How to Become a Professional Writer in Six Easy Steps

I get asked all the time, “I have this idea for a story, should I just start writing or should I plot it out?”

And while this is a great question, it’s the wrong question for people who are just starting out as writers. Worse, the real answer is something no new writer wants to hear.

The fact is, if you have an idea for a story, you should not just start writing it, nor should you start plotting it out.

Stories are so much more than people assume. They are incredibly difficult to create. Yet in today’s instant gratification self-publishing world, this fact has been lost. They have replaced “It’s hard to create a story people will want to read.” with “It’s so easy to get your book published!” In today’s digital printing world, writers puke words onto a page, and without any cost to themselves what-so-ever, upload them and expect to get paid for their “work”. But they have skipped the most important part – they must be educated on how to create stories worthy of being bought.

To circle back to the question, someone with a story idea and an interest in writing for profit should start by educating themselves on what it means to be a professional writer.

QUESTION: Is it really that hard to create a story? I mean, I’ve been watching books and reading movies my whole life. Don’t you think that through simple osmosis I’d have picked up what I need to tell a story worthy of being paid for?

ANSWER: No. The problem is, stories that are amazing are amazing because the writer wrote it in such a way that the mechanical elements are invisible to the reader/viewer. And there is so much to think about. Way too many to discuss in this blog post, but let’s take a look at just one – the Compulsory Scene.

Compulsory Scenes are scenes that pretty much have to be included in a story, depending on the Genre you are writing in. As an example, in a murder mystery, one Compulsory Scene will be the discovery of the body. You can’t have a murder mystery without a murder, right? So, at some point in a murder mystery, usually at the start, there will be a scene where someone is either killed, or someone discovers a dead body. This may sound “elementary” (pardon the pun), but it’s so much deeper than that. You can’t just write, “And here’s the dead body!” because that’s been done a million times. You will never stand out from the crowd – i.e. you will never sell copies of your book. What you must do is make your Compulsory Scene of “finding the body”, which has been done a million times in a million different ways, different in your novel from all others. And that is where time, education, and effort will come in. You have to know what you’re doing to be able to do it in a way that no one else has done before.

Step over to my Genre, Epic Fantasy. There are tons of Compulsory Scenes that must be in Epic Fantasy for it to be Epic Fantasy. I could take the easy road and bring up that in Action/Adventure, a Compulsory Scene would be that the Hero has to come really close to death. But that’s as obvious as a body in a murder mystery. So let’s dig deeper. Another Compulsory Scene in Epic Fantasy, one that if not done well will hurt your Epic Fantasy story, is “the Journey”. In every Epic Fantasy book, the characters will start in one place, and travel to another. But since it’s been done a bazillion times, how do you make yours unique? And the answer is not, “Well, I’ll be unique by not including it in my novel!” Because then, you are not writing Epic Fantasy! Go back to my last example. You can’t write a murder mystery that doesn’t have a murder! That’s not how you can be unique. Compulsory Scenes are named such because, well… they’re compulsory. Are they required? No. But readers will be expecting them. Your job is to make them unique and interesting. And if you don’t include them, you better do so in a unique and interesting way other than just not including them. But if you don’t study this, if you have never heard of a “Compulsory Scene” before, how the hell are you going to know it needs to be done?!?!

And Compulsory Scenes only scratch the surface of what a writer needs to know. You need to have an intimate understand of pacing, beats, character development, themes, symbolism, motifs, plot arcs, plot hooks, conflict, tension structure, reversals, and the list goes on. And that’s just for story creation. None of that is used in how you write the words that will convey all that stuff! Once you get into the actual writing the list of what you must master grows exponentially, because now you move from creativity to English grammar. Meaning, yes, you must know the basics like sentence/paragraph structure, punctuation, etc., but it moves into more complex topics such as author intrusion, utilizing Point of View, understanding how to “show” with words instead of “telling”, Verb Forms, Gerunds, Participles, etc., and then rises to such extreme heights as understanding structural patterns created by how you write, being able to identify them, break them, and create new patterns!

And all this takes time to learn. Years, in fact.

But no one wants to hear that. They feel that since their mommy says they are the best little writer in the whole wide world, they should be able to skip actually learning what it means to be a writer and just go right to the New York Times Best Seller list.

So what to do?

Well, the easiest way is to go to college and get your degree in English and Creative Writing. An MFA (Master in Fine Arts) is always appreciated by the publishing industry.

But who has time for that? Well, your only other option is to do it the more time consuming way.

1) Read books on the subject. I have started a recommended reading list here. Read at least one book every month on creative writing, grammar, or the business of publishing.

2) Read books in the genre you want to write in. Not for pleasure, but as a professional dissecting the work. Understand why it works, and where it fails or could have been better.

