If you’re an aspiring writer, congratulations! The journey you’ve chosen will be one of the most fulfilling you will travel. Read on for frequently asked questions about starting a writing career.
Question: I’d like to write a book, but where do I begin?
Stephanie: My advice is to take a trip to your local bookstore or library and browse the reference section for ‘how-to’ books on writing. Start with the basics: plotting, setting, dialogue, characterization, etc. Also, consider subscribing to a writer’s magazine which will expose you to all types of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, so you can better decide where you’d like to make your mark.
Question: Where can I turn for support and advice?
Stephanie: You might consider taking a creative writing class at a local university (or even on-line) to improve your skills and to meet other writers. I strongly advise you to join a national writing organization and a locally affiliated chapter to begin educating yourself about the industry. There are organizations for specific genres, such as Romance Writers of America for women's fiction, Sisters in Crime for mystery writers, or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators if you’re interested in writing for the youth market. Writing magazines often list such organizations and their contact information. You might also do a search on-line to find writers organizations that appeal to you.
Question: What are the biggest mistakes that beginning writers make?
Stephanie: There are three big ones. First, by not reading in the genre in which they’re trying to be published–i.e., trying to write a romance novel, but not having read very many romances. A writer has to be familiar with the market he/she is trying to break into. Second, by not targeting their submission to the appropriate publisher. A writer should be familiar with the types of books different publishing houses publish and find out which editor within the publishing house should receive their submission, else it might disappear into the black hole of misdirected submissions. And the third mistake? Not finishing the book. A writer can learn so much about their strengths and weaknesses by taking an idea to completion.
Question: How do I make contact with a publisher/editor?
Stephanie: At the bookstore and library you’ll find a book called The Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books), which will list every publisher and what they do and do not buy, including the protocol for submitting ideas. (For instance, some publishers will accept only agented submissions. Others will accept unagented submissions, but only if you send a query letter first. Still others would prefer that you send in a synopsis of your idea and three chapters.) Many publishing houses also provide writing guidelines on their websites. Another way to make contact with editors is to attend writers conferences, which are typically sponsored by national writing organizations. At the conferences, you might have the opportunity to interview with an editor and pitch your idea face-to-face.
Question: How did you get your break?
Stephanie: I did everything I’m advising: I studied writing magazines and how-to books, then I joined a national writers group and became involved in a local writing chapter and in a critique group. I researched the market and submitted to publishers, and received lots of rejections. Then I met an editor at a conference in an interview, pitched her the idea for one of my manuscripts I thought was appropriate for the type of books she edited, and she asked me to submit it. I did, and that manuscript was my first sale. There are few shortcuts in this business, but to increase your odds of writing a sellable-book, it’s vital to learn everything you can about the craft, to write and revise and get better, and to study the industry. Writing is a business–there is so much more to being a successful writer than simply writing a good book (which isn’t so simple, by the way).
Question: Do I need an agent?
Stephanie: If you’re just starting out, then no. Your time is much better spent on honing your writing skills. In most cases, it’s more difficult to procure an agent than an editor because an editor might be willing to take a gamble on one book, but an agent (whose income depends on how much money his/her clients generate) has to be convinced that you’re serious about writing long-term. My advice is not to consider looking for an agent until you are receiving ‘positive’ or personal rejection letters from editors. Signing an agent is a very personal decision, and one you should consider carefully. Joining writing organizations where you can network with other writers who do and do not have agents is extremely helpful when weighing this decision.
Question: Are there any scams I should be aware of?
Stephanie: Yes! Beware of ‘vanity’ publishers who offer to buy your book, then present you with a bill for production costs. A legitimate publisher will pay you for your story. And if you’re looking for a book doctor to critique your manuscript, check the person’s credentials and/or send a sample of your work for critiquing to see if the feedback is helpful before you commit to higher fees. (One way to get free feedback is to join a writers group and seek critique partners among your peers, like I did.) Also, be wary of agents who charge reading fees. And there are no legal requirements for becoming a literary agent, so research an agent thoroughly before you put your career in their hands. Don’t put much faith in an agent who returns your work, but tells you to call them if you sell it on your own and they will negotiate the contract–your agent should be doing more for you than negotiating a contract.
Question: How long will it take before I’m published?
Stephanie: The timeline for being published varies greatly. We sometimes hear of overnight wonders who stumble into gazillion-dollar deals, but most often a writer will toil for several years before selling their first book, then toil for several more years before earning enough to live on. Think of it this way: Most people spend at least four years in college preparing themselves for an occupation. You should give yourself at least that long to learn your craft. Barring sheer luck, only the strong and the committed survive because the competition is so keen. And you might decide to bypass the gate-keepers of the industry and self-publish your book—you have so many options these days. Just know you have to be thick-skinned and determined to become a self-supporting writer. Are you up to the challenge? I hope so, because it’s the most rewarding career I can imagine!