I took the long, scenic route to getting published. Fifteen years, seven other books, and four literary agents preceded the publication of When I Married My Mother. Whatever success my writing brings me is the result of working with great editors and agents, taking criticism extremely well, and being crazy. I'm convinced that "writer" and "addict" are interchangeable. A more noble way of putting it is to invoke the oft-used phrase “It’s a calling.”
If you’re a writer, you have to write.
My efforts were nothing compared to those of Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. He wrote his extraordinary memoir by blinking his left eye—the only part of his body that moved. Now what’s your excuse for not writing?
1. If I had to give one piece of advice about the craft of writing it would be: think airplane disaster movies. They will never go away for a reason. Tight space + limited time (the plane will eventually run out of fuel) = tension. Tension gives a story dramatic impact. So try narrowing your focus. The shorter the time frame, the fewer the characters, the less you jump around geographically, the better.
2. As for the business of being a writer, the biggest mistake I see people make is underestimating how much time and money writing a book – a good one, that is – will take. It’s no different from any other start-up business. The #1 reason why they fail is lack of capitalization. Entrepreneurs are famous for diving in and expecting big results with little investment. With more people publishing books than there are those reading them (or so it seems), administer regular reality checks.
3. Taking that a step further, live by the Law of Pi: however long you think it will take or cost to reach your goal, multiply it by 3.14. Then multiply it by that again. And again. Hemingway once said the first six drafts are s—t. For me, it’s more like the first sixty. Always set your manuscript aside for as long as possible (weeks, not days) and let it marinate before considering it done.
4. Join Animoto.com (free version) and privately make a 30-second trailer for your book. Leave a blank space for the book cover. If you can't grab a reader's interest with a few photos and words, you don't have your story nailed down yet.
5. Hire a freelance editor who is a story editor. He/she can also be a copy editor (one who checks for typos and grammatical errors) but most copy editors are not story editors. (A notable exception is Karen Sommerfeld, a.k.a. June Gardens. See my previous Q&A with her.) Ideally this person should have edited books in your genre and seen at least one sold to a major publisher in the last two years. I have a team of editors I use at different stages depending on their strengths. I even have my work edited before I submit it to my agent to get her reaction on a new project. A great editor always makes what you've written better. Be prepared to spend thousands of dollars. Do not have it “line edited” (the most expensive form of editing that goes over the manuscript line by line) until you are absolutely sure the book is the way you want it.
6. Now spend $20 a month for a Publishers Marketplace subscription. I repeat. Now spend $20 a month for a Publishers Marketplace subscription. You can cancel at any time. They have a goldmine of a database that chronicles every book deal since 2004. Comb through it and identify the agents who have sold the most in your genre recently and whom you think will truly love your book based on what they have sold. Go to their website. Follow their submission instructions to the letter. Everyone handles this aspect differently. Search the net on how to query agents.
7. Never pay an agent. They work off a commission, usually 15%, that comes out of the sale of your book. Often they want you to reimburse their expenses. With email submissions to editors the norm now it shouldn’t amount to much nor should they be billing you anytime soon.
8. Earmark as many thousands of dollars as you can for promoting your book. Even if it's been bought by a publisher, most likely you will have to create your own website, bookmarks, and pick up all travel expenses. That’s just the beginning. Engage in social media long before you even try to get an agent. There is no guarantee this will get you an agent, a book deal, or lead to more book sales. It will, however, make you feel like you’re doing something when most of it is out of your control. Only tweet, facebook, etc, if you enjoy it (forced fun always shows) and it doesn't take away from your "real" writing.
9. Feel like an addict yet? As with any extreme passion, relationships can be ruined and bank accounts decimated. You’ve been warned. Promoting When I Married My Mother often felt like I was climbing a mountain with my teeth. It was worth it for the times when I scaled it effortlessly. I had to be on that mountain.
10. Finally, if there’s something you want to write, just write it. Especially if what you want to write is about your family. At the very least you’ll leave a legacy for future generations. When our possessions are gone or become meaningless, and our bodies are no longer recognizable as our own, or even here, what are we left with? Our stories.
(I recommend The Editorial Department for editing services no matter what your level of experience. Co-founder Renni Browne's book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is good for non-fiction too, as is Stephen King's memoir On Writing and Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. John Paine is terrific for more established writers. Nicholas Sparks has excellent advice on his website. A great site for readers and writers is, of course, RedRoom.)
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