Follow me for daily tips about writing and self-publishing at my blog, Inventing Reality.
Generally, my blog examines the following topics each day:
• Sunday – Famous quotations about writing
• Monday – Writing techniques (plot, character, setting, point of view, theme, craft)
• Tuesday – Writing prompts
• Wednesday – Grammar
• Thursday – Self-publishing, ebooks, business of writing
• Friday – Marketing and promoting your book
• Saturday – Writing inspiration
Top 5 Writing Tips
Despite widely varying writing styles, almost all writers share several common habits that help ensure their success.
Drawing upon my experience working as an editor with hundreds of authors and having read far more interviews of or essays by writers, I’ve noticed five common habits among them. Any time an aspiring author asks me what they can do to become a better writer, I automatically recommend adopting those habits.
TIP 1: Read Every Day
Read great literature and read the best writing in your favorite genre. Pay attention to what makes it quality writing. For every five great books you read, read a poorly written one to see if you can recognize why it doesn’t work. People learn largely by observing then modeling what we saw – kids, for example, imitate their favorite athletes’ moves – and writers are no different. In fact, modeling a work you love by trying to write a story, line by line, just as the author did, is a great way to master the craft of writing and storytelling.
TIP 2: Write Every Day
You can’t be a musician unless you play a musical instrument, and you can’t be a painter unless you paint. Likewise, you can’t be a writer unless you write. The more you write, the better you’ll get, just as a would-be guitarist becomes the next Clapton or Frampton by constantly playing and practicing and experimenting with his six-string. Of course, you can take a day off now and then to recharge, just as a jogger waits 48 hours between runs to let her muscles heal and avoid overstressing them. But if you want to win the race – or hit No. 1 on the bestsellers list – then you must write far more days than not.
TIP 3: Follow a Writing Process
Pantsers (Those who write without an outline) really are one of three kinds of writers: geniuses (a rare few of them); poor writers just doing it for fun (many of them); or deluded (most of them). I say “deluded” because they actually are using a writing process – they’re just doing it in their head rather than jotting on paper ideas they’ve brainstormed, outlines of their plot, or bios of their characters. All of it’s up in their head. Most would be more productive if they wrote it down, however. The simple – and almost always nonlinear – steps in the writing process are: brainstorming; outlining; drafting; revising; and placing some revised draft into a final, publishable form.
TIP 4: Read Up on the Craft Itself
Articles about how to write better will help you think about problems in your writing that you’ve never recognized before. It’ll help you come up with solutions to plot and character and point of view issues that have perplexed you. You’ll find that most editors, published authors, literary agents, and creative writing teachers all dispense the same advice – use active voice, make conflict the heart of your story, show don’t tell, and so on. Mastering just those three bits of sage advice will make your writing a hundred times better.
TIP 5: Live Like a Writer
No, I don’t mean dress in all black and hang out all day at coffeeshops. (Though that is a lot of fun.) Rather, you must act and think like a writer. All writers, no matter what genre they write in, are observant, take an interest in all that’s around them, and ask questions, always believing that everything they see and hear and smell and feel and taste some how some way can find itself into their story. Ideas tumble around in their heads all the time, and they thirst for media and conversations in which the same is happening to whoever they are listening to or talking with. They think and speak like they want to write, using active verbs rather passive voice, offering concrete details rather than abstractions, and telling instead of showing. In short, they are writer 24/7 not just during the few minutes a day they sit in front of a computer screen or a composition book.
My Writing Process
As the author of more than 30 books, several of which have topped Amazon.com’s bestseller’s list for their genre, writers often ask me how I write them – that is, what process do I follow… if I even use a process.
I definitely follow several steps when working on a book.
The first step without a doubt is brainstorming, or coming up with the idea. It is that first mad scribble of notes about my characters, their conflicts, and the setting the story will occur. If writing nonfiction, it’s the book’s topic, a vague list of key points about the topic, and how my book will be different from others already written about the subject.
Once I settle on a specific topic, I move on to outlining. Getting down to work, I develop a scene-by-scene plan for what will occur in the story. For nonfiction, it’s a chapter-by-chapter listing of the key points and subpoints. I also do the bulk of my researching in this phase of the project.
From there, I begin drafting. The outline is fleshed out into actual written scenes from the start of the story to its end while for nonfiction the key points are written as articles with a paragraph or two on each subpoint. I usually write several drafts of my book.
Revising comes after the first draft is written. This ranges from correcting typos to rewriting whole scenes or sections of a chapter. With each set of revisions from the first to the last page, I create a new draft of the book.
Lastly, after several drafts, I arrive at a “final” version, bringing me to the formatting step. My final draft is structured so that it can be published as a paper book or an ebook.
