Strong Foundations

Lesson 1: State of Mind


Are you struggling with your novel? Got writer’s block? Trouble staying motivated? Are you being as productive as you can be?

Don’t worry. It’s not your fault! Find out how to get in the right headspace for successful writing.

There are a lot of published books out there, even more self-published, and a ton more in production as we speak. What’s going to set your book apart from all the others? What can you do to give your novel a competitive edge in an over-saturated market?

The answer is simple, and I will tell it to you in a story about one of my past clients.

She had just finished her first self-published fantasy novel. It was fresh from the printers.

There she sat behind the booth at her first con (convention. Come on guys). She was surrounded by authors in similar circumstances, most with more than a few books under their belts. She only had one to sell; potential buyers were wary of making the investment. That is, buying a book from an unestablished author.

She was nervously awaiting her first sale. People passed by, asking questions about the book and its premise, her experience writing, and so on. Each time, she described the novel with an air of pride, yet made no sale.

A day had gone by, and she’d only sold one book.

The next morning, she returned to her booth, not looking forward to another day of self-doubt.

She gave her editor a call (guess who). Her voice sounded solemn on the phone as she asked, “What sets my book apart from everyone else’s? Nobody wants to take a chance on it, no matter how much I talk it up.”

I felt for her, but I honestly wasn’t worried about her. I knew the book was good, and I told her as much.

“That fact that your book is the best one there sets it apart from the rest.” and I full-heartedly believed that. 

We finished our conversation, and she patiently waited for the next peruser.

Eventually, that person came and asked her the same questions as con-goers the day prior.

Suddenly she remembered what her editor (again, me) had told before she even began to write the novel a year before, reminded of it by the words said to her over the phone.

Without hesitation, she looked the potential buyer square in the eye and said, “Well, I really want this book to be successful. So, I made it good.”

That’s it, no lengthy explanation of what it was about, or her experiences as a new author.

The customer laughed, taken aback by the boldness of the statement and bought the book.

She sold out that day and even took some pre-orders for the next printing the day after that.

Yes, that was a long story just to reach a simple point, but I truly believe it is the MOST IMPORTANT point I could make. (Perhaps there is a good marketing lesson in there also.)

I will make it again.

If you want your book to be successful, then write a good book.

Sounds too simple? Then why aren’t more new writers doing it?

Stan Lee said something similar (I don’t remember when or where; I don’t even think I’m paraphrasing this right but here goes).

He was asked how he makes so many successful, beloved characters, and replied simply with something along the lines of “I make them entertaining.” (Or close to that. Same idea, though.)

Writing a GOOD book takes a long time, a ton of research , endless revisions, hiring editors—plural (ones that know what they are doing, not your best friend, dad, or wife)—getting proper feedback, outlining, structuring, and thinking until your head hurts.

Perhaps, most importantly, writing a good novel means having the right attitude.

Motivation

Before we begin, I want to talk about why you’re here.

Why are you writing? What do you want to accomplish by writing? What are your goals for this particular novel? Why fantasy?

You will all have very different answers to these questions. Some of us just love creating new worlds that we can imagine ourselves living in, others may want to use their novel as a medium for shedding light on a social issue. Whatever your motivation, make sure that it is pure.

What’s a pure motive, you ask?

Well, the answer is basically anything that’s not monetary. We touched on this briefly in the introduction to this series in regards to the effort:success ratio of fantasy fiction. But there are other reasons to not focus on getting rich.

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No, I’m not about to give some great speech on social responsibility or staying true to your art. Instead, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. If your goal is to make money writing fantasy, you’re not going to reach it.

Ever since Kit Harrington first kneeled to recite his oath to the Night’s Watch, new fantasy “writers” have saturated the genre (self-published, if at all). Sure, some of them are legitimate fans of fantasy fiction, but many more of them are young adults who have never picked up a fantasy novel in their lives, intent on writing the next best HBO-optioned series-worthy trilogy.

First of all, it was a very long time ago when George R.R. Martin wrote the first installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. Even if you’re a great writer and come up with a fantastic story that actually makes people climax at the climax, it won’t be picked up for a very, Very, VERY long time.

Get that goal out of your head. Right now!

If that’s what you want from your writing, write a screenplay.

If your goal is to make money from writing, more so, than writing something special and unique, write romance novellas.

