So You Want to Be a Writer? Part 2

[My second essay for The Dillydoun Review – it’s about a 5 minute read for anyone interested in the business of writing and publishing (primarily fiction).]

You’ve done the work, you’ve written and re-written your story or manuscript multiple times, and you’re ready to submit your work to a publisher or agent. 

But how do you know your work is ready?

It can be difficult for a writer to turn a critical eye to their own work. It’s easy to overlook flaws or mistakes when you’re the one who created them. 

I’m talking about things like word choice, grammar, plot holes and dialogue. Do you have textual crutches you fall back on when you write, easy phrases you don’t realize you’re using? Are there phrases or words you repeat throughout your manuscript which, while they seem fine to you, might drive your readers crazy?

There are limited strategies for sussing out these sorts of problems, and like most things in a creative endeavor they can be highly subjective. 

Honest critical feedback is key to improving a story or manuscript, and to improving writing skills overall. Unfortunately, while honest feedback is your best friend, your best friend probably won’t give you any.

So how as writers do we critique and edit our own work, or find someone else to do it? 

I’ve adopted three strategies for addressing this problem. 

First, my go-to process was created by Samantha “Sam” R. Glas on her exceptional blog “Writing Like a Boss.” 

Sam has condensed a masterclass into a single post with “10 Warning Signs of Amateurish Writing & How to Fix Them.” 

Number 7, “Unnecessary Word Choice,” includes a list (from Writers Write) of filler words you can cut from your manuscript, words you and your readers will never miss. 

This may seem elementary, but the first time I used #7 to review a draft of a new novel, I found I’d used the word “just” over 400 times. It’s excessive, even for a sci-fi epic clocking in at 110k words.

400 edits because of one word. There were more I had to remediate, like “now” and “sort of.” It took a while, but it was worth it. I learned from it, and I now perform this “checklist” review for all of my work. It’s objective, simple, and effective. 

It has enabled me to approach my work in a new way and I’m finding fewer issues over time as I learn to check my bad habits while I’m writing.

But this won’t help with things like plot holes, ineffective dialogue, or other problems related to your story or writing style. 

For that, you need a human, which could be a costly endeavor but doesn’t have to be. 

This is where a manuscript swap, my second strategy, comes in handy.

The best thing I ever did with my first sci-fi novel was to share it with a fellow writer.

We exchanged manuscripts, then sent each other feedback. He called out critical problems I’d overlooked, and I was able to fix them with a series of edits, the removal of a chapter, and a change in sequence for a few other chapters. 

Seek out fellow writers and give this a try. You may not agree with the feedback you receive, but at least you’re getting feedback, and all it costs is time. 

Speaking of cost, this need for critical feedback has created business opportunities within the publishing industry, some of which are legitimate, some of which are not. 

I’m not going try to list all of the illegitimate businesses in the industry. Winning Writers has put together an awesome resource for this purpose, and I urge you to review it before you spend money on anything writing related. Writing communities on social media can be a good resource, but always consider the source. 

One special piece of advice for novelists: Be wary of vanity presses masquerading as publishers. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing, but some businesses exist for the sole purpose of fleecing writers. Be sure to check out “The Best Self-Publishing Services and the Worst: Rated” created by The Alliance of Independent Authors. Combined with the information from Winning Writers, this can save you money, time, and a lot grief.

If you’re ready to pay for author services, pay yourself first by leveraging the existing research. 

If you’re not there yet, consider paying reading fees instead. 

What are reading fees and why should I pay them?

Great question, and it’s the third method I use to improve my writing. 

Th exception here is novels. Never pay a reading fee, an edit fee, or any other service fee associated with publishing your book to someone claiming to be a publisher or agent. I mean it, never. Don’t do it. Save your money and spend it on a legitimate editorial services provider whose purpose is to help improve your book before you submit it to a publisher or agent. (NOTE: Some publishers offer editorial services, but they make it clear these services are not part of the submission/acceptance process.)

For everything else, a reading fee, for those who don’t know, is exactly what it says, a fee charged in exchange for reading your work.

