What are your goals as a writer?

One of the most important things I have learned about the writing business is that you should be clear about the goals you want to achieve. Your goals determine how you approach your writing career . . . or your lack of one.

As an example, the writer who wants to publish only one book will have to approach the writing business differently from the writer who wants to make an entire career out of writing. The writer who wants to publish one book need only think short term, whereas the writer who wants to make a career out of this writing thing has to think long term, as in five, ten, or more years.

I’ve already written about my goals as a writer before. These goals–to be great and to make a living off my fiction–inform nearly every decision I make regarding my career as a writer. If a decision will not help me become a better writer or help me make money off my writing, I generally don’t do it.

Notice how my goals don’t include:

-Getting on the New York Times Bestseller List
-Becoming a household name that everyone knows (but not necessarily loves)
-Writing The Great American Novel
-Selling a million copies of my first novel
-Writing a book that becomes a classic
-Being published by a big publishing company
-Becoming a creative writing professor at a prestigious university
-Getting a blockbuster movie made out of one of my books
-Having my stories analyzed in creative writing classes across the country
-Appearing on every late night talk show whenever I have a new book out
-Getting represented by a literary agent from a famous literary agency
-Being invited to speak at campuses, writer’s groups, libraries, and bookstores around the country

There’s nothing wrong with wanting any of that and if any of it does happen to me, hey, I won’t complain. Those just aren’t my goals at the moment. Perhaps I may aim for some of those later on, but right now all I want to do is become a great writer and make a living off my work and I can do all of that just fine without any of that other stuff.

You might differ. Maybe you want all of that or only some of that or maybe you want something else entirely that I didn’t even mention. Maybe you have the same goals as me. Whatever your goals may be, it is important to be clear about them. If your goals are muddled and confused, then don’t be surprised when that happens to your career.

I’ve notice that a lot of beginning writers don’t have very clear goals. They talk about making a career out of their work, but get obsessed with one book or don’t try to learn business or anything that could help them long term. I used to be that way, too, until I realized that writing is a business as much as an art and that if I didn’t want to get screwed over by agents, publishers, or anyone else who tries to take advantage of unsuspecting beginner writers, then I needed to learn that business.

If you do not care to make a career out of writing–maybe you only do it as a hobby or simply want to do it as a side thing to have some extra coffee money–that’s fine. It means you will have to approach the business differently from how I or other writers like me do, but again that’s totally fine. As long as you are clear about what your goals are and don’t try to pretend your goals aren’t what they are (such as publishing only one book and claiming that’s enough to constitute a career, for example), then you will probably do fine (‘fine’ being relative here, of course, depending on your goals).

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Why do you blog?

Bloggers blog for different reasons.

Some blog because they genuinely enjoy it. They like sharing their thoughts on various subjects online and love interacting with their readers in the comments section of their blog. They are the kind of people who would blog even if they had no readers or were making no income from it whatsoever. These people generally blog every day or at least very frequently.

Others blog as a means to an end. These people write blogs in order to achieve certain goals, such as selling books or spreading awareness of certain political/religious/social issues or supporting a cause or some other goal. These people may like to write, but they may not be particularly fond of blogging in itself and blog only when they need to.

I’m in the second category of people. I started this blog as a way to build my author platform. I hope that the readers of this blog will eventually translate into readers of my fiction (once I publish them, of course). To be sure, I like my blog, but it can be hard for me to come up with ideas for posts, which is one reason I don’t blog every day.

I see myself as a fiction writer first and foremost. It’s what I spend most of my writing time doing. I like to write nonfiction, too, but fiction is my real strength and what I like best and it is ultimately what will be making me money. Blogging will help, which is why I am doing it, but if I had to choose between giving up my blog or giving up my books, I’d choose my blog every time.

I have nothing against people who blog for its own sake, though. It’s just something I don’t understand. To me, blogging is a means to an end. I don’t understand how you can be excited about blogging every day. Honestly, I don’t. As cool as it is to get comments and likes and subscribers, I’m interested in that stuff only insofar as it helps build my author platform, not for its own sake.

I guess it just comes down to preferences, like with any form of art. I prefer fiction writing while blogging on the side, while I am sure there are some bloggers who write fiction on the side. Neither preference is inherently superior to the other. Just comes down to what you like doing best.

-Tim

Another victory

Today I finished the third draft of my upcoming novel, The Mad Voyage of Prince Malock.

I am done rewriting or, as some writers call it, ‘redrafting.’ I will put it aside for now, work on a few short stories, and then come back to it to do some editing. I could do the editing right away, as I know of several problems that need to be addressed, but this draft was a lot harder for me to write than the last two and I would like to focus on something else for a while, just to give my mind a break.

