I’m wondering how many writers are part of my fan bubble…
How many of you have published a novel already? How many are still struggling to finish their first ever book? And how many of you just came up with the idea of writing a story?
More and more aspiring authors send me messages, asking for some simple and great advice that helps them get big on the market. What can I say? There’s nothing simple about writing. But once you understand that, there’s nothing that can ever stop you from being what you want!
Today I’m going to talk to all of you out there who WANT TO BE A WRITER.
First of all, answer one question for yourself. Do you have something to tell the world?
If the answer is a definite and light-speed-fast YES, you’re onto something here. If you have to lean back and think for more than 30 seconds on the right answer, then you may be a good writer, but you’ll never live the word.
Writing is not a job you do for a living. You write because there’s no other choice for you. It keeps you alive like breathing does. So don’t expect to get rich from it. It’ll merely help you stay sane is all…for a start.
But if you do it, you should do it right. Writing is a profession like any other, and just like you can’t go to a building enterprise and build a house without knowing the basics, there’s a lot to learn about writing too. There are certain rules you have to go by—unless you’re a poet. I think these guys can pull of any shit, not even thinking about guidelines.
However, if you’re wise, you’ll stop reading now, go to Google, and type in writing workshop. It doesn’t matter if that’s online or a physical one somewhere near you. The important thing is that you’ll learn what you need to know there. Or buy a 300-page book that teaches you how to write a good story in great detail.
Okay… You’re still here? I guess that means you’re like me and don’t want to spend twenty bucks on a book that you’re afraid you’ll never finish because it sounds dry and boring, and you think you can learn anything without a teacher. Fine. For those of you who stayed and kept reading, I’ll try to sum up the most important things about writing.
Writing 101 – block 1
First of all, make time to write.
You can’t write if things keep distracting you. Things like the TV, family, work you still have to do…and yes, even Facebook. :P
I have my own writing room in my house, and when I go there, I’m all to myself. My family knows that when my door is closed, it’s closed, and they better not disturb me unless it’s a serious emergency, like the house is burning down, or it’s Thursday night and time to watch The Vampire Diaries ;-)
I happen to disappear into that room for entire days, because only if I have more than just an hour at a stretch, I can actually be productive. In the end, it doesn’t matter though, how much you write on one day to finish a book. Just keep writing a few hundred words everyday, and you’ll get there all the same.
Writing 101 – block 2
THE STORY LINE
Unless you’re a very skilled and talented writer who can make up pretty much anything from pretty much nothing, you will need to come up with the storyline before you start. Okay, I’ve been known to write the first chapter before I start thinking about a possible plot, but only to carve out the characters I want in a book and get to know them a little better. Only when I hear them talking in my mind, I can work them into a good story. But when chapter one is finished, I take a sheet of paper and take notes. I jot down anything relevant about the main characters, then I think about the conflict in a book. And yes, there has to happen SOMETHING. Think about it as a cool movie. You have an opening hook, some getting to know the heroes and revealing what it’s all about, in the middle you start getting toward what’s there to be overcome, and then you need a cool showdown. You can’t write a book with zero conflict. That’s simply not entertaining enough.
Writing 101 – block 3
Let me tell you one thing: Inspiration is a bitch. Why? Because it very often hits you at moments where you have no chance to take notes, and in 99% you’ll forget a brilliant idea before you’re able to open your ms.
I started carrying a note pad around with me, and I even have one on my nightstand, because if there’s one thing for sure in this world, then that the best ideas come at night. And don’t even try to convince yourself that you’ll remember them the next morning, because you definitely won’t.
Writing 101 – block 4
TO STUDY or NOT TO STUDY
This one brings me back to what I said at the beginning. Do you have to study to become a good writer? NO! I’m from Austria with an educational background in financing such as working at a bank. My first language is German, but I’m writing my books in English. All I know about how to write I learned by reading tons of books in my favorite genre. I analyzed the writing style of those authors, took notes in the books, and marked what I liked especially. I figured out how important emotions and dialogue are, took one or two workshops online, and read more books. If you really love to do something, you don’t need to study it to be good at it. But never believe you can do anything without learning. Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open.
Writing 101 – block 5
Hook me with your first page.
The opening is a seriously important part, if not the most, of your entire novel. Why? Because it decides whether your book will be bought in a minute or not. Some people say, the mass reader will grant you three paragraphs to hook them with your book. I say, you have exactly one line. If that line isn’t enough for me to be interested in why or how something turned out the way it has to get to this particular moment, I’ll most probably not even finish reading the first paragraph but shove the book back into the empty space on the shelf and grab the next.
