As part of my blog post, I decided to do a Top Ten List of What I Learned As A Writer.
One Take all top ten lists with a grain of salt. Yes, they’re good for sharing the list compiler’s experiences or opinions in an easy-to-read manner, but they’re still just his/her opinions based on his/her experience. Your experience, whether you’re a new writer, a best-selling author or a reader may be completely different.
Two There is no shortcut to writing. You can buy every fancy writing program on the market or you can come up with clever ways to entice yourself through the boredom of writing, but it begins and ends at the keyboard or notepad. The writer ultimately has to put in the work, no matter how many bells and whistles one tries to attach to it. It is usually a lonely and deeply personal undertaking, no matter what genre you chose. I haven’t seen a prompt or a gadget yet that has changed that.
Three Be ready for disappointment. No one has to like your work. No one has to even care about it enough to read it. All the hours and months and years you’ve put into your current project may never see the light of day. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. I just means that your particular piece hasn’t found an audience yet. And, quite frankly, it might not be good enough for publication. What then? See the next step.
Four Always be open to improving. Nothing you’ve ever written need to go to waste. When I was in my twenties, I wrote a novel called TENETS OF POWER. It was a financial thriller about a mergers-and-acquisitions man who finds himself on top of the world, gets pulled off his perch and has to rebuild his life from the ground up. I showed the evolution of the protagonist as a human being, warts and all, while telling a compelling story about the cut-throat world of high finance.
And no one cared. There were many reasons why. It was my first book, over-written and overly-complicated. There was plenty of dramatic action in it, but not enough to draw the interest of an agent or a publishing house.
I was disappointed, but I didn’t let it stop me. The feedback I received from that novel confirmed that I had talent. The fact that I still wanted to be a writer after all of that rejection proved that I was serious about perfecting my craft.
The result? I kept writing. I changed my genre, wrote a story set in the 1930s that had similar themes as TENETS. And although it might have been a completely different type of story, I used the lessons I learned from that earlier failed effort in my future endeavors.
What happened to TENETS OF POWER? Is it sitting in a drawer some place, gathering dust while I wait for it to be published? God, no. I’ve harvested scenes and occurrences in that manuscript dozens of times and used them in my other works. That’s why all the years I spent on TENETS didn’t go to waste. I took a failure and used it to benefit my art. And that’s what a writer often has to do in order to keep focus and keep going.
Five Be careful about telling people you’re a writer. This one is very important. A wise person once said, “Announcing your intentions is a good way to hear God laugh.” It’s true.
Writing is a deeply personal undertaking. You are taking the most essential part of what makes you different from all the other creatures on the planet – your mind – and putting it on paper for all of the world to see. In some ways, it is an even more intimate act than sexual intercourse because you’re revealing a piece of your being for complete strangers. What’s more, they may hate it. It takes guts to do that. It also takes a very thick skin. Why?
Because people tend to get very jealous when you tell them you’re daring to do something new. Going back to school or getting married or going for a job or buy a new car will draw jealousy from someone in your circle, often without them stating it openly. Same thing with writing. The Green Eyed Monster is always on the prowl and in constant need of feeding.
I’ve experienced this in my own career. ‘You can’t write that kind of story! You’re not a historian/cop/intelligence agent.’ And ‘You didn’t go to school to learn how to write. You don’t even have an advanced degree, much less an MFA.’ And ‘What if you spend all that time working on something and it never gets published?’ Some people will always find a way to tear you down, even in the most subtle ways and jealousy often comes from the least expected places. I’ve found people like us when we fit their definition of who we are and bristle when we buck that conception. If you really are a writer, you’ll find a way to do it because, just as I said earlier, you have to do it yourself. Your friends and family may support you. They may not. Doesn’t matter either way. You – ultimately – have to do it.
Six Along the same lines of Number 5, find someone who will give you honest feedback on your work. Even if someone genuinely supports your efforts and wants only the best for your career, they’re probably not a qualified reviewer. They’re not trained to proof read for grammatical errors and they’re probably not versed in the structure of a story. They’ll probably be reluctant to tell you what they don’t like about a story or a scene or perhaps the overall plot, hoping that someone else further down the line will do it. Believe me, if there’s a problem with your story, someone WILL ultimately tell you, and if you’ve been given false hope by your loved ones, you’ll be crushed by the sudden rebuke. Best to join a writing group or even hire an editor to read it over and give you impartial feedback. It may hurt to hear that your prose isn’t as perfect as you may have thought it was, but a little disappointment early on saves later heart ache. And makes you a better writer in the long run.
