May The Road Rise To Meet Your Feet

These days my fledgelings, that is, those new writers who come to me for advice (I tend to call them “my children” but of course some of them are older than me.  Although since I am fortunately getting older – as opposed to everyone else – there seem suddenly to be a great number who could be my children.  Disturbing thought, that) and therefore immediately prove themselves less than sane, tend to stand around wringing their hands and saying “What do I do, what do I do?”

I envy them a little.

Look, when I broke in, there wasn’t much choice.  The choice was only “Try to get published or get used to the idea that you’ll never sell anything.”  The funny thing is, in retrospect, I might have made the wrong choice.  But there is was.  I’m of a practical disposition and I found that “writing to feed the drawer” didn’t satisfy me.  I wanted to be read, not to write for my own satisfaction with no hope of the story ever reaching an audience.

Which is why the one time I managed to give up attempting to write for publication or almost a year, I wrote Jane Austen fanfiction which I posted at a fan site.  Because at least that gave me readers.  But even then, my being practical, eventually it got to me that I shouldn’t just be wasting time, even if it was only the couple of hours after the kids had gone to bed and before I fell asleep – writing when it would never make us ten cents of money.  I mean, I could use those two hours to make the kids new clothes, or perhaps to learn something I could use to help family finances.

So, reluctantly, I went back into the fray and started re-submitting stories.  I made my first sale a year later, which saved me oscillating between “just giving it all up” and continuing to try – for at least three years, until the first trilogy tanked.

Until recently I was used to thinking my disposition was normal for writers.  After all writing wants to be read and story wants to be told, right? And we owe it to our kids/family/ourselves to do the best we can monetarily, so if we know an activity to be unprofitable, we don’t devote a ton of time to it, right (this probably explains my lack of practice in art, right/)

All of which brings us to  my realizing recently that no, I’m not normal.  Not only do people have twenty or thirty novels in the drawer, but novels they polished and cleaned up until they’re thoroughly professional.

See, I do have novels in the drawer – probably eleven, if I emptied out every drawer – but they’re either unfinished (a lot of them.  Probably 30 or so.) or they are at the level I’ll kill anyone who publishes them, should I die suddenly and should my family be so lost to all dencency.

But there are people who worked at these novels till they shone, sent them out, got them rejected everywhere, then wrote the next one, and the next, at two a year for the last twenty years.  And now, they brought them all out over the last two years and are making six figures.

Go figure.

I’m heartily jealous of them.

If I had the ability to send just one message back in time to, oh, thirty years ago, or even twenty one when I moved here, it would be “Other than Baen, stop trying to get published.  Just write, polish, work as hard as you can and feed the drawer.  Two novels a year, chop chop.  There will be a market later, trust me.”  (Of course, chances are I wouldn’t trust me.  I’m a notoriously shifty character, after all.)

And now, I’d have thirty or forty or however many novels Baen hadn’t bought (and the chances of their buying mysteries without an ounce of the fantastic are always, for some reason, slim.) ready to go up.

But I didn’t have a crystal ball, and anyway, that is the conclusion I’ve arrived to after being “burned out” by the establishment, and it’s what my career has been, shaped by my own peculiarities, including the refusal, as a foreign born, Latin female, to write the sort of story that the NYC establishment KNOWS they can promote and push from foreign born, Latin females.  (I’ve been trying to pin down their expressions, and I finally figured it out.  They reminded me of nothing so much as gym teachers in high school when they realized that despite being a freakishly tall female for my generation, in Portugal, I was NOT going to play basketball and, what is more, didn’t want to.)  It is not, nor should it be, the advice I give everyone.

So, what advice would I give my fledgelings, starting out now?

A modified version of what I would give myself.  Sort of.  Sideways.  So, let’s try for a list:

1-      Write a lot.  How fast you progress in your craft is not so much tied to how much time passes, but how fast you write.  This is because it’s a craft.  There are things you can only learn by doing.

2-      Read a lot.  Your field, sure, but not just your field.  I know some of you gentlemen would rather gnaw off your arm than, say, read Romance, but don’t.  You can find useful technique everywhere and even if we’re trying to woo men back into reading, right now the majority of the readers are female, and romances are designed to appeal mostly to females. Steal their techniques.  (No, it’s not all soft porn.  Actually it’s not MOSTLY soft porn.  Even the soft porn, for women, has a strong component of emotions, so reading Romance is a good way to learn how to heighten the emotional content of your writing.  Yes, I do have a list of “tolerable romances” should you feel a need.)

