Thursday, March 4, 2010

How to Write a Novel 11: Epilogue, On Being a Writer

Quote: “You are probably not the person you have told yourself you are, but much, much more.”
~Michael Chase Walker

Song: 100 Years by Five for Fighting

Today I received three (THREE!) of the books I ordered in the mail! I am ecstatic! Can you tell by all of the exclamation points I am using?! Yes, I would think so!

I can’t wait to read them, but now I have the inevitable time crunch. How much time to spend reading, how much writing, how much editing?

Our journey is almost at an end. This last post is about aspects of being a writer that doesn’t quite go into the technical details of writing, but still important nonetheless.

Most of writers dream of publication, to have that final validation that our writing is good. That other people want to read something we wrote. This to me is the best reason to seek publication: a desire to share. If you want to make millions as a writer, think again. There are plenty of published authors who still don’t make enough to write full time. If they do make enough, it’s usually enough to pay the bills with a little left over, but they are hardly millionaires.

Consider this. You spent how long writing your book? A year at least, right? Maybe two? So even if you get an amazing advance, that money is technically your income for those two years and countless hours you spent on your book. You won’t start collecting royalties until you sell enough to pay back your advance. Once that happens, you start to make royalties, which can be anywhere between a dollar to two dollar per book sold after all of the other fees come out.

In addition to this, just because you sold your first book, doesn’t mean your second book will sell, especially depending how well your first book is doing. So even if you get a great advance on your first book, you might not want to quit the Day Job. This of course is a personal decision, and different for each writer’s financial situation, but what I am saying is it’s not a given you’ll be able to quit your Day Job the second you sell your first book. Or even your third book.

You had a paying job during that year or two you wrote your novel. Consider the advance you receive as payment for those two years worth of work. But you need money to live NOW.

Plus, I wouldn’t want that kind of pressure to produce. The “I need to write and edit this book quick so I can sell it, so I can eat” pressure. No thanks. Most writes are advised to quit their day job only when they are making enough in royalties to pay the bills every month. That could take a long time (this is of course not considering those books with a HUGE advance, or people who share the bills with another person, and can afford to not work for a year or two, in order to try and produce another book).

So writing to become a millionaire isn’t the best of plans. Try the lottery; there’s less effort involved.

Money aside, you still have other concerns as a writer.

1. Exercise

Yes, it’s a dirty word, I know. I still recommend exercise to published and unpublished authors alike. Writing is sedentary. Sitting in a chair all day will make you feel tight and sore. I know, I work on people with desk jobs all the time. If you take a little time out of your day to stretch, or run, or walk, or go to the gym or do SOMETHING to keep your muscles in shape, you will feel better. And a healthy writer is a happy writer!

If time is a problem, there’s nothing stopping you from standing up out of your seat for five minutes while you’re thinking about the plot to do some light stretching. Every little bit helps.

2. Reading

Most writers are aware you have to read in order to write well. I agree with this statement. There is a large debate as to reading well within your genre or not. The idea is to not over stimulate yourself on everyone else’s ideas, but to also be versed in the clichés of your particular genre. How can you expect to sell a detective novel if you have never read one yourself? It’s your personal choice how “well read” you think you should be in your genre, but I would suggest writing what you enjoy reading. It’s what you’ll have the best feel for anyway.

No matter how well read you are in your genre, I think you should also read outside of your genre as well. I went through an urban fantasy phase for years. I read almost nothing but urban fantasy. Now I am sick of it; it’s still my favorite genre to read in, but I find myself wanting more from many of the newer urban fantasy novels.

I love writing urban fantasy. I love writing about normal people doing normal people things, with a splash of abnormal. Even when I don’t mean to write urban fantasy an elf or vampire or something creeps its way into the idea. It’s just how I roll.

There are still some authors in the genre that I love, but lately it feels like all of the new books coming out are more of the same. It’s not enough just to have a spunky main character who is a detective or hunter or some such job that allows them to solve crime and see paranormal creatures. It’s not enough to give a basic idea on how the supernatural baddies work within this author’s particular world. When Jim Butcher starting writing the Dresden Files there was only one other author writing books like his: Laurel K Hamilton with her Anita Blake series (I am not implying they started the genre, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King were writing urban fantasy long before it became popular, just that there wasn’t a lot of book like theirs “back in the day”). Urban fantasy was barely a subgenre back then. Nowadays, there are tons of urban fantasy series, and some of them are very good, but I feel like some of the authors missed the point. It’s not a formula, it’s taking what’s interesting to you and running with it.

