Advice to Writers

Every once in a while, I get asked for advice on how to get started writing.  Mostly, this comes from friends and coworkers, who have an interest in writing and since I love to talk about it, they ask questions.  I try to offer good advice, based on my own experiences and research.

Anyway, here’s a version (edited to protect any names) of what I tell them.  Comments are welcome; am I giving good advice?  Should I just shut up?  (Yeah, right.)

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Your concern is a very real one and frankly, there’s no sure method to avoid it.  [JP: When they state they are concerned they may work hard and get nothing back from it.]  This business is as much about the luck of the draw as anything – of catching the editor/publisher on just the right day, when your work really connects with them.  You might end up with something that you can’t sell.  But would it be a waste of time?  A lot of people start writing a book.  Very few finish.  It’s an accomplishment.

How serious is this dream of yours?  A lot of the memoirs by published authors state that they work on their writing 4-6 hours a day.  Stephen King said that "Amateurs wake up and wait for inspiration, professionals get up and get to work."  I don’t say this to discourage you, only to present the reality.  Being a writer is a job, like any other and there is a lot of work involved – work that may not pay off right away, if ever.

Here are a couple of pointers:

1) Read voraciously.  Read like you’re a death inmate and books are your last meal.  Books, short stories, journal articles….  Reading a lot does several things for you:
– One, it exposes you to a lot of different styles and author word choices. 
– Two, if you read in the genre which you’re writing in, you get a good sense of what’s hot and not in the market.  Some established authors, like Brown and Clancy, can write about anything and be good to go.  But when trying to break in, it helps to know what’s being read.  For example, if you want to write chick-lit, writing something about vampires (a la the Twilight series) might be helpful.  You’d think that market was saturated but it’s not quite there yet.
– Three, read books on how to write.  You may not agree with everything but there is a lot of good advice and gets you to consider a lot of pointers.

2) Join a critiquing group.  I’m part of several online critiquing groups, where I can submit my work and get other people’s reactions to it.  That helps tell if my characters are realistic, if my plot is non-sensical, or if I am using the same word too often (something I’ve done a few times).  Also, while they can be a terrible time sink, discussion boards on writing provide good info.  Some groups require you review other people’s writing before you can post your own – or that you review a minimum amount of other work, so it is a cost-benefit analysis for you.  I find it useful.  I write speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, & horror), so I don’t know the critiquing groups for your genre – but they must exist.  Troll the web – or even look around locally for a live version.

3) Consider professional editing – but carefully. 
There are professional editing services out there that can – for a hefty sum – review your book and provide you a critique from a "professional."  This can be quite costly ($500-$1000 for a novel is not uncommon).  For your payment, they will do any number of things, from copy editing to offering ideas on character development and tying up loose plot elements, and usually you can buy these services a la carte.  This is slightly different than what I discuss in #6 below, as editing is a precursor to submitting to the publishing house.  I only bring this up because you may run into it during your writing forays.  For myself, I have never used one and cannot see myself ever using one, other than maybe copy editing (grammar, punctuation, etc.), as I never catch my own typos.  I see a lot of these editing sites push their services but to me, the product is a complete unknown.  Many claim to be professional but there is no certification and very few credentials on such a thing – so what makes them an expert?  If they say your main character is un-engaging, that’s only their opinion and you just paid $1K to get it.  You can get a 90% solution from a review site per above.  The opinion isn’t as refined, but you can get multiple views for free (or for a time investment).  I’m not saying it’s useless but consider it carefully, and only after research.  It’s not a requirement to be published, even though some of the services present their product as it were.

4) Know your markets.  Don’t submit romance to a publishing company specializing in kid’s books and don’t submit a techno-thriller to Harlequin Romance novels.  You can buy a Writer’s Market guide, or check one out from the library – but I prefer just to look up things online.  The Market is good but gets outdated way too quickly, as publishers change their requirements or even wants.  When you go to the bookstore, note the publishers and Google their names.  Most major book companies have blurbs about what kind of fiction they publish and what they’re looking for.  Also, you can consider online publishers and e-books.  It’s not an enormous market yet but it is going to get bigger. 

5) Follow submission instructions to the letter.   If I could only offer one piece of advice, this would be it.  Nothing will get your manuscript ash-canned faster than failing to obey the publisher’s directions for submissions.  You can find submission guidelines on every publisher’s website.  Some only accept agented submissions (see #6).  Some only want a page-long synopsis and will request the rest later if interested.  Some want the whole thing.  Some ask for electronic submissions, some want it via snail-mail.  There are font, margin, and page-numbering variations.  Follow … them … all.

The way the process works in all but the smallest publishing houses is via something called the slush pile.  Manuscripts come in and go to the slush pile.  Then, they pass through a pre-reader, who is looking to see if you followed the guidelines and can spell and punctuate properly.  Having been a slush reader for about a year for an e-book publisher, I can tell you that you would be shocked at just how many manuscripts are rejected on this basis – a good third, I bet.  Then it will go to several other readers.  If it does not get a pass from enough of them (or all of them), it never makes it to the final editor.  If it makes it that far, the final editor will take a look and make a decision.  For short stories, the final acceptance rate can be anywhere from 10% to less than 1%.  That includes the 33% bounced for not doing something as simple as following directions. 

If you want the publisher to pay you, make sure you give the publisher precisely what they want.  Double-spaced 12-pt Courier, with one-inch margins and your name/title/page number in the header may feel like a pain in the ass to format but it is the industry standard.  Oh, and don’t right-justify text unless they specifically want it.  I have never seen a publisher that does but almost all warn against it, so enough people must do it.  They want ragged right margins.

6) Money always flows to the author.  If you need to get an agent, the process is a lot like finding a publisher:  find out their interest/wants, and follow their guidelines explicitly.  The benefit of an agent (to a publisher) is that they are a BS-filter for the publisher, and the publisher doesn’t pay for it.  You do, kind of.  An agent can be a great boom in getting you published.  They know the markets and often personally know the publishers.  But they take a percentage of your royalties – usually 10-15%.  Read that closely:  they take royalties, not a fee.  So if they don’t sell your book, they don’t get paid – so it is in their interest to sell to the biggest publisher possible, which translates to more sales, and thus more money for them.  You don’t have to wait; you can get submit to an agent even if your target publisher doesn’t require it.  The agent may be helpful in identifying your ideal market. 

There is one kind of agent to avoid:  the one that requests a fee to get your novel published.  99% of the time, these people are scammers.  They have no incentive to get you published once you’ve paid them.  Legitimate agents, like legitimate realtors, never take money up front.  The phrase "money always flows to the author" is all you need to remember.  Research, research, research an agent before you submit to them or sign anything.

Recognize that most of the advice I gave has little to do with writing a book.  It’s like any other product:  salesmanship gets it sold.  If you read Crichton, Brown, Clancy, Patterson, and Cussler, then you know what kind of story gets sold.  Writing it and getting in good shape is just the first step.  As you go through this, you will get a lot advice from a lot of people.  Take it all with a grain of salt – including everything I just told you.  It’s advice, not the holy word.  The closest thing I would say to an absolute is #5.  Be flexible, be optimistic.

Once you start submitting, you will get rejections.  It’s inevitable.  Don’t fold, and don’t give up, regardless of what happens.  Keep a stiff upper lip and stay positive.  I get about fifteen rejections for every short story I sell.

Hope that was helpful.  If you have any more specific questions, I will try to answer them.

G’luck!

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