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If I ever get around to it, this page will detail my (Rick Austinson's) various writing practices and the procedures that go into finishing a book.


Most of us, when we sit down to write, at least have an idea of where the story is going. You have a destination in mind, but are unsure about exactly how to get there, so you just start writing and hope to find your way.

This is guaranteed recipe to get yourself lost.

The journey is important, but trying to make it in this manner will fail. You may actually succeed in writing a novel, but probably not a good one. Maybe if you are working full-time on the project, with nothing to distract you, this approach can work, but since most of us are writing from in our spare time, we need to plan.

Having nurtured a lot of young writers over the years, I know most of my readers will cringe when I say this next word, so I’m going to get it out of the way as quickly as possible: outline. Go ahead, cringe a bit.

Much like building a structure requires blueprints, writing a novel requires planning. A blueprint can be as simple as a few lines scratched onto a page. An outline can be as uncomplicated as a short list of the events of the story in the order they are meant to appear. Even if you haven’t figured everything out yet, just dump what you have onto the page, and fill in the blanks with “Stuff happens here”. Having that simple list can make the whole process so much less painful. And, most importantly: easier to come back to.

We all shelve projects occasionally. I, for one, am typically working on 3 or 4 different books and up to a dozen short stories at any given time. Not all at once, mind you, but I will constantly have a wide range of projects going, and switch between them on a daily, or even hourly basis. By producing simple outlines for each project, I can come back to it, months, or even years down the road. Author of the Gust spent 2 years on the proverbial shelf, half finished, but I was easily able to come back to it because I had a good outline.

And just because you create an outline does not make it absolute. It’s just a set of suggestions, a few notes about what should happen in the story. Deviate from it all you like, your wrote it. I often look back at some of my outlines and laugh at how different they are than the final story.

Outlining is just one part of planning; next, we’ll tackle character creation.

Character Creation

Now, once again, a major novice mistake lies in the lack of planning. I have had quite a few beginners insist up and down that the “best” way is to just start writing the characters and see how they turn out.

As with most art forms, there is no “best” approach, but the one sited above is probably among the worst. First off, it only works assuming you are writing in order (beginning work on page one and finishing with the last page). I don’t know many writers who do this, and most professional authors use some variation of the train-of-thought method, which involves, among other things, writing out of order.

So the “write and see what happens” approach when applied to a write-out-of-order technique results in a character who is inconsistent, and may devolve. At the very least, it gives you more work to do in editing and results in a character with very little development. More often then not, you end up with a one-dimensional, plot-forwarding robot.

Much like a simple outline, creating some basic character biographies beforehand will make all the difference. When I first began the initial planning stages for Author of the Gust, I spent several days just mulling over the different characters I wanted to create. I wanted to build a cast of flawed, complex individuals, with many deep motivations and goals. After rolling it about in my head for a few days, I settled down and built a list, with a few paragraphs about each character.

They were by no means complete, but keep in mind that’s not the initial goal. Character development is a vital element to any story, and good development hinges on a firm foundation. The clinically depressed cook, for example, first appears in the story and seems to have no motivation at all. As the book progresses, more and more about his back-story is revealed, until his true motivations finally become clear: he is the main character’s uncle, and has been watching over her from the shadows for most of her life.

Don’t feel like you have to plan out every last facet of the character from the beginning. A good baseline is all you need. My current project, a book that takes place after the Course Books series, is using all of the techniques I’ll be talking about here. I have a list of characters for that entire series; some are only a paragraph with a name and a vague description of when in the story-arc they are supposed to arrive. Others have almost an entire page, including physical description, back story, goals and motivations, and other notes about their role in the storyline.

Having tried both approaches(planning and not planning), I believe I can state unequivocally that it is always better to plan. Whether you are writing a flash-fiction-esque short story or a full-length novel, the more time you put into the groundwork, the better the finished product.

Second Worlds

The term “second world” originates with renowned author J.R.R. Tolken, though he probably wasn’t the first to use the concept. It basically means you have your story take place in a completely different, unrelated world where they’ve never even heard of Earth.

And while this does take a considerable amount of effort, it’s actually much easier in the long run. For general purposes, creating a fictional city like Superman’s Metropolis or Batman’s Gotham removes a lot of issues as the author no longer has to worry about writing in a real city. Street names, addresses, bridges, all of it can just be made up, which is particularly useful if you’ve never been to the city your writing in. Residents of the city will always catch the little mistakes, and you’re bound by the constraints of reality. But just a fictional city does not a second world make, in the superhero examples, these cities are still set on earth and the characters frequently travel to other, actual locations.

