The Way This Whole Writing Thing Works: Tips for Wannabe Writers

© 2015 Paul Dale Anderson

 

 

If you haven’t figured it out yet, let me save you time and heartache. There is only one way to get rich as a writer.
Well, actually, that’s a lie. Writers tell lies for fun and profit, you know, and I’m no exception. There are probably as many ways to get rich as a writer as there are ways to win the Powerball Lottery.

But there is only one quick, easy, and sure way to get rich as a writer.

I’ll reveal that secret to you shortly. It took me nearly seventy years of writing in multiple genres and writing under multiple pseudonyms to learn the secret.

 

I read every writing manual and book I could find. I attended every writing conference I could afford. I wrote my heart out religiously every single day, and when I wasn’t actually writing I was thinking about writing. I became a master craftsman. I communicated with other writers and with editors in person, by snail mail, and via e-mail, telephone, and IM. I became an editor myself for both major and small press publishers. I submitted manuscripts via slush, agents, Submittable, and in person. I pitched in elevators, over lunch, and in bars. I became an active member of SFWA, MWA, HWA, ITW, and the Author’s Guild. I participated in panels and workshops at Worldcons, regional cons, and prestigious conferences. I was a Guest of Honor more than once. I earned my living as a professional writer who waited patiently for advances and royalty checks to roll in so I could pay rent, buy food, and make monthly health insurance premiums or pay medical bills. I dutifully filled out my Schedule C every year for forty years and even incorporated and filled out a separate annual return as a subchapter S corporation. I knew the writing business like the back of my hand. I weathered the death of a spouse, the death of a beloved agent, the deaths of friends and family members and mentors, and I personally survived a diagnosis of a deadly cancer that should have killed me decades ago and didn’t because I hadn’t finished writing the Great American Novel yet. I survived the digital revolution and learned to use Word and Scrivener and Adobe Creative Suite In-Design. I learned to create and market e-books and audio books as well as how to write fabulous fiction.

So what is this valuable secret I learned along the way? What is the one, sure way to get rich as a writer?

 

Stephen King knows this secret. So does Dean Koontz. So do I. And soon you will, too.

 

During recent book tours for my Winds series of supernatural thrillers and my Instruments of Death series of police procedurals, I met thousands of successful writers doing mass signings in bookstores and at conventions. I appeared at workshops and on panels alongside NY Times Bestselling Authors. I attended the Bram Stoker Awards, the Nebulas, the Hugos, the Anthony Awards, and the World Fantasy Awards. I spoke with thousands of professional writers and hundreds of thousands of dedicated readers and wannabe writers. What was the singlemost stand-out factor every one of those people I met had in common?

 

Few had either the time or cash to pay $24.95 for six hundred plus pages of well-written fiction, but they were all eager to devote more than twice that to attend week-long conferences where they readily purchased non-fiction about the art and craft of fiction writing. They spent hours combing blogs and websites of well-known authors searching for clues to success. They bought multiple fiction books by writers who had published short articles or short books on the art and craft of writing and didn’t buy the books of authors who had not. Not only do successful authors make lots of money from writing about writing, but they make money from selling their fiction to people who have read those non-fiction works and personally identify with the author.

 

Not only does writing a book about writing generate significant revenue from that title alone, it makes your novels sell like hotcakes. Many mid-list authors earn more from their non-fiction books on how to write than from sales of their multiple novels. Combining both works magic. I’m willing to bet that Stephen King earns nearly as much from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (which is superb, by the way, and every writer should read it) than he earns from novels that have not been made into motion pictures. When Steve was just starting out and not yet a household word, he regularly contributed articles on writing to Writers Digest and The Writer. He shared what he learned as he learned it. It was a kind of Pay-It-Forward type of thing. And it worked. It helped establish Stephen King as a brand name.

 

Don’t get me wrong. You still have to write great fiction and plenty of it to become a best-selling author and stay at the top of the charts. But thinking about and writing about the process of writing is an important part of the process to becoming a successful author. Writing success doesn’t manifest until your words appear on paper or are otherwise published. The more words you write the better your writing becomes. The more works you have in print and available for sale, the more you sell. It’s really as simple as that.

