Writing Advice

When I started compiling a list of online writing resources, I found myself in the middle of an organizational nightmare. For purposes of clarification, I’ve broken them up into sections based on different hypothetical questions, starting at the very beginning with questions about starting a writing project to questions at the end about publishing.

Also, please note if you’re coming from somewhere other than my main page, most of these links are primarily for fantasy and/or children’s fiction. Hope you find something useful!

Q: How do you come up with an idea for a story?

A: Writers have a lot of different answers for where ideas come from. In part, that’s because books and stories aren’t the result of one idea, but of a ton of different ideas thrown together.

Generally, I start with either a single image that’s inspired me or a mood and a character that has stuck with me. Then I think about the kinds of books I like to read, the characters I like best — both in books and real life — and I write for that reader self, rather than my writer self.

Neil Gaiman has a wonderful essay about where ideas come from on his site.

Here are some excerpts from LeGuin’s essay “Where do you get your ideas from?

Here’s a collection of writers with very, very different ways of becoming inspired.

Q: I have a lot of ideas. How do you choose between ideas?

A: It’s exciting to be at the crossroads where lots of ideas meet, but to finish a project, it needs to be your focus, at least for a little while. So you have to commit to an idea, even if you begin second-guessing yourself moments after that decision.

There are a couple of different ways you can choose. You can pick the idea where you have the most material generated already and the clearest sense of what’s going to happen. You can pick the idea to which you feel the most forcefully attracted. You can pick the idea that when you talk about, other people get excited. You can try to combine all of your ideas into one huge project. Or, if you like, you can print the ideas out, stick them to a large log and throw darts at them.

What matters most is that once you choose, you stick with your choice no matter how mightily tempted you are by the ones you decided would be on the back burner for a while. You’ve chosen! Now you’ve got to finish the project before you get to choose again.

Q: But I think maybe I made a mistake! Maybe I should have gone with the other idea.

A: Once you choose, you may have a little buyer’s remorse. That’s normal. Whenever I commit to a new book, I have a period of uncertainty. But that passes as I get more deeply involved in the story and as I begin to identify the bits of that initial idea that are going to change to create the final story.

Q: What about working on two projects at the same time? 

A: Some people manage to juggle two (or even more) projects, but unless you have a compelling reason why you should (since you know you best and no advice suits everyone), I would suggest you stick with one project until it’s done.

Q: So I really, really, really, can’t ditch this project and come up with another one? Really?

A: Of course you can! As I said, no rule works for everyone all the time — if you absolutely have to switch projects, then you’re going to know it deep down in your bones and no advice I can give you will (or should) countermand that. All I can say is that if you do change projects then you really, really, really, really better stick with the new project until you finish it. Otherwise, you are going to have a desktop full of the beginnings of projects – and will never get enough practice writing middles and ends.

Q: How do you start a book?

A: Put the pen to paper or your fingers to the keys and just start. Start now. Start today. Okay, maybe get a cup of coffee first — and maybe make some kind of outline or plan. But start soon because there’s nothing worse than the blank page staring back at you.

Q: Do I need an outline? 

A: Some people like to dive straight into a project, while others prefer to outline first. In my experience, most authors use some combination of plotting and discovery writing. Personally, I usually start a book by writing an exploratory chapter or three before I seriously dig down and start plotting. I have friends who plan out everything before they begin. Whatever works for you is the right way.

Q: How do I outline?

A: There are many different ways, but the one way I have never seen anyone outline a book is with roman numerals, the way that we’re taught to outline things at school. Some writers use index cards (Alexandra Sokolof wrote an interesting article on using index cards for plotting ). Some do scene-by-scene outlines which they write out in short paragraphs broken out by chapter. Some do beat sheets or mind maps. Some make lists of all the events in particular plotlines and then weave the timeline together after. Some start by creating a “spine” of dialogue which they then fill in and flesh out. Some just know the beginning and the end, believing to know more would be getting in the way of the fun.

Here are a couple of examples of writerly outlines. Here’s some of J.K. Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter. Here’s an article with a range of jotted down notes from authors, including Jennifer Egan, Joseph Heller, Sylvia Plath and Gay Talese.

