6 Business Writing Tips From Pro Fiction Writers

Cute little kitten crowned with a chaplet of dandelion in female hands
Because we all need kitten photos now. A great photo from IStockPhoto, by vvvita

The business side always gets neglected by writers.  A lot of people tend to think that all they need to do is write the book and somehow the rest will magically happen.  Even in the writing of the book, there are choices you can make that may help with the business side if you know them.  Onward!

  1. Control what cover you get.  While it’s true that the publisher won’t give you any say when they create the cover, you have other options available.  When you write the book, include 3-4 more visual scenes.  That way, they can be used for the cover. (Dave Farland, Superstars)

  2. Entice Hollywood to option your book.  Hollywood likes visual, so following tip #1 may also get some movie interest as well. (also David Farland, Superstars)

  3. Include your address, phone number, and email on e-manuscripts you submit.  It’s easy to leave this off when you’re sending a manuscript as an email.  Why would an editor need the address when they’re simply emailing you?  Because the editor copies and pastes the address into the contract. (Kevin J. Anderson, from the Monsters, Movies, and Mayhem submission call)

  4. Write short stories for anthology calls.  Even if you’re not published or don’t have much published, you can land in an anthology with big names.  Readers will come to the anthology to read David Gerrold and then see your story (Jonathan Maberry, Superstars).  Side note: I’m in an anthology with both of these writers!

  5. Reread the magazine guidelines before starting a project, and reread them before submitting.  The first part is to make sure you don’t have it wrong in your head and end up wasting time on the story.  The second part is to double-check yourself on the little details. (Sheila Chandra, Linda Adams)

  6. Schools love having writers talk to middle grade.  Start local and talk to the local librarians and then you can expand nationwide.  The schools may even pay a stipend to bring you out.  (From Superstars…did not write the writer’s name down).

Got any business tips you can share?

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Pacing: How long is a scene?

Cute baby cat between pastel colored balls of wool in a basket looking up
Gratuitous cat photo

IStockPhoto by MirasWonderland

Scene length is the foundation for pacing in every book.  Too many short scenes and you leave the story with a vague sense of dissatisfaction.  Scenes that are too long makes the story plod.

But how long is one supposed to be?

It’s a common question.  The answer is usually something vague like “When it’s done,” or when you change locations.  One published writer had this response:

How long is a piece of string?

Yup.  I can feel my eyes crossing.  It’s a non-answer. (But the kitten with string was cute.)

At one point I was doing the “when it’s done,” and the scenes tended to keep going and going and going.  I’d end up with scenes that went on for 3,000 words.  Worse, they were like a 75-word sentence.  Somewhere along the way, the scene lost focus.

Turns out there is an answer.

A scene is about 1,500 words.

This originally comes out of the pulp era and you see it in the bestsellers today.  Try typing a best seller’s chapter to see what the length is.  In most cases, it’ll be around that 1,500 mark.  

Just the right length to read in one sitting and feel satisfying.  You might find one around 2,000, though.  That’ll be the writer intentionally slowing down the story at that point.

Once I heard about the actual physical length of a scene, it was suddenly I had a picture frame around it.  As I was writing, the scene naturally found places to stop where it should.

One of my favorite writers who does the pacing of scenes very well is James Rollins.  Do you have any favorites?

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A Day in the Life of Writing Nerd

Desk with laptop, lamp, flowers, and stackable trays.
The Nerd Zone

With a full-time job, much of my writing time ends up being on the weekend.  That’s sometimes hard because I also need to have time for myself other than going to work and then writing.  But this is what my day looked like on Saturday.

6 AM – Up, and a sinus zombie this morning.  The weather’s been warming up, so the pollen Death Stars started their attack.  I puttered around until my brain woke up more.

Fun Memory:  This book on The Waltons popped up in my Facebook stream this morning.  I met the writer Charlotte Graham around the time the book came out and she autographed a copy of it for me.

7 AM – The dull and boring stuff.  I did some maintenance work on the website.  With WordPress’s change to blocks, I had to redo all my book pages.  I previously managed to get all the covers up, including some I’d missed (yikes).  But not all of them have links.

  • Checked the Non-Fiction page. Verified the links were all there.  But this is the one page I’ll need to redo, since I was still figuring out the blocks.  I was missing three books off this page!
  • Zap! General Fiction is now completed.
  • Validated the Mysteries page.
  • To the Science Fiction page, I added the cover for X Marks the Spot.  That’s coming out in April.  Zoomed through all the links—Yay! 

For all the pain of me not getting to this because my head imagined it bigger than it was, it only took about fifty minutes.

WordPress block tip: When putting up book covers in a block, only do three covers per block.  If you delete an image, or add one later, the block removes all the book cover links.  If you do only three, it’s a lot less work to fix.

