in the right place at the right time (or your book reaching the right editor at the right time), or tapping into a fleetingly popular vein? Knowing the right people? Untiring self-promotion in every possible medium? Pure blind luck? All of these are part of the picture.
However, I do believe that to attract readers, and more importantly keep them, you should look further than what money you might make. Your writing is your legacy to the world. Prize-winning books might reward their authors with large pay outs, but you can be sure those books are expertly written and have something meaningful to say. So here are 7 tips for the aspiring writer, who has words in their blood.
- Give your work heart. By this, I mean love your writing, craft it with care. If you love your work, then other people are more likely to love it too, because as they read they’ll sense this isn’t the shallow work of a passionless hack. The first novel you write should be the one you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. Don’t worry about its future sales, because such thoughts can cripple your creativity. Write the story for your own sake, see it as your initiation into the craft – your first child, if you like. Many writers feel their novels are a kind of offspring – which might account for why some authors take harsh criticism to heart so much!
- Read, read, read. I meet too many aspiring writers in workshops and classes who admit they don’t read much. This is a mistake on their part. You can learn so much from analysing other writers’ work. Determine what works for you and what doesn’t in a novel or short story. Look at your favourite writers and work out what it is about their story-telling you love. How do they do it? The same goes for writers you don’t like. Analyse why a piece of writing seems bad to you. All of this helps with refining your own work, as well as understanding how deft handling of language gives power and meaning to a story.
- Leading on to… Become a master of the tools of your trade. Your tools are language, and the rules that preside over its written form. For most people, it’s unlikely they were taught the intricacies of grammar, syntax and punctuation during their schooling. (I’ve held classes for university students in creative writing, and many have had little grasp of these important aids.) Getting to grips with your most powerful tools doesn’t have be a mind-numbing bore. Discovering how they sharpen your writing and clarify its meaning is fascinating, and there are dozens of entertaining self-help books and websites to learn from. You don’t always have to stick to the rules in creative writing, but you shouldn’t break them until you know them. Good grammar and syntax enable people to read your stories as you mean them to be read. You govern the pace of the narrative, place careful emphasis, create affecting drama. The last thing any writer wants is for their readers to be jerked out of a story because they don’t get the meaning of a sentence and have to reread it – perhaps more than once. At that point, the virtual reality of the story is broken, and the reader is reminded they’re reading – not living that story, as they should be.
- You should certainly write about what you know – because anachronisms and inaccuracies in sloppy writing can again break the virtual reality of a story and make your writing look amateur. Therefore, if you want to write outside of your store of knowledge – research. Even if it’s only a short story, make sure there’s nothing in it that’s simply wrong. Historical pieces are the hardest to craft because of this. I once started to read a novel set in Victorian times, where the characters behaved and lived like modern people, complete with current slang. This was more than jarring – it made me abandon the book. If you choose to write about – for example – a book restorer (which I once did in a short story), you can be sure that there’ll be readers out there who are book restorers and will spot any inaccuracies in the description of their craft. For my story, I researched carefully how old books are restored, and how they are handled, as well as the history of book-making itself. These were only minor details in the story, perhaps, but gave it that all important authenticity – which many readers can simply sense while reading. Note that this rule also applies to fantasy and science fiction. You can make things up, yes, but there will always be parts that need thorough research to make your created world believable.
- Get your work edited. In my opinion, no writer can get away with not being edited at all. We’re so close to our work, that when we read through it multiple times, we can miss typos and also plot holes and other mistakes, such as sloppy grammar and syntax. I’m a professional editor as well as a writer, but I always get at least two trusted and capable readers to go through my work before it’s published. It’s also useful to read your work aloud – whether to yourself or a willing volunteer – as this helps you spot inaccuracies, missing words, and sentences that sound wrong or awkward. Some writers are prepared to hire professional editors (and there are a lot out there) to care for their work. Others might not be able to afford the expense. But if your work is edited to a professional standard, the people who buy your book are more likely to buy your next one, rather than produce acid reviews about how weak the writing and editing were.
- Make your characters realistic. So often, I see writers making their characters go through unlikely contortions, simply for the convenience of the plot. When editing such work, I ask myself, ‘would anyone really behave this way, talk like that, do such a thing?’ Often the answer is no and I have to tell the writer they need to think harder to get their characters to where they want them to be in the plot. Similarly, avoid clichés such as people dropping whatever they’re holding when shocked. Have you ever seen anyone do this? Also, when you have a character who is frightened or threatened, their first instinct doesn’t have to be to scream. They might go utterly quiet in their terror. Everyone is different, so endow your characters with quirks, preferences and habits personal to them. Think creatively and give your characters life.
- Finally, no matter how hard you work at your craft, not everyone will like your stories and novels. Don’t worry about that. Remember that a book you love might not work for the best friend you lent it to, even though you were sure they’d love it too. Readers have preferences and you can’t please all of them. If you stick at your writing, either through trying to sell it to a publisher or by going it alone, using the internet to promote and sell your work, you’ll find your audience. Never underestimate them or try to cheat them. If you have integrity and passion for your work, a desire always to improve, and a strong story-telling voice, those readers will keep with you and eagerly await your next release.
Recommended books and sites:
The Way to Write by John Fairfax and John Moat. This is out of print but available second hand on Amazon and online second-hand bookstores. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read on the writer’s craft and I still refer to it for my creative writing classes.
The Transitive Vampire by Karen Gordon. Whimsical and witty, with vintage illustrations, this makes learning grammar and syntax a pleasure. (There are companion books, The Well-Tempered Sentence, on punctuation and The Dishevelled Dictionary, a compendium of strange and unusual words.)
English Grammar Online https://www.ego4u.com/en/cram-up/grammar All you will ever need to know about how to use language effectively. Includes tests and quizzes so you can find out how much you know – or don’t!
So there you have it! Do you have 7 tips of your own? Let us know in the comments! 🙂