Your Most Frequently Asked Writing Questions, Answered!
Going to cons or checking my email or wandering into the woods, inevitably a writer (or a rogue whitetail deer) will ask me one of a pre-selected set of questions. These questions are understandable — I’m not knocking them. But I did think, hey, maybe I’ll take the Top 15 by frequency, bop ’em in a single post, and see if I can’t hit a few fly-balls into the outfield.
Maybe some of these answers will help you.
Most likely, none of my answers will help you.
But sometimes bad answers are better than no answers at all.
So let’s do this thing.
1. How Do I Get Published?
“Have you written a book?”
“… y… whhh… no?”
Seriously, this is one of those questions that is alarmingly simple to answer and simultaneously too complex. So, I’m going to go with the completely short-and-sweet answer:
Write a book. (A-doyyy.) Make that book as awesome as your earthly power allows.
a) Enter it into the TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING MACHINE, which is to say, get an agent and have that agent shop the manuscript around to a gaggle of free-range, artisanal editors.
b) Fling it into the SELF-PUBLISHING MAELSTROM, which is to say, get a cover, and format it so it doesn’t look like hot poop on a clean window and then catapult it up onto the self-publishing marketplace of your choice and wait for the money or non-money to flow.
More on the deviations between those choices in a moment, but for now, the mechanics of getting published is quite easy. Being successful at it is a whole other bag of cats.
2. How Do I Get An Agent?
You need bait and a trap.
Gruyere makes excellent bait. As does a bottle of wine. Or a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. A slick-walled pit makes an excellent trap. Then what ensues is like Stephen King’s Misery, except you’ve kidnapped a cockadoody dirty-birdie bona-fide NYC agent!
Okay, maybe not that, exactly.
But partly that.
You still need bait — meaning, a hella good book. And you still need the trap — meaning, a hella good query letter. And here you want to ask how you write a good query letter, don’t you? I can see the question forming on your desperate, quivering lips. That is, like with all these questions, both easy in mechanics and difficult in the quality of execution. Writing a query letter is always an act of talking a 100-lb. pig and getting it into a 5-lb. bucket. Necessary, but brutal. A bloody rendering of the work you wrote into a couple paragraphs. The rest of the work left on the floor in gory ribbons.
My best and shortest advice on writing a query letter is: don’t study other query letters but rather, study the flap copy of books. Particularly books like the one you wrote. Flap copy is designed to attract and entice, which is also the job of a query letter. Learn how to write good back cover copy of your book, and translate that to a query letter. (Bonus: if written well, it shows the agent you are somewhat savvy at marketing and not just story-making.)
The real question you should be asking is: what makes a good agent? I know a lot of writers who have agents and don’t have the right relationship with those agents, and that always saddens me. Your agent is a partner, not your boss. Your agent is interested in your career and not a single book in it. Your agent will answer your emails. Your agent will make you (within reason) a priority.
(One question that fell off this list but still gets asked a lot so I’ll address it here is — “Do I need an agent?” The very short and obvious answer is, no, you don’t need one. But yes, you damn sure should want one. A good agent will maximize your potential and if you think you can go it alone or with just a lawyer and actually operate at the top of your game, I would like to take this opportunity to beat you about the head and neck with a stapler.)
3. Can You Read / Review / Edit My Story?
This is not a writing question but a writing-related question, but I am asked it often, so:
No, I cannot.
I cannot for a lot of reasons.
a) legal reasons
b) time reasons
c) fuck you reasons.
Do you walk up to a chef and ask that he make you a sandwich, or worse, that he shove the sandwich you just made into his mouth so you can tell if it’s any good? Do you call up a home contractor in the hopes he’ll take time out of his day to come look at your handiwork so that you can join the ranks of contractors around the country? No, I can’t read your story. What the hell? Why are you asking me that? Don’t you know how rude that is? Stop asking me that. And definitely don’t just send me something. That’s weird. You’re weird. Stop being weird.
OKAY fine here’s where I admit I did this once upon a time. (Asking, not sending.) I was a young dumb penmonkey and I asked someone who shall remain nameless (cough cough Christopher Moore) if he’d read some bullshit I wrote, and he was actually really polite in his answer. I try to be similarly polite to individuals, but let me drop that veneer of politeness here and say:
Never do this or you will be eaten by bears.
*demonstrates my pointing to the cage of bears behind me*
4. How Do I Write A Good Character?
I love that this is a frequently-asked question. I do! Because character is everything. Nobody wants to read a book about a lamp. Unless the lamp is like, animated and has shit to do, it’s just a lamp. History is made of people. Stories are made of people. It’s all Soylent Green. We are people who want to read about people, even if those people are robots or wyverns or animated lamps.
Just the same, you might as well ask me:
“How do I personally get to Mars?”
“How do live my life until death?”
It’s such a wide-open, scary fucking question. Art is not an equation. Characters are not LEGO mini-figs where you just pop snap on the legs and pop press on the head and snap click on the hair. They’re this curious alchemical reaction transitioning the crass metal of your imagination into the burnished gold of a character that exists on the page that I love and that feels real.
