Sunday 23 September 2012

10 Tips for New and Busy Writers

Okay, I was giving some tips in a forum the other day and thought I’d write them all down in one post for people to reference.  These tips will mostly be useful for beginning writers, busy writers or those who just can’t find the muse, but maybe there will be some info in there for pros to agree with as well.  Of course, these are just my opinions, so you can take them or leave them as you see fit.  I hope that everyone will find at least a couple of things useful.

1.    Kill the internet

Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, just do it.  I defy anyone who claims they can write well with an internet connection on the same computer.  If they can, they’re a stronger-willed person than me because I really can’t.  I’ve written 125,000 words since I killed the internet on my wife’s old laptop in mid June and adopted it as my main writing computer.  Some of you retired/stay at home/machine-gun writer folks might think that’s nothing, but that’s my most productive period EVER, plus, with working full and part time, looking after a wife and cat, rocking out in a band and managing a cricket club, I rarely get more than an hour or two to write per day.  I can directly correlate the last time I was heavily productive to the last time I had a computer with no internet on it.  That was seven years ago.  That’s an awful lot of writing I didn’t do in exchange for mostly useless web browsing.  I may live to regret it, or I may have pulled it back again just in time.  If you like the internet, have two computers (in different rooms).  But one more time, if you like writing, kill the internet.  No talking.  JUST. DO. IT.  No excuses either, no “Well, it’s my only computer and I need the internet …” whiny type things.  Save it.  You don’t need much power to write.  You can pick up a secondhand 512MB laptop with Word 2003 for less than $100.  Then all you need is a cheap flash drive to transfer your work to your power machine when you want to publish, format or do any of the other stuff.  No excuses.

2.    Stop watching TV

How much do you enjoy watching those chat shows, soap operas, game shows, football matches?  You’re allowed to watch some TV, of course, but have a think about how much you actually watch because you’re interested in the program, and how much of what you watch is just boredom browsing.  Stop doing the latter, and stop doing it right now.  All the other things I could say about this are covered in point 1.

3.    Value that fifteen minutes

One for the busies, this.  So, you’ve got some stuff on after work that you just can’t get out of, and when you get back you’ll be tired, but do you have time to jump on to the computer for fifteen minutes before you go out, or just before you go to bed?  How about before you eat breakfast?  You don’t need to set aside an entire evening to write.  Fifteen minutes before work, when you get home and before you go to bed, and you’ll have 1000 words a day down.  And that is three novels a year.  Some people might say that you can’t get into a story that quickly, but the fact is, that doing it a little and often will keep the plot fresh in your mind throughout the day.  You’ll find yourself thinking about scenes while you’re at work, or lying in bed, or in the pub with your mates, and when you jump into that short fifteen minute session you’ll find you have so much more to write.

4.    Set goals/targets, and push yourself to stick to them

I’m a killer for deadlines/targets.  I literally can’t work without them.  Back in June, I decided, based on a blog I read, to try to write 52 short stories in a year.  I set up a spreadsheet to keep track of everything and then got to work.  That quickly morphed into 1000 words a day but I stuck to it.  It’s very important to set goals within your means, though.  1000 words a day is easy for me.  For others it might be 3000, or just 500.  Set a goal well within your limits and then every time you beat it you’ll feel like you’re cruising and anything else you write during that period will be a bonus.  I wrote 57,000 words in the third month of my challenge, but I didn’t increase my target because I’d be pushing myself too much and there’s nothing that kills motivation more than failure.  Regardless of what my final tally is, at the beginning of the next month I just add another 30,000 words and get to work trying to top that.

5.    Don’t overcomplicate things

I read a lot of posts asking about the best writing software and filing programs to keep notes, particularly from new writers.  That often says to me that people are looking for shortcuts to getting the work done.  You should write with as little distraction as possible, and, particularly at the draft stage, just get those words down.  I use Word to write, then an Excel spreadsheet to keep note of the major characters and what happens in each chapter.  I usually don’t do this until I’ve finished the first draft, though.  Again, different things work best for different people, but I find if I’m spending too long typing details into Excel I lose track of the story.

6.    Plotting is your friend, but don’t overdo it

Stephen King is the most famous advocate for not plotting your books in advance, but while I love his writing his books tend to ramble on and he’s not well known for great endings (I’m not dissing him – I’d kill to be half as good!), but particularly when you’re a newcomer it’s always useful to have a general idea of where you want the story to go.  When I write, I’ll generally write a couple of lines down for each of the next four or five chapters so that when I come to the page I know more or less what I want to happen.  Quite often I go off on a tangent or things change, but there is nothing worse than sitting down and not knowing what is supposed to happen in the remainder of a scene.  Again, plotting is something you can do in your head on a bus on the way to work, or in a notepad sitting quietly beside you on your desk at the bank.

7.    When “in public” as it were, act professionally at all times

Okay, this is not so much about the craft but is something that has frustrated me a lot recently and is rife in self-publishing.  When you put your work out there for people to buy, you cease being an anonymous person typing on a keyboard and you become potentially a professional writer.  Therefore, you should act like it.  This involves complaining about reviewers and starting arguments with other writers on internet forums (or in public, but at least the rest of us don’t have to read it then!).  If someone slams your writing – particularly your mechanics (grammar, spelling, word choice, etc) see it as a free lesson.  Take a good look at what you do and see if you can make it better.  So many people think self-publishing is a way to a quick buck.  It’s not.  Even apparently overnight successes had to learn their craft.  You have to too, there’s no way around it.  Don’t start talking about getting someone to ghost write it, or search for a really good editor to rewrite your paragraphs, learn how to do it yourself.  Editors and proofreaders should be painting your house, not trying to build it from a jumble of bricks you’ve dumped in front of them.  Read grammar books if you have to, but most of all read other novels and think about the flow, the sentence structure, the way the dialogue works.  Then get back to work on your own stuff.  Don’t thank the reviewer or bitch at them, because their review is not for you, it’s for other readers.  That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it.