Now, it’s not easy to come up with a line as meaningful and intriguing as that. So what can you do to find just the perfect trigger? At this point, I’d like to quote a friend of mine, who made me understand the importance of this matter quite a while ago. She said, “Try to sum up your entire novel in this very first line.” Duh, how impossible is that?
But then…is it really? In her novel, The Werewolf King, she managed to hook me with a few simple words.
Why, Josef, you make me think the world will end with your calling me here.
Right at this point I absolutely wanted to know A: What happened between her and Josef that calling her was such a great deal? And B: What was going on that the world was at stake?
The tricky thing with this line is that you already have an inkling of what the book will be about, even when you still have absolutely no idea what will come at you. So what do you do? – You read on, because you MUST find out.
One of the greatest hooks I came across was in Larry Brooks Bait and Switch.
All things considered, it was a great night to die.
Heck, what are all things? What led to this person’s acute death? Will he really die? After all, this is only the prologue and you never know about these things. Seriously, for me it can’t get any better than that.
However, if a complete novel in one line is too hard to do, then go for simple. Try to foreshadow the actual chapter, or maybe only the scene.
The previous weeks I’ve been critiquing a lot for another friend of mine. Her dark romances are my all time favorites and she’s excellent with hooks. This is from her yet unpublished novel Darkness Undone.
The sudden hush in the busy little café should have been his first clue that shit was about to fly.
Okay, let’s analyze this. With just a few simple words, she gave a variety of information. We know where the events take place, we get a glimpse at the atmosphere in the café when everyone tenses, and we know that in only a second, something big will happen. These are the three basic points. But there’s one more thing, and personally, to me this is the most important one that made me want to read on. It’s the hero’s voice. Hunter already revealed a very significant trait of this hero: sarcasm, and his relaxed attitude toward the crap going on in his life on a daily basis. I was intrigued by all these aspects in a heartbeat.
Other possibilities to ensnare your readers with the first line are: Shock. A very blatant statement or spicy compliment – this works especially for hot romances. Even humor. Whichever you choose, just put enough info into this line to make your reader guess about what’s coming at him, but don’t reveal too much. Because, like everywhere else, here it is: Less is more.
Writing 101 – block 6
SHOW vs. TELL
I started talking about this in the block above, so let’s now focus on it a little more, because it’s the one thing you’ll hear the most in the literary world. A good book runs through your mind like a movie. But what makes a good book? It’s the ability to make things happen and not just tell the reader about them. First, try to avoid the word was as much as you can. It’s passive language and your book has to be as active as possible. Of course there are times—and many of them too—where you just need that word. But very often you can cut it by simple rewording a sentence.
E.g.: I was hungry. —> My stomach rolled.
He was the best player on his basketball team. —> No one ever dunked a basketball from across the place, but Jim aimed, threw and landed two points.
See the difference? In one you always just state a simple fact, but in the other you create a visual. And that’s all you need in a book. The more visual you make your story, the easier it is for your readers to create the pictures in their minds and live – see, smell, hear, feel and breathe – with your characters. You need to make your audience feel with your heroes and not just hear about them like in a history book. I think we all agree that history books are just boring to read, right? And the same will happen to your book, if you fail to create a movie in the readers’ heads.
So when you write, don’t tell me you’re ill. Rather show me how you’re lying in your bed; how you’re wearing two layers of socks to keep yourself from shivering; how you’ve already used up three boxes of tissues and how your nose is red and hurts from the many times you wiped it; how there’s a pack of pills or cough syrup on your nightstand together with the tongue depressor the doc left after his house call this morning.
Writing 101 – block 7
You need dialogue in every genre. Horror, historical, comedy, books and films alike. It’s the one thing that can either give your novel flair and personality, or make it look dull and dreary. It all depends on the things your characters say—or don’t say. And since this is such an important part of any book, this block is going to be a bit longer than the rest.
Before we get to the practical part where I’ll show and analyze with you some great dialogue lines, I’d like to list three essential characteristics of dialogue.
Dialogue always has to
-advance the plot
It also is active and always has purpose!
Sounds easy, right? Well it is, after some practicing. Many aspiring authors make one basic mistake. They fill in chit-chat. It’s like when Susie asks Harold about the weather. Don’t write conversations that stand still. Each line, however short, should come with a deeper meaning. We’re aiming at emotional impact here, and not at a real-life party chat.
