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10 tips for first-time authors

After 45 years in the industry, ASU English Professor James Blasingame has these tips to offer

professor holds a book in office full of books
December 14, 2018

Everyone has a story, and everyone has the voice to tell it.

That was the advice given by Arizona State University English Professor James Blasingame, himself an author who recently made news for helping a young woman make her dreams of publishing a book come true in less than six months, through the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

So you have the idea for a story — now what? Here are Blasingame's 10 tips to keep in mind for first-time authors.

1. Anyone can do it 

“Everyone has a story to tell, and the language to tell it," Blasingame said. "Anybody can do it. As human beings, we are creatures of story. Everything is a story: When you are talking with your friends, you are really telling a story. Your life is a story; it is inherent in our psyche. So anyone can write a book.”

One of the books Blasingame wrote was about cowboy poetry, an art form he calls an example of how people without a strictly academic background bring an authenticity to their writing.

“There is something in the raw honesty of their poetry that just says, 'Oh my gosh, this is a real cowboy,'” he said. “And he or she is expressing what that life is like with an insight that is undeniable. Now they may not use the same words or scansion that a polished MFA poet, but it's still good." 

While anyone can be an author, there are still a few guidelines any story has to follow. 

2. Start with a good premise

“Despite what Jerry Seinfeld said, a story about nothing is probably not going to work," Blasingame said.

“You have to have a good story premise, to begin with. For example, ‘I imagined a teenage girl in love with a vampire’ … or whatever it is, you have to have some conflict that you can imagine resonating with young readers, but also that you can think of what would be a really exciting and fulfilling climax to this. Where can this story go? After you’ve got an idea for the story, and a place for the story to go and a story arc, now you can try to think of some compelling characters that will resonate with adolescent readers."

Simple right? Not so much — while the process can be straightforward, it is easy to get lost in the process of drafting a story. 

3. Have an authentic voice for your audience 

Blasingame is an expert in adolescent novels, but regardless of the genre, a story should be written to its audience, being cognizant of what they expect, want and need from a book.

"It has got to have an authentic adolescent voice," Blasingame said of young-adult novels. "No subtle and nuancing characters and conflict. Teen readers want quick characters that can be deep, but they have to reflect issues and concerns that young people resonate with — which can be some pretty rotten things — but it has to be pretty clear.

"(Teen readers) also like a protagonist that faced adversity and survived, and in the end there was hope."

4. Don’t get bogged down in the process

Blasingame said there are two types of writers: ones that start from the climax and work their way backward, and ones who create the characters and just let them loose.

"If you're starting with the characters and then an initiating incident happens, and now you're going to take them in the right direction, be careful. Because you can go down the rabbit hole of another character and another subconflict and another backstory, where it's hard to extricate yourself from the convolution of stories and conflicts," Blasingame said.

"It’s almost like getting dressed," he said. "You’ve got the 6-foot, 210-pound you, and now you’re going to put on a white shirt and black pants. You can add a tie, you can add certain shoes, but you can’t just keep putting on all the clothes you own — that’s not a workable ensemble."

While a story idea may come to you in an instant, that doesn't mean the book will be finished overnight. One way to save time is to make sure that you are writing only what you need to.

5. Less is more

Another pitfall first-time authors often fall into, according to Blasingame, is filling up page space with extra words.

"Say it in as few words as necessary while most accurately conveying your meaning — don’t overwrite," he said.

What you are writing needs to be moving the story forward, and not getting in its way.

6. Build up to your conflict 

Once you have a plotline and characters to work with, start to deepen your plot with conflict your main character must face. Blasingame said that young readers across Arizona respond well to this type of a protagonist, along with a positive ending that gives the reader hope.

"Whenever I talk to young authors, they tell me what you need to do is chase your protagonist up a tree, and then throw rocks at him or her," he said. "Allegorically I think that means that you’ve got to put this person in a difficult situation, and then make little subconflict happen as the rising action heads toward its climax."

7. A snappy ending

Hope isn't the only attribute of a proper ending, Blasingame said: "As the story is ending, accelerate to the physical climax; make it unambiguous, make it short and sweet; end it with nice detail." 

8. Be patient 

Blasingame said that the industry is easier now than ever before, with social media and support groups, but the process still takes time. 

"I think that’s where a lot of people run into more adversity than they are prepared for," Blasingame said. "Successful authors will tell you that it takes about three years for them. And these are successful authors."

"Piper, the young woman that we did the Make-a-Wish program with, had it in her mind what her story was, and she knew where it was going. She was able to write that book in about five months. But she had a lot of discipline."

Despite the changing industry, there are still difficulties that stand in the way of first-time authors.

"There is a horrible paradox in that most publishing companies will not look at a manuscript that hasn’t been pitched by a fairly famous agent, and those agents won’t take on an author that doesn’t have a successfully purchased manuscript, so it’s tough," he said. "But it’s different with the new technology. The book and (eventual) movie 'The Martian' was originally self-published on the internet."

Luckily, there are groups and other avenues by which to get published, which is why it is important to stay connected. 

9. Have a good pitch 

Once you get through the process of writing a book and having it edited, you have a small frame of time to make an impression with an agent or publisher.

This, Blasingame said, is why it is essential to be able to boil your story down into a good pitch — in other words, being able to sell your novel in about 20 seconds. 

10. Get support, stay connected

"It is kind of hard to work in isolation and make it," Blasingame said. "There are workshops that connect you with writing groups, and you want to get in a writing group that has some people that are successfully publishing and can connect you to agents. One of those organizations is American Night Writers. American Night Writers has produced several successful authors, including Stephenie MeyerStephenie Meyer is the author of the extremely successful "Twilight" book series. ." 

Phoenix has multiple writing meetups and workshops throughout the year.

"Go to these workshops, meet people, get in a group," Blasingame said. "Join organizations that give you a path. Somebody just needs to be in a circle when you’re reading a part of a chapter and say, ‘Hey I think that might have potential, can you email me the manuscript or the chapter?’"

Top photo: ASU English Professor Jim Blasingame looks at some of his young adult books during an office move. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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