advice for writers

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

  1. Banish perfection. Commit to writing a terrible first draft and get it done.

  2. Read outside of your comfort zone. You can learn about story and language from every genre and it will help you develop your own voice.

  3. There is no expiration date on your talent.

  4. Find readers you trust and learn to walk the line between arrogance and humility.

  5. Know that everyone is different. There is no “right” way to write a book. If you’re working, if you’re writing steadily and finishing projects, then you’ve found your process. Protect it.

  6. Make connections in publishing! The people you connect with will be your biggest supporters and are invaluable to learn from.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

There are people who say writer’s block doesn’t exist. I think they’re either the luckiest people alive or big fat liars. For me, there are two kinds of writer’s block.

If you’re stuck in the story and not sure how to proceed:

  • Take a shower.

  • Take a walk.

  • Take a drive.

  • Have a conversation with one of your characters. Ask him or her the questions that have you flummoxed. (I often do this on walks. The trick is to pretend you’re talking to someone on your cell.)
    If you’re having trouble starting a project or returning to one. If you’re not able to face the page: This is the more serious kind of block. It begins to feel insurmountable and I find it’s usually linked to feelings of depression and self-doubt.
    First of all, remember that just about everyone goes through this. There are exceptions, but I guarantee some of your favorite authors have had spells where they simply shut down and couldn’t write. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer or that you don’t have the chops to be a professional. But how to get past it?

  • My best solution to this is to simply start writing what you’re feeling. “I don’t know what this scene is supposed to be about. I want to write this book but I don’t know where to start. I know the hero meets the villain somewhere in here, but where? Should it be in a palace or a forest? Okay, let’s say it’s in a palace.” You write the intention of the scene and find your way into it. You trick your fingers into starting to type. You tell yourself the story.

  • Read something wonderful. Sometimes great prose is all it takes to make the storyteller in you perk up.

  • Read something terrible. Yeah, sometimes I just pick up something awful because it makes me feel better about my own skills. I’m not kidding and I’m not naming names.

  • Don’t hide it. Tell your friend or critique partner that you’re blocked. Ask someone to give you an assignment.

  • Write something else. Search “writing prompt” tags on tumblr or elsewhere and just work on something else.


Should I major in English? Creative Writing? Should I pursue an MFA in Creative Writing?

Everyone has a different philosophy on this. Here’s my feeling but you should seek out second opinions: I went to college and loved every minute of it, but I did not major in creative writing. My major was Forensic Science with a focus in Biology. You do NOT have to go to a fancy college or major in English, Literature, or Creative Writing to become an author. Many colleges post their syllabi and reading lists on line. Steal them! Read what they’re reading. There are wonderful things to be gained from an English or Creative writing major. But if you major in Engineering or Classics or Anthropology, your writing will benefit from different sources of inspiration and expertise. The same thing is true if you’re working on a fishing boat or at a Taco Bell. As long as you continue writing and reading, there is no wrong choice here. As for the MFA, if you want to pursue a career in literary fiction, this is probably a good choice. You make important connections and having a good MFA program on your resume can help you get short work published in reputable lit mags. But if you intend to work in Young Adult or genre, I think the benefits are less clear. Many areas of expertise can be used in these genres. For example, my science fiction incorporates much of my science background. Obviously, this is a personal choice for everyone. There’s a lot to be said for deadlines, workshops, and mentorship. But you need to balance that against what debt you may accrue from a graduate program. None of these programs are a golden ticket to getting published. Most authors have to work day jobs before and sometimes long after they’re published. If you’re carrying a lot of student debt, it may be tougher to devote time and mental energy to your art.


How can I get the book I’ve written published?
First and foremost, you must have patience! And trust me, this coming from me, the girl who is patient for nothing, is saying something. Go to your local library or bookstore and get a book on the writer’s market. The one that I used was called Jeff Herman’s Guide to Agents, Editors, and Publishers. You want to find the most updated version of whatever book you get, because you are going to be writing to the people whose addresses are listed inside, and you want to make sure they are still working at these places.

The book you get will tell you that to get a publisher to look at your book, you must first write them what’s called a query letter. This is a one page letter describing you, your book, and why a publisher would want to buy this book from you. Just to let you know, I sent out several hundred of these letters before a single person ever asked to see the book I was trying to sell.

Some people say if you get anyone to look at your book at all, you are lucky. I believe that luck is 95% preparation and 5% opportunity. So basically…you have to make your own luck.


What is a literary agent and how do I get one? Do I need one?
You can get a publisher’s attention a lot more quickly—and some people believe you can get a much better deal—if you have a literary agent. A literary agent is someone whose job it is to take an author’s manuscript and try to place them with the appropriate publisher. They act as the negotiator between author and publisher. To have an agent is to relieve a ton of hassle and stress from yourself as the writer. You can focus on writing, while your agent focuses on the business that is the publishing industry. It's up to each writer if they want an agent, but keep the perks of having one in mind. A good agent will also never charge a fee to work on your behalf.  Again, patience is a virtue in this area!

