Sunday, March 31, 2013

Don’t talk about your book; write it!

By Dennis Mellersh

Although it is a good practice to discuss the craft of writing with other writers, talking with fellow writers and friends about the proposed plot and character development for your book might not be such a good idea.

Talking in too great detail about your proposed book, whether it is fiction or non-fiction can tend to dissipate the creative energy that should go into the actual writing of your book.

In the world of newspapers there is a story of a reporter spending a lot of time telling his editor all about a story he was covering. At some point the editor lost patience and abruptly told the reporter: “Don’t tell me about it. Write it!”

Many creators find that the same holds true in other artistic efforts. A painter, for example, can lose creative energy for their finished work if they do too many sketch versions before tackling their final canvas.

They may find that most of their creative energy has gone into the preliminary work and they may feel subconsciously that they have already expressed the idea sufficiently.

With writing, in addition to losing creative energy, divulging plot details and character descriptions to people before you are finished writing can result in discouragement because of possible negative criticism from the people you are telling these details to.

The only appropriate criticism you might want to pay attention to (unless you are attending an educational writing workshop or course) is the criticism that you will undoubtedly get when your fiction or non-fiction book is published.

Even in this instance, numerous established, successful writers say they don’t pay much attention to the critics. They feel that they themselves as writers know what did or didn’t work in the book, and they move on to their next book, applying the lessons they learned while writing their previous book.
In the process of becoming a writer, writing about your idea is better than talking about it.

When writing your book, be true to yourself

By Dennis Mellersh

For the beginner writer, one of the surest and most common routes to failure is trying to be someone you are not.

Writing a book and becoming a writer takes effort, time, and focus; it’s a lot of work. So why make that sacrifice if your book is not going to reflect the real you?

Here are four ways to help ensure that your true persona comes through in the writing of either your fiction or non-fiction book.

(1)Write what you genuinely want to write, not what you think you should be writing. Write what you think people need to hear, not what you think they want to hear. Writing what you think people want to read will not result in much originality.

(2) Similarly, write in a style that is natural for you; as you write more and more, your natural style will start to emerge more positively.  Don’t try to write in a style or manner in which you think you “should” be writing.

(3) Please yourself in your writing. Don’t try to please everybody in the belief that by doing so you will attract more readers. Try to please everybody and it’s probable that no-one will be pleased. Write to satisfy yourself, and at least you will be pleased.

(4) Write the way you talk, not in a way that you think is more “literary.” When you are writing, Ask yourself, “Is this actually the way I would express this idea if I were talking to somebody?” This applies to both non-fiction and fiction. The exception, of course is if you are creating the dialogue of a character if you are writing fiction.

Remember, your readers want to hear your natural voice – the real you. Not an imitation of your favourite author or a knock-off of a particular writing style that you admire.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Overcoming two major challenges of becoming a writer

By Dennis Mellersh

Two of the main challenges facing the new or beginner writer wanting to create a book-length project involve the problem of  isolation and the tendency to underestimate what is involved in the learning process of becoming a writer.

Insofar as the average beginner writer is not likely working in a professional publishing environment, “isolation” refers to  learning and working alone without the benefit of personal writing mentoring.

“Underestimating what is required to be a writer” refers to the mistaken belief that writing creativity is inherently in all of us and that we just have to find the key to releasing this creativity and we can all be writers.

Learning to write should be an interactive process

I was fortunate in my writing career because my first job in my early twenties was as an editorial trainee in the editorial services department of a major national magazine publisher. In that position I was taught how to write by experienced, expert writers.

This training, which included learning all the aspects of effective research, reporting, and eventually editing, was done under the watchful eyes of people whose entire work experience was related to writing as a means of earning a living. Essentially, aside from the work involved, this job milieu meant I had a relatively smooth path in the process of learning how to become a writer.

But if I had been faced years ago with trying to learn all of the knowledge from my training period on my own, in isolation, and without help, it would have been much more difficult. I was lucky to have these professional writers to learn from and I have been earning my living as a writer ever since.

As I also discovered in the years since, however, learning about effective writing is a life-long process. It is not something you ever completely “master.”

So, if you are a beginning writer and you are trying to learn it all on your own you need to do something to overcome the isolation factor. You need to position yourself so that you can learn from the experience of other writers. Eventually, as you mature in the process of becoming a writer, you will be able to absorb more on your own, particularly through constantly practicing the art of writing.

In other words, you need to take steps to make your experience of learning how to write more interactive. In addition to making the learning to write process more effective and reducing the learning-time curve, interactivity with other writers, and discussing  ideas with them, is something you need emotionally and creatively.

While it may be true that creative writing can be a lonely profession, nevertheless talking with and learning about other writers of all experience levels and capabilities should be an important part of developing your idea-generating ability.

This obviously cannot be done in a vacuum.

Here are five ways you can reduce your isolation as a beginner book-writer

(1) In addition to going to the library as part of your book-reading program, there are sometimes discussion groups you can attend that talk about various books including the writing techniques used in those books. While these discussion groups may not be directly on the topic of learning to write, the exchange of ideas could be helpful to you. You might even ask your local library or community center if you could start up a group for writers and/or people interested in books.