But, first, readers need to know your name and know what to expect from you. Writing about what you go through to produce your fiction gets your name out there and also tells readers what to expect from your fiction. It’s a win-win for everyone. Name recognition goes a long way to establish you as someone worth reading.

 

 

Establishing your voice

 

Each writer has her or his own distinct “voice.” Some writers spend decades looking for their unique voices, and others find theirs with the first story they write. Voice and style are related but different.

Voice is what a reader hears inside his or her head when reading words. Storytelling is an art that existed long before the written word, and the best storytellers have a natural rhythm that mesmerizes listeners with alliteration, repetition, rhyme, parallel structures, and patterns of pacing that enchant and entrance.

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information. Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. They were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard. Sounds themselves had salience. They were akin to the musician who plays by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

One of those writers admitted to having difficulty reading stories published in books and magazines. It wasn’t until he listened to books on tape or CD—auditory files—that he found his own voice for his writing. He “hears” stories inside his head. Then he translates those stories into the written word.

 I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols I see on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help. Different strokes for different folks.

If you are primarily auditory-kinesthetic like Stephen King, Kevin J. Anderson, and the guy I met at the nebulas, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder or into a program like Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking. Dragon for Windows or Macs will type your spoken words for you with up to 95% accuracy. There is a slight learning curve, but it will increase the output of an auditory person exponentially.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of scenes or “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see. The second draft includes sounds tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic some olfactory, and some gustatory. The majority of people are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones. Most of us are a combination of two or more primary sensual input and output modes.

I can listen to music all day and appreciate it but not duplicate it as is on a musical instrument. I can, however, see the notes appear individually on a musical score, write the notes down, arrange counterpoint and harmony, and play the music on nearly any instrument by following the sheet music. After translating the visual score into kinesthetic fingerings or vocalizations, I can practice until I get the rhythm right. I then artificially add feeling to change tone and timbre and provide warmth to the composition. The end result might be the same, but it takes an auditory-digital a longer time to get there than an auditory-kinesthetic. I don’t do well at impromptu jam-sessions.

It took me fifty years to find my voice. I went about it the long and hard way. There are some short-cuts I'll teach you in future musings.

 

Advice to new writers who want to become professional authors or the trials and tribulations of all fiction writers

 

It’s time to share some of the things I’ve learned during more than fifty years of professional writing. I thought about calling this “advice to young writers,” but many writers are no longer young when they turn pro. So this is probably good advice for all writers, young and old alike, professional or aspiring, myself included. Take it for what it’s worth. My advice is usually free. I charge for my stories (smile). If you like what you read here, perhaps you’ll buy one of my novels or short story collections at Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. I’ll eventually get royalties. Every penny helps.

 

You’re a writer if you write. You’re a real writer if you write regularly. You become a professional writer after you sell your first story for cash money paid at professional rates, and the story is actually published and available for public sale.

 

Very few professional writers earn their living entirely from writing fiction. Most pros have to supplement their royalties by writing non-fiction, and/or teaching creative writing classes, or working a full or part-time day job. Short stories and novels may pay the rent and put a little food on the table, but you have to be really prolific (as well as good) to also pay for health insurance, social security (self-employment tax), and income taxes solely from fiction sales. And, if you expect to save money for retirement, you need to start saving now and put something away from each monthly or semi-annual royalty check. Royalty income tends to diminish with time, and you can’t count on receiving big royalty checks forever. You’re only as popular as your next novel. Backlist books don’t usually sell well unless you’re Stephen King or James Patterson.

 

I began writing when I was four. I turned pro when I turned seventeen. I won a state-wide writing contest for high school students. My short work (less than 2000 words) was published in multiple places and I was paid for each publication. I earned $175.00 from that initial sale ($25 for winning the contest, $150.00 for first serial rights and subsequent publications; I considered that big money back in 1962). I put all that big money in the bank and it helped feed me my first year at the University of Illinois. Eventually, I earned a BA in English with a minor in journalism from Loyola University, and I sold a bunch of non-fiction pieces to newspapers and magazines and worked briefly as a magazine and a book editor.

 

I wrote my first novel while in high school, my second, third, and fourth novels while in college. Those novels were valuable learning experiences for me, but the novels never sold. I still have dog-eared copies tucked away in trunks somewhere. From time to time I think of revising them and trying again to sell them. Someday, perhaps, I will.

