Welcome to the blog of author Tricia Goyer!

Monday, April 2, 2007

Advice for Budding Fiction Authors

From James Scott Bell and some writing friends:

1. What training does a career in writing require?

Mostly it is SELF training. You must teach yourself to write. You can read good books on writing, take courses, go to writing conferences, etc. But the most important thing you must do is WRITE, each day if possible, and APPLY what you are learning. You learn by writing, trying, seeing where you need to improve, and writing some more. There is no shortcut.

In college I wrote to an author I admired asking some of these same questions. He wrote back and said, "Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years." He was right.

2. Are you in a particular genre of writing?

I write thrillers, mostly legal thrillers.

What additional special training did it require?

Since I'm a lawyer, I have that background. But I have also written in other fields, such as bio-technology. You can stretch your mind and experience through research, interviewing experts, and actually participating in some activities you wouldn't normally touch. Writing, in this way, becomes an exercise in personal growth.

3. What natural abilities or interests are needed for a career in writing?

You should love to read, and be moved by books. You should have some love of words and the rhythms of language. You should be something of a dreamer.

[Steph Whitson: It seems to me that most writers I know have a natural ability to organize their lives in a way that allows them to do what they do. Messy offices and panic over deadlines aside, a lazy self-indulgent person isn't going to get far in the writing life IMHO. I think plotting and outlining and planning a book require some natural ability to organize, whether it be a legal pad or twelve or a stack of note cards or a spreadsheet. The mechanics can be honed, but I'm thinking a natural bent towards organization helps tremendously.]

[Terri Blackstock: I would add that they have to enjoy long hours ofsolitude, have a long enough attention span to finish a 400 page manuscript, then rewrite it several times, and they must be able to accept delayedgratification. If they're looking for instant gratification, they are in the wrong business . . . Real writers work quietly, dilligently, sometimes slowly, with no feedback (except that from the characters and that feeling in your gut when you know the writing is going well), and hope that someday it will pay off. But as you said, the payoff is really the writing itself. The money is just icing. I may be speaking too broadly here, but I have a hunch that most real writers get much more thrill out of the writing than they do in seeing the book on the shelves. By the time my books come out, I've forgotten all about them, because I'm now deeply entrenched in the one I'm working on, enjoying the thrill of that one. The stuff that goes with the book actually coming out is often just an annoyance to me.

On the other hand, if you ask me while I'm working on a first draft, I'll tell you I hate my job and wish I would die so I wouldn't have to finish it. But it's an agony I'm somewhat addicted to.]

4. What is the approximate starting salary range for authors?

Using "salary" with fiction writer is like using "sure thing" at the racetrack. When it comes to fiction, there is no regular or predictable income.

Fiction writers get an "advance against royalties" and then the royalties themselves--if any. The advance is a portion of what the publisher thinks the book, when published, will earn in sales. First-time novelists, being unknown commodities, do not demand large advances (though there have been exceptions for first novels that publishers thought would be blockbusters. But most of these bombed out, which hurt the authors' careers.)

The average income for fiction writers in the U.S. is something very low, maybe $3,000. But that is skewed. A handful of authors make millions; a number make virtually nothing. My goal, and the goal I advise for new writers, is to try to build your audience progressively by writing better and better books. Gain the publishers' confidence that you can turn in a solid performance every time. Then you will make some money, too. And there's always that racetrack chance you'll win the trifecta, and join the John Grishams or Danielle Steeles -- just don't bet the farm.

I don't advise "quitting your day job" any time soon. Having another source of income is a wise idea, unless and until you have enough of a track record to predict future income. You could always marry somebody very rich, of course.

5. Is there good job availability for those who choose writing?

There is always room for another SUPERB writer. It's hard to break in, but if you are consistent and persistent, and can show that you can produce over and over again, you can make it.

6. Would you rate the opportunities for advancement as poor, fair, good, or excellent?

As with ANYTHING in our capitalist system, the opportunities for advancement vary with the VALUE that you offer an employer. As an author, if you offer your publisher and readers value in your writing, your advancement possibilities are good to excellent.

But writing, as with all the arts, does not offer as predictable a path as other work, where you can pretty much know that Effort X will result in Reward Y.

But if you are writing only for the money, you're in the wrong game. You write because there's an upward pressure on your spirit to write.

7. Could you list a particular advantage to being a writer?

You can't beat the hours. Or the workplace. Or the dress code. During the summer, I work in shorts, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt -- sometimes at my local Starbucks. I often erupt in spontaneous giggling.

A particular disadvantage?

