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25 Habits That Will Make You a Writer

6 April 2017

From Startup Grind:

1. Write every day.

A daily writing habit is thing number one because it is THAT important. Move your story forward by even a few words every single day and you’ll be surprised by what happens.

Or maybe not, since what will happen is this: you’ll write a book.

2. Read like a writer.

Stephen King says that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write. You know he’s right. Make it a habit to carry a book with you. Keep one in your bathroom. Learn to read in sips instead of gulps — so that not having hours to indulge won’t keep you from reading at all.

And read like a writer. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Read craft books. Read fiction (for sure, read fiction) that does what you want your stories to do. What works? What doesn’t? (Most important) WHY?

3. Watch TV like writer.

I’ve written before about my absolute belief that if you want to be a writer, you need to be watching television. I still believe it. Some of the best writing and story telling is happening on television.

Just like with reading, watch like a writer. Pay attention to why you like a show, why you’re willing to invest hours of your life in it. And why you’re not, if you turn it off at the first commercial break and never come back.

. . . .

12. Save your pennies for a real edit and a professional cover, if you’re going indie.

This is non-negotiable.

If you wouldn’t be okay with Penguin releasing your novel with your best friend’s edit and your own homemade cover, then YOU can’t be okay with it either.

If you’re planning to self-publish that means you’re a PUBLISHER. A professional publisher. And that means that you have to find and hire an editor and a cover designer for your book, and if you don’t know how to do it yourself, probably a book designer as well.

Plan on spending about $1500 and start saving your pennies. The hope is that your first book will pay for your second.

Link to the rest at Startup Grind

The Business of Writing, Writing Advice

40 Comments to “25 Habits That Will Make You a Writer”

  1. “Plan on spending about $1500 and start saving your pennies. The hope is that your first book will pay for your second.”

    While I agree with the general sentiment, at that price, very few indies will ever release a second book.

    • For every day you write, pay yourself. $3 or $5. That’s a cup of coffee or change from the bottom of your purse or your pants pocket. When the book is done and ready to publish, there’s your publishing budget.

      • That still doesn’t change the fact that most first novels aren’t good enough to make $1500, and most people who lost hundreds of dollars on the first one aren’t going to feel terribly motivated to write another.

        Maybe if the first-time writer paid an editor to pretty much rewrite it, they’d make more than that. But you won’t get that service for $1000.

      • All well and good when you have three to five dollars. When I started out, I couldn’t have paid myself three dollars a year. There literally was no change at the bottom of my purse, no coffee to give up. Should I have just not published? I took a chance that I had practiced enough, and studied enough, to put out decent-quality work. I’ve been doing this for about fifty years by now, some of those being paid to write various things.

        Of course, there are those who shouldn’t publish no matter how much money they spend. Outside of hiring someone to completely take control of the story, they’ll never get to a level that invites sales.

        Even then, I’m of a mind that they should be allowed to publish and take their chances.

        • Like you, Sheila, I started publishing when I was barely scraping by. I did manage to spend $30 on a stock photo and $29 on a font for the cover, and that’s all I spent on the novelette that became the first installment of a series.

          I did find a very good cover artist on DeviantArt and paid him $200 each for a couple of covers. When he became unavailable, I had to move up to a $600 artist.

          Now I’m earning enough that I opened a business checking account, but I have yet to actually pay myself out of that money because I’m trying to save up enough for another $600 book cover.

          I get all kinds of comments on how great the $600 cover is, but can I prove it’s sold more copies than the others? Nope. I still think it’s a worthwhile investment, but then, I’m also not spending any money on editing–I have a critique group and beta readers for that.

  2. Everyone must march in lock step with THIS suggestion – period.

    There is no other way.

    I’m glad I don’t listen to this kind of advice. But it is the biggest piece of crappy advice given to new writers.

    • Thanks, Alicia. You saved me the trouble.

      “This is non-negotiable.”

      I’ve published 12 books with my own (and my wife’s) editing and my own covers. Should I apologize?