And that’s where we go next: Dialogue should sound natural, but shouldn’t be written as such.
Many of us have special quirks when we speak, like a friend of mine uses the word seriously like she stored it in a pepper caster and just pours as soon as she opens her mouth. Others have an obsession with like. “Three month? Oh no, I mean that’s like forever.” And there are still those, like me, who bring God into the game at any possible occasion: “Oh my God, he’ll come to the party? What am I going to wear? OMG, I need to get a new dress! I can’t go there wearing something he’s already seen. Ohmygod, Ohmygod, Ohmygod!”
Friends, this isn’t working in novels. After the third seriously, your readers will get a freak-attack only when they see a word starting with the letter S. So your aim is to keep it natural but without being too realistic. Get it? So cut ¾ of the adverbs in your dialogue and refer to God or Hell only in special moments, where you really can make a point with drama.
I spoke of three basic characteristics for dialogue earlier. Now, if you’re good at what you do, you’ll be able to dig a bit deeper. With what your characters say, you can reveal or hide their motivations, foreshadow what’s to come, and reflect conflict.
Motivation: With good dialogue you only give a hint at the characters’ motivation, and so you make the reader curious as to what’s to come. Don’t state things directly. Rather use subtext to keep your audience intrigued. Foreshadowing is a tricky part of dialogue. You do it when you want to evoke anticipation in the reader. Maybe mention what’s at stake so the reader recalls it. And then conflict. Conflict is the soul of each book. You want your readers to hold their breaths with you, whether it’s a romance or a thriller. Add tension by giving an insight into the characters feelings when you let them speak.
Now, that we know the basics of good dialogue, there are a few things you wish to avoid at all costs:
Stiff or stilted dialogue. Read your lines out loud, and if they sound artificial, rewrite. In real life you don’t always stick to accurate grammar or use the most academic terms you can think off—unless you’re Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, then it’s okay. ;-) However, you’re allowed to cut questions like “Are you feeling all right, my friend?” to “You good, man?”
Don’t let all your characters sound alike. No two individuals speak in completely the same way. Since you’re the only person having this dialogue in real, it’s a trap too easy to fall in. As the author you must go with the different personalities of your characters and shape their language individually. Men for instance speak in shorter sentences than women. They swear more often, and they evade talking about their feelings whenever possible. If one of your characters likes to use a special word or term, for Pete’s sake, then give him exclusive rights on that. Nothing is more bothersome than having the hero and heroine swearing in the same damn way.
Don’t—and I mean it, really, really DO NOT DO IT—just don’t repeat names in dialogue. “Come on, Laura, where is your sportsmanship?” – “I have none, Eddy.” – “Don’t fool me, Laura.”
It should always be clear from the action in your book who of the characters is speaking at the moment and who he is addressing. If you use names, then it should be rare and only for emphasis. Understand? Good.
Well, no Fillers. I know they come in handy in reality, but your dialogue should steer clear of anything like: Nevertheless, well, anyhow, you know, by the way… you name it. If you can eliminate these words from your dialogue it will help you make it leaner, fresher.
Okay, done with the theory. Now we get to the cool part. I’m going to show you a few techniques how to pep up your chats as a writer.
I’ll start with my favorite, SARCASM.
Sarcasm is the educated way of insulting someone. You can use it everywhere, as long as it fits your character. If you’re writing about the Queen of England I’d refrain from using it, but if your heroine is a witty little brat like the one in my YA, you’re safe to go.
ANTHONY: Liza and soccer? You might as well try to get an elephant to dance the tango.
CLOEY (the mean girl): The elephant hits home.
LIZA to CHLOE: I tried puking my meals in ninth grade, but then this seems to be more your thing than mine.
Sarcasm is not easy to write for everyone. It’s more like a natural trait and not to learn. Don’t force sarcasm into your dialogue if you don’t feel comfortable with it. The reader will know.
It’s a quick come back, a witty response to a question or statement. Where the first line is mostly quite good itself, the second line must top it. Like sarcasm, it’s often aiming at an insult, but more on a friendly basis between buddies.
CAPTAIN HOOK: If I were you, I’d give up!
PETE PAN: If you were me, I’d be ugly.
Double meaning is like using subtext, often in a comic way.
HANNIBAL LECTER: I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.
