Category Archives: Guest Posts

HOW TO WRITE A BOOK: JERRY B. JENKINS TELLS EVERYTHING IN 20 STEPS

Great stories—well told—really change the world. No one understands this better than Jerry B. Jenkins. Over 40 years, he’s authored story art. Jerry Jenkins’ messages have life-shifted millions because he speaks the truth—in fact and in fiction. An insatiable learner, Jerry’s passion for prose astonishingly rendered 186 books (and counting) including the best-selling Left Behind series. 21 of Jerry Jenkins’ books hit the New York Times bestseller list. 7 debuted at number one. Here, Jerry B. Jenkins tells you how to write a book in 20 steps.

Jerry Jenkins is a prolific writer—right across the spectrum. He’s written stand-alones, biographies, adult and children’s fiction as well as Christian education, devotion and documentary works. Jerry’s even penned mysteries and thrillers. Jerry Jenkins now devotes time to helping others improve their craft and realize full potential. He’s a mentor to many—a role model to all.

I was flattered—actually astonished—getting a recent unsolicited email from Jerry Jenkins’ marketing team. They recognized DyingWords as a credible blog and writing resource. We had a great exchange. This led to a mentoring inclusion in Jerry’s Writers Guild. It’s a phenomenal club with sound writing guidance and top resource people including personal online time with Jerry Jenkins. And Jerry graciously shared his newly-published writing guide as a DyingWords guest post.

Here’s Jerry B. Jenkins’ fascinating guide originally published on JerryJenkins.com. It’s called How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps.

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So you want to write a book.

Becoming an author can change your life—not to mention give you the ability to impact thousands, even millions, of people. However, writing a book is no cakewalk. As a 21-time New York Times Bestselling author, I can tell you: It’s far easier to quit than to finish. When you run out of ideas, when your own message bores you, or when you become overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the task, you’re going to be tempted give up.

But what if you knew exactly:

  • Where to start…
  • What each step entails…
  • How to overcome fear, procrastination, and writer’s block…
  • And how to keep from feeling overwhelmed?

You can do this—and more quickly than you might think, because these days you have access to more writing tools than ever. The key is to follow a proven, straightforward, step-by-step plan. My goal here is to offer you that plan.

I’ve used the techniques I outline below to write more than 180 books (including the Left Behind series) over the past 40 years. Yes, I realize averaging over four books per year is more than you may have thought humanly possible. But trust me—with a reliable blueprint, you can get unstuck and finish your book. This is my personal approach to how to write a book. I’m confident you’ll find something here that can change the game for you. So, let’s jump in.

Part One: Before You Begin

You’ll never regret—in fact, you’ll thank yourself later—for investing the time necessary to prepare for such a monumental task. You wouldn’t set out to cut down a huge grove of trees with just an axe. You’d need a chain saw, perhaps more than one. Something to keep them sharp. Enough fuel to keep them running. You get the picture. Don’t shortcut this foundational part of the process.

1. Establish your writing space

To write your book, you don’t need a sanctuary. In fact, I started my career on my couch facing a typewriter perched on a plank of wood suspended by two kitchen chairs.

What were you saying about your setup again? We do what we have to do. And those early days on that sagging couch were among the most productive of my career. Naturally, the nicer and more comfortable and private you can make your writing lair (I call mine my cave), the better. (If you dedicate a room solely to your writing, you can even write off a portion of your home mortgage, taxes, and insurance proportionate to that space.)

Real writers can write anywhere. Some write in restaurants and coffee shops. My first fulltime job was at a newspaper where 40 of us clacked away on manual typewriters in one big room—no cubicles, no partitions, conversations hollered over the din, most of my colleagues smoking, teletype machines clattering. Cut your writing teeth in an environment like that, and anywhere else seems glorious.

2. Assemble your writing tools.

In the newspaper business, there was no time to handwrite our stuff and then type it for the layout guys. So I have always written at a keyboard. Most authors do, though some handwrite their first drafts and then keyboard them onto a computer or pay someone to do that.

No publisher I know would even consider a typewritten manuscript, let alone one submitted in handwriting. The publishing industry runs on Microsoft Word, so you’ll need to submit Word document files. Whether you prefer a Mac or a PC, both will produce the kinds of files you need.

And if you’re looking for a muscle-bound electronic organizing system, you can’t do better than Scrivener. It works well on both PCs and Macs, and it nicely interacts with Word files.

Just remember, Scrivener has a steep learning curve, so familiarize yourself with it before you start writing. Scrivener users know that taking the time to learn the basics is well worth it.

So, what else do you need? If you are one who handwrites your first drafts, don’t scrimp on paper, pencils, or erasers. Don’t shortchange yourself on a computer either. Even if someone else is keyboarding for you, you’ll need a computer for research and for communicating with potential agents, editors, publishers. Get the best computer you can afford, the latest, the one with the most capacity and speed.

Try to imagine everything you’re going to need in addition to your desk or table, so you can equip yourself in advance and don’t have to keep interrupting your work to find things like:

  • Staplers
  • Paper clips
  • Rulers
  • Pencil holders
  • Pencil sharpeners
  • Note pads
  • Printing paper
  • Paperweight
  • Tape dispensers
  • Cork or bulletin boards
  • Clocks
  • Bookends
  • Reference works
  • Space heaters
  • Fans
  • Lamps
  • Beverage mugs
  • Napkins
  • Tissues
  • You name it

Last, but most crucial, get the best, most ergonomic chair you can afford. If I were to start my career again with that typewriter on a plank, I would not sit on that couch. I’d grab another straight-backed kitchen chair or something similar and be proactive about my posture and maintaining a healthy spine. There’s nothing worse than trying to be creative and immerse yourself in writing while you’re in agony. The chair I work in today cost more than my first car!

If you’ve never used some of the items I listed above and can’t imagine needing them, fine. But make a list of everything you know you’ll need so when the actual writing begins, you’re already equipped. As you grow as a writer and actually start making money at it, you can keep upgrading your writing space. Where I work now is light years from where I started. But the point is, I didn’t wait to start writing until I could have a great spot in which to do it.

