Irreverent Roundup of Writing Advice (Q&A)

[Every Tuesday I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun. This week it’s a roundup of unanswered questions about writing]

Question #1. I have been writing a book for 12 years, it is a fantastic story of fiction that grabs you from the beginning and is relatable to almost everyone. I have the beginning the middle and the climax, i have characters, names, sub plots and actually very good characters that you care about and cant wait to turn the next page. My problem dialogue. I have the words but the grammar and punctuation is a problem. Is there a ghost writer who could polish the dialogue and punctuation for me? The total word count is about 66,000 to 70,000. 20 people have read the basic concept of the book and all are crazy about the story and the ideas in the book. I think I have a pot of gold waiting to be published I just need a little push in the right direction. I am not a professional writer but this idea is classic grab you and not let go excitment that could be the next blockbuster movie, I am not kidding it is that good and original. Please help me with any input that you may have. Thank you for your time.

I must make an uncomfortable point. Your question is mostly not a question, but sentences about how awesome your book is. Why do you think I would care? Every writer thinks their idea is amazing and even if yours actually is it’s irrelevant to the advice you seek. Your excitement here is useful to you, but not to me.

Put another way: You will only get one chance to pitch agents, editors or readers on your book. The place to start is not what you think of it as you are the most biased person in the universe to judge its merit. Whatever you say do it thoughtfully. Be concise. If you can’t be concise, at least be excellent (and have no typos or spelling errors to distract me from your excellence). But the misguided way you wrote this does not bode well for your 66,000 to 70,000 word manuscript (and how do you not know precisely how long it is?)

A few web searches will find answers to most of your questions. It’s smart when asking for free advice from an expert, to explain what other avenues you’ve tried. If you haven’t tried any don’t be surprised if they think you’re lazy. And no agent, editor or reader wants to read lazy writing.

A good copyeditor will review your manuscript for grammar and punctuation. Some copyeditors will revise your dialog for you, but you’ll pay more for that level of attention. You can find copyeditors looking for work on odesk or or through Writer’s Digest. Ghostwriters can be found in similar fashion, but what you seem to want is a ghostrewriter which might be harder to find. On the DIY front there are plenty of books that attempt to teach dialog to writers: start with Dialog: Technique and Exercises and The Emotional Thesaurus (though this one is not strictly about dialog, but about when dialog isn’t the best way to express a character’s emotions).

2. Should I use real names when writing a book about the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse I went through by my parents?

Don’t let this question slow you down. You can postpone this decision until after you’ve written a first draft. It’s an easy adjustment to make and you’re likely to have better judgement about it once you can sit down and read the whole thing. Real names means there is a higher standard of truth to satisfy as readers, and the people you mention, will read your book differently if you call it a memoir vs. fiction. See: Should Your Book Be a Memoir or Fiction?

3. How do i go about writing with a sencond language? I have this book idea I’ve started on and the main characters talk English, but some of the other characters dont. Is there a way to do this without creating a whole new language?

Snarkgarlal mergle bergle fimbar sniP? Icky Snickersta Reb nagga na. That’s a language I just invented to answer your question. Did you like it? I doubt it since I made it up and you can’t possibly know what it means. Why wouldn’t you use an existing language like Spanish or French that some of your readers might actually know? There are some books that invent new languages: A Clockwork Orange for example. You should study books like this and see if the effect it has for the reader is worth all the trouble. I’d think probably not. Unless part of your narrative is a puzzle and readers can figure out the meanings of words, or puzzles, as the book progresses this seems like an unnecessarily hard experience for you as the writer and your potential readers.

4a. What is your opinion of writing a book on my personal life and “rare” medical struggles? My childhood was rough, to put it lightly, I was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in my early 20’s (which cost me my military career in the Army) but kept moving forward and created a mildly successful career for myself and now, in my mid 30’s, am permanently disabled with ongoing surgeries and uncertain future. BUT, I am not a quitter and refuse to lose “the fight”. What do you think?

4b. How do you write a book about hard times in your life? Writing down all the bad hurtful stuff I went through during my abusive divorce I want to write a book about it, is this the right way to start?

I’m sad that you have had hard struggles in your life and I commend you for being introspective enough to want to write about tough times. But I have no opinion of you writing a book. I don’t know anything about how well you write or how much effort you are willing to put in. The idea itself for a book doesn’t matter much nor does the interesting life of the potential writer. Interesting ideas for books are easy (even though your life may have been difficult) and interesting people are not hard to find. What matters is how much effort and talent they, or you, can put into finishing a 200 or 300 page book. Are you willing to do the hard work?

