Discover the Art of Writing, the Business of Publishing, and the Joy of Wielding Words
Peter Lyle DeHaan’s latest book is Successful Author FAQs.
Do you have questions about writing? Publishing?
Veteran author, publisher, editor, and freelance writer, Peter Lyle DeHaan answers questions writers often ask.
In 15 topical chapters, tackling over 100 questions, Peter addresses finding time to write, publishing options, and platform considerations. He talks about marketing, blogging, the traditional vs indie publishing debate, and much more.
With over three decades of experience, career author Peter Lyle DeHaan has answers to questions writers commonly ask. He’ll help you move forward on your writing journey.
On this grand adventure:
Learn why you shouldn’t call yourself an aspiring writer.
Uncover tips to deal with rejection.
Expose writing advice that may not be true.
Discover how to self-edit, get feedback, and find an editor.
Determine if being a writer is worth the effort.
But there’s more. There are also loads of writing tips, submission pointers, and a publishing checklist.
Be inspired. Be informed. Be motivated to become the writer you’ve always dreamed of.
Don’t delay your writing journey any longer. Take the next step.
It’s time to start calling yourself a writer.
Read Successful Author FAQs to explore the art of writing and the business of publishing.
[Successful Author FAQs was first published in 2019 as The Successful Author. This new release contains updated text and additional sections.]
Some writers discover as they write while others plan their journey before they start
In writing, as in life, people tend to follow two modes: pantsing and plotting.
On one side are the pantsers, those who write by the seat of their pants. I prefer the label of “discovery writers.” They don’t know where their words will take them. Writing reveals an adventure as they watch their plot unfold, learn about their characters, and sometimes paint themselves into a corner with no way out.
In contrast, stand the plotters who map out their writing journey before they write one word. But I don’t like that name because it sounds too much like a plodder. I prefer the alternate labels of outliners or planners. These folks know their story arc, strategize the various scenes (or at least chapters), define their characters, and have the end in sight before they type their first word. (NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, allows writers to do this sort of preplanning, though actual writing may not begin before November 1.)
While each side of the debate holds firm opinions, neither is the method that will work for everyone. Each writer must determine which style works best for him or herself; there is no one right answer.
If you’re unsure which you are, look at how you live life for clues. Do you plan things out or wing it? The answer likely reveals your preferred writing mode. Though you can test out the opposite method, don’t let someone talk you into trying to be what you are not.
My default is to plan in detail, both for life and for writing. (I am, however, more open to detours when I write.) For trips, I make lists, verify details, do research, make maps, note addresses, and phone numbers, make reservations, pack carefully, and set timetables. Planning calms me; it provides the structure I need to enjoy my vacation. Encountering the unexpected is unpleasant.
Yet within this framework, I allow for flexibility to relish the journey and explore as I go. Some of my most enjoyable memories are within those moments of discovery. Yet without my planning, I would have never been confronted by those spontaneous, serendipitous delights.
Others are the opposite. They would forgo a vacation if they had to prepare for it as much as I.
So it is with pantsers and plotters. Know which one you are, and learn when you can deviate. This will provide you with the most enjoyable writing experience and the most satisfying results.
I used to be addicted to alliteration: the repetition of similar sounds near each other in a sentence, usually at the start of words. “Similar sounds” is an example of alliteration. An extreme example would be “Similar sounds starting successive words…”
Just as some people consider a pun as the highest form of humor, I elevate alliteration as a revered writing skill. I used to employ it often, too often, in fact.
Apparently alliteration has become passé. Some even say to avoid it, as alliteration distracts the reader. How sad. In discussing this with Chip MacGregor, he allowed that two or perhaps three sound repetitions are acceptable, while four or more are excessive.
Yikes! I’ve pulled off four and five alliterative sounds—and once proudly strung together six in a row. When in the depths of my addiction, I would replace an ideal word with an acceptable one just to satisfy my compulsion. Even now, with my craving in check, I’m especially pleased at this post’s title, with the beginning and ending of two words that showcase my skill.
My addiction to alliteration will never go away, but I am in recovery. (But, oh, how I miss it.)
How authors can resume writing without losing time or momentum
When I started writing, it always took me several writing sessions to finish anything.
I fell into a bad habit. When I would resume writing (even after taking a short break) I would re-read everything I had written so far, editing along the way. Then I felt ready to write more.
The problem was this warm-up ritual could take thirty minutes to an hour. That didn’t leave much time to add more words.
Here are six ideas to keep us from wasting time when we resume writing:
1. Stop in the Middle
Though it seems tidy to finish a section and then stop writing, this makes it harder to pick up the flow later. Instead, stop in the middle of the action or thought, such as “Smoke billowed from the window.” or “I fell into a bad habit.”