I cannot tell you how to write a good character.
I can give you a few guidelines I follow and you do what you like.
Characters must want things. And they must pursue these things. Active characters (i.e. characters with agency) are more interesting than characters without it — meaning, the character is not a toy boat floating down a river but rather is the rock that breaks the river in half, or is even the river herself. Good characters needn’t be likable but they should be livable — meaning, we must be willing and able to live with that character for 300 pages. They should seem consistent yet also evolve — they should change yet still be recognizable as that character.
Above all else, they have to be interesting.
And what does that mean? Interesting?
I have no bloody idea.
It’s a different thing for everybody.
Best bet is: look at your most favoritest characters of all time and figure out why you loved them. Ask yourself what made them so compelling to read? What allowed them to crack through your breastplate and swim around in the sweet viscera of your heart’s love? Study that. Dissect them. As with all of these things: the lessons of how to write are often in what you have already read.
If you want a post specifically geared toward creating characters: then make with the clicky-clicky: the Zero-Fuckery Quick-Create Guide To Kick-Ass Characters.
5. Actually, How Do I [Insert Authorial Story Task Here]?
How do you create tension? Or speak to theme? Or invoke mood? Or choose a great font? Or write in the nude like a forested nymph? So many questions with so many answers. I probably have the answers, in the sense that I am a loud-mouth who likes to pretend he has actual answers. I don’t. I have theoretical answers. I have answers that might work for me. I can say, “I did X, and maybe X will work for you too. I write in the nude by flinging all my clothes into a hamper, decorating my beard with hallucinogenic berries, and then I run sky-clad into the woods while covering my twig and berries with actual twigs and berries — but only while I’m running because I wouldn’t want to catch my no-no-bits on some briar or whack it against the rough-bark of an old apple tree…”
Beyond the more incisive, particular answers, I do have some generic ones.
a) Read actively. Do not sit back and merely enjoy a book. But as you read it, TEAR IT APART WITH YOUR MIND. Rip it open from eyebrows to asshole. Get all up in them guts. If you want to learn how to write tension, read a book you consider excellent at that. Try to figure out why that works for you and what parts of the book demonstrate that specifically. (Warning: this will make you hate reading and love reading all the more. It changes how you insert story into your brain.)
b) Just fucking try shit out. If you wanna learn how to surf, before too long you have to put aside the lessons (“stand like this, hips this way, don’t stop and fuck sharks”) and get on the actual surfboard — first on the sand, then in the water. You just gotta do shit. Then, once you’ve done it, it’s time to come back to it and rip it apart and maybe have some other people rip it apart and figure out why it worked or more likely why it damn well didn’t. The cycle goes roughly like this:
– try a thing
– fail at it because duh of course you’re going to
– fail quickly and with great joy
– reflect upon your failure
– fucking try it again because what did you think you’d get it right the first time?
– repeat x1000
6a. Should I Self-Publish Or Publish Traditionally?
*pinches bridge of nose*
6b. Okay That Didn’t Help Me.
Hey, it was an honest answer. Your best bet is trying both.
But the real deal is, maybe you’re suited for one or the other. Because no matter how much the adherents or acolytes on either side of the fence would have you believe, no matter what you believe about success rates and outliers and gatekeepers and whatever other weaponized horseshit everyone is firing around out of their cannons —
Not everybody wants to do everything.
And not everybody is going to be good at everything.
And nothing is a guarantor of success.
Self-publishing? You do it all yourself, earn more of the money per sale (and earn it more quickly!), but suffer the limitations of the marketplace in the process.
Traditional publishing? You cede some control, get an advance but earn less money per sale (and earn it slowly), but have the theoretical advantage of a wider marketplace.
Advantages and disadvantages of each.
If you really want the hard-ass, pin-me-to-the-ground answer? Try traditional first because then you can see if you like it. If they say “no” you can always consider self-publishing still. In fact, that “no” may come with some value-adds: you might discover more things to fix in your story and you might also get those secret-not-so-secret signals that tell you your book is good but they don’t know what to do with it. That’s a sign to self-publish — an edge-case book that won’t fit in the traditional space might still be amazing enough to reach sales and readers on its own.
7. Something-Something Social Media?
Sure? Do social media because you like it not because it’s some kind of obligation. Nobody wants to read the blog of someone who is being forced to do it. Just like we don’t want to read a book written by someone who hated writing it. (You turn to page 257 and across the book in a big-ass font is “PLEASE HELP ME CALL 911 AM TRAPPED IN NOVELIST SWEATSHOP OH GOD WHAT MISERY IT’S BASICALLY UPTON SINCLAR’S THE JUNGLE IN HERE oh god they’ve seen me.”) Tweet because Twitter is fun for you, not because it’s on your checklist. Put the social in social media. Social media is a great place to meet other people doing what you want to do, and it’s also a great place to talk to your audience. Note I said talk to, not yell at.
You know how we use the phrase IRL to differentiate between what’s happening in reality and what’s happening on the Internet and on social media? Newsflash: social media is reality. It’s not illusion. We need to treat what happens online like it’s real because oh shit it really is. It’s not Game of Thrones. And when you’re online, the same rules apply as when you’re offline:
Be awesome. Don’t be shitty. Why would you want to be shitty?
