Friday, September 26, 2014

How To Help Budding Authors (without killing their spirits) by Aaron Lazar

copyright Aaron Paul Lazar, 2014

If you’re a published author, chances are you’ve been asked a hundred times to critique or review a newbie’s book. They might ask to send you a first draft, or sometimes they’ll ask you to endorse them by writing a blurb for their book cover. Frequently, they may be angling for an introduction to your publisher or agent.

How do you respond? You were in that position once upon a time. You remember how hard and confusing the whole industry was to understand. How scared you were of rejection and failure.

So, if you have a little extra time, you might be willing to take a look. But be careful what you promise, because no matter how great or awful you expect this book to be, you could inadvertently fall into a time-consuming nightmare.

I love to help new writers. I really do. And I try like heck to make time to read and comment on a few pages of their manuscripts. I usually ask to see a page or two before I make any promises to review or endorse. But sometimes I’m just in a nice mood and agree without thinking. This can be a mistake if the writing ends up being abysmal.

When I’ve read the first few sentences, I’ll know if I’m dealing with a well-trained writer or a rank beginner. When it’s the former, I read on with glee, making small suggestions where necessary. When it’s the latter, I usually put in an hour or so with deep edits, adding careful comments about grammar, sentence structure, skills needed, etc. It’s a lot of work, but I do believe in giving back after so many writers helped me in the beginning of my career, so it’s all good.

I have done this more times than I can remember, and I believe (hope) these efforts have helped.

It’s really hard when both the story and the writing skills are lacking. But I always try to find something nice to say, followed by a gentle but honest list of suggestions.

Here is an example of a recent letter I wrote, trying to accomplish what I referred to above. (all names are fictitious)


Dear Stanley,

Thank you for letting me take a look at the first chapter of your book, The Biggest Boy on the Block. I know it takes a great deal of courage to "open up" to the world after working so hard on your book, and I am honored that you trusted me to do so.

I've gone through a few pages and marked them up with writing advice. I've suggested grammar, sentence structure, and alternate word choices, etc. Please don't be discouraged by all the markups, because in the beginning all writers need to learn these skills, and it just takes time. It took Dean Koontz time, it took me time, and it'll take you time, too.

You have a wonderful imagination, and I can see your mind is very fertile! You've created fun characters and an interesting setting. Although I don't normally enjoy urban street crime novels, it was interesting to see how you set it up. I liked the way you moved your readers into the story through the old man’s memories.

Now for the hard part. Please take this in the generous spirit it's intended, okay?

Your book (including formatting) needs quite a bit of work before you think about submitting it to agents or publishers.

You might consider a few things to help you move to the next level where you'll be able to compete with the thousands of authors also trying to "break through." Following are some possibilities.

1) Join some writing forums and ask for critiques from fellow writers. But be careful of this, however, because sometimes there are very nasty people who like to tear down other writers. Check it out and see what kind of comments they make. Be sure they are decent people involved who use constructive criticism.

2) Befriend a few writers in your genre and swap chapters or books with them on a regular basis. You can learn from each other and this is a win-win situation if you choose the right partner.

3) Hire a writing coach (if you can afford it), or better yet, take some community courses on creative writing.

4) Read constantly. Find and read at least 50-100 books in your genre. With Kindle deals these days, you can probably find most of them for free or 99 cents. I have newsletters I subscribe to where you can sign up to get daily notifications of free or discounted eBooks, targeted to your genre. Let me know if you want the list. I get these “deal alerts” in my email inbox and search for the most interesting books I can get for free or cheap, even though as a writer it sometimes bothers me that it's come to this. But as a reader, I love it. LOL. I would recommend you spend the next year or two devouring books as fast as you can. Listen to the voices of these authors and learn from them. (Another way to accomplish this is #5.)

5) Audiobooks. You can download the files to your Kindle (Fire), iPad, iPod, PC, laptop, smart phone, etc. just like music files. No more messing with CDs or going to the library to pick up and drop off. You just join and you're in. That way you can listen while you drive, work, do dishes, exercise, etc. I even listen while I do laundry. I now get many more books in my head every week, thanks to audiobooks.

