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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Want to Be an Author? Read this First.

I was contacted the other day by a young writer who was working on a project for a class. She wanted to ask a published author a few questions about the trade. They were such good question and led to some very detailed answers that I thought others should have access to them too. Seriously, if you are an aspiring writer and want to be a published author, read this first:

1. What does the day-to-day work in your field look like? Pertaining to writing, that is.

It'd be impossible to pin down what the day-to-day is in my field because writers are a wacky breed. Not a one of us does it the same way. Stephen King writes 10 pages a day no matter what. Me, I can't do that. I can't even create a set writing time. My life is so fluid with family and teaching demands that I just write whenever I can. When I can write, I put the headphones on, listen to epic trailer music, and dive into story mode.

2. What are some key considerations you'd tell someone like me who's considering this field? That is, considering making writing part of one's income?

I'd recommend just that: making writing PART of your income. At first, no one, I mean NO ONE has ever heard of you or your books, so you need to have a primary source of income. Perhaps something that compliments your writing like being an editor or an English teacher. Once you have safe income in place, you can go to town on your writing, either going the traditional / legacy route with a publishing house or self pubbing on Amazon Kindle etc. If you do the selfpub route, consider submitting your novels to a service like BookBub. You can often start a readership through such services.

3. What skills would be important for me to have in this field?
Besides the obvious, I suppose. Lol.

I suspect "writing" might be a good skill to have. 0,o Seriously, though, there are a couple of subsets of writing that you need. First, I highly recommend taking a few classes in poetry (contemporary, if pos) because, in it, you will learn to make every word count. And that is SO key. When you tell a story, you are not telling every detail of someone's life, but only the highlights and most meaningful qualities that will form the basis for your character's decisions in the novel. Don't just pick good words or words that "will do," but rather, pick the best words. Try to use connotative words, words that trigger a reaction or feeling in the reader. Don't say "she sat down." Say she slumped. Don't say he walked across the room. Say he lunged. Don't describe a winter tree as bereft of leaves. Say the tree was black and rigid with branches and limbs like a thousand spiders linked in some unholy dance.

Secondly, work on suspense techniques because that, my young swordmaiden, is THE name of the game. You must make your readers wait for what they want. Be cruel in that way. Use mystery, the unknown, intense emotion, danger, unusual events, clues that stick out like a sore thumb—you will have the reader flipping pages like some kind of mad librarian! And do this right at the start. Your first sentence better grip the reader by the throat. Then, the first paragraph, should yank them forward. Then, the first page must shake them senseless. And your first chapter, well, your first chapter should end on such a potent cliffhanger that the reader will very nearly rip the page trying to get to the next chapter.


4. What are some of the unique challenges I might encounter in this career?  

There are several unique challenges that I've faced, and I'm not totally certain they are common to all writers, but for what it's worth: The first major challenge is wearing too many hats. When I got my first publishing contract, I was already a Dad of four young children, a husband of a wonderful wife, and a full time English teacher. Still am all of those things except that the kids are all in their late teens now. {Sigh}. Finding time to write was difficult. My wife was incredible, bearing a ton of extra burdens so that I could head to the library or the local Panera and spend the day writing. But the worst thing about it is that no matter what I was spending my time doing, it always "felt" like I should have been working on something else. If I spent the day sledding with my kids, I loved it and cherished that time, but always on the back of my mind: the deadline or the lesson plan. If I was writing, I would constantly think of my wife and kids and how I wasn't there for them. No matter what I did or was doing, I felt the pang of other responsibilities. Time. That's the big thing about writing. Novels take an absurd amount of time from your life. And, while it might be a ton of fun to invent worlds and races of people, creatures, etc, to do so, means letting the real world go by, real people and relationships are missed. Writers must sacrifice hours, days, weeks, and months. And it's time you cannot get back. Honestly, if I didn't feel that God wanted me to write these stories, I don't think I would have been able to keep doing it. Time is precious. What I wouldn't give now for an hour to play with my kids when they were young! Of course, I can still play with them now, but they can pretty much beat me up. lol

The second challenge was living up to the expectations and demands of the publishers. When I signed the dotted line for The Door Within Trilogy, I paid no attention at all to the deadlines. I was, more or less, mesmerized by the dream come true of being an author. But suddenly, I needed to write 75,000 words in three months. And then, I had to do it again for book 3. But there can often be creative differences too. I had to do research and fight and email battle with my publisher who didn't think the main character in The Door Within should be named Aidan. It's too uncommon, they said. Too unusual. I loved "Aidan" because it had roots in Irish (Gaelic), and it meant "little fire." To defend the name, I researched baby name sites and found that for that particular year, Aidan was the most common boy name given to newborn boys. The publisher conceded. Yay!

But they don't always.

There were times that I had to cut parts that I loved or add parts that seemed pedestrian. And there was once, during the writing of Curse of the Spider King (cowritten with Christopher Hopper) that I think the publisher was close to firing us—or whatever it's called when a publisher cuts you loose. The contention came over the ending of the book, which CH and I believed to be an AWESOME cliffhanger. But the publisher felt like it didn't follow the usual story arc or allow enough closure. Eventually, we came to a compromise, but it was a painful one. There was another unique situation that kind of blew my mind. Publishers, especially big publishing houses, tend to have "profit" worked out to a formula. And so they plan everything out ahead of time, often including the side of the book's binding, how many pages, etc. I'd always thought that the author just writes the story, however long it may be, and then, you edit out what needs cutting, and VOILA! A book. But with my publisher, I most often worked on a word count of @75-100K words. But with Isle of Swords, I went way over that. It was originally 120K, and so, after much discussion, I had to cut 20,000 words. That was an arduous and heartbreaking task.


5. Yikes, I imagine that would be. I wouldn't have guessed, though. I love Isle of Swords as it is. If you had to do it over, what would you do differently? 

If I had to do the author portion of my life over, there's a ton that I would change. 1) I would get published earlier. I took 13 years to publish The Door Within. But most of that was a lack of persistence and discipline on my part. God was patient and still opened the door later for me, but I wish I'd started earlier. It would have been so much better for my family financially. 2) I'd ruthlessly cut other "hobbies" from my life and use that extra time to spend with my wife and kids. On top of the time I needed for writing, I often took too much so-called "me" time for things like golf, tennis, video games, etc. What an idiot I was. Nothing wrong with any of those things, but those hours are gone. Jesus tries to tell us in His word, "if you lose your life for my sake, you'll find life, but if you keep it to yourself, you lose it." I was quite literally a fool for spending so much time with selfish pastimes. Please don't misunderstand, I was a very involved husband and father, but I could have been more. I should have been more. I'm sure there are other things I would change, but those are the main two.

Thank you, that's a lot of awesome advice. I appreciate the time you took to answer all these questions.

You're very welcome. It was kind of cathartic to explore all that you asked. I'm going to publish the whole Q&A on my blog. Hopefully, other aspiring young writers will learn a bit from it.

I hope so, too. You were one of my main inspirations to start writing. I don't know if God will guide me to opportunities in this field yet, but I'm sure your advice will be helpful if He does.

Well, aww, thank you for saying so. I pray that you'll take whatever path God lays out for you. It'll be an adventure, that much I can promise you. And, as you know, adventures always begin with the unexpected...