The Novice Novelist’s Guide to Writing a Novel that will Never Get Published

IMG_9087.JPGI have never published a novel, and that makes me an expert. You might wonder why you should read a blog by an unpublished author who isn’t qualified to write a sentence on writing? Because I’m going to tell you exactly how not to do it.

You remember that episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza realizes he’s a complete failure and that every decision he has ever made in his life is wrong. And then Jerry says, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” (If you have not seen this, then click here before proceeding.) This is the religious principle upon which this blog is based, and it can guide you to the promised land.

Think about The Old Testament. It doesn’t tell you what to do to get to paradise. It tells you what not to do. Don’t eat forbidden fruit. Don’t try to build a tower to heaven. Don’t make love to porcupines or other critters. I’m about to tell you what not to do so that kind of makes this a writer’s Bible.

Together you, the aspiring author, and I, the unpublished novelist, will journey to the land of the do’s and don’ts, and if you do the opposite, you’ll be attending your first book signing in no time.

1 – Write your story about the first idea that comes into your head.

A published author once told me he generates fourteen new story ideas a week. Two a day, I thought. I did the math. After six months, he’d have produced more than three hundred story ideas. He claimed most of them weren’t very good, but there were a few decent kernels in the chaff. What a waste of time. If he’d just written about the first idea that popped into his head, he’d be six months closer to an unsalvageable first draft.  

2 – Research is for smart asses.

Fiction is about “making it up.” I find research limits my ability to “create.” I just wing it. My mind is unfettered and my word counts are much higher when I don’t have to look things up.

3 – Join a writer’s group but don’t take notes.

When you attend your writer’s group, don’t bring a pen and notebook, just smile and nod as the feedback from your writing peers goes in one ear and exits through your left nostril. You and I know that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, and we’re going to do it our way anyway.

4 – Don’t attend a writer’s conference.

Writers’ conferences are expensive. They’ll set you back a couple hundred bucks. Save your money and buy a book on “How to Write” instead.

5 – Stalk agents – Part 1

If you do buy a pass to a writers’ conference, there will be literary agents in attendance. It’s easy to spot them because they are the folks being swarmed and slashed with business cards by people toting free tote bags. Make sure you bring your business cards so you can participate in the bloodshed. (Tote bags will be provided.)

6 – Stalk agents – Part 2

Once you have an agent cornered and pinned against the bar, make sure you tell her or him how much you liked the vacation photos they recently posted on Facebook. Then compliment them on their attire. Now they’re ready to run.

7 – Send in your unfinished manuscript.

I always submit my first drafts to agents to see if I’m on the right track.

8 – Don’t pay for editing.

Use spellcheck. Or is it spell check? I forget. But it costs nothing.

9 – Beta readers are not your friends.

I’ve found that beta readers only want to point out your mistakes—typos, plot holes, weak character motivation, etc. Why associate with people who are so negative? Surround yourself with positive people. Let your dog read it. Technically not a person, but a mammal, and that’s good enough for me.

10 – “Rewriting is not writing, it’s tedium.”

This should be the motivational poster for every unpublished author. I picture the quote in a bold, sans serif font over a kitten hanging from a tree limb as a murder of crows pluck its fur. (That’s the best metaphor I could come up with in thirty seconds.)

11 – You are no J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or George R.R. Martin, so don’t read them.

Writers should not read. They should write.

12 – All the good stuff has been written.

You have nothing new to say. And if you did, somebody else will have already said it better, so put down your pen and watch Netflix. Here are some of my favorite shows: Detectorists, Patriot, Broadchurch (the British version), Happy Valley, and The Expanse.

In conclusion, don’t do as I do, and you’ll be well on your way to a book deal.

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Until Next Wednesday

-QxKADDt_400x400.jpgI’ve been on the DFW Writers’ Workshop board for a while. In fact, when I first started, I had an AOL account (which is embarrassing because it was already 2011). But anyway, my point is that it’s been a while, and during that time I’ve gotten a new computer, a new email address, and a new hairdo.

The Workshop has changed since then too. It got a new website, new bylaws, a new building. We celebrated our fortieth anniversary, put on a record-breaking DFW Con, and just last week reached our highest member count ever.

