Fourth and last part of the Advice for Writers series is underway but running longer than expected.  Will have it up next Friday.  

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Advice for Writers III

Parts one and two of this series are here and here.  On to Part Three.  

Rule Three: Publish

If you want to become a published author, then at some point you need to get around to the publishing part. For most writers, this is not something they look forward to, and for good reason. While trying to get a book published should take you much less time than writing it (if not, something is very wrong) you now have to count on other people. This can be fairly painless or very painful, and the newer an author you are, the more it tends towards the painful end.

The first thing you have to do is choose a publishing route. Broadly speaking, there are two: using a publisher, or self-publishing. I’ll take a brief look at both.

The Traditional Approach: Using a Publisher

Once upon a time, unless you were rich or famous, going through a publisher was the only realistic way to get something published. That’s no longer true, but it’s still the route most authors choose. Here’s what it involves.

• Step 1: Get a good agent. Trying to approach a traditional publisher without one is an uphill struggle, since many publishers won’t look at unsolicited manuscripts at all and the ones who do will pay them far less attention. You can find lists of literary agencies online or in the Writer’s Handbook – submission process varies by agency.
• Step 2: Apply (preferably, have your agent apply) to publishers. Wait.
• Step 3: Wait some more.
• Step 4: Continue waiting. The publishers may get back to you. If they do, they’ll want to discuss rewrites and changes. More likely they’ll tell you no, or won’t contact you at all. Silence is the most common type of rejection here.

You may have noticed a theme here involving the word ‘wait’. Once you’ve sent off your submissions (be they to an agent or a publisher) things are pretty much out of your hands. You can chase them, but it’s very unlikely to help. You’re better off spending the time writing a new book instead.

The 21st Century Approach: Self-Publishing

Self-publishing means no submissions. You take your book and put it up for sale, and that’s it.

Of course, the catch to that is that you need a book, not a manuscript. What’s the difference? Well, editing, copy-editing, design, a cover, and proofreading, for starters. Self-publishing means you have to do every one of the jobs that a big publishing house does, and manage and co-ordinate them all yourself. In exchange for that you get to keep most of the profits . . . assuming there are any.

This is the option with the lowest barriers to entry. While turning a manuscript into a book and using a self-publishing service is a lot of work, it’s absolutely doable. You aren’t going to get turned away the way you can (and will) be with the traditional route: if you want your book self-published, you can get it self-published.

Which to Choose

So which one is best for you? There are lots of articles online that will debate the two, and most will look at it from a business perspective. I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have enough experience with self-publishing to make an informed comparison from the numbers point of view. However, I will make two points that I don’t often see discussed.

First, self-publishing removes gatekeepers from the equation. This is useful if you have a manuscript that would be publishable if it just got on the shelves but which the traditional publishers aren’t willing to run with, whether due to some kind of prejudice on their part or just being lost in the crowd. Unfortunately, if a publisher is telling you your book isn’t publishable, odds are they’re right, because the sad truth is that the vast majority of self-published stuff is terrible. So think carefully before you self-publish in response to rejection – there’s a good chance the publisher is actually doing you a favour.

Second, self-publishing involves many different jobs. A self-published author has to wear a lot of hats, most of which have little to do with actually writing a book. In a lot of ways being a self-published author is rather like being a small business owner, and the authors who make a go of it tend to be the ones who also have some talent as an entrepreneur – they know how to market, do their own admin, and deal with contractors. These skills and the qualities described in Part Two, while not mutually exclusive, don’t go together very often, which is probably the main reason that successful self-published authors are rare.

Of course, none of this is directly relevant if your main worry is becoming a successful published author, i.e. selling books. We’ll cover that part next week.

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Advice for Writers II

Back in the UK with Internet access again, so let’s get on with part two of this series.

Rule Two: Improve

Most writers don’t just want to be writers, they want to be good writers. While writing something is satisfying, writing something that you feel is good is much more so.

Unfortunately, while the first rule I could give you guys was an ‘anyone can do this’ rule, this second rule isn’t. The truth is that no-one has a magic formula for producing good writing. Lots of people will give you descriptions of what makes writing good – characters, plot, textual quality, etc – but it’s generally of the form ’this is what’s good’, not ‘this is how you do it’. Partly this is because, in most cases, people don’t know how to do it, but I also suspect it’s because the people giving the advice don’t want to come out and say that it requires things that the listener might not have.

Before I get into the steps you’ll need to improve, I’ll briefly touch on some abilities and traits that will help. Note that these are all things that will help: they’re not a substitute for actually doing the work. But they do make a difference.

Introversion: Writing is a solitary activity. You have to be comfortable with your own company; if you aren’t happy on your own, you’ll have trouble with the long stretches of solitude that the job requires.

A good memory: Writing a book is a lot like assembling a giant three-dimensional puzzle where you have to make the pieces as you go along. The better you can visualise the whole thing and remember what you’ve done and are planning to do, the easier it is.

