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Putting Pen To Paper

July 11, 2007
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Suggestions For Aspiring Authors

By Phillip Starr

Pete Starr author photo

Although I have had one book published, and my second title is to be released in the Spring of 2008, I certainly don’t regard myself as some kind of “master author” who has all the answers for those of you who aspire to see your work on the shelves of your favorite bookstores. I can only tell you some of what I’ve learned up to this point and offer some suggestions that, I hope, will enhance your chances for success.

One thing is for certain; there’s a whole lot more to getting published than I ever suspected! In fact, there’s so much involved that I dare not attempt to put it all down in a single article. Instead, I will focus on just a few aspects of writing and, if enough interest is shown, I’ll be happy to jot down more of my ramblings.

You want to write a book? If that’s your aim you should probably begin by asking yourself, “why?” After all, unless you get ten or more titles out there at the same time you’re not likely to make a lot of money. So, why do you want to write your book?

I wrote my first book because my students enjoyed hearing stories about my teacher and what martial arts training was like “back in the day.” I thought long and hard about it and realized that I could put together several stories, each of which would contain a valuable lesson that could be readily applied not only to the Chinese martial arts, but to virtually any martial discipline. Thus, I would enable my teacher to “speak” to another generation of aspiring martial arts practitioners.

Once you’ve determined just why you want to write, you need to decide exactly what you intend to write about. For instance, if you practice jiu-jitsu and want to write a book about it…well, that’s a pretty tall order. It’s a BIG subject. How about focusing on just one or two aspects of jiu-jitsu? That would be a whole lot easier to write about and anyway, a book about the entire art of jiu-jitsu would end up being a rather large text. That means it could be somewhat difficult to market because it’d be a fairly expensive book. You have to look at the project not just from your perspective but also through the eyes of the publisher as well as consumers.

Once you begin writing, take your time! Never, ever hurry. Hurrying only leads to mistakes that could be very costly down the road. Take as much time as you need and write clearly so that your readers will be able to understand what you’re saying.

And when you’ve completed a given chapter, re-read it over and over again. Once the book is completed, proofread it and edit it a dozen times or more. Look for typographical errors, misspellings, incorrect punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure. These things are absolutely crucial to your success! This brings to mind a story that will help illustrate my point.

My former literary agent asked if I might be interested in assisting him and reviewing some of the manuscripts he’d received. I told him that I’d be happy to oblige and within a few days I had manuscripts from several hopeful authors (like me) sitting on my desk. I picked up the first one and dug in. It was a novel which, according to the note attached to it by the author, would probably be made into a major motion picture.

Yeah.

So I started reading and by the time I’d struggled through the third chapter I was completely lost. Just getting to the third chapter was something of a challenge because the typos, misspellings, and sentence structure were a real hindrance to my understanding of how the story was developing. I put it down and telephoned my agent, telling him that I’d received the manuscripts. I told him about the novel I was reading and asked if it was a joke. He chuckled and assured me that it was not.

“You mean this is real?” I asked. “Somebody actually sent this in as a manuscript?”

“Yep,” he replied.

“C’mon,” I said. “This is a joke, right? You got your grandson to write this thing, didn’t you?”

“Nope,” he said. “It’s for real.”

When he finally convinced me that what I was holding in my hands was a genuine manuscript, I emailed the author and told him as nicely as I could about some of the grammatical problems I’d found. Not only that, but the story was more than a little difficult to follow. I suggested a little more color here, and bit more character development there… in short, it needed a lot of work. Actually it needed to be rewritten altogether.

The author contacted me and assured me that he’d have another copy to me within two days. Two days!!! I suggested that he take his time but he was adamant about getting the rewritten manuscript to me as soon as possible. And he did. In two days I had the new work in my hands. It was worse than the original. I tried to be as diplomatic as I could when I told him that he really needed to enroll in a creative writing course somewhere. Needless to say, we never heard from him again. I guess his pride couldn’t handle the criticism.

The point is that you must proofread, edit, rewrite, trim, and polish your manuscript many, many times before you ever consider sending it to an agent or a publisher. When you’re absolutely certain that it’s exactly the way you want it, wait a few days and reread it. You’ll be surprised at what you find!

Your dictionary and thesaurus will become your best friends during this time. I recall spending several days on a single sentence, trying to get the wording just so. Even now, when I pick up a copy of my book and browse through it I see plenty of room for improvement.

I look at writing in the same way as I do the practice of martial arts. They both require lots of practice (plenty of physical sweat on the one hand and buckets of mental sweat on the other), patience, more practice, dedication, more practice, and time. If you want to become a skillful martial artist you must practice your martial techniques. If you want to become a skillful writer, you need to write! Magazines and other publications are always on the lookout for good writers who can provide interesting articles. Why not throw your hat in the ring? Remember that real skill cannot be developed quickly; it is acquired only through hard work and repetitious practice over time. This is the true meaning of “kung-fu.”

Writing. Punching. They’re the same thing.

A martial arts practitioner for nearly 50 years, Pete Starr is a black belt in Kyokushin karate, trained in traditional shao-lin, xingyiquan, and baguazhang, and the author of The Making of a Butterfly. He lives and teaches in Omaha, NE. His upcoming book Martial Mechanics comes out in the Spring of 2008.

 

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