8 AM.  Close all files.  Off to farmer’s market to pick up vegetables.  Hopefully there will be some.

Gorgeous day out.  The trees are covered with fuzz from the buds coming in.  And it’s really windy.  I thought I would stop off at this marshlands park nearby for a walk out in the sun.  Nope, nope, nope.  Way too cold still. 

I did stop off at Roaches Run, which is along the George Washington Parkway.  Gorgeous view of the Potomac River.  If you want to see a picture of it, it’ll be on Tuesday’s newsletter

Saw this on the road:

We fix viruses not coronavirus

Sign on computer store

It was a quick run at the farmer’s market.  Alexandria was setting up for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Streets were already being blocked off.  I lucked out and was able to find parking.

Zoomed n and did a happy dance.  One of the vendors I like is back for the season.  He and his daughter man the tables and they always have lots of good vegetables.  This morning, he said, “Picked at six AM this morning.”  That’s fresh!

Spoils: green leaf lettuce, kale, collard greens, celery, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, avocados, ground beef, and eggs.

9:30 – Back to some more writing maintenance.  This time to Book2Read to make sure all the book links are current.  This site is a link propagator that picks up all the vendors, but with all the changes like new sellers, the links need refreshing periodically.  So I run a rescan.

Then a break for a while.  Closing everything down again.

11 AM – Off to my favorite Thai restaurant for lunch, Kindle in hand.  Sun’s really bright, and it’s still really cold and windy.  When I was coming back, a lady came out of a store with her black dog (lab-sized).  The first thing the dog did was steer over to me.  Yup, he got some petting.

1 PM – Onto some research.  This is for my next book, which may be a 3 or 7 book series.  Haven’t quite made up my mind.  But it’s a superhero story.

I’ve been watching both The Greatest American Hero and Earth: The Final Conflict.  In GAH, aliens come to Earth and give humans a superhero suit.  Motive: Prevent what happened on their world from happening to Earth.

In EFC, aliens come to Earth and give mankind technology and heal people.  Motive: That’s hard to tell in the first season, except that the Taelons appear to have other goals that benefit them and not humanity.  I liked how we were sure if they were good or not, and if the individual Taelons were good or not.

Researching superhero powers.  Who knew there would be lists?  Plus here’s the tropes.  I’m definitely breaking #7.  The parents are in the story.  #12 also: This character does not want to do it.  This is a full list of all the posts with a lot of interesting information.

2 PM – And out to the grocery store (across the street).  The sunlight keeps calling to me even though it’s too cold out!


Working on character worksheets for the protagonist and antagonist.  I’ve never liked character worksheets. How do you get characterization when the questions are superficial?

But I ran across Deborah Chester’s Fantasy Fiction Formula and that gave me a worksheet that was pretty different.

I also have some black holes in my skills that I’m working at addressing.  I took workshops from Dean Wesley Smith for many years, but it became apparent that I’d gone as far as I could with his workshops. 

Deborah’s idea is simple: Make the story simple and the characters complex.  Characterization is one of my strengths, but now I’m looking at it for improvement.  And I’m ready for it.

The Ides of Cliffhangers

You ever have a book that you wanted to throw against the wall because the story ended with a cliff-hanger?  Yeah, me, too. 

Rugged cliffs, and beach at the shoreline of the Montana de Oro Park in Central California
This is Montana De Oro Park, a beach in Central California that I’ve been to many times. It just looks like a place for pirates to be coming ashore–and there is a cave!

Istock Image by Yulee

I’ve been watching Earth: Final Conflict (on Amazon Prime for free right now for anyone interested).  The first season was really promising.  But at the end of the story, they did a cliff-hanger—like every other TV show.  The main character is seriously injured, and the show ends until the next season.

Only during that time, the actor evidently got into a contract dispute with the producers.  He did not return.  So the writers did a quick kill off of the character and moved on.  Very unsatisfying.

.We did have cliffhangers in the old serials (Linda Stirling as The Black Whip is available on Prime). But it was Dallas’ “Who shot JR?” that started the trend today.

It also did a disservice to both TV and books.  Cliffhangers like that are inherently unfair to their audience.  Those kinds of cliff-hangers are designed to create buzz and ratings…but leave the reader hanging without anywhere to go.

Chapters in books have cliffhangers, too, as do TV shows with acts that break for commercials.  But those are designed to build conflict and suspense.  They can also be quite simple. The goal is to get you to turn the page to find out what happens next instead of going to bed.

Yeah, I had a book like that last night.  Most annoying, but I was enjoying it so much😊

But when it’s at the end of the book, the writer has just told you, “I’m not finishing this story.  You’ll have to buy the next one to find out the ending.”

