Scot's Tips for New Writers
Don't Get Defensive -- 2/29/2008
It just makes you, like our fellow pictured above, ugly. There's no sense in lashing back at the editor, agent or
publisher picking apart your work. This is the time to reflect and see what you can become as an author. Will you
listen to sound advice (in most cases it should be sound), or will you take it as an insult and tell them, "You don't
know what you're talking about. My friends liked it! You don't know what you'll be missing." Does this sound
familiar? All new writers have this voice inside their head. It takes a lot of guts to stick your toe in the water, only
to find out that it's not welcome there. You must eventually, however, listen to the voice of reason, which is not
easy to do. I've been there. I know what it's like to have someone say, "Your work is not what we're looking for
right now." Or, "My client list is full." Whatever the excuse is to turn you down, you can't take it to heart, so let it
make you stronger.
How can you do that? Well, first off, you can hire a professional editor that has a good reputation in the business
and has, most importantly, worked with good publishers. The editor, then, can steer your work in a direction that
will make the publishing houses look at you harder. If you can land a reputable agent, they also can do the same.
Or, lastly, you can go to writing groups and conferences to learn what you need to know to survive in the
marketplace. Chew on this: some writers have seen hundreds of rejection letters before they were picked up and
published. Does that sound daunting? Does it sound like too much effort or pain to go through? It probably does.
But it's an large obstacle you may face. Just because one publisher or agent doesn't like your work, that doesn't
mean another won't, though. So keep trying and keep improving, no matter what.
So everything then, you must realize, starts with the pitch, your query letter. If it sounds desperate, why even
bother sending it out? No one cares about what troubles you've had in the past with other agents or publishers. It's
an immediate turn-off. They want to hear what story you have to tell, and see how well you have written it. They
also don't want to see gimmicks with your package. Stick to the writing and you'll be much better off. You don't
want to end up on any black lists. No one wants to work with someone who isn't a professional. The reality is,
there isn't much glamour in writing. It's hard work, and few get to the heights Rowling or Paolini have achieved
recently. Granted, some get more recognition than they rightly deserve, but there's no use complaining about it. Be
happy for those individuals and try to make a name for YOURSELF.
And, I must ask you, please not to go on website forums and bash other writers. This is way too easy to do in this
day and age and it could come back to haunt you later on the down the road in your career. It's only going to
make you look like a jerk in the process. I see a lot of writers doing this, and it just makes me shake my head as
to why they would say such things. The business is difficult enough to survive in. Why make it harder for others
just because you haven't had success? Legitimate writing forums should inform, not discriminate or perpetuate
bad comments. They should be regularly monitored for content and reject those who go on rants just to make
themselves feel better. All the time bashers waste on websites could be put to better use, like getting stories
written! I see this outlet as an act of procrastination, rather than being anything of any use.
So, with these thoughts in mind, what would you rather be doing? Perfecting your craft, or worrying about others
who are trying to do the same? Worry about the ones you really have to impress, the ones who really matter, and
you'll have a better shot at achieving your goals quicker.
Gather the Right Tools for the Job --8/17/2007
No author should begin their quest to complete a novel without first considering what they're going to need to get
the job done correctly. I've created a comprehensive list of items you might want to consider buying, or websites
you should check out before you start your brainstorming sessions for that golden nugget that could buy your way
into the promised land. Some you will use more than others, and some are great sources for generating ideas. This
is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should give you enough support to get by as you get started. And
remember, you may not need EVERYTHING on this list, it's only here as, well, a reference. Only acquire what
you know you'll use.
Merriam-Webster's Guide to Punctuation and Style
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Chambers Super-Mini Book of Facts
The New American Desk Encyclopedia
The Complete Rhyming Dictionary
Ultimate Visual Dictionary
The World Fact Book
The Columbia World of Quotations
The Columbia Guide to Standard American English.
The Laurel Instant Synonyms and Antonyms
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk
Anatomy of the Human Body, by Henry Gray
Body Trauma, by David W. Page
The Columbia Gazetteer of North America
The Encyclopedia of World History
Make a List of Your Worst Tendencies--4/21/2007
Let's face it. No one wants to admit they have faults. Why? Because faults bring criticism, and that may be hard
to stomach at times. This is especially true in the world of writing. Everyone, especially new writers, want to
believe they've just turned out the next great masterpiece, but more times than not, things couldn't be farther from
the truth. Completing a book is only the first phase of the journey. The next step is the harder one newbies have
Those who are cut out for writing will take those special comments they've gotten back from an editor with grace
and incorporate them into their style. Those who don't, usually end up writing an insulting letter back to the editor,
telling them, "You don't know what you're talking about. If you would only give it a real chance."
Right. Do you think for one instant that an editor has never heard that line before? Do you think they got the job
of being an editor by luck? Hardly. Insulting or arguing with an editor will get you nowhere. I repeat, nowhere.
