AAA — Advice to Aspiring Authors

Take My Advice… Please

By Jeff Salter

If you are known to be a published author, sooner or later you’re going to have conversations with people who act like writing is no big deal and they could toss off a manuscript in no time… if only they were sufficiently interested and/or motivated. I’ve had several of these conversations — but the one which most sticks in my mind is someone who had an excellent grounding in literature and presumably was sincere in his confident belief that “if [he] could manage to take off time from work, [he] could knock out a novel in two weeks.”

That’s one of the good things about the NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – each November… in which aspiring novelists are encouraged to throw reservations to the wind and crank out 50,000 words in 30 days. Many do. But some discover – as I believe my aforementioned acquaintance would – that it ain’t quite as easy as it looks.

To people who engage me in such conversations, I do NOT pour cold water on their delusions. In fact I encourage them to try to carve out that time, commit to putting words on paper, and make an earnest effort to complete a poem / story / novella / novel. But I also know many of them won’t – perhaps can’t – for whatever reasons. And there are many legitimate reasons, including, time, stress, environment, relationships, finances, employment, etc.

Advise-scrabble

Take My Advice, Please

I’ve encountered other people who DO write already, DO exhibit a commitment to produce words about [something], and DO wish one day to see that project completed and published. When these folks ask for my advice, which many have done, these are some of the things I tell them:

Feedback

Find someone whose opinion you value, who DOES possess a grounding in literature and / or writing, who is hopefully knowledgeable in the genre you’re writing, who is willing to provide honest and constructive criticism — and ask if they’re willing to look over your manuscript.

Sometimes family members are NOT the best choices for this function, as they can be either too “soft” in their feedback… or too “hard.” Sometimes close friends are NOT the best choices… for some of the same reasons. You never want a critique of your project to damage a good friendship. Sometimes co-workers are NOT the best choices… since you don’t want a working relationship to be adversely affected. I suggest you find someone who has some degree of distance from you, but who also genuinely wants to help you in your writing career. This could be a trusted mentor, teacher, or professor… as three possibilities.

Are You Too Rigid to ACCEPT Constructive Criticism?

I went through a phase – as I suspect many other writers have also done – early in my writing life when I really did not want anyone to make any SUGGESTIONS about my manuscript… even though that was my stated request. What I truly wanted, however, was praise and respect.

I think many – perhaps most – young writers go through a phase when they believe their iteration is solid gold, completely perfect, worthy of global honors. Writers’ egos are often fragile things, and the wrong kind of feedback – whether too critical or overly praiseful – can set back a writer’s development (rather than advance it). This is why it’s so important that you find the right type of person to provide that feedback.

Equally important is your willingness to swallow your justifiable pride (at your composition) and ACCEPT the feedback you’ve requested from someone you trusted. Otherwise, this is merely an exercise of searching until you find a reader who merely lavishes praise – partly or wholly empty – but dares not tell you the truth.

This is very difficult terrain in the developmental phase of an aspiring author’s life. I’ve met many adults who “used to write” as youngsters, but were dissuaded because they showed their work to the wrong people and got feedback that basically killed their creative drive. I’ve also met people who seem to have been given nothing but the highest praise for every syllable they wrote… and therefore believe they’re the greatest writers on God’s green earth. Both extremes are damaging.

Revise, Revise, Revise

I’ll state this clearly and I believe it’s true 99% of the time — your First Draft is NOT perfect. Nor is your Second Draft. And probably not even your Third Draft. Roll up your sleeves and go back through your story with a critical eye. Folks, I’ve found issues in a manuscript after five or six drafts, plus three rounds of edits. It’s EASY for writing problems to slip though the cracks and it’s HARD for the author to find them all, even WITH multiple rounds by professional editors.

Beta Reader

Assuming you’ve already completed some manuscript, try to locate a trusted Beta Reader. Using some of the same criteria I suggest in the first section (above), it needs to be someone with grounding in literature and the mechanics of writing, who is hopefully knowledgeable in the genre you’re writing, and who is willing to provide honest and constructive criticism.

As with the other category (feedback) you must be willing to value and diligently consider the recommendations from that Beta Reader. Does that mean you have to accept / utilize every single suggestion? No. But if you find yourself just discarding everything your Beta Reader recommended, then why did you bother?