But on the other hand, the Workshop has stayed the same in the most important ways: it’s still about people and writing.

Now that’s it’s time for me to pass the mantle to the next president, I’m feeling a little sentimental. Nostalgic too, even though I’m only moving from one side of the table to the other. Finding your writing tribe is one of the best things that can happen to any author, and this particular tribe takes you places that you absolutely can’t go alone.

Case study 1: When I first started on the board, I cut my teeth writing blogs for the organization. I’d never done it before; I didn’t get paid. But those blogs led to a few freelance jobs, which led to a few more, and wouldn’t you know it, last week I was onsite at a video shoot auditing a script I’d penned for a client. Super cool, right? Somebody pinch me, and don’t ever let me forget where it all started.

Case study 2: Back to my first year as a board member. I was workshopping my drawer novel. Everyone was so nice. A. Lee Martinez and Sally Hamilton invited me to their wedding even though they hardly knew me. Rosemary Clement read pages when they weren’t worthy of her time. Fellow members told me how bad my book sucked, but it was clearly coming from a place of love, so I had the wherewithal to thank them before disappearing into my cave to cry. Fast-forward eight years later, and now I’ve got a book coming out in 2020 (Penguin/Berkley). It’s hard to believe. Somebody needs to punch me in the face and yell, “Workshop rules.” Because it does.

Case study 3: Last night, we were talking over our weekly after-hours pancakes about the success our members have seen recently, and it’s pretty astounding. Workshop members are outliers. They beat the dismal odds. On the current board alone, out of eight people, we have five agented authors. Of the three un-agented authors, two of them already have traditionally published books to their name. And here’s the rub: none of them—not one—came to Workshop as a pre-packaged success story. We’ve all shown up, manuscripts in hand, hoping to join the party. And DFW Writers’ Workshop throws a hell of a good one.

So what? I guess this is a note to everyone on my way out of the officer’s quarters to say thank you. Being a member and serving this organization has been one of the biggest blessings in my life. This is a crazy profession, and you’ve got to be a little crazy to do it, but there’s this sweet spot on the people/writing Venn diagram where the world feels sane, and that’s where the Workshop lives. So thanks for being my tribe, y’all, because what a tribe it is.

Hunting for Fans

fredrik-ohlander-399122-unsplash_(1).jpgI grew up in the country and spent a lot of time hunting. Hunting for food is akin to hunting for fans to like and buy your book. The difference, of course, is that you aren’t going to cook and eat your fans. Or you shouldn’t anyway.

Authors may write books to see that smile on their readers’ faces, but at the end of the day, writing is a business. You have to sell your books, if for nothing else than to justify the time you spent arguing with your editor over that stupid comma. And no matter how popular you are, you still have to meet your existing fans as well as find those new ones. This means you have to talk to people, face to face. One of the best ways to do that is at a Book Signing.

I’ve done a handful or so book signings, and each one is just as exciting as the first, and as I learn what works and what doesn’t, each one has been more successful than the previous one.

Stalking Your Prey or Venue

Just like looking for that big buck or that warren of rabbits, you’ve got to stalk the right places. Everyone thinks that bookstores are the best venue. That is not necessarily so. Unless you have advertised relentlessly, do not expect many walk-up sales. If there are twenty people in that bookstore, be truthful and ask yourself how many of them are actually in your target audience. There are way more genres represented in a bookstore than there are on your signing table.

Instead, think of holding a signing where your genre is represented exclusively. If you are selling a commercial fiction romance, you probably won’t sell many at a paranormal convention. Consider a swanky restaurant instead. If anything says romance, it’s a candlelit dinner. Be sure you get permission from the manager before you set up a table. I held a book release signing at a restaurant and did better than I expected.

Camouflage or Dress for the Job You Want

Your signing table or booth is your hunting blind. This is where you sit back and wait for your fans to wander by. I can’t say this enough: it should be appropriate for the venue. Don’t hang shrunken heads in that swanky restaurant, and don’t wear a suit and tie to an outdoors paranormal convention. Dress up that booth, and yourself, with implements of the genre you write about. Table cloths, stands to hold your books upright, and a professionally-made roll-up banner are worth the investment.

