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A Modest Proposal – Actually Putting in the Work When Writing Your Book

Any writer who takes her craft seriously understands the process of writing. With today’s access to self-publishing platforms, vanity presses, and so on, there seems to be a belief that printing a manuscript is the same as getting one published. It’s not. Anyone can write a first draft, send it off to KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) or wherever, and claim they’re a published author. But the reality of the industry is that while it’s true you can get your “book” up there beside books published by respected traditional publishers and indie publishers on Amazon, it just ain’t the same. There are writers, and then there are writers. Let me explain.

Writing is a process that is learned. Just like you learned to crawl, and then walk, and then run, writing, like any craft, requires practice. It requires patience. It requires professionalism. That is, if you want your work to be respected. Just because you play golf on the weekends doesn’t mean you’re going to qualify for the PGA. Shooting hoops with your pals at the YMCA every morning doesn’t make you eligible to play against LeBron James. Playing Call of Duty or being able to right click and view a page’s source code doesn’t mean you know how to code. And the same holds true for writing.

If you’re looking to write up a quick novel or collection of short stories or something else and throw a cover on it and try to sell it because you want to make money, you can go ahead and stop reading here. The rest of the article is for writers who want to actually go through the process of 1) respecting the craft, and 2) writing something worth reading—or at least trying to.

Now, I know a lot of you reading this right now are shaking your head (and probably worse). What an elitist! you’re thinking. What a jerk. He doesn’t know anything! I’ve self-published my novel and I’m making bank! I’m number one on Amazon’s Children's eBooks -> Literature & Fiction -> Historical Fiction -> Holocaust bestseller list, so what do you know? Maybe that’s true. If so, good for you. It’s an achievement. But you’re a unicorn. You’re an anomaly. I’m guessing you’ve also put the work in, and aren’t a beginning writer. Just my guess. You should celebrate. You’ve earned it.

But you’re not who I’m talking to. I’m talking to writers who take shortcuts. Writers who don’t put the work in. Writers who’ve bought into the “Read this book and learn how to write a bestseller guaranteed” shtick. Again, you may be a unicorn, but (and I hate to break this to you), you’re probably not. You’re probably like 90% of the self-published writers out there, the ones who, according to WordsRated, sell less than 100 copies of their books. One of the reasons for that is that 300 million self-published books are sold each year, and the chances of your book selling anywhere near a decent percentage of that 300 million is slim to none. Sucks, right? I know. But the facts are the facts. You can’t close your eyes and make them go away.

So, ask yourself why you write. Most writers who’ve been doing this thing we do for any length of time know the likelihood of making a living just on their writing alone is minimal. Most writers (even the well-known, selling writers) do something other than write in order to make ends meet. Most of the ones I know teach at MFA programs around the country, whether in-person or at low-residency programs. Others hold other jobs outside of education. While every writer is different, the ones who write the critically acclaimed novels and/or the ones that sell more than a few copies and make it into the papers, put the work in. They do what it takes to write the best novel they can write—not the quickest novel they can write and print. Hear me out, because I’ve seen this over and over.

"Talent is required, but much of writing is a matter of craft, which develops with time, attention, patience and practice, like playing an instrument or learning to dance."

--Susan Wiggs

Writers who brush off process will sometimes get lucky and sell some books. As I mentioned above, however, these writers are unicorns, or they’re writers taking a different path by trying to put out book after book after book because it’s been made easy for them to do so. They’re hoping to make money, or they’re narcissists looking for some sort of fame. And now with OpenAI’s ChatGPT and similar software, it’s gotten worse. The shortcut kings and queens don’t even have to “write” anymore—they can have artificial intelligence write a book and do the cover art and illustrations, and then pass it off as their own. It’s a shame, and it’s an insult to the craft of writing.

Real writers (yep, I said it) actually write. They sit down and begin writing or outlining their novel or short story, editing as they go along, or blazing through their prose as quickly as they can in order to complete the first draft of the work so they can start the editing and rewriting process. And then once they’re in the editing and rewriting process, they rinse and repeat over and over again until they’ve completed the best manuscript that they can. And then they go on to the next step, which is sharing their work with other writers or editors or beta readers whose opinions they respect so they can get their feedback and edit and rewrite some more.

