Writers are frequently asked the following question. "What is your advice for aspiring authors?”
The question motivated me to write this article, since I do have a few pieces of advice, things I wish I’d understood as a beginning novelist. I learned the hard way that having heard the advice is not the same as really understanding what it means.
Even with the opportunities today [self-publishing, eBooks, and many more small POD publishers] which didn’t exist when I began writing, breaking into fiction writing and publishing is hard enough when an aspiring author has a good mentor. Without one, a person can waste a lot of time learning hit-and-miss.
Please note I’m this is aimed at beginning popular-fiction novelists. I’m not qualified to give advice regarding short stories, poetry, and very literary works. I have done a lot of non-fiction, professional writing, and I know from experience it is a different kind of writing.
MY TWO CENTS FOR ASPIRING NOVELISTS
Other than the first, these are not in any particular order. Some are sequential, but many of them happen at the same time.
You mean now?
Never think you’re too old or too young. Too busy. Don’t put it off. The “right time” never comes.
Set aside the time to write, and stick with it, in spite of your family. Don’t allow interruptions. Your family may never understand, so you must make it happen. However you do it, you need to insist on not letting the rest of your life interfere with your writing time. It may only be ten or fifteen minutes a day, but
do it. It’s up to you. It helps to make it as convenient and comfortable as possible.
1) Get a Timer and use it. Buy a kitchen timer and set it for the time you’ve allotted for writing. If you have several hours for writing, use it as a reminder to get up and move around every so often.
2) Set up a comfortable writing environment. We don’t always have the luxury to have our own writing space, but try to make yours as comfortable, and private, as possible. Avoiding interruptions is very important.
3) Invest in a good chair. Set your computer keyboard at the right height. Take whatever steps possible to encourage good posture and ergonomically proper positions.
It takes me about forty minutes to really get in the zone when I’m writing new material. That’s when my husband comes into my office and says, ”I just want to kiss my lovely wife.” What am I supposed to say to that? Besides, my concentration is already broken, and it will take me another thirty minutes to get back where I was.
Another writer I know used to be a police officer. She was experiencing the same sort of interruptions. Finally, in desperation, she got out her service weapon, a Glock, and placed it on her desk with a sign “Do Not Disturb!” Her family got the picture.
● Learn the craft of writing
There is no substitute for learning the craft of writing. You may think you know it now, but most people still have a lot to learn.
In addition to English grammar, spelling, and punctuation, you need to learn the components of a novel, how to plot, how to develop characters, structure, pacing, view point, establishing tension, creating an ambiance, and a lot more. There are several ways to learn the craft.
2) Join a few good writer’s groups on-line that focus on craft and sharing with other writers.
3) Read books on writing craft and use the knowledge.
4) Join a professional writing organization. It’s preferable to know what you want to write and join the appropriate organization, but you can learn from any of them.
5) Join a critique group with other writers. These can be online or in person. Personally, I like the face to face because I believe you learn more.
6) Enter writing contests for the feedback on your work. [There are also pros and cons of entering contests.]
7) Read, Read, Read. Very important. Good writers are readers. I usually read the kind of books I am writing at the time. Other authors don ‘t so they won’t copy anyone’s ideas unintentionally. What you read is up to you, but it never hurts to read in all genres, just to know what’s getting published.
8) WRITE, WRITE, WRITE. MOST IMPORTANT. The more you write and put into practice what you are learning, the better you get. Don’t ever think you know everything, because you won’t. There is always something else to learn, and refreshers never hurt either.
● Learn to take criticism
It’s no fun, but to learn you have to hear the bad news along with the good, and you have to learn the difference between useful and hurtful criticism. This is the reason to be cautious about groups you join and people you ask for opinions and input.
P.S. I find that venting to my critique group is a good way to get it off my chest under these circumstances.
● Be persistent and never get discouraged
Easy to say, hard to do. You have to keep at it, no matter what, but along with that, be honest with your expectations. Don’t expect to win the first few contests you enter or sell the first thing you send out. You might -- that does happen -- but don’t set your heart on it. There’s a word for writers with persistence: Published.
● Know your market
Even as a beginner, a writer should try to decide what kind of book he/she wants to write. Is it a traditional mystery? A Romance [by genre definition where romance drives the story]? A Suspense novel? Do you know the different between a mystery and a thriller?
Read the kind book you aspire to write. If you change your mind later, that’s okay, but you’ll be further along if you know what you are writing. It allows you to read in that genre, study the themes that are popular (and sell), the length, the view points, etc. Your book may not end up the way you envisioned at the start, but having an idea before you start will save time and angst.