Self-discipline: There’s a stereotype that artists are flighty drifters. While it doesn’t come from nowhere, professional artists generally combine that with a fair amount of strength of will. When you sit down to write, the only one who can make you do the work is you.

Motivation: Writing is hard. If there isn’t something pretty strong driving you, you’ll find it hard to ever get beyond a book’s first chapter, much less finish it. This is probably the most important of the four.

So assuming you’ve got at least some of those things, what should you be doing?

Read: If you don’t read, there’s not much point writing. Reading is how you learn sentence structure, new vocabulary, and how to plot and lay out a chapter, and it’s one of the main places you find ideas for new stories and new characters. It means you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

Of all the bits of advice, this is probably the most unnecessary one. Most writers don’t need to be told to read: they do a vast amount of it on their own time, and it’s a big part of the reason they want to write in the first place.

Write: To get better you have to practice, and the best way to practice is to start a piece of writing and finish it. The finishing part is important. Lots of writers start novels and then abandon them, but you learn far more from finishing a story than you do from starting one; there are all kinds of little details that you only find out about when you’re halfway through.

Edit: This is a tricky one. Rewriting and editing a piece of writing that you’ve already finished will (the great majority of the time) make it better. However, in my personal experience, editing something you’ve already done won’t make you a better writer: the only way to do that is to start something new. In most cases I think editing and rewriting are only worthwhile if you’re going to publish (or try to publish) the piece afterwards. Editing is a necessary skill, but one you’ll get plenty of practice with.

You might have noticed that all the advice I’ve given so far is solitary. What about getting help from other people, in the form of writers’ groups, or editorial critiques, or creative writing courses? Are those worth doing?

The short answer is maybe. In my experience, if you’re trying to become a professional writer, advice or instruction from other people can be helpful but isn’t necessary. If you want to get a specific book published, then good editorial advice is very important. However, when it comes to improving as a writer, you’re largely on your own. You can try to get help, but you’ll probably learn just as much (if not more) from going off and starting another book.

Next week, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of getting something published.

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Gone Away

Out of the country this week.  Second part of the writer’s advice series is done, but I’ll have to wait on posting it until I have better Internet access.

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Advice for Writers

One of the more common questions I get is whether I have any advice for aspiring writers. I’ve been asked the same question plenty of times over the years, both via email and in person, and I always have trouble figuring out how to answer, mostly because I don’t have a huge amount of confidence that I do know the answer. It’s true that I’m a reasonably successful author, and I know what I did to get to where I am now, but I don’t know whether that’s particularly applicable to other people. Or to put it another way: I know what works for me, but I don’t know whether it works for anyone else.

On the other hand, my approach did work for me, so the odds are decent that it’ll be at least somewhat applicable for at least some of the people who read it. And I figure that if even a minority of you guys find it useful, then it’s probably worth doing. So let’s get to it.

The advice I have comes in the form of four rules. Follow all four of them, and you’ll become a successful writer. If this sounds simple, it is. Unfortunately, simple things are usually hard. If they were easy and simple, everyone could do them.

Rule One: Write

Go write something. Congratulations, you’re now a writer. I did tell you this was going to be simple.

Some of you are probably objecting at this point on the grounds that writing any old crap doesn’t make you a writer. Yes it does. If you write stuff, then you’re a writer. You might not be a good writer, or a publishable writer, but those are subjective judgements. Whether you write things or not isn’t.

People who talk about writing tend to conflate being a professional writer (with the history and level of success that implies) with being an active writer (which is just a statement of what you do). But the only way you get to be the first is by doing the second. There are so many aspiring authors out there who will talk for ages about what they’d like to do, and the ideas they’ve had, and what other writers do wrong and should be doing better. The one thing they never do is the part where they actually sit down and write the damn book.

Following this rule will make you a writer, but it won’t (of course) make you a successful one. But then, do you need to be? The vast majority of people who learn to play an instrument will never become professional musicians, but does that make it pointless? Most musicians would say no: learning to play is worth it for its own sake. The same goes for writing.

But I did say that I was going to give you guys advice for becoming a successful writer, in which case following just Rule One isn’t enough. So for those of you who want to take it further, we’ll go on to the next step.

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New Year Update

And we’re into 2017.  Let’s hope it’s a good one!

The main event for the first half of this year is of course going to be the release of Bound in April 2017.  As usual, I’ll put the first chapter up a month or two in advance for you guys to have a look at.  I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out, and I’m curious to see how you guys react when you get hold of it!

In other news, Alex Verus #9 is still progressing – it’s moving slower than I’d like, but at least it’s moving.  On the plus side, I’m starting to figure out just why this one’s been so difficult to write – I’m having to make some major decisions about the plot of the series, and they were decisions I hadn’t realised I needed to make until now.  Still, I think the hardest part is now over, so the pace ought to pick up from now on.  

On the website front, I’m thinking of adding a FAQ section to this site.  One question I get asked often via email is for advice/suggestions on the writing front, so I’m thinking of writing a couple of blog posts on that subject.  Let me know in the comments if any of you would be interested in that, and if there are any other things you’d like to know about.

