** The following post is a submission I did for the third edition of the Beartaria Times Magazine. See my article that made it into the second edition here! **
In September of 2022 I released 2 books. The first was a non-fiction history book about the Covid era, documenting all the scientific, economic, and societal consequences of the time period. The second was the fifth and final book in a gritty fantasy-western series I started writing 7 years ago. Both books were written at the culmination of my own coming-of-age story, out of the tribulations of modern youth and into a life of embracing the good, the true, and the beautiful.
They were also my most successful to date by far. So, as I spend the days ahead looking forward to what I might write about next, I also figured it would be useful to reflect on the things I've learned along the way. Seeing as several bears have taken up the incredibly fulfilling challenge of writing books in recent days, it is the least I can do to give back to my community in some way. That said, the following is a list of everything I’ve learned about writing and publishing over the last 7 years.
1. Start Small: Point A to Point B Writing
There are tons of reasons a person might be inspired to write. The most obvious is a love of reading. But especially before anyone could stream their thoughts to the world on the internet, writing was perhaps the best medium to document one's thoughts in general. For me, I was inspired to write fiction by quality TV shows like Breaking Bad.
My first day of authoring started with a Word document where I was trying to determine some grandiose theme on which my story would be based. Game of Thrones, for example, told the story of how a zombie apocalypse would reveal the pettiness of the political squabbles of a medieval world. Wanting nothing more than to craft something this original and massive in scope, I wrote down an idea... but it sounded dumb to me. So, I deleted it and wrote down another idea. But that one also sounded dumb. This continued until I realized how much time had passed while my page remained blank.
From there, I gave up writing until about a week later, when a much simpler idea popped into my head - a girl being chased in the woods. Suddenly, instead of dealing with the pressure of crafting the next Game of Thrones, I just had a single scene. I didn't know where it was taking place, who exactly it involved, or why it was taking place. But it was as gripping to me in my mind as it would have been if I had started streaming it on TV.
This is the first lesson I've learned about writing. Every story, and every subsection of every story (section of a chapter, chapter of a book, book of a series), involves a point A, a point B, and a journey in between. While it is easy to want to start with the final product, writing is like any other project: you can't know where you're going unless you know where you're starting from.
Once I had point A for the first scene of my first book, I was able to answer the aforementioned questions about the details of this scene in a way which would establish point A of the chapter, and ultimately of the book and series. This made telling the story much easier because if point A of the scene is a girl being chased, point B becomes a very simple destination - namely, does she escape or not? And when point B is decided, everything else in between becomes the fun, creative, logical puzzle of fill-in-the-blank that is writing.
2. Show Don't Tell
On the technical side of things, it is important to let the reader experience the story, rather than telling them what happened. For example, consider the following two versions of the same story:
Version 1: Joe Rogan questioned Owen's Tweets on an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience. Realizing Rogan wasn't a truth teller as he'd thought, Owen would later mock Rogan relentlessly.
Version 2: "You should run your Tweets by me," Joe Rogan said to Owen during an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience. This befuddled Owen, who up until that point thought of Rogan as a truth teller. "'Rogans' is now a unit of measurement," Owen declared in a later live stream. "Joe 'the Toe' Rogan is only 3.33 Rogans tall."
While version 1 and 2 describe the same thing, we learn more about how sad Rogan is and how funny Owen is in version 2. Providing both the dialogue and setting (action) puts the reader in the scene actively and provides a better connection to it. There are certainly times where descriptions are useful, especially if you are informing the reader briefly of something that occurred in the past. However, it is generally best to stay in the, "present," the story takes place in and describe the scenes as they happen.
This was the thing I struggled with the most when I first started writing and demonstrated the most growth in as I continued. It's easy when you first start out to use dialogue as a means of telling the story. But real conversations are messy. Like Owen and the Toe, people tend to not be on the same page.
For a personal example, I have a habit of interrupting if someone says something which inspires a thought in my mind. It's like when you're hearing some thick gravy and your mind starts to churn. To an extent which varies by person and interaction, that churning takes you out of actively listening. Many times this can lead to interruptions, confusion, and/or outright subject-changing.
The bottom line is that the motive of the participants of a conversation are extremely important to consider when crafting good dialogue. Do the characters like each other? Are either in a rush? Is one obsessed with getting his fancy pants and lollipops at all costs?