Not knowing how much your next royalty check is going to be. Also, writing concerns can easily take over your life, which is a very real threat to more important things, like your spiritual life, family life, etc. You have to keep watch. If writing becomes the MOST important thing in your day-to-day existence, you could end up like Fitzgerald or or many another writer who turned to the bottle for solace.

[Steph Whitson: I think the loneliness of the job could be looked at as a disadvantage. I honestly cannot imagine the writing life without Chi Libris to talk to. Not every writer is so blessed to be part of a "community" of writers. There is something to be said for the social aspects of normal work. I've been tempted to take a part time job just to be around people.]

8. Do you have any special advice for someone interested in writing (such as college courses to take, things to study)?

Read some good books on the craft (you may check my website, under "Writer's Helps" for a list of my favorites). Take classes, sure. But remember to PUT INTO PRACTICE what you're learning. Try stuff. Show it to others. Get feedback. Develop "Rhino skin," which means you can take criticism without dying the death of a thousand cuts. Remember, no criticism of your writing is personal, unless it's accompanied by a punch in the nose.

[Steph Whitson; I tell aspiring writers to PAY ATTENTION to the world around them. Observe people. How they talk, how they move, how they react to different situations. Be a student of life. Live life fully. Try new things. Talk to people who are "different," people who try things you never would, people from all walks of life, from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Develop a diverse personal world and then take time to really SEE. And take notes!]

[Lisa Samson:

1. Check your ego at the door. Realize that there are plenty of other writers ready to step into your shoes, so be easy to work with. Choose carefully the battlefields on which you are willing to die. Make sure your publisher is glad to hear from you, not wondering what's wrong with Miss Difficult this time.

2. There's always room for improvement. If you think you've arrived in your writing...it's time to stop. If you don't feel the need to grow, you won't. If you don't grow, it's only a matter of time before the excitement is gone. If the excitement is gone...why bother? Think of your commitment to craft as that carrot on the stick, always ahead of you, always leading you forward to better things.

3. Read great writing. It's great to study books on writing, but don't get so caught up in the "how to" you forget to study the "how it was dones." Careful reading of masterful works, disecting prose, dialogue, form, plot, imagery, overall construction, you name it, is crucial to the growing novelist. If you don't like to read good fiction, that may be a warning sign to consider.

4. Writing isn't at all glamorous. (Two words: Wal - Mart.) Most of us have no cherry-paneled study overlooking a quiet lake. So find your satisfaction in the act itself. Let it take you all over the world as you sit there above the garage, at the kitchen table, in the living room or the spare bedroom still painted bright yellow from your daughter's smiley-face days, and remember that the perk is the job itself.]

9. Are there any current problems faced by most authors?

More and more books are being published, an estimated 114,487 in 2001, compared with 39,000 in 1975. This is good news and bad news. Your chances of being published are increased a bit, but your chances of getting noticed in the avalanche are smaller.

The only way to get (and keep) that notice is to become known as someone who writes quality books--emphasis on the plural.

10. Why did you choose writing as your profession?

Writing chose me. It was something I couldn't NOT do. Even if I never made any money, I was going to write. At the very least I was going to publish at Kinko's and distribute copies to my family until they shouted "Mercy!" And then I was going to find ANOTHER family to torment.

I do think my fiction writing is a gift from God--so I view what I do as my gift back to Him. If I start to think it's all me, I'm sunk. See Deuteronomy 8:17,18 on this.

11. Looking back across your career and where you are now, was it worth everything you did, everything you sacrificed to get where you are?

The "sacrifice" is really countless hours spent trying, studying, trying again, surviving disappointment and on and on. But since that was the only way I was going to get anywhere in the writing game, it was certainly worth it. I loved the learning. Flashbulbs would go off when I discovered something, and then saw I could do it. I still love that aspect of the craft. I will never stop trying to learn to do things better.

Not to discount the frustrations and obstacles. They are real. But if writing is what you must do, and you love it, you can keep going. I like this quote from an old professor at the Yale Divinity School named Grenville Kleiser:

Be done with the past, save where it serves to inspire you to greater and nobler effort. Be done with regrets over vanished opportunities, seeming failures, and bitter disappointments….Be done with the "might have been" and think of the "shall be."…Trust God that no good is ever lost or withheld.

May God bless you in your future endeavors.


Jill said...

Very helpful and timely observations for me right now in my career. Thank you!


C.J. Darlington said...

What a great piece. Thanks so much Tricia, Jim and everyone who answered. I subscribed to the newsletter and look forward to learning more.

Cara Putman said...

Tricia -- you are crazy girl. Another blog!?!?! but I can already tell this one will be a great addition to the blogosphere.

Cheryl said...

Good, insightful interview. I look forward to reading more of this blog. :-)

Crystal said...

Tricia, You are superhuman, I think. But this is something really needed. Bless you for taking time for this.

