The Best Writing Advice I Ever Heard: Read 100 Books

In all the writer’s workshops and classes I’ve attended, in all the conversations I’ve had with successful writers, the best piece of writing advice anyone has ever given me, was this:

READ 100 books in whatever genre you wish to write in.

Really… 100.

Only after doing so, did I really understand why the author had said that.

All of the great artists of history have at least one thing in common: They first studied the masters, before becoming masters themselves.

And by “studied,” I do not mean “glanced at” or “looked at for a long time.” I mean “studied” – they examined how the artist used colors, how the brushstrokes were done, how faces were drawn, the “shape” of the central image, the materials used to create the image, etc.

If you want to truly excel at writing, and if you want to be a successful paid author whose work is read and enjoyed by people outside of your own family, your best path is to read and study the masters of your craft.

Do more than merely read them. Analyze and study how the writer created the work. Write down your analyses so you can review and compare them later. To use an analogy from the art world again… Look at the “brushstrokes,” and think analytically about the “overall image.”

Some of the things to look for while reading analytically include:

  • (Sub-)Genre: Which genre or sub-genre is the story? How is this (sub-)genre different from others that are similar to it? What basic genre elements are present? What is the order/pacing of those elements?
  • “The Numbers”: How many pages, chapters (include if there there is any epilogue/prologue), estimated number of words (letters across a page, multiplied times lines of text, divide that by five, multiply this times number of pages of text), illustrations, etc.?

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  • What POV was used? If omniscient, how much omniscience is the reader allowed to experience? If first- or second-person, how does the author show what takes place out of sight of the narrator? Is only one POV used throughout?
  • Characters:
    • How many characters are there (how many major characters, how many minor ones)?
    • How are they distinguished from one another?
    • What are their archetypes?
    • If characters are cultural or literary stereotypes, is it for comedic effect or another reason?
    • How they are described (physically and psychologically) and brought to life (how much detail is given for each of them, what foods they eat, their hobbies, etc)?
    • How are “good” characters made more/less “good” and likable vs. “bad guy” character?
    • How much time is spent describing characters/how much time are they “on screen/on stage” for the reader?
    • What kind of relationships they have with/to other characters?
    • What kind of lifestyles they live, what jobs they have?
    • What pets they have, if any, and how they relate to their pets (also: are the pets used to symbolize the characters’ traits in any way)?
    • Are there any aspects of the writing outside of the characters that are used to symbolize them and/or their character traits (such as a family crest with a snake for an evil character, a necklace with a cross for a religious character, a character who is destined to die pulls an ace of spades from a card deck, a painting on the character’s home of a person famous for being good/evil, etc)?

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  • Scenes and Settings: What kind of setting is the story, how it is described, why that setting is better for the story than others might be, number of settings used, etc.
  • Plot:
    • What major plot points happen and when do they happen?
    • What plot devices are used (when, how introduced, what purpose for them…)?
    • When is each character and each plot device introduced in the plot arc?
    • How does each chapter begin & end (tone, is the reader left hanging mid-action, etc.)?
  • Statements/Theme: What is the theme of the story? Does the story make any social or other kinds of statement – i.e., does it have a moral or a lesson taught? (This is not necessary in every kind of story, but some sub-genres do have this as one of the unwritten rules of their stories.)
  • Tone:
    • How does the author create and maintain a mood: suspense, humor, reader interest, mystery, romance, etc?
    • How much sex/violence/mature material is used (if any)?
    • What kind of words & language are used (long/short sentences, little/lots of punctuation, colorful/plain words & terminology, idioms, colloquialisms, etc)?
    • How is comedy & humor used (if at all) in a non-humorous story, romance in a non-romantic story, and so on?
  • Show vs Tell: How does the author show the reader things without saying them straight out? For example, instead of saying “Bob was scared”, the author should say how Bob was trembling, breathing heavily, wide-eyed, etc. Instead of saying “the forest was scary,” the author should show that wind in the trees whispering strangely, branches seeming to grab for people, wolves howling, etc.

More on “Show vs Tell”:
https://annethewriter33.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/show-dont-tell-in-your-writing/


  • What symbolism & foreshadowing, if any, is used? How, where, when? Is it symbolic or obvious?
  • Backstory/Descriptions: Most importantly, how does the author work descriptions and backstory without using obvious exposition and/or leaving the reader feel like they are being lectured at, and/or feeling like the story was rudely interrupted by the other information? Your writing should be smooth and flow comfortably. How do other authors achieve this?

