Writing books can be a feast-or-famine occupation. I’m in favor of steering it towards the “feast” side of things, as quickly as possible.
That can be easier said than done.
Worse, you may not have the financial resources to hire the support services you’d like. You might have more time than money, or you could be running short on both.
I get it. If you’re struggling financially, time may be the asset you can most easily make use of.
Too many self-styled publishing gurus try to convince you to spend money anyway, even if it involves running up steep credit card bills.
In most cases, I disagree, heartily. My philosophy has been “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” (Teddy Roosevelt said that, and it’s among my favorite quotes.)
So, assuming you’re not eager (or able) to spend a cent on your writing and publishing career, here’s what I recommend.
Plotter or pantser?
There are plotters (people who plan their stories before they start writing them) and pantsers (people who just sit down and write in a “fly by the seat of their pants” style).
I’m a plotter. I’ve tried pantsing and all the editing drove me up the wall.
This article at Medium may help you decide which you are: Are You A Plotter or Pantser?
- If you feel as if you’re a plotter, get familiar with the hero’s journey plot. Janice Hardy explains it well. Today, it’s the basis of many stories, TV shows, movies, and so on.
- Understanding the Seven Basic Plots may give you some story ideas.
- If you’re willing to risk getting lost in ideas, TVTropes.org can keep you busy for days. Perhaps even weeks. (You have been warned.) Need some romance novel ideas? Try Romance Arc at TV Tropes. Looking for a sci-fi or fantasy plot? Try Speculative Fiction Tropes at TV Tropes, or something as specific as Time Travel Tropes. Cozy mystery ideas? TV Tropes has something for that, too. If you can even think about a topic, character, or sub-sub-genre, TV Tropes has related plot ideas.
Prompts and other starting points
You may want to look for sites that list plot suggestions and writing prompts. Here are a few among hundreds, possibly thousands. You’ll also find books at Amazon (etc.), filled with prompts.
Characters names and personalities
Whether you need just a name or a fully developed character, these links can help. But – be forewarned – some are better than others, depending on your needs.
- Seventh Sanctum (perhaps I should just say: go there and you’ll find more than you’ll ever need)
- Chaotic Shiny, similar to Seventh Sanctum
- Random Character Generator (from WritingExercises.co.uk) – another site with all kinds of useful tools
- Quick Character Generator (very detailed, which can actually make your work more challenging… maybe)
- Human & Humanoid Character Generators, designed for gaming (as many of these links are), but still very good
- 25 Things About Creating Characters – Some NSFW (maybe) references, but a good article if you’re not sure what you need for your character. It’ll save you time in the long run.
- The Character Creator, a visual reference (Warning: it’s nearly impossible to back out of that URL, so be sure to open it in a new tab or window you can later close. I’m a little wary of this kind of site. But, if you work best with a visual image of your character, it could be useful. Maybe.)
Crafting your plot
- The Bedtime Story Model, not quite MadLibs but pretty darned easy.
- The Universal Plot Creator (PDF), by Ryan Leonard. This is where so many prolific and modern-day pulp authors got their start. Back when G+ existed, Ryan offered this PDF (free) to aspiring authors. It’s invaluable.
- Jami Gold’s story beats worksheets
- My own short romance template/worksheet (DOC)
- My short Regency romance template/worksheet (PDF)
- See my article (with videos) about StoryClock plotting.
- Circus tent story beats worksheet – I have no idea where I found this (let me know if you have a link) and it prints fine on 8.5″ x 11″ paper. I use this for almost every story I write… just to be sure I have a good story.
- WriteOnSisters’ NaNoWriMo 15 Story Beats
- How Chuck Wendig writes a novel
- Ingrid’s Notes – Plot Structures (lots and lots of them, with enough details to make your head spin)
Writing your book
- Rachel Aaron/Bach’s How I Went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to Writing 10,000 Words
- Finish Your Novel in 4 Simple Steps, from Writers Digest. Okay, those steps aren’t that “simple,” but that site can be tremendously helpful.
- Joanna Penn’s Tear Down the Writing Wall. 6 Tips to Help You Finish Your Novel.
- I’m very enthusiastic about ending most (not all) chapters with a cliffhanger. See 10 Cliffhangers That Make Readers Turn The Page. If you’re writing in a literary style, you may love 12 Ways to End a Chapter (With Brilliant Examples). And this is advice I need to follow myself, Henry Miller on How to Finish Your Novel. (Yes, I know he sometimes wrote porn. His advice is good anyway.)
- And, if you’re running out of ideas: Fifty Plot Twist Ideas for Your Work in Progress
Editing your book
- Crutch words – A list of words that are really easy to overuse in your stories. Search your story, and then find better words!
- Better verbs – A list with overused verbs, and some powerful alternatives that can save your readers’ interest. (If you like these kinds of lists, visit Writers Helping Writers for more free PDFs, plus some reference books worth owning.)
- Grammarly free works well for fiction. ProWritingAid free is excellent for nonfiction. And Linguix free is a gem at recognizing when you used the wrong word, so I rely on it daily. All have fancier, paid versions as well.
- The free Hemingway App can be a nuisance to work with. All that cut-and-paste can take time, but it’ll catch many errors and it’s one of the simplest if you just want to glance at the page and see what really needs fixing. It’s kind of “old school,” but I still love it.
- Did your book sound better in your head than it does on the page? Find out easily. Listen to what you wrote, using the free Read Aloud extension. It’s available for Chrome and for Firefox. You may find other text-to-speech readers, but I think this one is the best.
Proofreading your book
Frankly, most (if not all) of the free editing tools I mentioned are also good for proofreading.