3. Break the project into small pieces.

Writing a book feels like a colossal project because it is! But your manuscript will be made up of many small parts. An old adage says that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Try to get your mind off your book as a 400-or-so-page monstrosity. It can’t be written all at once any more than that proverbial elephant could be eaten in a single sitting.

See your book for what it is: a manuscript made up of sentences, paragraphs, pages. Those pages will begin to add up, and though after a week you may have barely accumulated double digits, a few months down the road you’ll be into your second hundred pages. So keep it simple.

Start by distilling your big book idea from a page or so to a single sentence—your premise. The more specific that one-sentence premise, the more it will keep you focused while you’re writing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before you can turn your big idea into one sentence, which can then be expanded to an outline, you have to settle on exactly what that big idea is.

4. Settle on your BIG idea.

To be book-worthy, your idea has to be killer. You need to write something about which you’re passionate, something that gets you up in the morning, draws you to the keyboard, and keeps you there. It should excite not only you but also anyone you tell about it. I can’t overstate the importance of this.

If you’ve tried and failed to finish your book before—maybe more than once—it could be that the basic premise was flawed. Maybe it was worth a blog post or an article but couldn’t carry an entire book.

Think The Hunger GamesHarry Potter, or How to Win Friends and Influence PeopleThe market is crowded, the competition fierce. There’s no more room for run-of-the-mill ideas. Your premise alone should make readers salivate.

Go for the big concept book. How do you know you’ve got a winner? Does it have legs? In other words, does it stay in your mind, growing and developing every time you think of it? Run it past loved ones and others you trust. Does it raise eyebrows? Elicit Wows? Or does it result in awkward silences?

The right concept simply works, and you’ll know it when you land on it. Most importantly, your idea must capture you in such a way that you’re compelled to write it. Otherwise, you’ll lose interest halfway through and never finish.

5. Construct your outline.

Starting your writing without a clear vision of where you’re going will usually end in disaster. Even if you’re writing fiction and consider yourself a Pantser* as opposed to an Outliner, you need at least a basic structure. [*Those of us who write by the seat of our pants and, as Stephen King advises, put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens]

You don’t have to call it an outline if that offends your sensibilities. But fashion some sort of a directional document that provides structure and also serves as a safety net. If you get out on that Pantser highwire and lose your balance, you’ll thank me for advising you to have this in place.

Now if you’re writing a nonfiction book, there’s no substitute for an outline. Potential agents or publishers require this in your proposal. They want to know where you’re going, and they want to know that you know. What do you want your reader to learn from your book, and how will you ensure they learn it?

Fiction or nonfiction, if you commonly lose interest in your book somewhere in what I call the Marathon of the Middle, you likely didn’t start with enough exciting ideas.

That’s why an outline (or a basic framework) is essential. Don’t even start writing until you’re confident your structure will hold up through the end. You may recognize this novel structure illustration.

Did you know it holds up—with only slight adaptations—for nonfiction books too? It’s self-explanatory for novelists; they list their plot twists and developments and arrange them in an order that best serves to increase tension.

What separates great nonfiction from mediocre? The same structure! Arrange your points and evidence in the same way so you’re setting your reader up for a huge payoff, and then make sure you deliver.

If your nonfiction book is a memoir, an autobiography, or a biography, structure it like a novel and you can’t go wrong. But even if it’s a straightforward how-to book, stay as close to this structure as possible, and you’ll see your manuscript come alive.

Make promises early, triggering your reader to anticipate fresh ideas, secrets, inside information, something major that will make him thrilled with the finished product. While you may not have as much action or dialogue or character development as your novelist counterpart, your crises and tension can come from showing where people have failed before and how you’re going to ensure your reader will succeed. You can even make the how-to project look impossible until you pay off that setup with your unique solution.

Keep your outline to a single page for now. But make sure every major point is represented, so you’ll always know where you’re going. And don’t worry if you’ve forgotten the basics of classic outlining or have never felt comfortable with the concept. Your outline must serve you. If that means Roman numerals and capital and lowercase letters and then Arabic numerals, you can certainly fashion it that way. But if you just want a list of sentences that synopsize your idea, that’s fine too.

Simply start with your working title, then your premise, then—for fiction, list all the major scenes that fit into the rough structure above. For nonfiction, try to come up with chapter titles and a sentence or two of what each chapter will cover. Once you have your one-page outline, remember it is a fluid document meant to serve you and your book. Expand it, change it, play with it as you see fit—even during the writing process.

6. Set a firm writing schedule.

Ideally, you want to schedule at least six hours per week to write. That may consist of three sessions of two hours each, two sessions of three hours, or six one-hour sessions—whatever works for you. I recommend a regular pattern (same times, same days) that can most easily become a habit. But if that’s impossible, just make sure you carve out at least six hours so you can see real progress.

Having trouble finding the time to write a book? News flash—you won’t find the time. You have to make it.

I used the phrase carve out above for a reason. That’s what it takes. Something in your calendar will likely have to be sacrificed in the interest of writing time. Make sure it’s not your family—they should always be your top priority. Never sacrifice your family on the altar of your writing career. But beyond that, the truth is that we all find time for what we really want to do.

Many writers insist they have no time to write, but they always seem to catch the latest Netflix original series or go to the next big Hollywood feature. They enjoy concerts, parties, ball games, whatever.

How important is it to you to finally write your book? What will you cut from your calendar each week to ensure you give it the time it deserves?

  • A favorite TV show?
  • An hour of sleep per night? (Be careful with this one; rest is crucial to a writer.)
  • A movie?
  • A concert?
  • A party?

Successful writers make time to write. When writing becomes a habit, you’ll be on your way.

7. Establish a sacred deadline.

Without deadlines, I rarely get anything done. I need that motivation. Admittedly, my deadlines are now established in my contracts from publishers. If you’re writing your first book, you probably don’t have a contract yet. To ensure you finish your book, set your own deadline—then consider it sacred.