      (Of course, I’ve been a copy editor for 22 years, so that might have something to do with it.)

  3. #1 and #3 cancell each other out.

  4. #1 and #3 are in direct conflict with each other.

  5. 26. Get Patterson to put his name on your horrible children’s book and then drag him along for what turns out to be an uncomfortable interview on CBS about your conduct at another station.
    27. Pretend not to notice how low Patterson has sunk into his chair during the interview.

  6. Here’s the 1 single habit you need to make you a writer:



  7. Bill Peschel:

    You’re not representative of the species. You’ve been a professional newspaper journalist. You honed your craft over years, and under editors, in a way that very few self-publishers ever have a chance to. There aren’t many self-publishers who, like you, were awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

    For nearly all self-publishers, the last-quoted advice in the original post is sound: get a real edit, and get a professional cover.

    Yes, as Stephanie A. Cain says, someone becomes a writer just by writing, but many people never become good writers because they think that what they’ve written is good enough. It often isn’t.

    I can think of one self-published how-to-edit-your-book book that itself has lots of typos, solecisms, and misused words in it. The writer was so confident of her skills that she thought herself qualified to instruct others.

    Likewise with covers. Many self-published writers do their own art–and it shows. Call it unfair if you wish, but the raw fact is that people judge books by their covers. A poor cover will reduce sales, even to the vanishing point. A professional cover can multiply sales several-fold.

    It’s something like direct marketing. No matter how great your pitch letter is, if the recipient doesn’t open your envelope, the letter is wasted. Your envelope (cover) has to be good for you to have hopes of getting sufficient readership of your pitch letter (novel).

    • but many people never become good writers because they think that what they’ve written is good enough.

      Beta readers who read in your genre. There are sites galore to find one. Even experienced writers use betas. When you get ready for an editor, it doesn’t have to cost 1000s — some work for a flat fee, and others who charge by the word will cost less if you have a smaller word count. So, $1,500 is not a given and that statement should be qualified.

      A professional cover can multiply sales several-fold. I’m assuming you’ve evidence at the ready on the 7 fold, but I agree a decent cover is better than a crappy one. I strongly disagree it’s necessary to spend thousands on a cover; that claim is a straight up scam. I found an artist on Deviant Art who does awesome custom covers for less than $500. If you don’t want to pay 100s, you can pay to get stockart from istockphoto.

      I used this cover as a placeholder when I was testing out InDesign. It’s $12. The artist, who calls himself “fotokostic,” has more art, some of which I’ve seen on the cover of a Kevin J. Anderson book (I think it was him) and that of various tradpub writers. I once had in my lightbox the main image on the cover of Anthea Sharp’s “Trinket.” I can’t locate it now, so no link.

      Good cover, copy editing, beta reads — that’s good advice. Stay away from the claims of “you must spend X to make Y dollars,” especially since you’re offering no proof of the Y figure and the “X” figure is definitely inflated.

      • “Good cover, copy editing, beta reads — that’s good advice.”

        Yes. I’d say that’s the minimum anyone should be aiming for if they want to sell books. My old covers certainly don’t cut it in the current market.

        Beyond that, it’s all down to how much you want to spend. And, on a first book, the answer should probably be ‘not much’.

      • Jamie: I said “several-fold,” not “7 fold.”

        It’s not just that a “decent cover is better than a crappy one.” It’s that a crappy cover can mean, literally, no sales at all. If a cover is so poorly done that it attracts no prospective buyers, the result is no actual buyers.

        Some self-published writers say that, despite their books’ poor covers, they’ve had good sales. That’s fine, but with good covers they could have had better sales.

        You’re correct that a top-flight cover can be had for $500. If a book otherwise would have sold, say, 2,000 copies, then spending that much on a cover probably will pay for itself several times over, assuming the author makes two or three dollars per unit sold.