3) Write every frickin’ day. Seriously. You are going to have to write one million words before you will write your first word that is worthy of being paid for. That is not an arbitrary number. One Million Frickin’ Words!!! To reach that, you must write every day.

4) Join a critique group that meets weekly. First, it will make you write something new each week for your critique group to critique. Second, you must critique other people’s work to grow as a writer (just like reading published books in your genre).

5) Attend lectures on writing whenever you can. Writers’ Conferences, Local Classes, Fan Conventions, Book Festivals, there are tons of places that have workshops and classes. Follow me on social media and see where I teach.

6) Do the above for ten years. Consistently and without compromise. Do all this for ten years, and if you also have storytelling talent, you will develop the skills you need to actually become a professional in this industry.

Hate me? Good.

Show Vs. Tell Part Two

Action Prose

Where narrative prose is used to describe things, action prose is used to describe motion. Please don’t confuse the two, for they are very, very different. When you are describing motion, you have to approach the written text with a completely different mindset as opposed to simply describing a room. This approach is multi-layered, so let’s start at the beginning, and work our way through.

One – Use Stronger Verbs

The heart and soul of every sentence is its verb. Please don’t take these little guys for granted. Writing in the English language is a wonderful thing, we have twenty different words that all mean the same damn thing, but each evoke a slightly different emotional reaction from the reader. Take for example:

John hit the wall.

A reader can read this and in their mind’s eye see the character John hitting a wall. You can see it, right? Well, what if instead I wrote: John struck the wall. Or: John bashed the wall. Do you see the same motion in your head as you read each of these sentences? Of course not. Hitting, striking, and bashing all evoke different emotional reactions to what is being read. Keep this in mind as you craft every single one of your sentences, and your readers will thank you for it.

Two – Avoid Bland Linking Verbs

As I mentioned in the last post, if you can turn the sentence into a math equation, you are telling. While you can occasionally get away with this in narrative prose, once you move into the exciting world of action prose, bland linking verbs should be culled out at all cost. The biggest culprits are: Was, Were, Has, Had, Are, Is, Feel, and Felt. Do a find for these little buggers and highlight them. Then attack them with a vengeance, looking for ways to eradicate them from your manuscript.

John felt excruciating pain as the knife slid into his side.

Blah! Math! John = feeling pain. Look for other ways to do this that will eliminate the word “felt”.

Three – Stop Using Thinking Verbs

To add to the word-choice woes of a writer, you must also keep in mind that you need to avoid thinking verbs in your action prose. Think, Know, Believes, Wants, Desires, Understands, Realizes, Remembers, Imagines, Loves, Hates. The list goes on, but these are some of the bigger offenders. This is a hard obstacle for many new writers to overcome, but if you can avoid these words, especially in your action prose, it will make a dramatic difference.

Four – Use Active, Not Passive Voice Sentences.

Passiveness has no place in action prose. Make sure your action prose is consistently written in active voice. (This is a big topic all on its own, and I will do a Blog post soon on this topic.)

Five – Avoid telling the reader how to react

If you ever use words like: Unexpectedly, Suddenly, Abruptly, Surprisingly, Without Warning, etc., you are telling the reader how to react. In other words, you are not a strong enough writer to write something the reader isn’t expecting, so you just ask them politely to do your job for you.

The monster bared its fangs. Fear ran up John’s spine, but he was only an inch from the safety of his panic room. And since I have no idea how to shock you with an unexpected turn of events, my dear reader, please do my job for me and be shocked because suddenly, and without warning, the monster lunged at John.

The above may seem silly, but it is what you are doing every time you write a word that tells the reader how to react to your story.

Master these five things, and your Action Prose will benefit on every page.

Show Vs. Tell Part One

Showing vs. telling is a very tricky topic for many writers to not only master, but understand in the first place. This is because showing vs. telling is not one simple topic, but a pantheon of topics, depending on what you are writing at the time. You see, writing is not writing one certain way. To become a proficient writer, one readers will want to read, does not mean mastering one skill – writing. There are three main aspects of writing, each with their own nuances. When it comes to the topic of showing vs. telling, it requires you to learn different tactics, depending on the aspect of writing you are currently using at a given time in a story.

This will be a multi-part blog post, with me discussing each of the main aspects separately. For now, let’s start with the most used aspect – Narrative Prose.

Narrative Prose

In narrative prose, you are describing things. As with the other aspects, narrative prose has its own subsets of classifications. First and foremost, narrative prose is used to describe things.

     Like everything in the city of Xanthia, the underground subway intersection in which they stood encapsulated the prosperity this kingdom had enjoyed for hundreds of seasons. This terminal was one of many scattered beneath the city, though it was the largest Valimane had encountered thus far. A wide, shallow-stepped stairwell led here from the ground floor of the Temple before continuing down into the lower levels of the complex. Marble tiles covered a raised platform resting beside the railcar tracks. A mangled railcar sat dead and lifeless, two of its passenger coaches listing sideways, no longer resting upon their guide rails. In contrast to the destroyed carriages, pristine tapestries hung between alcoves inset with ornate sculptures. Intricate murals adorned every wall, while cleverly disguised gloworbs cast a warm, dim illumination over it all.

