How to Book!

Since I give this advice out with fair frequency, I thought the time might have arrived to post it in standard fashion as my own particular guidebook for writing. I have taken one particular email from a reader/friend to give me the format for the post.

So without further ado:


I am wondering how it is I would begin a writing a book/series of my own. Where do I start? Do I simply sit down and start typing? Do I write out a comprehensive plan of each chapter?

At the beginning. Yes and yes.

The long and short of it is, plan/write the book however works for you. You figure out the optimal outlining style as you write more and more books. For your first, I would recommend typing out a brief (two page) plot summary of the book you have in mind. If it goes longer, that’s fine–it’s only for you, so no worries. This is to collect all your thoughts about what is going to happen: who your characters are, where it starts, what happens, where it ends.

First, start building a setting. Keep the scale low, would be my recommendation–a single city is all you need, and some general guidelines about culture, history, etc. If you already have a setting, this part is deceptively easy and often requires just as much work as building a new one from scratch. (See notes below about writing in a shared world setting).

Second, decide on a plot. What are the heroes doing vs. what is the villain doing. Try not to make it a cliche “go for the magic mcguffin” plot; leave space for filling it up with intrigue. Make the heroes proactive, make the plot a little twisty.

Third, determine who your characters are. For each character, write two or three sentences to sum up who they are. You will expand this writeup as you go. You may be used to writing long character writeups, particularly if you game or participate in online writing forums–feel free to do it that way. But when you’re writing backgrounds, don’t be afraid to make them mostly about the backstory for *this* novel–don’t get lost in the minutiae, because you’ll be tweaking the characters as you go.

You can do these steps in really any order you want. If you want characters to grow organically within the setting, do the setting first. If you want everything to serve the plot, do the plot first. If the book is really about the characters, do step 3 first. Generally speaking, do what you need to do to get the best book you can–easiest to write, best developed, most vivid. Trust your instincts–if they tell you to focus on the characters, focus on the characters.

When do I talk to publishers? What publishers should I talk to?

Talk to agents/editors ONLY AFTER you have written your book. Do NOT try to pitch a half-finished or (worse) unwritten manuscript. It doesn’t matter how cool your idea is, the agent is NOT going to accept your work on the basis of “I’ve just got to write it.” Part of what an editor/agent is looking for is your actual writing ability, which cannot be judged until you’ve completed a piece, and your capacity for discipline (i.e., does this person know how to write a book and can stick to it?).

Talk to an agent, rather than an editor. It is *extremely* difficult to get an editor to look at an unagented manuscript. To an editor, having an agent sending them something means something very important: another professional in the industry has looked at the book and deemed it worthy of publication. Editors get 100s or 1000s of manuscripts every week–this is a convenient and (mostly) effective screening technique. This is not to say there are not jewels that end up in an editor’s slush pile (several of mine are residing there), but you are much more likely to get your book published if you can get an agent. The odds increase from 1% to about 40%.

When approaching an agent, pick up a copy of the Writer’s Market, or the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, or some other large book that compiles names. Go through the index to find your genre, and read each agent’s entry very carefully. Mark down the ones you want to approach, then look them all up online. Follow their submission guidelines VERY carefully. Don’t be too enthusiastic–be professional and competent.

Send off queries and pray/think good thoughts. Don’t sweat rejections–they happen. A lot. Entirely too often. Enough that you can fill up a railroad spike stuck through your wall. (Again, read Stephen King’s book.)

What permission, and whose permission do I need to write in a shared world setting like the Realms? I think I could really contribute!

I’m sure you could, but it’s not that easy.

Wizards of the Coast is NOT currently looking for new authors. Period. End of story. It says so in no uncertain terms on their authors guidelines. Their stated policy for getting queries set in one of their campaign settings is to destroy the submission unread. It’s just not possible. You do not call them–they call you.

If your goal is to write for WotC (and I don’t think it should be, see below), then get published outside of them. Write a whole bunch of books that suit their style in another fantasy world of your own making. If you want to write Forgotten Realms, get famous for your harrowing sword-and-sorcery novels. If you want to write Eberron, go steampunk or a blending of fantasy/scifi. By the time the WotC editors come knocking on your/your agent’s door, you’ll probably already be quite happy writing your own stuff, but then you’ll have that option (if you really love the setting).

There are lots of good reasons NOT to write in a shared world setting. True, shared-world writers tend to sell more novels than non-shared world writers, and they have a built-in and extensive fanbase. Also, they have a great support network of the authors in the given setting. On the other hand, you will get trashed by pinhead reviewers and authors who write so-called “original fiction”; you will get very little respect from the so-called literary elite. It’s dumb, but it happens.