For the first few dozen books, I took notes on everything. But I quickly discovered that it was impossible to analyze for ALL of these aspects at the same time. So I tried focusing on only a few of these criteria at a time. (This made it all the more important to read a full 100 books, as it turned out.) Reading all those books not only taught me to look for one of these criteria at a time, it taught me to see many of them as I read through books now. Reading so many of one genre also taught me that there is a formula for my intended genre, and that there can be SUB-genres within that overall classification, with their own specific requirements and rules.

For example, in most “Cozy Tea Mysteries,” the killer or villain of the book must appear anywhere by the end of the first three chapters, or at least have their name mentioned multiple times by that same point in the story. (Similarly, the killer in many hour-long “whodunit” TV crime shows tends to appear in the first ten minutes of the episode.) Most of the ones I read were told in the First Person POV, and a large number of them had female amateur detectives. The murder(s) tended to take place “off stage,” and gory & uncomfortable details were rarely used. There was almost never any sex scenes or excessive profanity. These criteria were not present every time, but they did tend to happen more often than not.

Some of these ideas were obvious by the time I was done with Book 20, but others didn’t become clear until I had finished Book 99.

So, yes… 100 books is a lot, but there’s a very good reason for the large number.

RECOMMENDED LINKS OF INTEREST

How to Analyze a Novel
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/introliterature/chapter/how-to-analyze-a-novel/

Analyzing Novels and Short Stories
https://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Analysis/Analyzing-Novels-Short-Stories

How to Critically Analyze a Book
https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Literature_and_Literacy/Writing_and_Critical_Thinking_Through_Literature_(Ringo_and_Kashyap)/04%3A_About_Fiction-_Short_Stories_and_the_Novel/4.05%3A_How_to_Analyze_Fiction-_Elements_of_Literature

9 Elements You’ll Find in Every Story
https://blog.prepscholar.com/literary-elements-list-examples

Analyzing Literature
http://www.surfturk.com/advancedcomp/analyzeliteratureguide.html

How to Analyze Fiction
https://davehood59.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/how-to-analyze-fiction//

iWriterly Channel on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/c/iWriterly

“Read Like a Writer”
https://youtu.be/E2NNupsc73Y

https://youtu.be/TTl2peOPuQk

https://youtu.be/ukoJ3efQmBg

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

Thank you!

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“Cheap at the Beginning Makes for Expensive in the End” (A Commentary on Self-Editing Your Manuscript)

“A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” Abraham Lincoln once said. In that same vein, it can also be said that “A writer who is his own editor invariably looks foolish as an author.”

Or, to quote another adage, “Cheap at the beginning makes for expensive in the end.”

Three to five cents (USD) per word is a not-uncommon fee for freelance editors. So paying for a professional editor can be expensive, especially for a first-time author. A book that is 75,000 words in length might cost as much as $3,750 for one round of editing, depending on the kind of editing you’re having done (at least two rounds is recommended by some editors).

How Much Does an Editor Cost? What to Expect for Pro Services – Reedsy

When “Inexpensive” Becomes “Overworked and Underpaid” – Nikki Auberkett | Pen & Quill

Costs like this can make the idea of “self-editing” your manuscript or using only editing software very tempting.

But before you toss away the idea of paying for an editor, consider this…

An author of my acquaintance online (I’ll call him “Bob”) was able to self-publish a novel he had long been wanting to see in print. This author claimed he had already been published professionally by a traditional publisher, so he certainly would have dealt with the publishing industry— including editors— before.

All throughout his draft-writing process, he made lots of comments on many social media posts (whenever writers were asking about hiring an editor). “Bob” repeatedly said that editors cost too much, and that writers should try to “self-edit.” He praised the capabilities of editing software. He told countless writers that “self-editing” was not only possible, but just as effective as a professional editor, and perfectly acceptable for self-publishing. “Bob” made himself quite the advocate for this, in spite of the many times when myself and others tried to explain that editors do far more than merely spell-check, and do far more than any app or other computer software could do.

Recently, “Bob” self-published that book. It was a story he had been wanting to write for a long time. He paid money he said he could not really afford, to have 10,000 copies printed up and have the e-book posted online. (I suspect he was vanity published, despite his claims otherwise.)

