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
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
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
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
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
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
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.