Basic Writing Stuff You Were Too Afraid to Ask

If you are very, very new to writing, here are some of the things you might want to know but were afraid to ask. (Seriously, dude, ask your English teacher. That’s what they are there for.)

  1. What is “show, don’t tell”?
    Telling is “She was afraid”. Showing is “She clenched her hands into fists in a vain attempt to stop her trembling hands”. Telling is “He stood up angrily”. Showing is “He nearly knocked over his chair as he stood up”.
    “Show, don’t tell” is just another way of saying “Don’t use adjectives and adverbs when you can describe the scene instead”.
    If you write “Tom snidely insulted him. Ben stood up angrily and punched him forcefully in his face” that is telling (and pretty badly). If you write a snappy dialog that builds up until Tom drops the F-bomb on Ben’s mother, Ben knocks over the table as he stands up, drinks and ashtrays flying in all directions, the floor hitting Tom hard on the shoulder  before he even realizes he was hit on the face, THAT is showing. Don’t forget to describe the sound of glass shattering, the smell of stale tobacco from the ashtray, and the creaking sound of the ceiling lamp swinging, after being hit by a flying beer bottle, casting moving shadows around the room. Describe it until you can taste it.
  2. Do I have to read a lot of books to be a novelist?
    Stephen King writes “If you do not read, you will not have the necessary raw materials for your writing” which is true, but it goes a lot deeper than that.
    Who are your readers going to be? Other than your immediate friends and family, who is going to read your debut novel? What kind of people are they? They don’t know you, so it is up to you to know them. Your first readers must like your book and recommend it to friends, or there will be no second readers. And your second readers must like your book enough to recommend your book, or there will be no third readers. If you don’t understand how difficult this is, try recommending a book, any book, to a random friend. Check up on him three weeks later to see if he had actually bought and read the book you recommended. Nine times out of ten, you will find that he did not. (On the flip side, how many books have YOU actually bought on a friend’s recommendation?) That means your first reader will have to have liked the book enough to recommend it to at least ten people before you get one second reader. And your first, second and third readers must each successfully convince more than one person to buy and read your novel, or your book will die. If your readers on average do not successfully convince TWO or more friends to buy your book, forget the second printing.
    Now, suppose you wrote a vampire novel (or any novel really). How many vampire novels do you have to read before the reader chances upon a debut novel by an unknown writer such as yourself? What sort of a reader is that? That, my friend, is a truly hard core vampire fan. (Same deal for a fantasy, sci-fi, zombie, murder, YA, NA, whatever.) And 99 times out of a hundred, a hard core vampire fan has exactly the same opinion about every new vampire book: “I’ve read better books than this.” He will have this opinion because by the time he stumbles on your book, he has read just about every vampire book in publication. That is the kind of first reader you will have. Other than your friends and family, there are no other kinds of first reader a debut novelist can possibly have.
    In order to convince this vampire freak to push your book really, really hard (just to get an average of two successful sales per reader), you have to know the market and know what vampire freaks love. You have to read at least as much as your first tier of readers. That is a lot of reading.
  3. Do I have to write every day?
    Short answer: Yes.
    But again, you should avoid making writing a chore.
    To clarify: You do not need to write your book everyday. But you must write something everyday. And that something must be written as conscientiously as you would when you intend to publish it. Some writers recommend that you keep a diary. Some writers recommend that you keep an idea log. Some writers recommend that you do writing exercises. Whatever you write, you should use it to horn your writing and story telling skills.
    “Write everyday” does not mean you must work on the same draft every single day getting obsessed on the daily word count. If you keep trying to add to the word count of your draft everyday, the pressure will inevitably push you into writer’s block. Don’t just write your draft everyday. You need to take breaks. Write something else.
    It is not about the output. It is about honing your skills. Don’t stop writing.
    On the flip side, don’t just write. Keep experimenting to write better than before. Writing is a craft. Practice makes it better, more fluid, and more readable.
  4. How old should I be to write my book?
    Harry Bernstein published his breakout novel when he was 96 years old. Some people publish their novel when they are 13. The most successful writers start somewhere in the middle. The prodigy with a debut novel at a very early age very rarely has a long lasting or productive career. Harry Bernstein started publishing in a school newspaper when he was 16, a noteworthy accomplishment in his time.