The second world removes all of this, giving you total freedom. It actually takes less suspension of disbelief for the reader to immerse themselves in this world, since you’ve already told them from the get-go that they don’t need to pay attention to reality. But, from there, it gets tricky.

Authors typically tend to want a few specific features for their second world, without giving much thought to the underlying system that makes them possible. Just like magic requires a system, a second world requires all the functional aspects of this one. It needs a stable economy, a working system of government; its people need religions and schools and houses and food. There is quite a bit more to world-building than you first imagine.

Fortunately, for a lot of it, you can basically copy-and-paste from the real world. Not to much, though; systems resembling real-life ones are good, but they shouldn’t be identical.

Start by considering the type of world you want to create. Is it a futuristic sci-fi landscape? A medieval fantasy realm? Somewhere in between? Now research first-world equivalents; if you’re going for medieval, read up on European history, if science fiction is more your game, look for the closest real-world equivalent(Disneyworld).

Medieval realms were basically agrarian societies, so your medieval fantasy world is probably going to be like that. This means a lot of peasants, farmland, castles, etc. Travel is going to be pretty slow and typically via animal power. This means if a character is going to travel 1000 miles, they are probably going to walk or ride a horse the entire distance. Horses, by the way, move a lot faster than wagons being pulled by horses: remember that.

Information moves a lot more slowly in world where a fast galloping horse is the state-of-the-art in high-speed transportation. If the character is going to travel 1000 miles, expect them to get there quite far ahead of any information about them—unless of course you invent some sort of means for the people of your fantasy world to move information faster. The Lord of the Rings had the 'seeing stones'; you have plenty of options available.

Economics are a complex thing, but one that must be considered. Even if it doesn’t factor into the story in any spectacular way, your world needs a working economy. An Agrarian society with lots of subsistence farming is fairly easy to manage, though it gets more complex from there. You might be surprised to know that such modern jobs as doctors and lawyers existed as far back as ancient Egypt, 3000 B.C. Egypt back then was mostly about subsistence farming, but they needed doctors and lawyers even then.

Essentially, any modern profession that doesn’t deal specifically with electricity is a viable occupation in a fantasy realm. Even your subsistence farming culture is likely to have aqueducts, bridges, roads; all of which will need to be constructed and maintained. Even in the dark ages, people knew how to build some pretty spectacular things.



Fiction writers fall into a wide range of levels. I have previously compared it to climbing a mountain. At the bottom you’ve got everyone who wants to write and never does, at the top you have published authors. That’s the spectrum, everyone else is somewhere in between.

But then you can also arrange writers according to potential. Which ones are just wannabes and posers, and who has it in them to truly write full-time. I am a part of the latter group, I don’t mind saying. I know that sounds a bit egotistical, and I know I try to be humble (boyscout thing), but I can and have spent 8-12 hours a day generating solid gold in literary form.

I am not a poser. I am confident in my skills. This is not a self-affirmation ritual; I’ve got all the confidence I need.

So how do you separate the men from the boys, so to speak? Having worked with scores of up-and-coming writers over the years, I can tell you it’s pretty easy to pick out the ones with real potential, and those pretenders who are destined to languish on fanfiction forums and dream of one day finishing that masterpiece.

The real potential writers can write. And I don’t mean they write well or are simply technically able; I mean they can generate content pretty much on demand. For me, the information and ideas are like a tap, I can turn it on (though not necessarily off) at will. I can, and have built entire worlds on the spot, with no prompting, just made everything up and wrote it down later.

A wannabe can’t do this. They need lots of poetic terms like “inspiration” and “feel” and others I don’t feel like looking up. Production takes time. These are the people that start out writing fanfiction, and even if they do produce something “original”, it is just a thinly-veiled copy. Fanfiction writers are, by the way, a step below the general public on the writing spectrum.

Real writers can see the entire project, they write with a vision. They do not start with a vague idea and just hope they find the plot eventually. That’s how you end up with several dozen novel openings cluttering up your hard drive. You don’t have to write an outline, but you need to know the central conflict and basic over-arch of your plot before you begin, otherwise you are going to start from nowhere and end up nowhere.