Let’s say you’ve written a short story and you’ve made all the revisions you think it needs. You find a literary journal you like and you click the “Submit” button. You’re re-directed to a submission management platform, like Submittable, and prompted to set up an account and possibly provide a credit card to cover submission fees. 

This is totally legit, nothing wrong here. There are several platforms used by literary journals and book publishers to manage submissions and contest entries. Submittable is a popular one, and most of the submission opportunities (not all) require a fee or request a donation.

This is where you want to proceed with caution. The questions I always ask are:

 – What will I get in return for this fee?

 – Is this the right publisher for my work? 

 – How many times has this publisher rejected my work previously?

I’ve submitted numerous stories this way, but I’ve also submitted work via publisher websites and email at no cost. In the end, if you’re not comfortable with a submission process, the easy response is don’t do it.

I’m fine to pay reading fees, especially when the fee comes with an expedited response, say 24 hours, or it’s an entry fee for a writing competition, or, and this is the best, the fee includes an editorial critique of my submission. For me, this is a low-cost, high impact way to hone my skills. 

If you can afford reading fees, look for publishers who offer detailed feedback when you submit your work. It’s a fast way to get a measure of your writing from a neutral party. Some of these fees are as low as $5, and some range to $25 or higher. If a fee seems high, check out the masthead of the journal. You might find the fee is worth it to get insights from an experienced and talented editor. 

But take note, paying for feedback should never guarantee acceptance, and paying for an expedited response might speed up rejection. Always manage your expectations. 

Also, make sure your work is a match for the publisher by reading what they’ve already published. Otherwise, you may be wasting their time and your money. 

In some cases, a rejection letter will come with a note encouraging a writer to submit again in the future. In one case, an editor rejected my story because she didn’t connect with it, but asked me to submit something else if I had anything ready. I did, and the second story was accepted. It’s all part of the process. 

However, if you’ve been rejected multiple times by the same publisher, you should consider moving on, at least for a time. You’re not connecting with the reader and your money is better spent elsewhere. This isn’t terrible. I was rejected three times by one literary magazine, and each rejection came with feedback. I used their feedback to improve the stories and the revised versions were accepted for publication elsewhere. 

To sum it up, I use three methods to gain a more critical view of my writing. First, I take a “checklist” approach to find and fix flaws. It creates objective space between me and my writing. Second, a manuscript swap. It’s a quid pro quo that works. Finally, feedback in exchange for reading fees. This is another win-win. I receive actionable feedback and the editor/publisher can keep the lights on and get a cup of coffee. 

Above all remember, no matter what anyone says about your work (good or bad), take a deep breath, accept it as part of the learning process, then forge on. 

Footnote for scriptwriters: Coverfly.com has a ton of scriptwriting competitions, most of which provide exceptional “coverage” (feedback) for an additional fee. These are expensive, so make sure your work is ready. They also host prose competitions for published and unpublished novels. 

So You Want to Be a Writer? Part 1

[This was the first in a four part series of essays for The Dillydoun Review, sharing my experience to date in the business of writing.]

Writing is not easy, it seldom pays well, and it fills your inbox with rejection. In early 2020, because I’m a glutton for punishment, I decided to write full time. 

If I knew then what I know now I would have made the same choice, but with a better strategy.

Because writing is also emotionally rewarding, intellectually stimulating, and can provide a good living for those who persist and hone their craft. As for rejection, it’s like table stakes in a poker game. If you can’t manage the baseline bet, you should sit out the game.

With that said, I am no expert. I did write for a major news outlet years ago, but that was a side job to my real job. Since last year, I’ve completed three novels, a book of poetry, a script for a TV pilot, and have a growing collection of short stories. 

In my first year I made every mistake a rookie writer can make, and it’s possible I invented some new ones. The last six months have gone much better.

I’m not a rookie anymore.

What do I have to show for all this you ask? Good question. 

My first script was a finalist in a TV Pilot competition, my self-published novel (under a pen name) was a finalist in another competition and cracked the Top 100 in its genre on Amazon (#98 briefly), and I’ve had several short stories accepted for publication. I have one novel in the hands of a publisher right now, another one just completed, and I have begun querying agents.

