Writing for Fun and Profit

Ok, let’s admit it. Some of you have novels and other length fiction in the closet.

I hope it will be helpful to offer some advice here, and to answer questions that you may have.

Here’s a set of The Rules

1. “Follow no rule off a cliff”—CJ Cherryh, I forget when. When advice conflicts with your concept of your story, don’t try to go there. Seek other advice.

2. “Editors excuse and expect typos, not bad grammar.” Words are your equipment. Respect them. Use them precisely. And write a lot. Your natural mode of expression is talking. You have to make it so words flow out of your fingers accurately spelled, accurately typed, and making exactly the sense you want. This skill  comes with practice. Months and years of practice. You have time to make up for: get cracking, no matter what  you write.

The corollary to this is: “Never trust Grammatik or a computer spell checker.”

3. “Don’t plan: do. The plan will occur to you as you go.” Some writers do plan everything. They must not be as often distracted as I am. Get it on paper, in any form you can.

4. “Study word derivations.” Learn them in families, as, for instance, the Latin reg-rect (Rule, govern, regulate) gives us: regent, regnant, regulation, regular, cor-RECT, insurrection, rectangular, regent, Rex, incorrigible, (why did that e change to i? accented double consonant in front of it.) Etc. When you need a word, think of one of your core groups and let that core instruct you.

In the huge Webster’s International, there are some fine-print pages at the front that nobody ever reads. Read them. They contain all the rules for English grammar and spelling ever concocted, in less than 25 pages. Mastery of that section is all that’s between you and Gandalf-like wisdom, at least where it regards the English language.

5. “Plan to publish or don’t. Both are honorable ways to write.” Nuff said. Write for yourself and your friends, or do it for pub. And if  you do it for pub, I’d recommend going for paper books, not e-pub. If you can do it, it will give you a springboard you can’t get online.

6. “Don’t drive or handle operate heavy equipment while working out a scene in your head.” Your vision may switch without warning to a spaceport dock or a mediaeval castle. This is no time to be navigating downtown or running a lathe.

7. “Never imagine that you are a better writer while on substances.” You aren’t. Don’t even write on aspirin if you can avoid it. You need as keen a mind as you can muster.

8. “Don’t ask your Aunt Hattie to critique. She loves you too much.” Find some reader who’ll ask the hard questions, and the proper questions for the kind of story you write.

9. “Do not mix up advice about short stories with advice about novels.” I’ve seen more confused young writers who took a short course from some writer and never thought to ask what that writer writes. The mediums are vastly different.

10. “Write. Write often. Write daily. If you can’t do anything else that day, keep a journal of your thoughts and observations and take on life in general, just to keep your fingers in practice.” Thinking about writing is not practice. Writing is practice. You wouldn’t expect to look at a piano and think about the piano and listen to people play the piano and then hope to go to Carnegie Hall rarely having touched a keyboard yourself. Same problem.

11. “Don’t be too critical.” Ted Sturgeon said “98 percent of everything is crap.” Yep. Write garbage. Write, write, write. Then learn to edit brilliantly.

12. “If your book has one brilliant scene, and you’re now stalled, that scene is your problem, especially if it’s the best thing you ever wrote.” Get it out of there, however lovingly crafted. Back up, and get going.

13. “You can say anything if you can punctuate it correctly.”  —“Good No Fear to kill the King.—rough literal translation of a famous Latin sentence. It can read:  “Not good situation. Fear to Kill the King.” Or. “Situation ok. No fear. OK to kill the king.” Where you put the period matters.  In this instance, the bearer could assess the situation, add one dot on the paper—or not—and poor king Edward was toast. Pay meticulous attention to dots, whether 3, or 4, or over commas… … …. ; : etc.

14. “If you’ve mailed out a book to a publisher, get busy on another one.” Or you’ll go nuts. An answer can take months.

15. “Rejection means I’m bad.” Nope. It can mean the book needs work: assume that, and you’ll send out a better book. But it can also mean the publisher just bought a book very like yours and wants to balance the list. It can also mean everybody on the editorial committee liked it but the company president, and that did it. It can also mean the new-hire first reader was scared to bring a really innovative manuscript to the scary 3rd editor, and just sent it back as the easier course. Or it can mean that somebody backed into the editor’s car this morning and the editor is not in the mood for humor. Reasons vary. Don’t second guess or blame your skills. Just send out the best book you can.


  1. CJ

    Well, you can cover it in a fast gloss…or a small line-drop (# mark, skip line for time-lapse) and for the shoes, she can do what third-world people have done for worn out shoes, insert moss when the sole gets thin, and find a piece of leather and just work it into the inside, or wrap a rag about the outside, Valley Forge style…
    Yes, people notice if a character never sleeps.