So what does that mean? It means real writers have the respect for the craft that it should be given. It means that they want to create something and share something that enhances the literature already out there by contributing quality work to the work that other writers who’ve done the same thing will welcome to the party (and so readers have something worth reading). It means that they aren’t going to take shortcuts for a quick buck, because in the end it isn’t worth it.

Now, I’ll admit, novice or beginning writers may not yet know what that is, i.e., quality work. They may have written a first draft and think it’s the best thing since sliced bread (I had to drop a cliché in here just for fun), and are so excited they can’t be bothered with making sure that others will think the same thing. They head over to KDP and, well, you know the rest. God bless them. Hopefully, in time, and if they take the craft seriously, they’ll see the error of their ways and begin putting in the work. Some will, some won’t. That’s just the way it is. They’ll learn soon enough whether or not their effort is worth the time they dedicated to it. Maybe they’ll turn out to be a unicorn. You never know. I wish them well. But again, it’s more likely than not that their work will go nowhere, and rightfully so. And then the blame game and questions on reddit and Quora and other writing groups will begin popping up about why their babies aren’t selling. I see it every day. These writers are setting themselves up for disappointment—and they aren’t disappointed.

So, here’s my proposal: Take writing seriously. After decades of writing and studying writing/earning degrees in writing and literature and editing manuscripts, these are the high-level steps you should be taking in order to give yourself the best chance of writing something worth publishing (I’m mostly addressing novels, but it applies to short stories as well):

  1. Study writing. Read like a writer. Read craft books. Take classes. Get educated.

  2. Write daily (or as often as you can)—you’re producing but also ensuring consistency.

  3. Write an outline or not (you may be a pantser, which means you don’t outline, at least not when you’re writing your first draft).

  4. Complete a first draft as fast as you can.

  5. Put your work aside for as long as you can in order to give yourself some space from it.

  6. Pick your manuscript back up and read it straight through without revising (but make notes so you remember structure, themes, plot, characters, setting, time, place, etc.).

  7. Then begin your rewriting and revising and editing. You’ll want to focus on your opening line, your opening paragraph, your opening scene, your opening chapter, etc. And then you’ll want to do that for the entire novel or short story. You’ll want to kill your darlings (meaning taking out the writing that doesn’t add to the plot or story), and in general you’ll want to carve that piece of clay that is your manuscript into the statue you saw it to be as you were writing it. Rewrite/revise/edit until you don’t think there’s anything else you can do to improve it.

  8. Once you’re done, pass it along to your beta readers/editor so that they can provide you with constructive criticism. Use what you want; discard what you don’t think adds value.

  9. Then go back to revising/rewriting and sharing with your beta readers, and do this as many times as you believe is necessary for you to write the best piece of fiction you can write.

  10. Once you’re done, you can either start querying agents who’ll submit your work for you or start submitting to publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts. Or, if you want, you can go the self-publishing route. It’s up to you, and you should weigh the pros and cons of each option before moving forward.

The ten steps above are just a quick high-level overview. Number 1 is the most important step to do before you begin your project. You should at least have an idea of what it takes to write a book or short story, even if it’s just from reading them. Number 2 is obviously the next most important thing to do if you want to be a writer—without the writing, you have nothing to work on. Anyway, you get the point.

If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you. Writing is a difficult thing to do—no question. It requires a lot of alone time. It requires a desire and drive to complete something that most people never even think about giving a go to. But like I said, it’s a craft, and it requires putting the work in, at least if you’re going to be “successful” at it, which doesn’t imply financially. Bad books are published every year, and they tend to disappear pretty quickly. Some get through, but that’s just how the universe works.

So, decide the type of writer you want to be. Decide if you have the energy and the ambition to start and complete a project that’ll take a lot of time to complete, that’ll probably break your heart, that’ll lose its oomph somewhere along the way. If you’re a writer, you won’t quit. You’ll keep at it. And eventually, if you keep on truckin’, you’ll come to that magical day when you see your name in print because someone else thought the work you put in and the product that came out is worth the effort to be published for the world to see.

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1 Comment

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Oct 18, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I see a lot of books being published today that shouldn't be. Too many mistakes. Too little story and plot. It's a shame, but I guess that's how it is today.

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