Over the last ten years, I’ve used four rules to help me write advertising copy, website content, and ghostwrite books before launching my series of novels at the end of 2021.
If you want to be a writer, write every day.
It could be half an hour in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up, or it could be twenty minutes a day on your lunch break or even a few minutes tapped out on your phone when you go to the toilet (There have been more books written that way than you think).
The important thing is to find a habit that works for you. Buy a notebook, use an app on your phone, use whatever works, but get in the habit of writing every day.
The second rule is to
Writing is a skill like playing a musical instrument, painting, or carpentry and is improved through practice and study. No-one would expect to pick up a guitar for the first time and be able to play it flawlessly, and it’s exactly the same for writing a novel.
Rule 1 gets us working on our novel every single day and Rule number 2 sets us on the path to getting better so that each book we write is better than the one before because we know a little more each time.
So what do we read to become better writers?
We read well-written books and books on how to write well.
The internet is stuffed with lists of well-written books. Start with a search for the best books in the genre you enjoy reading most.
If you’re a romance fan search for the best romance books, the same for SciFi, Fantasy, or literary novels.
In between your favourite genres, sprinkle in some classics. There’s a reason we still read books by the Bronte Sisters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, decades or even hundreds of years after publication.
As you work your way through your reading list, highlight the passages that stand out and ask yourself why they had an impact?
Reading books on how to write will help build understanding WHY passages or entire books make an impression and how you can bring those into your own writing.
Authors like Ian Rankin excel at descriptions so vivid you feel you know a place even though you’ve never been there. Others, like Terry Pratchett, can make the extraordinary believable while Jane Austen creates characters you feel you’ve known all your life.
If you ask ten writers which is the best book to improve your writing skills, you’ll get eleven different answers. That’s ok. Some writing advice resonates better with some authors than others.
Here are the five books I go back to time and time again to help me improve my writing.
These are not the end-all/be-all of books to help sharpen your skills as a writer, but they are a good place to start.
As you follow rules 1 and 2, you’ll get a feeling for where you’re strong and where you’d benefit from more guidance from other books, courses, or mentorship.
Rule Number 3 is ...
Some writers love to boast about the stacks of notebooks with unfinished novels lying around the place. That’s ok if writing is a hobby but not so much if it’s how you want to pay the bills.
I have notebooks filled with ideas, sketched out plots, and thousands of words of early chapters to see if they work. When I have something that can become a novel, I open a fresh notebook and I start nothing else until I’ve finished.
That can be difficult. After the initial glow of inspiration, writing gets hard, and that’s usually what causes the stacks of half-empty notebooks of unfinished novels.
Don’t panic. There’s a secret that will make your writing life 100 times easier and make sure you finish what you start.
That secret is that first drafts are terrible.
Too many writers expect to write the perfect novel on the first draft and beat themselves up when it doesn’t work out that way.
First drafts are the initial rush to get ideas onto the page. They lack consistent plot, believable characters, interesting settings and are unsellable.
And that’s ok.
Keep on writing the first draft without worrying how good it may be until you have finished.
When you finish the first draft, edit it to find the mistakes and rewrite to fix those mistakes.
When all the edits and rewrites are finished, it’s time for Rule Number 4
There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of finished manuscripts sitting unread in drawers, the bottom of wardrobes and digital folders all over the country.
Some are first drafts, some rewritten a few times, and others have gone through professional edits, but what they all have in common is they are unread by their intended audience.
This is usually because the author is worried about the reaction to their manuscript or has tried and failed to find someone to publish the novel.
There are two ways to fix this.
The first option is to go down the traditional publishing route. Get a copy of the writers' and artists’ yearbook from your local library. Go through the list of agents accepting submissions for books in your genre, look up their submission guidelines, and send in your manuscript.
This can be a long process, and you may get many rejections before picking up an agent to represent you. When you do, it’s your agent’s job to use their contacts to sell your book to a publisher.
The good news is that armed with a good agent, you can mostly focus on writing the next book. I say mostly because even big publishing houses expect their writers to get out there and market new releases.
An alternative to traditional publishing is Self-Publishing. Self publishing used to be the refuge of failed writers, but in 2007 Amazon.com changed all that with its Kindle Direct publishing platform or KDP for short. KDP enabled ANYONE to upload their novel with a cover and sell it on Amazon. No publisher required.
Within a year the KDP program had its first self-published millionaires mostly made up of writers who were told by mainstream publishers their books wouldn’t sell.
Other big online platforms including Google and Apple soon followed Amazon into direct publishing, making it the first choice for thousands of authors every year.
The downside of self-publishing is that you have to do all the work including professional edits, cover design, and marketing, or pay someone to do it for you. The upside is that while traditional book contracts pay anywhere between 5% to 12% in royalties, self-publishing on the major platforms pays at least 70%.
A good place to learn about self-publishing is kboards.com
Which ever direction you take once you publish your book, it’s time to move on to your next work in progress.
Don’t get yourself into an endless cycle of tweaking the same book repeatedly because years later you’ll look back and that’s all you’ll have, one unfinished book.
Instead write, edit, and publish your book and then move on to the next project. Take your improved skills and use them on the next story, and the one after that and the one after that.
Professional writers don’t worry about their last book just making their NEXT book better.
If you’re writing a novel or planning on writing a novel, I hope these four rules are useful.
Copyright © 2021 Stephen Gordon