This is where the wannabe lives, figuratively. Their head is full of ideas, but these are largely vague, unfocused. Things like “what if I wrote a story about a boy with bird wings and a cat tail?”. A unique concept, sure (not really), but that isn’t a story. There are six basic conflicts:

Man vs. Man Man vs. Self Man vs. Machine Man vs. Nature Man vs. God Man vs. The Unknown When you begin your novel, you should probably know which one yours is. The wannabe writer reading this is, by the way, at this very moment protesting either “wait, what about women?” or “there must be more than six!”. For those of you to whom those were the first thoughts: substitute 'woman' if you want, or nuts; it doesn’t make any difference. Substitute 'sentient, self-aware being', it’s still the same thing. Second: there are no others. Your story is about one or all of those conflicts, or some combination of any number of them, or it begins with one and turns out to be about another.

Finally, a true writer doesn’t need inspiration, even though we all have to draw inspiration from somewhere. Every book we’ve ever read, every movie we’ve ever seen, every Saturday morning cartoon, every Sunday afternoon spent playing with action figures in the backyard; every billboard, every ad, every second of every day we’ve been alive informs our imagination. That is where the true writer is drawing inspiration. Experience is the one thing unique to all of us, and the one thing that truly defines who we are.

Of course, we sometimes steal ideas. I myself am currently writing a series of light novels using a plot lifted from a light '90s children’s television show, which itself lifted its plot directly from Star Trek: Voyager. This is pretty normal; you can do that and still produce a highly unique and original work of art. Basic concepts are universal, stripped down to the core the series in question is a combination of Man vs. Man, Man vs. Machine, Man vs. Self, and Man vs. The Unknown. I should probably also throw nature in there, since it is in space and all.

But I have taken a simple concept, and made it my own. My story is so unique that any resemblance to the source material is so basic as to be universal. There is a spaceship, they are traveling through space. Sometimes they move faster than the speed of light, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they visit planets. This is the sort of thing all space travel stories have in common. What makes it unique is the details: the characters, the technology, the circumstances, the list goes on.

Wannabes can’t generate these details themselves. This is why so many of them resort to fanfiction, or thinly-veiled copies of other people’s work. In the above example, the two shows were actually very unique and original: the details made all the difference.

The wannabes are also the poets. Poetry books do not sell. There are obvious exceptions, I’m sure any one of you whose taken high school English can name two or three famous poets, but here’s the thing: most of them either weren’t famous while they were alive, or didn’t write primarily the sort of poetry your high school English teacher made you write. They wrote, and got famous for writing, very long, multi-page narrative poems that could be assembled into books you could actually read. These people did not spend all day writing and revising a single 10-line poem. The people who do that, do not have what it takes to be a writer.

But the biggest red flag for who don’t have the talent is the requirements to write. Sure, we all have times when we can’t write; I can’t write when I’m experiencing a particular kind of stress(not deadline-stress, I actually write better like that). That’s normal, any art form requires concentration, and there are things that help and hinder that. But the main thing I see in those who just lack what it takes is their requirement for music. When someone tells me “I absolutely have to be listening to [insert music genre] in order to write” or “I need to listen to [music genre A] to write this sort of scene and [genre B] to write this sort of scene”, or, my all time least favorite “I can’t re-write this masterpiece I lost years ago because I don’t have [album from specific band] anymore and I can’t find it anywhere!”. I look at those folks and think: “You will never be a writer”.

People, this isn’t inspirational music: this is your crutch. You have trained yourself into dependence on something. You are not a good writer, you are an addict. I have mentioned before the reward-nature of writing, and how we are addicted to it. Those who can’t write without highly specific background music have the addiction part, but not the talent.

Nine times out of ten, wannabes with this sort of deficiency write really dull, drab, uninteresting pieces. It seemed great in their heads because they had the music going. It’s like a movie: the write music sets the mood and can make all the difference; but without the music, it’s just boring.

Now, I think it is important to separate out the wannabe-music-crutch writers from the normal ADD folks. When I’m making 3D models, I have something (T.V., radio, cats, etc.) going on in the background to help me focus. A lot of people are like that with writing. I knew a fellow in college who had to have the TV and the radio in order to concentrate. It didn’t matter what it was: he just needed that background noise going to help him focus.

This is different from the person who cannot write unless they have some highly specific genre, band, or album going. Just needing noise probably means you have Attention Deficit Disorder. Needing something specific makes you a wannabe with crutch music. Maybe I’ll make a song about it. Maybe it’ll help someone write.

Step I

My first step in pre-production is to chose a working title. This is different from an actual title in that its only purpose is to give me personally a title for the project. There is no reason to obsess about a book title when you haven’t even decided on the basic plot. A lot of people get married to titles too soon, and it’s important to keep your options open.

