Some questions and answers for writers about how to get started

I was chatting with a neighbor the other day, and it turns out she’s been working on a book for several years, but is stuck and wondering where she can get support, information, resources, etc. In short, shes wanted to know how she could learn more about writing.

Some of her questions reminded me of the questions I had way back when I was trying to write my first book. That made me think that there may be other writers who have similar questions.

Keep in mind with every answer, so I don’t have to keep saying it, that everyone is different. Every writing process is different. Figure out what works for you, then do it.

Q. Do I need to take special writing classes? I tried one once, and didn’t really like it. Oh, and I don’t have any money, anyway.

A. No, you don’t need to take special writing classes. You can if you want to, but it’s not required. But you do need to find some way to learn more about the craft than you know now.

The number one thing to do is read as much as you can, both good books and bad books. Think about what you like and don’t like and figure out what they’re doing that works. Read criticism as well — it’ll make you think about your writing. I don’t mean book reviews, since most aren’t that helpful. Look online for “literary criticism.”

Find writing resources that help you learn how to do what you want to do. Understand grammar, puncutaiton, word use and the more complicated things like point of view, first person vs. third person and more.

One book that’s necessary to have — and yes, buy the book, is the Chicago Manual of Style. This is the style book that the publishing industry uses and will help with the technical stuff. Also dig out your old Strunk & White “Elements of Style,” and if you don’t have one, go buy one. Yes, buy a hard copy of the book (more on this in a minute). One book I always recommend is “Don’t Murder Your Mystery,” by Chris Roerden. It’s an excellent resource for learning about bad writing habits and how to overcome them. You don’t have to be writing a mystery to benefit from Roerden’s advice.

The reason I say buy the hard copy of the book is that you want to have them handy as references. You should actually read “Elements of Style” and “Don’t Murder Your Mystery” all the way through. You’ll want to put sticky notes in them and bookmarks, so you can go back and remind yourself of things. Just because the internet exists doesn’t mean it’s the best way to use a resource. That doesn’t mean you can’t look up stuff on the internet, too. Just, for these resources, buy them and use them.

Another thing I recommend is to attend the New England Crime Bake, even if you’re not writing a mystery. You will meet fantastic people who are doing exactly what you’re doing, attend panels and workshops that’ll answer a lot of your questions and find out how to access resources and more.

One last thing. Learn to diagram sentences. I’m not having fun with you, I’m serious. It’ll improve your writing and editors will love you. Even if you were force-fed it by really mean nuns in grade school, give yourself a refresher.

2. Should I join a writing group?

It’s up to you. The benefit is that you have kindred souls you can discuss writing with, and if they are the right people, they’ll also help you make your writing better. Sometimes it’s hard to find a good fit, so keep that in mind. But don’t shy away just because you’re afraid to have people read and critique your writing. If you want your book to get published, you have to get used to that. You’ll eventually learn what criticism is worthwhile and what type of it isn’t. If they’re not getting what you’re doing, and you’re confident that you know what you’re doing and have done the work to back it up, it’s not the right fit. If you find that what they discuss with you makes sense and it’s making your writing better, it’s the right fit.

3. But if they read my stuff, they may steal it, right?

No. They won’t. If you gave 10 people in a room a writing prompt, they would all come up with wildly different stories. Only you can write what you’re going to write, since it’s coming from inside your head. Sure, they can try — though in my 15 years of blabbing on and on and on to other writers about my plots, characters, story lines, etc., no one has ever stolen squat from me that I know if. This isn’t to say there may not be some people without great imaginations who need to steal from their writing group pals, but they’re not going to do with it what you would, so don’t sweat it. There are much bigger things to worry about, believe me.

And think about this — you just spent 20 minutes describing every minute detail of your book to me. Every. Single. Detail. And you didn’t even know me when we began talking. So, obviously you need to talk about it with someone Now, just hang tight right here, I gotta get home to my laptop and get all that down. Kidding! I have my own book going on in my head. Yours is  yours. I think most writers feel the same way.

