You don’t have to look very hard to find a zillion articles and blog posts and newsletters and books and YouTube videos filled with all kinds of advice on writing: how to do it; when to do it; why it matters; “art for art’s sake” or “pander to the audience and get paid”; etc.
The problem with that kind of advice is that here is no “right” answer for everyone, so, in the greater scheme of things, nobody has a clue. I mean, all of that is good to read and understand, but in the end, there are too damn many variables. If the big publishing houses that have been selling books for decades, even centuries, can’t repeat their successes with any regularity, then there is no “advice” that means much in any universal sort of way, at least not in terms of guaranteeing the success of a book.
However, there are some things that can work for everyone, or almost everyone. And that’s what I have here. Everything on my list is stuff you can actually, physically do, that will actually help you. None of what follows is subjective. Everything below is totally, 100% in your control. It’s like, if this was an article about cars and driving, it would be more of a “how to change your spark plugs” kind of thing than a “how to win the Daytona 500” thing.
One last thing before I start. I am not going to pretend my list represents the only ways to do the stuff I talk about. Nor do I claim these are the best ways to do these things—although they might well be. I have no idea. If you have a better, easier, faster or cheaper way of doing any of the stuff I am sharing, please share it in the comments below. So, all that said, here goes:
1. Make a List of Your Dumb Stuff
Every writer does dumb stuff. Habitually. Like, words you learned wrong at some point in your life or homonyms that you know the difference between, but you still type them out wrong anyway. Despite how “literate” you have become, no matter how many degrees you have or novels, short stories or blogs you have written, these are the things that you still screw up anyway—and long beyond the point you realized you keep doing them. It’s like we all have some sort of neural dipshit reflex or something, and we just can’t get over it.
A perfect example for me is “lead” and “led.” I know perfectly well that “Jack led Jill up the hill.” But that doesn’t matter because I will type “Jack lead Jill up the hill” anyway. I do it because I am hardwired to be illetterut. However, while I may be illetterut, I am not stupid, so I have the ability to realize that I always write “lead” instead of “led.” So, I made a list of all the dumb stuff I always do, and that one is at the top of it. I put them all on there: lead and led; taught and taut; peel and peal; peak and peek … it’s a really long, sad, pathetic list.
And it’s not just homonyms. There are spelling things I do (and you do). Like I tend to type “woah” even though it should be “whoa.” There are also all those lame America vs. Britain things, like “travelling” as opposed to “traveling” or whatever. If you know that you tend to write “alright” but you really want to be old school and go with “all right,” you should put that on your list. I’m sure you can think of other stuff or similar stuff that you do all the time.
So, keep a list. When you get to a place where you are comfortable with the story and the novel as a whole, when it’s time to start polishing, you will have this nice tool that has all of that set up for you to go after. When you get to tip number 3 below, you’ll see how this idea really turns awesome and easy.
2. Make List of Your Bad Style Stuff
This is sort of an offshoot of number one above. Besides having your bad habits and illetterucy words, you also have crutch words and style blunders than you make all the time. I damn sure do. One of my big ones is “seems” or some form of it (seems, seemed, seemingly, even nearly or practically work against me in a way). It’s a kind of hesitancy or uncertainty during first drafts or something.
I write stuff like: “The dog seemed to be angry as it growled and lunged at us.”
I write that crap all the time.
First off, it’s like, really? The dog SEEMS to be angry? Like, it’s an illusion or something? I mean, I am the writer, aren’t I supposed to know this stuff, uh, since I’m making up the whole thing anyway?
Because I realize I do that crap all the time, I wrote it and other crutch words like it on my list … words like “just” that I just seem to use all the time because it just seems so appropriate, and readers just love it, and they just recognize how important it is to sometimes, you know, just break up a sentence just.
So, if you’ve discovered certain stylistic things you do in your work that are habitual, put those on your list. (If you don’t think you have any, uh, you are in deep doo-doo, because you do.) So make a list, and then check out this next hot tip. It’s sort of like the “ring that binds them” for these first two.
3. Use the Find Function
Having a nice list like I covered in 1 and 2 is great, but how do you make quick and simple use of it as part of writing your book? Answer: the Find feature of your word processor.