6) Last of all, I would buy some basic grammar and writing books. Better yet, visit The Grammar Girl's website to use her free articles on grammar whenever you have a question. She is great! My favorite writing book of all time is Stephen King's ON WRITING. It's fantastic. You could also consider listening to my writing guide, Write Like the Wind (3 short volumes). You might pick up some new tips there as well. No pressure, naturally. (btw, I am revamping the eBooks for this series and they'll be out in a few months.)

7) When you are ready and feel your book is as good as it possibly can be, I highly recommend hiring an editor for your final manuscript before you submit.

I'm happy to keep offering advice - I love helping new writers. So please, let me know what you think and if you have any questions. Hard work will get you there and your wonderful imagination should fuel that process.

Best wishes,



How’s that? How would you feel if you received a letter like this when you were starting out?

In the beginning, I think I would have crumpled, in spite of the “nice” comments that precede the truth. It would have killed me. Matter of fact, I did get a few aggressive critiques in my early days, and it really took me ages to grow a skin thick enough to handle such criticism. But I needed to hear the advice back then, and I’ve become a better writer because of it.

I encourage you all to help out newbie writers whenever possible. Be kind, be helpful, and give them sound advice.

Best Always,

Aaron Lazar


Mary Bradley McCauley said...

Aaron, this is an excellent Blog, and you are most thoughtful to create it. I will be posting the link in various places like twitter and google+
You have been a wonderful friend to take time to read and advise me on some of my short stories. I hesitated to ask you to review or even look at Annon because I know how busy you are.
I thank you sincerely for being an inspiration to me and other authors.


Ruth Cox aka abitosunshine said...

Thank you for sharing an excellent piece on advice for those published authors giving back to their audience.

I wonder, too, if you have advice for book reviewers, like myself, who occasionally come across a not-so-perfectly published book to review.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thank you, Mary. I've enjoyed helping with your short stories!

And Ruth, maybe I should write my next article about reviewing. There are a lot of similarities to the approach I just shared - how to know if you should accept a book in the first place, ways to back out gracefully if you make an error in judgement, ways to find something good in every book, if possible, etc. said...

Aaron, I wish I had read this wonderful post before offering to help out a friend. I made all the horrible mistakes a person could make, including not just asking for a few pages first. Worse, I knew the book wasn't even put together. Now, I pretty just beta read. Len Maxwell got on my case and said I should continue to edit books, but I don't think so. Your letter was wonderfully worded.

You, sir, have become a great writer.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Pam, Thank you so much for your feedback. One of the tough parts when we're starting out (and even now) is that we want to be nice people. Heck, we are nice people. So when another nice person asks us to "take a look" at their book, we are soooo tempted to say "Of course!" I find it extremely difficult to say no, but it makes me feel better to just do a little - a few pages, for example, and then move on. ;o) Happy writing!

Unknown said...

It was nice to read this, I love to write but I'm not jumping into a book any time soon.

I just love coming up with ideas for stories, hopefully it will continue!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Andy, that is really the most fun part of writing, I think!

D. Pat Thomas said...

It's a rite of passage, no?

How well I recall my first telephone review with an editor, a New Yorker who minced not a word; my fragile ego was shattered to bits and a Major Sob Fest was in order. I hugged a bottle of Scotch real tight as I ran for the bathroom, slammed the door behind me and grabbed the Kleenex.

Funny how the skin toughens, how the very criticism that once sent me howling is now my most precious asset. That lesson right there -- treasuring the truth -- is part of the journey. So for all of you out there still protecting a cowering and vulnerable writer's ego, take it out, put it in the sunshine and tell it safety is in opening to criticism, not hiding from it.

You're the best, Aaron. So glad to see you're still helping new writers. Your advice has stayed with me over the years. I recently read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks; he puts out a lot to think about.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Pat, I love your story. It's so true, and I'm sure a lot of writers are nodding their heads, shouting, "Yes! That was me!" Thank you for coming by today!