Tell your spouse or loved one or trusted friend. Ask that they hold you accountable. Now determine—and enter in your calendar—the number of pages you need to produce per writing session to meet your deadline. If it proves unrealistic, change the deadline now.

If you have no idea how many pages or words you typically produce per session, you may have to experiment before you finalize those figures. Say you want to finish a 400-page manuscript by this time next year. Divide 400 by 50 weeks (accounting for two off-weeks), and you get eight pages per week. Divide that by your typical number of writing sessions per week and you’ll know how many pages you should finish per session. Now is the time to adjust these numbers while setting your deadline and determining your pages per session.

Maybe you’d rather schedule four off weeks over the next year. Or you know your book will be unusually long. Change the numbers to make it realistic and doable, and then lock it in. Remember, your deadline is sacred.

8. Embrace procrastination (Really!)

You read that right. Don’t fight it; embrace it. You wouldn’t guess it from my 190+ published books, but I’m the king of procrastinators. Surprised? Don’t be. So many authors are procrastinators that I’ve come to wonder if it’s a prerequisite. The secret is to accept it and, in fact, schedule it.

I quit fretting and losing sleep over procrastinating when I realized it was inevitable and predictable, and also that it was productive. Sound like rationalization? Maybe it was at first. But I learned that while I’m putting off the writing, my subconscious is working on my book. It’s a part of the process. When you do start writing again, you’ll enjoy the surprises your subconscious reveals to you.

So, knowing procrastination is coming, book it on your calendar. Take it into account when you’re determining your page quotas. If you have to go back in and increase the number of pages you need to produce per session, do that (I still do it all the time). But—and here’s the key—you must never let things get to where that number of pages per day exceeds your capacity.

It’s one thing to ratchet up your output from two pages per session to three. But if you let it get out of hand, you’ve violated the sacredness of your deadline. How can I procrastinate and still meet more than 190 deadlines? Because I keep the deadlines sacred.

9. Eliminate distractions to stay focused.

Are you as easily distracted as I am? Have you found yourself writing a sentence and then checking your email? Writing another and checking Facebook? Getting caught up in the come-ons for pictures of the 10 Sea Monsters You Wouldn’t Believe Actually Exist? Then you just have to check out that precious video from a talk show where the dad surprises the family by returning from the war. That leads to more and more of the same. Once I’m in, my writing is forgotten, and all of a sudden the day has gotten away from me.

The answer to these insidious time wasters? Look into these apps that allow you to block your email, social media, browsers, game apps, whatever you wish during the hours you want to write. Some carry a modest fee, others are free.

10. Conduct your research.

Yes, research is a vital part of the process, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.

Fiction means more than just making up a story. Your details and logic and technical and historical details must be right for your novel to be believable. And for nonfiction, even if you’re writing about a subject in which you’re an expert—as I’m doing here—you’ll be surprised how ensuring you get all the facts right will polish your finished product.

In fact, you’d be surprised at how many times I’ve researched a fact or two while writing this blog post alone. The last thing you want is even a small mistake due to your lack of proper research.

Regardless the detail, trust me, you’ll hear from readers about it. Your credibility as an author and an expert hinges on creating trust with your reader. That dissolves in a hurry if you commit an error.

My favorite research resources are:

  • World Almanacs: These alone list almost everything you need for accurate prose: facts, data, government information, and more. For my novels, I often use these to come up with ethnically accurate character names.
  • The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus: The online version is great because it’s lightning fast. You couldn’t turn the pages of a hard copy as quickly as you can get where you want to onscreen. One caution: Never let it be obvious you’ve consulted a thesaurus. You’re not looking for the exotic word that jumps off the page. You’re looking for that common word that’s on the tip of your tongue.
  • WorldAtlas.com: Here you’ll find nearly limitless information about any continent, country, region, city, town, or village. Names, monetary units, weather patterns, tourism info, and even facts you wouldn’t have thought to search for. I get ideas when I’m digging here, for both my novels and my nonfiction books.

11. Start calling yourself a writer.

Your inner voice may tell you, “You’re no writer and you never will be. What do you think you’re doing, trying to write a book?That may be why you’ve stalled at writing your book in the past. But if you’re working at writing, studying writing, practicing writing, that makes you a writer. Don’t wait till you reach some artificial level of accomplishment before calling yourself a writer.

A cop in uniform and on duty is a cop whether he’s actively enforced the law yet or not. A carpenter is a carpenter whether he’s ever built a house. Self-identify as a writer now and you’ll silence that inner critic—who, of course, is really you. Talk back to yourself if you must. It may sound silly, but acknowledging yourself as a writer can give you the confidence to keep going and finish your book.

Are you a writer? Say so.

Part Two: The Writing Itself

12. Think reader first.

This is so important that you should write it on a sticky note and affix it to your monitor so you’re reminded of it every time you write. Every decision you make about your manuscript must be run through this filter. Not you-first, not book-first, not editor-first, agent-first, or publisher-first. Certainly not your inner circle or critics-first. Reader-first, last, and always.

If every decision is based on the idea of reader-first, all those others benefit anyway. When fans tell me they were moved by one of my books, I think back to this adage and am grateful I maintained that posture during the writing.

Does a scene bore you? If you’re thinking reader-first, it gets overhauled or deleted. Where to go, what to say, what to write next? Decide based on the reader as your priority. Whatever your gut tells you your reader would prefer, that’s your answer. Whatever will intrigue him, move him, keep him reading, those are your marching orders.

So, naturally, you need to know your reader. Rough age? General interests? Loves? Hates? Attention span? When in doubt, look in the mirror. The surest way to please your reader is to please yourself. Write what you would want to read and trust there is a broad readership out there that agrees.

13. Find your writing voice.

Discovering your voice is nowhere near as complicated as some make it out to be. You can find yours by answering these quick questions:

  1. What’s the coolest thing that ever happened to you?
  2. Who’s the most important person you told about it?
  3. What did you sound like when you did?

That’s your writing voice. It should read the way you sound at your most engaged. That’s all there is to it. If you write fiction and the narrator of your book isn’t you, go through the three-question exercise on the narrator’s behalf—and you’ll quickly master the voice.