As an example, I’d like to point to Author of the Gust, which was written under the working title “ninjas vs. pirates”. As I finished the first rough draft I began my search for the real title, and eventually settled on Galloping Antelope. By the time I had finished Galloping Antelope, I was already working on the sequal, Scion of the Storm. This was when I came up with the title for the third volume: Herald of the Calm. So I now had a neat, three-volume trilogy entitled “Galloping Antelope”, “Scion of the Storm”, and finally “Herald of the Calm”. One of these things is not like the other. I renamed it Author of the Gust in order to make the title fit the rest of the series.

The working title for the second Consecution Book would be “The Aftermath”. Now, having already planned out all 8 titles for series, I’m not entirely sure I’m going to stick with that title, since it doesn’t quite fit the bill with the others. The Abutting Aftermath is a more likely candidate, but for now, I’m simply calling the story The Aftermath.

The next stage is to assemble the cast. I already have a nice group of characters left over from the first book, but this part of the process is not just about names and descriptions. I’m going to make a word document, and start by listing all the main characters from the first book; I already have descriptions and motivations for them, so all I have to do is write some notes about what’s going to happen to them in the story. What are they going to accomplish? what are they going to lose? are any of them going to die?

Now for new characters, as I am already planning to introduce two new people in this novel. I already have information about them from the series notes, but some more specifics are in order. We all love character development, so its good to map out some starting and ending points for the newcomers. A good example is the character Jan, who is introduced in this novel and begins life as a laid-back, suave, self-centered lady’s man. He can hold his own in a fight, but all he’s really interested in at the beginning of the story is picking up chicks and hanging out. By the end of the novel, he is going to have transformed into a dedicated, capable warrior, willing to fight by Jason’s side and join his quest.

Just like with outlining, I may not stick to any of this. I have actually already gone through this complete process once for this novel, which I then threw out and am starting over, since a great deal has changed over the course of writing the first book.

It’s important to understand that nothing is set in stone until it reaches print. I’ll be making changes all through the process.

Step II

Fresh from the initial planning stage, I’ve got a nice long list of basically what I want to have happen in this book, not necessarily in order. The first step here is to go over the list, complete it, and then add in the things that have to happen to make those things work.

By this time, it’s only a matter of putting everything in order to complete the outline. Read through it once or twice, make sure the chronology is established.

Now as I have said, an outline is not carved in stone. There are events in Author of the Gust’s outline that did not even earn a brief mention in the actual novel. Not only that, but the entire storyline changed.

You may be asking: why are outlines important? If you don’t pan to stick to or update them, what’s the point? It gives you a fantastic roadmap for the project, a reference point. Now, some of you may actually have to update the initial outline, some of you might not bother.

For this project, the initial outline will probably be it. The Consecution Books are set to be a series of “light” novels, hopefully clocking in at around 60,000 words each. For that reason, they are not divided into chapters. If this were going to be a longer novel, my next step would be to actually outline the individual chapters.


Now, they are confliction schools of thought on this subject, and much like length, there is no right or wrong answer. There is no rule anywhere that states that a novel must be broken down into chapters. Further, there is no specific rule as to how long those chapters must be.

Now that we’ve established that there are no rules, let’s go over a few. First, keep in mind that these are not “rules” that must be strictly obeyed, this is more of a craft thing. Your novel doesn’t “have” to do anything, but there are certain features that will make it more enjoyable for the reader.

There are a wide variety of breaks you can use to split up your work. A single, straight, unbroken line of paragraphs is not particularly conducive to storytelling, and tends to induce a sort of hypnosis in the reader. Line breaks, scene breaks, and finally chapter breaks help to break the novel structure down into more manageable chunks.

This is one novice mistake I see in young writers again and again: the overwhelming desire to produce chapters. There is no minimum length, but of your 110-page novel has 43 chapters, your reader is going to get really annoyed, really fast. There’s a reason why you don’t typically see that sort of thing in books on store shelves: people don’t like it.

I’ve seen it again and again, though, in my young writer’s work. They’ll read aloud for five minutes, and cover 3 chapters. They are using chapter breaks when a simple scene-break would suffice. One theory is that they are planning to go back and add more detail later, thus making the chapters longer, but its hard to expand a 3-page chapter that much.

It’s probably getting repetitive, but there is no minimum or maximum length. Its good form to try and keep your chapters all more or less the same length, though a 10-20% variation will not draw complaints. What does get annoying is when say a single chapter makes up half the book, and there are still 10 other, very short chapters.

