Just Say No! Writing Advice to Avoid

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Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: Mr Gansky, I am writer and have question for show. how can I publish book & make money very  fast. English is not my first language. Katerina Yermakova via e-mail Ps I am not robot PS this is not spam.

AARON: I understand English is not your first language. First, I need to know, are you writing in English? Do you live in America? My answer really depends on the answers to those questions.

I will assume you’re writing in your native language and selling to an audience who also reads in that language. And, sadly, the answer to your question is: you don’t. Publication takes a very long time (usually a year or more). Additionally, it’s very difficult to make money writing books. I’ve made some, but only enough to buy lunch from time to time. The reality is, most writers have a day job to pay bills, and they write in their spare time. In terms of making money–publishers have been trying to figure that out for years. They still can’t figure out what makes a book sell. Yes, some people self-publish and make a ton of cash. But for every one who does, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who self-publish and make very little off of it. If you’re great at marketing, you might have a shot at making a living. If you’re not, the chances of writing a blockbuster novel are slim, especially early on. Most big-name writers become famous for their later novels.

I hope this information is helpful and not too disappointing. I write for the joy of it, not for the money, and I think that’s the best reason, maybe the only reason, to do what we writers do.

Best of luck, and thanks for listening!

AL: I echo what Aaron says, but I’ll add this: First, traditional publishing is a slow business. It’s like watching glaciers race. It can take up to two years in traditional publishing for your book to hit the shelves of a bookstore. Traditional publisher pay royalties only twice a year, so (assuming there are royalties to be had, it will be a long time between checks. That’s one reason most publisher pay an advance.

So, if speed is the real issue, then I suggest self-publishing. You’ll have to learn the tricks of the trade but it can be done. With self-publishing you can have a finished book up pretty quick. Self-published authors get a larger percentage of cover price. That’s the good news. The bad new is, there is no advance. Most self-publishing services like Kindle Direct pay monthly. It might be something to think about.

MOLLY: I agree, there isn’t a golden formula. Any writing worth the money, is also worth the time and effort. That means writing, rewriting, editing; all things that take time. Don’t be in such a rush to get published that you forego quality and research. It’s not the answer you want, but it’s the answer that will take your farther in this career.

Firsts in Fiction
JUST SAY NO! RULES YOU SHOULDN’T FOLLOW

There is no shortage of writers (professional and otherwise) who are willing to give writing advice. Sometimes, they repeat what they hear. Other times, they insist their way is the best way or the only way. Regardless, there’s some fantastically terrible advice out there that has somehow become “canon,” or the accepted list of “rules.” We’ve never been fans of playing by the rules, so here’s a list of terrible “writing rules” you should ignore.