Another point here: do NOT send your Beta Reader a very rough or incomplete draft. The last thing you want them to be distracted by are your omissions or continuity issues that would be cleaned up on a later draft anyway. Wait until you have a solid, complete second or third draft before you send it to your Beta Reader. Don’t waste their time on something that you haven’t even finished.

“But what if I need to know whether I’m headed in the right direction?” you may ask. Well, I think it’s okay to consult a trusted Beta Reader about a project in progress… but keep it in general terms. Do NOT dash off an incomplete first draft, and send it to a Beta — that wastes the time and effort of the Beta and dilutes the usefulness of that Beta’s feedback.

I’ve had marvelous results with my beta readers. And even though I don’t always like what they tell me, I’ve earned to trust it and – in most cases – follow their advice. One good example was when my Reader pointed out that having this particular exchange (between the primary characters) where it was, wrecked the momentum and mood of the scene where I’d written it. After re-reading that chapter, I realized the Reader was correct, and I re-wrote parts of one or two earlier chapters to allow me to have that exchange EARLIER, before the climactic scene.

Another example was when one of my two Beta Readers told me that I had too many scenes in the same location and I needed to move some of those scenes to other settings. At first I dismissed the advice – partly because it would require so much time and effort to redo all those scenes. But later, when my other Beta Reader said basically the same thing, I realized I was wrong and simply had to correct that flaw. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick, but it made for a much better story.

Deal With a Professional Editor

Here’s the advice I hand out most often, and – surprisingly – it’s almost always ignored. And many times the individual tells me straight out that they won’t do what I suggest. That is to have your manuscript go through at least one professional editor before you submit it somewhere significant (whether that’s a contest, an agent, or a publisher). A professional editor is experienced in spotting abrupt shifts, too-lengthy passages, un-motivated characters, unrealistic dialog, etc. A person who happens to be a good proofreader is NOT necessarily a great editor… and if you go that route you may end up with a manuscript that’s perfectly spelled, but NOT assembled well.

“But editors cost money,” you may say. Yes, they do. Many charge you a penny a word, which would be $600 for a 60,000 word novel. [There are many free-lancer editors who charge lesser fees, but beware of “discounts” that sound too good to be true. I see a LOT of authors complain that they paid for an editor, but the editor apparently just scanned the manuscript. Ask for references before you contract with an editor. A good editor will not be offended.]

If you’re fortunate enough to be working with a traditional royalty publishing outfit, the publisher fronts the cost of the editors, proofers, cover artists, etc. — so it’s possible you won’t be out-of-pocket anything. But many authors “self-publish” – cutting out the middleman, so to speak – and therefore must pay for each stage of the publishing process. And some of those authors are tempted to cut corners, thinking, “I don’t really need an editor.” But you do… truly you do. I know of one example where an individual paid to have a work printed… but obviously declined to pay for the EDITING of that manuscript. The result was – and I’m not exaggerating – an average of six typographical errors per page in the published work. I’m sure that author thought the story was in great shape and didn’t “need” the service of a paid editor. Wrong. If a 100-page book has 600 typographical errors, that’s a travesty. Folks, you get what you pay for… and you also DON’T get what you REFUSE to pay for. Don’t be the author who thinks their manuscript is clean as a whistle, simply because you’re so close to the story that you no longer see all the problems.

Question:

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?

– – – –

In a past blog, I covered some general advice (about life). If you’re curious, here’s the link:

https://fourfoxesonehound.wordpress.com/2018/03/15/i-didnt-need-no-stinking-advice/

 

[JLS # 487]

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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12 Responses to AAA — Advice to Aspiring Authors

  1. jbrayweber says:

    Great post, Jeff. And spot on. Especially the part of writer’s skipping the editor. As both an author and a freelance editor, I can say with confidence that mistakes can and will be missed. Over and over, no matter how well-trained the eye or how long a professional has been in the industry. That’s why at many publishing houses, more than one person goes over the book before it hits the “shelves”. Developmental editors are not the same as proofreaders and I fully believe, while both are important, the developmental editor is a must.

    Authors must grow that thick skin and keep it intact throughout their careers. They should always look for constructive feedback and be willing to continue to grow and improve.

    The one piece of advice I give new writers is to seek out a writing group in your chosen genre (romance, mystery, children’s, sci-fi, etc.) and connect with like-minded people. Find a tribe. There is so much to learn from your peers!

    I’ve gotten loads of great advice over the years. One of the best is also one of the simplest—Just keep swimming. Stolen directly from Disney Pixar’s beloved blue tang fish named Dory. Setbacks will happen but we will eventually reach our goals if we just keep swimming.