        Of course, if a book isn’t likely to find even 200 readers, then spending an extra $500 would not be prudent, since a good cover might bring in only a few dozen more readers–not enough to cover the extra expense.

        No matter how fine the cover, the important part still is the text. Lousy text equates to few sales.

        • Apologies on the several/seven error.

          When I say I expected proof I meant metrics, not hypotheticals, no matter how likely the hypotheticals may seem. I want to see case studies or before/after comparisons that show that authors who had initially started with crappy covers and sold X copies now sell X+5 copies once they improved their covers.

          See, I’m not shocked if such people exist, I actually expect them to. I’ve even critiqued covers here with the hope that writers will sell more if they understand why their covers aren’t right for their story.

          My objection is to advice telling people they have to spend large amounts of money to achieve high production values (cover, edits) when that is not true. All that “advice” does is discourage indies who can’t spend that kind of money.

          I also object to telling people they can increase their royalties by spending a huge amount of money when that result cannot be guaranteed. You yourself mentioned two reasons why the cost of the production may not matter: the market might be too small for whatever the book is, or the text (do you mean story?) is lousy. Kathlena mentioned a few more possibilities. I do not believe the cost is really relevant so much as whether the cover is doing what it’s supposed to do.

          I’d prefer articles making these spending claims to show us the case studies demonstrating that the author who spent $200 on a perfect cover* got back $2000, and that this is true across a significant sample size. They should show us that the authors who swapped out the $200 cover for the $1,500 cover got back $15,000. Especially break out whether they required marketing campaigns or if it was sufficient to just release the books into the wild and let the dough roll in.

          But I’ve yet to see anyone prove that there are “price tiers” of spending that result in an awesome royalty check. Below you indicate you worked in publishing, so I’m curious if you have a campaign post-mortem you can share.

          *It is a given to me that a book should be copy-edited / proofread; what is not a given is the cost of those services.

          • I know authors run A/B tests on covers and talk about the difference changing out the covers made to sales.
            I don’t remember any author names though.
            It’s all about hitting the expected look of the genre you’re writing for.

            Some genres you can get away with the half-naked guy on the cover… $50… make yourself. Other genres you need the custom painting. $500… more?
            So the price of the cover depends on what the reader will allow.

            For me, I just look at my own buying behavior. Well done cover, good use of color- my eyes are drawn to it. I click on it. I look at the blurb and look inside. If I’m on the fence, I check if the ratings are okay.

            Ugly cover- I tend to go right by it. (to me, cheap
            cover means cheap production… probably filled with errors)

    • It all boils down to ROI. If you’re not making back the money you’re spending in a reasonable amount of time (I’d say a year or two), you’re spending too much. This is just good business sense. Professional edits and covers do not guarantee sales, particularly in this crowded market.

      You can have a wonderful cover, professional writing and a great story, but if you can’t find your market, or you’re in a narrow niche, none of will do a darn bit of good.

    • I certainly agree with a lot of the PUBLISHING advice given here, but that doesn’t make you a writer. It makes you an AUTHOR. If you want to be a writer, you write. Then you are one. I admit, I’m being a little nitpicky, but we’re writers–the meaning of words matter.

  8. Actually, this is the best such advice article I can remember reading. Lots of good points and an absence of stupid advice about how/why to get an agent.
    I think it’s non-negotiable to have a *professional-looking* cover, and you should learn as much as you can yourself about how to do that, and if it is still beyond your skill to create a pro cover then yes, hire it done.

  9. I thought all writers did #3, #4, and #5. I’d add a #6 for video games. I always evaluate stories; I don’t care what medium they’re in. I want great plot arcs and characters, and analyzing why stories in those media work or suck is useful to improving as a writer.

    Also, I wouldn’t assume that readers aren’t mapping to books the narrative or character tropes they see in TV or games. Consider the “frantic heroine” post — if frantic and dysfunctional is the norm for a TV detective, your readers might be [pleasantly] surprised if your detective is quirky and functional. If nothing else the difference could be a marketing hook.

