Sometimes I get asked for writing advice. I don’t know why, but I’ve answered enough messages that I feel like my only option is to come up with this list of questions and answers I’ve written. Some are actual messages sent to me by individuals, hence me repeating advice, but as time goes on, I hope to preempt questions by answering them here.
With that said, a disclaimer. I would advise anyone searching for writing tips to search the web for your favorite author and see what they’ve written. Everyone has their different take.
What’s the best writing style?
Question #1 [Writing improvement, character building, methodology]
Question #2 [Story ideas, self-insertion]
Question #3 [Money in writing]
Question #4 [Reading, characters, general advice]
Question #5 [Spontaneous characters and evolution]
Question #6 [Planning a chapter]
Question #7 [Taking writing classes]
Question #8 [Popularity, 6 months of nothing]
Question #9 [Character building]
Question #10 [Starting out as a writer]
Question #11 [Creating characters and plot timing]
Do you have a process for designing new critters?
On a rough average how many times do you restart writing a passage?
Do you spend more time thinking about what you’ll write, or writing about what you think?
What’s the best writing style?
This is a question I get a lot, albeit never in this exact manner. People ask me how many words I write per day, or how I write, or when I write. I can get into the details of how to make writing better, but my first response to this kind of questions is don’t copy me.
The reason is that I have my own, unique style and it works for me and perhaps no one else. There are a lot of people who swear by writing at least X number of words per day. And there are quite famous writers who follow such systems, but I think that’s a big trap a new writer can fall into.
Here’s an example. I don’t write a set number of words per day. Five days out of the week I will write at most a few thousand words. Usually I endeavor to write none at all. But two days out of the week? Of late, I’ve been writing chapters that range from 10,000 words to 20,000+ words if it’s a really long chapter.
I write in chunks. I sit down, and because I’m a self-employed writer, I can sit and write almost nonstop for 9+ hours in one go. It works for me and I can write a chapter like that. But that style is clearly not for everyone. I found it worked for me, but prior to writing in this manner, I had tried writing 2,000 words per day, or 400 words per day, until I realized I was burning out, and starting to hate writing because of it.
Everyone has their own style, and part of learning to write is finding your own. My best advice is actually to take other people’s advice with giant handfuls of salt, because it’s all subjective. What works for a popular writer may not work for you.
Writing is most definitely not a formulaic process, where you can copy and paste what other people do and expect it to work for you. It’s highly individualistic, so believe me when I say that your best writing style is your own. The key is studying other writers to figure out what they do that you can emulate and make your own style.
I was wondering how you managed to come up with a world and a plot that are just…. colorful, I suppose would be the word. Colorful and interesting and oh-so-alive. They just feel so… alive, with all that entails. I mean, everyone has their own methods and such, but a little insight would be greatly appreciated.
In brief, I’d break down my best advice into three parts:
Firstly, understand that writing is one of the true skills, more so than even something like running or playing a board game is. You can improve at most everything, but talent does provide an edge, as well as body physique in areas like physical activities. But universally, a writer improves by how much they’ve written. A common statement some writers make is that you won’t write your ‘good’ books until you’ve written 1 million bad words. Well, that’s true and not true. I definitely wrote at least 1 million words before TWI, but I never regarded anything as trash. I gave it my 100% each time and while I admit that my previous works aren’t as strong as I can write now, some of them have gems that I can’t replicate to this day. So keep writing, don’t give up. That’s #1.
The second piece of advice I have is to think constantly about your characters. Don’t just create characters who’ll do what you want. Those are puppets. Think about who your character is. What would they do if they were in a situation you didn’t imagine? What I do sometimes is ask: what would X character do in their time off? Or imagine a fun or silly situation. What would Az’kerash, bane of the living and nightmare of millions do if he was in a bathroom without toilet paper? What would Ilvriss do? Erin? Silly stuff, but if you don’t know, then perhaps your character isn’t fleshed out as well as you think. Poking at your world, asking why things are the way they are is a mark of a Writer as opposed to a writer. Not my words; that was said of Terry Pratchett by Neil Gaiman, and those are true Writers I try to emulate.