 

I sold only four short stories between 1966 and 1977. I sold three work-for-hire down-and-dirty novels (one western and three erotic/porn novels) between 1977 and 1984. Although I did consider myself a professional writer, I wrote only part-time and worked full-time day jobs while serving my country, managing businesses, raising a family, and learning a lot about living. None of the four science fiction novels I wrote during that time period sold. They are also buried in a trunk somewhere; rightfully so, I suspect.

 

I became a full-time pro writer in 1984 with the publication of multiple short stories and three novels bearing my Paul Dale Anderson by-line. I also taught writing classes for the University of Illinois and Writers Digest Schools, and I wrote articles on writing for which I was sometimes paid and that were published in national and small press publications. I joined SFWA, HWA, and MWA. I served as a vice president and trustee of HWA. I remained a full-time writer until 1990. In 1990, when my wife first became ill and we needed insurance, I took a day job at the local public library and remained working full-time for libraries until 2011. I earned a masters in Library and information studies from the University of Wisconsin and retired as an honest-to-goodness reference librarian. I worked for both public and academic libraries and taught classes during that twenty-year time period, and I earned both a meager state university retirement and a public employee retirement. I also earned a masters in educational psychology and worked on a doctorate. I did research and wrote journal articles and a University-published thesis and dissertation, but I wrote no new fiction from 1993 until 2013.

 

When Gretta died in 2012, I decided to return to writing fiction to save my sanity. I retired from academia and closed up my successful hypnosis practice in 2013. I didn’t write full-time until 2014, but I did begin to attend sf conventions and reactivated my memberships in SFWA, HWA, and MWA. I joined ITW and The Authors Guild. I dropped my memberships in National Guild of Hypnotists, American Psychological Association, and Association for Psychological Science. I sent out novel proposals to editors and agents, and I sent new short stories to editors. It was like starting over again. Most of the editors I had worked with had died, as had Barbara Puechner, my literary agent. Few people in the industry recognized my name in 2014. I used multiple pen names when I was a prolific writer working in multiple genres, and that didn’t help. Nor did being best-known as a horror writer, because my new works were more fantasies and thrillers or crossed genres.

 

It took me two years to get rights back to my previously-published novels and find new publishers to reprint them. I began selling regularly to the small press. Eldritch Press, Damnation Books, and Crossroad Press bought new novels and Weirdbook and The Horror Zine bought short stories. Within a year after publishing my novel, Eldritch Press went out of business. Damnation Books sold out to another publisher before they published my book. I immediately sold both titles to Crossroad Press.

 

I only recently acquired a new agent.

 

So here is my advice: write every day. Write what you want to write and like to read. Writing should be fun and you should be so absorbed in the story itself that you can’t wait to find out what happens to your characters next. Before you finish one novel, start on your next novel. Write a short story a month. Keep writing. Take a break from one project to work on another, if you need a break. Have lots of fun because you deserve it.

 

Although writing should be fun, revision and editing should be, and will be, hard work. So, you will find, is marketing hard and time consuming work. You write for the love of telling a good story. You edit and sell your writing to make a living.

 

Never hire an editor to edit your manuscript. Editors offer to pay a professional writer (you) in advance for the privilege of editing your manuscripts. Editors pay you. You don’t pay them. Period. End of sentence.

 

Editors today expect a manuscript to be almost perfect before they first see it, so the real editing work is your responsibility. It’s not the responsibility of an editor you hire. Nor the acquisitions editor. Nor your agent’s. The responsibility for editing your work is yours and yours alone. Your editor may assign a copy editor to check continuity and facts, a line editor to check spelling and punctuation, and a proofreader to catch typos. If you are a true professional, their job will be easy and minimal. They’ll remember you and thank you for it.

 

Before you can write, you must read. Read everything, including the ingredients listed on a cereal box. Read everything you can get your hands on.

 

Before you can edit, read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style. I’ve memorized The Little Book (Strunk and White), and you should, too.

 

Self-doubt is an important part of the writing process. It is what helps us grow.

Every good character knows that by the end of the story. Writers need to know it from page one.

My Return from the Dead

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Coming back from the dead is never easy.

