“What if suddenly the economic system would be overthrown?” My dad asked me. I told him to be quiet as I wrote down the plot of what would become the plot for two consecutive stories (thanks dad).
In June I travelled to Japan for the first time. The trip was great as you can imagine, great food, beautiful history, temples, castles and nature. But also crazy, hectic and weird (I am of course talking about Tokyo). A great mix I must say. In Japan I finished writing my second story, The Sapien Zoo.
Back home I started to map out a story in which a hacker shuts down the current economic system, and introduces basic income – but with some twists. While I was mapping out my ideas for the story, I had more ideas for this story and its characters. Eventually, I had so many storylines, plot twists and scenes, that I decided to make them into two stories. The second would have its own theme, but would be a logical follow up to the storylines from part one. Story one would ultimately become The System Shutdown.
In this blogpost I want to share some tips and resources for starting your stories, especially when you don’t have a degree in English or Literature (like me). Heck, English is not even my first language! But somehow I find it easier to write in English. Above all, I love the language, the sound and the expressions. Especially when I hear a female British accent.
In addition, I want to share some resources about self-publishing and example authors. Also, what are – in my opinion – the pros and cons of self publishing vs. traditional publishing?
Read good books
This is probably the most important piece of advice I ever encountered. Plus, I heard or read it on multiple occasions. Study the greats, the classics and the revered authors, but do so wisely. Don’t read Anna Karenina because of the fact it’s a classic, read it because you like the story. There are hundreds of good classic books out there, but not all will be your cup of tea. Personally I loved The Three Musketeers, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, to name a few.
If you only take away one thing from this blogpost as a (aspiring) writer, take this:
- Study one classic from before 1900
- One classic from the last century
- And one from the last decade or so
What makes these books such classics? Is it because of their themes, their tone, the characters, style, morals, wit, …? How come they have stood the test of time? Can you find patterns between those three books?
For example, if I had to pick now (because, let’s face it, favorites change often):
- 1 from before 1900: The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
- One classic from the last century: I can’t choose, so: The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand & The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
- And one from the last decade or so: Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts, tied with the Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling.
(I am very good at following my own advice…).
What do they have in common? Well, these books are still being read and loved all over the world. They have very distinct and recognizable characters. Once you’ve read the books, you can describe these characters like you would describe your friends. The themes are different here. You have the Hero’s Journey* in LOTR and HP. Dorian and the Fountainhead are mainly character centric and hold up mirrors to us as a reader. Plus, almost every sentence in Dorian is a beautiful quote (how did Wilde do it?!). All are philosophical, in their own way. And for me, Shantaram just comes from the pages, transporting me to the streets in Mumbai (even when I have never been). Also, that one is filled with unforgettable characters.
Find patterns, find what you like in these stories and learn from them. Consciously or unconsciously, you will take what you have learned from these stories and put it into your own work.
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” – Joseph Campbell.
Study texts of authors you admire
I haven’t studied English or literature and English is my second language. Granted, in High School I participated in an advanced English class for three years and I’ve lived in the UK for a while. This helped immensely. When English is your second language, begin with what you know. Don’t start writing above your level. It wouldn’t make sense. You must however, study the texts of great authors. Preferably authors and stories you love and admire. Study the different past tenses in English. How do these authors use them? Pick up on your grammar. Look at how these authors construct their dialogue. (Note: this is usually in the present tense). What words do they use to express how people interact with each other? Notice that the way people talk in dialogue usually differs for every character has his or her own character traits and way of expressing themselves.
Study and write down words you’re not familiar with. LOOK THEM UP! What expressions are used? Never directly translate expressions from your home country. It will be a mess. In Dutch we have a saying for when the truth – finally – comes out. Translated it goes like this: now comes the monkey out of the sleeve. I think I’ve made my point here.
In the works of your favorite authors, notice how they describe people and places. How do they set up a scene? Identify how authors play around with plot twists and suspense. How do they make sure that you HAVE to continue reading?
In my opinion, the greatest writing school is reading work you admire and study the texts carefully. Oh and one more thing, don’t aim to be the next Oscar Wilde, be realistic.
Researching writing and publishing
In the first blog we’ve explored how to get started with your writing. In the second blog, we talked about structuring your ideas and setting writing goals for yourself. Now that you’ve identified the best books to learn from and – hopefully – studied them, it’s time to have a go at writing stories! Below I share some resources that helped me with both writing and thinking about how to publish my writing.
While I was busy writing the two consecutive stories, I started doing more research into writing and publishing. Here I’ll share some of my favorite and helpful resources I stumbled upon.
- Perennial Seller: this book by Ryan Holiday not only has excellent tips for your creative process, it also goes into depth as to how you can set up your own ‘platform’ and self publish your work. I will write a separate post just about this book. It’s that good.