Here’s a blog I posted that’ll walk you through the process.

14. Write a compelling opener.

If you’re stuck because of the pressure of crafting the perfect opening line, you’re not alone.

And neither is your angst misplaced. This is not something you should put off and come back to once you’ve started on the rest of the first chapter.

Oh, it can still change if the story dictates that. But settling on a good one will really get you off and running. It’s unlikely you’ll write a more important sentence than your first one, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. Make sure you’re thrilled with it and then watch how your confidence—and momentum—soars.

Most great first lines fall into one of these categories:

Surprising

Fiction: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nonfiction: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man

Dramatic Statement

Fiction: “They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise

Nonfiction: “I was five years old the first time I ever set foot in prison.” —Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand

Philosophical

Fiction: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Nonfiction: “It’s not about you.” —Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life

Poetic

Fiction: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss

Nonfiction: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” —Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

Great opening lines from other classics may give you ideas for yours.

Here’s a list of famous openers.

15. Fill your story with conflict and tension.

Your reader craves conflict, and yes, this applies to nonfiction readers as well. In a novel, if everything is going well and everyone is agreeing, your reader will soon lose interest and find something else to do—like watching paint dry.

Are two of your characters talking at the dinner table? Have one say something that makes the other storm out. Some deep-seeded rift in their relationship has surfaced. Is it just a  misunderstanding that has snowballed into an injustice? Thrust people into conflict with each other. That’ll keep your reader’s attention.

Certain nonfiction genres won’t lend themselves to that kind of conflict, of course, but you can still inject tension by setting up your reader for a payoff in later chapters. Check out some of the current bestselling nonfiction works to see how writers accomplish this. Somehow they keep you turning those pages, even in a simple how-to title.

Tension is the secret sauce that will propel your reader through to the end. And sometimes that’s as simple as implying something to come.

16. Turn off your internal editor while writing the first draft.

Many of us are perfectionists and find it hard to get a first draft written—fiction or nonfiction—without feeling compelled to make every sentence exactly the way we want it. That voice in your head that questions every word, every phrase, every sentence, and makes you worry you’re being redundant or have allowed cliches to creep in—well, that’s just your editor alter ego.

He or she needs to be told to shut up. This is not easy. Deep as I am into a long career, I still have to remind myself of this every writing day. I cannot be both creator and editor at the same time. That slows me to a crawl, and my first draft of even one brief chapter could take days. Our job when writing that first draft is to get down the story or the message or the teaching—depending on your genre.

It helps me to view that rough draft as a slab of meat I will carve tomorrow. I can’t both produce that hunk and trim it at the same time. A cliche, a redundancy, a hackneyed phrase comes tumbling out of my keyboard, and I start wondering whether I’ve forgotten to engage the reader’s senses or aimed for his emotions.

That’s when I have to chastise myself and say, “No! Don’t worry about that now! First thing tomorrow you get to tear this thing up and put it back together again to your heart’s content!” Imagine yourself wearing different hats for different tasks, if that helps—whatever works to keep you rolling on that rough draft. You don’t need to show it to your worst enemy or even your dearest love. This chore is about creating. Don’t let anything slow you down.

Some like to write their entire first draft before attacking the revision. As I say, whatever works. Doing it that way would make me worry I’ve missed something major early that will cause a complete rewrite when I discover it months later. I alternate creating and revising.

The first thing I do every morning is a heavy edit and rewrite of whatever I wrote the day before. If that’s ten pages, so be it. I put my perfectionist hat on and grab my paring knife and trim that slab of meat until I’m happy with every word. Then I switch hats, tell Perfectionist Me to take the rest of the day off, and I start producing rough pages again.

So, for me, when I’ve finished the entire first draft, it’s actually a second draft because I have already revised and polished it in chunks every day. THEN I go back through the entire manuscript one more time, scouring it for anything I missed or omitted, being sure to engage the reader’s senses and heart, and making sure the whole thing holds together.

I do not submit anything I’m not entirely thrilled with. I know there’s still an editing process it will will go through at the publisher, but my goal is to make my manuscript the absolute best I can before they see it.

Compartmentalize your writing vs. your revising and you’ll find that frees you to create much more quickly.

17. Preservere through The Marathon of the Middle.

Most who fail at writing a book tell me they give up somewhere in what I like to call The Marathon of the Middle. That’s a particularly rough stretch for novelists who have a great concept, a stunning opener, and they can’t wait to get to the dramatic ending. But they bail when they realize they don’t have enough cool stuff to fill the middle. They start padding, trying to add scenes just for the sake of bulk, but they’re soon bored and know readers will be too. This actually happens to nonfiction writers too.

The solution there is in the outlining stage, being sure your middle points and chapters are every bit as valuable and magnetic as the first and last. If you strategize the progression of your points or steps in a process—depending on nonfiction genre—you should be able to eliminate the strain in the middle chapters.

For novelists, know that every book becomes a challenge a few chapters in. The shine wears off, keeping the pace and tension gets harder, and it’s easy to run out of steam. But that’s not the time to quit. Force yourself back to your structure, come up with a subplot if necessary, but do whatever you need to so your reader stays engaged.

Fiction writer or nonfiction author, The Marathon of the Middle is when you must remember why you started this journey in the first place. It isn’t just that you want to be an author. You have something to say. You want to reach the masses with your message.

Yes, it’s hard. It still is for me—every time. But don’t panic or do anything rash, like surrendering. Embrace the challenge of the middle as part of the process. If it were easy, anyone could do it.

18. Write a resounding ending.

This is just as important for your nonfiction book as your novel. It may not be as dramatic or emotional, but it could be—especially if you’re writing a memoir. But even a how-to or self-help book needs to close with a resounding thud, the way a Broadway theater curtain meets the floor.

How do you ensure your ending doesn’t fizzle?

