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New Writers: Getting Started

So…you’ve finally taken the plunge. After thinking about it, jotting things down here and there on scraps of paper, in notebooks, and on a few word documents, you’ve decided that you want to try your hand at writing a book, perhaps two, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

What now?

Well, firstly, congratulations. Going from thinking about writing a book, to trying to write a book, is a big step. A scary step. Surely it can’t be as easy as sitting down at your computer with an open document and putting your fingers to the keyboard. There’s a plethora of information out there in how-to books and on the web. Tons of advice. Shouldn’t research be involved? What’s the best way to approach this?

It’s very likely that you’ve got questions. Okay, lots of questions. Well, friend, I’m here to use my experience helping you answer them. I’m by no means a SME, but with five independently published novels, another that I’m working to traditionally publish, and tons of research under my belt, I’m a lot further than I was when I first decided to take the plunge back in 2012.

1) Writing a good story

It’s likely you have some ideas bouncing around. You know you want to write about dragons. You might even have a few carefully crafted characters in mind. Maybe you’ve considered your setting, or not. Maybe you only have a couple of threads and the rest requires more thought.

This is the part where you sit down at your computer, open a word doc, and start typing…right? You’ve probably heard the advice that says “Just start writing,” so isn’t that what you should do?

No. Wrong. Don’t fall into that pit. At least, not yet.

The first thing you should do is understand how to craft a good story. There’s a science to writing stories. Every great story in history follows what’s called a “Hero’s Journey,” and there are a number of varying theories on how this journey should be constructed. There’s no single authority on the Hero's Journey. But you should at the least understand what it means to write a good story. As much as we all wish we were Stephen King, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Don't wing it.

What is the hero’s journey? Why is it important? Why shouldn’t you just straight “panster” your manuscript and get to writing? Well, you can. But you’re going to regret it later. Trust me. Been there. Done that. After spending years rewriting a 180,000 word manuscript TWICE, I wish I’d done it right the first time.

I have a favorite book resource on this. It really opened my eyes and taught me what it means to craft good stories, how to structure them, plot twists, pinch points, inciting incidents, etc. are. Here is a resources to get you started. Make sure you do some of your own research too.

You can read my blog HERE on “Story Core” and the science of storytelling, which is really just a summary of a great book I read that taught me a lot. It’s called Taking Off Your Pants (TYOP) and it remains a frequently used reference guide by me.

There’s also an AMAZING YouTube-er named Abby who has tons of videos out on the science of story telling. She gives some book recs too. Her methods are slightly different than the ones I use. But I love watching her videos while I eat lunch. Her energy is on point. And she's really motivating. You can find her channel HERE.

And while you’re at it, if you’re someone who really wants to dive in deep, I’ve got a great list of books for writers that help you hone your craft HERE. However, I do NOT, I repeat, I do NOT think you should read all of these before getting started. Otherwise you’ll procrastinate your life away and never take that plunge. To get started, I believe you really only need TYOP. And it’s a short, inexpensive book.

2) Where should I write?

Definitely not a notebook. Please…no. I get it. Some people love pen and ink. And if that’s you, sorry my friend, but unless you’re a full-time writer who has ages to write your story in one form, try to stay organized, and then rewrite it on another form, I’d recommend ditching the notebook. Sure, keep one around for ideas, if you must. *sigh*

I started out on MS word. I made a folder, and within that folder there were more folders, and more folders, and it got annoying. But that’s what I had. “Manuscript” “Map” “Ideas” and so on, and so forth. And every time I wanted something, I had to dig through my folders to find it. And it was annoying. But it was the best I had. I did each chapter as a single word document, but only after trying to write the entire manuscript in the same document and finding that after 40,000 words I had to sift through with a fine-tooth-comb just to make edits to previous chapters. That was HELL. So I split chapters per document. Then it was a matter of opening a single one.

And then…

I discovered Scrivner. It took me nearly FIVE years to discover this life-changing software. What if all my ideas, research, maps, invented languages, chapters, manuscript, etc were all organized in a SINGLE notebook with individual navigation bars? What if I could have two things open side by side? What if I have everything in one place, with links to other documents, all searchable in a single binder?

Hello Scrivner. My pretty.

(there's no actual link to this software online. You can find it in app stores and such)

This software is worth its weight in gold. There are others out there, similar (and you'll find plenty of blogs and videos explaining what it is and how it works).

I went with Scrivner for four reasons:

1) I have a desktop mac version and an iPad version. Together it was about $70 total. Whaaat? I wrote it off for my author business don’t judge.

2) Scrivner links to Dropbox. So I can be on the go with my iPad pro and access my manuscript at any time. If I’m home, it backs up to both drop box and my desktop simultaneously so I never have to worry about losing my work. There’ve been a few scares and a few sighs of relief when I find the automatic backup files.

3) It’s the best software out there imo.

4) You can compile your manuscript directly to a document for vellum. Vellum is a formatter for publishing books that’s way more awesome than InDesign. Don’t worry, you’re not there yet. Not by a long shot. Give it a few years, my friend. And some patience. Besides, Vellum is $300 and I don’t think you’re ready to fork that kind of money over yet.