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He went on social media, spending the entire morning promoting his new book online.

Because it was my favorite genre, and I rarely get to read many new authors writing in that genre, I was looking forward to reading it. As soon as I read his announcement about his new book, I downloaded it and began to read.

…And instantly became so very embarrassed for his sake.

While there were almost no spelling errors, it was rife with punctuation issues. The first few pages alone had several sentences that were confusing and poorly worded. His first chapter was basically an “information dump,” without any characters being introduced, and was incredibly uninteresting. Even the paragraph-long synopsis for his dust jacket had numerous errors, and was not engagingly written the way a promotional blurb should be, in order to get people to buy the book. The book was painful to read, and I didn’t even get past the first chapter.

While I was trying to figure out how to tell him that his dream book was… not the best quality work, I went onto his first post where he had announced the release of his new book, less than a few hours before. I saw that a few other people had already politely and gently told him it was not as well written as he thought, and desperately needed a good editor. Some were not very kind about it at all.

“Bob” was floored.

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Now that he had some of the problems with his book pointed out to him and could see them more clearly, the reality of his situation was sinking in. “Bob” had invested a lot of his own money, and had 10,000 printed copies of a book that was an embarrassment to any professional author. He would have to either eat the huge loss or continue to humiliate himself online, in hopes of making a few sales.

He chose to delete his promotional posts, stop promoting his book, and slink off into the sunset by leaving social media for awhile. (Apparently, he didn’t believe in doing things by halves.)

This scenario is a too-common occurrence. Writers try to be cheap and apply “do it yourself” mentality to publishing, or just don’t realize the vital and incredibly powerful role editors play in the publishing process. However, this time, this writer’s humiliation was even worse. Remember, this particular writer had gotten on social media on numerous occasions, claiming that “self-editing” is more than sufficient for self-publishers. And now “Bob’s” hubris-driven blunder was out there on the internet for everyone to see.

To make matters even worse, this author who had repeatedly claimed he was publishing his latest book as a professional, now had a book that made him look like a vanity-press-printed amateur.

Don’t get me wrong. “Bob” is a good writer. Overall, his ideas and stories are very good. He has a quick wit and a great sense of humor in his blogs & posts. So it’s quite believable that he has indeed been traditionally published before. But submitting to traditional publishers is very different than self-publishing.

A Submissions Editor at a publishing house expects to see an unpolished work. They expect to have their editorial staff go through every manuscript and make lots of changes, with several rounds of edits, before allowing it anywhere near the printing press. So submitting an unedited (or “self-edited”) manuscript to a traditional publisher is perfectly acceptable.

However, in self-publishing, your initial readers are Joe and Jane Average. They expect (and very rightly so) that every book they download or buy at a store will have been written and perfected, prior to their reading the opening sentence. They expect (again, rightly so) the same quality of writing and professional publishing that they would get from a book published by any of “The Big Five” publishing houses.

Your book is competing in the same marketplace as books that have been through several rounds of editing, beta readers, and marketing professionals. A lot of money was invested in those books, and they are your competition.

So for you, a writer looking at venues for your book, this means that you must ask yourself:

Can you afford to be a professional author while self-publishing, or should you submit your work to traditional publishers?

Because if you can’t afford to pay for a good editor to polish your manuscript, then— to be brutally honest— you either don’t want to be taken seriously as a professional author, or you just don’t belong in self-publishing.

However… This is not to say you don’t belong in print. As I said before, traditional publishing is a great option for the beginning writer with no editorial budget– the best option, in my opinion. The publisher there will pay for the editor to go over your work, market your book for you, and you always receive some kind of payment for the time you spent writing (this is never the situation with self-publishing). The person first reading your manuscript at these places expects grammatical imperfection, and is looking at the overall quality of your story and use of language.

Remember: If a company is promising to do all the editing & printing, while also charging you a lot of money to “publish” your book, they’re probably a “vanity press” and definitely a SCAM. You will pay far less to hire a freelance editor and publish your book for yourself online.
RUN AWAY!

Yes, traditional publishers will probably reject your manuscript at first— and if you wisely and stubbornly keep sending it back out the door, various publishers will probably reject it more than a few times. But if you research which imprint/publisher you are submitting to and how your manuscript fits into their image & product offerings, and if you write a good query letter, then a good writer stands a good chance of being published (and polished) without paying out of your own savings to do so.