You will not win a battle with them, nor will you feel any better by doing it. And, on top of it, you'll only close a
door on yourself if you do. Editors are looking for the writers who are willing to listen to advice, and go the extra
mile to create a quality product. Think of them as a coach, if you want to. There's too much competition out
there, so don't limit yourself by making enemies.
So what can you do to protect yourself? What can you do to make your writing really stand out and avoid landing
in a house's slush pile? Make a list of your worst writing tendencies. If you attend regular writing workshops, and
visit online message boards, you'll see writers and editors discussing the most common problems they encounter in
the business. Take note, and see if those problems are present in your writing. If they are, correct the problem
areas and put them on your list as something to watch out for in the future.
What are some common errors that could be on your list? Here's an example.
- Using apostrophes to show the plural of a noun
- Point of view switches
- Overusing adverbs
- Using an active voice for a past event
- The misuse of they're/their/there (your spell checker won't catch these)
- Using I versus me (eliminate the other person from the sentence and see what you have
- A lot is two words
- Underline or italicize titles of books, plays, pamphlets, magazines, movies, television
shows, paintings, major musical works such as operas or symphonies, and collections
- Misusing who, which and that
Use who to refer to persons.
Which refers to nonliving objects or to animals, NEVER to people.
Though generally used to refer to things, that may be used to refer to a group.
- Make pronouns and nouns agree
Example: In this class everyone performs at his or her (not THEIR) reading level.
As you can see, your list is only as effective as you make it. However you set it up, make sure it's short and to the
point. Eventually, you will become so conscious of your tendencies that you will avoid doing them altogether on
the first round. When you get to the point where you've eliminated them completely from your writing, you can
remove them from your list. It's a good way to train yourself to write well and avoid the common pitfalls that
plague so many others. It also might give you a better chance of getting a foot in that door you so strongly covet.
Write from Your Head, Not Your Heart -- 12/1/06
Some of you are probably already saying, "That's not what I was told!" Well, I happen to disagree with many
authors on this point, but I will state my opinion as to why. First, let me start by saying there is only one instance
that is the exception to this rule: when a character is spilling their lovesick emotions to their significant other.
Besides that, you should never employ your heartfelt emotions into the rest of your writing. Here's why: writers
tend to fall in love with their manuscript too easily if they put more emotion than thought into it. This is not good
ground to be walking on. If you are the type who thinks that everything you write is perfect because you invested
yourself in every single word, then you won't be open to taking criticism when the editor gets a hold of your
manuscript. And let me tell you, I have heard enough horror stories of authors who were unable to "handle the
truth" because they thought their work was too good to be changed.
If you shut yourself down to criticism, then your career is as good as dead. You can write well, and with feeling,
but you must be smart about it. Don't overdo your writing. What do I mean when I say this? Don't make your
characters carry out acts that essentially take them out of character. This can happen when you get too wrapped
up in the moment. Some of you are probably saying, "But, Scot, I can't write a scene unless I put my soul into it."
Trust me, you already are doing that anyway, it's just coming from a different source.
After you've written a particularly intense scene, step back and ask yourself if that character would really react to
that degree of emotion in that scenario. You certainly know what you would do (the author) if you were put into
that situation, and that is where the lines can become crossed. Remember who is speaking or acting out during that
moment, is it your character, or you?
I know of a writer who had this problem. They invested too much of their own emotions in their writing. Do you
know what happened as a result? All their characters sounded the same. There was no variance from once
character's personality to the next, making their story a very dull read. Once I realized what was wrong with it, I
knew the writer had put herself in every one of her characters' shoes. Imagine carrying on a conversation with
yourself for four hundred pages. That's what it felt like when I read that story. If your character is shy, they
probably won't be the first one to speak in a roomful of yapping fools. If they are brave, they won't allow others
to fall to harm without having their say first.
One of the best ways to help your audience notice the difference between characters is to base them on people
you know, or characters from your favorite movies or television programs. Study those programs and watch how
a person reacts from one scene to the next. Side characters normally remain consistent throughout a story. It's the
main ones you need to pay the closest attention to. Keep this also in mind: a traumatic event can cause a character
to completely change. Does it change their life forever? Or do they eventually revert back to their old ways after
some time has passed? Or do they in some small way make an adjustment in their life to cope with the event's
Let's face it, there will be scenes where some people will react the same in, no matter what their personality is.
If a car crashes through a living room window, chances are, everybody in the room will go running and screaming
to get out of the way. I'm not talking about these types of scenes. But how would you react if you just watched a
complete stranger get shot across the street? Would your character freeze up and go into shock? Would they run
to the phone and call 9-1-1? Would they call their roommate over to the window and hurriedly explain what
happened first? Would they faint? Would they throw up? Analyze your characters' emotions closely. It will make
your story that much more engrossing and believable. Just make sure they're not your own.
