Finding a Home for Your Story: Advice on Publication

Way back when I was about 22-years-old, I took a poetry class that changed my writing forever. I’m by no means a poet. I barely managed to write any decent poetry during the class. And since leaving the class, I’ve hardly ever written a poem – except for the occasional one that is born out of a purely emotional moment. But my lack of poetry skills isn’t what I took away from that class. It was actually quite the opposite. I walked away from that course as a newly-infused writer full of confidence and a sense of hope. As writers, we should always be filled with a sense of hope as we tell our stories. And we should always be hopeful that our work will find its intended audience.

That is probably the biggest take away that I received from my professor. She often spoke about “finding a home for your writing.” At first, we all thought she was talking about publication and finding the right magazine or journal to accept your work. That’s not remotely what she meant.

She told us a story about a series of poems she had written, which subsequently got rejected from every place she submitted to. Discouraged, she put them away in a file cabinet and forgot about them. Then, one day years later, she was going through the file cabinet and found them again. She was experiencing some personal difficulties at the time and her own words ended up being exactly what she needed to hear in that moment.

“Sometimes, you won’t always reach the broad audience base every writer dreams of,” she said bluntly. “Sometimes you’ll find that what you created will only reach a few people or even just one: yourself.”

The silence after she said those words covered the room in an impenetrable cloud of thought. I scanned the pensive faces of my fellow students as they digested what she’d just said.

Sensing many crushed dreams in that moment, my professor smiled as she added, “But you also have to keep in mind that your work serves a higher purpose. Everything you pour onto the page is intended for someone to read – to provide someone with whatever comfort they need in that moment. It will always find its intended audience so don’t be discouraged by your words. Use them. They will always be hope for someone who needs to read them.”

To this day, I still get chills when I think back to that moment in class. Every writer has a moment when they defined themselves as a writer – and that was mine, at the back of the classroom, quietly absorbing this poet’s wise words. Yes, we all want to be discovered as the next J.K. Rowling and have our stories printed for the masses, but those grandiose dreams are really us getting ahead of ourselves.

The journey to finding a home for our story doesn’t begin at the end of the road with a publishing contract and an advance; it begins with ourselves. We are our story’s first home. We are the ones who need to take comfort in our own words – after all, they live within us. Finding the hope within our writing will have a ripple effect. So far, I’ve had a couple short stories published and each one was the most honest version of the story in my mind that I managed to tell on paper.

Some Advice: Reputation is Everything

Normally, writing blogs are just about that; most are tips and tricks on how to write better such as eliminating filler, catching redundancies, use Active Voice, etc. Others are more about the business side of writing such as marketing, self-promotion, mailing lists, etc.

In this post, I want to discuss something very near and dear to my heart, but something I see time and time again new authors throw away and that is their professionalism which affects their reputation. For people who know me as Christianmichael Dutton who writes under the pen name Hui Lang (Chinese for Gray Wolf), they know I am one and the same. I take my brand, my persona, and my interactions with everyone seriously. Everything I write here, either a blog post for Dragon Soul Press, a short story for my Red Hoods Page, or a fanfic doodle on my personal FB page, I give 110%. I am a known plotter and I typically plot out a story five or more times before deciding on how I will write the story. Then I get feedback on my work if time permits after I’ve gone through several cycles of self-editing.

Let’s start with a foundational rule:

If you’re an author who wants compensation for their work, you need to treat this as a serious business.

Let’s talk about some things that shows a lack of professionalism and how you can mitigate irreparable harm to your reputation. These things are doubly important when you’re an indie author because you have full control over your writings and publishing.  

You publish a work that isn’t edited or poorly edited. You know why it’s so hard to find a lit agent or a publisher willing to accept your story? This. This is the reason why the big trad houses have an intern whose job it is to simply read the first three pages of every work just to weed out people who cannot follow directions or send in poorly edited works. I frequently download samples of many indie authors’ books. I can’t get past the first chapter on so many of them because it comes across as if English was their second language with the help of Google Translate.

