Someone recently suggested I write a post on the evolution of me as an author, so here it is.
From my earliest childhood, I always thought of myself as a writer. I just didn’t know how to write anything longer than a poem or a song in such a way that it was readable.
Most evenings, I listened to music on the stereo, writing my thoughts and ideas in a notebook while my kids did their homework.
My pen and ink ramblings weren’t “writing” as I see it now. They were more like frameworks to hold ideas that later became full-fledged stories.
Then, in 1987, my father bought me a secondhand IBM Selectric Typewriter, and my writing addiction took off.
For most of my writing life, I was like a five-year-old with a new set of paints. My enthusiasm for my stories was far greater than my ability to tell them.
I didn’t have the information I needed to make my work readable and didn’t know how to get it.
I felt embarrassed for even thinking that I could be an author.
One day in 1990, I stumbled upon a book offered in the Science Fiction Book Club catalog: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. The day that book arrived in my mailbox changed my life.
I could become an author, and one of my favorite writers was going to tell me how to do it.
In the years since that book, I have amassed a library of books on the craft. Some are brilliant, some not so much, but I always learn something from them.
However, personal experience is a great teacher, and I’ve learned many things by trial and error.
So here in no particular order are six things I would like to pass on to you:
One: Make a style sheet as you go.
Build a glossary of words and spellings unique to your story and especially be sure to list names. I use an Excel spreadsheet, but you can use anything you like to help you stay consistent in your spelling.
And even though I think I am developing a thorough glossary, my editor will find many words to add to it.
Two: Develop a logical, consistent system for naming your files and save regularly.
Save each version of your manuscript with a different name so you can go back and retrieve bits you may need later. I use a system like this:
That stands for Heaven’s Altar version five, and I work out of Word, so the extension is automatically a docx.
Three: Find a local group of writers to meet with and talk about the craft.
Critique groups are great, but they are only one small part of the picture. Authors need to network with other authors because we need to discuss the craft with someone who doesn’t look at you with glazed eyes.
I gained a wonderful local group through attending write-ins for NaNoWriMo before the pandemic. While we haven’t been able to have in person meetings for a while, we meet weekly via zoom. They are a never-ending source of support and information about both the craft and the industry. We are a group of authors writing in a wide diversity of genres. We gladly help each other bring new books into the world, but more than that, we are good, close friends.
Four: Never stop educating yourself.
Learn how to say what you mean with your unique voice and your personal style. A college education is an expense we might not be able to wrangle. But you can buy books on grammar, books on style and substance, and books on writing craft.
Learn about structure and pacing from successful authors. Every coin you invest in your education will be returned to you with interest when your story makes a reader say they wished it hadn’t ended.
Self-education requires perseverance and a small investment of money, but you can do it.
Spend the money to go to conventions and attend seminars. You will learn so much about the craft of writing, the genre you write in, and the publishing industry as a whole—things you can only learn from other authors. I gained an extended professional network by joining The Pacific Northwest Writers Association and going to their conferences.
Five: Don’t even consider signing with the slick-talking publisher that contacts you out of the blue.
How can a publisher possibly want work they haven’t seen?
Make use of SFWA’s Writer Beware site. These predators want your work all right—and want to sell you publishing services you can do for yourself. You won’t benefit from the predator publisher’s “services,” but they will profit from your desperation to be published. They will publish your work in its raw unedited form, and you will never see a dime.
Six: My final suggestion is this: even though you are writing that novel, keep writing short stories too.
Short stories are a training ground, a way to hone your developing skills. They’re also the best way to get your name out there. My advice is to build a backlog of work from 2000 to 5000 words in length and keep them ready to submit to magazines, anthologies, and contests.
All those fabulous scenes and vignettes that roll through your head can be made into short pieces.
Get the Submittable App and see who is asking for the kind of stories you write. Start submitting your work, and don’t let rejections stop you. Just keep sending that work out to new places because someone will want it.
These are a few things that I wish I had known when I first started writing professionally but didn’t.