Saturday, June 27, 2020

Advice for writers

I received a very sweet comment on a blog post on the subject of writing from last February as follows:
Hi Mrs. Lewis, do you have any home school tips for a 14-year-old who wants to earn money as a writer? As in how to get from typing at the dining table to a paycheck in the mail. :) I comment on your blog often but always anonymously because of trolls. I respect and admire you very much!

Sometimes it's hard to believe I'm a writer. After decades of hoping and submitting and rejection, I can now legitimately make the claim that I'm a writer. Wow.

To learn just why this concept still blows me away, allow me to direct your attention to a blog post I wrote nine years ago entitled "Writing for God."

Go on and read it. I'll wait.

(insert elevator music)

Now you might understand why being a writer still amazes me.

Those years of rejection weren't wasted, as it showed me how the writing world works and taught me a great deal. To that end, I'm delighted to offer some advice to my young reader. Some of this advice applies to non-fiction writing, and some to fiction writing.

• Read. Very few writers are also not voracious readers. My grasp of grammar is appalling, but I've picked up the understanding of what makes compelling writing by reading compelling writing.

• Write. Duh. I know this is obvious, but a surprising number of people who want to write just never get around to it. They read about writing, they attend workshops and seminars, but they use every excuse in the book to avoid putting the seat of their pants in the seat of the chair. As Chris Baty (founder of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo) said in his excellent book "No Plot? No Problem!", "If there's one thing successful novelists agree on, it's this: The single best thing you can do to improve your writing is to write. Copiously."

• Don't expect to get paid for your writing, at least right away. While there are exceptions, most people have to go through the grunt-work of building their writing credits, which often means giving away their writing for free while they build a platform and an audience. I've written my weekly WND column since 2008 for free. My "pay" has been training (I had to learn to write columns) as well as slowly building a readership. Look for opportunities to write for free, and use those opportunities to build your résumé.

• Where should you look for unpaid writing opportunities? Start with offering guest-pieces to online sources in your area of interest. Launch a blog. Write newspaper op-eds. If you write fiction, do some indie-publishing. Anything to demonstrate you can write.

• Learn what you're doing wrong. Get your ego out of the way, and listen to (and act upon) constructive criticism – especially if it comes from editors. However, be wary of offering your work to be critiqued by amateurs. Sometimes this can be more emotionally damaging than helpful.

• Write what you know. If you're writing non-fiction, it's helpful to begin with stuff with which you're already familiar. In the case of this young reader, the obvious subjects are homeschooling and whatever her family situation is like (her family's line of work? her passions and hobbies?).

• Start small and work your way up. This is part of the "building your résumé" side of things. Unless you have a staggeringly unique story, the big magazines and publishers just aren't interested in an unknown writer. That's why it's important to get writing credits wherever you can.

• Develop an online presence. I am social-media-phobic (with the exception of this blog), but most younger people don't suffer from this affliction. Keep your online presence squeaky-clean and begin to build an audience.

• It never hurts to ask. Smaller magazines, guests posts for bloggers, newspaper op-eds … it never hurts to pitch something at a publishing opportunity. The secret is to phrase your pitch in a way that explains why your contribution would be useful to the publisher's readers. What benefits will readers gain by reading your article? What will they learn? Why is the information important or useful?

• If someone pitches, pitch back. If you're fortunate enough to have something accepted, never hesitate to follow up with even grander possibilities. One of my earliest publishing breakthroughs came with Countryside Magazine. When they "pitched" by accepting my first article, I "pitched back" by proposing to expand the subsections into separate stand-alone full-length articles, which resulted in nearly three years' worth of articles published, which were later turned into an ebook. Remember, it never hurts to ask. All they can do is say no. And your willingness to do extra work will be remembered.

• Be professional. Meet your deadlines, meet the word count requirements, and make sure your copy is clean and error-free. Those three things alone distinguish the professional from the amateur.

