January 27 – February 2: “What’s the best advice you can give to a beginner writer?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We have a full house this week, with ITW Members Mark Pryor, Lissa Price, Jaye Wells, David O’Neil, Don Helin, Lisa Von Biela, J. M. LeDuc and Terry Shames answering the question: “What’s the best advice you can give to a beginner writer?” You won’t want to miss it!

The Blood Promise A Hugo Marston Novel by Mark PryorMark Pryor is a former newspaper reporter from England, and now a prosecutor with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the creator of the Hugo Marston mystery novels, which include THE BOOKSELLER (Oct 2012), THE CRYPT THIEF (May 2013), and the newly released THE BLOOD PROMISE. He is also the creator of the nationally-recognized true-crime blog D.A. Confidential, and has appeared on CBS News’s 48 Hours and Discovery Channel’s Discovery ID: Cold Blood.

The Last Death of Jack Harbin A Samuel Craddock Mystery by Terry ShamesTerry Shames is the best-selling author of A Killing at Cotton Hill and The Last Death of Jack Harbin, Seventh Street Books. Her books are set in small-town Texas and feature ex-chief of police Samuel Craddock. Terry lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and two rowdy terriers. She is Vice President of Norcal Sisters in Crime and on the board of MWA Norcal.

Enders by Lissa PriceLissa Price is the award-winning international bestselling author of STARTERS, published in over thirty countries. She has lived in India and Japan but now resides in Los Angeles.

Dirty Magic by Jaye WellsJaye Wells is a USA Today-bestselling author of urban fantasy and speculative crime fiction. Raised by booksellers, she loved reading books from a very young ago. That gateway drug eventually led to a full-blown writing addiction. When she’s not chasing the word dragon, she loves to travel, drink good bourbon and do things that scare her so she can put them in her books. Jaye lives in Texas.

DevilsDen_CoverDuring Don Helin‘s time in the military, he spent seven years in the Pentagon. These assignments have provided him background for his thrillers. His first novel, THY KINGDOM COME was published in 2009. His second, DEVIL’S DEN has been selected as a finalist in the Indie Book Awards. Don lives in central Pennsylvania where he is working on “Secret Assault,” to be published in Spring 2014.

Minding the Store by David O'NeilFrom David O’Neill: As an Artist and Photographer I started writing seriously with a series of Highland guide books. My boyhood ambitions were to fly an aeroplane, and sail a boat. As a boy my family were bombed out of our home in London. I learned to fly with the RAF 1950-52 during my National Service. I started sailing boats while serving in the Colonial Police, in Nyasaland (Malawi). I spent 8 years there, before returning to UK. Since then I lived in southern England where I became a management consultant, for over twenty years. I returned to live in Scotland in 1980, and became a tour guide in 1986. I started writing in 2006, the first guide book being published in 2007. A further two have been published since then. I started writing fiction in 2007 and have now written thirteen full length novels. I have a collection of short stories also.

THE JANUS LEGACY coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa’s first short story appeared in The Edge in 2002. Her short works have appeared in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. Her debut novel, THE GENESIS CODE, was released in 2013. Her second novel, THE JANUS LEGACY, is due out in February 2014, and her first novella, ASH AND BONE, is set for release in May 2014.

cornerstone99Mark Adduci, writing as J. M. LeDuc is a native Bostonian, who transplanted to South Florida in 1985. He shares his love and life with his wife, Sherri and his daughter, Chelsea. Blessed to have had a mother who loved the written word, her passion was passed on to him. It is in her maiden name he writes. When he is not crafting the plot of his next thriller, his alter ego is busy working as a professor at The Academy of Nursing and Health Occupations, a nursing college in West Palm Beach, Florida.

J.M. LeDuc’s first novel, “Cursed Blessing,” won a Royal Palm Literary Award in 2008 as an unpublished manuscript in the thriller category. It was published in 2010. He has subsequently written “Cursed Presence” and “Cursed Days, books two and three of the Trilogy of The Chosen, as well as a novella, “Phantom Squad.”His latest novel, “Cornerstone,” a continuation of the Phantom Squad saga was released to critical acclaim in June 2013. He is a proud member of the prestigious International Thriller Writers (ITW).