OVERSTATEMENT and UNDERSTATEMENT
Here you either exaggerate or downplay the truth in an ironic contrast to the situation. The most popular quote is probably: Houston, we have a problem.
There are so many more ways to spice up your dialogue, but it would crack the frame of this post, so I’ll leave it with that and touch one last topic instead. Action beats and dialogue tags. While you should try hard to work with the former, you’d do well to omit the latter. I mentioned this briefly when I spoke about names in dialogue. If you set your action beats right, you don’t need names or the tag to point out who’s talking to whom. The golden rule for writing is, never to write more than three consecutive sentences of dialogue without breaking it up with an action beat. It will keep the reader focused on the scene, the situation, the placing of the character in a room or toward another, and the mood. When you do your homework on this matter, you can cut mostly every he said, she replied, they answered, I muttered…
Writing 101 – block 8
To make your characters 3-dimensional rather than 2-dimensional, you have to subtly fill in all bits of information you can. Whenever you introduce a new character, weave in their looks and likes, but don’t sum those things up in an info-dump-paragraph. Don’t tell me they have brown hair and shoe size 10. Rather show me how they run their fingers through their long brown locks that are frizzy from the rain, and that your little sister could sit in the shoe of the guy across from you.
When you start your book, give 6 different facts about the character within the first two pages. The more details you give about a character, the easier you make it for the reader to really see them. And I’m not only speaking about looks here. Anything can be important to shape up a figure, even their favorite brand of tooth paste.
Writing 101 – block 9
THIS IS NOT AN SMS
Make sure you know how to write a straight sentence. You don’t use U for You or thru for through. A book is not a text message and you can’t expect your editor to do all the work for you. It’s your book, not hers. Know your grammar and, by all means, use spell check.
However, if you don’t have it in you to really write a book but want your story told anyway, you can always contact a ghost writer.
Writing 101 – block 10
Make sure you know who’s talking. When you write a scene in a certain character’s POV, you can only give facts that this person would notice. Let’s say your character is a girl walking home from school. There’s an accident behind her. She’d never say: And then suddenly a red car crashed into a truck at the cross behind me. Because: She doesn’t see what happens, and if she doesn’t know, you can’t know. All she’d say is that she hears the screeching of tires and then the sound of metal being crushed. Only when she turns around, she can give facts like the color of the car or that it clearly was the truck driver’s fault, because he ignored the red lights.
Writing 101 – block 11
Headhopping is what we call when you start a scene in one person’s POV but suddenly jump to that of another. I’ve read great books by great authors, such as Sherrilyn Kenyon, who do this, and it’s a major turnoff. You can only pull your readers really deep into a moment, if you stay in the same POV (first or third person doesn’t matter here) throughout the scene. If you want to tell things through the eyes of another person, start a new chapter or use a break within a scene by using a *.
Writing 101 – block 12
Shit happens. Deal with it.
Writing 101 – block 13
I’ve been asked how many words you need to write a good book. Seriously, guys, cut that shit from your thoughts altogether.
If you have a story to tell, don’t think about the length. Just let it spill out of your fingers. Write and rewrite until you’re entirely happy. And only then—at the very end—take a look at the word count and by it define which kind of book you created. Here are the standards
under 7k short story
7k – 17k novelette
17k – 40k novella
Over 40k novel – but depending on the genre, it still might be too short to pitch to publishers and agents.
If you want to shop your book later, you need to find out which agency or which publishing house is interested in which book length. For self-pub it doesn’t matter at all, but if you want to go traditional, here’s another article I found in the web that sums up the expected novel lengths for the market.
Writing 101 – block 14
The most essential thing for me is my critique partner. She’s the one who’s reading everything I write and gives me honest feedback. But it’s not that simple. What you do now is find a critique group online or if you’re lucky even in your hometown. Make sure that the group is dedicated to the genre you’re writing. There’s nothing worse than having a scince fiction writer critiquing your romance novel. Those groups very often have experienced writers who can help you get on with your skills. They take a look at your chapters and point out what’s good, what’s wrong, what’s working, and what’s missing. BUT…be very careful.
Everyone has a different style. It’s called an author’s voice. You need to find someone who likes your voice and can connect with your writing, or he/she will destroy your story with his/her own style. It happened to me at my early beginnings. I just changed my script to all their advices, and in the end it didn’t sound like me anymore, but like someone totally different. This was a hard lesson I had to learn, because in the end, I had to go back and start from zero again, giving my book the soul of my own voice back. After two years of learning in these groups, I settled in with one critique partner only. I love to edit her books, and she loves to read mine. We do a nice job for each other, but we never push our own style upon the other.