This is important because sooner or later you have to identify your audience -- the people who will not only buy your book, but read and enjoy it. Efforts are more successful if you target something and concentrate on that. In fiction writing, knowing your audience helps you focus on the features the particular audience wants or is interested in.
● Read, Read, Read
● Be cautious who you take advice from
This is more important than it may sound. Be cautious of an English teacher who says, “Oh, you’re such a good writer, you should write a novel. This will sell.” Being a good English teacher doesn’t mean the person knows the current publishing market, how to write a book, what’s selling, or how to tell a story. The person might know all that, but don’t assume anything. Be sure he/she has the credentials before you take their word for it or follow their advice about what to do with your story, unless it is specifically related to the class you’re taking. Then you do what the teacher tells you to do.
Take your advice from other writers and people who know the craft and the business. Network. That’s part of the reason for joining a professional writer’s organization, being in a critique group, and participating in an on-line writer’s community. Still, be aware you’ll still get conflicting advice. Authors, editors, and agents don’t all agree with each other, but at least they are in the business.
● Don’t expect writing to be easy
Writing is hard work, whether you write a good book or a bad one, but it’s worth it if you are truly a writer.
● Don’t parrot what happened in real life
Your story has to work as a piece of fiction. Maybe in real life the situation played out in a certain way, but if the action/resolution doesn't work with the story or the reader doesn’t believe it, it doesn’t matter. Real life is often “unbelievable” and sometimes it’s pretty dull. Remember, you are writing fiction, even if it is based on reality, and the story has to work as fiction.
Learn all you can about your computer and the software you intend to use. Learn how to use the internet, how to use the editing and writing programs, and how to submit electronically. Otherwise, you will go nuts.
Plus, you can waste a lot of time fighting with your computer and/or printer. [I have an adversarial relationship with my printer, no matter what kind I have.]
You should be able to write long hand as well as on the computer. Always have something with you, tablet and pen, laptop, items to edit, whatever. Use whatever time is available to write. If you how you have to wait, bring something to work on. Today’s options include voice recording for both telling and for converting recorded material to the written word. Find what works for you, but be versatile and don't waste any of your time.
● Learn to “write by the rules” first
You need to know what the “rules” are before you break them, and when you break them, it should be on purpose for a particular reason, not because of ignorance.
● Finish the book
Don’t get stuck in a constant rewriting mode. Some people end up writing the first chapters over and over. It’s a trap. Keep going and finish the book. Then go back and edit, fine-tune, rewrite―whatever it takes to make the novel work. Finish first. You may find your novel starting in a completely different place in the story.
● Learn to Edit
Editing is a skill of its own. You have to self-edit first, but eventually It’s preferable to have another set of eyes take a look. Sometimes the author has been over the manuscript so many times that errors get passed over. Edit for storyline and believability as well as grammar and spelling. Polish your work as best as possible before submitting.
P.S. If you plan to self-publish, bite the bullet and hire a good editor. You'll be glad you did.
● Submit your work
Your novel will never get published if it remain in a box under your bed. After editing and polishing the manuscript, you have to send it out to editors and agents. But do your homework. Follow the format and submission guidelines exactly. Editors and agents have lots to choose from and are looking for reasons to turn you down. Also, consider submitting your work to contests. The feedback can be helpful.
When you submit, you have to expect some rejections. That’s okay. You learn from the experience. However, don’t lose your confidence because the work has been rejected. It may have nothing to do with your work. The publisher may have too many manuscripts in that genre. The book may be great, but the publisher doesn’t print that genre. Or it may have too many problems to fix. Learn how to extract useful feedback from rejections and use it to improve your work.
● Approach writing as a business
If you are serious about a career writing, you must approach writing as a business and treat it like you would a paying job. You go to work every day and perform your tasks, whether or not you feel like it. Otherwise, writing is a hobby. That’s okay―you can still be published and sell books―but your expectations, goals, and priorities will be different. Other aspects of your life will take priority, and what happens will happen.
● Be sincerely supportive of others
Most of us can’t be successful authors without support and encouragement from others, in good times and bad. If you are there for other authors, they will be there for you.
● Pay your dues
Some choices are smarter than others, but there are no real short cuts. As Jennie Crusie said at a national RWA Writers Conference, “There are many roads to success; some of them just take longer.”□
Note about Sources
I didn’t do any research for this article. It is based purely on my own experience although, Lord knows, I’ve read plenty of interviews and articles on Advice to Aspiring Writers over the years. I didn’t read any of the references below, but I list them as other sources for the reader to look at and compare. I’d put money on your finding many repeats among the articles.
Other articles on Advice to Aspiring Writers:
Other articles on Advice to Aspiring Romance Writers: