Recently I made a big list of25 best books on writing for authors who want to improve their craft but in case you missed it, here are the highlights.
Firstly – “how to write a book” isn’t the problem, it’s too big and too vague. What you really need to focus on, is how to tell a story readers want to read. That’s a genre consideration, not a marketing one.
Read nobody wants to read your shit or perennial seller or story grid to get your head around that.
Then, you need a story, which begins with plot. You can try writing a character based, drama only story but it might be a mess – in the beginning, a plotting structure will help you brainstorm ideas faster and make sure your momentum and pacing is tight. Start with the plot dot or plot perfect.
Then finally, you need to get better at the craft of writing – but this probably isn’t what you think. Most authors can already string together purple prose and flowery description, but master comes from information management.
How and when you parse out critical information is important to avoid backstory, TMI, boring infodumps and lack of conflict, tension and suspense. I have some tricks for that in my newmammoth of a book writing guide.
Don’t worry about the writing – focus on the story elements. In most cases, the best way to improve is simply to avoid all the bad, amateur writing problems that crop up for most authors. I made a massive checklist of first-chapter problems and posted it to www.writethemagic.com – so check there, or this older article on self-editing your book.
I followed Dorian’s nod, my gaze landing on a slender woman. Her thick, brown hair fell in waves over her pale, round shoulders and tumbled over the bodice of her black, satin dress. Somehow, I’d expected something more predatory from Dorian’s alleged nemesis, something like my uncle Gabriel’s story about the monstrous mage-lady who ate children, but Eleanor was beautiful.
“I see you have similar taste in dyes,” I said.
For a few seconds, Dorian looked utterly bewildered. Then, he laughed. “It’s not that. In Reverie, when a parent dies, it’s proper to observe a year-long mourning period. You wear black for the first ten months, and for the last two, you’re allowed to add gray and lilac. My mother isn’t worth nearly that level of devotion, but unfortunately, I have a reputation to uphold.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
“She fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Or something like that.”
He said it as casually as if he’d been discussing the weather.
“You don’t believe she fell?” I asked.
He didn’t sound especially bothered with the possibility that someone might have killed his mother. Maybe he’d done the deed himself. I looked nervously towards Eleanor and wondered how she felt about her mom’s death.
“Should I be worried about Eleanor?” I asked.
“She’s a very dangerous woman.”
“You’re dangerous, too,” I pointed out.
“So I am. But Eleanor is always looking to stab someone in the back. I’d at least do you the courtesy of stabbing you from the front,” Dorian replied.
As if she’d heard him from across the room, Eleanor headed straight to us.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be, Wynter?” Dorian asked.
He was right, so I headed away, drifting into the crowd. Viviane or Alexander. Where were they? There were so many people that it was impossible to find anyone. I’d never stolen jewelry off a person before, but I had an idea of how I wanted to do it. Distraction was key. All I had to do was spill a drink down the front of Viviane’s dress, draw attention to her reaction and steal the necklace right under everyone’s nose. Or if I got lucky, Viviane would go to clean herself up and take it off. But it was still a huge risk. What was so special about this necklace? Why did Dorian even want it, and why risk everything just a game to him.
I drifted to the wall and stood there, scanning the crowd. Finally, I found Alexander and headed towards him. My heart raced. Just ask him to dance. It wouldn’t be that difficult. Alexander saw me and ended his conversation with a blonde woman wearing a purple gown. I took a deep breath.
“Good evening,” I said.
Now that I knew he was a prince, it made talking to him much more awkward.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Would you like to—”
“Dance?” he asked. “With you?”
Maybe Dorian had been wrong. Maybe Alexander would humiliate me in front of all these people.
“Yes,” I replied.
He put an arm around the small of my back and drew me in closer. “Can I tell you a secret?” he whispered. “I hate dancing.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Why don’t we talk instead?”
“Um…sure,” I said.
Without warning, Alexander grabbed my wrist and pulled me along behind him. I stumbled at first, but then followed him out of the ballroom and down a long, dark corridor. This was a trap of some kind, but I didn’t know how to avoid it.
We reached the end. I pulled my wrist away, but Alexander’s hand shot out, corning me against the wall. He was even more handsome from close up, and his blue eyes were staring directly into mine with an intensity that took my breath away. I tried to say something, but all my thoughts scattered and fell apart.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” he murmured.
“What are you talking about?” I asked nervously.
