As a book club we are often contacted by authors, aspiring and otherwise, for advice about writing a book and the industry in general. In the hopes of providing useful, helpful, practical and accurate information as a reference guide, we’ve decided to offer a series of Open Mic pieces where we go straight to the “horse’s mouth,” so to speak. For this first guide, we’ve reached out to a few authors for their tips and advice to those interested in starting a literary journey or looking to maintain one. Collectively, this group has over 60 years of experience, 100+ books and a wealth of knowledge. Their titles have graced numerous bestsellers’ lists including New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly and Essence. Their honors are too many to name, including the first ever made-for-TV movie for BET.
Each author was simply asked one question - What advice or writing tips would you give to someone wanting to write a book?
School is in session…
Kimberla Lawson Roby: “My advice to aspiring writers is to: Study the craft of writing, discover and stick with your own voice and writing style, write straight from the heart, and write every single day. When you've finished writing your book, study and learn absolutely everything you can about the business of publishing and how to promote your work.”
Kimberla resides in Illinois with her husband, Will. Her 17th novel, THE REVEREND’S WIFE will be released Tuesday, May 1, 2012.
Caleb Alexander: “Purely speaking on the aspect of writing a book, I would say that the truest, deepest, most meaningful, and ever constant advice that I could give to ones wanting to write a book is to stay true to themselves. I know that's not some great piece of sacred Confucius like wisdom, but at the end of the day, being true to yourself is the absolute best piece of advice that I could give.
In writing, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery; it simply means that the writer did not dig deep enough. You can't write like someone else. You can't write someone else's story. You can't write what's in someone else's heart. You can only write passionately about the story that's inside of you, bursting to get out. Readers will recognize fake. Don't just tell a hood story because you read a couple of dozen hood stories and you want to put your take on it. If you do that, then you'll completely miss out on the opportunity to tell a really beautiful, really deep story.
And believe me when I say this, your first one is going to be your baby. That's the story that you're going to pour your everything into. That's the story that's going to contain more of who you are than any other story that you write. Every story that you write will contain a piece of you, but none more so than that first one. Writing your first novel is like the other first times in your life. It's something that can never be re-created. So put everything that you have into it. It's your introduction to the world, so make it the best introduction it can be. Let it speak volumes about who you are as an individual and what your convictions are. When someone closes your book, you want them to be emotionally exhausted, because you've just taken them on a tremendously emotional human journey. They've just re-lived a piece of your life. They've just walked a mile in your shoes. And they've just seen a piece of life through your eyes.
I've written dozens of novels, and ALL of them have been published, ninety-nine percent of them by the majors. Most of them went on to be on somebody's bestsellers’ list. But there will NEVER be another Eastside. It was my first, my baby, my introduction to the world. I want you to think about that, and then think about all of your favorite authors’ FIRST books. Their first books were the same. What I'm saying is that when you are writing a book, allow the same passion to flow out onto that page. However, the ONLY way that you are going to accomplish that, and the readers will let you know if you did, is by being true to yourself, and telling your own story.
I'm sure others will cover all of the technical stuff: editing, re-editing, writing from an outline, drafting a synopsis, or constructing a character list. That's all great advice. Listen to them. These tips may be very helpful to you, and they may help you to focus and complete that novel. My advice is more in the abstract. Sure, anyone can sit down and write out a synopsis, an outline, a character list, and then write a novel by the numbers. You will check off all of the right boxes. It'll have great characters with deep backgrounds. It'll have great structure and flow. It'll have a good theme. People will close the book and not be disappointed. That's fine. And if that's what you want to do, that's okay as well. But what I want to talk about is more on the emotional level, more about the passion of writing. Readers can FEEL it.
DO NOT write another hoochie mama, baby mama, dope dealer, hood book, just moving it to the city where you live, or relocating the character to a project near you. Readers will say, “I've been there and done that." It's okay if your character is struggling and if your character is from the hood. I'm not telling you to not keep it real or to not write about that experience. If that's something that you want to get out of you, then tell it. But just make sure that it's the story that's inside of you! What did your character do inside of his hood or housing project to get out? What changed his/her life? How did they end up the projects? What happened to momma? What happened to daddy? What about momma's failures or struggles, and how did they affect him or her? What's up with the siblings? How were they affected? What happened to the hood? How did it turn into 'The Hood' and when? These are some of the elements that the readers will notice. It's what makes your story YOUR story.