(2) Take part in writing workshops and seminars, whether in person, or through Internet teaching/discussions, sometimes known as “webinars.” Try to find some free ones to get familiar with the process before you take any writing seminars that require you to spend money.

(3) Sign up for writing courses; ideally ones you can take in person, such as at a local high school, college, or university.  But if necessary, correspondence writing courses, either by regular mail or online. Obviously, taking a course in person will provide more personal contact with the teacher and the other students, but correspondence courses usually feature some form of feedback from the instructor. There are courses now being offered online that are free, although their interactivity will not likely be the same as a paid course.

(4) Read biographies of writers, such as John Steinbeck, the novelist, Dylan Thomas the poet, or Guy de Maupassant, the “father”  of the modern short story. Also read the journals/diaries and autobiographies of writers. Find online discussion groups or forums, or services, such as Yahoo Answers, which focus on writing and participate in the interchange of ideas.

(5) Read books about the craft of writing, particularly those written by people who make their living by writing – as many as you can get your hands on. Even if the advice seems to become repetitive, you can usually find some good ideas in any of these types of books. Read articles about successful writers in online literary magazines, on Wikipedia, and other sources.

All of the methods outlined above can reduce your sense of isolation as a writer and also add to your knowledge about the art of writing.

Solving the problem of underestimating the requirements of the  learning to write process

The problem of underestimating the amount of work or learning involved in becoming a writer is less a matter of taking specific actions, and more about simply realizing that learning to write, and more specifically learning to write a book, is an acquired skill.

Just as you needed time and a learning curve to gain your expertise in your job, in your hobbies or special interests, or in the skills you need to manage your home as a homemaker, acquiring the skills needed to be able to consider yourself a writer also takes time.

It takes effort to gain proficiency in any of life’s skills, and it is no different in acquiring the skill of writing effectively. I’m sure I don’t need to overemphasize this point. If you didn’t realize it, you likely would not have read to the end of this article.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

What rewards are there in writing a book?

By Dennis Mellersh

Many new writers say they want to write a book.
But, aside from fulfilling that desire, what do you want to get out of:  the learning-to-write process, the writing process, the completion of your book manuscript, and hopefully even seeing it published?
Perhaps you have not asked yourself that question.
First off, as writers we need to accept a few realties:
  • Few writers make a lot of money from their books
  • Even fewer writers become famous for their books
  • A minuscule number of writers become famous and make lots of money from their books.
So no, there will not likely be fame and fortune awaiting us as we take our pens, pencils, or word-processing devices in hand to write our books.
On top of all that, writing is tough work, requires a lot of personal discipline, and can be a lonely pursuit.
What then can we expect to gain from making all that effort in our creative writing efforts, and in becoming a writer?
Here are just a few of the rewards:
  • The writing in your book may help improve the lives the readers in important ways that you did not even consider when you were writing it.
  • The learning to write process, and then act of writing in itself can provide a great deal of personal satisfaction and deserved pride in personal accomplishment
  • Writing your book will give you a platform to express your innermost thoughts and feelings in a disciplined, clearly thought-out manner
  • Your book may answer important questions in the minds of your readers and add in significant ways to the global knowledge and comprehension base.
And, perhaps most important – you should get personal fulfillment.
The novelist John Steinbeck struggled in his early literary development and had to wait a long time before gaining recognition, a broad audience, and being able to support himself finically through his writing.
However, the difficulties did not deter him from writing his books, because he was getting a great deal of inner satisfaction from it.
In a letter to his friend Carl Wilhelmson, during his period of struggle, Steinbeck wrote: “I work because I know it gives me pleasure to work. It is as simple as that, and I don’t require any other reasons. .. A couple of years ago I realized that I was not the material of which great artists are made and that I was rather glad that I wasn’t. And since then I have been happier simply to do the work and to take the reward at the end of very day that is given for a day of honest work.”(1)
 (1) Quoted in John Steinbeck: A Biography, by Jay Parini, A Minerva Paperback, published by Mandarin Paperbacks, 1994

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How John Steinbeck managed writer’s block

By Dennis Mellersh

Writer’s block is an affliction that can affect all writers, from master novelists with numerous books to their credit, to the beginner writer who is only early on in the process of becoming a writer and still some distance from writing a book.

Writer’s block in itself can range from being mild, such as needing some “inspiration” to get going with the writing task at hand, to the utterly paralyzing in which the writer feels hopeless and suffers from the despair of believing they are unable to write anything at all.

Fortunately for the milder cases of writer’s block, there are a number of techniques one can use to reduce the inertia and in effect “warm-up” to the writing task at hand.

An interesting approach on how to induce the required creative mood for the day’s writing is one that was used by the novelist John Steinbeck. 

This particular method is suggested within a collection of Steinbeck's thoughts on writing as well as tips for reducing writer’s block, which was published in the Paris Review Interviews Art of Fiction No. 45.

Steinbeck said, “It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.”

Steinbeck put the letter-writing idea into practice when he was writing East of Eden, his longest novel. Each day before starting to write the novel, he wrote a “letter” to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici.