Q: I’ve just started my book/short story, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a plot I like.

A: This is a super common problem, maybe the most common problem — often we start something because we have a fun premise, or interesting characters, or an image in our heads and then bog down when we realize we’re not sure how the story proceeds from that initial part.

Even when you have an outline of the whole story, sometimes you realize either there’s something missing or that your outline doesn’t quite fit the story as its evolving. This is the point where I like to bother one of my critique partners and toss around some ideas.

Diana Wynne Jones wrote some very calming tips on the process of writing a story. There are some exercises for brainstorming book ideas in Karen Wiesner’s article from the Guardian that seem more useful — to me — for unsticking when stuck than for generating ideas in the first place.

And finally, writers of screenplays have formalized plot in a way that can be very helpful. The book most often referred to is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, so much so that he recently released a version just for novels, Save the Cat Writes a Novel.

Q: I’ve just started my book/short story, but I’m having trouble fleshing out the world.

A: Some people do a lot of worldbuilding before they begin writing, while others plan their worlds along the way. It should be noted that planning along the way generally results in a lot more re-writing.

For insights into the process, take a look at Patricia C. Wrede’s enormous list of questions to help with worldbuilding. It will terrify and amaze.

For the most part, fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding, insofar as possible, should be based on history, anthropology and astronomy more in-depth than that available online. For example, if you are expecting warfare in your book, you could look at John Keegan’s The Face of Battle. In addition, reading primary texts from the historical period when your books are based on provides invaluable insights. For example, if your world is based on a pseudo-medieval setting, you might try A Medieval Home Companion. If you’re influenced by feudal Japan, you might try sources like The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. And so on.

If you want to take a look at some of my favorite resources, here’s a list.

Q: I’ve just started my book/story, but I’m having trouble fleshing out the characters.

A: James Patrick Kelly gives a good overview of the functions of different characters in the narrative and some advice in his article “You and Your Characters.” There is a good list of character development questions at Writers Write, which I know some people find incredibly helpful and others find frustrating (I admit, I find them frustrating).

You should absolutely read “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” by Nisi Shawl, who is one of the founders of Writing the Other, an immensely useful web site with resources, workshops and a link to the book on the subject she co-authored with Cynthia Lord. Really solid writing advice.

And be sure to take a look at Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Evil Overlord list  (archived) site to make sure your evil overlords, heroes, and henchman have learned from their predecessors. I also suggest looking into some of the extensive writing on the phenomenon of the “Unlikeable Female Protagonist” and the way readers judge female characters differently from male ones.

And finally, here’s some writing advice from Cat Valente on many things, but I thought her insights on character creation to be particularly interesting.

Q: I need some help naming my characters. Are there any sites for this?

A: Absolutely. Baby name sites aside, there’s the Medieval Names Archive and Behind the Name. The coolest is probably Kate Monk’s Onomastikon, which has lists by region for the sole purpose of naming characters, but is sometimes unavailable.

My current favorite site, however, is Nameberry, which has official lists of names and also reader lists, allowing for some very odd and useful groupings.

Q: I’m stuck! Is this Writer’s Block? And if so, what do I do about it?

A: My friend Cassandra Clare always says a very wise thing about writer’s block, which is “writer’s block isn’t a disease. It’s a symptom of the disease. There is something causingyour writers block.” Maybe you don’t know enough about your story, your world or your characters. Maybe stuff is going on in your personal life that’s keeping you from being able to focus. Maybe your anxiety is getting the better of you. Maybe you’ve made a wrong turn in the story and you’re reluctant to double back. But figuring out what’s causing the block is the best way to overcome it. Elizabeth Moon’s essay on the subject, “How to Identify Dread Writer’s Block and Its Relatives” is fantastic. I’d also recommend this Twitter thread by Laini Taylor in which she expresses frustration over a lot of the common advice and identifies a particular form of writer’s block, which she calls “Perfectionism.” Here she has some advice about how she manages it.