Lastly, and most importantly perhaps, remember this. People will tell you to write every day, hold yourself to a standard. They might say write at least 200 words every day. Or try to write 2,000, or do this, or do that. I don’t write like most people. I write in huge chunks, and I refuse to work on other days at all. I have my style. And that’s because it took me a long time to learn that writing is subjective. No advice will ever suit you perfectly. You’ll have to find out your own style and nothing, not even the basics are necessarily what you should be doing. Take all advice with salt.
I just wanted to know where, or how you draw inspiration from the world? I’d love to start writing more often but I’ve got no idea of what to write, in many ways. I’m told my actual basic skills, i.e. grammar, vocabulary, description, worldbuilding, characterization and so forth range from decent to quite good, but I’ve no idea on what I’d even write, just that I want to inspire others.
My second question is more of a personal nature, I suppose. I’m just dying to know if you’ve written in a self-insert, because my instincts are screaming at me that either Erin or Ryoka is it. Of course, it’s quite the personal question, so I’m perfectly happy to never have it answered, but there is a certain… satisfaction to getting those sorts of things right, I suppose.
I’ll first say that the story you end up writing is the one you want to write. The story that burns so hot that you can’t help but write it. I’ve been in the same boat (everyone has), where we feel like we should force ourselves to write something. That’s usually the wrong move; it’s entirely possible to write a story that you don’t need to write and do it well if your technical skills are high enough. I’ve done it for chapters I don’t like as much and other career writers (and non-fiction writers, moreso than fiction writers I would suppose) have to do it. But that’s not what will create a great story, and I firmly believe it is from our best stories that we grow as writers.
So, my reply is to think of the story of stories. Not the story you think would make a good book because yo uhave to write it, but the story that will be told for a thousand years. Each time you write a book, try to write that story. I may have been a bit hyperbolic, but what I mean is to write your best one, the one you’re passionate about. Accept nothing less. As for how to find that story, well, that’s more about understanding what calls to you. Remembering your fondest dreams, your most exciting characters. Coming up with them–it’s an invidivual process. And like writing, it takes time. Sometimes a writer burns out and needs months or a year to find that great story or motivation again.
My suggestion is to take long walks with a phone or notes to write on in case inspiration strikes, read great books, comic books, watch great shows (the operative word being great, inspirational, not trash or stuff that is mediocre), and keep your ideas bubbling in the back of your mind. Because you’re focused, your brain will pick up on things and offer you more and more suggestions. A flood of them as time goes on. The trick is not settling for second-best. Find the great story, then work from there. TWI was one of my great stories. Several, in fact. It’s one of the reasons why I can write it with confidence and why it’s still going on.
As to your second question and you can spread this far and wide: no. It is my personal belief that self-insertion is not appropriate for an author. It trends too much to the idea of Mary Sue characters, or characters an author ‘cheats’ with, is reluctant to do as they must with as a fair and unique character. I’ve never done it.
With that said, my characters reflect me. An author cannot write someone that they do not in some way understand, and Ryoka has parts of me. Erin does too. So does Pisces, Az’kerash–they’re perspectives. Some stronger than others, and if you held a magnifying glass with one of my characters up to me, you would see a lot of similarities. But also differences.
I based those characters on what I know, gave them aspects or characteristics I had personally had or gone through because there’s nothing else in my toolbox, and then I let them change and grow as their own people. None of them are me. I admire them and hate them based on what I see of myself in them, but so do all readers when they read a character.
1) Clearly, you sell your stories on amazon. So my question is thus, do you make enough to support a stable income? Meaning do you make enough in sales to support the basics like a home, a car, (though big city folks like me can often get by with no car for their entire lives), and you know….not be (poor?) Not sure how to properly word this question. Forgive me for this.
2) Or, do you work a second job alongside your writing that keeps you afloat?