You chose a terrible cover. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” applies to people, but not to books. If you work with a trad pub house and they slap a cover that looks like stock art drawn by an eight-year-old or you grab a cute image from Pixabay because it’s royalty free, nothing screams out, “AMATUER!” than an amateurish cover. When I see that, I think your writing matches and I don’t even bother to download the sample. If you cannot afford a great graphics artist, then go with a trad publisher who puts out great covers on their books. Check out Dragon Soul Press’ covers and see for yourself the high quality they use. Some are amazingly gorgeous (Shadows of the Fallen, I’m looking at you).

Your writing is lazy. You use Passive Voice. You used tropes and clichés that the big trad pubishers don’t want, so now your book isn’t marketable unless you self-publish. You use a ton of adverbs. You switch POVs more times than spinning on the Mad Tea Party ride at Disneyland. The rule of “Your first million words is crap,” isn’t just some made-up mantra by self-righteous authors of a bygone era. I wrote my first book when I was fourteen. It was crap. My second book was also crap. By the time I had written my third book, I already had written well-over a million words from all the campaign and adventure writing for the table-top role-playing games Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. My third book still sucked. When I finished my fifth book, Fallen From the Stars, it finally looked like something I might be able to market, but it took me over a 1.5 million words to get there. If you want to fast track your learning experience, then get feedback. Serious feedback that doesn’t hold back on where you’re weak.

You don’t leverage social media effectively. As an author, you post cute cat memes, send … ahh … naughty pics to other people, launch a vitriolic diatribe against Flat-Earthers, but support anti-vaxxers, and so on. You swear like a sailor on your media pages, but you write cute furry YA stories. It’s perfectly fine to post whatever you want to post. No one should judge you for that unless you’re harassing people or being an all-around jerk, but keep it separate. Your author page should have your million loyal fans who see you as the awesome writer, and only your close friends and family get to see your cursing sailor, hedonistic anti-vaxxer jaded personality on your personal page.

This advice may come across a bit harsh, but again, review the foundational rule. Treat being an author as a serious business, forge great relationships with other authors and fans, and people will reciprocate.

Happy writing!

First Five Pages Checklist

The first five pages of your book are so important. As aspiring authors, we are well aware of their significance. And we place so much time and emphasis on getting them right. While we probably have a fair idea of what to do and not do in our first five pages, here is a quick recap of things to keep in mind when looking at the start of your novel.

Important questions to ask yourself:

Does the first line engage your reader?

Is your main character properly introduced?

Has the POV and narration style been made clear to the reader?

Does your reader get a good feel for the world – i.e. have you set the status quo?

Have you established your main character’s deepest desire?

Is there an inciting incident?

The most important thing to avoid at the beginning of your novel:

The information dump. 

Your reader is only starting to get to know your main character and within these pages, so you don’t want to overwhelm them with backstory or world building information so early on. Remember, you’ve got a minimum of 80,000 words to work with, you can take your time introducing the important background information. 

How to Critique & Edit Your Own Work

First off, understand that the first draft of what you are going to write is most definitely going to cause you to cringe and want to burn it on sight. I would not recommend this since editing it is fairly easy, and there’s no reason to give your neighbors a heart attack with squealing smoke alarms. You will have times when your writing flows as easily as a beautiful river. You will face times when you have to force the writing out. There will be filler words such as “that,” grammar issues, lack of descriptive imagery, characters so shallow you want to cry.

The first step is to just breathe. Once your first draft is completely finished, set it aside. Lock it away if you have to. Don’t look at it for at least a couple of weeks. Give yourself time to catch up on reading, watching movies, and schedule that spa day. You can work on another project, even if it’s the sequel to the first draft you just finished. Whatever you do, do not look at the first draft until two weeks has passed. That’s fourteen days for those that are stubborn. You know who you are.

The second step is to read your draft as though you were someone else. It should be fairly easy now that you’ve set it aside for the past two weeks. Be brutal. Reading from another perspective gives you the opportunity to find the plot holes more easily, the shallow characters who were never mentioned again, and more. Take your time reading it over.