8. Something-Something Brand And Platform?
*makes a yucky face*
A platform is a thing you use to stand on and yell down at people.
A brand is a thing they sear into the asses of cattle.
Neither of those things interest me as an author. People like to talk to me about my brand as if I am an expert on the subject or a good example of what a brand is supposed to be. And I tell them I don’t have a brand or care about brands because I don’t think anyone would recommend I create this — *gestures at self* — as any kind of brand. And then they’re like, “BUT THAT IS YOUR BRAND,” and then I dry heave because my personality is not some carefully-constructed persona. This is me. I am who I like to be online. I try to be the best version of myself. My voice is what matters. That me and my work and all of it conspires together to feel like… well, me.
I do me, and you do you.
And the only platform you should care about is the one you build out of AMAZING BOOKS.
9. How Do I End My Story?
You stop writing it.
You probably want better advice than that.
FINE, MOM, JEEZ.
My only real advice toward an ending is: the whole book is you building dominoes and the ending is you knocking them down. It should feel natural and not like you failed to knock them down or worse, like you’re knocking down a different set of dominoes — ones we did not know were being set up. You have an infinite set of endings, but the one you choose should be written as if it’s the one that’s so obvious and organic that no other ending would make any sense at all.
10. Should I Outline?
“Should I have eggs for breakfast? Should I move to Albuquerque? Should I buy sex furniture?”
Hey, shit, I dunno.
Once upon a time I would’ve given you an unqualified YES because of course that’s how I did things and I was young enough and dumb enough (and solipsistic enough) to assume that IF I DID IT AND FOUND SUCCESS then that was the golden shining path and if you didn’t walk that golden shining path you were basically a bridge troll or some kind of mutant super-oaf.
Truth is, everybody has their own way to do things. We all dig our own tunnels and detonate them behind us. We all burn the map after we draw it. You gotta find your way. But that means not being set for or against anything. It means trying things. If you haven’t tried outlines — particularly if you’re having trouble finishing your work or feeling like it won’t come together properly — well, try it out. At the very least, eventually a publisher might ask for an outline (I’ve had to do professional outlines for a variety of projects), so it remains a skill worth learning even if you do not personally care for them.
11. How Do I Minimize Distractions?
ERADICATE THEM WITH ZERO MERCY.
It’s like this — imagine you had to perform a task of vital fucking importance. Something not only of grand import, but an act so fragile that you don’t want anything to stand between you and success. We’re talking like, CPR on a loved one. Or defusing a bomb. Or making love to a wyvern. Now, replace that act with writing your goddamn book. The work has to be so vital (and so uncertain in the act) that if you truly care about it, you’ll kill your distractions with two to the chest and one to the head.
Unless you’re being distracted by children. Don’t kill children.
*the MORE YOU KNOW star sweeps glittery across the screen*
Some quick tips:
– Have a writing space
– Protect that writing space
– Set aside specific writing time
– And drum roll please, protect that writing time
– Surround yourself with people who respect your work and your process
12. How Do I Defeat Writer’s Block / Self-Doubt?
You don’t. You just learn to ignore it because it is a lying lie-faced liar who fucking lies.
Note that this is very different from dealing with depression.
(Though depression is also a diabolical liar.)
For that, see this post: “The Writer & Depression.”
13. How Do I Self-Promote?
Don’t be noisy. Don’t be intrusive. Don’t be spammy.
Do be creative. Do bring your talents to bear. Do be nice.
Talk about your work in an honest, authentic way.
Best advice: worry more about promoting other’s work than your own. Here’s a fact: when I talk about my books or other authors get on here to promote their own books, if at the same time they reference the work of another writer? That work gets twice as many clicks as the book they’re actually promoting. We want to read what others love, not what others are trying to sell to us. The selling part works, but only to a certain end. Book-love, however, is forever.
14. What Do I Do About Genre?
Too easy an answer and there exist many reasons to utterly discard that advice out of hand. But for me, writing a story isn’t about genre, and if it’s too much about genre, then it gets drowned beneath it. Storytelling isn’t beholden to genre. Genre is a thing people just made up, like movie ratings or cat memes or jorts. Worry about it later. Don’t worry about it now.
Read in your genre, but read way the fuck outside it, too. Reading too much “in” the genre that you love is why you see a lot of samey-samey reiterations of story. It’s like willingly inserting yourself into the Human Centipede of writing and publishing. In other words: ew, don’t do that.
15. [Incoherent Gabbling?]
I hear that.
Solidarity fist-bump for you, writer-person.
Writing is hard, publishing is harder, and both are really weird. Very little of This Thing We Do comes with true answers beyond what is both obvious and often not-so-obvious: if you want to be a writer then you need to write. (And you really need to finish what you begin.)
Best I can tell you is: keep on keeping on. Write long and hard, slow and fast. Write to climax. When you’re done, clean up and do it all over again. Worry not. Care less. Work your ass off.
* * *
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