So to start, have your list ready to go, like a checklist, so you can work your way down it one item at a time. I use Microsoft Excel for my list, but you can use whatever. You can get a free version of a program just like MS Excel from Open Office or from Google Docs in the cloud. If spreadsheets scare you (which they should not), just make a Word document for your list, or, heck, put it on paper. Whatever.
Now go FIND them. One at a time, going all the way through the manuscript for each list item, one by one.
As an example from my own work, I’ll search for “seem” first. I go through the whole manuscript, looking at each usage. I can decide if it’s a good use of the word or if it only seemed like one (ha!). Same for “lead” and “taught” and the rest of my standard, sticky stupid stuff. It’s quick, efficient, and saves you having to pay an editor for extra time spent catching stuff you could have caught with this great automated tool.
A. Bonus tip: use spaces around the words that can be parts of other words. As an example if you often screw up lose or loose … searching for lose will get you instances of “lose” but also words like “closet” and “loser.” So, if you don’t want to stop at every instance where the letters L-O-S-E line up in any word, put spaces before and after in the search bar of your Find window.
B. Extra bonus tip: You can also search for double spaces. If you are an old bastard like me, you were taught to do double spaces after periods. Well, that’s old ass stuff from back in the days of typesetting. This is the digital age, so get passed it already.
The Find function will actually allow you to search for two taps of the space bar, and even better, you can open the “replace with” part of the Find window and put in a single tap of the space bar to swap them with. Then just hit the “replace all” button. I usually have so many that I have to do it two or three times because it misses some of them the first pass. My bad habits are so stupefying, even a computer can’t catch them all in just one try. Anyway, enjoy, and you are welcome.
C. Extra, extra bonus tip: Give your list to your editor.
4. Scroll for Squiggles After You Revise
You have a grammar and spelling checker in your word processing program. If it’s like MS Word, it puts little colored squiggles under your “mistakes.” Yes, it is terrible in many ways. Yes, the grammar part is stupid. And yes, writers, especially fiction writers, don’t stick to grammar rules anyway. Not always. Sometimes never. But I can’t tell you how useful the spell check and grammar checkers are for eliminating whatever errors you can find with them if you turn them on at the right point in the process.
I don’t recommend using them while you are drafting a first draft or even a second or third, not during the creative part. But when you are all done doing your revisions and making your work beautiful and profound, and prior to sending your manuscript to an editor who might be charging you by the hour, or who might have a cost structure that is based on average number of errors per page, well, use the tool you have at hand first. I know this particular tip may sound obvious, but I didn’t make a specific, final editing step on my first novel using this tool, and I ended up paying a lot more in editing costs than I should have. I got so used to ignoring all those marks, because of how often it was wrong. I forgot how often it might have found a something valid, and I was in the habit of not taking the time to read the sentences carefully that it did mark.
But now it’s a step for me. When I’m about ready for my editor, I take another pass, scrolling slowly through my document and looking at all the red, green and blue. (Use the “ignore all” option as you go—in MS Word anyway—for funky stuff that is unique to a particular scene or even a particular book, like made up science fiction or fantasy words. Doing this allows you to reduce the number of red lines you see as you go through without having to add the weird term to your word processor’s dictionary.)
5. ALL CAPS PLACEHOLDER NAMES
For me, writing a story in first draft form has a certain energy to it. There’s a flow, sometimes a mad dash, as I try desperately to type fast enough to keep up with what I am seeing in my head. When I get on a roll like that, and the story is just outpacing the holy hell out of my outline, I love it. But, I also tend to get to places during those times where suddenly there is a new character that I didn’t foresee—or a new town or a new spaceship or whatever—that needs a name.
Names are important to story, for meaning and character, plus, well, they are fun. As writers, we get to load them up with meaning or homage or snarkiness, whatever. But sometimes that doesn’t come to us in the instant we are on full stream-of-consciousness story writing.