There are many fine books on writing available. I hesitate to give book recommendations for novice writers because I don't want to distract them from the process of writing. That said, I have two recommendations for fiction writing that should be in every writer's library:

GMC (Goal, Motivation and Conflict) by Debra Dixon. Possibly the single-most useful and helpful analysis for building a compelling fiction plot, and a classic in its field. It's a bit pricey ($20) but worth every penny. Scout around and see if you can find a used copy.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham, author and writing instructor at Univ. of Oklahoma (now deceased). This is an older book (1991) but it's one of the best I've ever read for pinpointing common fiction-writing errors. I've given writing workshops based on this book, it's so good. Amazon has several used copies.

Now, dear readers, it's your turn. What additional advice can you give our novice 14-year-old writer who wants to earn some money through her word craft?


  1. Patrice, as a fairly long time steady blogger (Year 11), inveterate journaler (31 years) and self published author (10 books), I cannot really add anything to what you have said but emphasize the writing aspect. Write. Write often. Write regularly. And by all means, avoid the habit of self-editing right after you write (this is the killer).

    If I had a second suggestion, it would be decide whom you are writing for and write for that market. In some ways authors think that publishers are looking for reasons to reject people - they are, of course, but they are also looking for the next big writer and book series. Find a market, target it, be good at your craft, and (if you can) have an audience to come with you. Make it hard for the publisher to say no.

    And, as you said, read. The reality is the elements of a great book or article are already out there. One just needs to read enough of them to learn what makes them great.

  2. I had an aha moment when reading a Jerry D Young book. It was a scene where two folks were getting out of a truck to go to a laundromat. He spent two sentences describing a woman, that had nothing to do with the story, walking buy on the sidewalk pushing a baby buggy. Things like that help me to get the movie running in my head when I read. This can, of course, be taken to an extreme where it becomes a distraction.

  3. Thank you for responding to my question and for your reader's comments as well. Those are wonderful suggestions. I guess I'd better get to work!

  4. Paul Graham has an essay, 'The Age of the Essay' at his site that investigates his explorative essay writing. It's very good, his essays aren't like what they teach in school, but really expositions that end up also being part of the investigative process for writing. More interesting than the fiction short story/research paper that made up my English education decades ago.

    In addition, a few years ago, I came across
    Freshman Rhetoric, John Rothwell Slater, Ph.D. Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Rochester, (1913)
    at the Internet Archive. I wish I'd had it when I was in school. Very straightforward on developing writing ability for entering college freshmen. A later edition I found at Amazon had more on paragraph/sentence development but left out the chapter 5 on note taking which I found finally made me see how to really do an outline.

    both of the above will show up in a search.

    It occurs to me, if note taking is developed then taken further to a short write up, that would not only help with writing and the class, but the write ups might be read by peers, perhaps at the cost of giving feedback on clarity, etc. to the author?

  5. a)
    For decades, I tuned my craft by re-writing passages I admired.

    I experimented with different sentence structures while plugging-in different words.
    Although I no longer use this technique on paper, I notice I often 'tidy' something in my mind while I'm reading... with the goal of better communication.
    Communication is the transfer of information through words (and acts...).

    For punchy first sentences for your next story -- or complete stories in one sentence -- I highly recommend the annual competition by the Bulwer-Lytton folks at:

    You might remember the author's frequently-mocked opening sentence from a couple centuries ago:
    * It was a dark and stormy night...

    They offer archives of section winners from the beginning of their dark-n-stormy contest about a decade ago..

    Another source for a different area of emotion is the website for Tuol Spleg Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

    During the Holidays Celebration portion of the weekly Saturday Market in Eugene Oregon, local writers fill the atrium with tables of their offerings.
    Swing by, let us know your impression(s)!

    For me, writing is worse than an obsession.
    Writing and, prior to this phase of this Economic Lock-Down, hanging-out with writers with the intent of honing our work, is my essence.

    For without my precious writing, I do believe I shall perish... and this particular planet would be the worse for that loss.

    Did I mention 'ego' as part-n-parcel of the writer's motivation?

    One final point:
    * Are you introvert enough to invest hours and years alone, doing one act over-n-over, writing until you are satisfied this is your best?
    * Are you extrovert enough to attend book-signings and promotional tours?

    I close with this:
    * fewer people are reading.
    Your best works may end-up 'remaindered', cover removed prior to its donation to a jail or rust-home, alone and unappreciated for its magical splendor.
    And this's OK, too.
    You did your best, and in the end and for all eternity, this's the important part of your acts.