Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Self-Improvement Tips for Writers

Tonight (Tuesday) on #indiechat, we'll be discussing self-improvement for self-published writers. Please join us on Twitter at 9pm EST!

While our indiechat is focused on self-improvement for indie writers, I think the goal of self-improvement really is no different for indie writers vs. those on the traditional path. Even with access to an agent or editor, the greatest assets a writer can have are often fellow-writers who understand the intricacies of the craft. This is true, no matter how you're published, or what stage of the journey you're in. This Kindle Boards post, where Robert Heinlein "cross-pollenates" with a fellow writer to help his friend out of a writing slump inspires me. 
"Almost all writers need cross-pollenation - myself most certainly! (I am at present stuck on p.148 of the best set-up for a novel I ever had in my life and I cannot get the goshdarn thing to gel!)" - Robert Heinlein, 1955, in a letter to Theodore Sturgeon.
But how to go about this? You have to start where you are and grow from there. Here are some tips, for different stages of the game.
My Self-Improvement Library
And that's just the paper copies.

Beginning Writers
  • Just start writing One evening in December 2008, I just sat down at my computer, opened Word and wrote "Chapter One." I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The words gushed out anyway. I didn't know it at the time, but this was the best way to start.
  • Write every day -  When I first started writing, I wrote constantly, finishing the first twelve chapters of that first novel (57k) in two months. This was also a great way to start, even though those pages will never be published.
  • Start a new story - Your first novel will not be your best or your last. Give yourself permission to start a new story if this one isn't working for you.
  • Finish your story - At the same time, you HAVE TO FINISH. Finishing a novel is a major accomplishment, much more than the sum total of the wordcount on the page. Only once a story is complete can you really have any idea of what your story is about.
Serious-About-Publication Writers
{all the preceding, plus...}
  • Read books on writing - there's a lot of basic information out there; use it.
  • Study bestsellers - pick your favorite books and read them to decipher why they work
  • Form a critique group - in person or online; hook up with beta readers or critique partners one-on-one or in groups. If you can't find a group, create one (that's what I did). If you don't know any writers, seek them out online. I find that groups are good for craft feedback early on; as you progress, you will need one-on-one feedback from critique partners who will read your entire MS.
  • Finish more than one novel - unless you're very unusual, your first novel is not going to be publication ready. Your second will be better, but probably still not there. Keep writing and finishing.
  • Set goals and meet them - whether to finish a chapter or a draft or a set number of words. This is serious bizness now; treat it that way.
  • Learn how to plot - maybe you like to pants your way through novels. That's fine (I've done several that way), but you need to understand story structure if you're going to take your works to the next level. Structure can be plot-structure (Snyder's Beat Sheet) or emotional-structure (Peter Dunne's work) or classic-story-structure (Story). If you pants your way through a novel, that just means you need to examine your structure after you've written it, rather than before. This is an essential piece of taking your story to the next level. Don't neglect it.
  • Identify your writing strengths and weaknesses - early on, my writing weakness was plotting; now that I've worked hard at it, I consider it one of my strengths. Constantly re-evaluate your strengths and weakness. For each novel I write, I identify one weakness that I'm going to improve for that novel.
  • Design self-improvement courses - Once you've identified a writing weaknesses, attack it with a well-designed plan to improve. A weakness in story could be addressed by reading/writing short stories to cycle through several stories in a short amount of time. If plotting is your weak point, take apart a bestseller to see how it is plotted. Or write a beat sheet for your critique partner's novel and see where it can improve (you and they both benefit!). If you feel your creative well is running dry, design ways to boost your creativity. If you aren't certain what's holding your stories back, examine your fears about writing and learn to control them.
  • Learn how to Query - If you're going traditional, this is obviously a requirement. Even if you self-publish, knowing how to query your work (to book bloggers, for example) will help you write a better blurb, make sure you have a compelling story to begin with, and pitch that guy sitting next to you at the Hair Cuttery and earn a new sale. 
Published Writers
{all the preceeding, plus...}
  • Take your self-improvement broader and deeper: study larger story structures, types of story, and experiment with genre; go deeper into micro-craft like diction, punctuation, rhythm, and the more literary elements of writing. Just because you're published, even if you're selling well, the need for self-improvement doesn't stop.
  • Reach out to successful peers: discuss off-line the trials and tribulations of publication; explore alternate paths (trad if you're indie, indie if you're trad); see what innovations your fellow writers are experimenting with.
  • Make a Five Year Plan: nourish your creativity, and plan where you'd like to take it.
  • Create your own retreats: either on your own (a trip to the beach to write solo), or with peers who are at the same point in their careers as you (make your own online retreat if you can't do it in person - cross-pollenate!).
NOTE: I didn't say "attend conferences and workshops." Those can be valuable for networking, but I've found them less helpful for self-improvement in the craft area. Most are targeted to beginning writers, so if you're at that stage, they can help. There are some intensives aimed at more advanced writers, but you will have to judge if they're worth the cost, or if you can get more out of your own self-study program.

Have some self-improvement tips? Leave them in the comments! And join us tonight for a little on-line cross-pollenation!

Susan Kaye Quinn is the author of the bestselling Mindjack series. You can find all her books on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and iTunes. Susan's business card says "Author and Rocket Scientist," but she spends most of her time writing, because she loves it even more than shiny tech gadgets. When she's not writing, you can find her wasting time playing on TwitterFacebook, and her blog.


  1. Awesome! Can't wait for the chat tonight!

  2. Awesome comprehensive list. I'm going to link to this in one of the threads at the Virtual Surrey Writers Conference.

  3. Here I come, six months behind the rest. Well, tortoise and the hare and all that. I'm also the only guy commenting, from the looks of it. Great gender ratio if that was a goal, but I'm blessed with my perfect soul mate. Maybe next life. Thank you for your tips. It shows you do indeed pay it back.
    David L Howells

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