If you think of the chapters like boxcars on a train, it helps to have them all roughly the same size. Another way of looking at it is like mile-markers on a road, if they are being used by the reader to track his or here progress, it helps if they are all roughly the same distance apart.

In my novels, I like to stick to a format of about 10,000 words a chapter, which in the Antelope Books added up to a neat 8-9 chapters per volume. At 90,000, 83,000, and 80,000, and with 9, 9, and 8 chapters respectively, the 3 volumes of the series have a really even and flowing feel

You may have also noticed that not all novels are even divided into chapters. Since there’s no rule, its basically up to the writer and the publisher to decide how to break it up. Since my current work is probably going to top out at about 65,000 words, I am currently not planning to break it down into chapters(as that would result in only about 6 chapters according to my formula). When I find a publisher for it, they may well decide they want a chapter book.

There are other options as well. My continual work-in-progress currently entitled “Epic” presently totals at a near 44,000 words, officially making it a “light” novel according to the in-no-way-official standards for novel lengths. Because it is simply too short to be broken down into decent-sized chapters, it is divided into a series of “movements”.

In following with the three-act structure Shakespeare taught us, Epic is broken into three movements . These individual movements even have titles, sort of like chapters. But for some reason, and this is silly but true, because they are “movements” instead of chapters, it doesn’t seem silly that there are only 3 of them.

You can certainly use the movement structure for shorter works, and you are by no means bound to just 3. If you want to call them “acts”, you should probably stick to 3, because that is the accepted number for things called “acts”, and the theater managers will riot at you if you don’t.

When it comes to dividing up your novels, the possibilities are endless. I have seen very long, very complex novels in which multiple methods are used, “acts” or “movements” that encompass chapters, which include scene breaks as well as line breaks. It makes it a whole lot easier to figure out where you are in the book, and I promise if I ever write a single, 250,000-word-long novel, I will break it up in a similar fashion.

Now, with all my talk about no short chapters, similar lengths, etc, I know what all two of you who’ve read my books are probably thinking: “But Rick! The Course Books aren’t like that!”; but the Course Books are a collection of short stories, not novels. Each short story is designed to stand on its own, with its own three acts.


Cutting room aside, what is really involved in editing?

My process is as simple and straightforward as it gets. I open the file, I start reading, I make changes as I go. That simple. Novice writers sometimes think editing means taking stuff out, and sometimes it does; but usually it means adding to it. A word here or there, a paragraph, sometimes an entire scene. I’ve gone in and added multiple pages to the middle of a story when I felt it was necessary.

It’s also important to set a goal ahead of time. You may not have fully understood the story before you started, and you had to write it to figure out what it was for. Now’s your chance to go back and make sure the entire thing conforms to that goal. “The End” is not finished, it’s only the beginning. My method simply consists of reading, editing, then reading again until I stop finding things to change.

Just because a piece isn’t finished yet does not mean its too early to start editing, either. In fact, if you’re midway through a long project and you get stuck, this is practically a get-out-of-writer’s-block-free card. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found my way out of plot trouble simply by going back and re-reading(and in the process, modifying) other parts of the story.

So never hesitate to make a change. You can keep modifying a story pretty much until you publish it. Then, once it’s out there, you can’t take it back.


No. 1: Avoid word over-use. This is a problem I myself recognize and struggle with in my own work. That’s the first step, right? Admitting you have a problem? In any event, this obviously doesn’t apply to basic words like ‘the’, ‘a’, and ‘and’, although two 'ands' in a sentence is often a little awkward. I’m talking more like nouns or verbs: ‘forest’, ‘intellect’, ‘gun’, etc. This tends to create repetition, and might cause readers to get confused, especially in the middle of a big paragraph. Fortunately, we have thesauruses (thesauri?) to help with this problem by just basically giving you a nice, handy word-list of things that mean the same thing as the word you’re trying to write.

But perhaps more importantly, as this is less of a novice mistake, pay attention to the words or combinations of words you use frequently and try not to over-use them. I, for example, tend to use ‘had’ and ‘of course’ entirely too often. When I look at my older work, it seems that I used the word ‘seem’ just entirely too often.