   Yet even in the massive expanse of the opulent tunnel, the air reeked—a mix of smoke, sweat, blood, and the sickly-sweet aroma of burnt flesh.

One rule of thumb when it comes to narrative prose in relation to showing vs. telling is, if you describe something the camera can see, you are showing. If you describe something the camera can’t see, you are telling.

Now, while this is true for the most part, it is also misleading. You see, one of the powers of prose as a medium to tell stories is, it’s not limited in the way a comic book or film script is. In other words, unlike comics or film, in prose you are “inside” the main character’s head at all times – the Point of View (POV) character. This means you can immerse the reader deeper into the feelings and emotions of THAT character. (We don’t head hop. You get one character’s head to be in per chapter or scene. DON’T HEAD HOP!)

This means we have some freedom with narrative prose. We can also add in “exposition”! While some people will scold you and make it their mission in life to point out how terrible and telly exposition is, those people are missing the point of prose. Without SOME exposition, your narrative prose is boring, uninteresting, and not immersive for the reader. That being said, like everything in prose, using exposition is all about balance. Too much exposition will turn the reader off in the same way too little will.

Take my above example. The first line has a tiny bit of exposition in the first sentence. In the opening line, I give information (exposition) that the city of Xanthia has been a prosperous city for hundreds of years. The camera could never “see” this. So “technically” it’s a tell. But that’s O.K. It’s a tiny droplet of information that adds to the flavor of the text. Remember, it’s all about balance. Over use exposition and your readers will hate your work. Don’t use it at all, and they will hate your work.

Another trick when it comes to lacing in exposition into your narrative prose is to make sure it’s personal to the POV.

     Have I sworn allegiance to the just, or simply the victorious?

     This question clawed at Valimane Dray’s mind as he passed his gaze over the imposing group assembled in a loose circle beneath the Temple of Wisdom.

Outside of the POV passing his gaze over the others in the room, none of the above could be seen by a camera. But it is personal to HIM (my POV). HE is questioning those he works for. This information helps the reader to relate to the POV, and come to care about his plight at a deeper, more personal level. Sure, it’s “technically” a tell, because it is absolutely exposition. But it’s a good tell that enhances the story for the reader.

Emotions in Narrative Prose

This is a great transition to discuss why telling during the conveyance of emotions is such a horribly, terribly, bad thing to do as a writer, however. The following is a scene where the POV has just sat down at a table with a man who would like nothing more than to marry his daughter off to the POV. The POV (Arderi) is not as excited about the idea.

     “Well, good on you!” The portly man smiled before casting a glance at his daughter as she was returning to the kitchen. “Remember, if ever you need to bend my ear over… well, over what-have-you, I always have time for you, my boy. You’re like the son I never had, so…” He cleared his throat. “Well, feel free to bend my ear is all I’m saying.”

     Arderi was too embarrassed to answer. Noticing this, his cousin’s giggles morphed into outright laughter. Arderi could think of nothing to say that would save him from the direction this conversation had taken.

So, the above is not bad… but it’s not good either. Sure, the reader is TOLD how Arderi is feeling over the situation, but that’s not immersive at all. The above is an example of what I call a math equation. When it comes to telling emotions, if you can turn the sentence into a math equation, you are telling. In other words:

Arderi = too embarrassed to answer.

Arderi = can’t think of anything to say.

If we are going to show Arderi’s emotions, we must change how we write this. We need to “show” Arderi being too embarrassed to answer and not being able to think of anything to say. I.E., what would all this look like to a camera (provided the camera could also see inside the POVs mind & body)?

     “Well, good on you!” The portly man smiled before casting a glance at his daughter as she was returning to the kitchen. “Remember, if ever you need to bend my ear over… well, over what-have-you, I always have time for you, my boy. You’re like the son I never had, so…” He cleared his throat. “Well, feel free to bend my ear is all I’m saying.”

     Stomach churning, a stammer was all Arderi could muster as his cousin’s giggles morphed into outright laughter. His mind scrambled for a toehold that would save him from falling over the cliff this conversation had suddenly taken.

And in changing how we write the scene, we make the scene more immersive for the reader. We connect them on a deeper level to the POV.

So to sum up, when you are writing narrative prose, make sure you adhere to the rule of thumb that when you are describing “things”, try to stick to things that a camera could see. However, never forget that prose has one huge advantage in the fact that you are inside the POV’s head. Use that to your advantage to help immerse the reader deeper into your story.