Q: How do I know if I’m writing a middle grade book or a young adult book?

A: Laura Backes attempts to define the categories of children’s publishing on her site Write4Kids.Com. Take a look.

Q: How do I know if I’m writing a young adult book or an adult book?

A: Does your book have a teenage protagonist? Does it address the concerns of being a teenager without being either didactic or elegiac? If so, you may well be writing a young adult book. However, remember that what will really decide is whether its purchased by a young adult publisher or an adult publisher. Many formerly adult books (such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose) have been repackaged for the young adult shelves.

Q: There’s so much going on in my life. How do I make time for writing?

A: Sometimes writing a book can feel like an enormous, overwhelming task. The best thing you can do is try to write a little every day, whether that’s 200 words or 2,000. It adds up, more quickly than you might think. Victoria Schwab gives herself stickers on a calendar when she hits her writing goals.

I started keeping track of my daily word count and it really helped me see how writing even a small amount added up to a book. If you write a mere 250 words a day, in a year you’ll have 90K. When you break it down, the massive task of writing a book feels more possible. I’ve been using the program Pacemaker to keep track of my writing – both what I do and what I still have to do. 

Q: How do you end a book?

A: Finding a satisfying ending for a book — especially if you haven’t planned it all along — is always a challenge. The end of a book is always in its beginning, though. The questions the book started with, the losses and desires and needs of the protagonist, are all answered — for good or for ill — in the end. If you get stuck when you reach the end, go back and re-read your start to remind yourself what those were.

It’s also perfectly acceptable to write an ending and then realize that ending is nutso and it needs to be massively changed. It happens.

Q: I don’t think my book/story is working. Do I still have to finish it, even if I know I am just going to stick it in a drawer and start something else?

A: YOU MUST FINISH. You don’t have to ever show it to anyone, but you have to finish it. You can tuck it away in a drawer, but you still have to finish it. Maybe it’s not working, maybe it’s broken, maybe a lot of things, BUT YOU STILL HAVE TO FINISH. There are very few more important skills than the ones you learn by finishing your writing projects, even your failed ones.

Q: I’m almost done with my story, but I don’t have a title!

A: Brenda Clough wrote the definitive article on titling. After reading it, you’ll need Bartlett’s or maybe WikiQuote.

Q: I just finished my book/short story, now what?

A: Now you put it in the proper format, check for grammar and spelling mistakes, and either take it to your critique group/critique partner or take off your writer hat and put on your critiquer hat. Once you get or make comments, it’s time for revisions. If you’ve made major changes, you might want to send it back to your critique group for another round. Once you’re satisfied, send it out to agents & editors.

Q: How do you edit a book? Do I need a professional editor? 

A: You do not need to pay for editing before you submit your story to agents. You do, however, need (a) the story to be as well structured and well written as you can possibly make it and (b) the grammar and spelling mistakes to be minimal enough to not be intrusive. Agents and editors receive an enormous number of submissions and yours has to stand out in a good way.  You might want to peruse this post, called Slushkiller, on Making Light, which goes over common reasons manuscripts are rejected.

Obviously, if you’re self-publishing, then you will probably need to engage a professional editor and copyeditor (as well as a cover designer, etc.) because you’ll be handling all aspects of the publishing process.

Q: What is the proper format for submissions?

A: William Shunn has an excellent article/example both for short stories and novels. More and more editors prefer Times New Roman over Courier, however.

Q: How do I find a critique group/critique partner?

A: There are several groups online, including Critters and the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy (formerly the Del Rey Writing Workshop).

For local groups, check your library, bookstores, and the regional arms of any groups of which you are a member. SCBWI has many critique groups all over the country, for example. Local conventions are also a place to get in touch with writers near where you live who might be interested in workshopping.

For an example of the usefulness of critique groups, you might want to look over the Turkey City Lexicon, a collection of common (and funny) critique terminology that is specific to speculative fiction. Most of those terms were coined in workshops.

The most important thing to look for in a critique partner or group is (a) that they have a similar enough aesthetic to yours to be helpful (b) that they both appreciate what is genuinely good about your work as well as seeing the flaws (c) that they interested in supporting your voice and your vision (d) that you like their work and their vision too.

