Some Unasked Writing Advice,
Or How I Buckled Down on My Writing and
Shot to Authorship and How You Can, Too!
By John F.D. Taff
Sounds like an internet self-help program, doesn’t it? But, it’s true. Every. Single. Word.
I’ve been writing for about 25 years now, professionally at least. And by “professionally” I mean writing stuff that someone gives me money for. Not love. Not contributor’s copies. Just coin.
Writing is one of those things that seemingly everyone thinks they can do, or at least thinks they’d like to do. Tell anyone you’re a writer, and you usually get that “Ahh, yes. I have a great idea for a book.” To which I generally respond “Well, then, you should definitely write it.”
They won’t. I know it and they know it. Why? Because writing is hard. It’s not working on a road crew hard, or being a resident in a hospital grueling or chipping away in a coal mine strenuous. But it’s hard nonetheless. It does require sweat (of a sort). It does require a particular (and peculiar) foundation of skills. And, yes, it does require mining, at least the mining of experiences and emotions.
That’s why most people can’t ever seem to sit down and write something. It’s difficult.
And, let’s face it, the other reason most people don’t sit down and write something is because it’s boring. It’s lonely. It’s tedious. And there are so many, many things out there to distract you—the Internet, TV, life!
So, if you’ve actually put something down onto paper—a poem, a short story, even (gasp!) the beginnings of a novel—congratulations! You’re way ahead of the curve and well on your way to becoming an author.
“An Author?” you’re gasping (and I can hear you gasping!). “What’s the difference?”
An author is to a writer as a chef is to a home cook. The word “author” signifies that you’ve written something, written it so well that someone actually wants to pay you for it. Even if it’s just a few cents per word or twenty bucks, this simple act of payment sets you apart from even the small percentage of people who actually become writers.
So, how do you turn yourself from a writer into an author, you might ask? Ahh, therein lies the tale…
I’ll recount how my latest book—a collection of five novellas entitled The End in All Beginnings—went from a few written pieces to an actual, published book that’s receiving rave reviews at Amazon and from authors like Jonathan Maberry and Jack Ketchum.
Write. Write A Lot. Then Write Some More. This is the kind of advice that many aspiring authors get that makes them roll their eyes. “Work? Is that it? That’s the secret?” Yes, because, alas, there is no secret. It’s all work. All Writing. Worried that you’re not writing enough? You’re not. Write more. Write every day. Write good stuff, mediocre stuff, bad stuff. Write something all the time. Keep a journal and a pencil on your bedroom nightstand and jot down dreams and late-night ideas. The simple act of writing all the time will have two benefits, I guarantee it. First, it will make you a better writer. And ultimately, it will lead to your becoming an author. I’d been writing for more than half my life when The End in All Beginnings came out. Some of the stuff was new, but some of the stuff was two decades old. It needed editing and polishing, sure, but it came from a huge surplus of things I’d written in the past.
Get Readers and Get Feedback. And how do you do this? Submit. Submit a Lot. Then submit some more. Writing away in your tiny garret, then saving the pages to your encrypted hard drive where they will never be seen? OK, well, fine for a writer, but not an author. Your writing must be seen. It must be submitted. Find places to send your stuff. Go through the stress that is sending your writing into the world, where it will be ignored by editors…or, worse, beaten to a pulp, spit at and derided by editors. This is all part of the process. Before The End in All Beginnings was even a glimmer, I’d amassed a gigantic folder of rejections for my stories. It’s all part of the journey from writer to author. Writing requires readers and feedback, and the only way to get this process started is to submit your work.
Listen to Editors. And Don’t Listen to Editors. So you’re submitting your stuff? Excellent. Most of the time, you’ll just get form letters rejecting your material. Sometimes, though, you’ll get actual letters from actual editors offering criticism of the story; what didn’t work for them and why they’re not buying it. Here’s the thing. It’s often best to put your ego aside and listen to these criticisms. It’s easy to get discouraged or think the editor’s a brainless creep, or they just don’t “get you.” But these people read a lot and can easily and quickly tell you what’s wrong with a story. Sometimes there’s nothing “wrong” with your story at all, it simply didn’t fit into what the editor was looking for. Here’s the flipside though: when it comes to an opinion, an editor is only one person. So don’t put too much into what they say. The razor’s edge here is to always remain open minded enough to take legitimate criticism but also confident enough of your own work to keep what makes it yours. “Object Permanence,” a novella in The End in All Beginnings, was an older story of mine that had been rejected dozens of times over two decades. I made changes to it many times, but some people still just didn’t get it…or like it. But I finally got to the place where I knew that this was the story I was seeking to tell; no more changes necessary. To be honest, some people still don’t like it, but meh. Some people have said it’s their favorite in the collection, so there.
Get Out and Meet People. Sending your work out into the world is one thing, but you also need to get out and mingle. Writers work on their own. Authors get out and press the flesh with readers and other authors. Join a writer’s group. Have a signing for a book. Go to conventions. I will tell you that my career didn’t really take off until I finally attended a professional writer’s convention in New Orleans two years ago. I met a lot of people, one of whom was the editor I eventually worked with to package the novellas that became The End in All Beginnings. While writing is, indeed, a lonely profession, and it might not take a village to raise your book, it does take some professional relationships. And the only way to make these is to leave your house occasionally. P.S. Also remember to bathe…just sayin’.