    The reason we see so many young writers today is because technology has made it extremely easy to publish a book. As recently as 1980, self publishing a book cost a bare minimum of ten thousand dollars, just for the printing, often costing a lot more. Today, you can get an e-book or a print-on-demand book printed practically for free. Even conventionally published books can be done with much less investment than in the decades past. In bygone days, well connected people threw their daddy’s (or sugar daddy’s) money at their effort at getting a book published, and their careers did not last long either. Just because you can do it without a sugar daddy today does not make the prospects any different. The teenage authors getting their debut novels published today are the equivalent of Harry Bernstein getting his stories published in a school newspaper in the early 20th century. It may be an accomplishment, but not the best start to a career.
    Most writers seem to agree that it is better not to start too young. Stephen King published his first novel when he was 26, and that is an exception for such a successful writer.
  5. Pantser or Plotter?
    First off, a “plotter” is a person who plots out a detailed outline for the novel before starting to write. James Patterson is representative of this category. A “pantser” is short for a “seat-of-the-pants” writer, who just starts writing the story without a pre-determined outline and lets the story take them where they may. Stephen King is famously a pantser.
    Most, if not all, writers start out pantsers, but most people learn that in order to compete in the world, they have to learn to become plotters. I am quite sure Dickens and Tolstoy were pantsers, and if you think you can compete with them you are welcome to try. But it takes immense talent to go through the excruciating process of writing and still keep your story straight in the absence of a fixed outline.
  6. What is editing?
    Editing your own novel is best described as “killing your darlings”. You put your heart and soul into writing it, but it should not be there so you have to delete it. Sometimes whole chapters of it. To do that, you should have a set of fixed principles, not just random opinions of friends and relatives. It is better to know what you are doing.
    The objective eye of an editor other than yourself is often helpful. Some editors are very intrusive and tell you which specific sentence should be re-written and which words are redundant. Some editors take a more free range approach. Saul Bellow’s editor once commented “This can be better”.
    Editing is not the same thing as proofreading, but these days, editors of publishing companies usually do neither for a debut writer. You must hire your own editor.
    Some independent editors also provide mentoring services, which is what traditional editors once did. They will tell you what part of the story is rough and what part of the story is redundant. They will help you structure the story.
    Proofreading is basically just checking for typos, misspellings and minor grammatical errors. Proofreaders will not tell you where your story sucks. You would expect editors in publishing companies to at the very least proofread for you, but in reality they are the people most offended by manuscripts in need of proofreading. Hire your own proofreader before submitting a manuscript.
  7. How do I learn to write?
    Start by reading books on writing. My recommendations are Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey, and Conflict & Suspense by James Scott Bell. But you should be reading ANY writing instruction book you can get your hands on.
  8. How do I outline a novel?
    Again there are books that teach you that. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Plot Perfect by Paul Munier are standard. A relative newcomer is Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. If you are really up to it, you can try studying The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, but be warned it’s pretty heavy lifting.
  9. How do I learn to edit?
    Stein on Writing is actually a good resource on the writer/editor relationship as it is on the process of writing. You might also want to check out Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Brown & King.
  10. How do I know I’m a writer?
    If you have to ask, you are a writer. My condolences. It is an incurable disease that will torment you for the rest of your life. But you are not a good enough writer. You never are and you never will be. Nobody ever is. Because (if it isn’t already obvious) the person who will be judging your writing will be your most vicious critic; yourself. Tolstoy thought he was not a good enough writer. Hemingway shot himself for it (after he won the Nobel Prize for literature). If you are awed at your own writing, God bless you. It usually doesn’t last, so enjoy it while you can. A writer doesn’t always have readers. A writer doesn’t always get published. And when a writer is published and read, he can still be miserable because he isn’t good enough.  And if you ever felt tormented by that, then you are a writer. How do I know? Well, have you ever felt just as tormented about being a bad basketball player? A poor golfer? A mediocre dancer? If anything torments you more than being a bad writer, then that is the art you should pursue. But if you have read this far, I’m guessing you are a writer. Even if you did not yet know the difference between show and tell.

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