To be clear, this process is nonlinear. While in a macro sense the steps are followed in the order listed, in reality I go back and forth between them. I’m often still brainstorming as outlining, trying to figure out what is the best climax to my story or what will be all of the key points needed for my nonfiction book. I’m always revising as drafting, correcting typos and rewriting poor lines of dialogue penned the day before or reworking the transitions between main points with a nonfiction book’s chapters. I even create a new outline for specific scenes when revising, as I decide the interaction between the characters just doesn’t work or that a key point is missing and must be added to my nonfiction tome.
But for almost every single paragraph written, I go through each of those five steps. Rarely does one just pop into my head with no need of an edit.
Why do I bother to go through all of that work?
Mainly because it forces me to think about what I’m writing, which typically results in a more complete and sophisticated work. Only a novice will sit down at the coffee shop, write for a few hours, and think he’s come away with a perfect, ready to publish story (Though sometimes, but very, very rarely, a true genius does this!). Writing typically involves a lot of mental sweat, and recognizing that you need to do a lot of exercising is vital to getting a chiseled body or that perfect book.
But there’s another benefit, in terms of productivity – the process saves me time. If I outline, I don’t have to start all over when my unplanned first draft turns out to be a structural mess. If I draft and revise several times, I don’t have to constantly reformat my book because I’ve decided later that I really need to rewrite it.
If you find you either aren’t as creative or as productive as you’d like, then consider using a process. The one I follow is tried and true, used by many writers before me…and will be by many great writers long after me. I hope you’ll be among those respected authors.
Tips for NaNoWriMo
Every year, more than a half-million writers participate in National Novel Writing Month with the goal of penning a 50,000-word novel during November. Unfortunately, many of them fall short of their objective while others who did complete the novel found doing so extremely stressful or realize that what they’ve written wasn’t all that good.
Kudos, though, to all of those writers who participated, even if they didn’t finish their novels. Writing a book – even part of one – is no easy task. And most writers, whether successful or not at NaNoWriMo, grow in their craft simply from the effort.
Of course, the goal is to finish your book. How can you do that…or at least reduce the stress of writing one or come up with something publishable by Dec. 1? Here are five “secrets” that most successful NaNoWriMo participants know.
TIP 1: Don’t Wait Until November to Start
Get started early in October. Spend the month brainstorming and outlining your plot, characters and settings. The more detailed the outline, the better, as writing during November then will be just a matter of turning notes into complete sentences and paragraphs as well as fleshing out details and ensuring your writing has flair. In short, November is about writing the first draft not coming up with a story idea, developing characters and storylines, or deciding which point of view is best. And no, you are not cheating by starting early.
TIP 2: Block Out Time Every Day to Write
Your goal is to write 1667 words a day, and doing that from an outline might require a half-hour, an hour, or even more. Determine in advance roughly how much time is needed; during a three-day weekend, set aside the morning of each day to write. Time how long it takes you each day to hit 1667 words and then average it. If that number is 45 minutes, then you must set aside 45 minutes every day in which you will not be interrupted by family members, in which you unplug the cell phone and Internet and television, in which you focus solely on writing.
TIP 3: Keep Writing if You Can
Of course, writing for 45 minutes a day for 30 days straight when you have family, work and holidays is difficult at best. And don’t forget that November usually is cold and flu season. So always work ahead on your word count. If you reach 1667 words in just 30 minutes one day, keep writing for the next 15 minutes. That puts you 800+ words closer to meeting the next day’s word count. And should you find that you have 50 minutes or an hour rather than 45 minutes to write one day, take advantage of the opportunity and keep going.
TIP 4: Don’t Edit
Rather than spend your writing time editing yesterday’s work or revising what you just wrote five minutes before, let it go. Treat your writing sessions as drafting sessions in which your goal is to simply get to 1667 words. You can fix the spelling, capitalization, punctuation, awkward wording, misused word, weak description, poor dialogue, and passive voice later. In fact, that’s why we have December. Yes, revising and editing is an important part of the writing process, but your sole focus during November ought to be on drafting.
TIP 5: Don’t Stop Thinking Once You’ve Stopped Drafting
Once your writing session is over for the day, don’t stop thinking about your story. Review your outline to see what comes next and then through the day keep working on it in your head as you fold laundry, set in a meeting, prepare dinner, pick up the kids, brush your teeth, walk the dog…you get the idea: You develop and play out in your mind what you will write the next day. Carry a pen and notepad with you to write down great lines, details and ideas so you don’t forget them!
Interview of Rob Bignell
Rob Bignell is Inventing Reality Editing Service’s owner and chief editor. He has published more than 30 books during the past decade.
Q: How did you become a writer and then an editor?
A: In second grade, I used to play “Star Trek” with one of my friends, whose mother was from Vietnam, One day my friend told me that he wished just once Sulu would get to save the day. I wrote a story that night on penmanship paper in which Sulu saved Captain Kirk and gave it to him the next day. He loved it, and I was his personal hero. For the first time, I tasted the power of writing. Despite that, I still wanted to be something other than a writer. I planned to be an astronaut, but then in fifth grade had to start wearing glasses. At the time, you couldn’t be a jet fighter pilot if you wore glasses, and the only way to become an astronaut was to fly jets. So I decided I would write about astronauts. In college, I majored in English and journalism, which led to careers as a teacher and a news reporter then news editor. When self-publishing gained traction in the late 2000s, I found a number of people asking me if I could edit their novels and nonfiction books, and that led me to starting my own business, Inventing Reality Editing Service.
Q: You’ve edited a number of books that have gone on to be published but also have published books and stories you’ve written. What do you prefer: Editing or writing?
A: Both! That sounds like a non-answer, but they complement one another. Editing makes me a sharper writer while writing makes me a more reflective editor. I couldn’t do one without the other.
Q: What mistakes do you see beginning writers most frequently making?
A: Many don’t think they need to know basic grammar. If you can’t make a story readable, no one will finish it. They often respond that an editor will fix it. I respond that if they haven’t thought about the significance of where they place a comma in affecting, even subtly, the direction and meaning of the story, they haven’t thought enough about the story. Many novices have difficulty mastering point of view and eliminating exposition, which is what the “Mastering the Craft of Writing” title in my writing guidebooks addresses.
Q: Do you use the techniques you recommend on your writing blog and in your books?
A: Yes, I follow the exact same process in writing my fiction, self-publishing my books, and promoting my titles. I feel very comfortable recommending what’s on my blog and in my books because I’ve successfully done it myself and know it works.
Q: Why did you decide to pen writing guidebooks?
A: After about four years of editing novels and nonfiction books, most of which were to be self-published, I found writers kept asking me the same questions over and over: What’s the best point of view for my story? How do I go about self-publishing my manuscript? What can I do to get people to buy my book? I tried to find them a title that answered all of their questions, but discovered all of the books lacking. So I compiled all of my answers into compact volumes. As most of these writers also were working and parents and involved in their communities and more, I wanted to present those answers in a way that would help them realize their writing dreams.
Q: Tell us about the writing guidebooks you’ve published.
A: The “7 Minutes a Day…” series’ four books are the perfect gift set for a budding novelist. The first tells how to write a novel. The second book, which is intended for nonfiction as well as fiction authors, tells you how to take the book you’ve just penned through the self-publishing process. The third book focuses on promoting that self-published book, regardless if it is nonfiction or a novel. The fourth addresses craftsmanship issues, such as creating your own voice through improving diction, narrative drive, and descriptive writing. My other writing guidebooks are a collection of writing prompts and essays that are affirmations for writers, whether they are aspiring or already published.
Q: Do you write other kinds of books?
A: I’ve published a literary novel, a few short stories in the science fiction and literary genres, a book of poetry, and more than 25 hiking guidebooks. Many of the hiking guidebooks have topped Amazon.com’s travel bestsellers lists.
Q: Which do you prefer to write: writing or hiking guidebooks?
A: Both! They’re very different subject matters, but like editing and writing they complement one another. When I’m hiking, I often work out in my head the problem a writing client is having with a story or how to explain to them how to solve some issue they’re having with self-publishing or promoting their book. When I pen my writing guidebooks, I often find myself saying, “Gee, I did this with my hiking titles, why wouldn’t it work for someone else’s book?”
Q: What kind of future does self-publishing have?
A: Self-publishing will dominate book production during at least the next decade if not longer. With the prevalence of smartphones and tablet, I see authors expanding their storytelling beyond words and pictures through improved technology.
Q: What do you think writers of the next decade will have to know about the publishing industry?
A: They’ll have to be tech savvy and creative beyond telling a mere story. While they won’t succeed if they can’t spin a good yarn, readers will expect them to add multiple layers to their book. For nonfiction books, that’ll be simple: If writing a medical text, when coming to organs in the digestive system, a graphic will pop up showing the parts as one reads about each one. But how does a novelist make use of these technologies? Maybe a map of the journey his mythic heroes undertake. Possibly pop-up recipes for the exotic dishes they make. That’s one small expectation readers soon will have because their smartphones and tablets are capable of delivering it. Someone then will go beyond the obvious, though, and revolutionize the whole way we tell and read stories.
Q: Would you advise anyone to be a writer? Why?
A: Absolutely. You’re already quite good at making up characters and developing stories – you used to do all the time when playing. There always will be a thirst for stories, especially those told by good storytellers, and if you’re so inclined to be a writer, I encourage you to pursue your ambitions. I’d also advise you to learn about technical applications and think about how they might be incorporated into the story to enhance it. This is an exciting time to be a writer, especially one who wants to be innovative and create new narrative approaches.