“You get all dressed up, attend a fancy ball, and hope to seduce a prince into a dark corner. Don’t think you’re the first to try.”
I sucked in a quick breath. I looked at his broad shoulders and then away.
“Why would I want to seduce you?”
“Why wouldn’t you? Unless you honestly think you’ve got what it takes to become a mage.”
“I passed the test, didn’t I?”
“Did you?” he asked. My breath hitched. Did he know I’d cheated? Had he seen the device?
“Besides, you’re not that plain looking, even if you do come from the Lower Realms. I’m surprised, however, you don’t smell like trash.” He leaned in close, sniffing slowly at my neck.
Asshole! I pushed him off, shaking, but he caught my wrist and spun me into his arms.
“Relax,” he whispered, “I’m just using you to rile up Viviane. It takes her down a peg, I don’t like her getting too sure of herself. It’s a little game we play. Ah, there she is, right on schedule.”
I broke free of his embrace, just in time to see Vivian come around the corner. I stepped away quickly from Alexander, leaning against the far wall.
“There you are,” Viviane’s voice drifted to us. My gaze dropped to her throat; there was the necklace. I was furious with the way Alexander had treated me, and I wanted nothing more than to run back to the safety of the main gala. But I’d come for the necklace, and it was right in front of me. It would be easier to steal away from the party.
“Whatever are you two whispering about?”
“I was just telling Wynter how dangerous magic is,” Alexander replied.
Viviane’s green eyes widened. “Why, that reminds me! I never finished telling you what happened to the last mage from Argent. I think it’s terribly tragic.”
Something bad was coming. I just knew this was going to be some terrible, morbid story. But I played along anyway.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well,” Viviane said, “He was a prodigy at the Academy, until the day he went mad. Couldn’t handle the pressure. He started hearing voices, talking to himself. Finally, he slit a noblewoman’s throat. I heard he tossed pieces of her dismembered body off the edge, before leaping to his death. People say you can still hear them calling to each other at night on the outskirts of Reverie.”
“That’s not true,” I said uncertainly.
Viviane sighed and shook her head. “You really don’t know anything, do you?” she asked. “You’re hopeless.”
“It doesn’t matter how much I know,” I said. “It matters only what I’m willing to learn.”
“That was almost profound,” Viviane replied. “Did you steal it from my uncle? He likes to make people think he’s profound.”
Hisses struck my ears. At first I thought I’d triggered the device accidentally, but the noise was coming from down the hall.
“We should head back,” Alexander said.
“You might be right,” Viviane said. “Mother is so overprotective sometimes. Just a moment, I need to finish my drink first.”
She stepped closer to me, until we were face to face, and then she slowly emptied her champagne glass down my dress. I gasped as the cold, sparkling liquid dripped beneath my corset.
I’ve been exhausted for the last few days, so I thought I’d take an afternoon off and tell you about the creative struggles and draining process that goes into actually writing novels – both to give myself a break from writing, but also to give you a “behind the scenes” tour of my work in progress.
I’ve previously done some research on creativity and have decided all creative fear comes down to just two basic insecurities, which have to do with quality and quantity.
The first question is, can I even do this?
I’m dealing with that now as I write “Thirst” – the sequel to my vampire dystopian novel “Taste.” Luckily, I’ve finished some novels before, and I’ve even finished some sequels before. So I know, historically, that I’m capable of writing books, even “good” books, though we’ll discuss that later.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Even though I have a pretty good outline; even though I LOVE my ending and I think some of the scenes in this book are AMAZING, right now I’m just cresting 20,000 words. It’s mostly rough, and I only have about another month to finish before my preorder deadline.
So of course, I’m feeling the pressure. A lot of you may think it’s silly to give myself hard deadlines and make myself work harder or faster, but I’ve learned that:
A) A book I write quickly is in no way worse, and actually sometimes better, because I focus on it in a short time frame.
B) without a hard deadline, I’d spend all my time procrastinating and getting nothing done.
I think deadlines are important to my process, even if they are stressful, and I know I am CAPABLE of meeting my deadline: I just need to write at least 2,000 words a day for the next 30 days (which, will leave me zero time for editing, so ACTUALLY I need to write 3000 words a day, which is possible, but challenging).
If I force myself, I can write 3000 words in a couple hours, then spend the evening thinking about the next chapter or scene, and start again the next day. The problem is, from right here – where I am right now – I can’t see it all at once. I can’t see how all the chapters are going to come together, because I can’t see the later chapters or scenes until I’ve finished the immediately preceeding one. So even though I know it will/should all come together, it’s still terrifying writing into the void, because… maybe it won’t.
