Writing Tips


Q. Have you always wanted to write?

A: Yep. Since I was 8.

Q:What kind of advice can you give to an aspiring fiction writer?

A: First, I’d slap the aspiring fiction writer around and say, “Pull yourself together! Find another profession, something that pays, something that doesn’t have you daily wondering why you do this! Run, run far from this place!” Then I’d remember that I like what I do, and that I didn’t take such advice either. And then I’d say this:

  • #1. Read. Read as many books as you can. Join a library book club, because you’ll read books outside your usual genres and find unexpected delights. Just read, and read voraciously, and don’t stop reading, and read what you want to read not what you think you should read. (Read only a few of those.) If you say you want to be a writer, but you’re not a reader, find another profession or hobby. I collect movie theater ticket stubs, myself.
  • #2. Read The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell, On Writing, by Stephen King, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. 
  • #3. Go to conferences on writing.

Q: How do I get published? How do I get an agent? What about writer’s groups?

A: Refer to #1, #2, and #3 above.

Q: Anything else?

A: Yeah, two more things: First, pray your guts out for a good editor. Get one who won’t take your crap, and learn when to not take his or hers. Second, don’t be a slob. In the mythically transcendent words of Stephen King: “Only a slob leaves it to the editor.” That’s about it.

Q: What? You have nothing else to offer on writing? That’s a little weird.

A: I used to have plenty to say. The more I write, or the older I get, the less I have in my pocket to chip into the kettle. Maybe I’ve learned that no matter what any writer will tell you, you’re going to beat your own path. I think you’re in a better place for it when you do.

The most important thing is to learn all you can about handling the language reins by reading. You’ll become deft, fluid, and confident. Reading about Ernest Shackleton, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Winston Churchill, Harry Potter, Rand al’Thor, Hamlet, Raoul Wallenberg, Adam Trask, Audie Murphy, Percy Jackson, Jack Aubrey, Ender Wiggin or Elizabeth Bennett will do more for you than any conference or workshop or how-to book. You’ll learn dialogue, characterization, plotting, rhythm. You’ll pick up grammar. You’ll put two words together that didn’t seem a match before, and find yourself delighted. You’ll find unexpected catalyst for tricky plot problems. You’ll learn to write. Their creativity, that of Tolkien, Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis and Card…Krakauer, King, Rowlings, and Bronte…Grisham, London, Clancy and Jordan…Dickens, Austen, O’Brian, and Hardy…Homer, Shakespeare, Dumas, Dostoyevsky: their creativity will crash into your own, and from the sparks will come something new. From the sparks will come answers.

These are your teachers. These are your professors. You’re learning a language, you’re learning it for life, and the best way to become fluent in that language is immersion. Writing comes from reading. If you’re serious about writing, give yourself loads of permission to read. If you don’t feel a little guilty about how much time you’re reading, to the willful neglect of other tasks, then you’re not reading enough.

You want to be a writer? Then read. Reading books made you want to write. If you can’t quite give yourself permission to do it, it’s because something this right doesn’t seem right at first, because we can be unwilling to recognize joy in our own backyards, unwilling to participate in it, unwilling to let go and let ourselves have fun—joy—pure unmitigated shining pleasure. If you’re having a tough time with the permission thing, I’ll take a load off your back and give it to you myself. Ickity, ackity, oop—it’s yours. Go have yourself a ball.

Q: Any advice to aspiring historical novelists given all the changes in the publishing industry?

A: Here’s what hasn’t changed: calling, purpose, and desire.

Q: What is your view of traditional versus self-publishing, the role of agents, the importance of social media, etc. What should writers do to find an audience for their work?

A: Everyone’s publishing story is going to be different. For some, traditional works, for others, self-publishing is the route to go. Same deal with agents. Given the state of the publishing industry today, I don’t think there’s a wrong or a right way to do things. You have to feel your way, find your way.

The number one thing a novelist must do, the new non-negotiable, is to stay connected with social media. These days, an author is both novelist and bookstore and there’s no getting around it. For myself, I give a certain amount of time to investing in social media daily, and call it good. People need to know your book is out there. Goodreads and other book sites do that. Of course, the most important thing to do is make sure you have something to market; write a good book. All starts there.