Or, put your book aside for a few days (at least three) and then go back and read it, preferably with a spell-checker (in your word processor like OpenOffice writer, or LibreOffice, or Word).
Creating a book cover
- Dave at Kindlepreneur explains cover design really well.
- Lots of people love Canva. If you haven’t a clue how to design a book cover, that’s a good (free) place to start. You can do this. Really.
- Amazon will provide you with a free, fill-in-the-blanks template for both Kindle and printed books. You’ll find that in their Kindle Direct Publishing site. It’s part of the process of publishing your book.
- Reedsy has a good, older article about designing book covers. (I like Pexels.com for free photos.)
- If you need a printed book cover template, Amazon provides them, but I prefer the free Bookow cover templates. They seem to fit printed books better.
Uploading your book to Amazon (and alternatives)
Pricing your book
- For now, see my “Marketing on a shoestring” section, below.
Your book blurb
- Here’s one resource: How to Write a Blurb. (I also recommend entering “how to write a book blurb” in Google or another search engine, and checking the latest/newest advice from reliable sources. <- In other words, don’t jump on some get-rich-quick offer that promises a shortcut to success.)
- To be sure your blurb looks great at Amazon, use Dave’s Kindlepreneur Amazon book description generator. It’s free. And it works.
Marketing on a shoestring
Free v. 99-cents v. more
There was a time when a free book (using Kindle Unlimited’s “free for up to five days” plan) was a smart marketing approach. It can still work for some categories. In July 2020, one of my “based on a true story” books reached the top 10 in its category with nothing more than three free days to get word-of-mouth buzz started.
99-cent pricing can be great or it can mark you as an amateur (or worse). See prices on other books in your category – with a similar page count – before making a decision. But, even if most books in your category are $2.99 or higher, running a 99-cent “introductory special” can work, if you use social media (or ads) to get buzz and income. And then mark your book up to the range where it belongs.
Mailing lists are a way to bypass all other advertising methods and reach your readers, your way, with your latest book links.
The problem is, most of them cost money. Or are filled with their own ads.
Here’s an alternative: Feedburner. It’s free. If you have a website (see below), make sure your readers know they can hear from you, every time you post a fresh announcement on your site. (I’ve used Feedburner for at least 10 years. And most of my readers think I’ve emailed them, personally, when they get an update/announcement from my site via Feedburner.)
And, when you’re ready to switch to a paid mailing system (like Aweber, etc.), Feedburner will show you the email addresses of everyone who’d signed up at your site.
(Also, when you have your own mailing list, you can arrange to swap marketing with fellow authors. Just be sure their books will appeal to your readers, and not offend them or bore them silly.)
It’s okay to shamelessly mention your book, and do your best to get your work in front of others who might genuinely like it.
Just don’t overdo it, or try to coerce (or guilt-trip) anyone into reading your book or reviewing it. (The latter can jeopardize your Amazon account. Do not do that.)
The problem is, social media posts can require time.
Lots of time. (But, hey, if you have far more time than money, social media can be your best friend.)
Find ways to reduce the time you’ll need to tell friends, family, and fans about your latest book: Use a free tool like HootSuite to start with. (I’m not sure it’s still free, but – as of July 2020 – it had a free plan mentioned in 15 of the Best Social Media Posting and Scheduling Tools.)
Later – when you have the budget for it – switch to something like PromoRepublic. (Meanwhile, watch AppSumo for similar products at the best prices. That’s how I got an affordable, lifetime deal on PromoRepublic.)
Your author website
Are you using throwaway pen names? Are you churning out pulp novels that earn quick money and then fall off Amazon’s charts within months? That is one business model that’s been popular over the past few years.
If that’s what you’re doing, you probably don’t need a website. A Facebook page or Twitter account or Instagram account (etc.) can be enough.
On the other hand, if your aim is to write wonderful stories that readers fall in love with – and then tell their friends about – give yourself credibility with a website. You can start with a $10 (or less) domain name (I suggest Namecheap) and they’ll show you how to direct traffic to free WordPress.com or free Blogger, or another free hosting service.
Just three rules for now:
- Do not ask your mother (or sister or spouse or kids) to write reviews for you. See Amazon’s rules. Don’t trust anyone else’s advice about this.
- Do not hire anyone to write Amazon customer reviews* of your books. Not at Fiverr, even if the person claims “everyone does this.”
- Do not read your reviews until you’ve written and published at least three books. Instead, ask a friend to skim your reviews and see if there is anything you absolutely, positively, need to know right now. Do not allow anyone to tell you anything more. Some (many?) reviewers are trolls who’ve never actually read your book. They’re just sad, abusive people who love to post nasty things to upset people.
*Note about reviews: An editorial review is different. It’s not a customer review. It’s a review from a newspaper, magazine, or a (usually respected and impartial) website.
It could be from a fellow author who’s posted his/her/their review of your book.
Quotes from editorial reviews may appear in the same vicinity as your book blurb, on the Amazon sales page. I’m pretty sure you can include them in your book blurb, too.
Did I overlook a truly wonderful, free resource? Leave a comment to let me know. (I moderate all comments, but I’m happy to approve everything that’s helpful.)
As an Amazon Associate, I may earn a few cents from qualifying purchases. But, I don't link to any products I wouldn't recommend to my mother. Really. And, as an author, I earn royalties from any of my books you choose to read. So, thank you! Also, Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc, or its affiliates. Your mileage may vary, and - by the way - my favorite ice cream is mint chip, and I often write in my robe and slippers. Aren't you glad you read all this...? lol