This fear creeps in, and makes it harder to sit down and write those words, because the mystery of the unfinished 50,000 words I still need to write this month are overwhelming. Also, creating worlds from nothing, even though it is satisfying, is also cognitively draining. There are so many things I could be doing with my time that don’t leave me emotionally and mentally drained; creative writing and fiction in particular is draining. Even the prospect of needing to write the words is exhausting, and if I do manage to write for a few hours and finish my words, I’m a vegetable for the rest of the day, capable of little more than naps, junk food and Netflix.
The second question is, is this good enough?
This is the one that really paralyzes most first-time authors, and I already have some advantages here:
I define “Good” as “my readers will enjoy it.”
I’ve built and audience and done my research so I KNOW what my readers will like and how to entertain them
I’ve practiced enough to know that I’m capable of writing high quality fiction – my books review well
So I don’t have that crippling fear that I’m wasting my time, or that nobody is going to buy it and like it. I also don’t have the delusions of grandeur most authors deal with when writing their first book (after doing no research and having no audience, but still deciding their book is going to be a miraculous NYT bestseller because they love it and so will everyone else).
HOWEVER, I am doing something new this time around, which is working with cowriters. And while, on the one hand, it means I get to develop projects much more quickly, it can also mean I have more work to do in the editing and revision stages, which is where I am now.
I tend to edit slowly than I write, because I revise heavily – about 2000 words and hour. Right now I’m working on an alien invasion romance. I’m excited about the story and we have a really strong start. We’ve finished a rough draft and now I need to clean it up and get it ready to publish. But it’s going so slowly – a couple chapters a day – and part of me is starting to worry that it won’t be good enough, because it’s not good enough right now.
And actually, this is totally normal. It’s normal to be dissatisfied with your first rough draft, which is just about getting the basic story in the right order. That’s stage one.
Stage two is the 2nd rough draft – that’s when you START fixing the story and making it emotionally satisfying. It’s when you flesh out the characters and scenes; add conflict and tension; fix the cliffhangers and hooks at the end of the chapters. And even if it’s going really slowly, I also know I’m making real progress, and the book is getting better.
I’m frustrated because I know it’s STILL not good enough. After I finish this round, I’ll need at least one more pass to fix details, smooth my revisions and check for errors (before sending it off to a proofreader, who will find typos). Which means possibly another week or two of work on just this one book… when I have several more in the pipeline PLUS the vampire novel I talked about earlier.
There’s nothing wrong with making slow, deliberate progress, and forcing yourself towards burnout by overextending yourself isn’t wise. On the other hand, I’ve been writing fiction for several years now and haven’t been able to go big because I’m limited by my production speed. My goal for this year is to finish some full series, and several sequels, so I can spend more time and money advertising my books to reach new readers – but none of that can happen until I finish more books.
I also want to make sure the books I put out are the best possible versions of themselves; that they aren’t rushed or sloppy, but I have a hard time letting go (I have friends who write a first rough draft and send it straight to an editor; I still need at least three full revisions before I’m happy enough with the story to share with anyone else – but writing cleaner first drafts might be the solution for me as well eventually).
Every author has their own process, and I don’t expect readers to pay extra for the author’s effort (they should pay for the results, ie the finished book – just because an author worked 10X harder doesn’t mean it’s a better book or worth more money).
As an author, I’m trying to figure out how to publish better books with less time and effort, by paying attention to my process and expertise. But I also think it’s important to share the creative struggle; that this isn’t just fun and easy all the time; that writing books is challenging, difficult and often times can lead to exhaustion, depression and even a sense of hopelessness (most authors will spend years writing unsuccessful books; and even though I’m planning on becoming moderately successful, there are other things I could do with my time that would pay a great deal more).
But I do this because I love the challenge; because I love telling stories and I love hearing from readers who have enjoyed them; and because it’s a skill I’m determined to master, in this lifetime, even if it takes me decades of practice. Hopefully, my commitment to the craft will pay off, and my dedication will infuse my novels with a recognizable literary style.
PS. If you’re a creative person and you’ve dealt with any of these frustrations before, let me know in the comments. If you’ve read my books and enjoy them, let me know!
For my part, I’m hosting Annie Sullivan and giving away 3 of my favorite books from the other authors on the Red Team: I’m also giving away a $100 Amazon gift coupon so make sure you enter the giveaway.