In both cases, the next sentence will proceed with ease. Although it takes discipline, sometimes I even stop mid-sentence, as in “Jeffy’s eyes grew…” or “The second point is…” This leaves no doubt what words come next.
2. Get a Running Start
When not knowing the next words, back up a sentence or two (a paragraph at the most) and re-read it. This provides a running start to jump back into our writing.
Even if the words that come next aren’t good ones, at least we are writing and moving forward. This beats staring at the monitor with growing frustration as each second ticks by.
3. Talk it Through
Another tip when we’re stuck is to write “What I want to say is…” and then finish the sentence. This often gives immediate clarity and helps words flow.
4. Begin the Next Part
Though we psychologically want to stop at the end of a section or chapter, resist that impulse, no matter how satisfying. Start the next part, even if it’s just a sentence or two. Bonus points if you stop in midsentence.
5. End with a Transition
In fiction, we call this a cliffhanger, and in nonfiction, it is preselling the next point. In either case, ending with a transitional sentence prepares us to write the next one.
6. Plan What to Write Next
Before we end our writing session, we can outline the next section, jot down talking points, or even write a key sentence. In fiction, we can write one line of punchy dialogue or note a plot twist. In nonfiction, we can lay down a pithy soundbite or profound callout.
Sometimes I write the last line of the next section. Then when I resume working, I merely write towards that ending.
These six tips help me to pick up my writing where I left off without wasting time or losing momentum. I hope they help you to do the same.
Writers are often unsure of how to format thoughts in their writing.
Thoughts are best put in italic and do not include quotes. For example:
I hope this description makes sense to you.
An attribute tag, such as “he thought” is not used, since the person doing the thinking should be obvious from the context. You know this is my thought since I am the author.
However, I have seen some publishers use different approaches, such as putting thoughts in quotes, including the attribute tag, or even skipping the italics.
One publisher made thoughts indistinguishable from spoken dialogue, except for the tag “thought” rather than “said.” I don’t appreciate these alternate presentations of thoughts. This is especially dangerous, given that many readers overlook the descriptor tag.
Now, here’s a question for you. I’m working on a story concept where two characters communicate telepathically, and I wonder how I should format it. For example:
Where have you been? Shelly was angry and relieved at the same time.
You told me to go away, so I did. Terry’s sad aura filled the space between them.
It was six months ago. Only now did Shelly comprehend the impact of her careless words. I’ve missed you…so very much.
I’ve always been nearby, just waiting for you to call me back. Terry smiled, the first visible sign that he missed her, too.
I once signed up for a trial of grammarly.com. It’s a most impressive grammar checker.
The problem was that it was too sophisticated for me. It flagged many things to check, but I lacked the needed background to comprehend the issues. Many of their suggestions were beyond me. However, I recently took a fresh look at it, and it seems they’ve made it easier to use.
Regardless, the built-in grammar checker in Microsoft Word is a great place to start. Though this still requires the writer to decide which suggestions to accept and which ones to reject, it’s easier to manage. While this won’t catch everything, it covers the basics.
In my experience as a publication editor, most of the submissions I receive could benefit from doing this basic grammar check in Word before they submitted their work. It seems many people have turned off this option (I once did), and some don’t bother to run spell-check either. Don’t make that mistake.
As you consider when to write, it is also critical to consider the issue of where to write. Not only does this depend on your circumstances, but also on your personality.
While writing is often a solitary process, some prefer to do so in the company of others. They may opt to write amid the activity of family life. There where is the kitchen table or even the living room with the TV blaring?
Where to Write
Still, others view the local coffee shop as their office of choice, making a morning commute, ordering their preferred java concoction, and remaining for several hours as they pound out their prose on a laptop computer. I’ve heard of entire books being written in these settings. In these cases, while composing remains a singular effort, it is happily and effectively done in the presence of others.
The majority, I suspect, require quiet in order to write rightly. The presence of others serves only to stymie their creative flow and production efficacy. They need a place to write with minimal distractions and no interruptions.
While some enjoy background music, others prefer absolute silence. For all these folks, a dedicated space—preferably a private room—is a necessity. If others are present during writing time, they need to not interrupt and to respect the privacy of the writing sanctuary.
In making these determinations, sometimes the question of where needs to be ascertained before the when. For example, writing at a coffee house is incompatible with middle-of-the-night inspiration.