4. Take Notes and/or Storyboard
The more scenes and chapters you build, the more worldbuilding you will have done. The more worldbuilding you have done, the more there will be to keep track of. This includes geographies, character traits, interactions, and so much more details that need to remain consistent as the story progresses.
For example, let's say in book 1 you establish there is a town with a red-painted jail on the west side. Perhaps books 2-5 don't reference the town, but then you return to it in book 6. If the jail is suddenly green and on the east side of town, this will be a problem without some kind of explanation. Whether or not a given reader might catch something that far removed, details matter. This goes for characters and their quirks too.
To manage this extraordinary amount of information I recommend either keeping notes in a separate Word file or using an aggregator like Scrivener. Scrivener is designed for authors to take notes and has a great interface for tracking all sorts of details about characters and locations. If you're writing fantasy, it might also help to create a world map. This helps with both your keeping track of geography and the reader's. An easy option for designing maps can be found at Inkarnate.
5. Delegate - Editing and Design
So, you finished your first manuscript. Congrats! Huge accomplishment. Want to know the truth? Are you sure? Because I'm not sure you can handle the truth. Okay, you asked for it. Here's the truth: it's not as good as you think it is. *Gasp! How dare you!*
In all seriousness, an editor is an absolute must when writing for the first time. There will be grammar issues, there will be inconsistency issues, there will be the types of issues I've mentioned above (how do you think I learned them), and there will be issues which stem from trying to correct your issues. It sounds rough but it is simply too tall a task to view something you've put this much time and work into as critically as is needed.
This is where an editor comes in. Editors tend to charge by the word, so they can get pricey if you have a huge book. One place you can go to shop for editors, cover designers, and more though is Reedsy. Reedsy allows you to request project proposals from multiple professionals, so you can compare costs and find the best fit.
If you don't have the extra scratch to hire an editor at all, at minimum find some early readers you can trust. Make sure you tell them you're open to and looking for constructive criticism. 50,000+ words is a lot and there will be a variety of things an unbiased, outside eye will help you find. The same overall philosophy applies to hiring cover and interior designers. You can do it yourself if you have those kind of skills, but it is important to acknowledge your limitations.
There are two routes you can go with publishing your book: self or traditional. Traditional publishing means seeking out a publishing house to handle all the printing and distribution, while self publishing typically involves using a print-on-demand service such as Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing.
I've always self-published for two primary reasons: control and ease. Self publishing with print-on-demand allows you complete control over what you write, over your ability to make file adjustments, and over your royalties. It is also extremely easy, especially if you work with a designer who provides you cover and interior files to the printer's specifications.
That said, there are certainly plenty of positives to traditional publishing. The most obvious are the ability to leverage a publishing house's distribution, expertise, and to some extent marketing. If your goal is to be a best seller, to have wide distribution, or accolades, traditional publishing is your best bet.
And this is what you need to decide up front in order to decide which route is right for you: what are your goals? Did you always dream of making the New York Times best seller list or earning a specific accolade? Do you prefer complete control? Is writing just a hobby or do you just want to hold a book you wrote in your hands? Answering those questions honestly will tell you which way to go.
When one hears the term, "marketing," it's easy to imagine a series of social media activities that feel showy and fake. The best way I've come to think about marketing though is simply any activities you enjoy doing and which connect you with other people who have similar interests.
Let me explain. You write a book because there is a topic you're interested in. For me, those topics were Covid corruption and epic fiction. Like anything else I am fascinated by, there are other people out there who share my interests. And so my goal is to find those people. What I'm describing here is simply the process of making friends - friends who would just so happen to benefit from the content I put out into the world featuring topics that we both enjoy.
This blog post itself is a great example. Its intention is to help prospective authors. I enjoy writing it because I get to both help those people and reflect on my own experiences. At the same time, I am sharing with a community I love the things I have created and perhaps there are those within it who feel they might benefit from my works. If not, then I still enjoyed writing this article very much, am grateful for the friends I have here who have benefitted my life in so many other ways, and hope this helped inspire a fellow writer!
Now, Go Forth and Write
If you're thinking about writing, write. Whether it be the responses of people who love your work and whose lives you touch, or just figuring out more about yourself, it's one of the most fulfilling activities you can ever do. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you'll get at it. And one day, if you keep going, 7 years will pass and you'll find yourself with a library full of your own work!