In fact, you should only have one goal for when writing a fantasy novel: To write an entertaining and well-written book. It doesn’t matter what motivates you toward that goal. Making money is a proven weak motivator that will quickly desert you when the going gets tough. Love of what you do, on the other hand, will stick with you through the hard times and help you persevere when you hit a writer’s block or get rejected by publisher after publisher.

Goal Setting

setting-and-sticking-with-goals_517ae23bc9ce7_w1500It’s not enough to have a goal. Not for me at least. Writing a novel is a long process and I’m the type of person that is easily….hey is that a Twix?!

Radio talk show host, Larry Elder said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

So, how do you go about making a plan?

Well, first you’re going to have to figure out what you value as a person and base your big goal around that. For instance, if you value spending time with your family, your goal setting plan is going to look a lot different than that of the person who values competing and winning. Only after you figure out what’s important to you will you be able to make a solid and attainable plan.

I value lifelong learning, quality time with my family, and the quality of my creative pursuits. What this tells me about my goals, it that time is going to take a backseat to everything else. My goals will probably be milestone based rather than deadline based.

Goal setting around your values also helps you to stick with them. People tend to behave in ways that justify what they believe, if you are doing something that you don’t value, your mind will be constantly trying to sabotage you from the inside.

Once you have figured out your values and your big goal. Then go ahead and divided your goal up into parts: Long term, medium term, and short term subgoals that will help you get to your main goal. Turn those into a schedule and keep it with you at all times, preferably somewhere you can see it every day. There are plenty of apps out there as well that can help you to keep on top of your goals.

Habits

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The best writers are habitual writers.

What does that mean?

It means that good writers are in the habit of writing every single day. They are also life-long learners of writing.

If you want to be successful then you will need to get in the habit of doing these 3 things all the time.

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Reading about writing

Read every day and you will soon be able to catch your own mistakes, strengthen your vocabulary, and recognize good storytelling.

Practice writing every day, and you will get better.

Read about the technical side of writing every day, and soon you will become an expert in the mechanics of the English language: The number one weapon in your writing arsenal.

It’s a lot of work to be doing every single day! To be honest, for a very long time I wasn’t able to do it at all. I felt perpetually behind. If I wrote, I didn’t have time to read, if I read, I didn’t have time to write. If my kid was at home…well… then screw it all, I wasn’t getting anything done.

But there is one other habit that I must tell you about. This is the ONLY way I am able to be productive. No matter what other organizational tricks I’ve tried, this is the only one that works for me, and you might not like it…

Wake up at 5 am every single day!

By doing this I have managed to increase my productivity by a bazillion. Even though it has to be one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I can’t even say that it’s a habit yet. You may wake up every morning with a bad attitude and a queasy stomach (like me) but it’s worth it. The amount of stuff that one person can accomplish before 8 am is astounding!

Attitude Toward Learning

The last thing I want to discuss is learning. In my opinion, you can’t be the best at anything if you are not continually learning about it. My process involves a lot of researching and educating myself about the “way things work” in the real world and the way people function and communicate. Doing so allows me to add extra realism to my worlds, stories, and characters.

When I say “learn,” I mean learning until I know.

When I was little, I had chores like any other kid. And I did them half-assed like any other kid. When my mother would inspect my work after, she would tell me, “Tess, when I said to wipe (insert item here), I meant to wipe it until it’s clean!”

The same goes for your attitude toward learning something new. When you take on a new subject, learning isn’t just glossing over the wiki page on that subject, it’s learning about it until you know the subject.

Ok, Ok! I get it. You don’t want to spend hours and hours of your time learning the intricacies of bricklaying if it’s not all that vital to your story, and you don’t have too.

But there will be things that are important to your story. Many of these have to with world building like economics and politics, or the psychology of your characters.

So how do you learn until you know?

No. You don’t need to memorize your old microeconomics textbook. Learning involves having a practical understanding of something.

Below is Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. Notice at the very top is the word “create.” That is where you need to be as a fantasy writer. Your readers rely on you to draw them into new and believable worlds that have rules and realistic social mechanisms. They will accept no less.

The research involved in writing a novel is often underrated because it can’t be seen in the finished product (at least, not if you’ve done your job well). That’s why learning to know (all the way to the create level) is so important.

The more you know, the less it will show!

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You should now be in the right headspace to begin building a career in fantasy writing. 

Now we can move on to Lesson 2: Know Your Craft.

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