 

The Question of the Conflict vs. The Question of the Theme

Don’t confuse the question of your CONFLICT with the question of your THEME. And here’s why:

“Will Luke Skywalker Destroy the Death Star and live happily every after, or will he die in the attempt?”

This is the question of the Conflict – I.E., the Physical Layer. It’s a good question, and should lead to a strong Conflict. Which is great, and what you want as a story teller. However, that’s not a THEME. The theme is the “human element.” It’s the intangible visceral connection between the story and the READER. The message the reader can apply to their own lives. It must be something the reader can apply to their own lives, or it will not fulfill all those unknown expectations the reader has. Without these emotional needs being fulfilled, the reader will not care about the story.

The depth at which the writer understands this is the difference between an amazing story, a mediocre story, and a piece of crap story.

The above question is an EVENT. “Will the whiny moisture farmer survive or not?” Well, in the end, who gives a crap? The answering of this question does not, in any way, affect the reader’s life. It teaches the reader nothing. Even if the writer does a great job, and the reader really likes this Luke character, it still does nothing to move them at a visceral level. Sure, if Luke survives, they’ll feel good for him. If he dies, they’ll feel bad. But in neither case is his win or loss anything the reader can apply to their own life. I doubt very seriously any reader shall be fighting any Death Stars anytime soon.

That’s where THEME comes in, and why a story is not a story unless it has one (or more). The Theme is the message the reader consumes “because of the event.” The reason so many new writers get confused about this is because a Theme is often a question posed by the story, and it’s normally answered at the same time the question of the Conflict is answered. But they are very, very different.

I’ve had tons of people tell me, “I wrote a story, one that had a cool, relatable character who did some pretty cool and amazing things, and my grasp of Grammar and English are solid, but no one likes my story.” They say they get a lot of, “Well written, but I didn’t like it.”

Why? Because the writer is focusing on the wrong thing. They are focusing on the Events of the story, and totally forgetting about the only thing that’s important.

Look, all the Physical Layer stuff that happens in your story (the Events) – the characters, their dialogue, what things look like, the world around them, their conflict, the situation, their mothers, etc., all the things that make up your “story” – are totally worthless. They don’t matter. Well, they do (especially your mother). But that’s the rub. They matter because your Physical Layer elements have to be interesting and make your story feel unique and keep the reader reading. But they DON’T matter when it comes to whether the reader feels your story was good or bad.

In other words, if you create an amazingly written story of a young farm boy who saves the universe by blowing up a Death Star you will fail to please the reader every single time. However, if you create the same story, but force the reader to consume a humanizing message they can apply to their own life through the transformation of that young farm boy, they will sing your praises to the heavens.

The point most new writers miss is that stories are not about the characters in the story. Stories are about the person reading the story. If you are concerned only about the events of your story (the Physical Layer) you are focusing on the wrong thing. You are looking in the wrong direction. You are paying attention to the stuff in the story, and not concerning yourself with the only thing that actually matters – the person reading the story. Remember, readers are your customers. Any business that fails to pay attention to their customers goes out of business.

Themes are complex, and not something I have time to fully describe here in a Blog. If you want to read 12,000 words of me describing them, pick up a copy of my Dynamic Story Creation here. Still, the basics of what you need to do to get your Theme into your story are:

  1. Set benchmarks of what your character loves, is about to lose (State of Perfection) or has already lost (State of Imperfection), so the reader understands and cares about the character’s plight. (This is Physical Layer stuff, but starts to build a visceral connection between the reader and the characters.)
  2. Use those benchmarks to make the reader understand and care about why the character will move through the story and attempt to return to some semblance of their State of Perfection. (Again, more Physical Layer stuff, but this is the reason the reader continues to read the story.)
  3. “Transform” the character from someone who cannot achieve their State of Perfection into someone who can. (This is the bridge between the Physical Layer and the Invisible Layer. This is where the Events force the character (and the reader by extension) to deal with the “Human Element” of the Theme.)
  4. Overcoming the Conflict, the question (or choice) of your Theme will unknowingly be consumed by the reader so they not only enjoy the ride (the Physical Layer Events), but walk away with something they can apply to their own lives. (The Invisible Layer happens “because” of the Physical Layer Events.)

None of this is easy. It’s why so many of today’s “published” books piss me off so much. Everyone thinks, “I’ve read a movie and watched a book, so obviously I can write a novel.” Unfortunately, that’s the same thing as thinking you can become a successful open heart surgeon after watching a documentary on open heart surgery. It’s simply not enough, and every “patient” you “operate” on is going to die.

You must study, learn, and understand what creates a good story before you will have any hope of creating a good story. That means having a deep understanding of what a Theme is, why they are so vital to a story, and how to implement them into a story.

You figure out how to turn your attention around, and write stories that affect the READER, and you’ll understand what it means to create good stories.