15 Tips for Aspiring Writers from 5 Successful Authors

Today’s guest post is by author Simone Collins:

One of the best ways aspiring authors can develop successful writing careers is to listen to and apply advice from successful authors. Regardless of genre, or whether they write fiction and nonfiction, authors starting out in this brave new world of publishing can benefit from the generous sharing of tips by today’s pros.

While creating a course on online authorship for my website, I interviewed a wide variety of authors and editors to glean their top tips for aspiring authors. Some of their advice surprised me—and might surprise you too. I have summarized my favorite nuggets of wisdom below. I hope you find them as helpful as I do.

From Wool Series Author Hugh Howey:

  • Utilize Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing. Hugh Howey is the ultimate poster child for Kindle Direct Publishing. He used the platform to rocket to success without the help of publishers and agents, and had to think very carefully about signing on with Simon & Schuster, as the success he experienced through KDP was so great that publishers had relatively little to offer.

Use this platform to make your work available to the masses. It is one of the most efficient means by which your work can reach a vast audience with minimal cost and connections.

  •  Write Work that Sparks Online Conversation and Excitement. Howey did not encounter wild success with his Wool series just because he happened to publish it through KDP. His stories are compelling, well written, and incredibly good at sparking online interest and dialog, especially because he incorporated feedback that readers provided into each new chapter he released.

If you write something worth sharing and talking about, you will be far more likely to experience organic growth, and your initial readers may do much of your marketing for you. Strongly consider releasing your early works chapter by chapter and working with your fans and readers to build a collaboratively-shaped novel in which they have significant emotional investment.

  • Make Yourself Available to Readers through Social Media. Despite his high profile, Howey is incredibly accessible. By making yourself accessible to your readers and developing meaningful connections with them, you are more likely to gain evangelists for your books who will happily encourage others to read them and give copies to their friends.

 From Best-Selling Author A. J. Jacobs:

  •  If You Lack Confidence, Pretend You Have It Anyway. When not turning out fascinating fiction books, A. J. Jacobs may make regular radio appearances and write for high-profile publications, but he nevertheless understands how intimidating it is to commence new undertakings as an author.

 Jacobs chose to adopt the “fake it till you make it” approach, pretending he had all the confidence he needed to pitch ideas to publications and publishers and undertake daunting research tasks.

Chances are you have adopted this strategy from time to time yourself and experienced positive results. Fake more confidence in your writing and activities, such as promotion and research, and inquiries will become far less burdensome.

  • Network, Network, Network. Jacobs is a pro at utilizing his network and attends as many parties and events as he can. The more people you meet, and the more people who meet you, the more likely you are to develop a connection that will help you write, finish, edit, publish, and promote your writing.
  • Approach Subjects with a Blank Slate. Jacobs has a wonderful way of approaching the nonfiction subjects he writes about in fresh and fascinating ways. His secret to success lies in approaching them with a completely open mind and dropping his previous biases and misconceptions.

By approaching any subject, be it fiction or nonfiction, with the same wide-eyed wonder and open mind, you too will be more likely to expose well-worn subjects in a refreshing new light.

From Best-Selling Crime Fiction and Romance Author Judith Arnold:

  •  Listen to Your Readers. Judith Arnold has chosen to follow in the path of Charles Dickens and many great authors before her by listening carefully to her readers’ suggestions and thoughts when writing new work.

Like it or not, you as an author are selling a product to people. If you do not adapt that product to suit their needs, you may have a much harder time boosting sales.

  • Get around Exclusivity Clauses with Pseudonyms. As an author who occasionally works with traditional publishers, Arnold has learned important lessons in how to contend with their sometimes inconvenient demands. One such demand involves publishers’ requests to gain exclusive rights to publish future works written by an author.

Judith found that by using a pseudonym, she could give exclusive rights to works by that name to a publisher while maintaining the right to publish works under a different name should she like to take a different route.

  • Cater to Niche Audiences. Though Arnold acknowledges that niche authors would not have been likely to support themselves with their work thirty years ago, it is now more possible than ever to find an audience with highly targeted work.