Your critique partner cannot be a family member or your best friend. It must be a person who understands the writing craft as a profession. Only then you will get useful critiques that you can work with and that will enhance your manuscript. Don’t ever think just because your sister tells you she loves your book it’s really a good book. Family and friends never ever give thruthful critiques, unless they are writers themselves and understand the importance of honesty, even if it hurts sometimes.
And finally, never take a bad critique personal so don’t get defensive. It’s all just very subjective. Pick out the pieces you like and toss the rest. You don’t have to justify yourself to a critique partner either. They don’t expect it. They just give you their personal and hopefully professional opinion, but to do that they need to know all the basics too.
Writing 101 – block 15
Never publish anything that hasn’t been edited by a professional.
Find a great editor that you can afford, but don’t take the cheapest, especially when you’re going to self-publish your book. You only want to give the audience a perfectly edited and polished novel. Look at the changes your editor made. If you’re unsure whether you like the changes, talk to your editor about it. Once all the changes are accepted, give the book to somebody else for a final proofread. We call them beta-readers. In the best case you have more than three and they all read the very final version of your novel. There are ALWAYS errors in a book, even after having a professional editor work on it. You just try to keep them at a minimum by having as many people read it as you can find before you publish it. I have eight beta-readers, and there are still errors in my books. No one can find everything.
Writing 101 – block 16
Be as creative as you can. Find a cover artist who makes covers for the genre you like. Take a look at their gallery. If they don’t have any cover pictures you can look at, they are probably not good enough. There are platforms like Shutterstock or Stocksy where you can download pictures from for your cover. If you want your book to stand out, give it some great colors. Don’t just take one picture but rather combine particular elements of more than one. It’ll make your cover unique. There’s nothing worse than three books in the same genre having the same cover picture.
Writing 101 – block 17
PUBLISHING HOUSE vs. INDIE PUB
I tried both. Currently I’m sticking with the latter.
Indie-publishing has a lot of advantages, such as:
You decide about the pace of your writing. When you’re done, you’re done. No deadlines.
You decide when it’s time to publish your book. Amazon let’s you do it within 24 hours. A publisher takes 2 to 3 years.
You get 70% royalties instead of only 8%.
You write the story how you like it.
You give the characters names that you like.
You come up with your own cover.
You decide about the book’s title.
You decide about the book’s price.
You can change the price at any time.
You can make changes to your book at any time.
You find an editor that you feel comfortable with.
However, the traditional way of publishing does have a good side, too. If they’re a good house, they’ll do some promotion for you. Paperbacks of your book will be available in bookstores and not only at Amazon.
Make your own choice here.
Writing 101 – block 18
If you decide to try a publishing house, you can either contact them directly or go the way via a literary agency. In both cases you need to prepare your script to be read and judged. Whatever you do, read the submission guidelines carefully and stick to them. Don’t ever think you’re such an amazing writer that they’ll make an exception for you. They won’t.
Write a capturing query letter. It is short and if it’s any good it reflects the voice of your hero or heroine. Start with an amazing tag line that makes the agent want to read on. Add the blurb. Add any relevant writing experience you have. It’s cool to mention you wrote several articles for the local newspaper. It’s shit to say you have ten finished books at home and your family loves them. Tell the agent exactly what the genre of this book is, the final word count, the POV in which it is written, and whether you self-pubbed it already.
After you wrote your query, be patient. Don’t send it off straight away. Rather let it sit for another week. Then let your critique partner take a look at it and let your editor polish it.
You have one chance to make an impression. Don’t screw it up.
Be prepared for a rejection. Agents are extremely picky, careful, reluctant, slow, and only take on the top 0.001% of the writers who send in their queries. Play With Me was rejected by 47 agents. After I self-published it and sold over 50,000 copies on Amazon, some of the same agents contacted me and offered me a contract. It’s nice to stand on the other end and have the possibility to say: Thanks, but no.
Writing 101 – block 19
A while ago, I wrote quite a detailed article about how to self publish a book with Amazon. I’ll just give you the link to it here.
Writing 101 – block 20
HANG IN THERE
Whatever happens, however often your book is being rejected, whatever people think or say about your story once it’s out on the market, and no matter how many tears you’re going to shed until the end – Never. Give. Up.