I smoke using either our bbq grill or my electric smoker. The grill is used for meats and poultry while the electric is used for smoking fish.
When I am going to smoke ribs, or anything else for that matter, I get my charcoal going in my chimney starter. While the briquettes are heating up, I get the meat or poultry ready. After about 15-20 minutes the briquettes are ready, as far as I am concerned, to go. I get them arranged at the far end of my grill and when I dump the briquettes, I get the white hot ones on the bottom and the remaining briquettes on top which seems to help it burn a bit longer.
Once the briquettes are in the grill (I use the indirect heat method), I allow time for the temperature to come up. If it gets beyond about 225 degrees, I adjust the vents until I can get the temperature stabilized at around 225 degrees. Then its time to get the meat going.
If your smoker/grill has air vents, you need to experiment with how to adjust them so that you can regulate your heat to around 225 degrees. As already stated, air flow plays a huge role in how long your fuel burns as well as how hot it burns. Learning how the vents work for your particular smoker/grill is the key to a successful smoke.
Good luck and no matter what happens . . . don't give up!