Advice For Writers

Click any of the questions below to reveal Rick’s advice.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Yes and no.

I wrote a lot of short stories when I was young, and even sent a few in (to get rejected).

I was never serious about writing in college. I focused most of my creative energy on music, and was lead singer in a folk rock band, if you can believe it.

After college, I became a teacher, and was quite happy with the idea of doing that the rest of my life. However, I read a lot of mystery books in my spare time, and when my wife and I moved to San Francisco, I started missing Texas.

I decided, on a lark, that I would try writing a standard hard-boiled private eye novel set in my hometown of San Antonio. Ten months later, BIG RED TEQUILA was finished.

The strange thing is, I had a feeling that BIG RED TEQUILA was going to get published. It just felt different than anything else I'd ever written, because the novel had practically forced me to write it. The idea took me by the throat and wouldn't let me go until the manuscript was done.

I tell aspiring writers that you have to find what you MUST write. When you find it, you will know, because the subject matter won't let you go. It's not enough to write simply because you think it would be neat to be published. You have to be compelled to write. If you're not, nothing else that you do matters.

For me, that meant getting away from home for a while and learning to appreciate what I knew, before I could follow the old axiom, "Write about what you know."
What was your experience getting published?
The time I spent waiting to get published was mercifully brief compared to some. I'll be the first to admit I was lucky. However, the process I went through was the same as it is for many writers.

Once I had a completed manuscript for BIG RED TEQUILA, I queried agents. Many said no. One said yes. The only advantage I had at this stage was that a Bay Area creative writing teacher/author had done a line edit for me. She really helped me clean up the final draft, and then let me use her name in my query letter, "So-and-so, author of _______, suggested I contact you." Any foot in the door is good. Even if the agent doesn't know the author, she knows that someone in the business has endorsed your work. For this reason, I do think it can be helpful to pay someone for a line edit, if you have someone reputable in your area. A good place to look for freelance editors would be writing institutes at your local colleges.

Once I had an agent, she began shopping the manuscript around. Many publishers said no, all for different reasons. Some loved the story and disliked the characters. Some loved the characters and disliked the story. There didn't seem to be any consensus. Finally, however, we got an offer from Bantam Doubleday Dell, and the series was published.

I finished the manuscript of BIG RED TEQUILA just before my thirtieth birthday, June, 1994. It was published in June of 1997. So from first query letter to pub date took three years. About a year of that was after I'd signed the contract and Bantam was preparing the book for publication.
Any advice for young people who might want to be writers?
I started writing seriously when I was in eighth grade. I had an English teacher who encouraged me to submit my work for publication.

I became a middle school English teacher largely because of the impact Mrs. Pabst had on me all those years ago, and I loved having the chance to encourage my own students to write the way I was encouraged. That's one of the reasons I was not anxious to leave the classroom to pursue full-time writing.

It's helpful if a young writer can find a mentor who believes in his or her talent. So don't be afraid to ask for help! Find a teacher you respect. Correspond with authors. See if you can join a creative writing group in your community (as long as you find it supportive and helpful).

Secondly, read a lot! Read everything you can get your hands on. You will learn the craft of writing by immersing yourself in the voices, styles, and structures of writers who have gone before you. Don't be afraid that you'll start sounding like a particular writer you admire. That just means you need to read MORE, not less.

Thirdly, write every day! Keep a journal. Jot down interesting stories you heard. Write descriptions of people you see. It doesn't really matter what you write, but you must keep up practice. Writing is like a sport — you only get better if you practice. If you don't keep at it, the writing muscles atrophy.

Fourth: writer's block. Almost always, this happens because the writer doesn't plan out where he or she is going to write before starting the book. Make a road map! Outline where each chapter will go. It doesn't have to be very detailed, and you can always deviate, but if you plan ahead, you can minimize the time you spend staring at a blank screen.

