Advice for Another Young Writer

A more organized rendition of what I word-vomited in front of my boss while working the register PLUS a word or two on the two cents he happened to share.

“Do you sell posters about how to write a book?” she asked.

As it so happens, we sell zero posters. Beyond books and records, we offer a small selection of journals, magnets, postcards, and (by an anonymous local) greeting cards. But I thought I knew what she meant, a kind of educational info-graphic on story structure.

While I tried to locate something suitable for her to special order through the store, she told me about how she had thought about looking online but then decided she really ought to buy it from a local bookseller. I agreed, but couldn’t find anything that wasn’t intended for 3rd- to 6th-graders.

She started listing broader and broader reasons for wanting a poster while circling the wagons on this idea of motivation. I asked her if she really wanted something on book structure and she said she wanted something about introducing the conflict early.

“Like in medias res?” I asked, and her eyes suddenly grew so wide they took up about three-quarters of her face. And that was it. Now, she was all questions and I was all word-vomit.

I told her about five-part story structure, that conflict is at the center of the list but where it’s introduced in the story is up to her.

Five-Part Story Structure

  1. Introduction / Exposition, setting the scene and establishing your characters.
  2. Rising Tension, nurturing conflict with dilemmas and faults and shenanigans.
  3. Climax, facing the conflict head-on and just being in the thick of it.
  4. Denoument / Falling Tension, easing on the conflict as the reason for you story disspates.
  5. Resolution, no more tension to deal with because the conflict has been completely handled.

She asked how she outline a story. She asked how I outline stories. An easier question would be How do I not? But it was not the time to be a smart aleck.

She revealed that she has a few books (presumably one each on character development, dialogue, “the idiot’s guide to structure” as she called it, and “the elements of style”) on writing, but needed something about being a writer (while insisting on not self-publishing). So I gave her my list of

Steps to Being a Writer

  1. Write the dang book.
  2. Self-publish AND look for an agent, which I believe I wrote about plenty in my last “advice” post.
  3. Have a central site/blog where you publish regularly and collect email addresses with a service like MailChimp, building an audience that is “all yours” gives you leverage when dealing with publishers.
  4. If you’re on any social media, make sure your profile blurb points folks toward that site/blog/email capture.
  5. Write articles for other sites, guest posts for others blogs, and fiction/poetry/essays for literary journals and always include an author’s bio that will direct folks back to your own central site/blog.

I told her my list was a very slight variation on Brendon Buchard’s five steps to publishing a bestseller from his book High Performance Habits. She asked if I follow those steps, and I gave her the link to my central author site/blog so she could see for herself.

Always she kept bring the conversation back to finding a poster. Is there a poster with that structure? That list? In medias res?

She was both so hungry for information, and mission-driven regarding that poster, that I knew she would never leave empty-handed. So I asked exactly what kind of “inspirational”poster she wanted.

Not black and white. Not too inspirational. Something I’ll see every day that will remind me that I have decided to do this and need to do it.

Ah-ha! What she needs is a creative contract with herself for motivation. And maybe a permission slip to ease the pressure and remind her to have fun.

We checked to see if any posters existed that fit the bill and, when there weren’t any, I did the following:

  • I encouraged her to select one of the anonymously-crafted greeting cards with their not-very-Hallmark sentiments for something that would satisfy her mission for right now;
  • I wrote down as much as I could immediately recall of everything we were discussing for this very post, which I told her would be available within a few days; and then,
  • because we could not find what she wanted among our store’s distributors, I told that as part of this post I would create a Creative Self-Contract and Permission Slips that could easily be printed and used by one and all for free (clearly, I “cheated” a little).

My Boss’s Two Cents & My Further Two Cents

While I was word-vomiting, and tag-teaming the register with my boss, my boss happened to mention a writer-centric nonprofit that is very new to downtown Providence. He made it sound very appealing and the impressionable young person in need of a poster asked if she would see me there.

“Well,” I told her, “I will certainly be checking it out.” And I did, that very afternoon when my shift was over. Turns out it strives to be a shared workspace for writers (since writing tends to be so solitary and we’re all hungry to connect with each other as social creatures and all). Unfortunately, at this time it’s subscriptions are a bit out of reach.

I took their free tour and discussed this with them, and they did express to me that renting some of their space to larger organizations with deeper pockets is part of how they plan to lower subscriptions in the future. Basically, pricing will lower as funding improves.

Until it does, however, discernment must be practiced as to who to recommend the space to. Recommending a resource that someone can not afford is a big friggin’ no-no in any creative community. Practice due diligence, y’all.

A Final Word of Advice

Everything discussed was written down, as it should be. Writing things down is great for the memory, but two things were slightly awry that I will be better about following up on with future writers seeking guidance:

  1. Everything was written down twice, by me. Once as a note for this post, and once on the back of one of the store’s business cards/bookmarks. If you are a writer, you should be writing down everything. Every idea, every lesson, every recommendation. Write it down for yourself, know it for yourself.
  2. Everything was written down on the backs of two of the store’s business cards/bookmarks. If you are a writer you need some kind of note taking system on hand at all times. Pen and paper. An app on a phone. An app on a tablet. A clay tablet and a chisel. The fact that I did not recommend she purchase one of our journals is completely on me. Next time, it won’t be.

And my final final word of advice, since I’ve mentioned have a way to write things down and then write all the things down, is that you are only as good as what you are currently writing.

Are you writing? Where’s your notebook? What comes next?

Also published on Medium.