After I edit out those errors, I will then give it to some friends of mine to look over. And after that, I will get it ready for publishing, which should be sometime later this year if all goes according to plan. So excited.

-Tim

Blogging less and Writing more

Hi, guys.

You may have noticed that I have been blogging far less often than usual recently. Days can go between blog posts and I don’t always write substantive articles, either.

That’s because I’ve recently started to teach myself ebook formatting, as well as cover design. Not only that, but I’ve increased my writing time from two hours a day to four in order to produce more work and finish my novel, The Mad Voyage of Prince Malock, quicker.

All of this takes up a lot of my time, rarely leaving me enough time to blog. Because I want to be a career writer, I figure it would do more for my career if I spent less time on this blog and more time writing (or formatting or doing cover design, etc.). Doesn’t mean I have abandoned this blog. It just means I am putting my priorities in order and I realized that blogging was less important and less helpful for me as a writer than, say, writing my novel or making covers for my books, for example.

I’ll still try to update this blog a couple of times a week, but probably no more than that, I’m afraid. Just thought I’d let y’all know.

-Tim

Positive Thinking is Fuel

My dream is to become a fulltime, professional fiction writer.

That’s what I want to do. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time and I’ve only recently started to take the necessary steps to make that dream a reality. I’m still in the process of learning a lot of things and I think it will be a while before I can actually call myself a professional.

The road to becoming a professional fiction writer is difficult and beset with many difficulties, even now that the rise of indie-publishing has made it easier for fiction writers to make some real money off their work. Even if you write great books, know how to market and promote your book effectively, and design (or hire someone else to design) awesome book covers, it can still take a while to get your career going.

Sometimes, when I think about it all, I get discouraged. There’s no guarantee I’ll make a living. I mean, I’ve been doing everything I can to take care of the craft and business side of writing (all the while learning as much as I can), but even knowing I am doing the best I can, sometimes I wonder if my best is good enough.

As a result, I try to think positively whenever I can. I remind myself of my victories and my strengths. I acknowledge that I still have a lot to learn and that I won’t succeed right away, but I’m not going to pretend that I’ve made NO progress or that I will never succeed. That type of thinking is a good way to kill dreams and creativity, two very important parts of success, in my opinion.

But I would be amiss if I said positive thinking alone was enough. There are some people who think that. They believe that all they need to do is think about good things or how good they are and that if you do just that, then you’ll get everything you want and it will all work out in the end. They forget that positive thinking is fuel, the fuel that helps make our dreams a reality, but by itself is fairly useless.

Imagine I told you I was wanted to go to, say, Austin. Because I don’t live near enough to Austin to walk there or take a bus, I must take a car.

Now would it make sense for me to grab a tank of gasoline and say that this tank, by itself, will get me to Austin? No! I would need to put the gasoline in the car in order for it to be any use. Gasoline is useless without a car to put it in. Likewise, a car cannot get anywhere without at least a little gas in its tank.

Think of positive thinking as fuel. By itself, positive thinking doesn’t do much except make us feel better about ourselves. But if we let it fuel our actions, like how gas fuels a car, then it is extremely useful and even necessary.

For example, positive thinking by itself won’t make me a professional fiction writer. I wish it would, but by itself it can’t do much and may actually be harmful because I can trick myself into believing I am doing something important or necessary when in fact I’m not doing anything at all.

Instead, I use positive thinking as a way to help me learn from my mistakes and to take the steps necessary to achieve my dreams. When I run into a problem or have to learn something that seems daunting, I remind myself that I’ve done this before, that I’ve learned difficult things before, and that it will work out so long as I keep at it and never give up.

If you use positive thinking in this way, then you have a better chance at success than you would otherwise.

What do you think about positive thinking? Has positive thinking helped (or is helping you) get past certain failures or challenges in your life? Share your thoughts in the comments!

-Tim

Experience and Imagination

Writers need experience and imagination.

When I say “experience,” I mean actually going out and doing things, meeting new people, or learning new skills. If you have ever gone fishing, for example, then you will be able to write more believably about fishing than the writer who knows about fishing through research only*.

As important as experience is, however, you also need to set aside time to reflect on your experiences in order to draw out the details that will make your stories that much richer. This is where imagination comes in, helping us transform the facts, details, and memories of our lives into interesting stories that other people will want to read and maybe even pay real money for.

Because the fact is, living an interesting life is no guarantee that you’ll write interesting stories. You need to learn how to write and reflect, as I wrote earlier. You need to learn how to turn your experiences into fuel for interesting stories and in order to do that, you need to make a regular writing schedule.

The exact balance between experience and imagination is difficult to achieve and varies from writer to writer. My suggestion is to set aside a certain time every day for writing so that you will always get at least some writing done, even if you live a very active life (if you need some help with that, you might want to read this blog post of mine I wrote back in November of last year on the subject).