Thanks to all of the authors who contributed here. What fabulous advice and wise words.

I especially appreciated this: "Be done with the past, save where it serves to inspire you to greater and nobler effort. Be done with regrets over vanished opportunities, seeming failures, and bitter disappointments….Be done with the "might have been" and think of the "shall be."…Trust God that no good is ever lost or withheld."

Tricia Goyer said...

You guys are great. Thank you so much for posting! I pray this may be a great place for us to grow, learn, and strive together!

Angela Breidenbach said...

I think your prayer is being answered already:-) Great blog, thanks.

(the other Montanan)

E Bussey said...

"Writing chose me. It was something I couldn't NOT do."

Oh how this echos in my soul.

Gina said...

Great blog! You're really giving your assistant a run for her money, or are you doing this one on your own?

christa said...

As an unpub writer, I appreciate this blog ministry. My goals are getting my entries ready for the Genesis contest, organizing my writing approach, and scheduling time to write daily.

Tricia Goyer said...

E, I agree. I can only do "something else" for so long until I have to get back to my keyboard.

Gina, I depend on Amy ... she makes me look good!

Christa, I'm looking forward to seeing how you did on your goals.

Christy LaShea Smith said...

This is great. Thanks for starting this blog and thanks to James and the other authors who contributed. Very valuable information!

Anonymous said...

Here are two of my writing questions:

1. What are the rules for using a real location or town for your novel setting? How accurate should you be regarding street names, business names etc. and how much should you invent? For example, I want to set my main character's shop in a seaside town that really exists, but the block I want to put it in is not currently a business district, although I have other reasons for putting it there. If I put it in an actual business district, there would be a different, real store at that location which would also be unauthentic.

2. How can you get over the feeling that what you are doing just isn't good enough to publish? I tend to get bogged down rewriting the first few chapters until I lose all momentum for my first draft. On my current project, I'm trying to just write the story all the way through without letting myself revise, but I wonder if that is the correct way to go about it.

Thank you so much!

Rachel Hauck said...

Great blog, Trisha. I never tire of hearing good writing advice!

You da bomb!


Anonymous said...

I've never posted on a blog before so please excuse me if I use the "anonymous" posting. I think this is a great idea. Can't wait to pass it on to my writing group.

~Evergreen~ said...

Great concept! This was timely for me as well. My writing goals: serve out my "apprenticeship", devour and deconstruct the masters daily, and learn by modeling short pieces of my own. (Hehe-I jumped in too fast before, now I'm steadying for the long haul!)

Jannie Ernst said...

My questions are exactly the same as those of "Anonymous", so please reply to us both. Tricia, thanks so much for this blog, because I have a feeling I'm going to learn a LOT here! I need this, I really do!

Julie Carobini said...

Great job, Tricia. Jut got back from a writer's conference. Even though I'm published, I yearned to sit at the feet of a good teacher--and did. I want to keep learning and doing, so this was timely!

Tricia Goyer said...


Thanks for your questions! I'll be answering them in the newsletter on the 15th.

Please feel free to post more.


Christine H. said...

Dear Tricia,

Thanks so much for doing this. I can't tell you how encouraging this is for me right now. I'd like to introduce myself a little to you. I'm a friend of someone who knows you from the MOPS board, Michelle D., who has reviewed some of your books and contributed to Generation NeXT. I might even know you, too, from the board, come to think of it, though I haven't been there for a long while. My userid there is Cuppa-Tea. Michelle and I have been on MOPS Steering together for the past few years. This is my last year *sniff* since I'm going back to work full-time next fall.

I have been writing off and on my whole life. I stopped in college when a writing teacher I had discouraged me. Looking back, I can see that he was just an egomaniac suffering from a recent divorce and not that great of a teacher but I see he's done quite well for himself since then as a writer.

I have heard God calling me very distinctly to write again and not let anything stop me. I guess I know how Noah felt about the ark because the call is so powerful I don't dare NOT do it. I'm not quite sure HOW to do it, though, given my wife-and-mommy status and the fact that I'll be going to school and starting a whole new career in a few months. But I'm trying to be faithful.

I am at the point where visiting a library or bookstore sends me spiralling into despair when I realize how many people have already written and published books of every description including the same idea as mine, but I'm trying to keep that tiny flame of creativity alive. This is a truly ideal way for me to feel connected with other writers and get some encouragement and input without feeling put on the spot. I really appreciate your fantastic articles.

Isn't the Internet great?

Thank you so, so much.

P.S. that "anonymous" before was me. I"m still trying to figure out how this works, since I'm new to blogging. I guess I need to bite the bullet and create an account with Google.

Christine H.