Why do you write?
I’ve led creative writing classes and done presentations on writing, and experience has taught me that most people know if they’re writers or not. A few are writers who discover their talent later in life, but for the most part, writing is either something you dread doing or something you are driven to do.
Consequently, there’s not much I can say to get you from the I-Dread-Writing camp into the I-Can’t-Stop-Writing camp, except to offer the tips below, and to ask you, why do you really want to change affiliations, and what do you expect as a result of the change? (If that sounds like the psychologist in me peeking out, my apologies. I regress occasionally.)
That said, what people ask most from me are tips on writing better, writing more, getting over writer’s block, and selling their writing. I’ll address the How to Get Published topic in a little bit. But first, a few…
Write the story within you. Most writers will tell you to write the book that’s in you right now, the book you think about every waking minute, the book you have no choice about writing. Don’t write the book your publisher wants, or the book your mother wants, or the book that’s guaranteed to make the New York Times bestsellers list. If it’s not the book that is kicking and screaming to get out of your head and onto paper, you’ll only wind up being disappointed in it, and it probably won’t please your publisher, your mother, or anyone at the New York Times. Hand in hand with that goes…
Believe in yourself. This is crucial to not only writing well, but selling the book you do write. If it’s too elusive, too overwhelming, or causes you to snort derisively, please consult with a good therapist.
Keep a journal of ideas. You can keep an actual journal or book and write down story ideas, character names, plot twists, and so on. Or you can do what I do which is messier but also works: I write ideas down on slips of paper, backs of envelopes, paper napkins, or anything else I can get my hands on and then keep them all in a box that I call my Idea Box. Whenever I want an idea for a story, or I need some way to develop a plot or I need a character name, I reach into my Idea Box and pull them out. Usually one of them fits. UPDATE: I also use my smartphone for this, writing ideas into a memo or note (Evernote is great for this) and syncing it with my laptop. I name them all starting with “Useful Bits:” and categorize them as “Writing” so I can group them efficiently.
Don’t be afraid to improve. In other words, don’t expect your first writings to be perfect. They won’t be. It’s the nature of growing as a writer. Use each opportunity to write as a chance to develop your craft. A year from now, you’ll look back on your writing and be surprised at how far you’ve come. That’s good: it means you’re growing. The scary part is when you look back at stuff you wrote years ago and it looks exactly like the stuff you wrote yesterday. That means there hasn’t been enough growth. Even published writers aren’t perfect writers. I was first published over thirty years ago and I’m still learning and growing as a writer.
Read writing books. You can find them at any local library if you don’t want to invest in them for your own library. One of the many better ones is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. As a writer, you are an artist, and all artists need to learn their craft from those who have already succeeded. Books about writing will answer a lot of questions about fiction and nonfiction, synopses, characterizations, dialogue, plot, setting, description, and so forth. They are a wellspring of information, so take advantage of them.
Be a prolific reader. The more you read, the more you will see how other successful writers practice their craft, and the more you’ll learn about your own.
Learn to see life from others’ perspectives. Practice this in your everyday life and it will open up new worlds. Maybe you were miffed at the woman driver in the white minivan because she cut you off in the parking lot at Target and stole your space, even though you were waiting patiently with your turn signal on. But what was she thinking? Maybe her version went like this:
Jeez, I’m so sorry, I know you’re waiting for that space, but I have to get inside and get some cough medicine for my son, who’s coughing so hard, there’s blood specks now. I’ll be as quick as I can. I’m so sorry! I had to leave him home with his ten-year-old sister and I don’t trust them home alone. Plus, the furnace repairman is coming in twenty minutes, and I can’t afford another copay at the doctor’s office until payday. Please forgive me for taking your space. Maybe you have a sick child at home, too. So sorry, so sorry! I’m hurrying!
Use your childhood traumas. Did you grow up in a less than idyllic setting? Many writers did. Somehow, childhood trauma and the creative arts go well together. Use it to your advantage. Parents divorced? Death in the family? Child abuse? Frequent moves and no friends? School bullies? Foster care? Family alcoholism or mental illness? If you can answer yes to any of these, first, consider therapy. Then, realize that you know firsthand what sells novels: conflict. You know about betrayal and abandonment, about neglect and abuse and love as a double-edged sword. You’ve seen the dark side of life. Consider it research and use it in your writing. But…
Don’t write your autobiography as a novel. Rarely does this work well in fiction. Creating a fictional character who shares some of the same characteristics is fine, and often successful, but make sure there’s a clear boundary between that character and you.