The letters varied considerably in length, ranging from quite short to lengthy. He concluded some of them, after finishing the day’s work, by going back to the letter and writing further comments starting with phrases such as “work finished for the day and…now…”, or “Now the day’s work is done and I don’t know whether or not it is good…”

The “letters”, which are like a diary or journal when seen together, were compiled in book form and titled Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters and published by William Heinemann Ltd.

Why did Jay Parini write a book about John Steinbeck?

By Dennis Mellersh

Writers tackle book-length projects for a variety of personal reasons.

It may be to get an idea they are passionate about “out there” into the reading public; to convey information they believe is important for readers to know; to try to correct an injustice; or perhaps to collect all their stories or poems into an easily accessible literary format.

Being clear to yourself about your  underlying reasons for wanting to write a specific book is important because it will be the driving motivation you will need to sustain you throughout the challenging creative work ahead in becoming a writer.

An example of strong motivation can be seen with the prolific writer Jay Parini, who wrote a 600-page biography** on the famous novelist John Steinbeck.

Parini explains his motivation in the prologue to the biography:

 “A biographer, may of course, approach a life and a literary career from many different angles. What interests me is how this particular writer [Steinbeck] sustained the imaginative energy to create a shelf of books still worth reading several decades after his death. As the reader of this book will see, Steinbeck was a writer to the bone…From his early days at Stanford University to the end of his life, he devoted himself to his craft with that burning fire which seems to be a critical feature of all substantial creative artists.”

Jay Parini, born in 1948, is a university professor of English and creative writing, and is also a novelist, poet, biographer and literary critic*. He is also a regular contributor to a variety of quality magazines and newspapers.

* There is a short article about Jay Parini on Wikipedia:

**  John Steinbeck: A Biography, By Jay Parini, A Minerva Paperback,  published by Mandarin Paperbacks, 1994.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Who shouldn’t want to write a book?

By Dennis Mellersh

Question: How many people want to write a book?

Answer: Almost everybody, it would seem.

Discussion groups, blog and website comments, social media, and search engine statistics demonstrate that there is a super-abundance of people wanting to know how to write some form of book.

However, let’s ask the same question in a different way:

How many people want to personally invest the serious time and hard work it takes to learn how to become a writer; and then further invest the required additional energy, discipline, and long hours to learn the additional writing skills needed to create manuscripts for book-length writing projects?

Not many.

But that’s why you’re here reading this. You do want to make the personal investment. You do want to commit to this educational journey.

So, who shouldn’t want to write a book?

People who are not like you.

People who are not willing to make the necessary commitment to the process of becoming a writer.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Studying book reviews can improve your writing

By Dennis Mellersh

Whatever type of book you want to learn how to write, you can benefit from reading quality book reviews about the genre of writing that interests you.
If you want to write novels, for example, read book reviews about novels. I’m speaking here of book reviews in media recognized for their writing quality.
Although you can get some insights into people’s reactions to a particular novel, by reading reviews on, and similar venues, those reviews are generally not written by qualified professional review writers, and for the most part will not be as instructive for you in your educational process of becoming a writer.
On the other hand, book reviews associated with recognized professional newspapers magazines, and journals, and/or their web-based counterparts are generally written by knowledgeable writers, and you can learn from them.
Reading in-depth quality book reviews is a form of study; you should read these pieces with a pen/pencil and notebook handy so that you can take notes on what you find interesting and instructive.
Whether you are interested in becoming a novel writer, short story writer, or a writer of non-fiction books, there are many excellent reviews appearing continually in the quality media.
Many novels are reviewed as well as books about historical subjects, books on business, industry, science, and virtually every topic on which writers are completing and publishing books.
How can a quality book review help you? There are several ways. Quality book reviews:
  • Often compare the work under discussion to other similar books, which can be instructive
  • May compare the current book to previous work by the same book author
  • Non-fiction reviews often give background information on the broad subject matter of the book being reviewed
  • Shortcomings and strong points of the book under review will likely be examined
  • Will often recommend whether you should buy/read the book. Although, remember you can also learn from a not-so-good-book on how not to write
Here’s an example of the book reviews that appeared one particular Sunday in a major city newspaper:
  • A non-fiction book about bullying
  • A book on the 2008 financial crisis and its implications
  • A novel about a parental custody fight
  • A collection of satirical stories
  • A book discussing U.S./Iran foreign policy
  • A detailed examination of hearing loss
  • A novel about sibling rivalry
  • A collection of personal essays written by a poet
The review section also featured a list of hardcover best sellers and as well as a combined list of print and e-book best sellers divided equally into 15 fiction and 15 non-fiction titles.
Reviewing these best seller lists, in addition to the actual book reviews, can give you a good idea of what is trending in the world of published writing.

Read books about writers’ lives and improve your fiction writing

By Dennis Mellersh

Reading books about the lives of fiction writers can be an instructive and inspirational aspect of your literary journey, whether it is learning how to write a book of fiction, such as a novel, or a book-length collection of short stories.

Biographies of writers are usually written by writers familiar with the specialized genre of the writer they are discussing, and/or in a lot of cases by a writer who also writes in the same genre, such as being a novelist, short story writer, historian, or biography writer.

