Can I help you?

On forums and in writing groups aspiring writers often ask for help – some ask ME for help. As a fellow author mentioned to me yesterday, Stephen King once said of writers asking him for help (paraphrased): If you’re great, you don’t need my help. If you suck, I can’t help you. If you’re good, I can make you great.

I’d love to say the same thing, but if I said it, I’d have to say “If you’re decent, I can make you better.”

So Dave, who the heck are you to get on your high horse, you’re a brand-new author!

Yes I am, but I’m far from a new writer. I’m in my forties and I’ve had a full career, most of which (with the exception of my stint in the Airborne as a young man) involved technical writing. I wrote countless reports, gave many briefings, taught more classes than I can count – I really ought to go get another degree, maybe in communication, but frankly I’d rather write. I also edited a lot of other people’s work. I’m a damn fine copyreader and editor, if I do say so myself.

What’s my point?

You, the writer, need to honestly assess how good you are. If you know you suck yet you still want to be a writer, you need to decide what to do about it. Wallow, or improve?

Some writers don’t really want to improve, they just want to write. More power to them. Some writers write for themselves. Some writers want all their work burned after their deaths. Not me, I want to write for an audience – like you right now. I’m enough of an egoist to want appreciation and feedback (good or bad); I want recognition and fans; I want to make a living doing this. Nothing wrong with that at all, folks, as long as it’s kept within normal healthy bounds, because it drives me (and a lot of you) to produce. So if you want to write for an audience, you have to please the audience. You have to give the people what they want. Then you can quit your day job. (I haven’t yet).

That means you have to do more than tell good stories. Everyone has a good story in their head. You have to learn to tell good stories well. That means work. That means continuous improvement of your ability. It doesn’t necessarily mean continuous improvement of any particular piece. Some people just keep polishing that one novel and never move forward.

I recently saw a forum post that said something like this: “I have had my ebook up on Amazon for a month now and I haven’t sold any. I think the problem is my blurb. Could you guys please look at my blurb and tell me what’s wrong.”

Without looking, my first thought was “If you can’t write a good blurb, I bet you didn’t write a very good novel.” You know what? I was right. In this new dawn of ebooks, I can look at that blurb and that sample and make an accurate judgment for myself the reader whether that book is something I want to read.  The blurb was mediocre, the sample was mediocre. As a reader I’m not paying money and, even more important for me, I’m not wasting time trying to slog through a book that’s not a pleasure to read.

“But it’s a good story!” the writer cries.

“But it’s not told well,” I respond. A good story badly told is like a good steak that’s been ruined by a bad cook. Unless I’m starving and there’s nothing else to eat, I’m looking elsewhere. It’s your job as writer, like a good cook, to take good ingredients and prepare them well.

I’m not talking about pleasing critics when I say “write well.” I’m saying write for your audience. Write what they want. Which means write what you the reader would want. Write the book you want to read, not the book someone tells you you should write. Nobody can teach you that. But they can teach you how to do it, the nuts and bolts, the craft – and there are a ton of resources out there.

JA Konrath has an excellent blog and site,  and has a free downloadable PDF with lots of great advice for writers (go to “for writers”). I’ve heard of many other similar how-to guides and books. You don’t have to read all of them but at least read one. If you are a writer that wants to be an author, kiss the ground of those of who have walked before you, thank them profusely, then get in their footsteps. Once you have walked the path for a while, then you can go off an blaze your own. Very few of us, certainly not I, have so much natural talent that we explode full-blown to great authorship.

My friend and fellow author Vaughn Heppner is a shining example of what I am telling you. He’s natural storyteller but not a natural writer. He’s got a great imagination but he has had to work very, very hard to become an author worth reading. He still struggles with editing and some of the craft, but he’s dedicated his life to being an author. I don’t say that lightly – he’s worked for 25 years to improve, and now he’s making a living at it. Ditto for Brian (BV) Larson who has had even more success. I grew up with both of these guys and they have inspired me, not by their blazing talent – there are a million people out there with as much talent as they or I have – but by their dedication to improvement.

So can I help you? Only if you are willing to do the same.

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