…And you will never have a book on the market that makes you look like an amateur hack.

Anne Fisher-Ahlert is a freelance editor who is happy to look over several pages of your manuscript for free, in order to demonstrate how much you need an editor, and with hopes that you will hire her. Anne’s email is Anne_Ahlert@Yahoo.com .



If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

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Dropping the F-Bomb: A Book Lover’s Memory

When I was a pre-teen, way back in the 1970s, my mom bought me a paperback, that I think was the one pictured, called “Super-Cops: The True Story of the Cops Called Batman and Robin.” We both thought it was about Superheroes.

It turned out to be a tough-guy cop book, about mean-street police partners. They loved using the F-bomb.

After several chapters, I decided I should probably know what that meant, since they used it so often. (Remember, this was the 1970s, and I lived in a small town.) So I walked up to my mom, who was washing dishes at the time, and innocently asked her what it meant.

She was shocked, and asked me what I said. Her tone said I might be in trouble, but I repeated it anyway.

She picked up a bar of soap and shook it at me. She told me that if ever I said that word again, she would use it to wash out my mouth.

(Note to self: Never ask a parent what a word means while they are standing near a bar of soap!)

After I explained I really didn’t know it was a dirty word, she calmed a lot, and asked me where I heard it.

After I told her about the book, she confiscated it. Knowing how she always treated books, I could not picture her ever throwing one away, so I kept looking around the house for it for awhile after (I never found it).

It was a good book. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

Thank you!

Submitting Your Work and Dealing with Rejection

Rejection happens… a lot.

It should happen a lot, if you’re doing it right.

If your manuscript hasn’t been rejected by at least a dozen publishers (preferably more), you haven’t tried hard enough yet.

KEEP SUBMITTING.

Remember, “Gone With The Wind” was rejected hundreds of times, before it finally found its way to print. Most authors deal with countless rejections.

The successful ones keep trying.

It’s Not About You

Rejection is not a personal slam against you or your work. Sometimes the manuscript is not a good fit for the publisher. Sometimes you did not present yourself as a professional author, but instead seemed careless or rude in your query letter. Other times the publisher just does not have the funds & staff at that time to take on another title for publication.

Rejection happens for a lot of reasons, many of them beyond your control. But there are lots of trade publishers out there, willing– and hungry– to read your submissions, and (yes) pay you to publish your work.

KEEP SUBMITTING.

Submission Guidelines

Before you do anything else, be sure to look at the publisher’s “Submission Guidelines.” 

This should tell you:

  • The contact name for the person to whom you should address your query letter
  • What to include and not include in your submission (such as: samples of your work, number of chapters, SASE, etc.)
  • If they are accepting submissions via email, or only through agents, or not accepting from first-time authors, or are open to new authors, or what file format to send any electronic submissions, etc. 
  • The genre(s) that their imprint publishes, and what kind of books/articles they are looking for

If you have any questions, be sure to call and get answers. Editors would much rather have you make a quick call to them, than to spend time going through a manuscript that doesn’t fit their needs and mail out a rejection.

SASE is an abbreviation for a “Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.” You should have sufficient postage already on the envelope for them to return your manuscript to you. Almost every submission that’s mailed via postal service should have an SASE included, unless their Submission Guidelines specify that they do not return manuscripts.

Be sure to look over the list of books they’ve previously published. If your book subject/genre is too different from their usual fare, they will not publish your book.

If they tend to publish mostly Cozy Tea Mysteries and your book is a Mystery Thriller, then there is a good chance they will publish it. But if you submit a Vampire Romance to an Evangelical Christian Theology/Non-Fiction imprint, don’t expect them to make an exception for your book, no matter how good your story is. 

If an imprint publishes a lot of Zombie/Vampire stories, then there’s a very good chance they will accept your Vampire Romance. But if they only publish Historical Mysteries, then they aren’t going to accept your Vampire Romance story.

You can find the publisher’s most updated Submission Guidelines on their website. 

You can also find Submission Guidelines for a lot of publishers in the most recent copy of a Writer’s Market book (link here), where you can browse and find a publisher that fits your book. (If you find a listing in any Writer’s Market, be sure to call to verify that the Submissions Editor is the same as the one listed in the book. Editorial jobs have a lot of turnover, so the name might easily be different than the one in the book.) Some types of publishers have specialty writer’s markets, such as Literary Agents, Christian publishers, artists, etc.