Finally, don't get discouraged! Writing a book is always hard work. It's much easier to think of new ideas. You'll get to the middle of the manuscript and you'll think, "Oh, this is too hard. I think I'll start another book instead and that will be easier." DON'T! That new book won't be any easier. Soldier through and finish. Don't worry about mistakes on the first draft. Finish the manuscript and THEN go back and revise. When it's time to submit your work, remember that rejection is a part of writing, and it hurts. The trick is to keep at it. Wallpaper your room with rejection notes, if you want, but don't give up.
How can I improve my writing?
Taste is subjective, and opinions differ about what "good writing" looks like. Most of us have read a bestseller or two and wondered, "How did this thing get published?"

Nevertheless, I would argue that most work does not get published unless it demonstrates a certain level of technical competence. The grammar is correct. The prose is readable. I would further argue that most manuscripts are rejected because the writing is not technically competent. The manuscript never stands a chance because the writer simply doesn't know the craft of writing well enough.

If you write well, you have already set yourself apart from 99% of what agents and editors see every day.

Below are some notes on what I call "sentence level competence" — the ability to craft prose at the most basic level. These tips reflect the most common problems I've observed in unpublished manuscripts.

Sentence-Level Competence

sentence focus — the subjects of all clauses should be appropriate to the content of the sentence. Favor the concrete over the abstract, the antecedent over the pronoun.

Example: It was a sunny day. (the subject "it" is boring and vague.) Better: The sky was brilliant blue. (Here the subject is sky, which is what the sentence was supposed to be about.)

If you are writing a sentence about a guy named Fred, the subject in the sentence should be (surprise!) Fred.

Exercise: go through a page of prose and underline your own subjects. How many are abstract? How many of your sentences are truly focused?

modifiers — be sure the modifier refers to the right thing. The modifier should refer to the closest noun. Confusing modifiers will trip up the reader, consciously or subconsciously. By the same token, pronouns should have clear antecedents. Always place the modifier as close to the subject as possible.

Example: Can you help other writers who are writing books like me? (I got this question recently. I understand what the person is saying, but 'like me' follows the word 'books' so he is implying, without meaning to, that there are people producing books that look like him.) Better: Can you help other writers like me who are writing books?

Exercise: Color-code a page of your manuscript, making each phrase and clause a different color. Match up dependent clauses and phrases with their modifiers. Avoid getting your modifier too far away from the thing being modified.

Deft description — Choose your details carefully. A description should be vivid, but surgically precise. The detail must be given for a reason, and have a logical connection to the plot or advancement of character. Avoid long "grocery lists" of details. For a paragraph-length description, offer a uniting theme — an extended metaphor — to give the details cohesion.

Example: He was six feet tall, three hundred pounds, with brown hair, small brown eyes, a big nose and big fists. He wore jeans and a muscle shirt. He looked angry. (this is way too much description for the reader to keep track of, and it is offered as a random list)

Better: He looked like a rhino, ready to charge. (then you can pick a few details that reinforce the image of a rhino)

Exercise: Go through a chapter and delete all adjectives and adverbs. Read through, then add some back in sparingly. You may find you can do with less than before.

parallelism — clauses or phrases that are part of a list should be similar in structure. Unparallel constructions are awkward and difficult to read, even if the reader can't put her finger on the exact problem.

Example: He likes dogs, hiking in the woods and reads books a lot. (Dogs is a single noun, hiking in the woods is a participial phrase, reads books a lot is a simple predicate. These are all totally different things. Make them the same, and the sentence will flow much better.)

Better: He likes walking his dog, hiking in the woods, and reading lots of books.

Exercise: Try constructing your descriptions in parallel units — absolutes, infinitives, adjectives.
How do you develop characters?
Character development is paramount for me. I firmly believe that plot and character development must occur simultaneously. Plot cannot be left to chance. Neither can characters be automatons who carry out actions envisioned in the author's master plan. Below are some things I try to keep in mind when developing my characters:

Rick's Top Five Tips on CHARACTER

5. Define a character first through action, second through dialog and description, never through explanation.

A character should be primarily defined by the choices he makes, and the actions he takes. How does he respond to violence? How does he respond to love? Secondly, a character must be vividly but deftly describe through his speech, and through the initial view you give the reader (see #4 below). Never stop to explain who a character is when we can watch him in action and decide for ourselves.