    If you write fantasies, you don’t want to be blindsided by reviews where readers are puzzled that your seemingly powerful wizard isn’t capable of area-of-effect spells like the ones in video games. If nothing else you have to incorporate the reason he can’t into your plotting.

    • Are all readers gamers? What percentage of gamers also read? I suspect there isn’t a huge amount of overlap between the two groups.

      • The question surprises me; I didn’t realize these were perceived to be wholly different camps. Let alone that any Venn diagram overlaps would only be a sliver, so to speak.

        But it just occurred to me we might be talking about different types of games. I’m referring to narrative games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect; people who play those also read, for example, Terry Pratchett or Andy Weir. I can’t speak for other types of games, particularly the non-narrative “Candy Crush” types. Certainly not all readers are gamers, but I don’t think I claimed this, either.

        But for the games I do play, I visit game forums. Generally forums for BioWare RPGs, but also for game magazines — and the denizens routinely recommend books or compare & contrast a game to a book. If I like this game, what books are like it? If I like this book, what games are like it? It’s not unusual at all. I still remember standing in line for Neil Gaiman’s autograph and listening to people talk about playing Everquest (this was in 2001). And I’m not even including games based on books. Think “Dune,” Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison, Nancy Drew, etc.

        Anyway, that’s why I wouldn’t assume that expectations or ideas from one medium don’t feed into another medium. YMMV, of course.

      • I’m a reader and a gamer, and so is my dad, and so are most of the gamers I know. We play World of Warcraft, Skyrim, Dragon Age, etc., and we read fantasy and science fiction. In addition, a LOT of games have tie-in novels. All three of the games I mentioned do, and I’ve seen a lot more out there. A lot of us play tabletop RPGs as well. The common element is that the element of story is important in all of them.

      • All readers may not be gamers but a lot of gamers are heavy readers.

        This is particularly true of the story-based RPG games that are effectively simplified simulators for common fantasy worlds or SF scenarios.

        There is a pretty strong overlap in the SF&F areas.

        • My point was that I don’t think you can say that written works MUST incorporate expectations from a completely different form of media.

          I can say I don’t know any of my fantasy-reading friends and family who would come within ten miles of a game. As I reader, I would be puzzled by an author talking about “area of effect” spells. Incorporating gaming concepts into a fantasy story would be just as confusing for those who don’t game, as not incorporating the concepts would be for those who do. So how do you decide who to puzzle?

          I think like any other kind of story, you’ll have a market for each. And I think readers are smart enough to figure out what flavor of spec fic works best for them, and that different stories are going to use different systems.

          • Felix J. Torres

            Well, yes.
            There’s different markets for different things.

            But, do you really believe that other media doesn’t impact narrative fiction? That action movies don’t impact expectations for tough guy action books? TV procedurals on mysteries and crime dramas? Or that comics and games don’t expact expectations for superhero fantasies?

            How many Star Wars clones have we seen in print over the last forty years? Star Trek inspired space adventures? Battlestar Galactica, too. And, yes, if you look carefully you will find more than a few HALO-inspired space combat stories.

            It happens. A lot.
            And it runs both ways: books influence other media but creators and readers are constantly exposed to other uses of genre tropes and ideas.

            And while readers may not explicitly complain about fantasies not following game conventions, they do complain about inconsistent magic systems, logical gaps, bad tactics, and deus ex last minute twists. Because the gaming conventions get internalized and readers come to expect internal consistency and clearly defined bounds and rules. These are things that good fantasies need to have regardless of medium and it doesn’t matter if readers learn of them from novels or games. Once they learn them, they expect to find them. Or to be told why not.

            Readers do more than read and they bring with them the full range of life experiences they encounter. Even if those experiences come from movies, TV, or video games.

            One thing to consider: depending on their age, career, and setting, story protagonists themselves might need to be gamers. It could be as simple as playing a casual game while waiting in line, or having friends from online gameplay, but video gaming is a regular reality of life for tens of millions of people and something that isn’t properly reflected in many stories. (STAR TREK NEXT GENERATION actually got that right: their holodeck is nothing but a giant immersive video game console.)