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  1. Thinking back, the best advice I’ve received during my writing career is, “Remember that writing is an art, but publishing is a business.” And it’s so true. Many writers work hard on writing their novel by developing great characters, a thrilling plot, mavelous setting, and all the rest which is so important, but don’t pay attention to what comes next.

    Once you sell that novel to a publisher, you need to develop a first-class marketing plan, make sure your website is up to date, involve yourself in social media, and get on the road to building a community of readers. If you don’t work with your publisher to market and sell your book, then you might not get a shot at that second novel and beyond.

  2. Don is spot-on, once someone is at the point of writing that first novel. I’d like to suggest that beginning writers start small.

    First, read a lot! I have to agree with Stephen King on that–if you don’t read widely, how can you expect to write well? Notice what genres appeal to you most. Notice what works well and what doesn’t–think about why. Notice what has been “done to death” in your chosen genre. Don’t copy the great writers of your genre, but learn from them, emulate what they do that works, but do it in your own style.

    I suggest starting with short stories, rather than jumping into a novel first thing. I think there is a lot of craft to be learned that is better learned in a shorter structure. You don’t have the distraction of trying to get a long work to hold together and wrangling all those words. You can focus on technique. Join a good critiquing group in your preferred genre–there are some good ones online. Submit to short story markets. Hone your craft in shorter work, then tackle that first novel.

  3. Good advice, Lisa and Don.

    When asked this question, my first response is a little uninspiring: learn the craft of writing. Don is right in that writing is an art but it’s also a somewhat mechanical craft. The fundamentals of PoV, sentence structure (and variation), character development… without those building blocks, I think it’s almost impossible for any author to succeed. I wrote three novels before The Bookseller got picked up and I think there’s a reason for that – they weren’t very good!

    So, my first piece of advice to a new writer is just to learn as much as you can about the craft of writing.

    My second piece of advice is… don’t give up. I wrote a novel, and it was probably horrible. Then I wrote one that was just bad. My third was readable, if not publishable. All that writing took me seven years, seven years of writing and nothing to show for it.

    Even when I wrote a book good enough to attract an agent, the rejections kept coming, a year of them. My wife often marveled at my thick hide but the truth was, I wasn’t willing to give in. It’s tough, and remains hard, but my second piece of advice to new writers is simply this: don’t give up, because your work and patience will be rewarded.

  4. Don, Lisa and Mark, all great points. I could talk for a hour on this topic. But since the bottom line is always to write the best manuscript you can, let me start here: dig deep to find what it is that makes you special. The best story you’re going to tell will come from You, not the author you’ve admired for ten years, or the new rising star, so don’t try to imitate them. You want to break into the business with something that best represents you — because it’s too hard to be a great version of someone else.

  5. Everyone has posted some wonderful comments. I especially liked what Lissa said about digging deep to find what makes you special. But I’d like to back up from there. For the beginning writer, my advice is to write. Yep. Every. Single. Day. Even if it’s only for ten minutes. It’s like beginning a workout at the gym. Write every day to tone your muscles.

    When I worked full time in the computer field, sometimes I would work 80-hour weeks. But when I grabbed lunch, I’d go outside, sit down with my notebook and write, even if it was just a few paragraphs. You might say, “What if I don’t feel inspired? What if I don’t know where I’m going?” Just write. Let your thoughts flow. And then, when your writing muscles are toned, then you dig dig deeper.

    And by the way, read! And then read some more. When you read something you really think is good, go back and read it to find out how the author accomplished what spoke to you.

    That’s it for now. Ready to have a conversation.