*This not a slam against research. You can’t experience everything you write about, after all. I say experience is preferable; however, if you are unable to learn about the subject you’re writing about firsthand, then research is the next best thing.

How important is experience for writers? How do you achieve the balance between experience and imagination? Share your thoughts in the comments!

-Tim

Why endings are important

I am currently in the process of revising my short stories for the new Ambage anthology that is set to come out later this month. In particular, I’ve been revising the ending of one of my stories because I realized (thanks to some criticism I received from a fellow Ambager) that the original ending was predictable, flat, and unsatisfying. Not bad. Just . . . well, nothing worth writing home about, really.

As I revise the ending, this process has made me realize just how important endings are to stories in general. I mean, I’ve always understood that endings are important, that you want to end on a note that (at the very least) is the logical result of the previous events in the story, but it never occurred to me how endings define stories far more than beginnings or middles do. Changing the ending of a story often changes what the story itself is about.

Take, for example, a story about a boy and girl who fall in love. Depending on how it ends, the story could be a tale about how true love always wins in the end (boy and girl get married and live happily ever after) or it could be a tragedy in which true love rarely, if ever, wins (boy and girl get married, realized they don’t love each other after all, and then get a messy, bitter divorce). Of course, that is oversimplifying things quite a bit (there are more directions you could take the whole “boy meets girl” plot than the two I listed here), but I think the point still stands that we often don’t really know what a story is about until its over.

Maybe that’s why we sometimes get upset at endings to the stories we read, especially longer ones. Throughout the story, we built up this idea about what the story was about, one maybe we’re especially fond of and could defend in a debate if we had to, so when we finally get to the ending, we are shocked to find out that our theories about the story are wrong or at least not entirely accurate.

Of course, sometimes we dislike endings because they make no sense based on what the author had already written. For example, I didn’t really like the ending of Michael R. Hicks’s In Her Name: Empire. It simply made no sense to me. It felt like Hicks had already decided the ending, darn it, and he was going to use that ending even if the story would have been better with a different one.

To me, that’s one of the perils of outlining*. You might become so fixated on your planned ending that you are afraid to change it even if the story is drastically different from the outline you originally wrote. We organic writers can get overly attached to our ideas, too, but I think we’re generally better than outliners at tossing out our preconceived notions if they no longer work with the story.

And of course, we can’t forget the tried-but-failed Deus ex Machina, the god from the machine. More than one otherwise good story has been smote by this illogical deity over the years, especially stories by beginner writers. The Deus ex Machina can take on many guises, such as a character (whether new or old) coming out of nowhere to save the day or a character suddenly using a new power or ability with no build-up whatsoever to defeat the big bad. It’s probably the worst way to end any story, worse even than the whole “It was all only a dream” ending.

I intend to keep all of this in mind while I revise the ending of that short story. This new ending will be a lot less predictable than the original, yet will hopefully make sense within the context of the story and leave readers with something to mull over, too. The only way to know for sure, of course, is to let other people read it and see what they think.

What makes a good ending to you? What makes a bad ending? Are there any stories you can use as examples of these good (or bad) endings? Share your thoughts in the comments!

*I have no idea if Michael R. Hicks is an outliner or not. The story felt like it had been outlined, but he could just as easily be a lousy organic writer. Either way, forced endings are still a problem outliners have to deal with more often than organic writers, I think.

-Tim

Writing the second draft

I’ve recently begun writing the second draft of my NaNoWriMo novel, The Mad Voyage of Prince Malock (title subject to change). It’s been an exhilarating experience, yet I can already think of several things I would like to change when I get around to writing the third draft. In particular, one of the protagonists doesn’t seem nearly as alive as the other one, although he apparently has a secret that he’s trying to keep from everyone else, so we’ll see how this goes.

For me, the second draft for longer works is always a bit hazy. With the first draft, I can pretty much do whatever I want, even (perhaps especially) if it makes no sense. The first draft let’s me play around the characters, the plot, the setting, and anything and everything else. Admittedly, the first draft can be hard because I don’t know my characters or plot as well as I’d like, but that’s why I give myself the freedom to do whatever the hell I want. I never show my first drafts to anyone anyway, so it’s never a problem if they suck.

With the third draft, I usually have a concrete idea of the characters, plot, and setting. Things can still change, of course, but while writing the third draft I rarely feel the need to strike out in a completely new direction, though I may make several minor changes along the way. The third draft is what I consider the “complete” draft, which basically means I stop rewriting the story and move onto the editing phase.

The second draft is very different from the first and third drafts. On one hand, I know the story a little bit better now than when I wrote the first draft. On the other hand, I give myself more freedom to experiment and try out new things than I would if it was the third draft. Sometimes the second draft looks absolutely nothing like the first draft or third draft, yet in my experience the second draft is every bit as important to my writing process as the first and third drafts are.

