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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Advice for New and Would-Be Authors

This is a presumptuous blog post. I am an appellate attorney and thus write for a living, but I have been writing fiction (after a thirty-year hiatus) for less than two years -- surely too short a time for me to pose as an experienced author deigning to instruct the novice. However, I spent much of the last year and more not only writing and revising, but searching out and devouring advice by authors for authors. What follows are suggestions that I have found in my reading and then verified by experience.

With no further apology, here is some advice for the new or would-be author.

• Read, read, read. Read fiction, biography, history -- whatever interests you. Read authors whose voice appeals to you.

• Don't let anyone tell you whether you're meant to be, or whether you are, a writer. Even well-meaning folks may be poor critics, and not everyone who makes pronouncements on your potential will be well-meaning.

• Keep pen and paper, or some other means of taking notes, with you at all times. Don't assume you'll remember your great idea five minutes from now -- write it down immediately! Get or jury-rig a lighted note pad for your bedside table. (A clip-on book light attached to a cheap note pad will work.) If you get ideas in the shower, mutter them over and over to yourself until you reach dry land.

• Become compulsive about multiple backups of your idea notes, works in progress, rough drafts, subsequent drafts, etc. Use "the cloud" (Web-based storage), e.g., Dropbox or Evernote. (I use Dropbox. Once it's running on your computer, it will back up a document stored in your Dropbox folder every time you save. But check periodically to make sure it's still running!) Email attachments to yourself (and then check whether your email host is periodically deleting them). Put files on a separate hard drive and on flash drives.

• This one is YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). That said, I and many other authors find it essential to keep the inner editor gagged and stuffed in a closet when we're working on a rough draft. Don't be afraid to leave blanks or bracketed notes as you go. (My second-to-latest rough draft had one that read "[insert appropriate South American country here].") National Novel Writing Month (, in which participants aim to write a novel of at least 50,000 words within the month of November, is a great way to accomplish this. There'll be time enough later for lots and lots of rewriting.

• A related point: find the process that works for you. Some authors outline in detail. Others find too specific an outline stifling, and work from less organized notes of possible scenes, or with no notes at all. Some have a fixed time of day for writing, and allow nothing to disrupt it; others flit back and forth all day between writing and other tasks. Some use computers; some still write longhand, and a few swear by typerwriters.

• Think seriously about self-publishing. There's a wealth of info and support out there for indie authors. Conversely, this is a risky time to sign a contract with an agent or publisher. Because of the uncertain and fast-changing conditions in the publishing industry, many agents and publishers are inserting "rights grabs" and other clauses in their contracts that could cripple an author's career. Some of the worst language may be hidden in unexpected places like "warranty" clauses. If you do sign with an agent or publisher, try to find a way to pay a good IP attorney to go through the contract with a microscope. Don't let the allure of "having an agent" or "being published" lead you to grab at an offer of representation or publication without vetting it thoroughly.

That's all for now. Happy writing!


Donna Yates said...

All of this is great advice. I learned the hard way about backing up my works.

Michelle Hartz, Ph.Z. said...

Great advice!

I'd love to see a post from you with advice on self-publishing (and self-marketing) someday. Although I'm working on self publishing my second novel (just sent in the files for the proof copy today!), I haven't put the research or effort into it like you have.