How many pages should my novel be?
Publishers go by words, not pages. Most adult books are about 90,000 words, and no longer than 100,000 words (unless you’re JK Rowling). Teen books are about 55,000 words. How many words are there to a page? It depends on the font you are using, of course, but in general, 250-300 words per page. Therefore, a 55,000 word book should be about 200 manuscript pages. A 100,000 word book would be about 400. Editors and agents like 12 point font.



What writing program should I use?
Whichever one you like. I like Word, but any will work.



What about chapters?
I like chapters to be no longer than 10 pages each, more or less depending on how many overall chapters I'm planning to have in the book. But you can have as long or as short a chapter as you want, with as many scenes in each that you want. You can have no chapters, if you want. But remember, readers have busy lives, and at some point they will have to put your book down to go the grocery store. It would be nice if you have chapter breaks so they could do this easily.



Should I plot my story first with an outline?
Some authors make an outline plotting out what will happen in each chapter, before they sit down to write the book. While I do think it’s important when you’re writing a book to know where you are going (what the end will be) and how to get there, that kind of detailed plotting isn't for me. I never know how my books will end when I begin them, but this varies widely by author!



What advice do you have to give to aspiring writers?
Write the kinds of stories you like. If you don’t love what you’re writing, no one else will, either. Write what you love, love what you write! Everyone will tell you that you are wrong anyway, prove them all wrong later!



What is a platform? How do I build one?

This is a question that nearly every writer has when starting out, and with everyone telling you that you need a platform it's difficult to know what direction to go in. So I will share with you what I've discovered so far, only because I've gotten lucky enough to work with some pretty amazing people in this department.

Platform is one of the most difficult concepts to explain, partly because everyone defines it a little differently.

But one thing that I know for sure: Editors and agents are attracted to authors who have this thing called “platform.”

What editors and agents typically mean by platform

They’re looking for someone with visibility and authority who has proven reach to a target audience.

Let’s break this down further.

  • Visibility. Who knows you? Who is aware of your work? Where does your work regularly appear? How many people see it? How does it spread? Where does it spread? What communities are you a part of? Who do you influence? Where do you make waves?

  • Authority. What’s your credibility? What are your credentials? (This is particularly important for nonfiction writers; it is less important for fiction writers, though it can play a role. Just take a look at any graduate of the Iowa MFA program.)

  • Proven reach. It’s not enough to SAY you have visibility. You have to show where you make an impact and give proof of engagement. This could be quantitative evidence (e.g., size of your e-mail newsletter list, website traffic, blog comments) or qualitative evidence (high-profile reviews, testimonials from A-listers in your genre).

  • Target audience. You should be visible to the most receptive or appropriate audience for the work you’re trying to sell. For instance: If you have visibility, authority, and proven reach to orthodontists, that probably won’t be helpful if you’re marketing vampire fiction (unless perhaps you’re writing about a vampire orthodontist who repairs crooked vampire fangs?).

What platform is NOT

  • It is not about self-promotion.

  • It is not about hard selling.

  • It is not about annoying people.

  • It is not about being an extrovert.

  • It is not about being active on social media.

  • It is not about blogging.

  • It is not about your qualifications, authority, or experience, although these are tools for growing or nurturing a platform.

  • It is not something you create overnight.

  • It is not something you can buy.

  • It is not a one-time event.

  • It is not more important than your story or message (but hopefully it grows out of that).

Platform is not about bringing attention to yourself, or by screaming to everyone you can find online or offline, “Look at me! Look at me!” Platform isn’t about who yells the loudest or who markets the best.

It is more about putting in consistent effort over the course of a career, and making incremental improvements in extending your network. It’s about making waves that attract other people to you—not about begging others to pay attention.

 What activities build platform? 

First and foremost, platform grows out of your body of work—or from producing great work. Remember that. The following list is not exhaustive, but helps give you an idea of how platform can grow.


  • Publishing or distributing quality work in outlets you want to be identified with and that your target audience reads.

  • Producing a body of work on your own platform—e.g., blog, e-mail newsletter, social network, podcast, video, digital downloads, etc.—that gathers quality followers. This is usually a long-term process.

  • Speaking at and/or attending events where you meet new people and extend your network of contacts.

  • Finding meaningful ways to engage with and develop your target audience, whether through content, events, online marketing/promotion, etc.

  • Partnering with peers or influencers to tackle a new project and/or extend your visibility.

Side note: Some people have an easier time building platform than others. If you hold a highly recognized position (powerful network and influence), if you know key influencers (friends in high places), if you are associated with powerful communities, if you have prestigious degrees or posts, or if you otherwise have public-facing work—yes, you play the field at an advantage. This is why it’s so easy for celebrities to get book deals. They have “built-in” platform.

Platform building is not one size fits all

Platform building is an organic process and will be different for every single author. There is no checklist I can give you to develop a platform, because it depends on:

  • your unique story/message

  • your unique strengths and qualities

  • your target readership

Your platform should be as much of a creative exercise and project as the work you produce. While platform gives you power to market effectively, it’s not something you develop by posting “Follow me!” on Twitter or “Like me!” on Facebook a few times a week. It is about discovering what type of a writer you are and promoting yourself as such. Think of it as a business; as a writer your business is to sell yourself. Use your imagination, and take meaningful steps. It’ll be a long jour

Good luck, and happy writing!





Yolonda Sweitzer

Actress | Author | Blogger| Screenwriter 

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