Q: Do I need an agent and how do I get one?

A: With more and more publishers unwilling to accept unsolicited manuscripts, agents are becoming more necessary. While I know several successful writers that have managed to do without one, the advantages of having an agent are many: they know editors and their tastes, they can get a book read quickly, and they can get a lot more money for a book because they can get competing offers.

Before you start looking for an agent, check out SFWA’s Writer Beware pages, listing some of the more egregious agent scams and giving tips on deciding if an agent is dishonest. If you are still unsure, the Bewares and Background Checks area of Absolute Write has threads on lots of agents and you can always post to get opinions. The important thing to know about a good agent is that they take a 10-15% commission on the money they make for you. They never charge you anything and you should never have to pay an agent out of your pocket. You should also not be shy about asking your agent for names of his or her other clients. Looking up their books online should tell you a lot about your agent’s success rate.

AgentQuery is a fairly comprehensive site of agents and how they would like to be contacted.

Q: How do I write a query letter? What about a synopsis?

A: Many publishers and agents will ask for a query letter with a synopsis and (sometimes) sample chapters. If they like what they read, they will request the full manuscript. For this reason, writing a compelling query letter has become a highly prized skill.

Lynn Flewelling wrote an article on query letters, complete with an example. As did Susan Dennard. Also worth looking at are the query critiques over at QueryShark.

Q: Are there any professional writerly organizations I can join?

A: Professional authors of all sorts can join The Author’s Guild. For children’s book writers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is the main professional organization. For science fiction and fantasy writers, it is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). To join SFWA, you must have at least one professional sale.

Q: What about classes?

A: The most well-known programs for speculative fiction writers are the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop, Clarion WestOdyssey, and the Viable Paradise Writers Workshop.

You also might also want to take a look at the two annual SCBWI conferences on writing and illustrating for children (there are great local ones as well). Other conventions, particularly sf/f ones, may offer short writing programs during the convention. MadCap Retreats offer several writing workshops, including one on Writing Cross-Culturally.

Q: I just sold my book! Now what?

A: First of all, congratulations!

I will try to outline the process between acceptance and publication, but different publishers function differently, so no series of steps is universal. The usual start, however, is revisions. Once a contract is signed (and maybe even before), you will get a revision letter from your editor. There will probably be a deadline in the letter for when your editor is expecting the revised manuscript. Conventional wisdom says that after you look at your revision letter, you should let 24 hours pass (or at least a good night’s sleep) before you respond to it, to avoid freaking out. Do not freak out!

Also, remember that while your editor is very good at figuring out what’s wrong with a book, it’s not always true that their proposed solution will be the right one. As Neil Gaiman famously said: “when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Once you hand in your revised draft, the next step is copyedits, when a copyeditor will go over your book, correcting grammar, spelling, fact-checking and hopefully catching all small mistakes.

At that time you can also turn in any front matter, such as dedications and acknowledgments — or if you need to, you can hold on to those and turn them in during copyediting.

Close to your publication date, you will see Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) or “uncorrected proofs” which are bound and can be sent out to reviewers and booksellers. The back copy and flap copy of this will not be written by you, although you may be able to give some input.

If it’s possible, do try and go in at least once and meet the people working on your book. This is not just the editor, but many, many other people in the marketing, publicity, production, and the art departments. Your editor will probably not be responsible for sending out review copies, so once you get about 3-4 months before the publication date, find out who is in charge of publicity for your title.

There are a lot of long stretches between the stages of publication where the author will hear nothing. This is normal. The best thing that you can do to distract yourself is work on your next book.

To read one author’s tale of the publication process, read Scott Nicholson’s Virgin in the Church column series. For children’s books, you might want to take a look at the National Library of Canada’s Page by Page series. And Janni Lee Simner has a great ongoing series, Writing for the Long Haul, that talks about the challenges of a career in publishing, beyond the first book.

Q: Do I have any control over the cover art?