I think anyone who believes deeply about an idea for a book should write it. It’s good for the writer and possibly good for the world. But for nearly all authors the external rewards of writing a book will feel like a sacrifice. Most books don’t sell well and few authors become famous enough to make a living from it, or to compensate them above minimum wage for their time. This means external motivations alone are the wrong source. Only you can decide you care enough about the book to do all the hard work to write it. See: Is Your Book Idea Good? (Yes, I Promise).

There are many different ways to start writing and it doesn’t matter much which one you pick as long as you pick one. The goal is always to get to the next draft, as in each draft the work gets progressively easier. All ways of starting invariably feel like work because, surprise!, writing a book is a kind of work. See: How To Start Writing A Book.

5. How Do You Blog About A Book In Progress? I’m a somewhat experienced writer, but one without an established online “author platform.” (Dare I admit I don’t even have a basic portfolio website?) I now realize how crucial it is I start building my platform, and have read about the value of blogging about a book while writing it. My questions include: Do you blog under your name (even if it’s widely unknown), a working title for the book, or, absent that, a title that hints at the book’s content? Is it OK for your book blog to also market yourself as a freelance writer for topics that might be unrelated? Is there value in explaining the blog’s context — for example, “I am a writing a book on topic X and here I share what I find along the way?” Finally, what types of content should and should not be shared?

Why wouldn’t you blog under your own name? It’s not like a made up name will be any more well known than yours (unless the “made up” name you pick is Stephen King or John Updike). Stick with the name your parents gave you. Name the website something short, simple and that can be relevant no matter what topic your book ends up being about. Your comedic space opera might end up being a gluten free cookbook, and if that happens you won’t want to have to change the name of the website.

There is no singular way to blog about a book in progress and I wouldn’t wait to find a perfect method. Aim for a mix of short posts about articles or other people’s work related to your project, and sample drafts or ideas from your book. You will have to experiment and learn as you go. My advice is to grab a blog, commit to publishing something short once a week and see what happens. Go find other author sites and see how they blog about a book in progress (you can usually go into their archives to read their earliest posts, which you can compare to your early posts) Have a simple About page on your site that briefly explains who you are, what you’re doing and why. For advice on the challenges of working blog posts into an edited book, see How To Turn Your Blog Into A Book.

Since most authors, even some famous ones, make most of their living from means other than book royalties of course it’s ok to market yourself as a freelance writer. Some popular blogs like Brainpickings even ask for monthly donations to support the blog itself.

You’ll have to experiment to discover what kinds of content your readers want, since you don’t have any blog readers yet. If you’re writing a book about space aliens it makes sense that posts about NASA or science fiction films make sense, but ones about recipes for bran muffins do not.

6. Can I use first and third person in the same novel?

Of course. You are the writer and can do what you like. If Celine rarely used periods or Wright wrote a novel without the letter E there are clearly no hard rules. The question is will anyone want to read what you write given the choices you make. Here’s a list of novels that have switched between first and third person and you should study them.


8 Responses to “Irreverent Roundup of Writing Advice (Q&A)”

  1. John Blodgett

    Thank you for answering my “blogging about a book” questions. Your advice is what I needed. To clarify: in asking about blogging under my name, I meant to ask in terms of whether to use my name as URL (now live at or book/topic name as URL. You did answer this question; I just wanted to clarify where I was coming from. Thank you again. Best…john b

  2. Bob Sigsby

    Scott, thank you for your quick response to my question as to whether I can use first and third person in the same novel. Your answer and those you linked me too support my desire to use first person where reasonable and third where it make sense. Of course, I now have to go back and change much of the POV from third person to first, but I believe it will make the story much more personal.

    Thanks again.

  3. Nancy

    As always, great, truthful advice. Thanks, Scott.

  4. Tom Triumph

    have been offered a potential publishing deal for a book which can include a lot of the blogs I have published online in the past. I think I will need to rewrite them though. This post was very helpful. Can you do one about getting your work translated? I am hoping the publisher will sort out translation services

  5. Michael Nitabach

    I am not a professional writer but this idea is classic grab you and not let go excitment that could be the next blockbuster movie, I am not kidding it is that good and original.

    I am having a lot of trouble imagining an entire book written by someone who could produce this abominable sentence as either “good” or “original”.

  6. Sean Crawford

    Ah Mr. Nitabach, you have such a droll humour.

    I have a lot of trouble imagining giving any advice to questioner #1 because I wouldn’t want to burst his bubble. To be in his own little world for 12 years suggests quite an investment in said bubble.

    For all others, I would say go to the library. No, not to ask the info desk librarian for books on the mechanics of writing, but to ask any librarian how to get in touch with classes/clubs/gatherings of writers. You never know what learning may result.

    Writers, like artists, may work alone but they also treasure socializing with each other. Too intimidating? Not for me. If I am putting in some man-hours doing the writing (or painting or whatever) then I am a writer too, and I deserve to mingle with them. Besides, I might come out with my own awesome book… in 12 years.


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