3-      Read how to books.  Here, proceed with care.  Most of the books out there are not so much “how to write good books” as “how to capture an editor’s fancy.”  Those always got outdated quickly and since indie… well.  As always, I’ll recommend Dwight Swain for basic craft.  If I have money when you approach me and I realize you’re working at writing not just “wanting to” I’m likely to send you a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer.  I’ve bought probably a hundred copies for various people over the years.  IF they bother to study it, their writing always improves.

4-      If you’re starting out now, remember that publishers can take two to three years or more to answer a submission.  (Agents are quicker, but I’m not sure I’d recommend agents if you’re starting out now, unless you absolutely must to get to the house you want.)  So, write three books every year, two for indie and one to send out.  Your backlog of books waiting an answer will grow.

5-      Don’t write your for-traditional-submission books all in the same series or in the same series as the books you’re putting up indie.  (and for that you should have two series.  More on that later.)  Yes, this means you will have to create more than one world.  Good.  It’s been my experience your first world always has holes you can drive a mac truck through, and anyway you don’t learn how to world build consciously if all you have is the one world.

6-      Alternate between two series (at least.  I’d do three) in your Indie books.  Yes, this might cost you some readers (weirdly fewer than you think) but it will lessen the chances of burnout.  No, seriously. Most writers, even those with hyper successful series, burn out by book ten, if not before.  So have three worlds or so you play in.  And if you’re like me (you poor thing) make them different genres.

7-      Learn how to put up indie books: covers, tags, blurbs.  Work at it.  The field has gotten generally way more sophisticated.  Just throwing amateurish covers up there, won’t do.  I recommend Kris and Dean’s WGM Publishing workshop on covers.  The workshops are linked off Dean Wesley Smith’s page.  And don’t tell me “I don’t have the money for it” – of course you don’t.  Who the heck does.  BUT you also don’t have money to pay a designer every time you put a book out.  OTOH if you do have the money and not the time to learn and not the slightest desire to do covers (say you have a day job and are packing the writing around the edges as is) our very own Cedar Sanderson is setting up shop as a cover designer, and she’s a d*mn good one.  You could do worse (and probably will.)

8-      Going to conventions and meeting editors might help with your goal to be traditionally published.

9-      Don’t fret too much about promoting your indie publishing.  No one has found an effective method to do that, yet.  And for the love of heavens, don’t pay a publicist.  They know even less than you do.  The best way to promote your writing is to write the next book. The second best way is to network.  So fit the networking around the writing, not the other way around.

10-  If/when you get a traditional contract, don’t take any wooden nickels.  Please show the d*mn thing to an IP attorney already.  There be dragons in most of those, and some are… interesting.  This is even if (particularly if) the contract is from an agent.  Heck, I’ve seen contracts for short stories that try to grab the rights to EVERYTHING ELSE you ever wrote.  Don’t sign just because your agent/friend/mother says all publishing contracts are like that.  If you need the contact of a good IP attorney, ask me.  I’m here every Wednesday and over at According to Hoyt pretty much every day, at least in the comments.

11-  Write.  Write. Write.  Improve. Improve. Improve.  In my day, I’d have said “and good luck” but while luck is still a factor, with indie it’s becoming much more of a meritocracy.  So, do the best you can, and may you succeed beyond your wildest dreams, and even mine.


  1. I would add a couple of clarification items. I used to “make” custom printed T-shirts, and other textiles. I was reading Professional Magazines for: Shirt and other textiles; sign printing; awards and engraving; and advertising. I drew on techniques, and tips from all of them.
    Second, it doesn’t matter what you write. I’ve written a fanzine (mumble years ago), internal newsletters, opinion articles, and a “metric butt load” of newsgroup/email list posts. It all helps to make you a better writer. You learn how to express yourself, and _communicate_.
    Writing is *communication,* and the better you are, the more successful you will be. Don’t be afraid to learn from others.
    I’ve read Heinlein, Dickens, Twain, L’Amour, Roberts, Steele, Victor Appleton II, Henderson, Norton, Bujold, Clancy, Brown (NOT the Angels and Demons one), Modessitt, Cherryh, and dozens more. I’ve even plowed my way through some King. (Horror is about the only genre I generally avoid.) Talk to anyone that has _mastered_ a craft, and you’ll likely hear one refrain. “I study how everyone does things. Then, I figure out how _I_ would do it.”

