Guest Post: Tactics of the Winning Novelist, by Randy Ingermanson

Once a month or so, I share a post from author and writing teacher Randy Ingermanson. This article is one of three excellent ones in his current newsletter. If you're interested in writing, you really need this free subscription. Check the link at the bottom of the post.

Tactics of the Winning Novelist, by Randy Ingermanson

Tactics are the little things, the specific actions you take to build your skills as a novelist and then to write your novel.

Let's be clear that those are separate tasks: building your skills and writing a novel. An analogy might help:

Being a novelist is a lot like being a marathon runner. Before you can actually RUN a marathon, you need to first TRAIN for it. Typically, that takes a long time -- months of training to build the fitness and endurance to run an entire marathon.

But once you've reached that level, you can run more marathons with ease.

Of course, you'll continue to train between races, but now your training will be aimed at helping you run BETTER, rather than merely helping you FINISH.

In the same way, before you can write a novel, you need to develop your skills as a fiction writer.

But once you've got the skills to write one novel, you can write as many as you want with ease.

You'll always be improving your skills, but after you've written your first novel, you'll be working to write BETTER, not merely to FINISH.

I've identified five tactics you can use to build your skills as a novelist to the point where you're ready to write your first one.

These tactics are simple. In fact, they're "obvious." Success in life can be as simple as doing the obvious. You'd be amazed how many writers ignore all these tactics. You'd be amazed how fast you improve, once you start doing all five.

Here they are:

Tactic #1: Write on a consistent schedule.

Writing a novel is a marathon. A sprint here and a dash there won't get you to the finish line. Writing consistently for weeks and months WILL get you there.

Decide how many hours per week you can dedicate to writing. If you're a beginner, this might be only one or two. I recommend that beginners make it a goal to get up to five hours per week by the end of the first year of writing.

Your writing schedule is for WRITING. Not for research of your story world. Not for studying how to write. Not for reading magazines about writing. Not for reading blogs or hanging out on e-mail loops for writers. Not for going to writing conferences.

All of those are fine things, but they aren't WRITING.

You get better at running by running. You get better at writing by writing.

Tactic #2: Keep a log of your writing time and word count.

This sounds too simple (or possibly too anal) for words. It isn't.

Writing fiction is a JOB, at least for professional novelists. Someday, you'll be working with a publisher who has a publication schedule mapped out for two years in advance. You'll sign a contract with that publisher to deliver X amount of words on a particular date.

That date is not a fantasy. That date is reality. If you miss that date, it costs your publisher money. Yes, they build in some slack in the schedule. No, you don't ever want to use any of it. Not one minute. Your publishers will love you if they know they can trust you to meet your deadlines.

But you can't sign a contract to deliver X words on a particular date unless you know how fast you can write. You need to know how many words of output you can create in each hour of working time.

Good runners know what pace they can run each mile.

Professional writers know what pace they can write.

If you want to be a professional writer someday, then start acting like one today.

Tactic #3: Give yourself a weekly quota.

You can't do this until you've done #1 and #2 above. In order to create a meaningful quota, you have to know how many hours you can write each week, and you have to know how many words you can produce each hour. (They don't have to be GOOD words. Goodness comes later.)

Virtually all the successful writers I know assign themselves a quota of some sort for creating their first draft. While some writers use a daily quota and some use a monthly quota, most of them seem to set a weekly word count. I recommend weekly.

Your quota will be useless unless you actually meet it. Assign yourself a penalty for failing to reach your quota. Find an accountability partner who can check that you hit your quota and can make you pay the penalty if you fail.

Important: Make your quota possible. Never miss it.

Tactic #4: Find a critique group or critique buddy.

Most writers believe their work is either unutterably brilliant or wretchedly awful.

Generally, they're wrong on both counts. All writers are delusional. That's part of the job description.

There is only one way to know whether your work is any good or not.

You need somebody else to read your work and tell you.

You need a critique of your work regularly. I recommend that you get a critique monthly. Find one or more people with all of these qualities:
* They understand fiction
* They will be honest
* They will be kind

If your critiquers lack any of these, then drop them like a burning porcupine because they're useless to you.

Tactic #5: Constantly study the craft of fiction.

It is not your critiquers' problem to tell you HOW to write better. Their job is to point out what you're doing well and what you're doing poorly.

Your job is to find ways to improve your strong points so they're world-class (your strong points will make editors say yes someday).

Your job is also to find ways to improve your weak points so they're at least adequate (your weak points will make editors say no right now).

Generally, critiquers don't actually know how to teach you how to improve your craft. They may think they do, but they usually don't. Skill in critiquing is not the same as skill in teaching.

You have plenty of sources for teaching you the craft:
* Books
* Magazines and e-zines
* Classes
* Conferences
* Recorded lectures
* Mentors

When you know specifically what you want to improve, find some source of teaching on that exact topic and study it. Then apply what you learned to your writing and get critiqued again to see if you got it. Don't quit studying until you get it.

That's it. Five tactics that will turn a talented beginner into a professional writer, if you do them consistently for the rest of your life.

To summarize, "Write, write, write! Get critiqued. Study. Repeat forever."

Simple? Yes.

Easy? No.

That's why there are many more talented beginners than professional writers.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 29,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

Which tactics are part of your life now, and which ones do you need to add to your writing routine? 


  1. Thanks for this, Debbie! I'm a children's PB writer, but some of these points can apply to me, too.

  2. So glad they can help, Jarm. I need to take each of them to heart!


  3. This is a great article. While I'm editing... And critiquing... I don't find much time to write new words.... I'm going to schedule some fresh writing time back into my days

  4. Debbie, this is wonderful advice! I really need to commit to actual writing rather than spending so much time in marketing and editing. I must divide my time strategically.
    Thanks, as always, for posting such helpful articles.
    Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day;)

  5. @Michelle: I was really convicted by this article. I set aside time to write the beginning of a short story, and felt really refreshed!

    @Leah: I need to do the same. While I'm not marketing, I'm allowing internet time to take over writing time. Happy Valentine's Day to you, too!




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