There is a lot of a writer’s life that goes into whatever books they have written, and it can be helpful for you as an emerging writer to understand how the events in a writer’s life and the influences in that writer’s life affected their writing.

It not only helps you understand that particular book writer, but can also give you insights into how you might construct your life as a writer.

Many aspects of our lives can be unpredictable and beyond our control, but one thing you can take charge of is how you will educate yourself to be writer with a specialty of writing books.

Biographies, or books about the lives of writers, often contain a lot of examination of the techniques of the writer under discussion, and that information can be helpful in your quest to learn how to write a book. Recently I have been reading a biography of the novelist John Steinbeck written by Jay Parini that is useful in this way.

Biographies of writers will often talk about books and writers that were a strong influence on the writer being discussed, and that information can be helpful to you. It will be even more productive if you follow up with further reading on the writing influences referred to in the biography.

As you have no doubt discovered by now, becoming a writer is often a difficult path to follow in your life. Reading books about the lives of writers can help provide you with some reassurance that choosing to live the life of a writer, in addition to being tough, can be fulfilling and rewarding.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

How to improve your fiction writing by reading poetry

By Dennis Mellersh

One of the best ways you can learn how to write your book more professionally is to develop the skill of writing concisely and compactly. An excellent way to do this is to read and study the techniques of recognized, published poets.

Good poetry has the ability to express a wide number of elements such as character, emotion, storyline, ideas, and concepts – and do so with an economy of words.
By reading quality poetry carefully, you will be able to see how good poets use the technique of compression in their writing to convey their ideas.
Let’s look at the poem Ozymandias, written by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as an example.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Within the discipline of just 14 short lines this poem:

  • Tells a story
  • Invokes scenes, or mental pictures in our minds
  • Conveys a moral or lesson
  • Illuminates a variety of emotions
  • Conveys the thought that ideas last but material things do not
  • Illustrates the folly of pride and vanity

It’s also worth noting that, as with all good writing, that there is an absence of “flowery” or what new writers sometimes construe as “literary” language in this poem.

Using plain, everyday language in your writing will convey your ideas and thoughts better than constantly reaching for the thesaurus for “fancy” words.
“Literary” writing often means writing with excess ornamentation.
Every writer has their own style, and you are developing yours. But whatever the style, saying what you want to say in as few words as is necessary will keep your book moving along, and maintain your readers interest.
Your readers are interested in your ideas, not in the wide breadth of your vocabulary.
Sometimes words can get in the way.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to write a book: Working alone to write your book

By Dennis Mellersh

One of the realities of being a writer of books is that you need to accept the fact that you will be working alone.

In your singled-minded decision to write books, you have chosen a rewarding but highly personalized path.

You will be like a dedicated entrepreneur, likely working by yourself at home; and your entrepreneurial product and service will be writing books that in some way add enjoyment to people’s lives and improve them.

Writing books, by the accounts of many established writers, is a solitary craft.  You will do the research for your books on your own; you will likely plan, outline, and write your books in solitude; and the ideas and concepts you will convey in your writing will be original – yours and yours alone.

But although your writing work will be largely done in solitude, you need not be a detached and isolated loner.

Nor should you be. To do so would hurt your writing.

If you become a hermit in respect to your writing, and don’t have any kind of social interchange with other writers and people in general, you will miss a lot of opportunities to gain new insights, techniques, ideas and advice that could add to your life experiences and improve your writing abilities.

Murray Felsher wrote in his book, Working Alone, that he considered it a social disservice to accumulate knowledge, but not pass it on and also that by not passing it on, you will not benefit from the work you are doing.  He noted, “Working alone then, means it is all the more necessary to keep in close touch with all that is happening around you. In Mr. Felsher’s case, this means the world of consulting in Washington D.C.

In your case, that of a person who wants to write books, “the world around you” means keeping in touch with all aspects of  the world writing, not just information specifically on how to write book. This can includes activities such as:
  • Reading and commenting on blogs, websites, and other venues such as YouTube that are focused on the general subject of writing
  • Reading magazines about writing such as Writer’s Digest
  • Interacting with other writers at workshops, tutorials, and meetings
  • Attending talks by writers
  • Reading books and articles about writing
  • Reading book reviews by qualified critics
  • Meeting other aspiring writers and exchanging general ideas on writing with them
The caveat, and this is a personal opinion, is that in seeking idea “feedback" you should keep the personal creative ideas on what you are specifically writing about to yourself. Talking about your original ideas, for your novel, for example, can drain energy from when it comes to writing about them.
You’ll get all the feedback you want, and perhaps more than you want, when your book is published.

