I get approached from time to time by aspiring new writers, asking for advice on how to get started. The longer I’ve been doing this, the harder it gets to answer them. At this point I’ve been in the game nearly 20 years, so how do I condense what I’ve learned into a quick conversation or a brief email? And what if they are interested in a completely different type of writing than the kind that has made me as rich and famous as I currently am? (Hmmm – now that I think about it, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. But I digress…)
So how to advise them? Do I lecture them on the ever-changing industry? Warn them of the dangers of reading the works of Clive Cussler? Or simply hand them a dog-eared copy of The Elements of Style and turn around and run? Depending on who asks, it’s hard to determine which advice would be the most useful.
When in doubt, fire up the time machine!
I’ve been binge-watching the old Stargate SG-1 TV series recently, and several of the stories focus on time travel, a concept that has always fascinated me. In a couple of episodes, the main characters manage to pass messages to versions of themselves who are living in a different time.
This got me to thinking: what kind of messages would Current-Day Keith send to Past Keith?
After considering obvious nuggets like “buy stock in Amazon” and “don’t enroll in Trump University,” I started thinking about what I would tell Keith The Writer From The Past (or, KTWFTP). Since SG-1 episodes usually incorporate a ticking clock or some other increasingly urgent complications, I decided to ramp up the pressure, and limit myself to five pieces of advice. Here’s what I came up with to share with the younger (and yes, hairier) Keith.
1. Know your genre – and its conventions.
Probably the biggest – and hardest – lesson I’ve learned as a writer is that genre matters. Historically the genre of a book just wasn’t something I thought or cared about – as a reader or as a writer. But after writing one hard-to-categorize manuscript after another, the first message I would pass on to KTWFTP is to pick a damn genre already. It will make things SO much simpler.
Why? Genre simplifies things by setting expectations. It helps an agent sell your book. It helps a publisher market your book. It helps a reader choose your book.
And if you’re self-publishing, it helps YOU market your book, which is utterly crucial. In an era when anybody can publish anything, you need a way to make your book stand out to your potential readers. [Read more…]