How to be a successful writer in a few easy steps / by Josh Guess

I did my taxes yesterday, and in so doing I saw on paper (well, on laptop) how much I made in royalties from sales of my eBooks in 2011. It was slightly more than the amount my wife made from the part-time job she took on for the first half of the year, and a thought struck me pretty hard right then. 

I need to track my income more closely. I'm a lazy bastard. 

Another thought hit me along with that: I'm a professional author. Not full-time and certainly not an expert, but I made a pretty nice chunk of change from putting words on paper (again with the laptop) and selling them to people. It's a little strange for me. Being an author always seemed like a dream I could never quite make into a reality, yet here I am with a moderate level of success. 

I've learned many things since I've been self-publishing, the most important of which is that no success of any size happens alone. I've been very lucky to have a close group of friends online who are also writers--Annetta Ribken, Lori Whitwam, Joseph Paul Haines, and others--who have given me the benefits of their experience. I can say for certain that without them, my work would be of much lower quality. They have been a treasure trove of knowledge, support, and encouragement every bit as much as my family and friends in the offline world. 

I make no claims to greatness, please understand. I'm not saying my work is amazing and world-changing, but it's better now than it was a few months ago, and it will be better still a short way down the road. There are a lot of authors out there who will tell you what they've done to get their books into the hands of readers, and I've been one of them. There are some big-name folks like J.A. Konrath who will tell you the general steps on how to better your chances at selling copies by self-pubbing. I've done that too. 

Not right now, though. I just want to list out some things I've learned about writing over the last few years, as much to help me remember and focus on them as it is to maybe make someone out there who's writing their first novel taking a crack at a short story think as they tap away at their keyboard. 

1) Always remember to learn. 

This one is hard for me. I've spent a lot of time doing revisions, going over the structure of sentences and usage of words, trying to make everything flow well. There are people who will tell you to write with passion, and you should definitely do that. But writing isn't all love letters and pain, it's a structured art that has infinite variations. I've learned the hard way that spewing out words because you feel them is a good way to do revisions for longer than it took to write the work. Learning what works for you structurally and working with that in mind, always revising in your head as you write, is absolutely key to improving the quality of your writing. It's very hard for me to do this, and it's an ongoing process. 

2) Don't just write yourself. 

This is one I'm bad at. I tend to write lead male characters that are about my age and similar to me in personality. I've experimented a lot with writing very different characters, and those tend to be reader favorites. Writing what you know is a good thing, and should always be a starting point. It is for me (and hey, if Stephen King can write thirty books set in Maine, then we're all okay!) and is probably where most people begin a story from. I guess the key for me to this one is to research and expand my knowledge so I can write what I know and still have it be something new. There's a lot to be said for experimentation in your work. Personal experience, good old trial and error, shows me that sometimes it works and sometimes it fails like Rick Perry trying to count to three. But taking yourself in new directions stretches your mental muscles and makes you grow. 


While it's very important to me to write in a way that has structure on a small scale, I've had a hard time keeping my focus when I'm worried about the overall plot of my story. On a strictly personal level, I think it's kind of a bum deal that so-called "Literary Fiction" gets a pass on plot because it focuses so heavily on prose and character. There's a lot of popular genre fiction out there that does a fantastic job of both, but gets panned because the plot is "weak". That's in quotations because I'm a firm believer that you should keep a general idea of where the story is going, but to write it a section at a time. Worrying over whether or not you'll get to the main villain's big reveal on page two fifty is a great way to end up counting the number of squirrels trying to steal your mustache collection. It'll drive you nuts. 

My method is to keep a looses timeline in my head as I write, but to find as much joy in telling the actual story as I can. Plot holes and inconsistencies pale in importance when you've written twenty pages of rushed story trying to get to a certain point. I've dropped work on three whole novels for this very reason. 

4) When you revise, STRESS OVER EVERYTHING

Don't beat yourself over the head or anything, but for me the two parts of the job are starkly different. I write fast when I'm not being lazy, and I've developed a decent level of ability to get out the story I want to tell while having fun doing it. Revising, however, is the beast that cannot be slain. When the fun part is over and I've got a rough draft, I obsess over every word. Then every sentence. Then every section, chapter, and so on. I might read through my work two or three times when I'm actively working on it, but during the revision process I read it at least six or seven. *That* is when I worry about holes in the story, logical inconsistencies, and of course the more boring stuff like typos and misspellings. 

5) Know when to stop. 

This one is simple. For example, last night the SuperBowl happened. I worked the night before, and stayed up all day so I'd be sure not to sleep through the game. I tried to get some work done on the sequel to my last novel, but the words were shit. I couldn't make it flow, and it was an effort to get anything typed at all. So, after a few hundred words, I stopped. Better to lose some word count than write trash that I'd have to heavily edit or outright delete (or both). I do this because I'm OCD about a lot of things. I would have had a hard time sleeping if I'd have had to lay there knowing those badly written paragraphs or pages needed my attention. Almost as if my laptop were silently judging me for storing such things upon its sacred hard drive. 

Also, know when your story is done. The reason my last novel, Beautiful, is the first book in a trilogy is due to the huge amount of canon and the dozen or so plot lines I worked out for it. It was going to be a one-off until I realized just how huge an effort it would be. The thing would have been somewhere around four hundred thousand words (about a thousand pages long) and that was the condensed version. I'm happier knowing that I ended the first book at a natural stopping point, and that I can write the subsequent five sequels at a length that gives the story room to grow. Call it 100,000 words for each book. 

Again, I know the internet is vast and populated by people who (no pun intended) read into things too deeply. This isn't meant to make me sound like I'm better than you. You might be the next Steinbeck, with a natural talent that beats me by a country mile. I don't think writing is a competition. What writing actually is? An art and a science all at once. Which makes it very hard to do. Managing to follow the important rules that go along with writing while trying to make something that's all at once original, interesting, emotionally satisfying, and marketable, is like trying to balance a dozen spinning plates while hopping. 

My aim here is only to give you tips to help keep your balance. You may not need it, and that's great. You might glean something helpful from this post, and I hope if you do need it that I've done a small good. I'm convinced now that I'll never stop learning about this craft, and I don't just mean improving my skills. Writing is so hugely complex that I could (and hopefully will) spend the rest of my life doing it and never grasp all the intricacies. 

Please feel free to comment, question, or add anything to this list in the comments section below. I'm always thrilled to hear what other people have to say about my (someday full-time) dream job. Any thoughts that might help me or others are welcome. Go nuts!