    I can’t recall ever getting terrible advice. But I will say that what may work like gang-busters for someone may not work for everyone. Even some of the tried and true advice can go over like a led balloon depending on a sub-genre an author might write. In other words, results may vary.

    Happy Thursday!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Thanks, Jenn. Each of your points is right on target. Keep writing, connect with other writers, secure the services of a perceptive editor, be flexible, and take generic advice with a grain of salt.
      I’ve never forgotten some of the “advice” I read back in 2006 — I think — by a best-selling author who reproduced her query letter to the agent who eventually accepted her. Even then, I thought to myself: “now everybody’s gonna send in a three paragraph, breezy, ‘take-it-or-leave-it” note as their query letter… and most agents (or their interns) will throw them out the window.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great advice, Jeff. Those who think they could pump out a novel in two weeks but never have are not worth listening to, in my opinion. To authors who put their heart and soul into their stories, that would be a slap in the face after all the work they’ve done to bring a good tale to the reader. And those authors who do put out novels almost as fast, I can’t help but wonder how. They must have a longer work day than the rest of us, have someone else doing most of the work, such as the self-editing phase, proofing, research, checking on changes from critiquers, going through what the editor has marked for changes, final read-through of the story, plus. Yes, it makes me wonder.

    The best advice I ever received was to develop a thick skin. You’ll get all kinds of criticism from others on your work, all the way from your family to critiquers, beta-readers, editors, other authors, and finally readers. You need to weigh each comment and see if it is valid or a throw-away. But you can’t let these things get under your skin.

    The worst advice I ever received was to never use an adverb. LOL It was a trend for a while, but I think people are starting to realize the adverbs have their place in writing when you want to emphasize something. Although most can be eliminated. We do have a tendency to use them in speech when they aren’t necessary, so it’s natural they would find their way into our writing. But to rid your work of all of them, especially in dialogue, takes out the emotion a character is experiencing in some cases.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      LOL — yes the “no adverb” dictum has always struck false with me. Certainly, they can be over-used or poorly used. And, yes, back in the day, they were frequently the “norm”.
      Just like we’ve gotten away from the dialog tags in every single comment from each character… most of us now use adverbs sparingly.

      Like

  3. Patricia Kiyono says:

    Great points! And I agree with Sharon’s advice about developing thick skin. When you’ve been living with a manuscript for so long, it becomes your “baby” and criticism can be hard to accept. But it’s better to find and fix problems before it’s submitted (or published) rather than after.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Jeff Salter says:

      yes, thick skin and — yet — flexibility. If I had not been flexible when my first fiction contract was in the offing… I may still be looking for that first published title.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, my post is ready for tomorrow and we hit on some of the same points, Jeff. I, too, am asked for advice,(once they find out anything you have written has ever been published, they are
    impressed).
    I have to add that $600.00 can be a daunting amount, especially for a young writer. First works, as you said, do not have to be perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Oh, I absolutely agree that taking a title through the entire production process at one’s own expense can be prohibitive to someone on a tight budget.
      Self-publishing works wonderfully for many people and they evidently have enough cushion built into their budgets to absorb the various fees (editing, formatting, uploading, cover art, etc) as part of their normal overhead. But for me — retiree on fixed income — I could not possibly scare up that kind of money.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are good editor who will work with a writer on payments for their services. If only I had known that when I first published, it could have saved me the time of redoing all of my first three books. 🙂 But there are so many good editing programs online now, 3 of which I use for my self-editing before I ever send off a chapter to my critiquers. Critiquers are also great for catching errors, in spelling, grammar, and flow. Even with problems areas of the story/plot. The programs I use are all offered free, although, I do pay for the advanced program on one of them.
        My advice to new writers (and even some of the published ones), or anyone on a tight budget is to use any and all of the free services offered to get the story the best it can be the first time.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Elaine Cantrell says:

    Great advice, Jeff. I imagine many people are surprised at how much has to be done to put a quality book on the shelves.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Amen. It’s a lot of work, all the way through the process.
      That said, I have had a few stories which have written themselves with greater ease and coherence… and, therefore, required less anguishing work during revisions.
      But I’ve also had stories which have required massive overhauls and re-writes before they even got to the stage that they could be read by a beta.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Bhagyashree says:

    Great tips! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Like

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