4. Be impressionist rather than realistic.

Describe characters as Dickens did – with a single deft stroke. A laundry list of physical traits is realistic, but it is neither memorable nor compelling. A jarring metaphor for the character, or a focus on one mannerism or physical trait, can be very compelling. Example: She was a human tornado.

3. Do not be afraid to use real people as models, but do not be constricted by your models.

It is very natural to use parts of ourselves or the people we know when creating characters. Do not be afraid to do this because someone might get mad at you. At the same time, let your character develop. Do not force them to do what the real-life model would do. Characters seldom end up exactly like the real people they are based on.

2. The reader does not have to be told everything you know about the character.

It may be critically important to you that your character has blue eyes, or went to Texas A&M. But if these details have no part in the story, the reader will not care. Leave them in your subconscious. If you are having trouble figuring out a character, fill out a character profile, or do some journaling in that character's voice.

1. Your character must act, not simply be acted upon.

We care about characters because we are interested in the choices they make. We want to boo the villain, cheer the hero, and cry with frustration when the tragic figure makes the wrong move. A character who does not act, but simply receives information and is acted upon by outside forces, is not a character who will compel the reader. Remember, plot is what the characters do next. If the characters do not create the plot, the plot is hollow.

Here's a character profile worksheet I sometimes fill out if I'm having trouble understanding a particular character I've created:

Character Profile

  • Name:

  • Height:

  • Age in story:

  • Birthplace:

  • Hair color, length, style:

  • Race/nationality:

  • Regional influences:

  • Accent: (include voice, style of speech, slang, signature phrases or words)

  • Religion:

  • Marital status:

  • Scars or other notable physical attributes:

  • Handicaps: (emotional, physical, mental)

  • Athletic? Inactive? Overall health?

  • Style of dress:

  • Favorite colors:

  • How does the character feel about his/her appearance?

  • Brothers/sisters:

  • Relationship with parents:

  • Memories about childhood:

  • Educational background: (street smart? Formal? Does he/she read?)

  • Work experience:

  • Occupation:

  • Where does the character live now? Describe home (emotional atmosphere as well as physical)

  • Neat or messy?

  • Sexual preferences/morals/activities:

  • Women friends/men friends:

  • Pets?

  • Enemies? Why?

  • Basic nature:

  • Personality traits (shy, outgoing, domineering, doormat, honest, kind, sense of humor):

  • Strongest trait:

  • Weakest trait:

  • What does the character fear?

  • What is the character proud of?

  • What is the character ashamed of?

  • Outlook on life (optimistic, pessimistic, cynic, idealist)

  • Ambitions:

  • Politics:

  • How does the character see himself/herself?

  • How is the character seen by others?

  • Do you like this person? Why or why not?

  • Will readers like or dislike?

  • Most important thing to know about this character:

  • Present problem:

  • How it will get worse:

  • What is the character's goal in the story?

  • What traits will help/hurt the character in achieving this goal?

  • What makes the character different from similar characters?

  • Why will readers remember this character vividly?

How do you write good dialogue?
Dialogue is arguably the hardest thing to do well in narrative writing. Below are some points to consider:

Rick's top five tips on DIALOGUE

5. No two characters should sound the same.

You should be able to open to any page, read a piece of dialogue, and know which character is speaking, simply from the voice. Give each character his or her own style by using dialect (but keep it light), favorite colloquialisms, or speech patterns.

4. Avoid authorial intrusion.

Leave your characters alone and let them talk. Avoid descriptors or padding when possible. Only insert tags when: a. you need to delineate the speakers, in which case do it as simply as possible, i.e. John said.; b. you want to deliberately slow down the pace to give a sense of scene, or convey unspoken information; c. you have a first person narrator who is filtering the dialog through his or her thoughts.