Write your book despite your fears

By Dennis Mellersh

Psychological roadblocks often get in the way of people realizing their desire to write a book.
One of the biggest of these mental or psychological impediments is fear.
  • Fear that you won’t have anything important to say in your book
  • Fear that you don’t have the necessary writing skills
  • Fear that people won’t like what you write in your book
And the list of fears goes on…
Yet, you should write your book in spite of these fears.
It doesn’t matter what kind of book you want to write; it takes some courage, to “expose” your ideas in print, and that’s why most people will not attempt it.
The message in your book could be important to more people than you might realize. There may be an audience waiting for and needing the precise message you want to convey in your planned book.
As the novelist Salman Rushdie has said, “A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.”
You have some strong ideas and convictions, or you wouldn’t want to learn how to write a book. Honor those convictions and principles and put your ideas down in writing.
You need to “blow past” your fears and write the book that’s in you; or as Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., notes in the title of her motivational book, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.”
  • The children’s book you write could inspire young people or teach them something important
  • The novel or collection of short stories you write and publish could have meaningful insights on life that would help your readers
  • Your how-to-do-it book could help someone solve a problem and improve their life
One of the most important areas of satisfaction in life is in making the effort to create “something of our own,” and writing a book gives us this opportunity.
Our human nature, however will tend to throw up a lot of “what if’s” or doubts, and interfere with our desire to distribute our ideas through our writing.
Nevertheless, we should remember the words of the famous 18th Century book author and literary critic Samuel Johnson, who wrote, “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Why you should write an outline for your non-fiction book

By Dennis Mellersh

Writing an outline for a non-fiction book differs considerably from doing an outline for book of fiction, such as a novel.

Simply put, in a non-fiction book, such as a how-to-do-it book, the basic purpose of your outline is to provide you, as the writer, with a detailed roadmap or blueprint of exactly what you are going to write about.

If you don’t have an outline for your non-fiction, you can end up floundering about in a “loss for words”; you can’t “make-up” the content, because it has to be factual.

In a novel by contrast (aside from a simplified, basic outline) you need to be able to create spontaneously from your imagination as you progress with your manuscript. Because you are creating “on-the-go” you will not know ahead of time exactly what you are going to write for each page. A highly detailed and organized outline could get in the way of this creative process.

In non-fiction, because the content varies infinitely from book to book there really is no instant template or formula that you can use to develop the outline for your particular book.

However, what you can “template” to a degree is the organizational plan for your book. For the basics on writing the organizational plan for a non-fiction book, see my article at

Your outline-for-writing is not a summary or guide to your book that you publish for the reader at the beginning of your book; rather, it is plan for you to follow in your writing to make sure you cover all of the information you want to convey to your potential readers.

You have to be very clear in your outline about all of the topics and sub topics (by subject matter) that you want to discuss in your book.

Monday, March 18, 2013

How detailed should you make your book’s outline?

By Dennis Mellersh

In figuring out how to write the outline for your book, you need to strike a careful balance between too much and too little in terms of the detail of your outline or writing “blueprint.”

If your outline is too extensive, for example, you might expend a lot of your creative writing energy on the outline instead of on your book.

Too sparse an outline on the other hand might result in you not having enough signposts to keep you on track and going in the right direction.

The nature of your outline will also depend on whether you are writing a book of fiction or non-fiction*. In this article we’ll look at creating an outline for a novel.

Numerous established novelists say that they do not make detailed outlines because it would hamper their creativity is they move along in the writing of their books.
  • They want the characters to develop on the fly
  • They want their characters to develop in ways that are unplanned
  • They want the plot to take unexpected turns

I have heard such novelists say that their characters speak to them and in effect write the words for them. In such a case over-planning would inhibit the spontaneity of the writing. Similarly, the development of the plot and subplots will usually be driven by the actions of the novel’s characters, and often, these actions cannot be planned in advance if they are to appear believable, and not contrived.

Writing a work of fiction is by its nature a creative process and the development of ideas is ongoing and dynamic; it can’t be completely planned at the outset of writing the outline, nor perhaps, should it be.

Wrriting fiction is an organic process and for many novelists, writing an extensive and restrictive outline would reduce the actual writing to a formula or pattern, which would severely limit the writer’s creativity.

There are always exceptions of course, but generally, to keep the writing of a novel alive it should be spontaneous and not be bound to a preconceived “roadmap.”

The basic plot can be outlined and the main characters can have their personalities outlined (such as what motivates them); background and physical characteristics can also be roughly drawn in an outline; and the main conflicts in the novel can be established in your overall planning.

But for the most part, don’t over-plan. You’ll have a lot more fun writing your novel if you if you literally make it up as you go along. That’s really what creative writing is all about.

However, if you are only comfortable writing a detailed outline, you should do so. Just make sure that is like a battle plan which you can change and adapt as you move along in the exciting creative process of composing your novel.

Detailed blueprints are for building houses, not for creative writing such as novels.

*Note: Writing the outline for a non-fiction book is a somewhat different process which I plan to discuss in an upcoming article.

How much rewriting will your novel need?

By Dennis Mellersh

The amount of re-writing or revision your novel will need doesn’t necessarily depend on your writing methods and practices.

It’s more a matter of deciding when and how you want to edit, polish, or revise rather than any particular writing method necessarily resulting in a need for more editing and revising than a different writing method.

Some experienced writers recommend, for example, that beginner writers should write quickly, and “get it down”, not stopping to ‘over-think’ or over-polish their words as they go. The idea is that by doing this, the writing will be more alive, fresh, and passionate.

Some established writers feel that in addition this approach keeps the plot and character development moving along more quickly.

