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What I Learned as a Journalist, Book Doctor, Ghostwriter, and Publicist

Author J.H. Moncrieff shares lessons she’s learned so far in a variety of writing-related careers, including work as a journalist, book doctor, ghostwriter, and publicist.

By the time I was five years old, I already knew what I was going to be when I grew up. Disillusioned with my previous fantasy careers of zookeeper and cowgirl, I set my sights on something much more attainable.

*deep breath*

I was going to be a famous writer.

Simple enough, right? As you’ve probably guessed by now … not so much.

Thankfully, there are many ways to earn a living as a wordsmith while you work toward becoming the next Stephen King. (Note to Mr. King: don’t worry; you’re still safe.) And, best of all, each one of them will teach you something valuable you can apply to your writing career.

This guest post is by J.H. Moncrieff. Moncrieff writes psychological and supernatural suspense novels that let her readers safely explore the dark corners of the world. She won Harlequin's search for the next Gillian Flynn in 2016. Her first published novella, THE BEAR WHO WOULDN’T LEAVE, was featured in Samhain’s CHILDHOOD FEARS collection and stayed on its horror bestsellers list for over a year. The first two novels of her new GhostWriters series, CITY OF GHOSTS and THE GIRL WHO TALKS TO GHOSTS, will be officially released on May 16, 2017. When not writing, J.H. loves visiting the world's most haunted places, advocating for animal rights, and summoning her inner ninja in muay thai class. To get free ebooks and a new spooky story every week, check out her Hidden Library. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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Since not everyone will choose such a roundabout path to literary fame and fortune, here’s some of my hard-earned wisdom for you.

What Being a Journalist Taught Me About Writing

Journalists get to do cool stuff. They have adventures—investigating crime scenes and covering fires and staking out biker gangs in the back of a cop car. My journalism career gave me endless story fodder, but it also taught me a few lessons I’ll never forget.

  • Treat writing like a business. Journalists have to worry about these little things called deadlines. When an editor gives you one, you meet it. Meet your deadlines or you don’t get paid. Surprisingly, it’s an easy choice to make.
  • How civilians, police, and reporters really react. As someone who writes mysteries, suspense, and other novels dealing with death, this knowledge has been invaluable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read manuscripts where people act in bizarre ways: cops hire civilians and give them guns, reporters surround a home and scream questions at the parents the second a child goes missing, and so on. My experience has ensured I won’t make the same mistakes.
  • Sources are everything. If you write police procedurals, talk to a cop. If your protagonist is a doctor, see if you can follow some friendly neighborhood physicians on their rounds. Does someone find a body in your story? Spend a few minutes asking a forensic anthropologist what it would look and smell like. You don’t have to write what you know, but you better know what you write.
  • Kill your darlings. Journalists follow the inverted pyramid formula—the most important stuff goes at the top and trickles down from there. This practice stems from the days when stories were cut to fit newspapers, so articles often lost a few lines from the bottom. One thing journalists learn in a hurry is to write lean. There’s no room for extraneous information. If it doesn’t advance your story, kill it.

What Being a Book Doctor Taught Me About Writing

Book doctors perform the same function as substantive or developmental editors. Simply put, they’re hired to fix your book. The only difference is that agents and editors are usually the clients instead of writers.

  • Editors are essential. Many writers believe they can edit their own work. Take it from me—a professional editor who has a copyeditor and three proofreaders check her stuff—you can’t. With publishing budgets being what they are, it’s worth hiring your own editor before you submit your manuscript, or before you put that book up for sale. It will save you a lot of heartbreak.
  • Pick a side. The great majority of the stories I’ve worked on were fatally flawed because the writer couldn’t decide which story to tell. I’ve seen romances with no romance, horrors that weren’t scary, thrillers that were actually food memoirs in disguise, and historical fiction with no plot. So much hassle can be avoided if a writer gets really clear about what the story is before beginning work on the first draft.
  • Kill your darlings. Book doctors have to be tough. We’re not there to be your buddy or pump up your ego; we’re there to make your story better. I can always tell which authors will go the distance. They’re the ones who thank you for your hard work, lick their wounds, and crawl back into the trenches to emerge with a much better second (or third, fourth, or fifth) draft. The ones who pout, scream, accuse us of being jealous of their talent, or pull the silent treatment? They don’t get far.

[Want to land an agent? Here are 4 things to consider when researching literary agents.]

What Being a Ghostwriter Taught Me About Writing

Over the last few years, ghostwriters have become synonymous with James Patterson, but the truth is, tons of books—even bestselling books—were written by ghosts. Lots of people have interesting stories to tell, but may not have the ability to put it all together. That’s where ghosts come in.

  • Writers’ block is a myth. When writers are slacking, they often point fingers at their muses or lack thereof. “I wasn’t inspired,” or “The story wasn’t speaking to me.” When you have to sit down every day and put your emotions, heart, and talent into a story that isn’t even yours, you quickly learn how little inspiration has to do with it. Writers can write anything if they put their mind to it and stop making excuses.
  • Not everything you write will be a masterpiece—and that’s okay. Perfectionism is not an option for ghostwriters. You may be asked to write characters you hate, plot developments you feel are unrealistic, and settings that are less than authentic. Perhaps you’ll be hired to write a tell-all book you secretly believe is a complete fraud. It doesn’t matter. People enjoy reading lots of different books, and few of them are perfect. It can be strangely freeing to write something you have no personal attachment to.
  • Kill your darlings. Ghosts don’t get to have darlings! You may think you’ve come up with the most profound turn of phrase ever, but that’s not your job. Your job is to sound like the client. And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter how clever you were. That gem is going to end up on the cutting room floor.

What Being a Publicist Taught Me About Writing

If you want to be a successful writer, you could do a lot worse than become a publicist. During my years promoting everything from Halloween parties and museum exhibits to genealogy conferences and musicians, I’ve gained some valuable insights.

  • 99% of writers are doing social media wrong. The endless “Buy My Book” Facebook updates, the spammy automatic messages on Twitter, the passive-aggressive blog posts that bemoan your latest defeat at the hands of the publishing industry? They’re not helping you.
  • Relationships are everything. Want someone to buy your book? Be their friend. Get them to like you. But not because they’ll buy your book, because you genuinely find them interesting and want to communicate with them. Use social media to connect to people in an authentic way, and book sales will follow. You can’t fake sincerity. At least not for long.
  • Clarity is crucial. If a reporter calls, wanting to know more about what I’m promoting, I don’t ramble on for twenty minutes about the background of everyone who’s ever worked on the project. I sum it up in a sentence, a sentence designed to suck them in and make them say, “Tell me more.” A lot of writers hate elevator pitches and query letters, and I get it—writing them is like being stuck in the seventh circle of hell, but they’re so important. People have short attention spans, so grab ’em while you got ’em.
  • Kill your darlings. Publicity is about trying different things until one of them works. It might take ten, or twenty, or even thirty ideas until you hit on the right combination of public appeal and client approval. You have to keep moving, and keep pitching, until that wonderful moment when all the stars align. If you get stuck on the first idea you come up with, it’ll never happen. You’ll never see the magic.

What have your jobs taught you about writing? I’d love to hear your stories!

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