3) Anything miscellaneous you can tell me?
Your questions about writing are quite important, and I’ll try to answer them as best I can. However, my best response to your questions is that if money is the motivating force for you to write or not write, it would be better to abandon your hopes altogether.
Put bluntly, no author should ever assume they’ll earn a stable income. I am friends with a lot of great authors who have written multiple books and earn very, very little per month. Certainly nothing that would even come close to a stable or supplemental income. For myself, I have managed to earn enough to employ myself and make writing a full-time job, but that is still not a lot if you compare it to other job incomes. It is enough for me to live with all the basics, but things like buying a car or a home might yet still be beyond me.
Writing is not profitable. I am a rare exception in that I was fortunate enough to have many factors come together in my favor, and I still don’t earn huge amounts of money. Up till a year ago I was working a part-time job to feed myself, and that is what most writers do. If you decide to write, you will most likely have to work another job for years and success will not necessarily come your way. Writing must be done because you love it, not because you expect anything out of it.
All of this isn’t meant to deter you, but just to let you know what this world looks like. Money isn’t really something you should think about when you start writing. If you have a story in your heart, write it. Find a way to earn money and live your life and make writing your goal, the thing you do on the side with your free time. If you can one day monetize it, that is excellent, but it cannot be something you base your future on, because it is such a perilous journey where luck and chance sometimes play as much of a role as good writing itself. All I can say that is if you want to write, write.
I hope this helps and doesn’t deter you from writing. As money issues go, self-published writers earn very little and it takes a very large audience and usually numerous books earning royalties before you’ll earn enough money to even consider living off of. But once again, that’s really not the point. Write if you want to and good luck.
Addendum: At the time of writing, I was earning just enough money to push me over the poverty line in my country. And even then, I considered myself extremely fortunate, given how hard it is for writers in general to make a living in this industry. The main point is that expecting money for your writing is the wrong way of looking at things.
I’m curious how you became so good at writing your characters; and what your process is for creating them, making each one so different and so interesting within the narrative.
To answer your question, it’s hard to narrow down exactly what helped me learn to write. I wouldn’t ever say I’m a good writer, but I can say that I’ve improved immensely due to a couple of things.
First, I read tons of books as a kid, all revolving around fantasy. I’d say that’s a big step. Reading a thousand books (at least) gets you a huge sense of how good plot and bad plot is laid out, what good dialogue sounds like, how characters act, and so on. It might not be something you can explain, but I definitely have some intuition thanks to all that reading as a kid and later on.
Second, I’d say that I do regard each character as a person. They have their own beliefs and motivations; it might sound obvious, but even when I create a character to act as a plot device or so on, it still has to be believable person. If they’re a jerk, they have to be one who has a motive. No one’s who they are just because; an author needs to explain a bit of why they do things to readers.
It’s all usually very spontaneous for me; I come up with a general person or idea like Pisces is an arrogant [Necromancer], and begin adding to his character, giving him a past, motivations…I can’t really describe it, but I can only say that the final thing that separates good writers from bad is usually this:
Writing. Constant, non-stop writing. One writer claimed that no good writing can be written until an author finishes writing at LEAST one million words of content. I think that has a lot of truth to it; writing can have geniuses, but even they have to learn the craft. And the more someone writes, the better they become. I was a terrible writer a year or two ago (and even had trouble with my first few chapters), but all this writing that I have to do has improved my ability quite a lot, or so I feel.
Only poets get to write when they’re motivated, and even then, I feel like they write tens of thousands of poems we’ll never see in their heads. Writers need to keep writing; lack of desire or ‘Writer’s Block’ isn’t really an excuse. By forcing myself to write and not sticking to a set plot all the time, my characters can surprise me too: their motivations can lead me to write entire plot points I’d never thought of because it is something they would do.
My understanding of what you said is: you decide to write a character, give them a name and tag (Pisces, arrogant Necromancer), then build the character on that logically (in the sense of cause and effect) through the plot and character interactions.
Have you written characters that developed more in response to the needs of the plot you were writing rather than developing from the character history and the circumstances of the plot?
I think you have my way of making characters pretty well understood, but I would say that I never try to put any character in a bubble. In other words, even if Pisces is a Necromancer, that doesn’t define him. He can change, and indeed, the best characters surprise the readers in believable ways. Pisces has depths, past, and his own reasons for being the way he is. Think you understood that, but just want to reiterate.
And yes, I have written characters just for the sake of the plot, just as I’ve written characters and then written the plot around them. If I have a great idea for someone I want to meet, then I’ll totally move the story to fit them in. On the other hand, if I need someone, I’ll make them, just hopefully not in a two-dimensional way.
Brunkr is an example of a character I needed because of the plot. I knew I needed a Gnoll, and so there he was. On the other hand, Octavia was intended to be a throwaway character at first, but then as I came up with the idea of the String People, I had to make her a bigger character and so Ryoka found her alchemist.
I was wondering if you had any tips on how to regularly write quality stuff, at a speedy pace. Do you plan really well, allowing you to just follow your plan as you write, or do you make it up on the spot? Do you just write really fast, like WPM over 100?
I do plan out my story, at least in the general sense. I know what each new chapter is probably going to have in it, and I know how The Wandering Inn ends, and major plot points. But I also like to keep things new and exciting, so I constantly add minor or major details that might alter the plot. If something sounds good or I have a great idea while writing, in it goes.
It’s all about experience, really, and finding the time and rhythm to write in. I give myself a lot of time to write and I’ve had practice writing, so I know what I can and can’t do. I don’t think I write too fast, although I’ve certainly gotten a lot quicker as time has gone by. Remember, the first chapters of the story were only a few thousand words long. It might take me around…6 hours to write 10,000 words, which means I tend to write at 1700 words per hour, but writing isn’t about speed.
Addendum: I forgot to mention in the original email that my planning is usually done a day in advance, on my ‘off’ days. I’m all for inspiration and improvisation in the moment. But sitting down and then trying to figure out my chapter? That’s something I should have done yesterday, or at the very least earlier in the morning.
I was thinking about going to an art college that has a writing major. I don’t know if I will do this yet, but for example I know California College of the Arts has a writing program. I was wondering if you attended college or are attending and how do you feel about the matter? Did you plan to be a freelance fiction writer? Was that your goal?
I have attended college. I took one course dedicated to creative writing, and that was it. I’d say from what I hear that taking a writing major might work or it might not–some say it’s very helpful, yet I personally never wanted to take a course like that.
Writers draw from their experiences, and so learning about the world helps just as much as a writing course. With that said, a writing class can teach you if you need to brush up on the fundamentals, or you want to study styles or just write for practice. It’s up to you.
I never planned on being a freelance fiction writer. I didn’t know I wanted to be writer until a few years ago, and I was aiming to be a published novelist instead. I was simply in the right place at the right time to jump in on web serial writing. Don’t constrain yourself is my advice, and I hope you have good luck in whatever you choose to do!
Hey, I was wondering if like when you first started on here did you get discouraged by comparing your growth to others on here? (Referring to RoyalRoad website)
I try never to compare myself to others. My advice is simple. Never look at your ranking. Never look at your views. Just keep to your schedule and write on. That’s why my main story is NOT on Royalroad–it’s on my own site, where rankings don’t matter. I only put my story on Royalroad after I had my own community. My advice to all web writers is not to expect even more than a single comment until you’ve been working for 6 months.
6 months, with no views, no comments, no recognition. I think that’s the bar people struggle with. And it will be far, far longer if your goal is sustaining yourself with writing monetarily or achieving accolades. There is no good advice I can give besides keep writing for the sake of writing. For the one or two people who read and enjoy your work. If I offer any other words about ranking, numbers and so on, it will all be subjective and unhelpful.