Finally – I’ve made Taste free today and hope to push it a little higher in the Amazon store.
It’s doing OK – #1 in multiple categories – but I’d love it to break the top #100.
I’ve just put book two on preorder and have started writing, I love where it’s headed and there is so much creepy/bad-ass stuff in this book. I’m kind of known for my endings but this one is going to be AMAZING.
I plan to finish fixing up the website this week and then adding a TON of new content as I introduce my new penname (Drake Mason) and the six talented writers I’ve started cowriting projects with. I’m so excited for this stuff! It means we’ll be able to put out 2 or 3 novels every MONTH and get whole series finished so much faster (within a year, at least, so you don’t have to wait).
If you like my writing, please stick around, stay tuned, and pay attention – there will be ARC copies for loyal readers, and we’ll probably launch every book at $0.99 before going full price, so make sure you’re in the loop to get the best savings.
I’m doing two things tonight: giving feedback on sample chapter submissions from new writers and watching the new Roswell Reboot (New Mexico).
I’ve been focused on lot on craft recently, and trying to figure out what makes the difference between a good first chapter – a project and writer worth investing in – and one that just doesn’t hold my attention.
Mostly, I’ve decided it’s all about conflict and sympathy: before anything happens, you have to make readers care about your main character – but just enough; then you hit them with some big action and conflict.
Pilot episodes do this really well, so in this article I’ll break down the new Roswell reboot.
The episode starts with a minor conflict that establishes the scene and setting; a very short prologue introducing the premise (people say Roswell is full of aliens, protagonist thinks it’s just a small boring town).
Liz (main character) is coming home; gets stopped by the police and ICE; launches onto a tirade before recognizing the cop as her high school sweetheart Max. They let her go.
She immediately relieves her dad – who is an undocumented immigrant running a diner – of his work shift and dons a waitress outfit, complete with dangling alien antenna, but not before ridiculing a podcaster talking about how aliens are taking over America.
This establishes: she’s a smartass who doesn’t believe the hype, and she’s likable because she takes care of her elderly relatives. She also mentions she’s worried about him because of his immigrant status (something to lose, something she cares about).
She closes the restaurant, puts her favorite song on the jukebox, and starts dancing like nobody’s watching – of course the cute cop from before immediately stops by to watch, so she can be embarrassed.
He mentions how sorry he is about her dead sister (intrigue/sympathy – more on this later). She fills him in on backstory – research funding got cancelled so she’s back in town. They almost have a moment, he goes to leave, she offers him a milkshake, but then takes a sip out of it, bringing them close together, gazing into each other’s eyes in palpable romantic suspense.
But suddenly… A shoot out!
Pew pew, drive by shooting, she gets shot, Max uses his supernatural powers to save her, draining his energy. The lights outside explode (whenever you have a cool scene, make it PHYSICAL by showing lots of things happening – it’s not enough for him to save her easily, he has to grunt and make faces, and the lights go out, and the lightbulbs explode: even if this is just costing Max physical pain, it needs to be represented by a change in the physical environment as well, because we can’t “see” internal processes like the wound getting healed or Max using his powers, it needs to be reflected visibly). The ensuing blackout is also a noticeable event that will effect the town at large.
This is actually enough for a chapter one: we’ve established multiple points of sympathy with the main character.
cares for someone else
brave/rebellious, stands up against authority
defends the innocent
tragic past or history
has lost someone close to them
romantic intrigue/possible love interest
quick backstory that hints at impressive skillset or intelligence
But before readers lose interest, an inciting incident (big twist or surprise, central to the story’s main premise.
We could end chapter one here. For a pilot episode, we need more… so the story continues. The next few steps would probably be saved till chapter two, but already readers will be asking WHAT JUST HAPPENED?
Liz isn’t sure what just happened. She tells her dad they should leave town because everyone hates them for no reason; he drops a bit more backstory – her sister got high and killed two innocent girls in a car crash (possible conspiracy, real story to be revealed later I’m sure).
Max, our second main character and love interest, chases the shooter but collapses because he’s weakened after saving Liz. He telepathically calls his sister to save him. Meanwhile his deadbeat alien brother is already in lockup, using his powers to fly the keys off the desk. That brings all three of them together at the police station to argue and fight.
