As someone with more than 30 years in this industry as an editor, author, packager, and manuscript consultant I’ve worked both sides of the desk. And I can tell you for sure that if there is one constant in the publishing industry, it’s that the rules are always changing. Less than two short years ago, so called “self-publishing” was considered anathema to a writer’s career. That is of course, until authors began to succeed at it. Now, even the most staid and power-suited publishing conglomerates are scrambling for a piece of the pie. E-books and self published titles with the right kind of sales can be suddenly transformed in whopping print deals, blogs become books, and translation rights have truly gone global. The truth is, the great free-for-all that is today’s publishing landscape holds a wealth of possibilities for aspiring authors everywhere.
For a newbie, those possibilities can be overwhelming. And the blogs and newsletters and advice columns are chock full of conflicting advice about what to write, who to write to, how to edit and how to be “professional,” or held to some largely invisible, yet vaguely articulated standard.
Let’s face it, an amateur is not a professional and no amount of professional posturing is going to change that. But that doesn’t mean your work shouldn’t be published either. To be a professional simply means getting paid for what you do; it does not mean changing who you are and what you write about in order to get there.
There are some rules that never change though, and in the interest of helping along your process, here are my Top Ten for aspiring authors everywhere.
Write a good book. Easier said than done, I know, but the fact of the matter is, I see a lot of material written by folks who see their book as a tool to market themselves, not as a story or collection of information that has to stand on its own. Bottom line: If it’s not a good book, it doesn’t matter how big your following or social platform is, it will tank anyway.
Don’t rely on feedback from friends, relatives and other aspiring writers. While feedback groups are great and writers’ groups can certainly serve as a lively way to get much needed support in what can be a very lonely job, the keyword there is support. But support is not the same as a professional , objective opinion. Taking editorial advice from someone who hasn’t published a book is like hiring a mechanic who can’t drive a car—doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it’s all theoretical.
Begin at the beginning. Too many first and second drafts begin by introducing characters, explaining the background, depicting a series of events leading up to the point where something actually happens and so forth. As one very informative writing teacher has said: Know what the chase is, and cut to it. Any background can be worked in later on.
4. If you can’t explain what your story is about in 200 words or less, you don’t yet know what your story is about, so it’s probably best to wait before you present it to others.
5. Few aspiring writers realize the damage the wrong verb use does to their work, not to mention their sentence structure. Consider the following: “I started to turn the doorknob. “ “I began to think.” Go over your prose with a fine-toothed comb and get rid of all the started tos, wanted tos, and began tos, et al. Either your character turns the knob or they don’t; either they think or they don’t. But if the author can’t be more precise, you may find your readers 'beginning to yawn.'
6. If your manuscript is presented in Courier, you are broadcasting to the world that you are amateur. Period. Similarly, if you have preformatted your manuscript to appear more like a printed book, if it’s single spaced or you have not paginated it, everyone will know that you have not taken the time to discover how to format your work appropriately. So even if you are an amateur, you don’t have to look like one. ‘Nuff said.
7. A story takes place on the page, not inside a character’s mind, with the possible exception of say, Kafka. Unless your literary aspirations tend in that direction however, too much by way of internal monologue makes for piles of rejections. We want to know what happens to a character, not what they thought happened to them.
8. Please, oh, please. Don’t be a copycat. Dare to be different. It is true many books follow a formula, but do keep in mind that if there are seventeen thousand vampire books on the market, yet another vampire book by an unknown author isn’t likely to succeed. There are fashions in the literary industry just as there are in any other industry. But last year’s fashion is always yesterday’s news.
9. Like any other endeavor, you gotta have heart. Find your authentic voice and use it. Technique can be taught, and craft can be perfected. But a heartfelt story is something people recognize even under a ton of bad technique, and that’s what really counts.
10. If you’re seeking an editor, an agent or a publisher, find somebody with whom you can form a real relationship, and don’t rely solely on their reputation or track record. Experience certainly helps, but these people are ultimately working FOR you, not the other way around. So it’s important that you believe in and trust them almost as much as you believe in yourself!