  2. Excellent advice. My own plan for the next 12-18 months is to finish two more books in my first (indie) series and then write two books in two different genres, one for submission to a publisher, the other for indie publishing. I totally agree that sticking to one world/series is not good for you both creatively and professionally, unless you happen to be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer (and even then, their creative future is likely to be forever overshadowed by their hyper-famous series; granted, I’d love to have that kind of problem, lol).
    Right now my main problems involve editing and cover art: I did my own covers with Photoshop, public domain art and a friend who posed for pictures for me; the result is not going to win any prizes, but I guess it will do for the first three books in my series. Then I made the mistake of hiring a friend to do proof-reading (she was qualified, at least on paper) and got left in the lurch with a poorly proof-read manuscript and not enough cash to pay for a substitute. I had to do the final copy-edit myself, and I discovered the well-known fact that it’s all but impossible to proofread your own stuff. I now realize that I’d better come up with enough money to pay for those services if I want them done right. If that means doing another Kickstarter, or save up most of my writing income this year, so be it.

        1. This is a video on how to make “movie posters” but it looks pretty applicable to books too. Haven’t finished watching it, but the first xx minutes (I forget how far I got before I got distracted) were good enough to link regardless:

  3. This was some damned good advice. Thank you!

    I especially like the 2-for-indie, 1-for-trad rule. That makes eminent sense. I would add one thing: to figure out how to sell the indie books, I would strongly suggest going back to look at the techniques developed by online small businesses; much of that is very applicable to writers. For instance, find an unfilled niche (like the dinoporn chick apparently did); write free blog posts and articles that link back to your site or book sales page; network with others who write similar things; learn how to SEO. Also, find alternate revenue streams – never overlook the value of being an Amazon affiliate, for instance. While your marketing efforts should be focused on selling your books, there’s no reason you can’t use them to make money in other ways as well.

  4. All good advice, even the stuff I don’t think I can handle, such as writing faster. I still creep along painfully, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, even though my writing is improving.

    And I Iove any advice that tells me to forget promotion, my bete noire. I read the kindleboards and get intimidated by the fast-moving and sharp promoters there. So I’m listening to the person who tells me to do what I prefer to do 😉

    1. Kali– I used to be like that. One way I got over it was to take a speed typing course. The cheaper way is to find a typing trainer program. Even if it’s a silly kid’s program, do it. The silly ones become more fun somehow. (yes, i’m weird) Some of them let you type out stuff that you want, and it can help to try to copy what you’ve already written, but corrected. Yes, it’s a stunt but you do learn things from it, too.

      I was also a data entry clerk for a while, and that even paid the bills. Soul Crushingly boring if it weren’t for the fact it made me a faster writer. If it’s what is in your head that makes you a slower writer, then consider this. Listen to music while writing. Set a timer. Gradually try to type faster. NANOWRIMO is what really got me up to speed. It was so effective that within a MONTH I had gotten from 1000-ish words per day to 5000 words per day. Some days (during weekends, when I could tell life to go hang) I could get even higher, say 6K a day. That approaches terminal velocity. Everybody’s different about where that number is. But you wind up paying for it by crashing. Don’t push yourself too hard. It’s steadiness even more than speed that wins the race.

      I will let you in on a secret– the worst part is when you are trying to edit and write at the same time. Yes, I know those ERRORS glow like squirrel eyes the glare of headlights. Ignore them and keep writing. You will actually WRITE better if you dont’ pay attention to them. When you are more confident with your speed, you can do a LITTLE editing between bursts of creative juice. Don’t start out that way, because you are trying to break a habit, and you will spend all your time polishing and no time writing. They say it takes 22 days to break a habit. I advise 40 days, just to be sure.

      Mentally tie your editor up in a chair and leave that one in the basement if you have to. And let your muse seduce all your attention.

      1. I’m going to second font of worlds on all fronts, particularly the don’t edit. just write. Wait till the end of the book to edit. if you’re like me, put sticky notes up for what you think you need to change when it’s done. And first pass? Don’t worry about wording. It will surprise you that it’s smoother than you think when you’re done. TRUST yourself.