In this writing method, you might not edit at the end of your composing day, and the next day you do the same thing; you again write quickly, getting your ideas down before they start to fade.

If as a new writer you take this approach every day and don’t take any time before your manuscript is completed to edit and revise, you are going to be faced with a big editing and possibly rewriting challenge that has to be done all at once when you complete your first draft.

If on the other hand, you write carefully, weighing each word and sentence, and then edit and revise at the end of each day of day, you will obviously have less editing and rewriting to do all at once when the first draft of your novel’s manuscript is complete.

In looking at the two methods, writing quickly and not revising each day, or writing more carefully, and revising as you go, it’s difficult to say which method would require the most overall or total revision time.

Most probably the time involved with each approach would be roughly equal.

So, it’s more a matter of making a personal choice based on your comfort zone and which method you feel best brings out your creativity gets your novel’s  message out in a way that will interest your potential readers.

Write 250 words a day and you will soon have a novel

By Dennis Mellersh

One of the best ways to improve your writing, and to reach your goal of writing a novel, is to discipline yourself to write something every day.

Writing every day has two main benefits:

(1) Becoming a writer takes practice, and by working on your writing every day you keep your creative juices flowing and you establish a rhythm of creativity
(2) By writing a specific amount each day, such as on your planned novel, you will be surprised how quickly you will have composed a book

Few of us are born with a natural talent that would allow us, without any training, discipline or practice, to simply sit down and write a good novel straight off.

For the vast majority of people interested in writing a book of fiction, learning to write is an ongoing process of absorbing techniques and putting those techniques to work in our writing.

Writing something creative every day is the way to achieve this. You perfect your art by practicing it every day.

With the average length of a novel ranging from about 60,000 to 100,000 words, it can seem an overwhelming challenge. They key to meeting this challenge is to break it down into bite-size tasks.

By writing 150 words every day, you can write almost 55,000 words a year

By writing 200 words a day you can write 73,000 words a year

By writing 250 words a day you can write more than 90,000 words a year.

Do the math if you want to reach your goal sooner.

So, set a word count for your daily writing goal and stick to it. Before you know it you will have a completed the first draft of your manuscript.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Write your book to please yourself

By Dennis Mellersh

One of the themes running through the thinking of successful book authors, ranging  from diverse writers as Ray Bradbury to Eudora Welty, is that you should focus on writing to satisfy yourself, and in your own voice, not in a way you think will please any particular segment of the reading market.

To try to please others with your writing can result in your book lacking truth, conviction, life, and passion.

Granted, if you are focussed on a particular segment of the book market such as novels for the young adult market, fantasy novels, or historical fiction, you do need to keep the broad parameters of your book’s structure focussed on that market’s requirements.

But in what you have to say as writer, in the message you are trying to get across, in the ideas you are trying to convey, you need to be true to yourself, rather than writing what you think “the market wants to hear.”

Eudora Welty during an interview conducted by The Paris Review commented, “I believe if I stopped to wonder what So-and-so would think, or what I’d feel like if this were read by a stranger, I would be paralyzed.”

Even in a non-fiction book, you need to make sure that your own unique voice and point of view comes through to the reader.

If your book it is not your own voice, than someone else may as well write your book, because you are depriving your audience of your unique perspective.

Being true to yourself in your writing also includes trying to avoid emulating the style of your favourite writers. Many writers start out their writing life imitating their literary heroes, but as they gain confidence in their own abilities; their own voice starts to come through more forcefully.

Overall, if you try to write to please anyone or anything other than yourself, you won’t be happy with what you write, and you probably won’t enjoy doing the writing.

And, as Ray Bradbury has said in many interviews, you need to “Do what you love, and love what you do.”

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Do you need complete privacy to write a book?

By Dennis Mellersh

It has been recommended by many book authors that, ideally, you should  have privacy, or a special place, in which to write.

I explained some of the reasons in one of my posts: A dedicated place of your own to write your book

However, what I wrote was not meant to imply that this is a rule. It is definitely not a rule, and it does not mean that you can’t write effectively in a place that is not private.
In fact, one of the world’s most prolific book and short story writers, Ray Bradbury, did a lot of his writing in places that were not private.

In an interview in the Paris Review* the interviewer asked Bradbury:

“Where do you do your writing?”

 Bradbury answered:

“I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.”

Bradbury explained in a different interview that he used up a lot of dimes this way.

Bradbury had to write this way at the beginning of his writing life because of circumstances.

However, there are some writers who prefer by choice to do at least some of the work on their books in public places such as coffee shops. This approach can give you, as a beginning writer a break, a change of pace, and refresh you.

Writing a book is tough work, so do what you find comfortable.

Whichever way  you decide to work, however, remember that it is still a good idea to have a central place where you can keep your work and your writing tools organized and within easy access.

* You can read the entire interview with Ray Bradbury here:

Just click on the Interviews section

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Should you take a creative writing course?