Except now that trust with the reader is broken.  We aren’t thinking about the next book to find out what happening.  We’re thinking, “Is he going to do the same thing to me?”

Okay, what’s the worst cliffhanger you ran across?

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How to Write Chapter Cliffhanger Endings.  From Cheryl Reif.  This has some really good examples of different kinds, including some I hadn’t thought about!

Establishing time using light

The days are getting longer now as winter is slowly edging away.  But when I head out to work at 7:00, it’s often still dark out.  I can’t wait for the dawn to creep closer.  I’m craving the sunlight.

A horse in the mists of dawn.
Horse on the Move at Dawn in Fog

Photo from iStockPhoto.  Image by David Arment

When I was in the Army, I had to do what was called CQ—charge of quarters.  Once the workday ended, I and a sergeant manned the desk in the commander’s absence.  The duty lasted 24 hours, and it was always hard.  Once night settled in for a stay, my brain wanted to shut off.

Readers need a sense of light to establish time in the story.  Obviously, it has to be in the story right up front, since time is a big part of the setting.

Ways to Establish Light

Sunrises/Sunsets: This is an instant time marker for the time of day.  But the colors themselves can be powerful tools to show emotions and settings.  Blood red sunset (locations known for vivid sunsets; time of year); pink sunrise (romance).

Shadows: This fits in with the time of the year.  I remember walking on Virginia Beach in May in the early morning and watching the waves spill over my long shadows.

Night: Moonlight or stars are a great way to establish night.  When I was riding back to Denver during Superstars, we had the full to our right and it was mesmerizing.  We watched it all the way up to the airport.

Interior Lighting: Don’t forget that a room has light, too. A fluorescent light buzzing too brightly to an oil lamp smoking in a corner.  This one is a lot harder to do in every scene because it’s not as vivid as seeing it outdoors.

What are some other ways of establishing light?

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Time Markers in Fiction

Have you ever run into a book where the time became wonky?  Like the writer forgot that time was actually kind of important to the story?

Melting clock over a stack of hard-backed books.
Time Concept. Distorted soft melting clock on the old books. With dark toned foggy background. Selective focus

Photo from iStock Photo.  Image by Zeferli

My own experience was reading an urban fantasy.  I was reading through and then it suddenly hit me that the characters had a 72 hour day!  The writer had lost track of the timeline entirely.

It’s easy to do.  At a convention I attended, an editor talked about continuity for middle-grade books.  He reported that it was very common for characters to get up each day and go to school.  No weekends for the kids!

Establishing Time Markers

Time markers are elements that identify the time frame the scene happens in.  It can include:

  • Seasons: Since it’s winter in Virginia, mentioning that it’s February and maybe a late winter snowfall.  Or the first buds of spring popping on the trees (which I’ll probably see in March).
  • Time of Day:  This can be done in a variety of ways.  Your character’s stomach growls and he realizes he missed lunch.  Or describing the light in some way: The rays from the rising sun painted the horizon pink.  You could even hit the basic version: That night; at nine a.m.; it was nearly dinner by the time…

The markers should happen at the beginning of a scene, like an establishing shot in a movie.  It’d be kind of bad to have the reader think the scene is in the morning and then halfway through, one of the characters starts talking about the stars in the sky.  Just takes them right out of the story, and annoys them besides.

How do you establish time in your scenes?

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Once upon a rabbit trail

The story is going along and going along.  Then the muse sees something shiny because it always likes shiny and it’s off!  It’s following a rabbit trail.

Unknown territory.

The grass is tall and whispers when the wind stirs.  The air smells of a tingle of…something.

Up ahead.

Is a good thing?  Is it a bad thing?  Is a dead end?  Let’s find out!

Is the rabbit trail a waste of time?

Somehow we’ve become a world where everything should be planned.  Whether it’s a story or your day down to the very minute.

Spontaneity is important for the muse.

The unknown stretches us.

Makes us see new things.  That feeds the muse, and the story.

But there’s always a problem…

Sometimes it’s a false trail.  Happens.

Sometimes it’s important to try and fail to find the right path.

If we always follow the well-trod path, it’s not creative.  It’s just what everyone else is doing.  That’s not really creative either.

The Writer Nerd gets involved

But that little voice is gonna come in and say that venturing off the known path is wasting time, and wasting words.

It’s fear.

It might not look like fear.  It might not act like fear.

And fear keeps everyone from trying.  What if I step off the well-trod path and the rabbit trail is full of weeds?

What if it makes me waste my time?

What I find a better path, a better story?  Better than what I thought?

That can be terrifying!  But the muse needs a little fear and a little fun to thrive.

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