A: Er, no. Probably not, unless your agent got something better than “cover consultation” put into your contract. But don’t despair. Ask your editor what the art department has in mind. Give honest feedback. Your publisher doesn’t want you to hate the cover. Use your influence wisely.

Q: What are blurbs and how do I get them?

A: Around the time that the book is in final layout form, you should start thinking about getting blurbs. Blurbs are those endorsements across the top or back of a novel from a famous author. They say things like “fantabulous!” or “the best thing since sliced bread!”

Make a list of all the authors that you really like. Then, make a list of well-known authors that write in the same genre that you write — especially ones whose fans would very likely enjoy your books. If you are lucky enough to know a well-known author in any genre, add that person to the list. Then, once you have a complete list, contact your editor and agent to see if they are willing reach out to those writers for you. There is some variety of opinion as to whether one should ever approach writers personally or whether blurb queries should always go through agents/editors. I have gotten blurb queries both ways. Some writers have blurbing policies on their sites; please consult those.

If a writer agrees to consider reading your book , make sure galleys or ARCs or electronic copies get sent and then wait. Most will not reply, but one or two might and their words will grace the back (or front!) of your book.

Q: What conventions should I be attending?

A: There is no requirement for attending conferences and conventions, although I’ve found them to be both a lot of fun and also helpful in terms of getting my books into the hands of readers and meeting authors I like a lot. When I started out, I went to a lot of different conventions and eventually settled into the ones I liked best and found most helpful.

WorldCon, World Fantasy and World Horror are three big semi-professional genre conventions (although readers can attend). In addition, there are many regional conventions like ReaderConWisCon, and Convergence that draw many authors as well. For a listing by region, state and month, try Alexander von Thorn’s convention listings at the SF site. You might also look into DragonCon and San Diego ComicCon, two very large conventions not focused on books, but still useful for promotion.

Here’s some excellent advice on promoting at SF/F conventions.

Additionally, your publisher may send you to the American Library Association conferencelocal chapter conferences and bookseller conventions, such as Book Expo America, BookCon, Winter Institute, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association trade show, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association trade show, and/or the New England Booksellers Association trade show.

Q: I’ve never been to a science fiction/fantasy convention before. What do I need to know?

A: Read John C. Bunnell’s explanation of the nature of SF conventions. You should check out Gandalara’s newbie guide to conventions and a list of con-related terms. And if you’re thinking of going to a big media con, Seanan McGuire’s guide to surviving San Diego ComicCon will be immensely useful (her reminder to bring a bathing suit for the hotel pool should be in every convention advice piece).

In the last few years, there’s been a welcome push to make conventions safer and more inclusive spaces through better anti-harassment policies and procedures. When you’re going to a convention, it’s a good idea to read over the policy they have in place, so that you know both what the rules are and where to go if there’s a problem. Jim Hines discusses some of the history of convention harassment, personal experience and hope for the future in an essay on Gizmodo.

Conventions can be overwhelming, but also an enormous amount of fun. As everyone in these links say, get enough sleep, enough water, and make sure to take care of yourself.

Q: What about awards?

A: Although your publisher is responsible for and most publishers are good about sending books to awards committees, it’s a good idea to know what awards a book is eligible for and to confirm books have been sent to the appropriate places, especially for specialized awards. David K. Brown maintains a list of children’s book awards on his Children’s Literature Web Guide. The Science Fiction Database maintains a list of science fiction, fantasy and horror awards.

Q: I’m under the age of 21; are there any resources just for me?

A: Yes, there are! Yvonne Ventresca has a compilation of interviews with editors who publish teens, places to submit and writing conferences .

Several colleges and universities offer summer programs for young writers. Here are a few: Iowa Young Writers Studio the University of Virginia Young Writer’s Workshop, Center for Talented Youth, and the New York State Young Writer’s Institute. There are lots out there, mostly affiliated with universities, so search for one near you!

You should also take a look at Alpha, a workshop just for teen writers of speculative fiction. And Shared Worlds, also for teens, in which writers make a world together and then write stories set in it. I have taught at both and I can’t recommend them highly enough.