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Tips for Writers:
Book Writing Tips From Author, Ward Carroll

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August 27, 2005

Note: Ward Carroll is the author of the recently released novels Militia Kill, and The Aide as well as the Punk Reichert series Punk's War, Punk's Wing, and Punks Fight.  Visit Ward at WardCarroll.com.


Upon hearing about the releases of my novels, many friends and acquaintances have told me that they started writing but didn't finish or had an idea for a book. Answers to why they didn’t see the project through vary but can roughly be grouped as follows:

1. Didn’t have enough time.
2. Couldn’t capture the idea in writing.
3. Heard it was really hard to get a book published and feared rejection.

Let’s deal with each one of these stumbling blocks. First, writing does take an incredible amount of time, time you could or should be doing something else. Although fledgling writers aren’t usually under any sort of publisher’s deadline, they’d be well advised to get into some sort of writing routine. This starts with each writer considering what would be reasonable in the context of his or her life. Come up with a daily goal. In his book On Writing Stephen King recommends two thousand words a day, which is laudable. I’m generally not that productive (and I currently have another full-time job). I try to write two pages a day, approximately eight hundred words. Regardless of the output the original question is the same: Can you sacrifice a few hours of sleep and work before you normally start your day or after you usually go to bed? Can you turn the television off on the weekend and sit down at the computer without any distractions and write? And to avoid distractions you need buy in on your project from your significant other and your dependents. Have you convinced them that your writing matters enough that they’ll respect your requirement for solitude? If you have a vision you want to commit to paper, you must understand from the beginning that when you’re writing you can’t be sleeping, coaching, shopping, sailing, golfing, driving, talking, drinking (at least not with others), or anything else you might currently enjoy. But if the project truly burns in you, the opportunity cost of writing won’t feel like wasted time, even if the book never sees the light of day.

Any author will tell you that writing is hard, and as an aspiring writer you might think you understand that fact, but until you’ve tried to write something longer than a letter to the editor of your local newspaper or favorite magazine you can’t fully appreciate the effort it’s going to take to get your book to the stage where it’s ready to be seen by an acquisitions editor. Let’s dismiss the notion that editors are in the business of fixing authors’ mistakes or finishing their thoughts. As my good friend Stephen Coonts told me in my earliest days as a novelist, the author has to write his own book. So how does an author shorten the process of getting a thought down the right way?

Take this test: Name your favorite five authors and explain what it is you enjoy about them. Your answer should include comments about theme, style, and voice. If this sort of detail seems trivial, if you’re wont to insist, “I just like them,” then you’re not ready to attempt to write a book.

And when was the last time you diagrammed a sentence? Do labels like “passive voice” and “gerund phrase” and “independent clause without a coordinating conjunction” mean anything to you? If not, you’re not ready to attempt to write a book, at least not one that an acquisitions editor will read past the first page. (Note: In the business of getting published, unlike the business of getting into college, receiving a big package through the mail is not a good thing.) Also, never write without a dictionary handy. Treat spell check as an idiot savant who will embarrass you without compunction (especially with regard to homophones).

The solutions to any problems posed by the previous two paragraphs are basically this: Aspiring writers should read a lot and write a lot. Reading a lot provides a frame of reference for your voice, and writing a lot allows you to find your voice. Doing these two things gets us back to cold hard fact number one, by the way. They both take time.

I’ve also heard comments about how writing fiction must be easy because the author makes everything up. Well, try this: Describe two characters in writing well enough that your readers can picture them vividly. Now have your characters interact. Where are they? What do they say to each other? Why did you just make the fat guy reach out quickly? Most fat guys I know don’t move quickly. What? This is an exceptionally nimble fat guy? Well, you didn’t write that the first time.

What makes writing fiction a huge challenge, besides the things I’ve detailed above, is that once you create a character, you have to be true to what you’ve created or you’re going to anger your readers. Stable characters don’t suddenly freak out. Mercurial characters aren’t suddenly stoics. Much of life is coincidence but fiction can’t be. If your climax hinges on a chance meeting of principals your readers are going to cry foul and accuse you of a lack of imagination.

Okay, so you’ve gutted it out. You’ve spent countless hours fretting over whether Malcom says “hell” or “goddam it” when he discovers he’s been set up for a financial fall by his conniving benefactors and, one hundred thousand words or so later, you hold a completed manuscript in your hands. Now what?

Congratulate yourself. Crack open a bottle of bubbly. You’re no longer grouped with those who meant to write a book. You’ve written a book. For that you enjoy the respect of anyone who has ever done the same, published or not.

But as cathartic as writing a book may be, most writers are interested in having their work published. Can it possibly be as hard as the ugly rumors suggest? Sadly, yes. In fact it’s usually worse than that. But somebody’s getting his or her book published. Look how many new titles there are in your local retailer. Why not you?

If you have an answer to “why not you” (other than, “Yeah, why not me?”) you’re still not ready. If you don’t believe in your work, nobody else will. If you do believe your manuscript is special, get yourself an agent. Shop around, ask a writer you know, surf the net, but attempt to retain somebody reputable who can professionally represent your work to publishers. These days most publishers will not talk to writers directly. If you can’t get an agent to represent you, that might be an indication that publishers wouldn’t be interested in your book either. But don't stop trying after a few ill-fated attempts.

Which leads me to the topic of rejection. It's part of the process. Every great author has a story or two about how a breakthrough novel was ignored by the bigs at first. Agents won't change this either. Once you’ve retained an agent understand the rejection process has just begun. Publishers will just tell him “no” first.

Yes, it’s a long march, but few things can match the satisfaction a writer feels at the end of the process. Holding your book in your hands for the first time can be likened to holding your child in your hands for the first time. The moment strikes you, and you realize that all of the fears, frustrations, and apprehensions were well worth it.


This article as well as other news and the Author's BLOG can be viewed on the WardCarroll.com website. It is reprinted here with permission from Ward Carroll.

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