Avoid procrastination. You can read writing books and take writing classes to improve, but you can also take it to the extreme and hinder your writing. Whether it’s a fear of failure or a fear of success or just coming to the realization that learning about writing is easier than actually doing it, there comes a point where you’ve learned everything you need to know for now and you just need to sit down and write!
Write without editing yourself. I know this goes against what you may have learned in the classroom, but the important thing is first to get down the ideas. After you’ve written your first draft, then you can go back and check spelling, move words or sentences around, correct any grammatical errors, change words, cut stuff out or put new stuff in. Too often, we’re trying to correct our writing before it ever makes it onto the paper, and that can stifle ideas and creativity. Instead, just write first, even if you’re not sure what word to use or how to spell it. You can always mark it and check it later. Often times, I can’t think of the exact word I want to use, but rather than stopping my writing and thinking about it for a long time, I’ll use a similar word and highlight it or use colored text the way I just did. Then later I can go back and figure out that the word I really wanted was ‘synonym.’
Learn the rules before you break them. Yes, you are occasionally allowed to break the rules in fiction. But before you begin sentences with ‘but,’ learn the rules. In nonfiction, journalism, and freelance writing, good grammar is essential. In fiction, you have more leeway, but rule-breaking must always be for a good reason and not just because you can. Picture yourself with a finished manuscript, a contract with a publisher, and an editor who is a former English teacher. If you can provide a really good argument for why you broke a rule in a particular sentence or paragraph, keep it. If not, use correct grammar.
Keep on writing. Use every opportunity to write, whether it’s in a class or not. Lots of people are published but that doesn’t make them good writers. Good writers are hard to come by, and, in an amazing defiance of logic, they don’t always get published. They’re still good writers. Good writing can earn scholarships, win awards, and help you get jobs and promotions. Good writing can help you succeed at whatever you want to do, whether it’s writing for a living or not. Take every chance you have to write, and see it as an investment in your future. It doesn’t matter what you write about. It only matters that you keep writing.
Write through writer’s block. Stuck? Unmotivated? Unfocused? Set a timer for five minutes and do a free-write. Just write about anything: classes, family, friends, your social life or lack thereof. Write about not being able to write (this is my favorite). Write about how you feel, how you want to feel, or what it feels like not to feel anything. Describe your difficulty with writing in as much detail as possible. What does it look like? How does it sound? What’s the physical feeling? Write a conversation between you and your writer’s block and make it serious. Humorous. Melodramatic. Hint: this technique also works for research papers and dissertations. If all of that fails, do something entirely different. Go take a walk. Play with a pet. Go out to lunch. Color in a coloring book (seriously, this one works really well). Then come back to your writing with a refreshed mind. If writer’s block is still an issue, or if you just want to know more about it, I highly recommend Around the Writer’s Block by Rosanne Bane.
Endings happen. Every story needs an ending, whether you plan one or just stop writing that story one day. Planned endings are better; your readers will like you for it and will feel a sense of closure with your story. I often begin writing without an ending in mind, just letting the story take me where it will. About halfway through the story, though, I start thinking about the ending. How do I want it to end? Does the good guy win or lose? Does the nice guy finish first or last? Does my main character succeed beyond her wildest dreams, or does she fail miserably? Then I think about how to get there (to the ending) from here (where I am in the story).
I will still use obstacles to make it hard for my protagonist to succeed, but I start working toward whatever I want my ending to be. This works whether my story is one page or one thousand pages. Then, when I have an outstanding idea of something that could happen in the story that I know will mean adding many more pages to the story or changing the ending, I have to make a decision. Sometimes I throw out my old ending and use this new idea to keep the story going. More often, however, I write the idea down and put it in my Idea Box, then keep going with the planned story. This keeps me to my page limits, and allows me to use my great idea with another story. After all, there will always be another story.
- If it’s fiction, finish your manuscript! Interested agents and publishers will sometimes want you to overnight or email them a copy of your manuscript. This is hard to do when you’re not done yet!
- If it’s nonfiction, have a complete table of contents, a sample chapter (preferably an early one), and proposals for the rest of the book.