    • Raesean

      Thank you: one had wondered.

  2. BlueCatShip

    About the shoes: That presents a larger problem. While traveling, your medieval heroes (or common folk) will need all sorts of supplies. Shoes and socks get holes or shrink. They need food, water, or something stronger (and not just for drinking). They may need all sorts of other things. A stop in the next town or along the highway (cow path, wagon ruts) is a chance to get supplies, run into friendly (and unfriendly) locals, and soak up medieval ambience (just hold your nose, please) and run into plot complications. Travel and inns being what they were, a traveler might need to get rid of very tiny, itchy, and unwelcome passengers. There might be unsavory types at the inn. Or insistent, uh, “serving staff” or all sorts of awkward but real complications. We recommend that the traveler avoid the mead *and* the stew at that inn over there, unless one wishes to be…indisposed…along the way.

    (No, I wouldn’t mind a good medieval story at all.)

  3. Dario

    Greetings, CJ!

    I’m hoping you can help me with advice on a writing issue.

    I’ve had feedback on the draft of my novel from my crit group, which includes a few pros. The book is a caper/thriller with just a shimmer of the fantastic. In a nutshell:

    Protags are two older gents doing something highly illegal and dangerous; their scheme involves two main event sequences with a lull of a few weeks between.

    Event sequence one (which takes place of necessity in a dangerous, war-torn land, and includes some unplanned mayhem) triggers the attention of the authorities in the form of two (nuanced, likeable) cops back home in the UK, who will be the antagonists for the second event sequence.

    Several of my first readers had issues with these two important characters–the main and only antagonists, the challenges in the first event sequence being provided by the war-torn land and its denizens–showing up halfway through the book, and wanted them on stage from the get-go; this is a big problem because the events of the first sequence are what brings our protags to the attention of the authorities.

    I think part of the issue in the first draft was that because the protags have already had half a book, they’re more nuanced and developed as characters. I think I could have the cops come in halfway through the book and, just by working harder and giving them more airtime, make them equally solid characters. (I’m pretty sure you’ve done in this in some of your own work, or am I misremembering?) Apart from the logistical/causative problems of introducing the cops earlier, I find it hard it to believe I’m up against an iron Rule: it seems to me that a decent writer should be able to pull off anything if they go about it the right way.

    What’s your take on this? Hopefully I’ve given you enough info to advise.

    Eternally grateful in advance, and Semper Fi,


  4. CJ

    The issue is partially pacing and partially the reader info-flow: ie, giving the reader the notion they have all the requisite pieces and therefore can anticipate, which is part of the fun of reading. You can splice in a prologue with the other characters, or you can set them up in symbolic fashion, by having ties to that world. You set up the issue and those characters, skip to second issue and that set, and bounce back and forth as often as need by to keep the readers satisfied with both developments. You CAN do most anything if you do it right, but—if your readers are complaining, that’s a problem, and should be accommodated. You can have two running narratives and braid them together at the appropriate point: the vignettes don’t have to be large or long: they can be quite impressionistic until the characters are needed, and you don’t have to telegraph anything of what will happen, just little hints that there is the possibility these people will eventually intersect.

  5. Dario

    Thanks so much, CJ. That all makes sense to me, and you addressed one of my readers’ issues which specifically was that the story currently feels as though it’s branching off at an angle from the initial direction (reader expectation). You’ve given me some optional strategies here, and the confidence I needed to address the issue. Thanks again 🙂

  6. Raesean

    Query on when and how to find agents: my historical-fantasy’s full first draft is close to finished and should be by the end of the summer (with a partial rewrite also). It is based upon consequences of the Battle of Flodden, where the Scots king died historically (he comes back to life in mine and therein lies much of the plot driver but not character development). Next year will be Flodden’s 500th anniversary and Scotland is making much of it. It would be a logical time for my novel to be published.

    Do I search for a (Scottish?) agent now with an unfinished novel that has a good teaser prologue set at Flodden? Do I wait until I have a solid second draft or what? And, if I go with a Scottish agent on the grounds that a Scottish publisher would be the most likely to be initially interested in this, how do I set about looking for/interesting one, given that I live in the States?

