Starting As a Writer by Dale T. Phillips

Some of the basic questions a starting writer has:

How do I write?

What do I write?

How do I publish?

How do I promote and sell?

How Do I Write?

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

― Stephen King

King is right on this. To be successful in selling fiction, you really must be in love with reading. You’ve got to know how words are put together to make a compelling story, you’ve got to know what works in telling a story, and what doesn’t work. You’ve got to know the field you’re competing in. If you write in a genre, you must know the tropes and conventions of that genre. Storytellers enjoy the stories of others, and learn from them. Walking through a house frame doesn’t make you a carpenter, it’s having the tools and skills and experience to know how things are put together. As a master carpenter is a craftsman, making things fit, functional, and looking good, so must you be with your writing.

You don’t need a college degree, or specialized training. While it’s helpful to improve through workshops, writing programs, mentoring, critique groups, reader feedback, you can learn much on your own through focused study and practice, practice, practice. Always be improving. The more you write, the better you should get, because the study and the practice works to improve what you do. The “Ten-thousand-hour rule” is much more complex than just putting in that number of hours to get successful. You need specific, focused practice.

There are hundreds of books that tell you how to become a better writer, and they can be your writing program. You should be familiar with at least some of the best of them, and absorb their lessons. See what the writers you admire recommend. Every year, you should have gone through some craft lessons that will make your writing better. Even now, I’ll come across some piece of advice that helps me get unstuck from some thorny issue I’m having with the telling of a tale. These are tips from professional writers who’ve been there, and most of your issues will have been discussed somewhere. Having a broad and deep knowledge of the lessons of the writing craft books is a substantial help in becoming a successful writer.

Are you familiar with how tales are told in different Points of View (POV)? Story arcs? The hero’s journey? Beats in story structure? The unreliable narrator? Foreshadowing? The surprise ending or twist? All this and more should be part of your craft knowledge.

The answer to when to write is whenever you can, and whatever works for you: morning, noon, night, lunch breaks, vacations, whenever. Having the habit of writing is supreme, because it makes you practice a lot, which gets you better quicker, and produces more output. A mere 500 words a day, most days, gives you the word count of several novels in the course of a year. Don’t wait for the perfect time or for inspiration, they may not come as often as needed. Put words down as often as possible, even if they’re not good. They’ll get better.

What Do I Write?

The question of what to write is a personal one. Some writers set about creating books for the market they think are popular types, chasing the latest publishing fad. This rarely works in traditional publishing, because the long development times mean the fad will likely be over by the time the book is ready to come out, or the fad too quickly gets glutted with similar books. The best thing about Indie publishing is you never have to worry that a particular book won’t get published, due to it not being commercial enough for someone else to make a lot of money from.

Traditional path writers have to constantly worry about being dropped by their publisher if a book doesn’t sell well, so they strive to be as commercial as possible. While they do, there’s usually the desire to write “the book of the heart,” one that matters to them, but may not be as commercially successful. In the Indie world, every book can be the book of the heart. And when you write books that deeply matter to you, you’ll likely find a devoted readership, and more personal success, rather than writing blah books you don’t care about, even if they put food on the table.

My metaphor for this is that fast-food chains make money selling a lot of junk food, which fills a need for many. I prefer to run a top-level restaurant, which produces memorable meals that create a good life experience.

How Do I Publish?

To the question of how to publish, there are now different, good options, and each writer must decide what path is best for themselves.

There’s a lot to learn about the world of publishing these days. Lucky for you, there’s a great deal of good information about at your fingertips, distilled down for you to easily absorb. If you want to be successful, it’s good to know what’s happening in the writing and publishing world. Various articles, blogs, and newsletters give great information on current writing and publishing events. Writer organizations let their members know about areas of concern. Some sites warn of various dangers, such as predatory people or trends. Be aware of your world.

Publishing in general:

  • Research! Learn the business before you publish.
  • Go Indie to control your career.
  • Go wide for Discoverability (how can readers find your books?)- Formats, Distributors, and promote for free in as many places as you can.
  • All formats- print, ebook, audio, others as they become available, for example, graphic novels.
  • Use the big distributors- Amazon/Ingram’s Lightning Source for print, Smashwords/Draft2Digital for ebooks, and options like ACX/Audible for audio.

How Do I Promote and Sell?

To the question of how to promote and sell, there are hundreds of books which go into great detail about how to do just that. You should have at least a basic understanding of what’s involved, and decide how much you want to take on versus how much time you have to write. Remember WIBBOW, which stands for Would I Be Better Off Writing?

It’s going to take some work, because you’re competing against millions of other books, many of them quite good. What’s going to set your above the others, to make people want to pay money for yours? You won’t have time or energy to do every darned thing. But the more you do, the better your chances.

Some writers have expectations of huge sales with their first or second books. While it does happen from time to time (lottery wins), it’s not a reasonable goal. Mostly a readership has to be built over time. Around 96% of all books don’t sell more than a few hundred copies. So anytime you meet or beat that average, you’re a success! Study the concept of the Long Tail for an idea of how your work might grow over time.

If your view of success is limited simply to how much money you’re making in the short term, you’ll probably never be happy or successful enough. Human greed and desire are bottomless. In the words of robber-baron millionaire John D. Rockefeller, when asked how much money would make him happy: “Just a little more [but to infinity].”

Think of your writing career as a Johnny Appleseed metaphor, where each book is a single tree planted, each copy an apple from that tree. It takes time, and it’s tough to make a living selling apples off just one tree. But if you’ve created an orchard, with quality and quantity, word will eventually get around. And you don’t have to stick with just apples: you can sell cider, jelly, pies, all other formats. Continuing that metaphor, give people who haven’t tried your product a free taste, because you know it’s good, and they’ll be back for more. Give copies away, so they’ll find your other work. Ebooks made this easy and free. Writers get more well known when their books are read for free in libraries. For the most part, forget about “piracy”: superstar author Neil Gaiman talks a lot about being pirated, and giving away his work for free, and watching his sales go up!

There are still articles published saying how expensive it is to self-publish. If you pay too much for the many services available, it certainly can cost a lot. But there are so many free tools and inexpensive methodologies that you don’t need to spend a lot of money. Do your homework!

So those are your expectations. Are you still ready to tackle this venture?

Dale T. Phillips has published novels, story collections, non-fiction, and over 70 short stories. Stephen King was Dale’s college writing teacher, and since then, Dale has found time to appear on stage, television, radio, in an independent feature film, and compete on Jeopardy. He’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Visit Dale at