  6. I’m afraid that my comments on this subject tend to be rather prosaic. Though I have never believed that writing fiction can be learned from a course of instruction. The mere fact that there are so many widely read writers throughout history makes me believe that some people have it in them and others don’t. It is the difference that makes one book a best seller from it’s wide appeal as a story. and another beautifully crafted book that lies untouched on the shelf. I believe the study of language and grammar is important. But to illustrate. I painted pictures for many years. I decided to attend an art workshop locally. The Professional artist guiding the workshop pushed us all to paint in his preferred style.
    I suppose my inclination would be to recommend that If you have the compulsion, just sit down and begin. If you have read plenty of books you should have some idea of the subject you will write about.

  7. Terry,
    I would like to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the point about writing every day. I actually use each morning , because I can. If what I write is not what I want, I file it or scrub it. Whatever I do I write something. Generally, now I am so accustomed to the actual effort , I tend to keep what I write one way or another. My first book started with a blank page and I wrote a word. 107 thousand words later my first novel went to the publisher.

    1. I love this story, David. As I said, it’s like toning your muscles to exercise. You have to practice to get good at it.

      Regarding writing classes, as with any kind of class there are some that work well and others that don’t, depending both on the teacher and the student. Mostly I always liked writing classes because they made me focus.

      I’ve run into a few aspiring writers who didn’t understand the rules of writing. By that I mean sentence and paragraph structure. That’s where a craft class is imperative. Fifty years ago an editor might have recognized a beautiful but flawed manuscript and helped the writer turn it into a gem. These days, the gem has to be polished (excuse the overwrought metaphor).

  8. Hi everyone! The advice I give to all beginning writers is to let yourself be a beginner. So many people get distracted by trying to learn how to publish before they know if they can finish a story.

    Focus on getting words down, on finishing something. Read everything you can get your hands on. As a novice, you must steep yourself in the work of the masters of your genre and craft and learn from them.

    Understand that writing isn’t easy. There’s no finish line. Do you best, learn from it, and then try again. That’s all any writer can do whether they’re writing their first book or their fiftieth. The rest of it–whether you need an agent, should you traditionally or self-publish it, etc–can be learned once you have stories to sell. But for now, focus on learning and writing as much as you can.

    1. Jaye makes great points. Just get your story down on paper and worry about editing later. The other point I’d like to make is the value of critique groups and writers conferences. You need critique partners to let you know how they liked what you wrote and how you can improve it. Try to get partners who are at least as experienced as you are. I’ve been with a group for almost eleven years and they have kept me on track.

      Also writers conferences. Writing is a solitary experience. Conferences can help you learn from more experienced writers, meet agents and editors, and build a group of writer friends and contacts to perk you up when you get those “Sorry” comments from an agent or an editor

  9. I totally agree that GOOD critique is critical to improvement. I usually caution people to choose their group or partners wisely. Critiques are also great training ground for being a pro. They help you build your resistance to taking critique personally so you can survive the slings and arrows of submissions and review later on.

    Writing conferences are great. It’s important to find your people early on so you have support. I remember feeling so relieved when I finally got in a room full of writers (through my local RWA chapter). I felt like I’d finally found my tribe.

  10. There many gems of great advice here.
    I agree with what Don H said about conferences and add a thought from Hemingway. “Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing.”

    I also like the advice to write every day.

    I think today, more that ever, it’s easy to come up with substations for writing–eloquent Facebook posts, snarky emails, Tweets–etc. that deplete our writing well and trick our brains into thinking we’ve done something to meet our writing goals.

    I’ve been fortunate to get incredible advice from many mentors over my career in law enforcement that translates perfectly to writing. Here are some of the things I scribbled in my Moleskine notebooks over the years and that I try to pass on to those entering police work or a career in writing–

    “Have swagger. Live a big life. Notice the little things about that life. Take notes about the things you notice. Follow your hunches. Tears are fake unless the snot is flowing (show don’t tell.) Talk to everyone–especially the ones who seem insignificant. Take more notes. Don’t follow the crowd. Read everything you can get your hands on. Take more notes…”

    Anyhow, sorry to interrupt. Hope to meet some of you at Thriller Fest this year.

  11. Marc,

    That taking notes is great advice. My books are set in Europe, so when I go to do research (tough life, I know) I take a little moleskin notebook and write down slices of life that I see. I used to think I’d remember everything but I know better now!