- Bird by Bird: practical, hands-on advice and tips ranging from building plot to writing good dialogue. It has great exercises and Lamott is really funny.
- Udemy course – Writing with flair. One of the most important things it taught me was to write economically, avoid repetition and to keep things simple.
- (Bonus, for writing: Scrivener. This is a great program, especially when you’re writing a novel or a non-fiction book. You can build a great structure in your document, keep separate folders with research, character studies, etc. You can have all that your working on in one place.)
On (self) publishing:
- John Locke – How I sold 1 million eBooks in 5 months (this title though…). Slimy title, but it’s not about that. It takes awhile before you get to the practical, good stuff, but Locke shares some great insights, also for building a platform and how to connect with people online.
- Follow Hugh Howey’s journey. Best known for the Wool series. A very prolific writer. Wool started as an eBook novella until his readers demanded more. Howey made up the rules for self publishing, and did so quite successfully.
- Follow Andy Weir’s journey. Author of the Martian, a book that became a global phenomenon when released as a Hollywood movie starring Matt Damon. Weir published the Martian in parts on his blog, gaining feedback from his readers. He used the feedback to edit the Martian. (Listen to an interview about his self publishing journey here).
The expansive world of self-publishing, the pros and cons
As a writer, it is not easy to get published through the traditional channels of publishing. If you are able to find your way down this path, it would probably be great. But it will not guarantee you of a place in the top charts or even in the hearts of many a reader. However, neither can self publishing perform such a miracle. I am more of a believer in a combination of providing quality work and the right circumstances. An agent or editor with the right connections can believe in your work. Then the right people could get involved in the process, from marketing to distribution. From people who can make your work even better to people who have the right network. So many different things might determine success. And I probably haven’t even mentioned 1% of it.
Through self publishing you are dependent on you. Who is in your network. If you place your work in enough (and the right) places. If you can build a relationship with people who enjoy your work. Then, if you have managed to do so, you may get into contact with the right people in traditional publishing. Having a loyal following would probably something they might be interested in (hence: a potential market).
Self publishing may give you more financial and even creative control. But the road is paved with many obstacles. And it is difficult to be a creator, an editor, a marketer, a social media strategist, give “customer-service”, to be an entrepreneur, and all-round hustler. With a $0 budget.
I am currently trying self publishing. I try many things. I enjoy the process. To see if things that I throw on the so-called wall, stick. It isn’t easy and I won’t claim I have a real idea of what I am doing. But I do enjoy the process. And although I don’t enjoy wearing all the different hats (I mean, I love creating the most), I learn a ton.
So I started trying things out since February 2017: writing, editing, finding collaborators, using different platforms, offer my work for free, starting these blogs, reaching out to other authors, build relationships through social media, talk about it with everyone I encounter, listen to feedback, use the skills I have learned by running a business for five years, researching and reading (a lot).
Why am I doing all this? To learn. To grow. To get acquainted with people. Maybe to eventually be published traditionally. To get my work in front of as many people as possible. To earn a living with writing.
Take Hugh Howey. He started with self publishing while working in a bookshop. Slowly and steadily. He has build a relationship with his readers. His readers asked for more and catapulted him into a self publishing icon. When he got popular, traditional publishing houses approached him. This left him in a good position to negotiate a better royalty deal on his eBooks (because there is a higher margin there, and traditional publishers usually have less work on it).
Still indecisive? For me, these are the most important pros and cons of self publishing:
- More control (financial, creative)
- You can start right away
- Great resources and platforms available**
- Decide for yourself who your audience is
- Direct relationship with readers
- No budget needed
- You learn a lot
- Putting business and marketing knowledge into practice
- Potentially create more bargaining power
- No marketing power
- No industry knowledge
- Not easy to get into retailers
- No guarantees
- You are one of many
- No direct financial reward or advance
- No publishing network available
- No professional editor or agent
I hope you have found any tips above useful. Be so good they can’t ignore you. Strive for it every day. And do something in order to reach your goal every day. Be it writing 400 words, sending an email to someone, following and interacting with people on social media or posting your work on a different platform.
Remember and use the three books for three different eras tip.
What are your best writing tips and practices? Would you consider self publishing?
*The Hero’s Journey. You have probably heard of this or read about it. Almost every story out there is narrated according to this concept identified by Joseph Campbell. Here’s a summary written for movies, but it explains the concept well. Also I recommend the book by Joseph Campbell himself.
** Amazon Kindle Publishing, website building software (Squarespace, Wordpress themes), Medium.com, Wattpad, blogging on your own site, and many more.
Disclaimer: some links in the text above refer to Amazon. Those are affiliate links and if you would buy something, I receive a small commission. Feel free to choose another retailer or not use the link. I incorporated it, because I need to even out the costs of hosting my site and I don’t want advertisements on the site :-).