Ammunition or Book Supply

You should never go hunting without an ample supply of ammunition. We all know what ammunition means in the normal sense, but what is an author’s ammunition? Why, words, of course. And those words are in your book. You should always have a supply of books on your table. Even if you are in a bookstore that sells your books, keep some there with you. Asking that new fan to find your book on the bookshelf so you can sign it is poor form.

Game Bag or The Cash Box

Hunters have something in which to tote home their kills. Fisherman have a stringer or an ice box. Writers have a cash bag and a banking account. You should always have twenty dollars in ones and fives. But remember: not all customers carry cash. Get yourself a PayPal account and a Square Reader to accept electronic payments.

Bait or Freebies

Hunters sometimes bait their area in hope of luring their prey. You should do the same thing. Sweets like peppermint and chocolate, free pens with your name and website on them, and bookmarks are things you can give fans as well as people who don’t buy anything right then. People like free stuff, and free stuff that keeps you on their mind means a potential sale.

You can get 2,000 two-sided bookmarks for $75, delivered, online. That’s less than four cents apiece. I put a slimmed down version of my book cover on one side, and my business card on the other.

Snacks or Well, Snacks

If you have to man your booth for more than a couple of hours, you’ll want some kind of protein to keep you active. Don’t forget water, either.

Driving the Game or Have You Talked to My Writer Friend?

Some of my favorite hunting was when there were a few of us. One or two would rattle the bushes and drive the game towards the rest of the group. The same holds true during book signings. If you have a writer friend who’s in the same genre, attending conventions together and working the same booth, or working booths next to each other, is a good way to drive business back and forth. When someone is finished at my booth, whether they bought a book or not, I always introduce them to my writer friend. A personal introduction is a great way to build rapport between you, your writer friend, and the fans.


Keep a checklist handy of everything you want to take with you to your signings. The night before, make sure you have all of these in a couple of clear plastic totes. I can be ready for a book signing within two hours if I follow my list.

Speaking of my list, here it is. Some things make sense. Some things were learned about the hard way.

  • Books to sell
  • Pens to autograph books sold
  • Square Reader for taking credit card purchases
  • Cell Phone or Tablet for use with Square Reader
  • Wolf Ring to camouflage as a werewolf author
  • Wolf Necklace to camouflage as a werewolf author
  • Werewolf Teeth for use with fans who want pictures with me. Yes, fans like pictures with the author of the book they just bought. Don’t be too shy about asking them if they want a picture.
  • Roll-Up Banner. You can get small, table-top versions for $100 or large, floor mounted ones for twice that. If you’ve got a good cover, put it on the banner. I’ve attracted more readers with my banner than not.
  • Cash Bag with Cash
  • Book Stands
  • Spare batteries for any battery-powered devices you have (like your cell phone)
  • Two Chairs
  • Two tables (one large, one small)
  • Table Decorations
  • Water
  • Bluetooth speaker for mood music
  • Tie wraps
  • Trash bag for trash

 Outside signings need a few other things.

  • Easy-Up. You can get a 10’x10’ sun shade at Wal-Mart for $40.
  • Sand Bag/Weights to hold the Easy-Up to the ground if you’re not on grass or dirt
  • Coat or light jacket
  • Light plastic sheet to cover your booth when it rains
  • Sunblock
  • Easy up hooks to hang things on
  • Bungy cords
  • Aspirin (or equivalent). There’s nothing worse than trying to be nice while your head is pounding.
  • Spill-proof coffee mug. Yes. I spilled coffee on six books. That was an expensive mistake.

Sure, book signings take time away from writing, but if you don’t want to meet your fans or sell your work, you may be in the wrong business. I love to meet people and find book signings are great way to do that.

Good Luck and Happy Hunting!

Making Friends with Your Characters

karine-germain-573941-unsplash.jpgAn engaging story is only as engaging as the characters going through the journey. Readers are investing their time (and hopefully their money), so as an author, I want them to feel as though they have a new person they can’t wait to spend their day with. Hero. Heroine. Villain. The cheeky best friend.  I want my characters to feel authentic and be memorable, to last long after the story is finished. I want readers to connect with them on a deep, personal level. Having that connection pulls a reader in and keeps them there from the ‘Once upon a time,’ to the ‘Happily ever after.’