I deliberately killed myself off twenty-five years ago. I stopped writing fiction to help my wife overcome chronic life-threating illness. Instead of writing fiction, I earned several masters degrees and worked on doctorates in educational psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I learned hypnotic techniques to help prolong human lives and improve the quality of life. I made a name for myself as a hypnosis instructor and author of journal articles.

But Paul Dale Anderson–the author of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and thrillers–was buried and forgotten.

When I returned to fiction writing in 2012, it took two long years for my novels and short stories to again appear in print. I’m still in the process of resurrecting my backlist, but new Paul Dale Anderson novels are now available as paperbacks and e-books.

I began making live personal appearances in 2014, and this year I’m doing the full convention circuit. I’m getting my face and name out there to show people I’m still alive.

I have been back in the fiction game for four consecutive years, and I am about to have a breakthrough. Breakthroughs come when an author publishes consistently for at least five years in one genre or related genres. Breakthroughs occur when name recognition and writing quality reach critical mass.

It takes at least five years before people in this industry take you seriously, five years of writing your heart out, five years of pitching and submitting manuscripts to agents and editors, five years of attending conventions and doing readings and book signings, five years of reaching for the golden ring, missing it by millimeters, before you can grab hold and hang on.

It takes five years for word to get around that your work is worth reading. Any writer worth his or her salt who sticks around for more than five years should notice a breakthrough at the five year mark.

It takes ten additional years to produce a bestselling book. Your writing improves with each book you write, so the more books you write, the better your writing becomes. Sales, also, are accumulative, and the more you write the more books you’ll sell. And the more you sell, the more readers will recognize your name. The more people who recognize your name, the more books you’ll sell. It’s a vicious circle. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Writing is a numbers game.

In order to play the writing game and have a chance at winning, you need:

1. Name recognition

2. Facial recognition

3. Genre recognition

4. Quality (Content) recognition

5. Peer recognition

People will want to buy your work only if other people buy your work. You must fist show that other people like and trust you. Humans are socially conditioned to do what they see other people doing. That’s why books have lots of blurbs from other bestselling authors and reviewers on their covers and in their front-matter.

That, my friends, is a hard truth most writers refuse to admit.

I now have a New York agent, one of the best in the business at a literary agency I respect. I have made new friends, many of them bestselling authors, who know my name and like my work. I help fledgling authors with reviews and blurbs. I have found heaven on earth and I am once again alive and well.

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Watch for my breakthrough novel to appear from one of the Big Five publishers. I’m hard at work on a sequel and three stand-alones.

I’m scheduled to appear on panels at MidAmeiCon II, the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, in August. I’ll be at BoucherCon in New Orleans in September.

Life is good.

Rather than endure long TSA lines at O’Hare International Airport on July 4th,I chose to drive two thousand miles to attend Thrillerfest XI July 5 through July 9 in New York City. It was worth the time and money to attend.

 

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I knew all about science fiction conventions before I attended my first con. I read con schedules in Asimov’s and Analog every month, and I saw pictures of Worldcons and regional cons in literally each issue of Locus.

I was still in my mid-thirties, had just left active military service, had recently been divorced from my second wife, and had finally completed a 500-page, 120,000 word, typewritten novel manuscript that included lots of hard sf elements. So, when my 2nd ex-wife’s cousin—a research bio-chemist at a major state University and an avid sf reader—suggested we attend NASFiC together with a dozen friends from the university, I said “Hell, yes!”

I made the same mistake many new novelists make: I brought the only clean typescript copy of the manuscript with me to the con to show to agents, editors, and other authors. I hauled that heavy sucker with me everywhere I went.

I should have known better. I wasn’t a new writer even then. I had sold dozens of short stories and poems to magazines and anthologies over the previous 20 years. I had freelanced and sold several work-for-hire pseudonymous novels. I had, however, been rejected by all of the major SF markets and was desperate to find a way in.

No one wants to look at a manuscript at a con. Hell, I don’t even want to look at my own manuscripts at a con.

Cons are places of and for interpersonal interaction. Sure, they are also places to buy books you can’t find elsewhere. They’re places to find inspiration. But don’t expect to have time to do any serious reading or writing at a con. And, for heaven’s sake, never ever bring your only copy of a completed manuscript to a con.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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