They’ve been keeping this alien thing a secret for 20 years, but Max just risked it all to save a girl. This is important because it shows what’s at stake: they have lives now, and if they get found out they’ll be dissected. Big conflict, and it all depends on Liz – who is off at the hospital getting a full checkup, from her attractive doctor friend Kyle.
Now readers are hooked: can the aliens count on Liz or will she destroy everything? Sources of conflict:
Max and siblings fighting
Max and Liz (she wants truth, he has to protect secret)
Liz and father (she wants to move, he likes the town)
Liz and town (they just remember how her dead sister killed two other girls).
Liz and hot doctor guy (she’s acting weird, but won’t tell him what really happened).
Dead-beat brother (Michael) has to move trailer when the land gets bought by military; runin with new character Alex – old friend and military vet back, lost a leg in Afghanistan. He’s hiding alien tech in his trailer (risk of discovery).
She visits sister’s grave but it’s been vandalized.
Next scene: Liz confronts Alex and opens up about her family: mother is mentally ill, and so was her sister, she thinks that’s why she got into drugs. After what happened at the diner, she’s worried she might be going crazy too (deepens sympathy for protagonist, also her search for answers heightens conflict).
Alex is ABOUT to say something like “you’re not crazy,” but Michael is listening in and he causes a distraction by blowing up some care windows.
New character: local bartender and old friend, who also does psychic readings on the side. Liz gets blown off at first, after a casually racist observer makes a snide comment about going back to her own country.
Isabel (the alien sister) is planning the 10 year high school reunion – upcoming event, trying to keep the normal appearance. Gives her a reason to be at Alex’s house so he can tell her he plans to tell Liz the truth; they fight, he yells, “I’m not asking permission!” (escalating conflict).
Isabel says, “You can’t ever be with her, even if you tell her the truth, there’s too much she can’t ever know. Fall in love with someone else, anyone else.”
Tragic romance/star crossed romance. It’s not just aliens + humans. Alex, specifically, can’t be with Liz – probably because of whatever happened with her sister. He’d always have to lie to her, even if she knows what he is. Added layers of conflict and tension.
But he’s also in love with her. He’s been in love with her for 10 years. Falling in love with someone else is impossible. Meanwhile, while Alex is smitten, we need to make sure to fuck up the relationship beyond repair by putting her with another guy.
Liz thinks Alex isn’t into her, because he’s so cool and reserved. Her friend Maria recommends “random sex, different guy” – planting the seed, and immediately outside, she runs into hot doctor friend Kyle, which leads straight to a makeout session.
But Kyle sees something weird on her chest and asks what happened. So she jumps out of the car and runs to a mirror, to discover a glowing alien handprint on her skin.
Now she knows she’s NOT crazy, but there’s also one more person who could expose the alien secret. Escalating tension, more external and internal conflict, a widening circle of involved characters.
Back to podcast guy, who’s now talking the coming aliens who will rape, murder and “steal our jobs” (fear and xenophobia).
Max is about to tell Liz everything and ask her to keep the secret (which he does) but it’s too late because Kyle already called in the military. He gets initiated into “Project Shepherd.” (Threat #1).
In the next scene, Michael is telling Isabel she needs to prepare to wipe Liz’s memory and send her packing, something only she can do. (Threat #2).
“Just like you did 10 years ago.” (Big reveal about backstory.)
Now that we’ve established the dangers and threats… we get a nice romantic scene, and SO close to a first kiss, but he pulls back because he’s a gentleman, and thinks she may just be feeling his feelings, and doesn’t want to take advantage while she’s under the influence.
High school reunion: all the characters together, highlighting the tension. Kyle is initiated by the military general; military general’s newly returned injured-veteran son has a secret romantic history with Michael (making him gay); Liz and Alex show up together but everybody gossips and points to Liz because ‘her sister murdered two people’…
They’re about to leave but then her best friend Maria (who is black, because we need POC representation in the core cast – also kudos to CW for making Liz latina unlike the white-washed first installation of Roswell) plays her song, so they stay.
We get a creepy scene of Alex stalking Liz through a window in highschool, but it’s meant to show how deeply he loves her. We get a flash of the core conflicts: Michael’s romance with general’s son; Kyle and general hunting aliens; and the big secret that Alex is still keeping from Liz, about what really happened with her sister – “she can never know about that.”
So we’ve set up a diverse cast of characters, overflowing with tension and conflict, and this was all done in the first episode. In a book, this would be the first several chapters, probably about 25% of the way in. But now that we’ve set the stage, we can just let all these conflicts keep playing over several books in a series.