  • Don’t rush it. Give readers the payoff they’ve been promised. They’ve invested in you and your book the whole way. Take the time to make it satisfying.
  • Never settle for close enough just because you’re eager to be finished. Wait till you’re thrilled with every word, and keep revising until you are.
  • If it’s unpredictable, it had better be fair and logical so your reader doesn’t feel cheated. You want him to be delighted with the surprise, not tricked.
  • If you have multiple ideas for how your book should end, go for the heart rather than the head, even in nonfiction. Readers most remember what moves them.

Part Three: All Writing Is Rewriting

19. Become a ferocious self-editor.

Agents and editors can tell within the first two pages whether your manuscript is worthy of further consideration. That sounds unfair, and maybe it is. But it’s also reality, so we writers need to face it.

How can they often decide that quickly on something you’ve devoted months, maybe years, to?

Because they can almost immediately envision how much editing would be required to make those first couple of pages publishable. If they decide the investment wouldn’t make economic sense for a 300-400-page manuscript, end of story.

Your best bet to keep an agent or editor reading your manuscript? You must become a ferocious self-editor. That means:

  • Omit needless words
  • Choose the simple word over one that requires a dictionary
  • Avoid subtle redundancies, like “He thought in his mind…” (Where else would someone think?)
  • Avoid hedging verbs like almost frowned, sort of jumped, etc.
  • Generally remove the word that—use it only when absolutely necessary for clarity
  • Give the reader credit and resist the urge to explain, as in, “She walked through the open door.” (Did we need to be told it was open?)
  • Avoid too much stage direction (what every character is doing with every limb and digit)
  • Avoid excessive adjectives
  • Show, don’t tell
  • And many more

For my full list and how to use them, click here. (It’s free.)

When do you know you’re finished revising? When you’ve gone from making your writing better to merely making it different. That’s not always easy to determine, but it’s what makes you an author.

And Finally—the Quickest Way to Succeed…

20. Find a mentor.

Get help from someone who’s been where you want to be. Imagine engaging a mentor who can help you sidestep all the amateur pitfalls and shave years of painful trial-and-error off your learning curve. Just make sure it’s someone who really knows the writing and publishing world. Many masquerade as mentors and coaches but have never really succeeded themselves.

Look for someone widely-published who knows how to work with agents, editors, and publishers.

There are many helpful mentors online. I teach writers through this free site, as well as in my members-only Writers Guild.

Want to save this definitive 20-Step Guide to read later?

Click here to download a handy PDF version.

TAKE THE OJ SIMPSON MURDER SCENE TOUR

OJ Simpson is the world’s most famous criminal who got away with murder. On June 12, 1994, NFL Superstar Orenthal James (O.J.) Simpson slashed and stabbed his estranged wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson and her acquaintance Ron Goldman, leaving them to die in pools of blood outside Nicole’s home in the West Los Angeles community of Brentwood. OJ fled. He was eventually taken down after a slow-speed chase in a white Ford Bronco shown live on national TV.

The white Bronco show opened a much larger act when OJ Simpson was tried live on international TV. It was the first of its kind — possibly the catalyst to reality shows. People were mesmerized by plastic theatrics played throughout eleven long months where a host of larger-than-life characters mocked jurisprudence. OJ got off. But the file never closed. Today, the OJ Simpson case stays open in the court of public fascination.

And today, when you’re in Brentwood, California, you can take the OJ Simpson murder scene tour with guide Adam Papagan. Adam is a wealth of knowledge about the OJ case, the characters and the locations from where the trial of the century played out. Adam takes you from Nicole’s condo, where blood soaked the walk, to the Mezzaluna Restaraunt where she ate her last meal. He’ll guide you through moments before OJ’s frenzied attack and many hours till the famous freeway fallout. And Adam will tell you things left lingering behind the scenes that let OJ Simpson get away with murder.

The only thing Adam Papagan doesn’t have is a white Ford Bronco. But he’s working on it. Adam not only has a tour company website, Facebook page, Twitter account and great TripAdvisor stars, he’s currently crowdfunding capital to buy a white Ford Bronco to make your OJ crime scene tour complete.

I invited guide Adam Papagan over to the DyingWords shack for a talk about the OJ Simpson case and what to expect when you take his OJ Simpson murder scene tour. Adam’s fun and he knows his stuff. Here’s how our chat went down.

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Hi Adam! Welcome to DyingWords. I think you’ve got a real cool crime-scene tourist business going and a hell of an idea about using a white Bronco as a tour vehicle and mobile OJ museum. How’d you come up with it?

Hi Garry, thanks. I grew up near Brentwood so I’ve been obsessed with this whole thing since I was a kid. In high school, I was talking to a friend about OJ and she told me in the 90s her father, a guy by the name of Stu Krieger, came up with The OJ Tour. After months of lobbying, Stu agreed to take me on the tour and it was amazing. He gave me his blessing to keep the tour going and I gave it informally for ten years after that. Word started to get out to the point that strangers started hitting me up on Facebook wanting to go on the tour. That’s when I realized it could be a thing.

We don’t have a regular tour vehicle, but a Bronco would be perfect since that’s the vehicle everyone associates with OJ. There’s so much OJ memorabilia from the trial and his football career, so I figure we can turn the extra space in the back of the truck into a museum.

It’s been 23 years since the tragic and brutal Nicole Brown Simpson — Ronald Goldman murders. Why are people still so interested in this case?

There’s still debate over whether he did it is probably the biggest reason. There’s some unresolved business there that’s very intriguing. It also has a lot of glamorous aspects which I think people are fascinated by. A lot of it is nostalgia too. The case was a huge part of the 90’s. It’s so of its time.

There’s been gobs written and reported on the OJ case. Like in so many high-profile murders, I suspect a lot is misinformed or outright BS. Give us a Cliff’s Notes tour of the events leading up to the murders.

I wasn’t there, but what I believe happened is OJ got pissed when Nicole didn’t invite him to have dinner with the family after their daughter’s dance recital. He went home and for the next couple hours got madder and madder. Before his flight to Chicago, he went to Nicole’s house. Maybe just to spy on her, he did that, or maybe with the intention of killing her. Either way, Ron was there and got caught in the middle. I think OJ did it and more than likely he planned it out in advance.