Creating lasting characters goes beyond the standard appearance, attitudes, and accents. It starts with the author knowing the characters inside out, upside-down, and backwards. An author has to know their character’s goals, motives, and fears even when the characters themselves haven’t a clue. It’s usually in those key points where readers begin to identify and connect with the character; seeing something of themselves reflected from the page and learning how those factors were influenced by a character’s backstory can help tie the reader and characters together.

The writing world has beaten the word ‘backstory’ to death with the ugly stick, but a character’s history is the foundation for how they interact with their world, and most importantly, how they approach conflict. Backstory has to exist, not in page after page of info-dumping, but peppered throughout the story in a way that will allow the reader to make their own connections.

With a character’s goals, motivations, and fears in mind consider playing a game of twenty questions AS your main protagonists. Try journaling your answers as if you were the character being interrogated or being set up for a blind date. Be sure to take note of any personality quirks, word choices, or individualized idiosyncrasies that can round out your character. Sometimes it’s those small, subtle details that can make a reader fall in love with the world you’ve created.

  • What is your happiest/worst memory, and WHY?
  • What is your greatest accomplishment/regret and WHY?
  • What is your biggest pet peeve, and WHY?
  • What is your guiltiest pleasure, and WHY?
  • What is your greatest fear, and WHY?
  • Where do you see yourself in twenty years, and WHY?
  • You find $5,000 in the street, what do you do, and WHY?
  • Who is/was the most influential person in your life, and WHY?
  • Who is your biggest enemy, and WHY?
  • Who is your biggest fan, and WHY?
  • Regardless of pay, what would be your dream career, and WHY?
  • What is your ‘go to’ quote or phrase that seems to answer everything, and WHY?
  • What is your favorite film of all time, and WHY?
  • Do you consider yourself religious or spiritual, and WHY?
  • Who were you closest to as a child, and WHY?
  • What do you find the biggest waste of time to be, and WHY?
  • Do you believe in love at first sight, and WHY or WHY NOT?
  • If you could meet one person, dead or alive, who would you choose, and WHY?
  • If you had a theme song for your life, what would it be, and WHY?
  • If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be, and WHY?

The answers to these questions provide backstory, but the most important part of the twenty questions is the why. Having a character explain the why is what really dictates how a belief or experience will affect any future goals, motives, or fears and how they deal with conflict.

Example – “No, absolutely not. Love at first site? An alien invasion is more likely. I watched my brilliant best friend who had the world set on a platter in front of her, suddenly get all tongue tied and looney over a fella she just met… and oh how she loved him and he loved her and it was all hearts, flowers and head-over-heels nonsense, and now she’s swindled broke with twins on each hip living in her granny’s apartment. You know that sayin’ – ‘Jesus take the wheel?’ – well, when you let your fickle, foolish heart take the wheel for the first time, you will find yourself lost and in a ditch somewhere with no idea how you got there.” 

Given this example, this main character doesn’t just disbelieve love at first site, she is likely to have a complete distrust for romance in general. So when she’s dropped into a meet-cute with a swoony hero, the last thing she will be is bowled over by charm and a sweet smile.

Make friends or frenemies with the voices inside your head. Make it a goal to know your characters better than they know themselves. Always search for ways to get to the heart of what drives, and terrifies your characters. Give them real, human flaws and the kind of history that will connect with the readers of your genre. Readers want book boyfriends, and besties, villains we love to hate, give them characters they can’t stop thinking about because a story is only as interesting as the characters going through the journey.

Handling Rejection

D_Jones_photo.jpgSo you finally submitted a manuscript to that agent you’ve been creepily stalking online for months and she responded with a “thanks but no thanks . . . but mainly no thanks.”  What now?

First, what do I mean by ‘rejection?’  The word ‘rejection’ derives from ancient Sanskrit - rej, meaning ‘female’ and ecton, meaning ‘turns you down for the Wilco concert.’  Rejection comes in all shapes and sizes and I’ve experienced them all, but for now I’m only addressing when an agent or editor passes on a piece of writing you pitched to them for representation (if you’re looking for help handling dating rejection, I still haven’t gotten over some of those from 20 years ago).