Tip Number One: Write What You Read -- 9/1/06
The best way to become an author is to write in the genre you love to read in. Why? Passion. Passion drives
every author to sit and dedicate himself at a computer for hours on end until "The End" has been written. Passion
is built by something you believe in, something you can easily familiarize yourself with. There are so many
distractions an author must face on a daily basis that impedes his or her ability to write, it's mind-numbing, making
it very easy to procrastinating. Why jump into a cold lake when you know what the results will be?
I say this because there's so much more to writing that just writing. There's editing, there's editors, there's
publishers, there's agents, there's marketing,there's workshops, there's conferences and the list goes on and on.
You'll have a better chance of surviving in the literary world if you give yourself a good chance by not
overwhelming yourself with a project that's too big for you.
Stick to what you know and focus. The best place to start is on solid ground, and that means having some kind
of experience to stand upon when you first set out. The only way to get the experience of what a good novel
should be is to read what you love, and a lot of it. Study the plots, how the book unfolds, what the characters are
like and how many different settings each encounter. Read, read, read and never stop. You get ideas from what
you read, and can spin them off into totally new story lines that have never been done before. Decide who your
favorite author is and why they have inspired you, or at least entertained you. If you're going to choose this
career, why not have fun at it? Only when you have gained enough experience under your belt to know where
you are should you then venture into new waters.
Just Twenty Minutes --1/2009
Anyone ever listen to the John Tesh Radio Show? I do, and quite frequently. I love the advice and optimism the
show portrays, which is severely lacking in today's entertainment industry. Too often we focus on gloom and doom
(even though that's what seems to sell). This is not to contradict the article above. But we do have to have positive
outcomes, too. People are attracted to chaos, however, and this is a show everyone can benefit something from.
One of the best tips I got from John was regarding tasks you have to do. Because of how hard we work at our
jobs, coming home to do more chores seems daunting, and then the procrastination sets in. He says this is because we
have a tendency to look at projects as a whole, instead of in parts. When we begin a project, most of the time we
want to finish it, which could take hours. However, John says that if we go into it with the mindset that we will only
do twenty minutes of it, we may be more motivated to work on that project. Most of the time, once we get into the
project, we will want to keep going, and will get more done than just twenty minutes. However, if we don't feel like
doing more than twenty minutes, we still have accomplished something, and it will help us feel satisfied, reducing the
pressure we feel to get it done.
As you have probably already guessed, this can be applied to almost anything, including writing. Once I get into
the writing, it's actually hard to stop me. If I go into it with the mindset that I'm only doing twenty minutes, I find
myself sitting at my computer longer, more often, and will hit my writing deadlines more frequently. So when do I
carve out twenty minutes in my day? Sometimes that's a challenge by itself. If my day looks really busy, then I'll do it
at the very end, when everyone's gone to bed, which is usually by 9:00 in our house. Just find a time when you're
least busy. Hope this all makes sense and helps!
Storyboarding versus Stream of Consciousness --12/2008
There are two main writing methods authors employ when creating a novel: storyboarding or stream of
consciousness. Which the author chooses depends upon the author's preference. Some authors might like going into a
story not knowing how it's going to end. I'm not that kind of author. I'm a control freak, and have to know exactly
what is happening to each character in every chapter. This helps keep my books from floundering, going down wrong
paths, and keeps my book length from getting out of control. But it's still a loose structure. No matter how much I
storyboard some things will change anyway, whether you like them to or not. You say, That won't work. That could
never happen because I did this here." So, in a way, I still have to go out of bounds to pull in ideas I hadn't planned on.
I say do what works for YOU. Don't feel like you have to do one method or the other because that's what
you're favorite author is doing. Success is not dependent upon either method. What really makes a book good or not is
proper editing. You need a good idea for a story to begin with, but you wouldn't be writing a book if you didn't have
one, would you? No one would write a book if they didn't have an idea, so let's throw that out right away. Yes, the
story should be original, and contributes to a book's success, but without proper editing it will fall flat on its face.
Every good story needs good editing to make it great. And most of the time a book has to be well edited before it's
sent to any publishing house editor, which means hiring your own editor to do work on it before it's sent out. Sure,
after a while you become a good editor, and may come to a point where you think you won't need one, but you
should keep one handy anyway. It never hurts to have another set of eyes look at your work before you send it on.
Agents edit more for story content than grammar. So don't depend on them to clean up all your mistakes.
So, write with the method that makes you most comfortable. Feel free to try both and see what happens with
each. You may use one method for one story and another for others. I say, whatever helps you write an entire novel,
use that method! It makes no sense to use a method that's going to hamper you, or never allow you to complete a
project. If you want to someday get published, you may have to write a dozen books to achieve that goal. Every
prolific author has work that's unpublished. The point is to keep writing, no matter what. The more work you
produce, the greater your chance to get published. Again, employ the method that will help you be productive and
bring out the best of your creativity.