Where I Write
As for me, I prefer to write in solitude; coffee shops, the kitchen table, and the living room are out. It took a while to find the right spot, but I ended up taking over a spare bedroom, sufficiently isolated from the rest of the house. While not quite spartan in its furnishings, it definitely has a minimalist feel to it. There is no phone or means for music, the clock is not readily visible, and the lone wall decoration declares “writer at work.” It is my writing refuge.
In developing as a writer, it is critical to write every day—or at least almost every day. We need to discover when to write.
The first step is to determine the best time for you to write. If writing is important, then give it the best part of your day; make it a priority. Don’t give it your leftover time or squeeze it in between lessor activities.
Schedule time to write; consider it as a job. Even if you aren’t writing to generate income, you need to treat it as seriously as your vocation or you will fail to develop as a writer.
Only you can determine the best time for you to write—and it may require some experimenting. Some people like to arise early to write, while others prefer midday after their worldly distractions have been sufficiently dispatched. Other writers like to wrap their day tapping out their words on a keyboard and some even opt for the middle of the night—be it as a regular occurrence or a response to insomnia.
Look at your life, your schedule, and your responsibilities. Then pick a time to devote to the craft of writing. It may not be easy, but good things seldom are. And it may require some trial and error to hone in on the ideal time for you.
For me, in determining when to write, I found that early morning is best for me, often getting up around 5 am and working for an hour or two, but sometimes longer. Then I segue into my day and begin my day job. I’ve even found myself writing in the middle of the night, but not too often. Middays I am too distracted and evenings I am too tired to produce anything worthwhile.
But for now, begin to write every day. That’s the first step to becoming a successful writer.
For the most part, I do write every day, but I vary my labors, rotating between projects. I would never spend seven days in a row working on the same thing; that would become boring and the results would be unacceptable.
Failing to stay current on writing trends hurts writers and lessens their work
It seems everything I learned in school about writing was wrong. Okay, that’s an overstatement. But many of the lessons I mastered in school no longer apply or are just plain wrong.
However, I don’t think my teachers were in error over their instruction. Instead, the conventions changed.
Unfortunately, too many writers assume they work within a set of incontrovertible writing rules. And they are offended when told otherwise.
1) Two spaces to end a sentence: I’ve witnessed the transition from using two spaces to one to end a sentence. It happened over the past ten to fifteen years. This rule harkens back to the typewriter. Now we use computers, or should, and one space rules. Only someone out of touch would space-space anymore. And if they do, their writing skill is judged as less than.
2) Five spaces to start a paragraph: I hesitate to include this obsolete rule, but a couple of years ago the submission requirements said I must start each paragraph with five spaces. I couldn’t believe it. The five-space rule goes back to the days of manual typewriters and before the invention of the tab key. Yes, I have seen such beasts, but they were already antiques when I was a teen.
3) Don’t start sentences with conjunction In school, we’d get marked down if we failed to follow this rule, but ten years ago a college professor gave me permission to begin a sentence with a conjunction. And sometimes it feels like the right thing to do.
4) Don’t end a sentence with a preposition: This was another rule drilled into me, which some people claim was never a rule in the first place. Rewriting those preposition-ending sentences resulted in some of the most awkward-sounding constructs. Yet, I still see writers do just that.
5) You must have at least three sentences per paragraph: I remember being taught that a paragraph should have five to eight sentences. The minimum was three: opening sentence, one sentence for the body of the paragraph, and the concluding sentence. Now writers are told to keep their paragraphs short.
One sentence, or even one word, is acceptable.
6) Always use complete sentences: Sometimes an incomplete sentence more effectively communicates than a complete one. Do you think?
7) Use semicolons to connect two closely connected sentences: When I learned this neat trick, I used it a lot; maybe I used it too much. Now my revered semicolon is fallen out of favor, and I understand some editors prohibit it; that’s so sad.
8) Add color to your writing by inserting adjectives and adverbs: Yes, my teachers encouraged me to beef up my writing with the frequent use of adverbs and adjectives. Nowadays we call this purple prose, and there’s no place for it anymore.
9) Don’t use said for a dialogue tag: “It’s boring and unimaginative to always write said after a bit of dialogue,” my teacher said. Then she passed out a sheet of creative alternatives. “Use these instead,” she interjected. Now the trend is back to using said, even though it’s repetitive.
10) Do not use contractions: I never figured out why we’d have contractions if we couldn’t use them. But my teachers prohibited them, even for dialogue. Once I avoided using a contraction to add emphasis to a sentence, but my editor said I sounded stilted.
There’s more, but these ten will get you started.
The point is that writing evolves as does most everything and if we’re to stay at the top of our writing game, we better evolve, too.