My advice for "aspiring" writers

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One of the questions every published author gets is “What’s your advice for aspiring writers?” As an English teacher, I get this even more than most writers, I think, because I’ve got lots of students who really want to write SF and Fantasy.

First off, take a look at my title. Notice the scare quotes around "aspiring”? That’s because there is no such thing as an aspiring writer. If you write, you’re a writer. Whether your stuff is the second coming of Shakespeare or the ramblings of a high school freshman who really needs to revisit basic grammar, you’re writing. And you’ll only get better if you keep working at it.

So, cool, writing is a nice goal. But how do you do it? Well, there’s no one true way, if we’re being honest. But a lot depends on why you want to write. If it’s just for your personal amusement, or the amusement of some friends, then do whatever you like. Read a lot, write a lot.

But if you want to publish… then here’s some advice:

  • Read. Read in your preferred genre. But also read out of your preferred genre. And don’t just look at the words. Really think about them. Note especially good sentences, try to figure out why they work as well as they do. Reading is good because it teaches you the genre, but also it teaches you how to write well. I didn’t take a dedicated course on English grammar until I was in college. But I had nearly perfect written grammar skills, because I’ve been reading my whole life, and I’ve seen how English works.

  • Read what's coming out NOW, not what was popular in 1976. Those books are good, and many should be read, don't get me wrong--but you need to know what the market is like NOW, not decades ago.

  • That said, don't chase the market. The way publishing works, you'll be years behind any current trend. Sure, there are fifty billion novels about Vampire out now* but by the time you finish your Vampire novel, the fad will be over. Write what you want to write--what fills you with passion--and don't be afraid to experiment.

  • Write. I mean, obviously, yeah? But the thing is, like I tell my students: The only way to get better at writing is by writing. You’ll see some writers out there telling you that you must write for X many minutes a day, EVER DAY. You’ll see other writers saying you must get X number of new words per day written. Both these pieces of advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, it’s good if you can write every day, but not everyone can. And sure, it’d be great if we could all get 2000 words per day out, but what if one day you can only do 150? Well, let me tell you: That’s good. If you need a day off, that’s fine—as long as you keep your deadlines in mind (once you have deadlines).

  • Find writers to talk to--either in person or online. A good place to learn the business, and talk to other writers, is absolutewrite.com.

  • Related to that, learn the Publishing business. It isn't enough to write, you need to know how Publishing works--what the timelines are, how agents work, what the schedules and the pay are like. Writers who don’t know how the business works get taken to the cleaners by predatory “publishers.” You need to know:

    • How searching for an Agent works

    • How Agents work in general

    • How Advances work

    • How royalties are calculated and paid

    • What’s normal for a publisher to do or ask you to do

    • How bookselling works

    (I’ll be covering most of this in future posts)

  • Check sources like Writer Beware before signing with small publishers; make sure they aren't predatory.

  • Remember the Yog’s Rule of Writing: Money flows TO the author. Never pay someone else to publish your work. Publishers don’t charge authors for editing or cover art.

  • Twitter is also a good place to get advice. MANY SFF writers hang out on Twitter, and many interact with aspiring authors and fans.

As always, you can ask questions by writing to me at michael@mjohnstonbooks.com. I’ll answer specific questions about writing, the Publishing industry, or whatever you like in future columns.