So don’t sweat it on the first draft. Just tap the all-caps key and keep going. A very common thing to see in my early drafts would be a passage like this:
Joe burst into the room, his mouth spewing profanity, his ion rifle spewing death. He turned and blew the head off of two aliens who came at him, and bashed in the face of a third with the butt end. Something moved to his left, and he swung the gun around, ready to make blood mist out of whatever it was. But she was stunning. An absolute beauty. Blonde hair to her waist, lips like cherry lollipops, and tits so firm you could break bricks over them. The nametag on her waitress’ uniform read HERNAME. He would have said, “Hey, baby, what’s your sign?” but four more aliens came at him with plasma batons, saving him from that stupid line. And one of them was the asshole that shot his dog at the spaceport yesterday.
Yes, that was long, but it was fun to write—erm, I mean … it has energy, and you can see how I would not have wanted to stop in the middle of writing that and decide what the hot chick’s name should be. Maybe she becomes a major character later. Maybe I want to make her name funny, or sultry, or some innuendo. Maybe something symbolic or ironic? I don’t have to know what I want her name to be in the first draft.
Give yourself permission to put markers like this in your early draft. You aren’t going to publish your book the moment you type “The End” unless you suck and want to make readers hate you and all indie writers like you. So, just mark that stuff in all caps, and figure out the perfect name later.
6. ALL CAPS for Research, Dialogue or Metaphor
The all-caps trick also works for when you need to do research or look something up. It also works when you know you need a clever simile or some bit of funny dialogue that simply isn’t coming to you right now. (You can also use the “highlighter” function in MS Word if you prefer, but I’m sticking with the all-caps thing to keep it simple here.)
Feel free to just jam in something like:
They were deep, real deep. Susan knew there was no way their homemade submarine could survive that far under the ocean, not once the pressure got below LOOK UP THE DEPTH AND PRESSURE FOR THIS.
There is nothing wrong with doing that. You know you need it, but in the flow of the story, stopping to go find that can be a flow killer. It’s also a precursor to procrastination, as it is a great excuse to stop writing and go do something that takes you away from your objective, which is to finish your story (see goals below). So just do the all caps thing and keep going. You can do the same with metaphors and bits of dialogue:
“Oh, you know you want some of this,” Peter said. He grabbed himself and gave her a Michael Jackson twitch.
Jodie laughed and said, “SOMETHING FUNNY / AXIOM FOR HOW SMALL HIS JUNK IS.”
I skip this kind of stuff all the time if the muse isn’t dropping any gems for me that day, and it really helps me to get to the end of big projects. It’s important to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and writing a novel is a big project, like building an empire is. Using the all-caps trick allows you to use future drafts and revisions to iron out these sorts of things. It doesn’t have to be all genius in the first draft.
7. Set Production Goals and Track Them
If you don’t have a goal, then you have nothing to shoot at. Lots of people think writing a novel is hard. But it’s not. Writing a novel is like writing an email or a letter. You just have to do it three hundred times. Nobody thinks writing a letter is hard, because a letter is just one page. Well, a novel is just a bunch of one pages. Set a goal of how many pages or words you want to write. It’s not enough to simply tell yourself, “I’m going to write more.” That’s asking to fail. It’s begging to fail. If you don’t like page counts or word counts, then at least set a specific amount of time you will spend every day. But you need to have a goal, and you need to write it down.
You also have to track it. If you have a goal, but you don’t track it, then you don’t actually have a goal. You have an idea. Or a dream. Which is fine. Dreaming is great. But achieving is better. The difference between a dream and a reality is that one is in your head, and the other is physical. It actually happens. You have to actually do stuff. Start by writing down the goal. That makes it real.
To make a real goal into a real finished book, you have to, uh, finish. And you can’t hold yourself accountable to your word count goal if you don’t, well, count along the way. You can’t know where you are in relation to your goal if you don’t know where you are in relation to the start and the finish. This is why all sporting events have scoreboards. It’s a question of progress made (points) versus time allocated. All contestants, all teams, have a goal of “winning.” But the only way that they, or anyone else, knows if they won is by the scoreboard. But enough on that. If you want to see one way to do this that has worked for me, you can read about it HERE.
So there you have it. 7 tips to help you with your novel or ebook, getting it done and prepping it for editing. Hopefully this will be useful to someone. If not, well, I amused myself drawing the cat, so, there you have it.
In your undying gratitude, be sure buy all my books, give every one of them a 5-star review on Amazon, and then tell everyone you’ve ever met how amazing they are (my books, not your friends—which is not to say your friends aren’t amazing), etc.