  7. CJ

    Although deals across the pond have been made, since production of a print book takes a year, you are already too late for that event: otoh, perhaps people will be aware of Flodden as a result of the event, and that would help. YOu can reference it in your cover letter, “500 years ago—we are approaching that that anniversary” x and y happened and altered the course of world history… My book explores an alternate outcome…”

    You would seek a mainstream US agency—not agent— with a healthy overseas representation. Just google ‘us literary agency’ and read: pick one that represents people you’ve heard of, —they won’t be shy of using certain authors— then write and ask if they’re ‘reading’ right now. The search itself may take you a year: the last thing you need is to take up with somebody working solo and not in NYC, which means you’re paying them ten percent of gross simply to receive your book and remail it to a publisher under their letterhead—a letterhead unknown to the intended publisher. You could make up a nice letterhead of your own and do that just as effectively. So go for one of the big houses, who will, if it accepts your ‘read,’ give your ms to an agent who will read it when he has time, then—IF he thinks he sees a market he knows how to tap—he will probably think of mentioning your manuscript to an editor he’s having lunch with regarding a manuscript he’s already sure they’ll buy, and about whom there’s no high-energy sales pitch. If you really excite him, he might even phone up a publisher he knows is in the market and actually make an appointment to deliver it to their office without the lunch. [You usually only get a lunch-meeting all your own when you’re solidly ‘in.’] Usually new writers are dropped into the conversation as an “I do have a new writer that’s a little exciting…”

    Nothing moves fast. This process can take a year or two. [Beyond that, find a new agent.]
    And then the negotiation, if there’s a taker. Half a year. Then an order to rewrite: another half year. Then a year of production.

    It’s a slow, slow road. But don’t go with some novice agent who’s at some writer’s conference: that is two lambs leading each other. And for GOSH sakes never sign a paper with an agency! Real agents don’t need to sign you to anything: you and they work book to book and if ever you’re not happy with each other the agency informs you to look for another agency or you inform the agent he’s no longer representing you for the next book (you’re stuck with him for the contracts you’ve already signed). Sure, such an agent can be had instantly, and they do know the publisher addresses, but that’s about all; and you can look that up in Writers’ Digest. Go for the multi-agent agencies, and be patient. Meanwhile start on another project or re-edit the one you’ve got.

  8. mrgawe

    So, wait. I should already be trying to find an agent for the book I’m doing the final edit on? I kind of assumed I was supposed to have it completely complete before contacting anyone. And do you recommend sending it multiple places at the same time?

    • mrgawe

      I actually have two books nearly ready to go out. If a given agency rejects a query to read one, do I assume they don’t want to see the other one either? I know I tend to get discouraged easily, but I hate to make a nuisance of myself. Sadly, it seems like a prerequisite these days. Ah, if only I had the self-confidence of my twenties. Completely unwarranted as turns out, but I wish I could go back and siphon some of it off for current use.

    • CJ

      I would suggest you start RESEARCHING agents now and as you approach a finish, as edited as you can make it on your own, you start asking if they’re reading. Multiple submissions to multiple agencies can come back and bite you, if they do lunch, and some do. DOn’t assume re one versus the other. But you want all the eggs in this instance represented by one rooster. It’s like dating. NEVER let another beau or gal know you’re not exclusive; and I’ve seen some messes and bad feelings result from two acceptances.

  9. Raesean

    CJ, thank you very, very much for this experienced advice. I shall indeed start researching US agencies that do business in the UK.

  10. Hawke

    I’m in the throes of a book right now…and I’d like to share my feelings here. There’s a question involved, but forgive me if I take a moment to also vent…

    The story is, at its root, a romance clothed in fantasy. I’ve spent years building the fantasy world which acts as the background for the story’s action – the world is my campaign setting for D&D (again, basics, the nitpicking details like rules system do not matter here). When I first began to set stories in this world, I was simply chronicling the back stories and the adventures of the player characters in my game. That was fine as far as it went – writing for my friends was rewarding enough, and continues to be so.

    But the stories for my friends were good enough (she said modestly) for me to consider going pro with it. I don’t feel that this was a mistake, because the world is well thought out, and I’ve as much background information in terms of “hard facts” as I need.

    I’m 72,000 words in – not counting separate files that are purely note taking or brainstorming – and I find myself with a huge problem.

    I can’t seem to actually write any new material!

    It’s very frustrating. Every time I open the file I find myself in editing mode, because my ending just won’t flow. I know *how* the story should end – it’s a romance after all! – but I just canNOT seem to get there. I’ve thought on this long and hard, and determined that a substantial amount of my problem was in my setup (as you mention in a prior post on this very thread).

    So, what I’m asking, at least in part, is “how do you turn on/turn off the editor brain?”

    Another question I have is more specific to the story…but I will wait for your permission before airing that bit.