3) Actually writing

Actually writing is a beast in-and-of-itself. You understand what’s required for a good story. You’ve taken time to throw some ideas together. Maybe you’re not exactly a planner, but as a panster, you now understand what you need to make a conventional story that has compelling characters. You’re ready to...well...write.

So…let’s write!

Everyone is different. Some people like to write to silence, others like epic movie music for inspiration. I prefer music. I put together a blog HERE on writing music. I also put together a blog on tropes. Make sure you include some of those in your story. Don’t know what they are? You can read my blog HERE.

Wait, I’m looking at a blank page! Help!

What will your first words be? What will your first page be? Where should you start? Yikes! Well, if you’ve read TYOP you have an idea on where and how you should start. But how about some deeper research. I wrote a blog HERE on book openers. Remember, you want to hook your audience, so why not see what other books are doing and emulate those techniques?

What about the writing techniques? What if you’re not great at grammar and writing rules? Don’t worry, I was awful. I didn’t know what should be capitalized (is “king” capitalized??) I was a hopeless wreck. Google was helpful—a life saver, actually. I looked up things from “Difference between ‘alright’ and ‘all right’” to “her’s or hers” and believe me, I’m a grammar fiend now. Just kidding. I’m still learning new tricks. And horrible at spelling. Even six years later.

There’s a great book on grammar. It’s a pocketbook. Buy a copy and keep it with you. Read it cover to cover and then reference it. It’s listed in my blog on books for writers. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Learn the rules so you can break them. I hated this book in college. Now I adore it.

If you want some basic rule-of-tumb tips, I also wrote a blog with six tips on how to be a better writer. You can read it HERE.

And if you’re paranoid about the quality of writing, I wrote a blog on words to delete immediately from your manuscript. You can read it HERE. Just leaving these words out will automatically make you a better writer. Let me tell you, I didn’t realize these words were bogging down my work for years! I wish I’d had someone to tell me earlier.

4) You’ve written something!

Congrats, my friend! Now what? You have a working manuscript. Maybe it’s complete or partially complete. Do you just keep writing until it’s done? Do you seek feedback before you get too far along? Do you share it with your friends? Family? Strangers?

Surely writing in a vacuum isn’t the best practice?

Well, there are a few arguments for and against sharing your work after or during the process. I don’t think there’s a correct answer; it boils down to what you’re comfortable with. Stephen King says in his book “On Writing” that he waits until a manuscript draft is finished before sharing his first draft with his “ideal reader” who happens to be his wife. Aww, romantic! Then he sets it down for a couple months before going back to edit it.

Personally, I shared all my work chapter by chapter on Wattpad (in the beginning). It was a great place to get feedback from hundreds of readers. However, it can be easy to fall into the people-pleaser pit. You don’t want too many opinions shaping your work and making it NOT yours. So, for that, you need to be good at taking the suggestions you like and ditching the ones you don’t feel comfortable with. Wattpad exposed me to criticism very early and hardened my skin. I even cried a couple of times. Yep. I know.

As a writer, you need to be ready to hear some harsh feedback and that isn’t easy. But it is character building! It’s something that has now translated into my day job work as an engineer and given me a huge advantage at life. Don’t be a big baby.

It helps going in with a certain mindset: I want my work to be the best possible and I recognize that my own idea of “the best” might not be the correct version of “the best” and therefore being open to other suggestions might actually help my writing become “the best” version of itself. It’s easy to feel personally attacked when someone critiques your work. It’s a very intimate thing, putting your heart out on the chopping block for others to see straight into your soul. Trust me, this will build confidence, in time.

Note: As I’ve gotten more experience and grown as a writer, I’ve gotten much PICKIER about listening to other people. Everyone thinks they’re an expert. I’m to the point where unless the person is a professional editor or an avid reader reading 100 books a year, chances are, I’ve surpassed most people’s knowledge in grammar and storytelling with my six years of personal research and experience on writing. So, I’m a lot less likely to listen to feedback on grammar, structure, and ideas. But in the beginning I was highly susceptible to this. And that’s OKAY! I needed help. A lot of help!

You can read my experience about Wattpad HERE. It truly changed my writing career and I’m blessed that I had it as a tool.

If you want feedback but aren’t ready to share with a wide audience, well, you’re in for a bit of work. It’s time to find “alpha” and “beta” readers. Alphas are the first people you show your work to. Friends are fine. But remember, they are biased. Family, too. But that might be the only pool you have to pick from. That’s why I loved Wattpad. It was chalk-full of READERS. People who don’t know you and aren’t afraid to give honest feedback.

There are writer groups out there. Facebook has tons. I don’t belong to any. I’ve built my writing circle the hard way, after years of scouting people through Wattpad and forming relationships.

You will never successfully write and publish a book in a vacuum. Believe me. We haven’t even reach discussions on editing and publishing yet. Those aren’t going to be covered here. This is a discussion on getting started. And this doesn’t even scrape the surface.

You still have questions. If you don’t, you should. Do research. Google. Read blogs. Saturate yourself, my friend. And then get writing!

Ps. If you like podcasts, the great Brandon Sanderson has an excellent podcast with some 20 seasons called “Writing Excuses” and each one is 15 minutes long-ish. I have listened to these on countless car rides. They center around fantasy and sci-fi but can be applied to a wide breadth of writing genres. I’ve learned a lot from the authors he brings on and the tips he gives.


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