By Dennis Mellersh
Beginner writers, particularly those wanting to learn about writing a book such as a novel, a collection of short stories, or a personal poetry anthology, often wonder about the value of taking some type of creative writing course.
There is a misconception that the concept of “creative writing” only applies to books of fiction. Actually creative writing techniques can also be applied to improve the writing of non-fiction and make it more interesting to read.
There is a debate among writers as to whether or not the art of creative writing can be taught. Or stated another way; Is the craft of creative writing is a skill that can actually be learned?
My personal view is that it can be taught; and it can be learned.
Although some people seem to have a natural in-born talent for writing, most of us have to learn the required skills; particularly when it comes to learning how to write a book, such as a novel, or assembling a group of our short stories or poetry into a book.
Although raw talent cannot be taught, what can be taught are the established, recognized creative writing techniques. As a beginner writer you can use these techniques to improve your book and make it more professional.
However, if someone has difficulty with the basic rules of grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and other basics, they should first take instruction in these subjects before attempting to benefit from a course in creative writing.
Courses in the basic fundamentals of writing (rather than creative writing) can often be obtained as a credit through a local school attended in person at a night course for example, or through online courses offered by various educational institutions. There are also lots of helpful books available for learning the basics of writing.
Creative writing courses are offered by many colleges and universities and are available in a variety of formats, including on a part-time study basis.
Such courses are available in a variety of presentation formats:
  • Courses you attend in person,
  • Courses by correspondence
  • Courses you take online.
Correspondence courses involve working with traditional mail and perhaps e-mail for the submission of writing assignments and communication with teachers.
Here are some examples of the type of creative writing courses offered by Humber College, located in the Toronto area:
  • Writing Fiction
  • Writing for Young Adults
  • Writing a Compelling Short story
  • Drafting a Blueprint for Your Novel
  • Poetry workshop
As another example of the type of courses that could suitable for writing a book or writing a compilation of material for a book, here are some of the topics on creative writing offered by the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies:
  • Creative Writing Introduction
  • Writing the Novel
  • The Poetic Process
  • Mystery Writing
  • Writing Fantasy
  • Writing the Memoir
  • Writing Short Fiction
In addition to learning the particular writing techniques you will need to write at a professional level, there are three main benefits you may realize from taking a creative writing course.
(1) You will have an opportunity to understand what the whole process of writing creatively is all about. You will be able to better appreciate what it is to be a writer, what the life of a writer involves, and what it takes to develop yourself into a professional book author.
(2) If you take a course that you attend in person, you will benefit from the give and take and dialogue with other students who are attending the course. The interchange of ideas between you and other people in your same experience range can be productive, invigorating, and inspiring.
(3) If you live in an area which is too distant or expensive to travel to frequently for a personal-attendance course, you can still work with good teachers on your creative writing skills by doing it online, and/or by working through traditional mail or e-mail or a combination of both in a correspondence-based course.

Monday, March 11, 2013

When writing a book make sure you are aware of copyright laws

By Dennis Mellersh

Becoming familiar with the general rules of copyright and trademark use should be an important and even essential component in your process of learning to write a book.

The following is meant only as a brief overview of copyright and trademark on a conceptual level. It is not to be considered as legal advice. See Notes and Disclaimers at the bottom of this article.

One of the problems that the Internet can create with beginner writers is the false impression that just because something is “on the Internet” and is free, it’s OK to use in your book any material you find. New writers also sometimes mistakenly extend this “Internet assumption” to print media in general and other forms of communication.

However, any material you discover in your research, including the Internet, will in all likelihood be copyrighted, unless it is definitely known to be in the public domain. If you do not know for sure if something is in the public domain, do not assume you can freely use the content in your book.

The protection of a creator’s work under copyright and trademark legislation is today considered part of the general laws covering intellectual property rights. You as a writer will be protected by these laws on the content of your planned book. You must respect the legal rights of other book authors.

Copyright and trademark legislation are laws; they are not moral or ethical suggestions. To break these laws can result in serious and costly legal consequences for you.

You can usually use brief/small amounts of material from another written source in your book, such as a quotation to illustrate a point you are making, but it still must be attributed or credited to the source, and you can’t do this extensively.

Often in this blog, for example, I will use a quotation from a well-known book author to serve as an example of the point I am making in an article. Using small snippets from a book or other written media is generally OK, as it usually falls under the “fair use” provisions of intellectual property or intellectual rights laws.

In your book, you might say for example:

“(Name of author) in (his/her) (name of book or other written material) makes the point that (quotation).”

Sometimes, however, to even use a small excerpt from another person’s writing, you will need permission from the author and/or the publisher of the content. If in doubt, seek permission to use the material.

Moreover, you cannot simply paraphrase someone’s words for your book by just changing the wording. If you are using someone else's content by just modifying it, instead of thinking up your own content, you are on doubtful legal ground.

The reason for copyright and trademark legislation (and, as a writer you will be able to appreciate this) is to prevent people from stealing your and others’ writing/words.

Overall, it’s straightforward.

You can’t copy someone else’s work – it is against the law.

Further Essential Advice:

(1) Recommendation for further reading: There is an excellent, thorough discussion on copyright on Wikipedia which I strong suggestion you read, study, and remember:

(2) Notes and Disclaimer:

(a)This brief How to Write a Book article is not meant to be an exhaustive or definitive legal explanation on the intricacies of copyright and trademark legislative requirements.