Let me use a metaphor to explain it a bit better:

Imagine the first draft is a young child. Children have not been in the world nearly long to have a concrete identity (though there are probably a few details that children are born with right away). They have their entire future ahead of them. They could be anything when they grow up. As a result, they have to make a lot of mistakes before they can find out who they really are.

The third draft is an adult. Although there are still things that can change, for the most part, adults have a better grasp of their own identity than they did as a child. They’re not perfect and can still grow in many ways, but it is unlikely they will undergo any major changes in their lives or personalities from this point forward.

But I skipped an important step in the writing process here: The second draft as a teenager.

Teenagers usually have a much more solid sense of identity than children do; however, they’re still a lot more awkward and confused than adults. They are at a crossroads in their lives. Many important decisions are made during this time, decisions that shape a teenager’s identity and future for good or for ill. The second draft is much the same, although it usually has fewer pimples and angst.

Thankfully, the second draft, like adolescence, doesn’t last forever. It is a necessary step in the writing process, one I can’t just skip, at least not without producing a shoddier story than if I’d written it instead.

And just like adolescence, the second draft can be pretty fun sometimes.

-Tim

The most important piece of writing advice that I know

There are thousands of books on writing out there, perhaps millions of articles and blog posts, and countless forums and writing groups where you can discuss the art and craft of writing with your fellow writers. There are workshops and conferences, apprenticeships and mentorships for writers who want to improve or those who want to help others improve, and creative writing classes in schools all over the world.

Sometimes, it’s all too much. It seems like every writer has a completely different approach to writing from the next. “Outline.” “Don’t outline.” “Follow your characters.” “Make them do what is necessary to advance the plot.” “Do a ton of research, even if you don’t use half of it.” “Do only the bare minimum of research necessary to make your story believable.” “Anyone who writes quickly is a hack.” “Anyone who takes their time never gets anything done.” “Share you book with 50 other people before you send it to the editor.” “Share it with maybe one other person and then send it to your editor.”

How is a writer — especially a new writer who doesn’t know much about the craft or business of writing — supposed to know what works and what doesn’t? Every writer who has ever felt the need to grace the unwashed masses with their opinions (like me, for example) sounds so certain that it can be hard to disagree, especially when they demonize or vilify anyone who disagrees.

In my experience, I’ve found that the most important piece of writing advice I have ever come across is this: “Do whatever works for you.”

Each writer is different. What works for me might not work for you, and vica versa. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no such thing as good or bad writing. It just means you need to realize that the path to writing something good is different for every writer. Certain paths are more widely traveled and perhaps more reliable than others, but ultimately there is no such thing as the definitive path that every writer MUST follow if they want to write anything worth reading.

Does outlining work for you?

Then do it.

Does organic writing work for you?

Then do that.

Does some sort of combination of outlining and organic writing work for you?

Then do it, even if no one else is doing it.

All writing advice you receive — whether it comes from a friend, a book, a member of your writing group, a magazine article or blog post, or from something else — must be judged by that criteria. If it does not work for you — even if it works for everyone else you know — then you don’t need to do it, no matter what anyone else says.

What is the most important piece of writing advice that you know?

-Tim

When it all works out

Recently I have been editing one of my short stories for an upcoming Ambage anthology*. And frankly, I haven’t been enjoying it that much. The story is seriously flawed in a number of areas and it has taken a good deal of thinking and fiddling on my part to sort them all out (and even then, I am under the distinct impression that I am missing something important).

When I find myself working on stories like this one, it is intensely frustrating. I change a word, perhaps rephrase an awkward sentence, but I know that none of that helps in any but the most superficial of ways. I rewrite whole scenes, sometimes even the entire story, and it still doesn’t feel right. It’s frustrating enough that I just want to print it out and let my dog tear it to shreds.

Of course, I know better than to do that. I’ve written frustrating stories before and I know that tossing them out is rarely necessary. All they need is time and patience on my part. As long as I stick to it, I know that sooner or later, I will reach that moment when everything makes sense, that moment when I finally understand just what this story is really about.

I don’t have a name for such moments, mostly because it hasn’t been necessary to name them. Yet these moments of clarity are an important aspect of my own writing style. They’re a bit like a flash of lightning on a dark night. Though they last only a moment, it is long enough for me to know exactly what I need to do next.

I am happy to say that I have reached such a moment yesterday morning while working on this short story. There are still problems to fix, of course, but it will be a lot easier and more fun now, I think, because I know what I need to do.

This is what I love about writing. When a frustrating story finally works out like this, it makes the entire thing worth it.

*I will be talking more about this anthology later, probably sometime next month. Stay tuned until then.

-Tim