Advertise your work, by all means. Stress about it, engage your audience, all those good things. But write because you want to, not because you’re expecting something for it.
I’m trying to write my own story but it’s coming in pieces and tidbits; nothing coherent. Something I admire about The Wandering Inn is how the characters have DEPTH to them. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read The Wheel of Time series – the female protagonists on there are so FLAT. I am desperately trying to avoid that in my own story. (Asking how to write characters. Also, I like The Wheel of Time.)
I get a lot of questions about my characters, and I understand the struggle all writers have in making their stories come alive. I’ve read the Wheel of Time, and I understand your frustration with those characters–however, some writers tend to characterize their readers in a style. Robert Jordan’s method of writing his characters is hit-or-miss, but he is generally consistent in how the characters he writes evolves. It’s just their personalities that some find unbearable or worse, unbelievable.
But as for writing characters…I think there’s no golden rule to guide you, but I can tell you that when I think of a character, I daydream about what they’ll say, what they’ll do, how they act, how they interact with other characters, their ambitions, dreams, dislikes, fears…everything you would think of in a real person. The trick is that I do this constantly.
It’s easy enough to say ‘Pisces is a [Necromancer]’, and write a character like that. But it is infinitely more preferable to me to know that Pisces is a fan of wine because he’s snobbish, hates finger-foods for the same reason, prefers undead to have a sense of style…you see how these things all connect together? I try to build a picture of a person, rather than a snapshot.
I have toyed with writing a novel for a long time (5 or 6 years) and I have come up with varying ideas with different settings and premises, but I never know how I should start writing. What type of outline I should write before I start? Should I just write as I come up with ideas? If you do suggest an outline could you give me an example because I have no idea how detailed the outline should be before I start writing.
Also since I am a beginner are there any tips you could give me in general that I am just to ignorant to ask about?
My advice to all new writers is to prepare to fail, to understand that there is no way to prepare to fail, not to expect to fail, to write as if every book is going to be your best, and to start writing and stop thinking about it. I’ll explain that as briefly as I can.
Most writers write terrible first novels. I did, and I can point to countless famous writers who were the same. With that said, some people come out with wonderful first novels, but even if they do, their second or third novel is usually even better. And yet, it’s important to write with passion and keep writing if a novel fails. Once you’re done a good writer edits their word, revises, edits again, and that’s true of a good novel and one they’ll never sell. Because the work matters.
And when you write, you get better. If you write one book, your second one will be even better. If you write three, your fourth will be better and so on. I wrote the equivalent of about 5 novels before The Wandering Inn. All of which I was proud of in some way, but none of which were ever a success by any metric.
That’s not meant to discourage you, but it is a fact. Writing is exceptionally hard, which is why it’s okay to make it a hobby or okay to treat it as something that you won’t do for a living. But I would say that a good Writer will keep writing despite failure and other distractions while wannabee writers give up for lack of attention or validation. No one will listen to you at first, even if you make a web serial. It took me over a year before I had any kind of comments or viewership on my web serial, and that was a long and lonely road.
Now, all of this is just to preface the journey of writing. When it comes to the writing, my advice is simpler because you will find your own style as you go. Absolutely come up with an outline even if it’s only in your head, but it doesn’t have to be detailed. Come up with a world you want to write, a character that you love, or a plot that grips your soul and go for it. Some writers like to detail every aspect of the plot–others, like me, change up the narrative on the fly on a whim because that’s more entertaining to us. But the key is to start writing with a firm idea of what should be in your head and not to procrastinate too long or start writing with no clear idea whatsoever.
If you want more advice, I’d suggest you search up Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube videos or look at writing tips from the greats like Neil Gaiman or Stephen King. Actually, don’t bother with my suggestions, Google your favorite writer and see what they have to say on the subject. Just remember that writing is a subjective process and no one’s word is law. Especially not mine.
Did you build all your characters before you started the story?