  11. CJ

    Writing as a Team…
    Writing is a pretty lonely profession. You write and write for months, and have to wait an entire year, usually, before your work gets any comment from the reading public.
    There’s one recourse that can keep you sane and keep you going through the low spots, and that’s finding another writer whose way of thinking about story is so like yours, that you’ve found another ‘you’ that can look at something with a fresh eye and tell you what you’d tell yourself if you were looking at it for the first time.
    It’s also a two-way street—because you have to return the favor: two working writers, two universes, two stories, two sets of problems, and each other’s research…you do it together.
    But separately. You can’t be any help on the ‘read’ if you’ve been leaning over the other’s shoulder all the way, if you’ve been talking about the plot or sharing all the secrets: no. You’re two separate writers. You have to be, in order to do what you need to do for each other. You have to experience the other’s book in a way no other reader ever will…as a reader who’s let into the book, say, a third of the way through: the beginning’s done, and now the dreaded middle starts. So what do you think? What questions do you have? What do you think might happen? [The last question is not one you ask or answer, because you don’t want to upset that delicate stack of china that is the writer’s own plan—but you give a little hint of your expectations.]

    And this is a wonderful gift, this ‘what am I expecting?’ Especially when it agrees with where you were actually going, but doesn’t complain ‘it’s too obvious.’

    Or sometimes there’s this wonderful third possibility, an intersection with more than two roads exiting. Your partner says, archly, “What if—?” and then has the sense to shut up.

    Oh, my. The brain starts working. Madly. It’s like bittersweet chocolate in the mind. It’s rich. It has explosions of evocation. It agrees with everything. It’s beautiful. You don’t even know if that’s what your partner was thinking of—but oh! My!

    And you grab your laptop and run off to your workspace, saying, “Throw food through the door at mealtimes! I’m on a roll!”

    You charitably hope your partner is now able to go back to partner’s own book without getting distracted. But you have this thing you have to write!

    In time, you’ll do the reciprocal thing. You may get another installment on your partner’s book; you may interrupt the process five chapters on to do another read; and in that strange math of plot that writers use to keep stories separate, likely your partner remembers exactly where you were, possibly down to the line last read. Oh, yes! This is good!

    Off to the room again to write. You don’t talk story again until it’s, this time, your partner’s Part One, or Two.

    So many people think what to do in a mutual read is what you call line-editing—finding the typos and the word-salad that looks good but says nothing. No. This kind of a read, often done aloud, is a ‘story read’. This is an analysis of the skeleton and flesh of a story and how it operates, technically and artistically. And it is very much a two-way street: both working writers, both with the same skill-set.

    Jane Fancher is my working partner. I was working along on Cyteen, she was working on a project of her own. Visiting for a convention, I read a first section draft to her—and her commentary was that chocolate explosion-thing. It not only reflected what I was writing, it exploded my thinking into ideas I hadn’t had yet. And I began phoning Jane every session-end to read what I’d done and get her commentary.

    Well, an eight hundred dollar phone bill later, I mentioned to Jane I had a whole unoccupied upstairs…

    We try occasionally to help other writers, doing the occasional workshop. I should say Jane’s far better at that than I am. She can ask the questions, as she did with me, on Cyteen, that get the real story *out* of the writer she’s trying to help. I just sit there thinking too much instead of asking those questions outright. But tag-team, we manage. I’m rather like the dormouse in the teapot, listening, and likely to pop up with something, but honestly, Jane’s ability to get a writer to ‘confess’ the story and above all, to ask the right question at the right time—just astonishes me to this day. Smartest thing I ever did was talk Jane into that unoccupied upstairs…

    We *can* write as a collaboration, and we have, on a very few short stories: we also have real trouble, after a year or so, absolutely identifying which parts of those stories we personally wrote. We don’t remember. And *we* can’t tell. That says something.

    But the real partnership is when we’re each writing our own stuff…and the magic is when we do that ‘reading’ for each other, and the ideas start exploding in colored lights. We don’t write the same books, but we really like each other’s books…really, *really* like them, from a creative viewpoint, because we were there along the way.

    I wish every writer could find that other writer who can work in that kind of partnership. It keeps you from climbing the walls. It keeps you sane, in a profession in which that is sometimes in serious question.

    Most of all, in a profession otherwise as solitary as lighthouse-keeping, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.

    • Hanneke


      So happy for you both, for having found this partnership.

  12. CJ

    Thank you, Hanneke. We’re two very lucky people.

  13. kiloecho

    Hello CJ,
    I am working on a novel. I recall you said, or wrote somewhere, that you learned dialogue from Fritz Lieber. I may not be recalling that correctly. But I downloaded a few of his books to read. But I have also heard from several other authors that analyzing a few romance novels with an eye for diaglogue and character development is a good idea.
    Any other advice for good dialogue and characters that readers will empathize with?

    Thanks for all your books!
    I’m a big Alliance Union fan.

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