Have a Plan. In other words, make your own project. Don’t wait for someone to tell you that they’d like a novel on X-Y-Z subject. Don’t wait for someone to tell you that they’re looking for a collection of short stories. Put together your own project. I worked with that editor I met at that convention to develop The End in All Beginnings. We didn’t wait for a publisher to tell us they wanted something like it, we just did it. Then convinced a publisher that they should buy it. If you wait for people to tell you what they want, you’ll be waiting for a very, very long time. And you won’t be writing what you want to write.
Edit. Cut. Edit. Cut. Repeat. As with writing every day, editing and cutting and revising are the critical skills, I believe, that set writers apart from authors. Editing is a crucial skill that many writers just don’t have. And that’s OK, as long as you find someone who does have this skill and isn’t afraid of pissing you off now and then. There’s no substitute. As I said, a few of the stories in The End in All Beginnings went through two decades of editing., and they’re all the better for it.
Know When to Stop. As important as editing is, you gotta know when to stop. And whereas relying on an editor to tell you when things need to change, stopping has got to come from you alone. Only you, the author of the story, know when the piece is finished. When is that? For me, I know it’s done when I’m down to fiddling with words over and over, changing minutiae that don’t really make it better or worse, just different. (Incidentally, it’s the same way I know whether to take an editing comment or not.) Over editing can often be as much a problem as under editing.
Surround Yourself with Trustworthy People. Finding an editor you trust, who has the skills to do the job, is important. Finding readers who can read your work and offer honest opinions is vital, too. Probably not your mom or the nice lady down the street or your spouse. Find someone who likes to read the kind of stuff you write and isn’t afraid of telling you the truth. Then, find a publisher who is on the straight and narrow. Don’t become so elated that someone wants to publish your novel that you depart from your senses and sign a contract that gives away the work, your firstborn and even your eternal soul. Being an author rather than a writer means embracing the business side of writing. And that means making informed decisions about who’s going to bring your work to readers. If you don’t already know, let me be the first to warn you that there are bad people out there, and some of them are in book publishing. Be aware. I was lucky enough to find the good people at Grey Matter Press, who published The End in All Beginnings. They have a professional website. They publish what they say they’re going to publish. They pay, fairly and on time. People speak well of them. All of this is important when selecting a publisher.
Become Discouraged. And then Don’t. So you do all this, and submit, submit, submit. Your work is rejected, rejected and rejected. You get discouraged. This is normal. A writer’s life—and this doesn’t change as far as I can see when you’re an author—is one of incredible amounts self-doubt. Obviously, submitting your work and being rejected doesn’t help this. But I can offer no other advice than to simply get over it. If you can’t handle this aspect, then you are not cut out to be an author. Believe me when I tell you that there are people out there who’ve never published a single word, but who are better writers than King, Grisham, Rowling or Wolfe. Why aren’t they published, then? Because they couldn’t take the rejection and folded. Period. Being an author is equal parts skill, luck and intestinal fortitude.
Know What You Want. And Press for It. Are you looking to be paid? Or just be read? Are you wanting to build a career? Or do you just want to get Aunt Hilda’s recipes out to a wider audience? What’s going to satisfy you? For me, writing as long as I have been, my wishes for The End in All Beginnings were to build on the name I’d already established, and the works that had started to build my awareness a few years ago. Yes, money was part of this, but another building block in my reputation as a pretty good horror author was at least as important, if not more so. Decide what you want in advance, and set your expectations accordingly.
Bonus: Promote Yourself. A Lot. Think your publisher is going to spend the dollars or time to market your book? Hah…it is to laugh. I mean, I got lucky with The End in All Beginnings. Grey Matter Press is headed by marketing gurus who actually do a lot of this. But most publishers, and I mean even the big guys in NYC, don’t spend much either time or money marketing your work. That, my little cottage-industry, is up to you. You’d better become fluent, if you aren’t already, in blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and every other applicable form of social media if you want to succeed. You don’t have to do them all. I maintain a fairly active blog (johnfdtaff.com) and a healthy Twitter presence (@johnfdtaff), but I don’t get into Facebook at all, much to the consternation of my publishers. Just can’t abide it. You need to select the types of marketing you do enjoy and can keep up with, and engage in them. Engage in them consistently and frequently. Because they will form your lifeline to the reader. Without that, you’re just a writer. And if you just want to be a writer, well, OK. But if you want to be an author, it’s easy. Go back to No. 1 in this list and start all over again!
ABOUT JOHN F.D. TAFF
John F.D. Taff has published more than 70 short stories in markets that include Cemetery Dance, Deathrealm, Big Pulp, Postscripts to Darkness, Hot Blood: Fear the Fever, Hot Blood: Seeds of Fear and Shock Rock II.
Over the years, six of his short stories have been named honorable mentions in the Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. His first collection, Little Deaths, was published in 2012 and has been well-reviewed by critics and readers alike. The collection appeared on the Bram Stoker Reading List, has been the No. 1 Bestseller at Amazon in the Horror/Short Stories category and was named the No. 1 Horror Collection of 2012 by HorrorTalk.
Taff’s The Bell Witch is a historical novel inspired by the events of a real-life haunting and was released in August 2013. His thriller Kill/Off was published in December 2013.
Taff’s short story “Show Me” is featured in the Bram Stoker Award-nominated anthology from Grey Matter Press, Dark Visions: A Collection of Modern Horror – Volume One. His tale that breathes new life into the zombie apocalypse, “Angie,” appears in the Grey Matter Press volume Ominous Realities: The Anthology of Dark Speculative Horrors. His “Some Other Day” will be published in Death’s Realm, coming soon from Grey Matter Press.
More information about John F.D. Taff is available at johnfdtaff.com.