A basic course in the steps to becoming a professional writer
- Decide why you want to be a writer.
Possible reasons—fame, fortune, impress your friends and family, a job without a dress code or meetings or timecards, a love of writing, stories in the back of your head that beg to be told. But if you’re going to find success at this career, you’d better have a healthy dose of the last two reasons.
- Make time to write every day, and find a place to do it. Set up a schedule and stick to it.
- Figure out what your skills are, and write in ways that will showcase them. Figure out what your weaknesses are, and find ways to improve them.
- Set some short-term and long-term goals. Evaluate your progress regularly.
Writing What You Love
Most bestselling writers were enthusiastic readers first. Before you can write a book, you need to know what a book should offer readers to be successful. The best way to do that is to write what you love to read—that way you have an instinctive understanding of reader expectations and genre conventions.
Learning the Basics
- Story Structure
Forming a Critique Group
When you’re trying to become a writer, it’s hard to figure out if your words are having the effect you’d anticipated on your reader. The only way to test this is to give your works in progress to readers, and ask them what they think. It’s tough to find readers at a moment’s notice. But if you form a critique group and select the members carefully, you have not only readers for your material who can give you valuable feedback, but you have readers who are also writers, and they may be able to help you find fixes for any problems you run into. Not only that, having regularly scheduled critique meetings requiring a minimum number of finished pages forces beginning writers to write on a schedule, which is both good discipline and good practice for deadlines from publishers. Some good basic rules:
- All members should be serious about writing.
- Members should agree to keep any personal comments and harsh feelings outside the circle of critique meetings.
- Members should be constructive, not destructive, in their critiques.
- Members should be at reasonably similar levels in their writing careers.
- Members should agree to meet regularly.
- Members should agree to bring written material to each session to critique, following group guidelines that set minimum and maximum allowable word counts.
Getting Ready to Sell—The Fine Art Of Connecting And Making The Pitch
When your work is getting polished and your test readers are begging for the next installment, it’s time to start submitting. To do that, you need to know your market.
- First, make sure your stuff is ready to go out. If you start submitting before you’ve learned your craft, you run the risk of burning out prospective buyers in the future. You don’t want someone to remember you as the writer of “that awful submission I read three years ago.” If you need help, get lessons. Gotham Writers Workshop in New York offers online classes, if you can’t find anything useful locally. [www.writingclasses.com]
- Visit your favorite bookstore to check out similar writers. Check to see who is publishing the sort of thing you write. Look at the front matter of appropriate books and/or periodicals, and make a list of publishers with their names and addresses. Check the dedications, looking for thanks to editors and agents. Make a list of editors and agents to target for your own work.
- Check your bookstore for the most current edition of Writer’s Market or the library for the LMP. Look through the listings for your targeted publishers. Check to see what their submission guidelines are, if they are open to looking at new material, and what they expect to get from a new writer. A key phrase to watch for is “unsolicited material.” Until you have an invitation from an editor to send material, your material is unsolicited.
- Follow the listed guidelines to prepare your proposal for submission. Consult reference books on submissions to make sure your proposals are in a standard manuscript format, and be sure to have them proofread before sending them off to your targeted publisher.
- Attend writers’ conferences. These allow you to network with other writers, learns some new tricks, and meet industry professionals like agents and authors. If you handle yourself well, you’ll probably even get an editor or agent agree to let you submit something. Your submission will then move from “Unsolicited” to “Solicited.”
- Enter writing contests. You have a better chance of getting your manuscript looked at if you can say it’s a national contest winner than you do if you’re just sending it in cold.
- Join a writers’ organization, if the kind of writing you do has a support group. Among some of the more active and accessible writers organizations are:
Romance Writers of America (RWA) www.rwanational.com
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) www.sfwa.org
Mystery Writers of America (MWA) www.mysterywriters.org
Novelists, Inc, (NINC) www.ninc.com
The Authors Guild www.authorsguild.com
Sisters in Crime www.sistersincrime.org
The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) www.asja.org
You probably do need an agent, but good agents are hard to get. In most cases, you’ll probably have to sell your first couple of books on your own if you want a shot at a good agent. But it’s perfectly reasonable to look for an agent and a publisher at the same time. An agent can get your work on the desk of editors who won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, keep an eye on publishing opportunities, get you work in ongoing projects (Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, etc.) Make sure your agent is reputable and has good contacts. Check the agent out with any of the big writers’ organizations, and make sure the agent is a member of AAR—the Association of Authors’ Representatives. [www.publishersweekly.com/aar/]
What’s a Rejection Letter, and How Do I Deal With It?
Types of rejections letters:
- A form rejection letter
- A personal rejection letter
- A personal rejection letter with advice to resubmit after suggested changes are made.
All rejection letters should never be taken personally. They can mean anything from “my desk is too full to read anything else” to “this material should have gone to someone else” to “I have no room on my list” to “this stinks.” Start listening to the personalized letters, especially if they have a repeated theme. A writer who cannot deal with rejection is a writer who won’t last in publishing.
Pitfalls to Watch Out For
Scam artists know that writers are desperate to get published. Be wary of any agent or publisher that asks you for money other than a 15% or less commission on your work once it’s sold.
In the end, a writing career is about persistence and discipline, talent and determination. And lots of hard work and endless hours spent writing. It’s one of the most rewarding careers in the world—good luck, and may you succeed in fine style.