Looking back, how solid was the evidence against OJ?

Not very solid. He had a motive and an opportunity, but there were no witnesses and the police didn’t do a very good job with the investigation. But this case isn’t about evidence. The Not Guilty verdict was inevitable.

What do you think happened to the murder weapon? The knife?

OJ probably ditched it at the airport before his flight. A skycap said he saw it happen but they were never able to prove it. Maybe he threw it out the window of the limo. We’ll never know.

I just re-read the autopsy reports. It shows Nicole was stabbed 5 times and Ron Goldman was knifed 30 times. That’s a lot of overkill. What made OJ snap?

OJ was a jealous guy. It drove him crazy that she was playing him with a young boy toy. OJ probably recognized Ron from the neighborhood. I saw some 20/20 or Dateline or something where a forensics expert said some of Ron’s wounds were extra deep as if the assailant were accenting a point with the knife, like “So, you think you can kiss MY wife?”. That sounds like a movie, though.

What do you make of OJ’s headspace after the murders? What was he trying to do?

I think he compartmentalized it like he did a lot of his personality. His whole life people loved him and he could get away with anything. I think he was genuinely baffled when the hammer came down as hard as it did.

There’ll never be another live action scene like the slow-speed chase. Take us through the white Bronco ride.

The Dream Team negotiated with the LAPD to let OJ turn himself in on the morning of June 17th, five days after the murder. OJ had his lawyers stall so he could make a getaway attempt. The plan was to have his best friend Al Cowlings drive him to Mexico. On the way, they stopped at Nicole’s grave in Orange County. By this time the news had gotten out that the Juice was Loose and they were spotted. At this point, they had to turn around and head back to Brentwood. OJ had thousands of dollars in cash and a disguise with him. No charges were ever filed in connection with the case because they thought it would distract from the murder trial.

What happened to the original white Bronco? Any chance of buying that thing?

OJ’s former agent Mike Gilbert has it in his garage in Central California. He’s been offered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years but won’t part with it. I don’t think there’s any chance I’ll get it, that’s a lot of $80 tours.

What’s your take on the police investigation? Was it as screwed up as the trial indicated?

Definitely. They mishandled evidence and failed to secure the crime scene. Cases get dismissed for that kind of thing all the time. On the other hand, the LAPD has a long history embellishing evidence to help their case. I think it’s very possible they’ve framed an innocent man. (Not OJ, though. He was totally guilty.)

What are some important pieces of evidence that never came out at trial?

There was a woman who almost got in a car accident with OJ few blocks from the murder scene. She sold her story to the tabloids so she never got to testify. There were also the shoe prints from OJ’s “ugly ass shoes” that didn’t come into play until the civil trial. But like I said, evidence wasn’t a factor in this case.

Okay, let’s talk about the trial of the century and the dream-team defense. How’d that circus get so crazy?

People have misconceptions about the judicial system. It’s not about right or wrong it’s about which side plays the game better. The defense had a better strategy and scored more points so they won. The media play helped the defense plant doubt about OJ’s guilt too. OJ was a veteran entertainer and they were able to use that to their advantage. It’s not unlike the 2016 election.

Give us some gossip about the trial characters.

Let’s see… Marcia Clark took Scientology classes and had a poster of Jim Morrison in her office. Fred Goldman works at a department store in Phoenix. Kato ordered a grilled chicken sandwich at McDonalds minutes before the murder.

Marcia Clark, the main prosecutor. Was she in over her head or did she get a bad shake?

Both. The defense was a lot more polished and used to being on TV, plus they had more resources. But she was also the victim of sexism.

What are your thoughts about how the jury demographics and change of venue affected the verdict?

The defense strategically stacked the jury with people who would be sympathetic to OJ. Apparently, after jury selection, OJ remarked, “If this jury convicts me, then maybe I DID do it”.

Judge Ito? What was that guy all about? I read he did off-the-wall stuff like offering to take the jury up for an entertaining mid-trial Goodyear Blimp ride, took a personal vacation during final summations and even did a bizarre product placement for “Broccoli Wockly” on his desk so the cameras could promote it. Is that shit true?

I think he was a little star struck and got taken for a ride, like a lot of people who have a brush with fame in Hollywood. I’ve never heard the Broccoli Wockly thing but those hour glasses he kept on his desk were pretty weird. The jury went on all sorts of outings so I wouldn’t be surprised about the blimp. Ito was the only one smart enough to not write a book, so it’s hard to say.

Okay, I gotta ask you about the glove fitting in court. WTF happened there?

Which time? When OJ tried on the glove from the crime scene that supposedly didn’t fit it had shrunken some, plus OJ stopped taking his arthritis medication so his hands would swell up, plus it kind of did fit. What most people don’t know is that the next week they had him try on a brand new pair of the same gloves and they fit perfectly.

Was having cameras in the courtroom the fatal flaw?

They certainly helped the defense, and it was definitely good for the people. If it weren’t on TV it wouldn’t have gotten nearly as big.

Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Outrage — 5 Reasons Why OJ Simpson Got Away With Murder”. I’m sure you read it. What’s your thoughts on it?

It’s at the thrift store a lot, I’ve skimmed it. Bugliosi doesn’t really have anything to do with the OJ trial and his Helter Skelter book is kind of boring. Mark Furhman’s book is the best, so I kind of stopped after that one.

I understand OJ is still in jail on an unrelated robbery conviction. What’s eventually going to become of him?

He’s up for parole this year but I don’t think he’ll get it. It’d be in his best interest to stay quiet and continue to fade into legend.

Take us for a ride on your tour.

I use some proprietary tour information so I can’t tell you everything, but we go to the murder scene, obviously, Rockingham, the restaurant, and a few more. I use a lot of my first-hand knowledge of what Brentwood was like at the time of the trial.

When you visit these scenes, how do the neighbors respond?

No one has ever said anything. One time while giving the tour I ran into Pablo Fenejves, Nicole’s neighbor who testified at the trial and later went on to ghostwrite OJ’s book “If I Did It”. He was walking a dog, which is the same thing he was doing at the time of the murders. That was surreal.