            Video games are going on fifty years. They are as much a part of modern life as going to the movies or a bar. Not all stories reflect this but should.

  10. Write the book,buy your coffee/tea. You can do this.

    Cover: copyright free Wikimedia images, with credits. [there are many free and low cost classes on cover making. Try Skillshare, about 9.99 for an entire SHORT class that gets to the nitty gritty; google gimp/skillshare/covers. Action covers, pose your friends, [any number of body builders will love to pose for you] pay them in love and s’ghetti or ‘zza or a $10 starbucks card or something. Place a colored filter over, use gimp to arrange fonts etc. ) Zero dollars. Beta readers, proofers: friends. More s’ghetti, more ‘zza. Format? Learn it. It is easy and free. Upload, free.

    For a profound amount of money, abut $10, you can become the covermeister-covermeistress. Dont delay. It’s easy. Im backward and know more about how to carve leather than to do techie things. I can do it. You can too. Takes a couple hours of study to learn. [there are also templates for sale online that are already formatted for a pro look; you can buy those and pour in your art and words, and youre ready to go. They might cost as much as for free to 149 dollars for unlimited covers forever.

    All of this cheap at 100 times the price of your time.

    • Felix J. Torres

      All that.
      More important than the amount of money you throw at a cover is knowing what makes a good cover in the book’s genre.

      • So true. I’ve seen books with hideously clunky covers sell ridiculously well in their genres (and it wasn’t the dazzling prose). It was 1. the cover communicated genre VERY well and 2. the title/subtitle told the reader “this is your niche genre read right here, come and get it.”

        Communicating seems to trump pretty. Though if it’s beautiful AND nails the genre/subgenre, I would imagine that helps loads.

      • Good point felix. Dean Wesley Smith has a class on exactly what each genre is, and there very seemingly formalized fence lines.

        It really see,s more like a dance form, that is to be done well, rather than varied from.

        So doing an excellent well-formed and pretty-much-like-everyone-else’s texas two-step [but with different people doing it] will win the day, but throwing the lady over your back just to add in some personal creativity, actually, in genre, seems to take off points. The form is the form, a bit like classical anything. But I imagine too that there are outlier covers that go to #1 too. As you say, if so, they have to foremost, communicate.

        • Felix J. Torres

          All I’ve seen is that most genres have bounds. Some are tight, some are loose, but each genre has its own visual language that identifies it and, for good covers, combines with the title to hint at the contents. Variation is a plus until it crosses the bounds. Likewise, an artistic cover can be a plus but if it speaks of the wrong genre or, worse, no specific one, it can be a wasted effort.

          It’s an art, really, not a science.
          Gut feeling matters.

  11. To be a writer: Write. If it’s every day, fine. It’s it’s all shoved into a four hour time slot on alternate Sundays, fine.

    To be a self-publisher: Study the business. There are any number of places one can go and learn how to format, chose keywords, how to pick a cover, write a blurb, and so on. No cost involved other than time and the willingness to learn.

    Covers need to be indicative of the genre and not horrible. It’s not that hard to learn a few things in GIMP, what fonts to use and how to arrange them.

    Editing may be needed, if the writer doesn’t have a good grasp of English, or grammar, spelling and punctuation (those things can be learned, but again, time and willingness needed). Perhaps only a competent copy editor is needed, or just a proofreader.

    I’m not in the camp that says X amount of money must be spent, and on Y things. People can and do learn to do stuff themselves and sell quite well. The important thing to me is being able to tell a good story. And that I don’t believe can be learned — but can certainly be improved.

    If someone puts in the time and effort, learns the craft and how to publish effectively, it’s still possible to do this with very little cash outlay. Now, advertising is another matter. There needs to be funds for some level of ads. And even so, people are selling books with no promotion at all, other than writing good books, presenting them well, and perhaps blogging or posting on social media.