At the end of the day, the biggest, best, most consistent advice is to reach deep down inside of you, and tell the story that is dying to get out. Be true to yourself and to YOUR story. Don't write a rehash, write a classic!
Caleb Alexander is an author, ghostwriter, screen writer, speech writer and publisher. He currently lives in Converse, Texas.
EN Joy/Joylynn Jossel: “As an author who has written under many names and many genres, I am often asked advice from both aspiring authors and seasoned authors as well. Even as a seasoned author, there is still always so much more to learn and it's always a blessing to be able to engage in the quality of sharing among other authors. With that being said, I'd like to share what I think is the most valuable advice an author could ever receive: "KNOW AND GET YOUR AUDIENCE BEFORE YOU EVEN FINISH THE BOOK!"
I know; sounds like hustling backwards, right? Sounds like creating a hype for something that doesn't even exist, right? Sounds like fraud-a scam, right? WRONG!
The most valuable thing an author can ever do is to generate a fan base - have tons of people sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for a book to come out. Think about it; doesn't Hollywood do it all the time when it comes to movies? Doesn't the Lifetime Movie Network have the ladies setting their DVR months in advance for a movie with all those teasing previews they show? Or the huge wrestling events have men doing pay per view months in advance? Shouldn't the same go for the literary world?
I say yes, and that authors should stop selling themselves short by not considering their product to be something so worthy that folks need to mark their calendars for its release...pre order, etc... Hustling backwards is creating a product, filling your warehouse, garage, dining room, etc... with it, and then trying to figure out who would want to buy it and how to get them to buy it.
The minute a person knows they are going to write that book and they have that title engraved in stone, they should create a cover. Even if it's just a mock cover with a black background and the title is in a large white letters, create a visual to give people. Begin promoting it. Begin teasing people with a synopsis and one liners from the book. Create a website giving the release date. Have no idea when the book will be done? Then just say "Coming Soon." Once there is a concrete release date, begin taking pre-orders. Please be realistic with that release date. There is nothing worse than having a reader sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for a book to come out, and then the release date comes and goes, especially if they have pre-ordered it. By that time they have moved on to the next author and no longer trust that the book will ever come out.
Every chance the author gets, they should tell people about their forthcoming title. Get all their friends and family to tell people as well. Create a social networking page. Take out ads with literary promotional companies. Get book marks, postcards, etc... Even send book stores information about the forthcoming title. Of course the author needs to do all of this while writing the book, but as I always say (and any author will tell you), writing the book is the easy part. Selling it is the killer. But I strongly believe if an author generates their audience first (and knows who their audience is...who the book will appeal to), do some marketing and promoting before the book is ever even written, it will make the task of selling the book once it is released that much easier.”
E.N. Joy, formerly writing secular works under the names Joylynn M. Jossel and JOY, is the acquisition editor for Urban Christian, an imprint of Urban Books. She also provides one-on-one consulting and literary services such as ghost writing, editing, professional read-throughs, and write behinds.
Keith Lee Johnson: “1) Ask yourself why you're considering writing a book.
2) Ask yourself what you know about the publishing business.
3) Ask yourself how much money you're willing to devote to the pursuit of publication.
4) Ask yourself if you're willing to travel to literary events at your own expense to learn about the business/meet agents and other well positioned people to help you achieve your dream.
5) Ask yourself if you would continue to pursue publication if it took more than 5 years to get an agent or a publisher to take you seriously.
Keith Lee Johnson has written in several genres including, suspense/thrillers, drama, and contemporary fiction. He lives in Toledo, Ohio.
Francis Ray: “The road to publication can be long and demanding or unexpectedly quick. Whatever your path, always remember to be gracious and thankful to those who have helped you along the way and to your readers.
First, I'd say never forget that writing is extremely personal so never compare yourself to others if their success comes quicker than yours; just keep writing and rewriting, always trying to improve your craft.
Second, join a national writing organization that will have conferences with editors and agents to pitch your work.
Third, I highly recommend that besides reading in your genre that you study closely Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain for tips on plotting and characterization.
Fourth, and I realize I'm quoting someone else but it needs repeating, a writer writes - not just talks and thinks about writing.
Good luck and if being published is your dream, let nothing stand in your way, least of all excuses or giving up. I was once very good at both. I wasted time that I can never get back. Publication is possible. Dream it, believe it, do it!!”
Francis Ray is the author of forty-three titles to date. She has released two titles so far this year with two more slated for a 2012 release.
Class is over. See you in two weeks with the next Open Mic!