Not at all. I started with some characters in mind. Ryoka, Erin, Relc, Klbkch, and interestingly, Flos, but many were spontaneously created. That works for a web serial if you really work on new characters and build them like people who evolve as the story requires. I would hesitate to do that for a novel though, because that would pretty much mean you’d have to rewrite the story after you finish it.
That’s not a bad thing because some authors will write a first draft and then write the same story again, but with all the expertise of knowing how the story should go, but it’s not my style. Web serials allow for that kind of organic growth and creativity and all I can say is that if you’re not the type to plan out how a story should go in every detail, don’t worry about coming up with more than a central cast, or having a main character or two and leaving spots for others to be added.
Did you make a timeline for which character comes when and what happens at certain times? If yes did you also make it before you started to write on the story?
Again, the answer’s no, but I do have broad plot points I’m always writing towards. They do matter chronologically, but it’s completely possible to switch around plots to have certain events come quicker, slower, or not at all. Having an outline in mind before writing is very important, but the execution of the story can change as you see fit.
Do you have a process for designing new critters?
Yes, absolutely! It’s ‘make it fun’, or ‘make it original’! I used to read the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual as a kid, and coming across interesting monsters would make me smile. Unfortunately, the novelty of new creatures both horrific and amazing wore off quick as I realized a lot of designs are, well, copied from others.
Everyone has a horrific squiggly organs-thing, or a big monster with tentacles and teeth for a boss monster. That’s boring. And frankly, lazy. A creature should be as unique as possible. That doesn’t mean completely outlandish of–no one’s thought of a 5-dimensional neiLioth who speaks in the tongues of voiceless infants and has a 52-bone arm with liquid-metal joints because that’s unrealistic and silly.
But what about a…spice dog? A dog whose fur is coated with a pollen or spore it produces that’s unbelievably hot. Naturally it’s a great defense mechanism, but you could see the dog domesticated and being highly valuable. But then the issue arises: what happens if the wind blows and you’re downwind? What if it’s wet and it comes in and shakes off?
That’s a silly example I just came up with, but it’s what I like to see. It’s hard to be completely original, but adding your own twist that makes something truly unique is better than creating another forgettable creature. They second trick is making your creature make sense in the world. Give it biology, motivations, an ecological niche…let’s not have unicorns wandering about unless someone asks the question of where they’re pooping and if unicorn poop is a more powerful magical manure.
On a rough average how many times do you restart writing a passage?
Honestly? Almost never. I’ve mentioned that my style is to write a very strong first draft, and as a result I have to write in a way that doesn’t really allow for me backtracking. I think this is mostly having established my narrative voice and having experience in, well, writing this story.
Back when I started The Wandering Inn, I definitely backtracked and had to fight to figure out how to explain something. And when I write a new character, I think I’d probably backtrack more then. But at any other time? Very rarely. It’s only in the scenes where I know I have to deliver a certain emotion, or capture a certain idea that I’ll go back and restart for a better version.
Or if I’m off my groove. If that happens, I’ll delete 6k+ words if I have to. That’s usually when I’m tired, or I’ve taken the chapter the wrong way. It’s a disaster when it occurs, but it has happened.
Do you spend more time thinking about what you’ll write, or writing about what you think?
Cute question. Thinking about what I’ll write, by far. It’s a very bad idea, in my opinion, to write blindly and hope it’ll all turn out well. You can do that if you have a broad idea, but you have to know your characters and world very well to pull that off, and it still comes across as meandering.
I think that’s a technique a novel writer can come up with, because they can cut and revise. For me, everything has to make sense in terms of plot or I have to fix it. I most definitely cannot kill off a character and then bring them back or do something stupid, so I think of what I’m going to do–then ask what that will affect.
For instance, if I have a big plot point coming up, I think on how it’ll happen–and then about all the characters and events it may affect and whether or not it all makes sense. If I run into inconsistencies or plot holes in my head–or if I think it’s just stupid–it’s back to the drawing board. Thinking and re-thinking about what I’m going to write in my next chapter is a big component of the days when I don’t write a word.