What You Should Know to Get Started Writing Fiction
After over 6 months on this Great Fiction Writing Challenge, the acid-testing has resulted in some data being proved solid, and others have dropped by the wayside.
All I want to talk about here is just writing. Marketing is a completely different animal, and has far too many cooks to make any decent broth from just one recipe.
The core data any beginning fiction author needs to know are these:
1. What you are getting out of writing. If you don’t thoroughly enjoy yourself at this, then take up assembling college textbooks. Something that is a job you can get some satisfaction at. Entry-level warehouse work. Assembly line job. You get some satisfaction from writing and you need to know what that is and what it feels like. Even if it’s just to get that one book in you written and published. That feels like something and you need to know what it is.
2. The Western model for fiction stories. This is mainly best discussed in the Lester Dent and Algis Budrys write-ups. Popular western stories always end with the hero/ine winning. There is a hook, increasing tension until the last moment and somehow the problem is solved. While you can go into circles with Heroes Journey, Seven Point System, and Story Circle, etc. versions. They all are saying the same thing. Protagonist-problem-setting. Starts out in trouble, which gets worse and worse, until it gets solved.
3. The three physical plot structures: Mystery, Romance, Action. The Action structure is in that Dent/Budrys discussion. Mystery ( we’re talking mostly the detective version, rather than riddles – see Carolyn Wells’ book) has a crime at the beginning with an unknown culprit. This has to be solved before the end, with a stack of clues the reader can follow and guess at (including at least one false trail/red herring) with the apprehension of the culprit at the end. Romance is two people meeting, being forced apart, solving their problems, and getting back together with a Happily-Ever-After. Most of the best stories have all three plots going simultaneously, although one is the main story and the others are sub-plots.
4. What your audience expects. Forget that word “tropes.” It’s become similar to the word “good.” Good is so diluted, that other words like better, and best (as well as worse and worst) had to be invented. Genres were developed so people could simply find the types of stories they liked. Amazon keeps adding sub-categories based on being able to sell particular types of books to particular readers. You have to focus first and always on reader experience. You have to like what you write and like re-reading it. If not, make the next book better from what you didn’t like about this one. After you’ve been writing for a while, particular short stories, you’ll find the genres that you most like to write in. At that point, you double down and find even more about what people are expecting when they buy a book in that genre. Don’t try to make anyone happy except that single reader you write every book for.
5. Ignore plotting advice. Read everything you can about how plotting is done and all the various ways to plot anything – and then forget it. Writers read a lot, and this includes watching TV shows and movies. Particularly the ones that are successful for 10 seasons or more. These will tell you more about how stories are built so it’s absorbed into your very being (your subconscious/unconscious.) Plotters are just pantsers-in-training. The highest producing writers just transcribe the story coming out of their head, like writing the movie in front of them. Read what you love, and love what you write – and your readers will, too. Only “write to market” if you love reading books (and movies) in that market personally.
6. Get past your own “90% crud” self-criticism. Sturgeon’s law is very similar to the Pareto Principle. It says that 90% of everything out there is crud. This goes for all the books written today in any genre, and all that ever have been written, all the books about writing, all the books you’ve written or will write. But you have to write and publish 100% of all the books in order to get to those 10% masterpieces. Just concentrate on making every book better than the last.
7. How to find and when to quit mentors. These are books and courses. The best books are by authors who have made a living from writing fiction, and also wrote a book on how they did it. Stephen King, Dorothea Brande, Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, Dean Koontz, Rad Bradbury are a few names who have. The books by people who make a living from teaching writing contain the same basic data, but are thick to get through. You can pick these up and read them for awhile, but you have to know that you can quit them when you quit learning. Same applies to courses. DW Smith and Geoff Shaw both have good courses on laying out how to get started. But they only go so far. When you stop learning something you don’t already know, you’re done. There are a lot of good courses (and tons more bad ones) on how to market books. Again – what is their track record? Any number of “bestsellers” on Amazon is meaningless. Same thing with hitting any book list. Anyone can buy these things now. Awards are also silly – they depend on editor-focus groups. What counts is books sold in volume. Routinely making 6-figures from their own writing and publishing books is more respect-worthy. Especially if they’ve been doing it for decades. Those are the guys who you should be picking their brains to see how they did it. Once you quit learning anything new/valuable, then you’re done. Move on.
