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Tuesday, September 4

Practical Advice for Beginning Fiction Writers

By George A Bernstein, @GeorgeBernstein

Part of the How They Do It Series


JH: As enjoyable as writing is, it can be tough for new writers to find their way. Please help me welcome George A. Bernstein to the lecture hall today, to share some practical advice on writing.


George A Bernstein is the retired President of a modest, publically held appliance manufacturer, now living in south Florida. He spent years attending writing seminars and conferences, learning to polish his work and developing a strong “voice.” He works with professional editors to ensure his novels meets his own rigorous standards, and all of his books are currently published by small indie press, GnD Publishing LLC, in which he has an interest.

White Death is the fourth of his Detective Al Warner Suspense series, with the others; Death’s Angel, Born to Die, and The Prom Dress Killer, all garnering rave reviews. Bernstein has become known for crafting endings no one expects. His fifth Warner novel is already in the works, to be published in 2019. Readers have likened Bernstein’s Detective Al Warner to Patterson’s Alex Cross.

Bernstein is also a “World-class” fly-fisherman, setting a baker’s dozen IGFA World Records, mostly on fly-rods, and he has published Toothy Critters Love Flies, the complete book on fly-fishing for pike & musky.

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Take it away George...

First, don’t do it, if that’s how you plan on making a living. Sure, we all hear about the fabulous successes of the J.K. Rowlings and John Greshams, but what you don’t hear is how long they struggled to even get published, and that people who make real money writing fiction are about .01% of all the writers out there. That’s 1/100th of ONE PER CENT!

But, if you’re still intent on being a writer and getting published by a REAL publisher, you’d better have a thick skin and be able to take rejection…after rejection… after rejection. You may NEVER find an agent or publisher for your work. Louis L’Amore, probably America’s most prolific writer of Westerns, was reputedly rejected 350 times before getting his first story published.

So, unless you’re writing for the joy of it…that you really want to get that story down on paper, no matter what…then find some better use for your time.

But if in the face of all that, you still want to write that novel, then here’s some advice.

First, pick up a couple of books on fiction writing. Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel, and Albert Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel, are two of a legion of titles available. Zuckerman’s book gives you a complete roadmap, from beginning to end. You can search Amazon or www.ABE.com (good, like-new used books, cheaper) or the library. While you’re at it, you should pick up Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which you’ll need later. Read those first, to get you on the right track.

Now, imagine the story you want to write, think of where it’s going and the characters who are going to take it there…and how you want it to end. I write a brief outline, often chapter by chapter, and make up 4 x 6 cards for each major character. Those cards should show each character’s physical appearance (eye color, hair, nose, height, build, distinguishing features, etc.), and who they are (personality), and a list of their various interests. The more complete you make these, the more your characters will take on real-life dimensions. And if while fleshing out your story, you add something to the character, add it to their card. You don’t want a blue-eyed gal to have “emerald” eyes later. Believe me, it happens.

Time to begin writing. Everyone does this differently. Personally, I’ll write the entire story before I do much editing. I don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar while I’m getting my story down. I get emotionally involved with my protagonist (and sometimes, my villain), and I let him (or her) take over the plot. They often “speak to me” in the evening as I’m waiting for sleep. They “tell” me things about themselves and what they’ve done (especially the villains) that I never suspected. It’s a bit weird, but every major author I’ve mentioned this to says it happens to them as well. So, each of my novels changed substantially as I wrote, deviating from my original outline. Even the endings on a couple got changed. In collaboration with my editor at TAG Publishers, Dee Burks, I made substantial revisions to much of the end of my first novel, Trapped, although I preserved the very ending. My most common comment from readers is, “I loved the ending.”

The hard work comes when you’ve finished the first draft. My immediate task is correcting mechanical errors: spelling, punctuation, grammar, and sentence construction. The Chicago Manuel of Style is the bible of most editors and it will answer any question you may have about usage and grammar. Fixing spelling, typos, and grammatical errors never ends. You can’t get them all, no matter how hard you try.

With primary editing finished, now look at the story. Did you create tension? Donald Maass asks, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters?” After striving to come up with that trauma, he asks, “What can be WORSE than that?” Wow! Even worse! Okay, you finally think of something really bad, and then Maass asks, “What can be even WORSE than that?” If there’s no jeopardy…no anxiety…no one will bother reading your work. Fights shouldn’t end with a couple of blows. Searchers should be led down several blind alleys, the trail seeming hopeless before finally succeeding.

Okay, so you’ve built lots of tension. Now read the dialogue out loud. Does it sound contrived or natural? Join a critique group where you can read some pages, and listen to other read theirs…and develop a sense of what sounds good. Good dialogue requires very few tags. Readers should usually know who is talking, but if you need a tag for clarity, keep it mostly to “he said; she said.” Keep “growling” and “shouting” to a minimum. And use contractions. People rarely say “I do not” instead of “don’t”…unless it’s used for emphasis.

Next, go back and search for “static” words, replacing them with vibrant words. He “scurried” from the room, not “ran.” She “studied” him, not “looked.” The sun “burst” over the horizon, not “rose.” This is how you punch up your prose, and develop you own “voice.” I can spend five or ten minutes seeking just the right word or phrase to make the prose sing to me.

Finally, review your descriptive areas. It’s important for your readers to have a mental picture of how someone or someplace looks, sounds, and even smells…but don’t over-do it. Some writers spend a half-page describing how a person is dressed. That’s way too much, and takes your readers out of the story. Find the middle ground.

Don’t think one edit or revision will do it, either. I removed a complete side plot from my original version of Trapped. It was exciting, but just didn’t add to that story. But it wasn’t a loss. I modified it for use in my fourth Detective Al Warner novel, White Death, so that manuscript started out already partly written.

In the end, writing the first novel will be a huge learning experience. Few authors get their first novel published. While in a sense, I bucked that trend, since Trapped was my first novel. But I’ve written five others, and Trapped has been so rewritten from my first draft, it might as well be my 6th…or 7th!

And one final piece of advice: if you intend to be a serious author—someone taken seriously by the literary world—submit your final work to a professional editor. There are many levels of editing, some of it very expensive, but at the minimum, it should be reviewed for usage and structure.

That’s what it takes to succeed.

About White Death



Detective Al Warner is back at work, recovered from his deadly final encounter that ended the hunt for The Prom Dress Killer.

Meanwhile, Ashton Kerry is furious his in-laws, who both died in a flaming boating accident, left him nothing in their will, but his wife’s massive trust fund provides all he can spend. Determined to have his own stash so he can ditch his family and be with his mistress, he enlists the Cuban mafia to ship cocaine via his company, packaged as brochures. Kerry is paid a nice percentage of their value. But in setting this up, the Cubans murder five of his employees, drowning them in a fake auto accident. Then Kerry’s ties to the Cubans become more complicated–and dangerous–than he ever expected.

Warner’s gut tells him the accidental drowning of five factory workers is highly suspicious, and his “gut” is seldom wrong. It’s one of two cases the “Hero of Miami” is zeroing in on. The other puzzler is the exploding rash of deadly ODs from fentanyl-laced heroin—White Death. The drug is so lethal, he suspects the fatalities may be intentional. Soon everything erupts into a series of stunning revelations and deadly confrontations, with Warner once again thrust into mortal danger.

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