No. 2: Add tons of description. This one should probably go without saying. Personally, I learned this trick from Terry Goodkind, author of the Sword of Truth series. The guy knew almost perfectly when and how to use massive volumes of description. Obviously you do not always use a whole ton, but you have to work at it and learn where and when to put it in. In one particularly poignant scene from the first book, the main character jumps off a small rise and kills an assassin with his sword. The author uses about two and a half pages to describe this. Why? Because it is a very major, sort of pinnacle scene to the story. In other parts of the book, he cuts down bad guys by the hundreds (no exaggeration), with hardly a mention. It's all about knowing where, and how much detail to add.

Since books are largely character-driven, this is the first place to look. Are you attempting to communicate something about your character’s emotional state? Conversely, drippingly-detailed descriptions can be very useful for creating suspense. You can drag something like the sword-chop scene mentioned above out for pages and pages, merely by describing every last detail.

Finally, it just helps the reader get a clear picture of who, and exactly what they are reading about, and why they should care. You want your readers to bond with your characters, to identify. You want them to laugh together, cry together. When something as simple as a peach is incredibly important to the character, you want the reader to understand why.

Pick a tense, and go with it. Again, this one doesn’t sound like it deserves mention, but it is one of those things a lot of people (again, including myself) struggle with. Most of the time, your story is probably happening in real-time, the events are occurring as they are being described to your reader. However, you’ve also got flashbacks. Sometimes the entire story is told as a flashback; I was watching a movie recently in which the main character had a running internal monologue that was really him describing the events of the film as though they had already happened. The movie was happening in real-time, but we were getting his commentary from after it was over. This effect can be replicated in writing, but it is very difficult and can be confusing if not done properly.

Most of the time, you just need to pick a tense and run with it. Past, present, future, tesseract. If you want to include a flashback, do something to clarify that you are indeed flashing backwards to something older.

Tenses get especially difficult when you are working in a first-person POV. When you are expressing thoughts and emotions, it gets much easier to use past-tense, but if you are supposed to be working in the present, it can be hard. This is really just the sort of thing you have to watch for in editing.

Policy on Pop. Ref.s

One of the biggest advantages/disadvantages of books is that they are permanent; once written, a book can stick around for a very long time. Though the novel format is relatively new when compared to the history of writing (the Epic of Gilgamesh, at 4,200 years old, is considered to be the earliest piece of literature; the first “novel” in the modern, familiar format, was Robinson Crusoe, from 1719), but we still commonly read novels that are quite old.

Lately, if like me you occasionally emerge from under your writing-rock to see what’s going on in the world, you may have noticed a whole host of big-budget movies based on old fantasy novels. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the newer Chronicles of Narnia movies. But did you know: both those series debuted in the 1950s? Half a century ago or more, their authors never lived to see the movies being made of them today.

So how did these epics endure for a half-century and finally spawn awesome movies and gain readerships in the hundreds of millions? The authors wrote them to be timeless.

Pick up a copy of Paulsen's Hatchet sometime, give it a quick read. Aside from a curious lack of cell phones, it’s easy to imagine it happening last year. Hatchet is from 1987. While it doesn’t have the same popularity as Lord of the Rings (to be fair, Hatchet would be a really boring movie), the book is still easily found in every school library, and read to students in classrooms all across America. The story is written in such a way as not to become dated. Hatchet is realistic fiction, but it's not filled with pop-culture references or names of currently popular stars or bands. There are no trends, & nothing to specify when the volume is set. Woodcutting tools and small propeller airplanes have been around for a long time, and will be for even longer.

The biggest mistake I see my young writers make, both in fantasy and realistic fiction, is getting to “in” to current trends and culture. Here’s one particular case-study: the author, a teenage-girl who was quite tragically a Democrat, was working on a piece of realistic fiction in which she portrayed all high-school students as also being, unfortunately, Democrats. And true enough, when she was writing her piece, most high-schoolers in the area were. This was around the time we as a people elected a functionally-retarded man as president, thanks to affirmative action, and everyone was apparently thrilled about it for some reason. However, back when I was in highschool—just a handful of years earlier—being called a “Democrat” was about as bad as being called gay. Scratch that: most guys I knew would rather be called a fag than a Democrat, and were more likely to vehemently deny the second one.

Have you ever heard of the Federalist Party? No? How about the Whig party? In fifty years we might not have Democrats anymore, either. Of course that’s not as major a concern as the shifting political winds among people who aren’t old enough to vote.

Writing a book takes time. As I’ve often mentioned, Author of the Gust took five years to write. Publishing takes even longer: from the day an agent first says “I’ll represent you” to the day the first copy of your book hits store shelves, averages about three years, minimum. If I spent 5 years writing, then 3 years getting published, that’s two full presidential terms. Political winds being what they are, you can virtually guarantee a different party will be in power by the time your book comes out.