Also, you may think that having a sandbox to play in makes it easier to write your novel, but no, that isn’t the case. You have to do your research into someone else’s world, and write it for all its eccentricities and probably contradictions, whereas in your own world you can just make s*** up when you need to. A certain author and I had conversation about this, once upon a time, in which he pointed out that the Realms was a large part of what drove him to write his own “original setting,” because the Realms doesn’t make sense from an anthropological standpoint (his background training). And in one respect he’s right: if you’re writing a Realms novel, you can’t always go with “what makes sense by the rules of our world”, but rather “what makes sense by the rules of the Realms.” To make these kinds of decisions, you have to live and breathe the Realms, and that isn’t something that can be easily acquired–and if you get it wrong, you WILL get reamed for it. (Not like Star Wars, where they’ll actually just kill you if you get it wrong.)

If you haven’t done hundreds of hours of research, read 75% of the Realms novels out there (which, now that we have 250+ novels, adds up to a lot of pages), and/or played in a Realms game for half your life, you may be bound for frustration when you try to write a novel in the setting. Whereas when you write an “original setting”, you can devote all your energies to building what works for you.

If you really, really, really, REALLY want to submit to WotC, regardless of the caveats above and the rewards of writing in your own created world, then this is what you do: write a ten page short story (sample of your writing) and send it to one of the editors at WotC. Tell them you want to see if there is a spot in anything they are publishing. You will probably never hear from them (99.5%), but there is a vanishing possibility that you might hit an editor who falls in love with your work and looks for connections for you. It’s possible, and I don’t want to be one of those authors who says “give up” before you try.

Now then, also, a note about fan fiction. Some authors like it, some hate it. I’m one of those who thinks it is a valuable and helpful thing–my first novel was a work of fan fiction, and it started my writing career. If you really love a setting, or a series of books, or a TV show, go ahead and write in that setting with those characters. It will give you the chance to try to draft an articulated story with dialogue, action, and a cohesive plot. You will *NOT* be able to use this book, pretty much anywhere, ever–it is strictly for practice and for honing your craft. Sometimes this is actually *better* than trying to build your own setting to write in–you can focus more on the plot, action, dialogue, and character development.

Is there anything you think I should do before I start?

Read. Watch movies. Play RPGs. Get hobbies. LIVE. All of it gives you fodder for you work.

As for actual craft, it will probably help you/give you more confidence to read some books on writing. I’m going to recommend Stephen King’s “On Writing”, or–one of my favorites–John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction.” Also Don Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel” and other books.

Will these incessant questions really ever end?

Believe it or not, I love answering the questions. I must have written a dozen posts like this to similar questions, and I love doing it every time. I just thought it would be convenient to put up a regular writing advice post that I can easily link to.

Should I use a character I already have, or do you think I should create a new one?

That is entirely up to you. Some of the best characters are adapted from characters you’ve used in a game, while some characters spring fully formed into your head without previously using them.

One great story R.A. Salvatore tells about this is thus (to paraphrase):

Mary: “Hi Bob–we need a sidekick for your barbarian hero.”

Bob: “Sure, I’ll think about it.”

Mary: “No, you don’t understand–I’m going into a meeting with the book department right now, and I need to have a character to pitch them. You have thirty seconds.”

Bob (after a few seconds): “A dark elf ranger.”

Mary: “Dark elves are evil, Bob.”

Bob: “No, no, but this one’s good–he’s an exile from his people.”

Mary (after a second): “ok, what’s his name?”

Bob: “Drizzt Do’Urden, of the Ninth House of Menzoberranzan.”

Mary: “Ok, can you spell that?”

Bob: “Not a chance.”

So do what is right for your characters/story. I recommend taking characters you really love and building a character *based* on the character you played in the game–that way, when you have to change him/her for the book (and you will), you won’t feel pressured to conform to the way the character was in the game. Our game characters are rarely quite usable in book-format, because they’re not built the same way for the same purpose.

Is it ok to write in the nude?

Yes. Though don’t combine this strategy with writing in a coffee shop. People tend to stare, and it’s very distracting. 🙂

How much money will I need to get a book off of the ground?

Ideally, none. That said, you aren’t going to be paid for your writing time as you’re writing, so you need to make sure you have a day job that makes you enough money to live (with health insurance) while you’re writing on spec. Do NOT quit your day job until you have (at least) five novels in print, each selling better than the last, five more in contract, and enough money to live completely without an income for an entire year.

In summary, I’m not gonna lie. Writing is a tough business. It takes pluck, determination, and a sort of undying confidence to keep persevering despite being smacked down over and over (and you will). You are awesome and write awesome stuff, and it is your job to let other people know that. If you want to do it, do it, and don’t let anyone turn you away.