    Also, one more thing I’d say to new writers: take your time. That goes for the writing but more so the business/publishing side. There’s so much info out there on traditional v. self-publishing, I can see how easy it might be to dash into one decision or another.

  12. I sure hope the beginning writers are reading these posts–an absolute gold mine!

    I have a couple of follow-on thoughts. One concerns critique groups. I agree, choose carefully, lest you end up with the blind leading the blind. Also, be watchful of your balance. I belonged to a crit group that was quite good–one way to tell was the publication announcements of members. (Showed their work was progressing to publishable.) My problem was I started gravitating toward critting big time. I remember doing line by line crits, taking considerable time on each one. The recipients were grateful for the detailed attention, but I found myself spending more time on that than my own writing, and eventually exited the group for that reason.

    My other thought is something that hit me yesterday. While writing is mental, not physical, writing skills do parallel physical skills, like those in a craft. In the beginning, you’re clumsy, just trying to do the basics, fumbling with the tools. As you improve, you become facile, your tools move smoothly. As you become even better, you use those tools with nuance and grace–you control the tools, they don’t control you. I learned to sew when I was 9. I could barely manage things then. I’ve been sewing for about 100 years now. *I* control the tools, the fabric, not the other way around. With writing, words are your tools. The better you get, the more facile you become and choosing the right word, the right sequence of words, to do what you envision. And to get to that place, you need to practice!

    There. Hope I didn’t ramble too much. It’s early here still. 🙂

  13. Lisa, I wish that happened to me–getting good at the craft and staying good. Every time I start a new book, I feel like I’m starting for scratch. Maybe it takes less time to get up to speed, but in some sense I think many of us are beginners more than once.

    1. Terry,

      I didn’t mean to imply at some point it became permanently easy, just that the tools become more facile. With each new work I try to tackle some new challenge that is a learning experience. For example, one of the POVs in The Janus Legacy was a huge challenge to write. There’s always going to be some new rung, some new thing you do as a beginner–else it wouldn’t be fun, would it? 🙂

  14. Lisa makes a good point. Words are the tools to build that story. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stumbled over finding that one right word. I end up with three soft words where there should be one hard hitting word. I fumble and fumble, then finally put it down.

    When I go back, often the right word flows out. Then, I’m lucky. Sometimes it takes longer. Reading a lot helps cement the right word and increases my vocabulary. But I still wish it were larger.

    1. Yes, the right word, and the words all fitting together smoothly and gracefully. And in the voice of the character you’re dealing with. Isn’t it wonderful when it flows out like that?

  15. I have just finished my latest book, I find that as I have mentioned, to write every day, even if I scrap it thereafter, is a good practice to follow. I also found when I started writing my first complete novel I wrote a series of short stories at the same time. It sounds daft I know, but I found it kept my brain active, and thinking of things across the two metiers. The habit I developed of writing every day has made it possibler for me to write, several books since I started my first in 2006, published in 2007. I now have fourteen novels published plus my book of short stories.The book finished today will be number fifteen.Whatever we all say for a new writer you must just go for it. But get someone else to read what you write if you can.

  16. David, that’s a great point. A little bit every day adds up. It’s amazing how productive you can be if you just keep plugging away. The fastest way to fail is to not try at all.

  17. You know, the other very important thing that comes from “just doing it” and gaining experience is finding out what works best for you in terms of overall process to get to the completed work. It’s different for everyone, and you have to find what suits you.

    Some people are “pantsters,” they just sit down and let it out and edit later. I can’t do that. I have to plan, to outline and plot, to figure out the way forward before starting to produce the prose to accomplish it. If the plotline requires important timing points, I will draw out a timeline and develop the outline against it.

    I have ways of tracking first draft progress that suit me, and I have my own preferences for what I do in the second draft vs. the third draft, vs. the final polish. This comes from working through the process and seeing what fits you, and believe me, when you find a methodology that works, it really helps give you a foundation when you take on a new project!

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