One author’s guide to the business of writing
by Janet Mills
Published authors have a variety of experiences getting from first draft to first contract, a process that can take several years. The following tips come from lessons I’ve learned during my own journey. Every writer’s adventure is unique.
1) Write about something for which you feel strongly. If your idea fails to hold your own interest, it probably won’t sustain you through the process of completing a writing project. What are you passionate about? What kinds of people intrigue you? Create characters, plots, and settings that mean something to you, and you’ll have a better chance of following them through to the end.
2) Know where you’re headed and have some ideas about how you’ll get there, but be willing to change if a better idea comes along. Some authors make a detailed outline of their story and follow it closely. Others write general notes and refer to them often. Some fly by the seat of their pants, pretending to know what’s going to happen in their story then acting surprised when it goes in strange and wonderful directions. When the latter happens, it can be an incredible feeling. Athletes talk about being “in the zone.” Writers have a zone too. Characters can often take unexpected detours along the way to telling their stories, and I suggest you let them, within the boundaries of your story’s premise.
3) Don’t worry about perfection in your first draft. Write as the words come to you. Try not to obsess about what you’ve written until a scene or chapter is finished. Let your muse take you to a realistic stopping point, then go back and work on the content and mechanics. One writer I know believes it helps to read over her work in a different place than where she wrote it. Some writers will wait until the very end of a book to edit it. Some edit as they go. Some get stuck on a bad sentence and fret about it into the wee hours of the morning. When the latter happens to me, I tell myself to “just walk away.” A break from your story may help revive your motivation to keep going.
Some writers prefer not to stop for a break at the end of a scene or chapter because it’s harder for them to get back into the flow of they story if they didn’t leave it at an exciting point. If stopping in the middle of action (or after writing the first couple sentences or paragraphs of the next scene or chapter) helps you get back into the story the next time you visit it, that may well be the best stopping place for you.
4) Have a consistent place for your writing. Some authors face a blank wall when working, allowing fewer things to distract them. I listened to a writer at a workshop once who said he isolates himself in a mountain cabin for sixty days and can write a full-length novel in that time. Most of us don’t have that luxury. We have outside jobs, families, and other responsibilities to work around. Find the place, time, schedule, and set-up that best fit you and try to stick to them.
5) Know your characters well. Making character sketches for every character in your story can help you remember each one’s goal, motivation, conflict, appearance, strengths, weaknesses, personality traits, etc. Each of your characters needs to be three-dimensional in order to be real to your reader. Keep the character sketches nearby and refer to them often as you’re writing. I like to visualize my characters’ looks, then find pictures in magazines or catalogs that come close, and clip the pictures to the character sketches.
6) If you aren’t familiar with the writing process, consider taking a course on creative writing at your local community college, or join an online course. Spend time reading current offerings within the genre in which you are writing (ie: romance, western, sci-fi), so you can see what kinds of stories are selling in today’s market.
7) Join or start a critique group. Take a deep breath and solicit comments from others. Family and friends can be terrific support, but if you think you could be overly sensitive to what they tell you when you say “Be honest, I can take it” then find people less involved in your life. If that is difficult in your local area, consider joining a group online, and swap chapters via e-mail. Constructive criticism from outside parties is vital. I find working with two to three others very beneficial. If more than one person gives me the same feedback, it feels valid and I’m more likely to do what is suggested.
8) Do your homework before you submit a query letter, synopsis, partial or complete manuscript to an agent, editor, or publisher. The market is very competitive. Whether you want to contact a large or small company, one that’s famous or a fledgling in the publishing world, you need to know who they are, what types of books they publish or represent (or what type of authors they publish or represent), their criteria for new authors, how they accept submissions, their turnaround time (when you can expect to hear back from them), and other information. Present yourself professionally. Editors often move from one publishing house to another. The more you know about who you’re contacting, the better you will appear to them, and the more favorable your chances.
The most important thing is to WRITE! Try to devote at least fifteen minutes a day to writing. Think of it as exercise for your creativity. Some days the words will flow easily and you will feel wonderful about your progress. Other days it will be painful just to get a few words down, and you may end up discouraged. Don’t give up if you have a story to tell. Every writer goes through her own ups and downs. Always coming back to a worthwhile project is a true sign of a writer. Best of luck!