I knew I wanted to be a writer from the moment I saw Romancing the Stone. The scene where she finishes her book and celebrates with her cat and an airplane bottle of booze? I was so on board with that.
By the time I was twenty, I had about a dozen “starts” to novels. But I never got past that thirty page hump before another idea distracted me. My characters would inevitably end up in a diner somewhere deciding what to order, while I decided what to do with them (I didn’t plot back then).
I bought lots of books on writing. I took courses and workshops. I wondered why it all seemed so difficult. Why even bother? I thought. I didn’t have any experience, no credentials, no contacts…nothing. I hadn’t even finished a book yet. All I did was talk about wanting to be a writer. What made me think I could get published?
The thing is, I really loved a lot of the ideas I had for books. If only the process was easier!
When I turned thirty I decided to focus. I chose to write something that I loved reading. When I was a teen I read voraciously. From Enid Blyton to Jackie Collins, but mostly what would be considered “Young Adult.” I sat down and quickly wrote and finished a young adult trilogy (if you call four years quick, that is. Ha.). I sent it out to a couple of agents, a few publishers. I received complimentary rejections, but still, they were rejections.
I consulted my “idea file” for something else that would hold my interest long enough to finish it. One of the ideas was titled “Diary of the Dearly Departed” and I’d jotted down a question: “What if Bridget Jones was a vampire?” Hmm, I thought. That’s kinda fun.
So I wrote it. The Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Course helped get me started, but after the first fifty pages I was on my own. I finished it up in about a year from beginning to end. I was very happy with how it turned out, so I researched the market like a woman possessed until I had my list of agents to query. I polished my query letter till it shone. I poked at my synopsis until it was virtually non-crappy.
The second agent I queried offered representation! The week after he sent the manuscript out we had a 2-book deal with Warner Books. I am the living proof that it is possible to get a book deal without any previous publishing experience. It’s possible to get an agent by sending out a slushpile query. You just need to write a book you want to write. Make it shine. And start sending it out. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you!
Writing advice to aspiring authors
I get this question emailed to me quite a bit and thought I might put this on my website. Of course, this is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary!!
So you wanna be a writer, huh? Are you sure about that? Well…okay then!!
My advice on writing a novel is to read A LOT of novels similar to what you’re trying to write. Just glom them. That will help you learn structure and plotting and character arcs and what books have sold and what made them stand out to an editor. Also, go to the library and take out a bunch of books on “how to write.” There are magazines, too, like Writer’s Digest (I used to have a subscription to this). Read ’em all!
A suggestion… manually type in a few pages from your favorite book. It’s really great to see what the words and paragraphs look like on the screen in manuscript form. It might help you to learn about voice and structure and pacing. This isn’t copying because you’re NOT going to be using these pages in your own work, it’s just to help you visualize what your manuscript should look like. For example, I typed in around ten pages of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Burnt Offerings when I was starting out. My work is nothing like LKH’s, but the inspiration for achieving my “voice” is still there and I found this to be a very helpful exercise.
Here are some of the books I have in my personal “how to write” library that have helped me….
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress
Elements of Writing Fiction – Plot
Elements of Writing Fiction – Description
Elements of Writing Fiction – Conflict, Action & Suspense
Naming Your Baby (great for naming characters!)
On Writing by Stephen King
The Career Novelist by Donald Maass
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder (screenwriting book, but helpful for novel writing too!)
The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall
Whenever an idea comes to you, jot it down. You might forget it otherwise. Keep a notebook full of ideas and titles and anything else that comes to you.
Then devote some time every day (or as close to it as you can) and write the book — even if it’s just a few minutes.
Warning!!! There will come a point when the book will not feel as fresh to you and you might even be bored with it. This is normal. KEEP WRITING!! I started and stopped a lot of books thinking this feeling meant that it wasn’t right and I should work on another idea. If you keep doing that, you’ll never finish anything!
Once you have the whole story done — and you should aim for about 60,000 words for young adult or 85,000 words for adult (which may take anywhere from a month to a couple of years depending on your speed) let it sit for at least a couple of weeks before reading it over. This will give you some distance from it. Then print it out and go back in and read it over like you’re reading someone else’s book. Write down everything that doesn’t work.
This is the part that some aspiring authors don’t do and it is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING!
Go back in and edit the crap out of it. It’s possible that it doesn’t work as it is and you need to rewrite it completely. I sometimes spend longer working on my second draft than I did my first! By getting the first draft out you have the “bones” of the book. Sometimes the “flesh” needs an extreme makeover. SOMETIMES the book is almost perfect after the first draft. Don’t be fooled, though. Edit it anyway. Go with your gut. Your gut will tell you when it’s ready.
I have a good rule of thumb to know when I’m finished with a book. I usually hate it. LOL. Seriously, after a couple of drafts and spending hour after hour, and day after day with these characters…when I can’t stand the sight of them anymore, that’s when I know I’m finished!!
Get a critique partner. Maybe you know somebody who loves to read or is another aspiring author and isn’t afraid to tell you the truth. There’s no use in having someone who loves you and doesn’t want to hurt your feelings read your work because they’ll tell you it’s great even if it needs work. Get somebody who’s not afraid to be honest and give you creative criticism. I, personally, have what I call beta-readers. These readers will look at my second draft and give me feedback to help me shine it up before the book lands in front of my editor. Critique partners will sometimes help you while you’re writing. Since I personally can’t take any negative feedback while I’m in the process of writing a book (thin skin, SIGH!!) I save the critique process till the very end. Works for me!
Then, when you’re happy with your final draft, you will start the search for a publisher or agent. Get a book like Writer’s Market. It’s updated every year and will list publishers and agents you can send your work to.
Lastly, don’t give up! Being a writer is a daunting process — even for those of us who are already published! Make sure you LOVE writing and that you LOVE your characters and READ, READ, READ!!!
So, to recap…
Read. Write. Revise. Submit. Don’t Give Up!!!
That’s my advice. Good luck to you!