The third step is the grammar. Make sure there are no run-on sentences (average long sentence length should not exceed 25 words), your homonyms(to/too/two) are correctly used, etc. Grammar is essential to making your story readable and enjoyable to readers.

The fourth step is checking the tense throughout the story. This means the past tense, present tense, future tense. If your wording is off, it will be difficult to read and will give readers different ideas than what you’re portraying.

The fifth step is to read the entire story out loud. This can be tiresome, but if you can’t get through the entire draft in a breeze, neither can your readers. If the sentences feel awkward to say, this means they are awkward to read. Definitely go through this step repeatedly until all of those errors are fixed. Normally it’s something that can be resolved by switching a couple of words around or deleting a word.

The sixth step is to read the entire draft with all of the steps above in mind. Fix any lingering issues you see. Make sure to use the spell checker in whatever program you are using to write in.

Hopefully by this time, you have found and edited everything. A word of warning: just when you think everything is perfect and you hit publish, you’ll find errors you overlooked. Don’t panic, don’t pull the book off the shelves in horror. Calmly document all of the errors, update the document, and upload the updated version. There may be a limitless amount of times you have to do this, so just accept your fate.

In conclusion, that is at least five times you need to read your first draft in order to edit it. If you just exclaimed negatively over that fact, this line of work is not for you. If you don’t want to take the time to read over your own work several times, why would anyone else want to take the time to read it?

Tips to Stay Motivated

Coming into November there are probably a fair few of us who are giving NaNoWriMo a shot. Whether it’s your first time participating or you’re a seasoned vet, there will always be the problem of motivation that arises at some point throughout the month. It’s a natural part of the writing process to reach a certain point where the words don’t flow as easily and you’re finding yourself grasping at straws. When this happens during NaNoWriMo, it’s easy to throw in the towel and give up. But if you want to try to push through and stay motivated here are some tips to pushing yourself to write when you’re not feeling it – they can even be used outside of the sacred writing month of November as well!

Tip 1: Establish a Routine

Getting into a habit and sticking to it is the best way to combat any feelings of burnout. Whether it’s your home office, an outdoor café, your living room sofa, pick a place you’re most comfortable in and make it a habit. You can allot yourself as little as 20 minutes a day, but make sure you squeeze it in. You’ll find that the simple act of making a routine helps you write something, even if it’s not your best work. The key is just getting it out on paper. The editing comes later. Personally, I’ve also found that trying to fit in your writing in the morning works best because as the day wears on you will end up finding more excuses and distractions to draw you away from your writing. I know that’s not what the night owls want to hear but try giving morning writing a chance. It might surprise you.

Tip 2: Get Rid of Distractions

When I write during the week, I usually have a timer that I set for 20-40 minutes – depending on how early I managed to wake up. However, I always place it on the opposite side of the room, face down and notifications off, so I don’t get distracted. If it’s next to me on the table I’ll fall down the rabbit hole of scrolling through social media. If you know that you can’t write without looking at your phone, leave your phone in another room or on the opposite side of the room. If you get distracted checking work emails on your laptop then forgo the laptop and write using pen and paper. If you get distracted doing research for your story then perhaps try plotting ahead of your writing session that way the research is already done and you can just write. This time, however long or short, should be solely focused on producing words. Everything else can wait. And if you know what your weaknesses are in terms of distractions, try eliminating them ahead of time so you can have a productive writing session. 

Tip 3: Daily Goals

Giving yourself a daily word goal helps to keep you on track. Even if it’s something small like 500 words, it’s still something that can serve as a motivator to keep going. If you’re someone who doesn’t necessarily like thinking word count, then maybe make your goal something like finishing a certain scene you’ve been working on or writing another character’s perspective. So long as you have something that you are striving for on a daily basis you can battle against the distractions and writer’s block.

Hope these tips were helpful and good luck this November!