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. . . and Happy New Year!

Okay, technically I already said that last week, but hey, it’s the holidays.  New posts will resume in 2017!

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Merry Christmas!

And a Happy New Year.  Here’s hoping it’s a good one for you guys!

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Ask Luna #78

From: Margaret

Hi Luna

I wondered who supplies the one shot items Alex uses so much. I get the impression most mages would see is as beneath them to stoop to manufacturing and retail of such routine magical items so I wondered where they come from.

Yeah, you’ve put your finger on why they can be hard to get hold of. One-shot items aren’t as common as they can be, and a big reason for that is that most mages who can make them, won’t. From what Alex says it’s actually pretty easy to learn to churn out the things, but most mages don’t do it and the ones that do tend to keep them for themselves.

So to get one-shots, Alex either has to find one of the handful of mages who don’t mind doing that kind of grunt work, or he has to get them from adepts. It’s much harder for an adept to make a one-shot than it is for a mage, but since there are so many more of them, the amount of one-shots produced by adepts outnumbers the amount produced by mages by quite a bit.

From: Kurt Von Bosse

Hi Luna,

I’ve been thinking about the British Light Council and from a political standpoint it seems to me to be a rather odd organization. It began long ago perhaps during Roman times. Rome was an Empire when Briton was conquered. After the Romans left the country devolved into a number of petty kingdoms before eventually becoming unified (more or less). Today Great Britain can be described as a constitutional monarchy.

Throughout most of the world and through most of recorded history the majority of governments have been one form of monarchy or another. So my first question is do you know if anyone has ever tried to make himself or herself King or Queen of the Mages? It seems with all those examples of Caesars, Kings, Czars and Emperors running around someone would have at least tried to pull off the same trick in mage society.

Now actual political power in Great Britain is not held by the reigning monarch. I won’t bother describing the actual system, you already know that, but it does involve individual citizens voting for political parties. There doesn’t seem to be any voting by rank and file members of the Light Council. Any votes that do take place only occur at the highest levels of the Council. When you were going through apprentice training was any explanation given for how this system came to exist?

Finally, if I had to find a parallel between the Light Council and a mundane form of government, the closest example I can think of would be the medieval and early renaissance Italian City State Republics. Though these republics granted some rights to their citizens they weren’t democratic and instead were ruled at the highest levels by competing political factions, just like the Council. Unfortunately, pretty much all of those republics eventually fell to despots, sometimes from without, but often from within. It looks to me like Richard Drakh and Mage Morden might be trying to do the same thing. Do you think my example fits or do you have another one? From Chalace’s descrition of what happened to the Council in India does it seem to you it was taken over by a despot or perhaps a junta of some sort?

This is more the sort of question you’d go to Sonder about, but from what I vaguely remember, yeah, it does happen from time to time. Main thing stopping it is other mages. You’re right, mages do like the idea of being king or queen, but they like the idea of someone else NOT being king or queen even more. Think of it as kind of like a society of cats. When everyone wants to be king, no-one is.

The compromise is how we ended up with the Light Council. You’ve got an oligarchy, and then the aristocracy, and then everyone else. I think it basically evolved out of the collection of the most powerful people in Light mage society. None of them would bow down to the others, so they had to work together, which they didn’t like, but they liked the other options less, so here we are.

But this is also one of the reasons why most mages don’t get involved in Light politics at all. If they stay independent then they don’t have to take orders.

From: laz

Hi mage Luna thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

In Ask Luna #67 you talk about someone weaving everyones fate…if that is happening, could that be arachne? I ask because after anne gets burned in burned Alex has a weird vision quest and sees anne/arachne…..

Next question I assume there is a reason Alex didn’t just call in a terrorist bomb scare on your apartment? My assumption is that levistus/the magical world would REALLY not like the publicity and possibly backdown.

Finally whats up with the blue unicorn thingy that is above you in google, when you google “ask luna” (at least when doing a google from the USA).

thank you

Ps how old is alex 😉

Alex is 34.

I can’t actually remember what I wrote that long ago. Did I really say something about weaving everyone’s fate? I know Arachne’s pretty powerful, but I don’t think she’s THAT powerful. Would have thought it’s more likely just to be a dream.

Alex didn’t call in a bomb scare because Levistus’s goons would have just pressed the button and killed me. And yes, he checked. You’re really overestimating how scared these guys are of publicity. I mean, Alex has been stabbed in the middle of the Empire Casino, chased down the platform of Stratford station by a psychotic air mage, and nearly blown up by a rocket launcher on Hampstead Heath in broad daylight. If they seriously want you dead, it’s going to take a lot more than that to scare them off.

And as for the blue unicorn, I’ve got the feeling you’re probably looking at a My Little Pony site or something.

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Quiet Week

Uneventful week today.  Alex Verus #9 is moving steadily along, Bound is still on its road to publication, and there are a few Ask Luna questions in the queue.  There’s a new game released that I’ve been looking forward to, but right now I’m mostly distracted by the new book.

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