So essentially, in a story that was not written to be about politics, this girl managed to add enough political stuff to ensure anyone who was not a Democrat would be horribly offended. It added nothing to the story, mind you, the author was just a stuck-up, self-righteous child, which to be fair is her right as an American. But, in the eight years it will take to (hypothetically) write, edit, and publish her novel, a completely different president will be in office, and 17-year-olds everywhere will be complaining about the other political group.

The moral of the story: don’t make your writing too current. I’m not saying you can’t write about politics; you just have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t become dated.

Pop-culture references are another thing. Twenty years from now, no one is going to have a clue who Hannah Montana is. And twenty years from now, your book will not still be on library shelves, because nobody is going to have a clue who Hannah Montana is. Even if that’s not the main focus of the story, if you just have too many jokes that rely heavily on your reader knowing who she is, then even by the time your reach library shelves, your book will be out-dated.

I know what you’re thinking: “Wait! I see tons of Hanna Montana books on the shelves at bookstores right now! Those couldn’t POSSIBLY have been written three years ago!”. They weren’t; they also weren’t written by people like you. Those books were written by a writer on staff at Disney, whose job was to come in to work every day and write Hanna Montana novellas (before the series was broadcast).

Even if it wasn’t a staffer on salary, someone was approached and offered money up front to hammer that thing out in 3-6 months, so it could be on store shelves inside of 12, and still be relevant. The person who wrote it probably signed their check directly over to their local blow dealer.

This is not to say that occasional references and inside jokes are a no-no, but like politics you have to phrase everything in such a way that it doesn’t become stale. My own work is littered with little jokes that are funny, but get ten times funnier when you really understand them. Most people won’t, but it's O.K. because the role is so minor.

Writing timelessly is tough. It takes practice, research, and dedication. But it's also the only way you’re going to end up with a finished novel that can pass the test of time. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolken books continue to be printed and read over half a century later: do you want the same from your work?

Constructive Criticism

The best resource for writers is other writers. Even if it's just a friend you bounce ideas off, or an older mentor, you need to give and receive critiques to be a better writer. Having counseled many young writers over the years (and even run a creative writing club) I can say with great confidence that knowing how to give constructive criticism is vital.

The first step, no matter how bad the subject matter is, is to find one positive thing to say about it. I hate poetry as a rule, and I have heard some very bad teen poetry in my day, but I was always able to open my critiques with a compliment.

Writing is an extremely person thing for most people, and showing it to someone else is very hard. Now, this dynamic changes if you are dealing with an older, more seasoned writer, but for the sake of this journal we’re going to assume you aren’t. So if your first response isn’t something positive, it can be crushing.

Now you can move on to the criticisms. Phrasing is everything here, choice of words makes all the difference. Nothing is ever ‘bad’ in constructive criticism, it’s just ‘not good’. Try to stay away from statements based on personal feeling “I didn’t like this”, or “I didn’t like that”. These have a way of making the whole thing less about helping them and more about talking about what you don’t like. The exception here is if you did like something, since the person is brining their writing to you for your approval, if you really liked a specific part or the whole thing, let them know.

Again, coming back to phrasing, probably the most important thing comes in when you do explain which parts are bad. Or more specifically, when you don’t. If you say “this part needs improvement”, or “this part could be better”, it’s much more uplifting to the individual than “this is no good”.

Finally, try to offer up concrete examples. If something needs improvement, give examples of how they could make it better. Add more detail, make the character’s responses more realistic, consider the laws of physics here. That’s the sort of thing that helps build a stronger writer.

And keep in mind that at the same time you are offering up useful critiques, you are teaching this individual how to critique, and thus building a better writing partner. When I was running the creative writing club, I had plenty of people come in who had absolutely no idea how to offer up anything more helpful than “I liked it.” But meeting after meeting, as they shared their work and received critiques, they learned the basic tricks I have offered above. Just like any other skill, critiquing must be practiced.

Becoming an Author

Now, for the contexts of this entry, when I use the phrase ‘becoming an author’, I don’t mean the pansy definition I give my pupils when I’m trying to encourage them, I means books-on-store-shelves, your-name-known-by-strangers author. That’s the peek we’re all striving to reach, one step at a time.

It begins with simply wanting to write. Anyone who’s read a few books has probably had an idea for a novel. This is the base of the mountain, you’re at the bottom, looking up, and the first stage of the ascent is the hardest of all: a blank page.