So far I’ve made exactly zero dollars.

The Big Payoff for me is experience

I learn best from hands-on experience. Now I’m on this journey and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned so far.

Let’s start with the most basic – Do The Work. 

It sounds simple, but many aspiring writers never write, and for active writers, writing is haphazard and filled with distractions.

I spent years dreaming of being a novelist, and I didn’t write a single word toward my goal, mostly out of fear and self-doubt.

Your dream of being a writer won’t materialize if you don’t sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and type. Hemingway wrote his first drafts in pencil, so that works too. 

As new writers, the odds are already against us in this business. But there are ways we can start to tilt things in our favor.

I’ve found the three most important things for me are having a dedicated space to work, blocking out distractions, and setting a writing a schedule (and sticking to it). 

I work in the afternoon, six hours per day minimum, on average.

This includes research, querying agents, or submitting to publishers, contests and literary magazines. Mornings are for strong coffee, light reading, and walking the dog. In the evening, I do more research and a lot of brainstorming.

Yet I still struggle.

My schedule was recently obliterated by a piece of mail. Its contents presented a frustrating problem, but not an urgent one.

I spent ninety minutes of my afternoon dealing with it. 

Then I spent the rest of the day trying to refocus on writing. I got next to nothing done. It felt awful.

I didn’t properly prioritize my time and I paid for it with a lost afternoon. 

If I’m to have any hope of succeeded as a writer I have to learn to be selfish with my time, my space, my priorities, and my writing.

Because a loss of focus can cost even more time by allowing loads of errors to sneak into my work.

The less focused I am, the more likely I am to make mistakes I will fail to find and fix later.

The most insidious of these are typos. I am a self-taught typist, so I make a lot of typos.

For the record, spellcheck is not your friend and auto-correct is your declared enemy.

Spellcheck won’t tell you when you’ve typed “form” instead of “from” and it won’t tell you when auto-correct changed a mistyped “decided” to a correctly spelled, but wrong, “denied.” 

These tools are unreliable. They are often a hinderance. Plus, I tend to read right through typos and incorrect words, my mind filling in where my eyes refuse to see. 

I’m not saying, ‘don’t use them,’ I’m saying, ‘don’t trust them.’

I learned this the hard way when I wrote my first novel and decided to self-publish. I ran spellcheck and grammar check, fixed what was found, and sent the manuscript off to The Land of E-Book Publishing. 

When I loaded the ebook into my reader, I discovered it was filled with typos. I stopped counting at 47, across 42 chapters. One was in the opening paragraph. It wouldn’t have mattered if no one had downloaded the book. But they had, and I was embarrassed.   

Don’t trust automated tools, ever. 

Reread, reread, then reread some more. If you have someone in your life to proofread your work, or can afford to pay someone, consider yourself lucky. 

My solution is to reformat my text every time I read it. 

Change the font, the spacing, the borders, or even print the work if it’s not too long. If it’s a novel, I export it as an EPUB and read it on my favorite device. Think of it like driving down a bumpy road, then driving down the same road after it’s been repaved. Same road, different experience.

When I do this, I’m more likely to catch my errors and correct them before anyone else sees my work. It’s not a perfect system, but I’ve gotten good results from it.

In the end, writing is editing and editing is writing. I allow myself one exception to this rule. I try to avoid extensive editing while writing a first draft, whether it’s a novel or flash fiction, or anything in between. I like to capture my thoughts, finish the story, and clean up the words later.

Whatever I write, I expect to edit and revise until the work is polished. 

Here’s another useful tip: take some time between each pass. A day, a week, a month, you’ll figure out over time what length of break works for you.

Work on something else, read a book, improve your third-person bio, or research publishers, agents, journals, and competitions. Create some space to let your mind forget some of what you just wrote, then come back to it and edit with fresh eyes. 

Since you’ve read this far, I’ll leave you with a final thought. 

Don’t believe everything you read about writing. 

People like to Tweet quotes by famous writers, and Hemingway’s missives are no exception. The attributions are often wrong, or the words taken out of context. 