This applies to all genres. There are your clichés, your tropes, your formulas. You have your wildly successful books within a genre, and then other people trying to figure out what made that book so successful.

Harry Potter is a beautiful example. The Chosen One fighting the Big Bad Guy and attending a Magical School is hardly an “original” idea, but J. K. Rowling took elements that interested her and create her own new world. It’s not enough to just put a new spin on something already done. It’s not enough to do “Twilight with Mummies” or “Lord of the Rings, only MY idea of Lord of the Rings” or “The Da Vinci Code only in Alaska”. These authors created their own world, that was all their own. That’s how they escaped being cliché. A cliché is a pale imitation of the real article. You don’t want a Ralph Lauren Knock Off company, you want to start your own brand new clothing line. Sure, it’s still clothing, but it’s YOUR line. Your brand.

I think the best way to develop your own world is to read anything that strikes your fancy. Stay fresh. Don’t get so bogged down in your own genre that you can’t try something new. This year alone I have read at least one novel in: horror, science fiction, non fiction, woman’s fiction, literary fiction, urban fantasy, romance, and whatever category you want to classify Chuck Palahniuk as.

Reading outside your genre doesn’t mean you suddenly have to write in that genre, but it will spark ideas. It will show you new ways of writing things. Reading a romance novel could help you write the character’s relationship with his wife better, horror could help you with suspense, science fiction could spark some ideas for technology. You never know where ideas will come from, and it’s my opinion the more variety you have in your life the more experiences you will have to draw from in your writing.

Read a lot. Read books you think you won’t like. Reread books that you love, and try to figure out how the author made you love the book. Do the same for books you hate. Go through the book and figure out what went wrong. You will learn as much from a book you hated as you will from a book you love.

3. A hobby

A non-writing related hobby. Something to take your mind off writing. Gardening, cooking, carpentry, martial arts, music lessons, underwater basket weaving (it’s all the rage right now (not really)). Something. I know right now most of us are writing on the side of school or a job, so writing IS our hobby, but it’s something to keep in mind for the future if your time doesn’t allow it. When (notice I said when and not if) you become a full time writer you aren’t going to want to write all day everyday. Consider taking up a hobby. You never know when something will spark an idea along the way. You could call it research. ;)

4. Keep a Schedule

I know it’s not always possible, but try to keep a set schedule as much as possible. Goal setting helps, but make sure you’re realistic about your goals. If you know you don’t have time to write a thousand words a day, then don’t kid yourself into thinking you can. Set realistic goals, and stay to the same schedule as much as possible. Writing is an act of courage, and love, and creativity, but it’s also a job. You have to put your butt in the chair on a regular basis if you want to write a book. There’s no other way around it. The book isn’t going to write itself, nor will it edit itself (drat!).

Some people only write when they feel inspired. That’s okay, it’s what works for them, and I would be presumptuous to tell them otherwise. But I personally think that waiting on the magical fairy dust of inspiration to descend upon your shoulders is not the most productive way to write a book. If you write at the same time, every day, sooner or later you will induce your own creativity, and the inspiration will flow.

5. Other stuff

Avoid people who bring you down, who never have anything nice to say.

Avoid comparing yourself to others, they aren’t you, and you aren’t them.

Allow yourself to be yourself. Stop trying to be other people, because you can only be yourself.

I feel like I should be quoting the sunscreen song at this point…dance when no one is watching…live like you were dying…I hope you never lose your sense of wonder…

You get my point.

But above all, call yourself a writer. You don’t need to be published, or agented, or MFA’ed to be a writer. With one word, with ambition, you are a writer. Stay it out loud. You are a writer when you say you are.

What do you guys think? Did I miss something? Any other items you’d like to add?


  1. Just this: print out your Real Writer Certificate.


  2. Oh I love the sunscreen song! :~)

    That's really good advice all round, I don't do nearly enough excercise. And thanks for the "when" and not "if" we become a full time writer! Good stuff.

    *grins* I'm printing off that certificate now. I don't know why but it's incredibly satisfying...

  3. As usual, you rock Lena!

    Yes, it IS very satisfying to print it off...