      2. I second the value of National Novel Writing Month as a means of increasing speed. It gets me to 2000 words a day, which I find pretty fast. I can’t even imagine 6000 words–that’s amazing. In case you want to try sooner than November, there’s NaNo camp in April.

        I went looking for the link to Write or Die, but I don’t think it’s free anymore. Using that just a few times really killed my inner editor even though it gave me palpitations and the shakes. If you didn’t keep writing it would start deleting your words! Utterly terrifying, and, trust me, you didn’t stop and do any thinking much less editing.

        1. Two things – first, you don’t have to wait until November to do NaNo – there’s Camp NaNo that runs in April, and I think June. Of course, if you’re really motivated, 30 days can start any day you like. Which again raises the issue. I’ve been totally failing to set aside writing time for the last (mumble) months, and it would be a good thing if I had an accountability partner – someone to report in to to say if I’d gotten writing done in the last day or two days. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t require a website, just a couple people who agree to check in with each other to tally word counts. If you’re having a hard time motivating yourself, having to check in with someone can do a world of good.

          Second, big, Big, BIG kudos to Write or Die. – the app has been updated a lot since I bought my copy BITD, but as far as I can see, the website is still fully functional. Instead of clicking “buy”, click “try”, and a web-app opens up with the same functionality. Just cut and paste out of the web app and into your word processor of choice.

          I just finished Drawing Out The Dragons. Curse you all for breaking my book buying budget, having also just ordered a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer. (Not that it does me any good if I don’t set aside time to write. Which means that now instead of a book buying budget, I have guilt.) Again, curses. All of you.

      3. All excellent advice that I *fully* intend to follow. ahem.

        Except for the bit about tying up my editor. You’ve never seen her, but imagine the entire women’s shot put team for the Soviets in the 1960 Olympics combined into one ferocious grammar checker …

        1. JUST tell her you’ll let her go as nuts as she wants to ONCE IT’S DONE. The thing is, if you mix writing and editing you’re not doing your best work. no, please trust me! Look if you edit multiple times, you get what Rusch calls recital pieces. I used to do that and stuff from that time has as much life as boiled oatmeal. Plus, it’s impossible at that point for you to tell how the information/plot affects the reader the FIRST TIME. And you end up deleting quite important information.

  5. I have read a couple of Swain’s books following on previous recommendations from Sarah. He is extremely useful at the craft level, giving the nuts and bolts of structuring scenes, plots, and tension. Techniques of the Selling Writer is really worth it.

    I’m jealous of those people who have the backlog of books. I had already sent my first one around to agents and publishers when I started contemplating the indie plunge. In the meantime, I finished the first draft of the next book. I put the first one up last spring. I’m about to put the next one up, but don’t really have a backlog because I’m only about half done with a third book. When I put my first one up I didn’t immediately turn to getting the next one ready like I should have, and I regret that. I will not make that mistake again. (I hope.) Since it looks like I’m looking at a year between novels, what with the day job and all, I figure I’m a few years from Kris Rusch’s “discoverability” threshold.

    I’m with Kali. I don’t enjoy the marketing and so try to be content with the fact that I really have to be working on the next one.

      1. What Sarah said. I don’t market, other than, “Hey folks, new book/story out. Thanks.” But stuff is selling, and sales are growing. Each new book kicks up sales of older stuff, even if they are unrelated (the Colplatschki books and Cat Among Dragons, for example).

        1. I’ll be sending a link to Sarah’s Saturday post, Book Plug Friday, a space policy blog I read all the time, my LinkedIn page (which bewilders people) and I’ll even try Instapundit again. Those all helped for the first one. I won’t be buying ads.

        2. I’ll be interested to see if that works when Company Daughter comes out in April–my early pubs are completely invisible, so the slightest uptick in sales in them will prove the point 🙂

  6. Write a lot. How fast you progress in your craft is not so much tied to how much time passes, but how fast you write.

    Truth here. On the ubiquitous “mistakes beginning writers make” I often say that “I’m a beginning writer, and have been for twenty years.” There’s a very great deal of truth there because for much of that time, for various reasons, I wasn’t doing much if any writing.

    OTOH, time seems to have an effect, at least if you are also an avid reader. After having gotten back into writing I think I’ve made a pretty big jump from when I was writing regularly back in the early nineties and now. (Case in point, compare “Live to Tell” with “EMT”. “Live to Tell” is a much stronger story, IMBO.)