Seven If you want to be a writer, do something else first. I mean it. Take up another hobby. Collect stamps or go fishing or jigsaw puzzles or hiking, anything that is as far removed from writing as it can get. Something that interests you, of course.
If you do that, and you still find yourself pulled back to the keyboard or the notepad, then you’ve probably got the drive to be a writer. Drive isn’t enough, but it’s a great sign that you’re willing to take it seriously and will try to become the best writer you can.
Eight Write in any form you want. Novels. Short stories. Novellas. Epics. Don’t worry about being trapped by one form. I made that mistake. While I was working on my novel PROHIBITION, I was having trouble finding a publisher for it. This was in 2007 and everyone told me that no one wanted to publish period fiction. I was having trouble getting my name out there because no one had heard of me before. Why should they? I hadn’t been published before. So, on the advice of my wife, I began writing short stories. At first, I worried that it would hurt my ability to write a novel. I was afraid that using all of those ideas on smaller works would drain me of ideas for larger works and I’d be left with nothing but bits and pieces of grander ideas.
Nothing could’ve been further from the truth. So, I took a scene I’d cut from PROHIBITION and re-crafted it as a short story. I was fortunate enough to have it published in the first edition of the re-launched THUGLIT. Not only has writing short stories helped to make me a better story-teller, it has also made me a better writer in general. Writing shorter plots has helped me write longer works and given me the ideas for other short stories. Never be afraid to tackle another form or genre, especially when you hit a dry spell. When creativity is frustrated, it must find another outlet before it turns stale and dies.
Nine Read. Read everything. Creativity not only grows stale if it’s frustrated, it also turns stale when the writer quits reading works by other writers. Don’t worry about their work influencing your own. So what if you find yourself writing a character that’s almost identical to the one you just read in that Stephen King or Sandra Brown or James Ellroy in your novel or story. That’s what first drafts are for. Revision is almost as important as writing, so you’ll have plenty of time to remove those similarities in your second, third and fourth drafts.
Ten Don’t be afraid of anything when you write. Don’t write to the market. If vampires are big this year, they’ll be out-of-fashion long before your book comes to market. If you feel your story requires an outline, then outline. If you prefer to wing it, go ahead. Never be afraid to push your own boundaries if you feel you can. And if you’re not, at least be willing to try. I got a fair amount of praise for my novels set in 1930s New York. I decided to break out of my comfort zone and write a techno-thriller called SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL. The result? A novel that was incredibly well-received and a sequel that’s even better – A MURDER OF CROWS.
If you’re a writer, you’re in charge of your product. You’re responsible for it and you’re the one who will derive the most pleasure from it. It’s not about fame or riches or success, whatever that is. Writing should be about telling the story you are compelled to tell, which is quite often some version of the story of you. That’s a journey worth taking, even if you take it alone.
Terrence P. McCauley is an award-winning writer of crime fiction and thrillers. His most recent techno-thriller, A MURDER OF CROWS – the sequel to SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL – will be published in July 2016 and is available for preorder now. Terrence has also written two award-winning novels set in 1930 New York City – PROHIBITION and SLOW BURN.
In 2016, Down and Out Books also published Terrence’s World War I novella – THE DEVIL
DOGS OF BELLEAU WOOD. Proceeds from sales go directly to benefit the Semper Fi Fund.
Terrence’s short story ‘EL CAMBALACHE’ has been nominated for Best Short Story in the ITW’s annual Thriller Awards.
Terrence has had short stories featured in Thuglit, Spintetingler Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Big Pulp and other publications. He is a member of the New York City chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers and the International Crime Writers Association.
Terrence is an avid reader, a lover of classic movies and enjoys traveling. He’s a huge soccer fan and supports Liverpool FC in the English Premier League and NYCFC in Major League Soccer. A proud native of The Bronx, NY, he is currently writing his next work of fiction.
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Release date – July 12, 2016
THE CROWS ARE GATHERING. WAR IS COMING.
For years, every intelligence agency in the world has been chasing the elusive terrorist known only as The Moroccan. But when James Hicks and his clandestine group known as the University thwart a bio-terror attack against New York City and capture The Moroccan, they find themselves in the crosshairs of their own intelligence community.
The CIA, NSA, DIA and the Mossad are still hunting for for The Moroccan and will stop at nothing to get him. Hicks must find a way to keep the other agencies at bay while he tries to break The terrorist and uncover what else he is planning.
When he ultimately surrenders information that leads to the most wanted terrorist in the world, Hicks and his team find themselves in a strange new world where allies become enemies, enemies become allies and the fate of the University – perhaps even the Western world – may hang in the balance.
Can Hicks and the University survive an onslaught from A MURDER OF CROWS?