Hemingway is often quoted as saying, “Write drunk, edit sober.” 

I’d argue that’s objectively bad advice. 

According to Katherine Firth, Hemingway never said it. What he wrote in A Moveable Feast was: 

‘…my training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote nor while I was writing’ (p.61).

You can see the difference. 

The internet, and book stores, are loaded with advice for writers and a lot of it is good. But even the good advice won’t always be a good fit for you, and the bad advice can send you on some costly detours. Consider the source, take what works for you, leave the rest. 

I said I was no expert, but after 18 months of full time writing and research, I know where to find a few experts. 

Below are links to some websites I’ve found useful. If you’ve been writing for a while you know them already. If not, they make terrific companions for your writing journey. 

To sum it all up, work hard, be selfish with your time and attention, write-edit-repeat, take advantage of the help that’s out there, trust yourself, and learn from your mistakes. 

You got this.

Writer’s Digest: workshops, free downloads, how-to articles, competitions, you name it, they’ve got it, and most of it is free.  https://www.writersdigest.com

Winning Writers: one of the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers, they’ve got a focus on competitions and a massive list of links to great resources for writers, everything from advice, to literary forums, to ways to spot scams targeting writers. https://winningwriters.com

Alliance of Independent Authors: This should be your first stop if you’re considering self-publishing. There’s a LOT here, just like the two websites above, but one of the most useful things you’ll find is their ‘Best Self-Publishing Services’ list. If you read nothing else before you self-publish, review this list. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/best-self-publishing-services/

Lit Rejections: A site with stories, quotes and a blog about literary rejection, it also has some great interviews as well as information about literary agencies. If none of that sounds useful, at least visit and take a look at the collage of book covers from best sellers that were initially rejected. It’s eye opening. http://www.litrejections.com 

Authors Publish Magazine: Everything is free on this site and their email newsletter is filled with great information, but not overloaded. They research publishers and provide links to one that are open for submission, with a healthy does of paying markets. https://authorspublish.com

Throwback #8: Just Read the Title

I like golf. I’ve read books about golf, watched movies about golf, watched golf tournaments, even played golf for a while (it’s been a while). I did not like this book about golf. I may have been too harsh, but I did at least say the book was funny. But it was often cringe-funny, not hah-hah funny. Anyway, it was a long time ago, I don’t think it hurt his career.

See what I did there? You will if you read the review.

The title of the review is probably all you need to read. I kind of wish I could take this one back and pretend I never read the book. If you can’t say something nice…

Chasing the Dream

Throwback #7: Miami

My second book review for CNN.com, wherein I give my honest opinion about a work of commercial fiction, and manage to miss the point of commercial fiction. Who knew a book about murder and heart transplants is supposed to be light reading? Not me, not then. Now I know. Like I say, learn something new every day.

I really did like the book.

‘Pulse’

Throwback #5: Consilience

My first-ever book review for CNN.com and this is what I drew from the options I had. It was not assigned to me, I chose it. It looked interesting, so I dove in head first. Some notes on this one: I received a prepublication copy of the book to review, Edward O. Wilson has a couple of Pulitzers to his name, a National Medal of Science, and this book was on the New York Times Best Seller list when it was published (helped no doubt by the write-up in Newsweek).

If you want to know how I really felt about this one, skip to the last paragraph. If you’d like a more academic review of the book, check out H. Allen Orr’s write-up for Boston Review (a shining example of what you can accomplish with a high word limit).

One more thing – someone was kind enough (or foolish enough) to add a link to my review to the Wikipedia page for this book. I did not do it, but I thank the person who did. Now I have to scour the web for other references to me.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Throwback #4: Extinction

An interview I did with the writer/photographer Rosamond Purcell for CNN.com in August 1999. Unfortunately a lot of the interview was cut and the editor focused on the description of the book to support the photo gallery – their choice, not mine, but that’s what editors are supposed to do, make choices. This interview was in the top ten on CNN.com (for page views) for several days, largely due to the photo gallery. I’d say the editor made the right choice.

NOTE: The link to the photo gallery no longer functions, but her book is still available in paperback on Amazon.com.

“Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals.”