And on starting arguments – just don’t.  Self-publishing is not a school playground, it’s not about jostling for the first go on the slide.  If you’re childish enough to pick arguments with complete strangers because they sell more than you or you think their book sucks and yours doesn’t but no one buys it or whatever … get lost.  Go back to school, learn some maturity and come back in five or six years when you’re ready to try again at acting like a professional.  And if someone starts coming after you, just leave.  Internet forums are not the world, they’re just places where people hang out and shoot the shit.  I used to be a member of an English teacher’s forum and I got into a couple of minor disagreements with the long termers who liked to shoot down all the enthusiastic newcomers and I got tired of it.  It became immediately apparent that I would never win, yet the arguments were encroaching on my thoughts at other times of the day when I wasn’t anywhere near the forum.  So I left (without one of those egotistical, “I’m leaving!” announcements, I might add), and I haven’t posted in the two years since.  Every now and again I pop in to see if there’s anything useful, and around the occasional post with some interesting information there’s the same stuff going on, the old timers shooting down the newcomers, the occasional mouthy newbie getting dragged into a flame war, and I’m glad I don’t participate.  It’s not worth the effort.  I have better things to do.  So, don’t be a dickhead.  It’s a complete, utter waste of time, and at best you won’t win any friends, while at worst people will start spreading your real identify and try to trash your books.

8.    Learn to touch type

Okay, enough about decorum, back to the craft.  You might think that you can type well enough with two fingers, but unless you’re a virtuoso you probably can’t type that fast, relatively speaking.  I learned to touch type at school and it is probably the most useful skill I ever learned.  According to this speed typingtest I can type at 70 words per minute without any errors.  Yeah, so I’m a badass, but I only average about 30 wpm when I’m writing, because obviously I’m not just copying, I’m thinking as well, or rewriting sentences.  If you’re typing less than 20 wpm you should really think about learning to touch type.  You can get free online programs to help you and it’ll really help you make use of those little fifteen minute sessions mentioned earlier.  Be aware that it takes time to learn – even after doing a course at school it took me six months of forcing myself to use a touch typing style when I wrote before I could do it without looking.  It was hard, but so, so worth it.

9.    Have several WIPs on the go at the same time

A lot of people won’t agree with this, but I find it really helps when I get stuck on something to have other works in progress I can go over to.  I have I think six current WIPs, and while I have my favorites I keep everything on a spreadsheet now so that I don’t forget about anything.  Quite often I’ll take an hour and have an update, doing ten minutes on each one, aiming just to get another 100 words or so.  Quite often one will take over and draw me in, but that’s no bad thing.

10.   Be patient

Rome – nor any other city – wasn’t built in a day.  Your book might be an overnight success, but I can guarantee you won’t write it, nor even learn to write well, overnight.  Practice, practice, practice, write, write, write.  Then repeat.  Then, after a minimum of a couple of years – more like four or five – you’ll be writing at a standard that won’t get trashed if you self-publish it.  Neither should you rush your WIPs.  Having deadlines is all well and good, but a book takes time to write itself, to iron out all the creases and fold itself up nicely into something wonderful.  Give it time.  Don’t write when you’re too tired.  Don’t write when you’re drunk.  Don’t write with the TV on in the background (okay, guilty, but it’s the wife watching it and I live in Japan so I can’t understand most of it anyway).  Let your writing breathe, be patient, take your time.  You’ll be better off for it in the long run.

Right, this little post has stretched out into a 2000 word tome, so it’s time to put it to bed and get on with some creativity of my own.

Thanks for reading (if you got this far!) and I hope you find some of these tips useful.

24 September 2012


  1. Thank you for writing this, I agree with just about everything you have written! In fact, everything you have written! I must implement this advice! Kind regards, Mia Randall

    1. Thanks for commenting, I've glad you found them useful. These are all things I try to stick to on a daily basis, and the results are in the stats. I can't control how much I sell but I can control how much I write. I think that's the important thing.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Great post, some good points. I really like the one about practice. So true and something I tell myself. Rome wasn't built in a day :-).

    1. Iris, thanks for commenting! Glad you found these points useful. Everyone seems to be in a hurry these days, but good writing can take years.

  4. All great ideas Chris! I was pleased to read No.9 - I constantly change what I'm working on!

    I like the idea of working on an offline computer for a long novel - might try that for Nanowrimo! But, I think I prefer working on shorter stories on my main computer b/c I like to be able to access everything quickly and email stories to contests etc. Also I share my WIPs on my writing-group's private blog.

    I've been working in the living room while it's been hot (to share the aircon) but I cleaned up my desk in the study today, so will move back in there soon and get into some daily writing again.

    Thanks for your tips!

    1. Hey Kelly, whatever works best, I think, eh. I just can't resist messing around on the net when I use my main computer to write with. I tend to keep my iPhone nearby though ...!

  5. Excellent points, Chris. I have two computers that I work on. One is in my office where I do my creative writing. Although, I do have the internet on, I only use it to do quick research or to check a fact. My other computer is in another room, and I use it to check email, favorite blogs and forums. I also use it to do the actual publishing of my ebooks and creating my book covers. It's all in the mind set.


    1. Thanks Anne Marie, glad you found them useful. I often use a computer with the internet to write on (usually during down time at work!) but my output drops by at least half. A solid hour on my writing computer and I get 1500 words easily, but it'll take me three hours on a computer connected to the net. I'm just an addict ...!