    (Above stuff available via here — — in case anyone’s interested.)

    I think that part of the reason it worked that way for me is that I started writing, was very serious and hard working at it for a while and a “mindset” switch was set so when I read, things like the construction, use of language, and the like “soaked in” in a way they hadn’t before.

    It’s been my experience your first world always has holes you can drive a mac truck through, and anyway you don’t learn how to world build consciously if all you have is the one world.

    Truth here too. My first completed real novel had great, huge, gaping holes in the worldbuilding. The magic system (fantasy novel) was particularly bad in that respect. The story nevertheless made it to “almost but not quite” (got a very nice personal rejection from Baen saying, more or less, that).

    In retrospect, I’m kind of glad I didn’t sell it then. I’ve actually tightened up the worldbuilding since and had a couple of ideas (including one turning up in a story I’m working through right now) that would have been simply impossible if I’d sold the novel as originally written and followed it up with the then-planned sequels.

  7. Put the writing book on my Amazon wishlist. Will pick it up next time I order something physical from Amazon. (Maybe at the end of this month, if I’m a good girl.)

  8. I’m going to suggest something a bit counterintuitive on its face.
    Once you have a few books out there in indie land the absolute best way to promote them is obviously word of mouth. But unless you have a vast horde of personal friends that is not something you can do yourself. So what I suggest is that what you can do yourself or have a friend do is post the first couple of works in a series to all the usual bootleg newsgroup sites. Yes, you are giving your work away for free, but if it has any merit whatsoever you will also build a base of interest. Baen as a very nontraditional traditional publisher accomplishes the same thing with their free library, something which Jim Baen back in the day admitted was the literary equivalent of handing out crack in the schoolyard. Eric Flint actually has a long well thought out essay over at on the philosophy behind this approach and why literary DRM is a bad thing in the long run.

  9. So glad you mentioned Swain, Sarah. The guy really peeled apart the onion that is a salable story, but one of the best pieces of advice I ever received comes from the front of the book (and I paraphrase):

    “Write from feeling, then apply the rules. If you start from rules, you’re doing it wrong.”

    If, like me, someone has picked up a lot of “books on writing”, chances are they were looking for an instruction manual. Swain showed me that these types of books are best used as “correction manuals.” Once you go through enough correction, you’re brain automatically adjusts course as you continue to spit out more work, thereby increasing quality.

    Sarah, I understand if you strike this comment from the record, but I am going to shamelessly plug a series of articles I wrote analyzing Swain’s book:

    I hope it convinces the fence sitters to plunk down a few dollars for an exponential return.

    1. For the fence sitters — after 8? years of trying to write and sell, I read Swain. The next story I sent out not only sold, it was an honorable mention in the year’s best Fantasy and Horror, 1994. And by 1999 I’d sold my first novel. (I wrote Darkship Thieves in 1998. Yes, it was edited/rewritten before publication, but eh. Mostly I cut back on fire eating Libertarian stuff. I was older.)
      Then my husband started writing. I read his first ten stories and handed him Swain. Next story he wrote, he sold to Analog. Then my older son started writing. I handed him Swain. He sold his next story to a DAW anthology. (Fate Dogs was the story, and yes, nominally edited by my husband but we sent it to the co-editor with no name on it, and told him it was someone we’d been mentoring, we weren’t sure, and what did he think? So… Unbiased.)

      1. I’ve managed to sell a few stories here and there. Mostly it’s been a hit-or-miss process.

        I had Swain (“Techniques of the selling writer”) in dead tree based on Sarah’s recommendation but I hadn’t read more than halfway into the first chapter. I rarely have time to just sit down and _read_ these days so most of my reading is done on-the-fly using iBooks, Stanza, or the Kindle ap on my iPod (it fits nicely into my pocket or in a “belt holster” so I’ve always got it with me and I can pull it out any time I’ve got a few seconds–yes, even there).

        Well, I just found Amazon had it for Kindle. Got it, still reading it, but the first story I started after reading it and applying some of what I’ve learned so far has been coming together much better. (I’m ending up with kind of a blend between the things from TotSW and the “voice” I’ve developed over the years.)

        We’ll see what the results are.

        1. On reflection, it might be an interesting experiment to go back and analyze some of my old favorite stories by other writers in terms of application of the techniques described in TotSW. That might be an education in itself.

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