What’s the craziest question you’ve been asked?

I had one guy who was a lawyer who wanted to explore the case from the perspective of Jason Simpson being the murderer so he paid me extra to take him to the restaurant where Jason worked and approach it from that perspective. He wrote me some months later to tell me, after careful investigation, he thinks OJ did it.

Tell us about your plans to acquire a white Bronco and how people can help you out with crowdfunding.

Broncos are fairly common but because of their iconic status they are a little pricey. Doing the tour in the Bronco will be pretty conspicuous, so getting it will trigger me having to get a bunch of tourism licenses and insurance. I don’t really make any money on the tour as it is, so I’m asking people to chip in to help cover all the additional overhead.

Where can people get involved and what’s in it for them?

We have an IndieGoGo page. Also the ojtour.com We have prizes like stickers and t-shirts as well as the option to book a tour. We’ll also send out a link so you can do a virtual ride along. The campaign runs until June 17th, the anniversary of the Bronco chase.

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Adam Papagan is an artist, comedian, and talk show host from Los Angeles, California. His past projects include immersive video installations, collaborations with outsider musician David Liebe Hart, and the podcast Juicing the People v. O.J. Simpson. He also hosts There’s a Place: The ASMR Talk Show on Dromebox.com and Inside Outside on KCHUNG Radio. He began his career at age 15 on public access television.

Help support Adam’s crowdfund goal through IndieGoGo and get that white Ford Bronco chasing slow through the crime scenes in Brentwood. Check out Adam’s OJ Tour Website and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. And please share Adam’s white Bronco campaign — it ends on June 17th — 23 years to the day since OJ fled in his white Bronco after viscously murdering Nicole and Ron.

MARRED – NEW PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER FROM SUE COLETTA

AA8Marred is the new psychological thriller from New Hampshire crime writer, Sue Coletta, who is my close internet friend and cohort. Sue’s an exceptionally talented writer with a great sense of humor. In fact, she’s silly enough to drop by the DyingWords shack for a chat about herself and her newest novel which just came online for prerelease on Amazon and other digital retailers. Great to see you! *waves at Sue* Tell us… What’s Marred all about? And what’s with the woman hanging from the barn rafters on the cover?

Hey Garry. *waves back* I think the best thing I can say is what’s on Marred’s jacket blurb.

When a serial killer breaks into the home of bestselling author, Sage Quintano, she barely escapes with her life. Her husband, Niko, a homicide detective, insists they move to rural New Hampshire, where he accepts a position as Grafton County Sheriff. Sage buries secrets from that night—secrets she swears to take to her deathbed.

Three years of anguish and painful memories pass, and a grisly murder case lands on Niko’s desk. A strange caller begins tormenting Sage—she can’t outrun the past.

When Sage’s twin sister suddenly goes missing, Sage searches Niko’s case files and discovers similarities to the Boston killer. A sadistic psychopath is preying on innocent women, marring their bodies in unspeakable ways. And now, he has her sister.

Cryptic clues. Hidden messages. Is the killer hinting at his identity? Or is he trying to lure Sage into a deadly trap to end his reign of terror with a matching set of corpses?

Ooooo… Chilling! How much of yourself is in Sage Quintano, your protagonist?

I think all our characters have pieces of us. Don’t you?

AA1I used three main characters in Marred, alternating their point of views. I gave Sage Quintano parts of my heart and soul, the mushy part of me; her love for animals, family, writing, that sort of thing. But Sage lived through a brutal assault, which crushed her spirit. Deputy Frankie Campanelli, my snarky character, says things I only wish I could say. But at one time she would be a better representation of who I am. I’ve mellowed with age. Even Sheriff Niko Quintano, Sage’s husband, has a piece of me. His hard outer layer protects him from heartbreak, but when he loves he goes all in 100%.

When Marred is adopted into a screenplay, who do you want as the main characters? Now, c’mon. Every writer wants to see their book on the screen.

AA3Of course I do! When I wrote my first novel I would spend hours daydreaming about the screenplay version. Marred is my fourth novel, though, so I haven’t given it much thought. Let’s see. For Sage, Gillian Anderson, if she colored her hair sable brown. Jessica Alba for Frankie. She too would need to color her hair, dark with auburn highlights. Robert Downey Jr. for Niko, with short-cropped hair.

I used to own a hair salon, which is why I’m concentrating on the hair here.

You’re a bloody good writer, Sue. How were you as a student?

Aww. *blush* Thank you. As a student I was too busy socializing to worry about grades. Therefore, I got B’s and C’s rather than the A’s I should have gotten.

Ever take an IQ test?

No, but I’ve always wanted to.

What’s your typical writing day like?

AA7Crazy. I start early in the morning, around 4-5 a.m. Read for a while, then get to work by 7 a.m. and continue until 7 p.m., on average. Sometimes later. During the day I take a half hour to have lunch with my husband and two 15 min breaks, or one 30 min. break, to exercise.

Do you have a set process?

Writing process? Absolutely. First, I plan my novel. I use an Excel spreadsheet based on the principals in Story Engineering, Save the Cat, and a few other milestones from other craft books. Once I have my milestones mapped out, I write my scenes. Each scene should either setup the next one or pay it off. Each day I start by editing the scenes I wrote the day before, and then I continue on. This way, by the time I finish the first draft I have less overall editing to do. I realize that’s not the norm, but it works for me. Then I start my editing. First by searching for writing tics, words and phrases I tend to overuse, and then I do an overall read for continuity, hanging plot threads, clues, etc. I send it off to my critique partner and beta readers. Once I get it back I work on the suggestions/comments. One final read-through and it’s ready to go to the publisher.

You held out for a traditional publishing contract rather than going indie like a bunch of the rest of us. Why’d you make that choice?

AA2For a few reasons, actually. Number one, it’s always been my dream to be traditionally published. Number two, when you’re traditionally published more opportunities open up for you. Like going for prestigious awards, for example. Number three, I wanted to work with a team…cover designer, editor, proof reader, etc., without having to absorb the cost. It was a long, hard road, but well worth it.