- Proof your work! I can’t stres enugh how importent good speling is to exceptance for publication. (Point made?)
- Send your manuscript out for honest, unbiased reviews or critiques by people you trust. While it’s nice to hear “I love it! I wouldn’t change a thing!” (what my first peer reviewer said, by the way), that doesn’t help you create a better book. It’s infinitely more helpful to get an eight-page, single-spaced list of questions, corrections, concerns, clarifications, implausibilities, and inconsistencies (what my editor gave me).
My favorite peer reviewer not only wrote her corrections and questions in the margins of the comb-bound version of my manuscript, she also wrote notes to the characters and occasional asides that weren’t meant for their ears. I had to read it through once just to enjoy her comments, and later read it through to make changes based on her suggestions. (You can bet I’ll be asking her to read my next book too!)
- Be realistic. If you’re the only one who loves your book, maybe you should keep it for your personal library alone.
- Remember that your work is not you. This is one of the hardest things for a writer to do, because what you’re putting out there is from within you. But when an agent, editor, or publisher rejects your work, they’re rejecting the work, not you as a person. Maybe the next book you submit will be the one they love.
It used to be there were two ways to get published: traditional publishing, where you find an agent who will then find you a large or mid-sized publisher, or go with what’s generally called a “vanity press,” named because originally, the only people who used them were those whose work was unacceptable to agents/publishers, and were seen by the publishing industry as seeking publication only out of vanity.
That’s all changed.
Now there are small, independent publishers, self-publishers, and a whole new muddied field of publishers who, at various times, claim to be Print on Demand, “full-service” digital publishers, fee-based publishers, book packagers, and descriptions I’m sure I haven’t even heard of.
There’s an easy way to sort them out. I’m going to use the term “vanity publisher” to describe the fee-based publishers because that’s what they were called when I entered the business, and because that already has a negative association (as it rightfully should).
So, in a nutshell, if you’re out shopping your manuscript, here’s the biggest red flag to watch out for:
If they ask you to send them any money at all, for setup, layout, printing, marketing, distribution, etc., they are a vanity publisher. Run away, as fast as you can!
Vanity publishers will ask anywhere from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars (American) to edit, layout, print, market, and distribute your book. What do you get for all your money? You get a low-quality book that everyone can tell is from a vanity publisher, usually only available through that publisher’s web site. Rarely is it available through normal markets, such as libraries, bookstores, or common distributors such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc. Granted, books published through Amazon.com’s CreateSpace are sold on Amazon.com, but most bookstores refuse to carry them.
A vanity publisher will ask for your money before they even look at your manuscript. In fact, on one company’s home page, they say that it will cost a minimum of $299 to get published. Will you get books to sell once you’re published by them? No. You will, after paying them to publish your book, have to then buy the book from them, usually at retail price. You typically don’t even get it at wholesale, much less “at cost.”
A quote from one of the vanity publisher’s web sites makes the risk enormously clear: “Only in a very small percentage of cases are sales sufficient for authors to recoup the entire sum paid for production of the work.”
So what is self-publishing, then?
True self-publishing means you start your own business. It means you become a publisher. You register a business name. You check with your municipality to make sure you won’t violate zoning ordinances by working or selling books from your home (if you work at home). You purchase a block of ISBN numbers from Bowker. (You can buy one at a time, but every publisher, bookseller, bookstore buyer, reviewer, etc. knows that a publisher with only 10 ISBNs is a self-publisher, and they often won’t review/carry the book. Also, if you want to do both a paper and ebook version, you’ll need at least two ISBNs.) You are responsible for hiring an editor, a book designer (layout, cover design), an illustrator if necessary, a marketing firm, a printer, a distributor, and possibly an accountant.
Is that a lot of work? You bet!
Is it right for everyone? No.
One of the buzzwords bandied around lately is “Print on Demand.” Just to shake things up a bit, “print on demand” can mean several things. In its most obvious definition, it’s the ability to print one book at a time, as needed. It’s the use of digital printing to place a single book in the hands of a single buyer, rather than traditional offset presses, which require making plates and running a print run in the thousands.
But many vanity presses these days are using the term “print on demand” to describe their services too. I’ve found that the most accurate description of printing a single book through the use of digital technology is “digital printing.”