If you’ve been doing this writing thing for any amount of time, then you’ve suffered the sting of rejection and have probably been consoled by anecdotes of successful authors who have famously undergone similarly crippling rejections.  Like J.K. Rowling, who was rejected by 405 publishing houses before finally breaking through with her debut novel (Barry-something), and who today owns 3/4 of England.  And Agatha Christie, who suffered through five years of rejections before eventually taking her revenge by elaborately murdering each of those editors one by one at a dinner party.

While such tales provide some comfort, you’ve sweated and bled onto this manuscript for months, or more likely, years (you might want to print a clean copy), so surely everyone who simply takes the time to read it will marvel at your genius and will hand you a cloth sack with a dollar sign printed on the side, right?

Well, not so much.  Think back to the traditionally published books you’ve read.  How many have you not liked?  Hated?  Given up on?  Yet all of those writers found an audience somewhere.  I once quit on a wildly popular novel during the final chapter (I won’t name names, but let’s just say I had a divergent opinion from the mainstream).  How much do you have to hate a book to just give up with only like ten pages to go?  Well, the author of that particular series is sitting on a beach somewhere lighting cigars with first editions of Ulysses and eating beluga sushi, or whatever it is rich people do, I wouldn’t know.

If an agent or editor rejects your work, it generally means one of two things: A) the writing’s fine, but he/she’s just not that into you.  Maybe that agent already signed a manuscript about a crime-solving penguin that week, and simply can’t take on a second, or B) you’re a lousy writer with nothing to contribute to the world and no one will ever love you.

In either case, the only thing to do is to keep sending queries and keep writing.  If that agent just isn’t digging what you’re selling, then maybe the next one will, and if not her, then the next one, and so on.  If the issue is that you’re a terrible writer (and let’s not fool ourselves, that might be it) then the only way to get better is to practice arranging words in different combinations until you unlock the secret code of not sucking.  Keep working on your next project.  More writing floats all ships.  If you just need to get better, it’s practice.  If you need to test that same agent who seemed very close to signing you last time with a new work then this fits that bill too.  Plus, what else are you going to do to fill the months in between Game of Thrones seasons?

Here are some ‘dos and don’ts’ of rejection for your reference:


  1. Respond to said agent impolitely.  Or politely.  Or at all.  The thought will come upon you, usually late at night, to reply to the rejection e-mail with something innocuous like “Thanks for reading” or “I know where you live.”  Suppress this voice.  (The only acceptable thing to send to a rejecting agent is a fresh query for a shiny new manuscript entirely unrelated to the last).
  2. Mention said agent or agency by name via social media, either good or bad.  I’ll certainly let an agent correct me if I’m wrong, but right now, I can’t envision any scenario where it would benefit you to single out an agent after a rejection.
  3. Become a Cowboys fan.  It can be tempting to turn to evil in those dark times in life, but things will get better.  Resist the urge.
  4. Call your ex in a moment of weakness.  You made the right choice; now be strong.


  1. Pour yourself a glass of good scotch.  If you’re under 21, you shouldn’t be drinking good scotch.  For you, I recommend 10-year Glenmorangie as a more modestly priced alternative for a college budget.
  2. Keep writing.  This should probably be number 1, but scotch.
  3. Keep querying.  If you’re a decent writer and just haven’t found your audience yet, this maximizes your chances.  And if your writing simply stinks, no harm done plus those agents probably appreciate the laugh.
  4. Attend nearby writers conferences.  Or not-so-near if you like to travel.  These are a hotbed of agent activity, often with query sessions and mixers.  It’s much harder to reject a person face to face, so take advantage.  That agent who passed on your homage to Charles Manson, upon meeting you and seeing in person that you are in fact truly frightening, might be impressed with your commitment to the subject matter and sign you on that basis.
  5. Join a local writer critique group.  Most agents won’t tell you if your writing is hopeless, but a good critique group will.
  6. Work on your writer platform.  Agents and editors love to see a vibrant social media presence with lots of built-in eyeballs.  That same rejected manuscript may very well have fared better if you had an active blog or another 20,000 Twitter followers.
  7. On second thought, go ahead and call that ex.  How bad could it be?

Rejection stinks and it’s deflating and demoralizing, but it happens in this industry, and in any creative industry.  The only true measure of control any of us have is to keep at it.  So suck it up and keep writing. Or don’t. Do what makes you happy.

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