How was your experience in working with a publishing house?

Great. Everyone has been so nice. It’s a fantastic feeling to know I have a talented team backing me, as well as offering support and encouragement. And, y’know, no more sending out query letters and hoping for a request.

What motivates you to get up in the morning?

AA4I love what I do. I get to kill people for a living and get away with it. What’s not to love?

Will you ever tell where you hide the bodies?

Never!

Hey – Would you attend an autopsy with me?

Sure. As long as it’s not mine.

Ha Ha! What’d you write before turning to crime?

Years ago, I wrote children’s stories. Odd combination, I know, but the stories were bursting to get out. I wrote a dozen or so. Someday I might publish them. Never refuse the muse.

Who’s your biggest writing-craft influences?

AA13Larry Brooks and Brandilyn Collins for craft advice. For authors, who I’ve learned from through reading their thrillers, Larry Brooks, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child, Thomas Harris, Katia Lief, I could go on and on.

Karin Slaughter. Love that crime writin’ name. What do you enjoy about the writing business?

The writing community rocks. I’ve never met so many caring, supportive people in my life.

Is there any one secret to great storytelling?

AA15Structure. It controls pace, creates empathy for your characters, aka rootability, and provides the reader a vicarious experience.

Hmmm… Great answer. What’s the best piece of life advice you’ve received and where’d you get it?

My mom told me repeatedly, “You can have anything you want out of life as long as you apply yourself and work hard. Dream big, because the sky’s the limit.”

Do you fit your Zodiac sign?

To a tee. I’m a double Libra, sun and moon.

Any tattoos?

Three. Back of my left shoulder, right ankle, and inside the right hip bone.

AA4Inside the hip bone? That musta hurt. Now, what’s the Top 3 on your bucket list?

I want to take a cruise to somewhere exotic. Visit Australia and smuggle home a Quokka. And hit #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. Not necessarily in that order.

Where do you see yourself in a year? In five? In ten?

In one year I hope to have three of my novels released. I’d love to win the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award for Marred. Wouldn’t the cover look great here? In five years, I hope to hit the NYTBL. In ten, drop from exhaustion. LOL

AA5So what do you want your dying words to be?

I loved, laughed, cried, danced, and shared my experiences with the world through my books.

Nice! Hopefully that won’t be said for a long, long time. Lots more writing to leave behind, ya know. Speaking of time. What’s your biggest time-vulture?

Facebook. I can’t get enough of hilarious animal pics and videos. Like this…

AA6

Awesome!  Okay, now it’s time to take the DyingWords 10-step psychological profile. You must answer all questions honestly, otherwise I’ll sic the hounds. And no phoning a friend. Ready?

  1. Pantster or plotter?  Plotter.
  1. Window or aisle?  Window.
  1. Print or digital?  Digital.
  1. Harley or Honda?  Harley.
  1. Coffee or tea?  Tea.
  1. Coyote or Roadrunner?  Coyote.
  1. Burial or Cremation?  Burial.
  1. Fine-tip pen or bold?  Bold.
  1. Handcuffs or leg-irons? Handcuffs.
  1. Orangutan or gorilla? Gorilla.

AA16Okay. Just a sec… have to plug them into the DyingWords Psycho-Analyzer… twirl the dials… press the button… wait a minute… and… hmmm… Yep! Saw this comin’. Says because you’re a methodical plotter, fearless with your view, progressive in technology, aggressive as a Hog rider yet refined as a tea drinker, persistent as Wile E. Coyote, choose longevity over being a flash in the pan, are bold with words, keep your hands cuffed to the keyboard, and have hide thicker than a frickin’ gorilla…

You’ll make a great best-selling, crime-thriller writer! Imagine that?

*Sue rolls eyes*

Alright, moving on. With Marred about to be released, what’s your next project?

Wings of Mayhem. About a forensics specialist who moonlights as a cat burglar and mistakenly steals a killer’s trophy box. Oops!

AA17Double Oops. You’ve got a great website, Sue. Tell us about it.

My site—www.suecoletta.com—is dedicated to crime. I post informative articles to help crime writers’ stories ring true, writing tips, editing tips, and feature guests from law enforcement and forensics fields. I also have a Crime Writer’s Resource, which anyone can use. But the site is not only for writers. For instance, I have the Crime Lovers Lounge. Subscribers will get a secret key code that will unlock— You’ll have to subscribe to see what I have in store. More on that coming soon. If you’re a writer with murder in your plot, grab a free pdf 60 Ways to Murder Your Fictional Characters.

AA19It’s been a long haul for you with it’s just-rewards finally happening. Tell us about your journey.

Actually, I’m wrote an entire post about my journey for Molly Greene. You can read it at: http://www.molly-greene.com.

I just did. Wow! What a story of determination and preserverence. You certainly earned your stripes. Now, last and most important, when and where can we get Marred?

To celebrate the pre-release, Marred is on sale for only 99 cents at these fine retailers. More retailers will become available in the coming weeks. Marred will automatically be delivered on 11/11/15.

Amazon US      Amazon UK      Smashwords

Thanks so much, Sue. Best wishes for Marred looking down from the top of the charts. I’ve had a sneak-peek at the ARC and it’s a top-notch, thrilling read. Great job!

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AA9Sue Coletta is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime as well as the author of five novels. A 4K-word excerpt of Marred will be published in the upcoming anthology, Murder, USA. Her other titles will be available soon. Sue is also editing the How-To / No BS Guide Series on Crime Fiction Writing that are in progress. Connect with Sue on her social media sites:

Web/Blogsite  –  http://suecoletta.com/

Twitter –  https://twitter.com/SueColetta1

Pinterest –  http://www.pinterest.com/SueColetta1

Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/SueColetta1

Goodreads – http://www.goodreads.com/SueColetta

Amazon – http://www.amazon.com/Sue-Coletta/e/B015OYK5HO

Google+  –  http://www.plus.google.com/u/0/+SusanColetta/posts/

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