3. Compress dialogue.

Dialogue often sounds more realistic if the sentences are compressed and abridged. Pick only the critical parts of the sentences and clip the rest. Try to cut anything that might be a throw-away line. Instead of: "Okay. That's a good point. But there's something I've been thinking. Do you think Bobby really went home last night? I don't know," it might be enough to say, "You think Bobby really went home?" This gets to the point without drowning in unneeded words.

2. Show only the dialogue needs to be shown.

Realistic dialogue is important, but don't make it mundane. Zoom to the part of the conversation you want the readers to hear. Do not repeat information the reader already knows. When Character A must retell part of the story for the benefit of Character B, simply say, I caught him up on what had happened since yesterday. Fast-forward to the part that is the most interesting.

1. Use dialogue to display conflict, not impart information to the reader.

Too often, dialogue is used as a way to let the readers get information the author thinks they need. The speakers end up having a conversation with the audience rather than each other. This is called a "false triangle" problem, because the speakers are making the reader a third party to their conversation. In every dialogue, the speakers should have opposing agendas. They do not want the same thing out of the conversation. Their words should reveal their character, not just backstory.
How do you plot an entire novel?
How I craft plot has changed radically over the years. With BIG RED TEQUILA, I did very little plotting in advance. I simply began writing, then went back later and tied up all the loose ends, of which there were plenty. With each successive novel, I've done more outlining in advance. Strangely, this has made writing no easier — it's only made the process harder in different ways.

My attitude about plot and how one develops effective pacing is evolving, but below are five points I stand by:

Rick's top five tips on PLOT

5. Don't write the parts the reader would skip anyway.

I'm paraphrasing the great Elmore Leonard here. Most readers, from time to time, have skipped over portions of a chapter to get to the "good stuff." For instance, many readers will skip a long paragraph of description so they can find the next line of dialog. One trick for keeping the reader's interest is to zoom in on the content they want to see and leave out the rest. Writers, especially beginning writers, tend to over-explain.

4. Distinguish between mystery and confusion.

It is good to keep the reader guessing. It is bad to keep the reader confused. The key to successful plotting is giving the reader sufficient information to keep them interested and engaged, but not so much information that they no longer care about what will happen next. The plot should be built in layers of compelling questions – "What will he do?" "What is his secret?" "Why does she hate him so much?" The reader should always have at least one question in mind, and be dying to find out the answer.

3. Get going!

Beginning writers tend to believe that they must "set things up" before they get into the real meat of the novel. They want to introduce characters, history, and setting before they start on the central dilemma. Chapter one is often limp, because of this. Even worse, some writers are so hesitant to get to the point in chapter one that they put off the action even further by writing a prologue. The problem is, until we know the dilemma, we won't care about the set-up. Get to the point! Often manuscripts are better if they start with chapter 2, as Lawrence Block once rightly pointed out.

2. Identify the moral dilemma driving the novel.

The successful novel will haunt a reader because it deals with some ethical or moral dilemma that makes the reader wonder what he or she would do in the protagonist's place. Action may hold a reader for a chapter. A surface dilemma like a kidnapping or a romance may hold the reader for fifty pages or more, but only a moral dilemma will hold the reader for an entire novel.

1. The protagonist must exert influence to solve the problem, and the antagonist must exert influence to stop the solution.

The book must be about conscious choices, carried out in active terms. It must be about conflict. A book about random events happening to passive people will not be compelling. Coincidence is taboo – things can't just happen. There must be a cause and effect.
Are the odds of getting published really that bad?
For traditional publishing with a major publishing house, yes, the odds are long. Don't get discouraged, but it's best to go into the submission process with your eyes open.

Some points to consider:

One agent recently told me she receives over 200 unsolicited manuscripts and query letters on her desk every week. Can you imagine that she has time to give all those submissions a carefully considered reading?

According to one survey of the publishing industry, 3 manuscripts out of every 10,000 submitted are actually published. Of those, only 1 out of 10 will actually turn a profit.