4. I know I’ve seen books with similar plots, you even told me your first book, COLD HARD NEWS, started with a body in a snowbank, and I know I’ve read other books with bodies in snowbanks, um, so. Just saying.

Yes, it can be worrisome when you’re writing and you see some reference to some other book, and it has something yours has in it too. You’re afraid either 1) everyone will think you copied or 2) you and this other person have both written the exact same book, so you have to scrap yours and start with something new since theirs is being reviewed in People magazine and yours is still 59,000 words of blah blah blah.

Neither of those things will happen. (See answer to question 3.) When that starts to worry me, I just channel Sister Catherine, my seventh and eighth grade English teacher, who told us, triumphantly and constantly, “No writer is original! Even Shakespeare wasn’t original!” Hit yourself on the shoulder really hard with a ruler, too, so you don’t forget it. Not that that ever happened to me.

5. How do I write good dialogue? It’s really hard!

Yes,  it is. Writing is hard. The best way to write good dialogue is to know your characters well. Think of how they would speak and what they need to say in the scene. Don’t just borrow lines from buddy movies, because the dialogue in those movies sucks. I was a judge in the Writer’s Digest self-published contest for several years and if I see one more scene were someone gets hurt, but says cheerfully, “I’m okay!” or “I’m too old for this shit,” I’m going to throw my Netflix subscription out the window.

I can tell by the look on your face that answer wasn’t the quick fix you wanted to hear, but the better you know your characters, know what’s going on in a scene and know how much and how little to say, the better your dialogue will be.

6. I know you keep saying writing’s hard, there are no quick fixes, blah blah blah, but give me something. Isn’t there something?

Yes. And you’ve already heard it. Stephen King in another excellent writing book, “On Writing,” says to sit down and write. Just write. And keep writing. (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)

7. One last thing, do I really need to have it edited? If I do, my sister-in-law is an English teacher, so she can do it, right?

Yes to the first part. No to the second part. Whether you’re going to self-publish or query agents or something in between, you want to have the best possible manuscript. English teachers are awesome, but they don’t understand all the aspects of actual editing that a book editor does. Yes it costs money. It should. It’s one of the most undervalued professions in the world.

As a judge in the Writer’s Digest self-published contest I read more than 500 self-published books (yes, I know). I can count on two hands and have fingers left over how many were decently edited. Bad editing makes a bad book.

While you’re at it, learn about simple formatting, too. And please, whatever you do, don’t use the space bar to indent and don’t put two spaces after a period (this isn’t the 1960s and you’re not using a typewriter). And uncheck the box in Microsoft Word that says “leave a space between paragraphs.” And… geez. I could go on all night now that you got me started.

I’ll stop now. You, though, can start. Start writing. Now. I mean it. Yes, right now. Don’t make me get my ruler out.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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6 Responses to Some questions and answers for writers about how to get started

  1. matthewcost says:

    Many a great idea in here! Write on.

  2. John Clark says:

    KEEP WRITING. I’m realizing after a couple million written words that all the mistakes weren’t wasted. With error comes wisdom and confidence. Reading aloud really helps me catch things. As for writing groups, I really wish there were more in Maine.

  3. Monica says:

    Diagramming sentences. Oh, the horror this brings back! And, every time I start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but,’ I can hear Sister Mary Regina’s red pen scratching on my paper. Yet, I continue to write.

  4. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Good answers to the key questions, Maureen. This post is a public service. It has solid advice for everyone. Thanks!

  5. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    Love this, and Sister Catherine too.

  6. jselbo says:

    Maureen – Loved the read – and the reminders – and the nuns. My two most influential nuns were Sister Matilde (if we were “bad” we had to stand in the corner and do the Irish jig (she taught us that the first day) until she said stop. And Sister Janelle who was beautiful and kind (Matilde was not) – and she taught us penmanship and how to diagram sentences. I wanted to be her when I grew up.

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