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In this issue, we focus on just a few of the fundamentals that I believe every writer needs to rely on as they progress in their journey to becoming a bestselling author. I’ll take a leap of faith and say that the reason you’re reading this right now is because you want to become a bestselling author.

Well, I believe you can do it. After all, if I managed to pull it off, you sure as hell can!

Let’s step back for a moment and start at the beginning. So many writers fall victim to self-doubt, getting themselves trapped in an often relentless rut before they have even left the gate. So, for those of you reading this who have become caught in this rut, let’s talk about why you haven’t started writing your story yet. For most, it isn’t the fear of starting the book at all; rather, it is the fear of criticism when the work is finished.

The first thing one must do is find the courage to write. No matter what, you just have to do it. Pick up the pen, or start typing at your keyboard, and never look back. Write that book you’ve been thinking about for years. I know, you have a thousand concerns––countless “what if’s.” What if my novel is poorly written? What if no one likes it? What if it doesn’t sell? But, think about this: what if it does sell? In fact, what if you become the next huge breakout New York Times bestseller? The only––and do I mean, the only––question that matters, is “what if I never start at all?” If you never pick up that pen, never start tapping at that keyboard, you can forget about every other “what if” that has ever come between you and writing your book. How many people can say, “You know what? I have written and published a book!” Trust yourself. And trust your novel.

So, let’s discuss some key fundamentals––foundations you will need as you write.

    First, prepare yourself to become a great writer. 

  1. That means, first and foremost, you are a great reader. 
  2. Know the genre you’ve selected for your novel and study it (by reading it).
  3. Understand that some level of talent is required. However, this is not some freakishly unique talent dispensed to the chosen few. No, I’m talking about the type of talent most reasonably intelligent and creative people already possess. Keep this Stephen King quote in mind; "Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” In the end, it’s going to be your commitment, dedication, and love of writing, which will set you apart from the millions who never start and never finish their bestselling novel.
  4. Find and nurture strong self-belief, courage, motivation, determination, and 2-inch thick rhino skin––believe me, you’re going to need it.
  5. Have knowledge of your subject matter (or, and this is key, you can learn it).
  6. Become knowledgeable in the craft of writing. Merely learning the “rules” of novel writing isn't enough. Sure, knowing the rules is a must. However, you ultimately need to become proficient at your craft, just like every other successful novelist. You must know and understand the rules, and––over time––develop the sensibility for how to effectively break them. This is the key to mastering the craft of writing a bestselling novel. Where do you gain this knowledge? From endlessly reading great books and relentlessly writing. The more you read, the more what you read translates into how you write. Then, practice, practice, practice!
  7. And finally, preparing yourself as a writer means that you understand how long it will take to write a novel. It depends on your style (i.e., fast and furious or slow and steady), whether you’ll be able to write every day, how much description you will include, and whether your novel will be long and complicated like War and Peace, or short and easy like Love Story. A typical novel is between 80K and 100K words but can be as few as 40K or as much as 250K. If that scares you, look at it this way. Write a thousand words a day and your novel will be finished in 3 months.

Second, understand the importance of your novel’s “big idea.” 

  1. A big idea, in itself, is remarkably simple––one sentence to be exact. This is your elevator speech. It’s what your book is about. Let’s take The Hollow Man, for example. “A U.S. Government field analyst, haunted by the ghost of a dead child, becomes obsessed with finding the terrorist, who murdered her.” But, that one sentence contains the DNA of an entire novel. And that DNA comes to life through the details created when we question our big idea. Who is this little girl? Why and how is she murdered? Why does the analyst care about her? What is her relationship to the terrorist? Can the analyst stop the terrorist before he kills again? And so on––these are the smaller ideas that break the big idea into bite-sized pieces. 
  2. And, just because you have found your big unbreakable idea does not mean it is set in concrete. You’ll need to accept that your novel idea, or ideas, can and probably will change as you write, at least a little.

The next thing you need to do is find a writing routine that works for you.  Whether it’s an hour every day or all day on Sunday or a thousand words at a time, schedule it, commit to it, and stick with it. The first rule of writing is to keep writing. Don’t get distracted, don’t give up, and don’t stop until your first draft is on paper. And don’t worry about how awful it is. All first drafts are so full of holes and suck so bad that the damn things are often barely holding themselves together. That’s why they’re called drafts.

The last foundation of writing we’ll talk about is Research. It’s an absolute must. And thanks to the internet, it is incredibly quick and easy to find the information you need. If your novel is non-fiction, then every last little insignificant detail must be as right as humanly possible. That requires a lot of research unless you were there, of course, for every minute of every scene in your book, and you have an excellent memory for details. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter much what you say in fiction, especially with Sci-fi or Romance genres. Under the best of circumstances, love is one crazy ride, difficult to grasp, like nothing else in our known universe, and mostly unbelievable at best. However, fun aside, even fiction has to make sense, within the context of each scene. It must be believable. For example, if your novel takes place in 1935, don’t include a digital watch or diet soda or polyester clothes. My advice is: get comfortable with research, right from the very beginning. Research should be your conscience––your constant companion––as you write.

These core fundamentals should help any budding author form the foundation needed, from which they can build a meaningful writing career. Please join me next time when we start diving into ways to slog through and finally complete that first draft.

 

by Paul Hollis  (TopShelf Columnist)

Twitter @HollowManSeries / TheHollowManSeries.com