    • “if the writer doesn’t have a good grasp of English, or grammar, spelling and punctuation (those things can be learned, but again, time and willingness needed).”

      Having worked in editing and publishing for years, my experience is this: if you don’t have good grammar, spelling, and punctuation by the time you reach early adulthood, you’re not going to acquire them (partly because you won’t be inclined to bother, partly because you won’t realize your own deficiency).

      It is an eye-opener to read letters written by younger nineteenth-century teenagers (I mean those under 15 or so): the literary/literacy level commonly is far above what today’s college graduates can show.

      • I would say one can learn gram/sp and punc, and easily. It might take a bit of time. And a kind tutor who shows the shortcuts and does not teach like some of the daft who call themselves teachers, who are actually incapable of recognizing and teaching to different learning styles born into human beings.

        Those of us with dyslexia were told such cr** by so many poisoning and poisoned people, trying to insist/ predict what we could and could not learn. They were DEAD wrong. Desire, calling, and the natural story-telling function born into all persons will whip the backsides of those who try to negate/judge who can and who cannot learn.

        Jus saing, we caint hep who we was born, but edjkashn are importint to hep us dumbells sucseed.

        • I’m pleased you succeeded, despite adversity. Most people can’t and don’t, being unable or unwilling to overcome or to try to overcome deficiencies. Most people are satisfied with what they are or, at least, are insufficiently unsatisfied to try to improve themselves.

          A year or two ago, while out hiking, I came across a young couple who were lost on a mountaintop. As I showed them the way down, the young man asked what I did. When I told him I write, his eyes lit up. He said he was acutely conscious of having been poorly educated, and he said he wanted to learn to read better by reading more widely.

          He said he had been reading Hemingway and found it tough going: a lot of words he didn’t know. I was frank with him and said that Hemingway was a simple writer, in terms of diction, but I lauded the young man for taking on what he thought was difficult for him.

          He said he really wanted to read “The Brothers Karamazov.” I told him that Dostoyevsky was more difficult to read than Hemingway–but it would be worth it, since Dostoyevsky had much more to say about the human condition, and his insights were far more profound than Hemingway’s.

          The young man asked if he could keep in contact with me, in case he found himself stumbling through “The Brothers Karamazov.” Sure, I said. I heard from him much later that he was making progress, however slow, in getting through that book.

          I admired the young man for two reasons: his acknowledgment of his own deficiencies and his hunger to better himself intellectually. My admiration in part came from my knowledge that there are very few who have a similar attitude. Most people–including, probably, most writers–don’t seem to care much about such self-improvement.

          As I said, I’m pleased that you did and do. But, sad to say, it’s a rarity in our deracinated culture.

          • In my world, which was inside publishing for years, and also is still roaring in the international world… I find dozens of people every week who are trying to improve and could use just a little belief in themselves by others til they can believe in themselves.

            I find the majority of persons carry a spark in them that wants to be lit and consistently so, that it is natural to their sense of self. But also, I find many others who see ‘deficient’ instead of having a challenge, have doused them, shamed them, condescended, acted as though they havent a chance in the world.

            Sometimes gifted people, and I believe all persons are born gifted as birthright, drink the hemlock so cynically offered to them by jaded others.

            But then I work in fields where I see people striving mightily. And I am glad to lend a hand if I can, which is often. That includes teaching ESL and also teaching adults, moms and grandparents and dads to read for the first time in their lives. Teach war vets since mid 1960s. I live in a different world than most, granted.

            And above all, horses. The magical creatures of the world, who some say are ‘life not worthy of life’ for they are not ‘behaved’ according to whomever. However, we viejos know that as with human beings, one has to walk with, companion in trust that throwaway horse, that ‘wild mustang’ left to be shot dead by helicopter, that old horse that no one has ever given time to, that young gelding or filly… time, walking with, as with humans, bring out the heart of the being. Just my .02. I really have no more to say.

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