By catering to a specific niche audience online, you may have an easier time building initial traction and interest in your book,  as the audience in question has fewer books marketed to them and is more forgiving of no-name authors and first-time novelists.

From Nonfiction History Writer John Ferling:

  • Do Your Own Research. John Ferling learned the hard way that it is best to do all your own research when he depended on an aide to conduct research for one of his nonfiction history books, only to discover that he needed to repeat all the work again himself.

You are the only person you can depend on to produce research and writing that is true to your style and quality standards.

  • Evaluate Resources before Committing to an Idea. Nonfiction books (and, to a lesser extent, their fictional counterparts) require extensive research. If relevant information is difficult to access, you will have a difficult time finishing your work. Ferling has plenty of colleagues who were never able to finish certain history books they hoped to publish because the libraries they needed to access for research resided in entirely different continents, and each research trip took immense time and expense.

Before choosing a new subject, Ferling evaluates whether or not he actually has the resources necessary to cover it. He avoids subjects that would require extensive (and expensive) travel or that lack an adequate amount of primary research material.

Ferling understands that to be compelling, a nonfiction book must present a significant amount of information that cannot be readily found online. This means he must find information that may be very difficult for others to access. Before committing to a topic, make sure you have access to the key primary sources that will enable you to contribute something of substance to your chosen subject area.

  • Even with Nonfiction, Give Readers Colorful Narratives. To keep his history novels engaging, Ferling spends time discussing the character and personalities of the people he writes about. In moderation, he also offers some speculation as to what might have driven their decisions and behavior, adds a narrative, and includes insights from multiple perspectives.

By adding these additions to nonfiction, you can better package information in evocative stories that your readers will actually remember and share.

From Fiction Author Catherine Ryan Hyde:

  • Write, Write, Write. Catherine Ryan Hyde made a point of publishing about one book a year, even though she was not able to initially sell them all to publishers. This commitment required hours of draining work with no promise of payoff, but the long-term benefits Ryan Hyde experienced are notable. By having a backlog of unpublished books that were ready to go, Catherine was able to focus on speaking and traveling for three years later in her career, once she had experienced significant success.

Do not assume your rejected works will never find a place. Do not let their presence slow you down. Simply create more.

  • Get Used to (Repeated) Failure. Ryan Hyde was rejected again and again–not just from publishers but from small, relatively-unknown literary journals. Rather than let this get her down, she got used to it and kept trying.

Failure and rejection is the only sure thing you will experience as an author. Rather than let that get you down, accept it as an inevitability and regular occurrence on the path to success.

  • Use Social Media for Relationship Building, Not Advertising. Many authors who are new to social media assume each account they open serves as a place to drop links to their work and catch attention. Most quickly learn that nobody cares about promotional posts. Social networks exist for socializing.

Catherine Ryan Hyde uses social media to develop relationships with her readers, who then in turn share her work and books with their friends in a meaningful manner. Follow in her footsteps and you will be far more likely to draw attention to your work and build meaningful, rewarding relationships along the way.

The Gist

These tips are only some of many given to me by the authors I interviewed. If I were to distill them all into one nugget of wisdom, it would be this: Writing a successful book today is more about maintaining a dialogue than it is about giving a speech. To catch others’ attention, you must befriend, listen to, and work with your audience and use your unique personality, perspective, and/or access to fresh information to stand apart from the crowd.

What advice would you add? Do you think any of it is out of date? And do you agree that readers should play such a prominent role in an author’s work? Share in the comments.

Simone Collins headshotSimone Collins is the co-founder and CEO of ArtCorgi.com. Through ArtforAuthors.com, a boutique storefront belonging to ArtCorgi, she helps authors commission portraits, book cover designs, and illustrations. You can find her on Twitter here  and on Facebook here.

Feature Photo Credit: JonathanCohen via Compfight cc

2 Responses to “15 Tips for Aspiring Writers from 5 Successful Authors”

  1. Nicholas C. Rossis December 8, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    Excellent tips! For me, the greatest thing to remember about marketing is mentioned your last tip: Social networks exist for socializing. 🙂

  2. Ann Cassowary December 8, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

    Great tips! Thanks for putting this together, Simone.

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