8. Keep going for the long haul. Most of the “big names” didn’t hit it until after their fifth full-sized novel. Many started out by writing 50 stort stories. And then kept going. Figure that you are going to be at this decades. And making each story better than the last one. Same with your marketing. Forget getting discovered until you’ve spent some years at this, and have a massive backlist. Concentrate on building and publishing a great pile of works, and doing your marketing as you can (like when you are too tired to write any more that day.) Look up these authors who are making 5- and 6- figures. They took several years to build up a backlist before they were able to quit their day job because their sales took off.
9. Ignore “social media.” Ignore Amazon-centric publishing. Both are simply distractions. Concentrate on writing really, really great books. Anything that doesn’t either help you write a story that your working on right now, or provides inspiration that you appreciate – throw it overboard and let it sink. You aren’t writing for anyone but your ideal reader – that one person (who is actually your alter-ego.) Write the best you can for that person. Publish that best-you-can story everywhere possible. In your spare time, come back and polish up the Amazon version to get a few more sales out of it. While you’re at it, ignore the advice about getting in front of media for interviews, doing book signings, or chasing people to give you reviews. All wastes of time. Concentrate on building a huge backlist of really well-written books that you personally love to re-read (if you could ever find the time.) Your audience will find you if you simply publish all your books everywhere you can.
10. Include “free” book outlets as well as paid. This starts after you get the book accepted and published on Amazon, as they can be real (expletive-deleted) sticklers. Write and publish your book wide (like using an aggregator such as Draft2Digital, Smashwords, or PublishDrive, even Streetlib.) Then publish your print version, then publish to Medium and Wattpad. Those last two are audience-builders. Just make sure you also include links inside those where they can buy your books (like your books2read link.)
11. How to build a list. Best is from the back of your sold books – that opt-in link. The free book giveaways gets you people looking for more free books. Again, like freelance editors and Facebook, people who are pushing you to buy something as a marketing solution have their own self-interest at heart first. (Free/ad-driven social media means you are the product.) People (like aggregators) who want to share in your success, like taking 10% of your profits are a bit better – providing they actually are providing a valuable service. Paying for ads needs to have positive return on investment. Paying to give your books away needs to result in acquiring subscribers that will actually buy your books. Giving your books away and only getting those who opt-in from the ad at the back of the book will give you real fans. A hard road, but honest.
12. Write in series, write in serials. Pretty obvious. All about building reader expectations. People want to know what is going to happen next and what happened before. This is how building an audience on Medium and Wattpad works – as well as the reason for publishing everywhere. Once you hook readers on your style and approach to their favorite genre, then they’ll want more. This and the tip below (writing short stories) can be combined. You can write a big story arc, but write it like you eat an elephant – one bite at a time. Each chapter (like Dickens) has to end nicely, but have a cliff-hanger. TV series (especially “Star Gate”, “Heroes”, “Farscape”, BBC’s “Sherlock”, the various “Star Trek” franchises, and especially “Quantum Leap”) had you looking forward to the next installment. Like Harry Potter series, Divergent series, and others in books and movies. Even procedurals can be like this, as long as their characters actually evolve.
13. Another tip is to write short and publish long. Master the elements of stories through your short stories first. (Anything longer than 2500 words can be published on Amazon, otherwise, marry that one with other very-short stories or flash fiction and then publish when they collectively are more than 2500 words.) Mastering the short story will enable you to write scenes and chapters. The average chapter is about 2000 words long – go figure. As you get several short stories, then publish an anthology.
14. Bonus: My best approach yet to writing – after you get an inspired idea: a) Get Calibre (free download for any computer OS) to keep yourself organized. b) Start a blank book in Calibre with title, author, text file. c) Create the cover so you can keep it in front of you as you write. d) Write the marketing hook and put it in the description. Again, Calibre can keep this in front of you with that cover. e) Open the text file in a simple text-only editor and copy/paste that marketing hook into it. f) Start your first chapter and write the story hook. g) Then keep going until the story writes itself out. I just wrote and published a 7K word story in one day (yesterday) from start to finish with only this method. Not the first time. (But not something I choose to do every day.) My average is somewhere north of 8K per book, which then also gives me a paperback to publish (and only takes a few minutes more.) But that speed is after 6 months of writing and publishing a little under 2 short stories each week. So figure everything gets more efficient and faster over time…
Just had to get this to you and out of my system and update my earlier advice. The underlying secret is to not take yourself or anyone else seriously. Just have fun. All the time. At everything you do.
Also published on Medium.