As always, watch out for scammers pretending to be legitimate publishers! Check for their listing in reputable directories like Writer’s Market. Also search the internet with their name and the word “scam” to find out more about them, and to find out if they’re legitimate.

Query Letters

A good query letter sounds professional.

Ask yourself when reading over your query letter, and before sending it out: “Would I hire this writer for a full-time job if this letter showed up on my desk?”

They don’t need to hear about your childhood traumas, or why you became a writer, or how you’ve been writing this book since you were ten years old. Don’t give them a list of your favorite books to read– they don’t care, and it doesn’t sound professional. And don’t tell them how much their company will want to publish your book– they can judge for themselves if your book fits their interests, thank you.

NEVER address it to “Dear Sir or Madam” or anything equally generic. It’s rude. If you didn’t take the time to call or check the Submission Guidelines and find out their name, they know you won’t take the time to read any instructions & edits that they later send you if they accept your book. If you thought checking their name was a waste of your time, then they’ll think reading your submission is a waste of THEIR time. “Buh-bye!”

Also, don’t tell them about books you might have self-published– UNLESS you also have sales for those books. Any schmuck can post a piece of unedited crap to the internet and say they’re “self-published.” Any idiot can pay a Vanity Press to put their words in print. 

They want to hear if you SOLD your work. They want to know if it was any GOOD.

Along the same vein, if you’ve never had an editor look over your self-published book AND have not received overall positive reviews from readers, then avoid even mentioning self-published work– really. You don’t want a Submissions Editor to see your mistakes and poor reviews– or lack of any feedback whatsoever.

Think of it this way, if you had lousy employee reviews from a former boss and/or poor references from that company, you would try to downplay them on your resume– maybe even omit them altogether. But if you got stellar reviews, then you would be sure to mention them to any potential employer.

The same is true for query letters. Avoid bragging about things that would not impress an editor looking to “hire” you.

On the flip side, having a full book under your belt and already completely written, shows a publisher that you are able to finish a book if they accept your “first-few-chapters” submission. It demonstrates that you can complete the task they’re taking you on for. It also tells them that you will have at least some understanding about the publishing process and not make unrealistic demands along the way. 

Balance out the pros and cons of discussing your previous self-publishing experience, and include any information carefully. 

The editor looking at your query is looking to “hire you for a book project.* They want to “hire” a professional who does great work, and not someone whose work will need constant checking and correcting.

They also don’t want to hire someone who refuses to MAKE corrections. Be sure to avoid phrases that make you sound like you “don’t need an editor” (you will) or sound like your book is “perfect as is” (it’s not). No editor wants to work with an author who argues about every comma, and/or who refuses to reword even the most incomprehensible of sentences, simply because that author thinks their work is “perfect” as is. 

Editors don’t expect you to follow every change they mark up without question. But they do expect you to make at least most of their markups without a huge fight over each one. 

So What DO You Put in a Query Letter?

Just give them a HOOK to catch their attention, a SHORT SUMMARY of your book/story/article, and show them a short paragraph description of your writing EXPERIENCE. Then thank the editor for their time and give your contact information. 

Basically, that’s it.

Polish it up and personalize it for the editor and publisher you’re sending it to. Make the editor think that you are talking to them specifically, and not sending out a form letter.

The following links provide some great information about query letters and examples of successful ones. Be sure to look them over before writing your query.

NY Book Editors: “How to Write a Query Letter”
https://nybookeditors.com/2015/12/how-to-write-a-darn-good-query-letter/

Writer’s Digest: “10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter”
https://www.writersdigest.com/getting-published/the-10-dos-and-donts-of-writing-a-query-letter

Reedsy: “How to Write a Query Letter”
https://blog.reedsy.com/guide/how-to-write-a-query-letter/ 

It’s Worth Repeating…

Just remember that you will get rejections. Expect them. Plan for them.

I recall one successful full-time author, who told other writers that he sends out at least 10-25 query letters a week for magazine articles & short stories, and expects to only get one or two of those accepted. He also spends time every week working on his latest book, and pitching his previous book. By diversifying and keeping himself on lots of desks at once, he keeps himself gainfully employed.

To be a profitable, full-time author, rejection slips should be a normal part of your business. Just remind yourself that they are not about you. They are about your query & manuscript, and how well your book fits with the company you’re submitting it to.

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

Thank you!