The vast majority of individuals out there never get past that. They sit there, looking at the blank page, unsure of how to begin, and so they simply don’t, and remain merely a reader. Maybe they go out and buy a shelf full of “how to write” books, but they haven’t got the patience to read them. Maybe they waist a small fortune on an antique typewriter, which is nine kinds of stupid any way you slice it. Or, maybe the dream just sits in the back of their mind forever.

But some people make it up the next few steps. They kludge out an opening paragraph, maybe a few pages. But without proper planning, that first attempt at a novel is pretty effectively doomed. It will take several tries and possibly many years to go from concept to completion. As I’m fond of mentioning: Author of the Gust took 5 years to write.

The determined few will reach that next step, and finish a rough draft. If you’ve made it that far, congratulations, you’ve done far more than most. You are no longer one of the dreamers, you are one of the doers. The few, the proud, the people with rough drafts sitting on their hard drives.

It’s a plateau, nowhere near the top. You’ve made it up there, but you’ve still got a long way to go. Editing is a lengthy process, and in many ways, harder than writing. If you don’t love your own novel, you won’t be able to read it many, many times. Again, personal experience: Author of the Gust took 10 edits. Many people haven’t even read 10 books, I’ve read one book 10 times and I wrote it!

So if few people reach the rough draft stage, even fewer are going to get to the polished novel stage. But that’s basically the other end of the plateau, a long walk but not overly challenging. The next stage of the ascent is the hardest.

Going from polished manuscript to published novel is another multi-step process in and of itself. If writing a novel is like climbing a mountain, imagine getting to the top, and finding an entire other mountain that you still have to climb. In short, it kinda sucks.

The first step is the query letter. For me, this was the hardest. I mean literally harder than writing the freaking novel. I am currently querying for The Next Progression, a few snippets of which I have posted on here before. While I definitely wouldn’t say writing the letter took longer, it was much more difficult. I spent exhaustive hours doing research, reading samples, asking questions, discovering both that a QueryShark exists and that it is retarded, and listening to the narcissistic ramblings of people who have never even read, let alone written, a complete book.

For all of my time and effort, I produced a one-page query letter that will probably not get read. That was the next stage of the ascent; now that I had something to send to agents, I needed some agents to send it to.

I use a site called Writer’s Market, which charges a small fee for access to a searchable database of literary agents, publishers, etc. I looked for a list of agents who cover fantasy novels, since mine is definitely that, and got back 41 results. Combing through that list, I used my own criteria to cull it down to 18 who looked promising.

Now came the next difficult stage of the climb. Each agent wants something different; about half just want a query letter and a self addressed, stamped envelope(SASE). For the layman, that’s an envelope with your name and a stamp, that you fold up and stuff inside the envelope with all of your hopes and dreams, and also your query letter. Other agents want the first three chapters of the novel or some variation. I’ve seen 3 chapters, 2 chapters, 10 pages, 50 pages, 40 pages, and some places want the entire manuscript. You will not be getting any of these materials back, just so ya know. Some also want a synopsis, an author biography, or even an outline. All of this can potentially be as difficult as the query letter, because you have to realize that you are being evaluated and judged with every line.

When you’ve got all that finished, you have the privilege of shipping off a stack of query letters at your own expense. Expect to spend a lot on stamps. Most agents and publishers will tell you if you should expect a response, and how long you will have to wait. It’ll be anywhere from 2 weeks to six months. Personally, I don’t typically query places that say they only respond if interested, just because I don’t feel like checking the mail every day for half a year with no way of knowing whether or not I’ll ever hear from them.

In all, I queried more than 30 agents and publishers for that novel. I probably got turned down on the basis that I had self-published the silly thing, but it was still a good metric for rejections. About half your SASEs will come back stuffed with a form letter. If you’re very, very lucky, some of them might have actually been signed by a real human being! The other half are going to come back with your query letter, and a hastily—but politely—worded form of “no”. The form letters are also exceedingly polite, and typically contain something to the extent of “ours is not the right agency”. Or sometimes its “we are not accepting new clients at this time.” They will pretty much never say your work isn’t good enough, and don’t expect any kind of constructive feedback. They might have any number of reasons, so don’t waste time questioning it: just accept it.

I still haven’t made it past the form letter myself, but I’m going to keep on climbing. Once you land an agent, it’s smooth sailing. I’ll keep trying, and you should too.