A text-only version of this post appeared in my GoodReads blog on August 23, 2010. I think it’s still applicable today. Enjoy!
My first book, Born of War … Dedicated to Peace, was published in 1995. I was a newspaper editor at the time, having already worked my way up the ladder as a reporter. Since then, I’ve sold a novel in two different markets (US and UK), self-published two volumes of essays, and have a publisher waiting for a memoir. Frankly, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember.
I have never forgotten some advice given to my first journalism class by the professor: “I cannot make you a good writer; you either are one, or you aren’t.” Half of the class dropped out after that.
I’m not kidding.
Here are some of the things I learned along the way that have helped me as an author. I share these to help my fellow writers along the way.
Grammar matters. If you aren’t sure about a word, look it up in the dictionary. If you aren’t sure about grammar, get a good primer. There are a lot of them out there. Get a good proofreader, too; don’t rely on your spell checking software. Book publishers don’t have time to clean up after you. If your story is good, but your grammar is horrible, you’re going to get a nice, generic rejection letter and that’s about it.
Detailed rejection letters are worth their weight in gold. If you get a rejection letter that tells you exactly what’s wrong with your manuscript, take it to heart. It means that someone took the time to tell you something besides “thanks, but no thanks.” Chances are just about 100 percent that the advice will make your manuscript stronger.
Facts matter, too. Someone in your audience will know if you got it wrong. Trust me.
Not everyone will like your story. If we all liked the same things, there would only be one book, one painting, one symphony, etc., in all of the world. Grow a thick skin. Write because you love it, not because you expect universal praise, laud and honor. Readers’ tastes are subjective; there are plenty of people out there who like books that make me groan in agony. I’d be willing to bet that some of my favorite books do the same to others.
If you want to be a good writer, become a voracious reader. You will start to see what works, and why. After you finish a particular book, or even as you are reading, ask yourself what is working for you. Do you believe what the author is telling you about a particular character or situation? How are they drawing you into the story? How is language used to create an impression? To show you what is going on? Read with a critical eye so that you can understand how to make your own writing better.
Take a writing workshop or course. Not only will you make contacts, but you will learn from others. People will critique your manuscript and help you improve it. Again, don’t get into this looking for universal praise, laud and honor — you want people to show you where the plot holes, continuity problems and yes, grammatical issues lie.
Publishing is a business. As my co-author on Born of War said to me a while back, it’s not about whether your writing is brilliant or not. It’s about what the average person will buy at the store. If an acquisitions editor has one or two “dogs,” they’re looking at a pink slip. So, no — the acquisitions person is not going to “give you a break” because you’re a teenager, have a disability of some kind, couldn’t afford a proofreader, or anything else. They care about whether your book is going to make them money. Period.
No one gets rich as an author. It takes a long time to cash out an advance (meaning that the amount of royalties coming into the publisher have now paid off the company’s initial investment in you and you get a royalty check). Most new authors sell fewer than 100 copies of their books, and publishers know this.
Self-publishing is no guarantee of success. Again, most new authors sell fewer than 100 copies of their books.
You need a platform. How are you marketing your books? Where are you pitching them? Even mainstream publishers seldom put money into promoting new authors nowadays; they expect you to do it. Be prepared to use social media (e.g., GoodReads, Facebook, etc.) to pitch your work.
There is enough success out there for everyone. I think that says it all.
(All images used in this post are in the public domain.)