Depending on which survey you believe, the average salary for a published writer is between $2000–$7000 a year. Most writers keep their day jobs. Very few hit the bestseller lists, especially on their first time around. Yes, there are exceptions, but people win the state lottery a lot more often. Write because you have to. Not because you expect to get rich!

The publishing world is changing a lot with e-books. It is quite possible to publish your own book yourself, and sometimes people get noticed this way, but it is not really a shortcut to success. Most e-books sell fewer than 100 copies. Breakout successes do happen, but I would say the odds are about the same as breaking out through traditional publishing… not that great!
How can I increase my odds?
You can increase your chances of getting published with a major publisher if:

You write well. Most rejected manuscripts are nowhere near publishable, because the writer does not have a solid command of the English language.

You are businesslike. This can be hard to do when you are selling something so near and dear to your heart — more like a child than a product. Nevertheless, agents and editors appreciate a polite, businesslike approach, because they see it very rarely.

You are persistent. Many writers fail to get published because they get discouraged and give up after a few rejections.

You open yourself to reasonable criticism. The key word is reasonable. Find readers you trust and listen to them. Do not reject criticism out of hand. However, you must believe in yourself, and trust your instincts as well.

Don't submit too soon. Make sure your manuscript is complete, and as good as it can possibly be.

Target your submissions well. Make sure the agents you send your manuscript to represent the sort of work you do. Check the WRITER'S MARKET or LITERARY AGENTS GUIDE for information.
I've finished my book. Now what do I do?
Assuming you want to go the traditional route and send your book to a big New York publishing house, rather than e-publishing on your own:

The Process of Getting Published

1. Make sure your manuscript is finished. No one will want to talk to you otherwise. Anybody can write a great first chapter, or even a great fifty pages. Very few people can actually finish a book.

2. Send query letters or emails to agents. Spend a day in the reference section of your library, going through the LITERARY MARKETPLACE or similar book. (You can also find this online.) Make a list of agents who seem to represent the kind of work you do. Draft a one page query letter and submit it to a LOT of agents — 10-20 for starters. Some agents prefer email queries. Other still prefer standard mail. Honor their preferences.

Your query letter should:

  • Introduce yourself, including any publishing experience or expertise that is relevant to the subject matter of your book.

  • Explain what sort of book you have written.

  • Offer to send sample chapters and a plot synopsis.

  • If submitted via regular mail, enclose a SASE.

3. If asked, and ONLY if asked, send the agent sample chapters and a plot synopsis. Usually they will ask to see the first three chapters, or the first fifty pages. The plot synopsis can be short — no more than a page. The point of the plot synopsis is to give the agent a brief idea where you are going with the plot, and whether your ending sounds solid.

4. If asked, and ONLY if asked, send the agent the whole manuscript. By this time, months of waiting may have gone by, but if the agent likes the sample chapters, they may ask to see the whole manuscript. Send it and be prepared to wait some more.

5. If the agent likes your work at this point, the agent will offer to represent you. At this point, you have to decide whether or not the agent sounds like the sort of person you can work with. Refer to the web site of the Association of Authors' Representatives for more information.

6. If you agree to let the agent represent you, the agent will then begin submitting your manuscript to the publishers.
Do I really need an agent?
The short answer is 'yes,' if you can get one. Agents earn their commissions by getting you a fair hearing with the right editors — something that is almost impossible to get on your own. They also advise you on contracts and sell your foreign rights.

For more information on agents, I highly recommend visiting the Association for Authors' Representatives.

Yes, it is possible to get published without an agent, especially if you target the small presses or go with electronic publishing. However, I think it is always preferable to get an agent if you can.
If I sent you a few chapters of my work, could you critique it?
Sorry, but no. I get a lot of requests like this. I wish I had time to read everyone's work and offer individual comments, but I simply don't. Your best bet is to contact a writing institute or creative writing program in your area and get into a class that offers individual critiques. You might also want to consider hiring a freelance editor to do a line edit. This is not cheap, but it is the best way to get personal, detailed feedback from a professional. If you go this route, however, get recommendations, and be sure you're dealing with someone reputable.