 (b) This article is not intended, nor should it be used, as a substitute for professional/legal advice on copyright as it pertains to the writing in your book; for such advice, which you should talk to a legal expert.

(3) This How to Write a Book article is concerned only with written print or E-format communications: videos, podcasts, songs, music in general, movies, and other visual and/or  audio forms of communication can be even more legally restrictive, with substantial legal penalties for infringement.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Choosing the right topic for your how-to book

By Dennis Mellersh

In trying to figure out a topic for the how-to book you want to write, your personal and particular knowledge of a subject can be an excellent guide.

Through a hobby, an interest, your job, or your business, you may already have specific knowledge that specialized audiences need, want, and are looking for.

Yet, for the beginner writer, it’s often a temptation to try to write a book about topics that are already popular, topics on which a lot of other writers have already written how-to books.

There is a way to avoid this trap.

The Internet has enabled writers and communicators to successfully reach and sell to small, even micro-sized audiences that are interested in small sub-sets of information.

A small e-book providing instruction on a highly specialized aspect of any subject can find a dedicated, special-interest reading audience and be successful for the writer.

And, the recent advent of Internet-based, simplified self-publishing with E-books or on-demand printed books makes it possible for you as a writer to reach your potential audience directly without having to go through the lengthy process of submitting your manuscript to a traditional book publisher.

In fact, you might be quite surprised at the number of people who would be interested in reading book you have written on a significantly focused, specialized subject.

For example, historically there have been countless books written on the general topic of gardening. For a new how-to book to gain attention in such a broad reading audience market it would have to have some outstanding attribute, such as being written by a celebrity.

But, a book on how to successfully grow a particular type of rose, or how to work with a specialized landscaping material could interest an audience which, although relatively small in total book market percentage terms, could make your book a success.

Similarly, a problem you have solved in your particular hobby could be the basis for writing an e-book that would interest many fellow hobbyists; it could even be the beginning of a series you could write about solving problems related to challenging aspects of your hobby.

The same applies to your job, or business. There are probably many problem solving how-to books that you could write, based on your existing knowledge.

I could give you example after example, but I think you get the idea. Dig down into your own knowledge base – there is likely a book waiting there to be written by you.

By writing about what interests you, what you are knowledgeable about, it will give your how-to book a built-in authenticity and authority. Your writing will also be more natural and more appealing. You will be writing in your own voice.

You’ll be doing your book because you enjoy writing about the topic, not because it’s a popular topic you think you “should” be writing about to be successful.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A dedicated place of your own to write your book

By Dennis Mellersh

It may be true that some writers can do their work almost anywhere; but for most of us, it doesn’t work that way. We need to have a dedicated spot in which to write.

Why is this so important?

It’s not because something mystical and inspirational will happen when we are in “our writing place”, although it might; it’s more a matter of a dedicated spot giving us the ability to concentrate.

It doesn’t have to fancy, but it needs to be yours.

Here’s what Stephen King has to say in his book On Writing:

“You can read anywhere almost, but when it comes to writing, library carrels, park benches, and rented flats should be courts of last resort…most of us do our best in a place of our own. Until you get one you’ll find your new resolution to write a lot hard to take seriously.”

King also believes that your writing place needs one key element – a door “which you are willing to shut.”

And once you have a place of your own for writing, King recommends you set a daily writing goal in terms of a word count and suggests 1,000 words a day; and that you keep the door shut until you meet your writing word count target.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Use action, not “telling” in developing your novel’s characters

By Dennis Mellersh

In learning how to write a novel, the art of character development is a skill you will need to acquire.

Although many books on writing techniques have been published on this literary topic, there are a few main points on character development to keep in mind when you are in the early stages of the learning to write process.

As best as you can, try to develop the personality of your characters through the actions they take in your novel, rather than through non-dialogue or non-action description.

You don’t want to tell the reader that a particular character is mean or evil, for example; you want to show it by the character’s actions.

Sometimes you may need to use purely descriptive prose to portray the physical features of a character, such as the color of their eyes, but to show their personality, do it through the action of your novel.

Here’s a too-obvious example: (“name of your character) roughly pushed his wife out of the way.”

Or, “It wasn’t the first time that (name of your character) had insulted his wife in front of their friends.”

Overly simple, but you get the idea. It builds a descriptive image of the character without simply telling/saying that he was rude and abusive.

And, even with prose description you can find ways to add action and avoid just “telling.”
Here are a few oversimplified examples:

“As he walked quickly through the doorway, (name of your character) had to duck to avoid hitting his head.” (Conveys that the character is tall without just saying he is tall.)

“(Name of your character) took her wrinkled slacks and blouse out of the laundry basket and dressed quickly.” (Describes how she looked without simply saying her clothing was wrinkled.)

“(Name of your character) looked in the mirror and was shocked at how bloodshot her eyes were.” (Better than “Her eyes were bloodshot”)

Overall, by using the more indirect or oblique methods of developing a character such as through action or action-oriented description, it leaves more up to the imagination of your readers and will help get them more involved in your novel.