by Dame Devon
I get a lot of emails from writers just starting out who want to know the basics of beginning a writing career. The steps, process, and work it takes to go from idea to submitted novel, can get a little muddy. So here are the basic, and in my opinion the most common, steps you can take to get your career off the ground.
1. Read widely in and outside your genre. If you haven’t read outside your genre, you are doing yourself a disservice. Pay attention to the words, the pacing, dialogue, plotting. Pay attention to the emotional cues and how writers show details through the character’s perspectives, emotions, and reactions. (This is part of the old Show Don’t Tell advice.)
Type out a couple paragraphs from a favorite writer. Feel their word choices drip off your fingertips? Feel the pacing? How they choose longer sentences, and mix it up with shorter bits? Nice, right? Do you notice the sentence fragments? Can you feel the dialogue switching from character to character? See how it all fits together and moves from one idea to the next? Try some of that in your writing.
2. Finish your novel. There is no magic short cut, and there is no such thing as a book that flows like honey from start to finish. We all sweat and doubt and groan. We all alternately love and hate our projects. We all worry it won’t be good enough. That doesn’t change, so you might as well get used to it. This is your job. You, and only you can finish your novel.
Once it’s done, go back over your novel once or twice, checking for clunky bits, logic, plot, pacing, and clear characterization. Then let go of it. I mean that. Get it in hands of educated readers you have talked to, and have told what kind of critique/feedback you are looking for. Find educated readers by joining a writer’s group in your area. Check if the library has writing groups or book clubs. Try your local new or used bookstore. Look for writing conferences in your area. Attend one of these and see if it’s a good fit for you and your writing. Try going to a conference or a fan convention. You can find links to them on line. Conferences and conventions usually have a writing track with professionals speaking on panels, teaching, or critiquing in small groups.
3. Research agents and editors. Read agent, editor, and writer blogs. Read publisher websites. Read the acknowledgment sections in the front of books to see if an editor or agent is mentioned. Find agents and editors who are interested in stuff you write. Find agents and editors who might not mention they’re interested in the stuff you write, but you like how they present themselves and handle their clients.
Find out if they’re going to conferences, conventions, events in your area. Attend, and for heaven’s sake, be polite. Saying hello, or asking a quick question or two after a panel or signing is a great idea. Following people into the bathroom and cornering them with your manuscript is a really, really bad idea. They will remember you, and not in the way you want. Agents talk to other agents, editors talk to other editors. Don’t be their subject du jour.
Always check if an agent, editor, publisher is legitimate by using sources such as Writer Beware, and Predators and Editors. If you join a writer’s group, talk to the other writers about what they have heard about agents and editors. Writers talk to each other too.
4. Learn to write a cover letter, query, synopsis, and outline. Look for examples for how to write those on editor and agent websites and blogs. Dame Jackie did a nice three-part breakdown here. No, it’s not like writing a novel. Yes, it’s hard. Is that going to stop you? You’re a writer. Your business is writing. Do it. No one else is going to do this for you. No one’s going to write your query, mail stuff out for you, or research who is the right person for you to query or submit to. That’s all up to you.
Remember, there’s no one way to write a query or synopsis. The most important thing is that it makes your book sound exciting, interesting, engaging. It’s a sales tool, not a dictionary entry. Think of it like a movie trailer and explain your book in the query or synopsis like you’re talking to an audience excited for the event (your book) that they are about to experience. Read the back of books, or inside of hard back cover flats to get some ideas about how to hit on the important, interesting bits of your book. When you do submit your query or book, follow the agent and editor guidelines.
5. Rinse, repeat. I’m not kidding. This is your career. Don’t wait on someone else to keep it rolling forward. Go forward on your own. Start that next book. Write a short story, find ten more agents and editors you want to submit to. Then brush off your query letter, roll up your sleeves, and do it again.
Five easy, common sense steps to get your career off the ground. And yes, they are also five time consuming, frustrating, and confusing steps. It’s easy to get turned around about what’s important: should you write or spend time researching agents? Is it better to spend money on attending a conference or on a subscription to Publishers Weekly? Only you can decide.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s OK. No, it’s more than OK. It’s normal. Every published writer started out not knowing how to write and finish a book, find a critique partner, research an agent or editor, or write a query or synopsis. You don’t have to know it all right now. But you can start learning, start trying, start doing. We all did it. I know you can too.
And yes, there is a step six.
6. Keep working, keep learning, keep believing. Be patient with yourself, and don’t ever, ever give up on your dream.
And if you have some useful links you’d like to share with us, or any questions about the steps I’ve mentioned, please let us know in the comments. I’ll be checking back often today, and would love to talk to you!
Check out our useful links for Writers
and our useful links for Readers