Digital printing is used by the big publishers too, especially when they want to test-market a new author/title, branch out into a new genre, try out a new imprint, or release a niche-market book. Anything where they want to contain their investment in case it doesn’t work out.
With any choice you make about your manuscript, there are advantages and risks, costs and benefits. What you want to do with your books, how you want to sell them, who your audience is, and where you want to be in five or ten years will determine whether self-publishing, vanity publishing, working with a small press, or traditional publishing through an agent and an established publisher is the best bet for you.
When most people think of traditional publishing, they think of the Big Five New York publishers. (It used to be the Big Six, but Random House merged with Penguin in 2013, so that the once separate companies of Viking, Penguin, Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, and Random House are now all one big happy family.) However, small presses, non-profit presses, and university presses are also part of the traditional publishing scene, as long as they do not ask for money (or require the author to buy a certain number of published books—what’s called a “book buy”) from the author. The advantage to working with a small, non-profit, or university press is that you’re typically dealing with a smaller operation in general, which means you’re going to get more one-on-one time with the people who can actually make publishing decisions.
Depending on how your contract is written (and with a small press, you have a better chance of negotiating your contract), you may get a say on what the book cover looks like, or whether or not the publisher keeps your title. I can’t tell you how many times other authors have told me that they can’t stand their book cover, but they had no say in the design of it. How hard do you suppose it is for them to sell their books at a signing or reading when they don’t even like looking at it?
The downside to working with a small press is that you may not get an advance, and they won’t have the marketing budget that the big guys do. On the other hand, most small presses know this, and they often offer a better royalty rate than the big guys. It’s not unheard of for authors to get a full 50% of net sales for ebooks, and as much as 25% of net sales for print books.
The hardest thing about traditional publishing is breaking into it. Most big publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, and the only ones they do solicit are from reputable literary agents. Meanwhile, many reputable literary agents are not taking on new, unknown writers. It’s like a Catch-22: you need to be an established writer to get published, but you need to be published to become an established writer.
Lots of published writers have lots of things to say about how best to beat this Catch-22, so I’ll only add my two cents’ worth:
- Write an awesome and very professional query letter. Remember to proofread for errors! Get feedback on it if you’re unsure how it may be received. Good examples of query letters can be found in Writer’s Market.
- Write down the names of literary agents acknowledged in books similar to yours. Even if they, themselves, aren’t taking on new clients, they may be willing to refer you to someone who is.
- Get up-to-date information on these agents and other agents who specialize in the genre or type of book you’ve written from the most current annual editions of:
- Literary Market Place
- Writer’s Market
- Guide to Literary Agents
All should be available in your local library’s reference section, or online with an subscription.
- Send your query—do not send your manuscript yet—to each literary agent on your list. Expect rejections. Expect slow responses. Expect to get a few no-responses-at-all. Hope for one or two requests to see your manuscript.
- If requested, send your manuscript in the format asked for by the agent. Some want a hard copy. Some want it sent as a PDF (Portable Document File) via email. To create PDFs, you may need to invest in a copy of Adobe Acrobat.
What do you do when your initial round of queries come back without a single nibble? Start over and go through it again with different agents.
Once you find an agent who will take on your book, he or she will shop it around to various publishers. With luck, the next item of business is the book contract. Which leads to this suggestion:
- Become book contract savvy. Buy a copy of Kirsch’s Guide to the Book Contract by Jonathan Kirsch, or Negotiating a Book Contract by Mark Levine. Both authors are attorneys who break down the standard book contract, highlight potential problems, and offer suggestions on how to negotiate better terms.
- Remember the publishing industry standard: big publishers spend 90% of their resources on 10% of their authors. This particularly applies to promotion and marketing. Once you have a signed book contract and a proposed release date, start promoting it like crazy! Your publisher will most likely not do much in the way of promoting it for you.
An author friend of mine (and retired physician), Larry Savett, wrote a book called The Human Side of Medicine. His book was published by a traditional publisher, through the traditional process. And he said he was shocked to discover that his publisher had spent a grand total of about $14.00 on marketing his book — and then subtracted that amount from his next royalty check.
- Take a moment to enjoy the process. If you’ve gotten through the book contract and are into marketing and promotion, you may find yourself working harder than you ever did while writing, but keep in mind: you’re a published (or soon-to-be-published) author! Enjoy it!