  • Write what you know.
    • Pops, I like the way you say this: Know what you write (at least I think you said that). If all writers only wrote about what they know, every protagonist would be a writer (or a teacher trying to be a writer). But if you write about what interests you, you end up with an interesting book to write/read. But you do need to know what you’re writing about. Good research can help take care of that.
    • It is mandatory that you know what you’re writing about, but you can learn that. Michael Crichton wrote Timeline, a novel about time travel and the middle ages. I’m pretty sure, Dr. Crichton didn’t live through the middle ages or time travel. He learned what he needed to know.
    • Half the fun of writing is learning. I’ve written about commercial space flight, special ops procedures in the field, WWII submarines, small town politics, genetic manipulations, and so much more. So: Write what interests you and learn as you go. Research is so adventurous, and there are so many ways to get that knowledge. Google Earth for locations. Internet and libraries for documents and articles. Interviews. Send letters. Talk to people. Go people watching.
  • Your manuscript must be Courier type.
    • So I think this comes from the old days when publishers wanted to know how many words were on a page so they could properly estimate the amount of printed pages it would take. I could be completely wrong, and if so, I’m sure Pops will correct me. If anything, your manuscript needs to be in Times New Roman, 12 point font with 1 inch margins, double spaced. That’s the industry standards. However, it’s best to check with whatever publisher you’re submitting to. See what they want, and edit your manuscript accordingly. I spent a week or two over the summer making a manuscript match the submission guidelines for a new publisher. It was a pain.
    • Aaron is spot on about this. The only place I know where Courier type is required (and I believe this is changing) is in film scripts and has to do with timing. In the movies, one page of script usual equals one minute of screen time. So 120 page script will be around a two hour movie. Do check submission standards for any publisher you’re submitting to. By the way, use any font and format you want when you’re writing. I set my page up to match a finished book, then when I’m done, I take a few minutes to put it in standard format. By the way, Courier was chosen because scripts and manuscripts were written on typewriters and most typewriters used a font similar to Courier.
    • Just make sure whatever format you use, in the end your manuscript is streamlined. Don’t use different fonts for different characters or chapters. That’s disjointed and distracting.
  • Agents will help me with marketing.
    • I tried hard not to laugh out loud when I read this. No one helps with marketing. SIGH.
    • Agents have a very specific and well-defined role to play. They advise the writer on content, writing, presentation, and submit the manuscript to publishers, read the contract, negotiate on behalf of the author, and strike the deal. They do not, as part of their work, advise on marketing. (There are some exceptions. A few agents came out of marketing.) Traditional publishers have their own marketing department or may hire one.
  • It is best to write in the morning.
    • We’ve said this before: do what works for you. There are plenty of examples of writers who write at night. I think the idea here is to prioritize your writing over other, less important things. Like eating and sleeping?
    • For many years I’ve taught writers this principle: learn how your brain is wired. Forget how other writers do it. I find the personal practices of writers interesting but what they do has nothing to do with me. I’m better in the morning than I am in the evening. I’ve known writers who can’t produce until their family is in bed. Experiment. Learn what you’re comfortable with and write when you can. Sometimes life dictates when we write so you may have to work at less than your optimum time.
    • Give yourself permission to write in spurts. A few minutes on lunch, before dinner, talk-to-text with your smartphone on your evening jog. You don’t have to set aside one block of time each day. Write when you can, when it’s best for you.
  • Never use semicolons (this came from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)
    • It’s a valid punctuation. It has a purpose. If you’re using them too often, it can be distracting, but so are exclamation points. And . . . ellipses. Those still pop up from time to time. And I’m less offended by semicolons, to be honest.
    • You might be surprised how often I’ve heard writers say this. Humbug! The semicolon has its place. Some writers say it knocks the reader out of the story. Double humbug! (I’ve always wanted to use that word.) The semicolon is a perfectly acceptable bit of punctuation. Of course, you need to know how to use it, but it will serve you well once you do. Writers should not be afraid of punctuation.
  • Outlining is a must / outlining is bad.
    • People who insist you have to write one way are usually those who have only written one way. Both work. Whatever gets your MS done.
    • I believe every author should know how to outline. It has many advantages. Still, many of us prefer the intuitive approach (please don’t call it seat of the pants writing). Many of my novels were written by the discovery method, but I’ve done many from an outline. The faster I need to produce, the more likely it is that I will outline.
  • Never start a novel with a prologue.
    • I like them. This was a thing for a while. I’ve heard publishers say, “I liked HOA, but I don’t like that it starts with a prologue.” I say, “You didn’t like the prologue?” They say, “We loved it. But it’s a prologue.” So I shook my head and went somewhere else. However, avoid prologues for the sake of prologues. You have to have a compelling reason to include one. For me, it was worldbuilding. It was showing history that had implications for the future of the book.
    • This is one of those myths I wish would crawl back in its cave. A prologue is powerful tool. I have never seen any evidence to suggest that readers resent it. Prologue is a short chapter that introduces action that doesn’t immediately apply to your protagonist. Most writers believe that the protagonist should be introduced in the first chapter. If for some reason you need to set up a few things, then the prologue is the way to go. Clive Cussler is the master of the prologue and tying it into the third act of the story.
  • Third person pov is better than first person pov.
    • Yup. Any other questions? This one is good. Okay, okay. Maybe not. I prefer 3rd, but 1st is fine as well, so long as it’s executed properly. 1st person is very easy to do poorly. So is third, come to think of it. (A brief reminder for the new people.)
    • I’ve done a lot of both and love both. I will admit that I have more fun with first person. I’m working on the next installment of the Harbingers Series, which are all done in first person pov so I have it on the top of my brain right now.
  • Never use adverbs or adjectives
    • We use them all the time. Pops, you said it best when you said if it changes the way you read the noun or verb or dialog, then it “earns it’s place.” I’m fine with that, and I think that’s good advice. Simply eliminating them all feels overly punitive.
    • Right-o, Aaron. Modifiers are necessary and powerful. The problem is over using. As I’ve said before, seasoning should make a dull meal good but should never be the meal. My general rule is take out the modifier and if that cripples the sentence I put it back. Ex. “She smiled happily.” (silly) “She smiled sadly.” (That adverb brings a lot to the table. Keep it.
  • Titles aren’t important. They’ll change anyway
    • Titles are tricky, but they are important. Have a few in mind for the publisher to pick from. Titles have been known to sell books (especially in non-fiction).
    • Every manuscript should have a working title. It might be your favorite title. But publishers (those in the marketing and sales department) will often change the title. Only the best of the bestselling authors get cover and title approval in their contracts. About 75% of my title stick with little or no change. Also, I submit the proposal with a working title and at least three or four other titles for them to choose from. I want them to know that I understand the need for the best possible title. (A wee anecdote: Prodigy was changed to The Prodigy.)
  • Avoid flashbacks
    • I hear this occasionally, and I’m trying to figure out why. I think it’s because, in a strictly chronological story, flashbacks can be distracting. But sometimes they’re necessary. I think of LOST, which incorporated them very nicely into the story, but that was a non-chronological show. Maybe if you’ve got several flashbacks, the advice should be, write non-chronologically.
    • Flashbacks can be confusing if handled poorly. Seldom is a full flashback needed. They used to be more popular than they are now. My rule of thumb is use them rarely and only if there’s no other way to convey the needed information.
  • Fiction can’t be taught
    • I think it’s safe to say we’re a little off-put by this. If it couldn’t be taught, we’d be wasting our time and your time. The truth is, it can be, and it often has been. But you can’t make someone learn who doesn’t want to learn.
    • The craft of fiction can certainly be taught. Talent is another matter. Talent is developed, exercised, fed, but doing the work and studying the masters. Even Leonardo da Vinci had to apprentice for some time before his talent became craft.
  • Avoid jargon and foreign phrases
    • Because why? It’s confusing to the reader? Perhaps. I think we want to find the balance. Use them sparingly, perhaps, but don’t eliminate them completely. I think they add a layer of credibility and authenticity.
    • Jargon badly handled can be a disaster. I keep saying, “Never forget your reader.” If you use jargon–terms used by a subset of people (say NASA engineers, medical doctors, etc)–without clueing your reader in, then the read will feel lost, dumb, and toss your book aside. The trick is to be creative in using it. My biggest challenge with this came with the Jeff Struecker books. Lots of military terms that I had to explain without appearing to explain it. It was a real headache but I found ways of doing that.
  • Spellcheck is your best friend.
    • Oh, no. It’s not. Don’t assume because a computer tells you it’s written incorrectly that it really is written correctly. Keep a thesaurus, dictionary, and editor on speed-dial.
  • Just write the crummy first draft, edit it later.
    • Molly: I have tried moving forward. My brain doesn’t work that way. When I get stuck, if it’s not right, I have to work on the chapter until it is. As a discovery writer, when something pops up that I didn’t realize, I need to go back to previous chapters and work it in the details. It gives me great anxiety to move forward when I know something isn’t right. Do what’s best for you and your manuscript. Just make sure it’s forward movement.
    • Aaron: I still advocate writing the crummy first draft. I insist on it. Apparently, this causes Molly anxiety. I guess I’ll continue to insist on doing what works for you.
  • Just write your story. Your editor will clean it up for you.
    • As an editor, I can tell you this kind of writer is hard to deal with. If you want to be a successful author, put forth a good deal of effort. Don’t expect others to do it for you. If you leave the details up to the editor you’re going to have one of three things: A ghostwriter or co-writer; a higher fee; or a crappy book.

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