Monday, November 9, 2009

Ten Things to Remember if You Want to Be a Published Writer

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

With computers, the physical exercise of writing has never been easier. You open a file, start typing and wham! You’re writing. But this ease has some drawbacks that can shine an unrealistic light on the whole process. It makes writing look easy. And anyone who’s ever struggled over a stalled plotline can tell you it’s not easy at all.

So, for those starting out (or those struggling) here are ten things to remember if you want to be a published writer:

1. Writing is Hard
Don’t get me wrong, it has its easy moments, but constructing a publishable novel is not an easy task. There’s a reason most people who want to publish a novel never do. It takes a lot of work, skill and dedication.

2. Learn Your Craft
You wouldn’t expect to race in the Indy 500 the day after you got your driver’s license, would you? Then why expect the first thing you write to sell. Writing is a skill like any other, and there are rules to learn and muscles to develop. Allow yourself the freedom to suck at first (we all do) while you build your writing skills. A first-submission failure doesn't mean you can one day publish.

3. Your First Book Will Probably Not Sell
Writing is a skill we learn by doing, and our first attempts are usually pretty bad. Even if they aren’t, they are often filled with flaws that keep us from reaching a professional level. But that’s okay, because we all have to learn somehow, and the next book will be better. Enjoy the satisfaction of finishing your first novel. It only comes once. But don’t get so hung up on the need to publish that novel that you spend all your time revising and never write anything new.

4. Revision is Part of Writing
Much as we love our words, they aren’t set in stone. Revising is part of the business and if you refuse to ever change a word, then there’s a good chance no one but your friends and family will ever read those words. Keyboards have a delete key for a reason. Use it.

5. It’s All About the Story
With so many books on how to write, it’s easy to forget why you write–and read–in the first place. You want a good story, and as my high school creative writing teacher said so beautifully, a good story is just interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. Don’t let yourself get so sidetracked by the mechanics that you forget why people read.

6. Whatever Works, Works
There’s a lot of information out there about how to write, what makes a good plot, the rules that “must never be broken.” Truth is, all rules can be broken in the right situation, and if it works, it works. Forcing your story to a set of rules because “everyone says so” might not be the best thing for your story. However…

7. Rules Are There for a Reason
Guidelines are part of the business, so ignoring them just to ignore them is also a bad idea. Ignoring the rules of grammar or doing twice the average word count doesn’t say creative genius, it says unprofessional writer who doesn’t know the business. When you break a rule, make sure you have a solid legitimate reason, and not just because you want to, or you can point to one book as an example. Which brings me to…

8. Famous Authors Can Do What You Can’t, Even if They Did it Before They Were Famous
Name any rule, and there will be books that successfully broke it and writers using them as a reason why they can do it too. Sometimes they’re by famous authors, and sometimes by unknowns who because famous on that one book. These are exceptions for a reason. Just because Stephanie Meyer wrote a 115,000 word YA debut novel, doesn’t mean everyone can. There’s a reason she got away with it. Understand why a book is an exception, but don’t use it as a free pass to do the same. You might be an exception as well, but odds are you’re not. It’s hard enough to sell a first novel, so why make it harder on yourself if you don’t have to?

9. Not All Feedback is Good Feedback
One of the hardest things to do when you’re just starting out is to sift through comments about your work. It's natural to be unsure about your skill, and any negative comment can send you into a tailspin. Just as any good comment can inflate your head like Macy’s Day Parade balloons. Learn to evaluate criticism and trust your gut on what will help your work and what will hurt it. Even a good idea might be the wrong idea for a story.

10. Don’t Give Up
If being a published writer is your dream, then stick with it. It’s not easy, it will beat you down as often as it lifts you up, but if you work at it, keep improving and keep trying, you can make it.

What "rule" did you break in your writing journey? What ones did you ignore?


  1. Good points to remember! Thanks!

  2. Thanks for all the great points. Much of my writing involves revising and I've found over time that my manuscript is so much better for it. I also so agree that writing is a craft. Studying about how to write well is important, especially for those of us who didn't know we wanted to write when we were in school. Like you say, it's not an easy task to write a really good story.

  3. Great advice, thanks!

    I got #10 down pat. Both the beating and the lifting, lol. ;)

  4. This is a gold mine! Consider it linked. Beautiful!

  5. Hi, Janice! I only recently discovered this awesome blog (and your awesome book!!) I have already learned so much digging through the archives, thanks for writing such an informative and entertaining insider's guide!

    I have a question for you and your other blog readers... I've never written a novel, but I'm inspired to try. I have a Great Idea that I am passionate about, but, as yet, no story. I know my first novel is going to suck, as you've repeatedly said, and it makes me sad that my Great Idea is going to become a sucky novel. Do I put my Great Idea on the shelf for later, after I learn the craft a bit, or do I tackle it now, since I'm passionate about it?

  6. Victoria MerkielNov 23, 2009, 6:34:00 PM

    This was wonderful! Thank you!

  7. To Rebecca--

    I would say since you're so passionate about your idea, go ahead and write with the intent that it won't be a sucky novel. It might be really good and if it's not and it's still a good idea that you are still passionate about then you can still write another story using the same idea, especially since you say you don't have a story yet. Many stories can be written with the same idea, theme, charactiers, settings, etc--- isn't that what a lot of authors of franchises do already? See my post about John Grisham and read some of the comments:

    Janice-- great advice that always is worthy to repeat. You could do it again next year.
    By the way, my blog just reached 100 followers, and now so has yours.


  8. Yay! Grats to both of us! I hadn't even realized it!

  9. Excellent advice!

    #5 is why I read. When a writer is sitting and facing the blank page, this is what is most important.

    Yes, writing is hard. But that shouldn't stop a writer from practicing #10 as many times as needed.

    Thanks for your help.

  10. Great points - many of which I share to my writing students when teaching at conferences. #9 - yep, develop a tough skin. Remember rejection is professional, not personal.
    #10 - yep again, develop tenacity.
    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Terrific post, Janice. I've rarely seen so much good advice stated so succinctly in one place.

    Rebecca, it's terribly important that you write what you're passionate about. It's the only thing that will get you through a first draft and the subsequent revisions. Don't despair over the idea that your first novel will never sell. Instead, study the craft and learn as you go. You may find that despite serious shortcomings in the first draft, you're able to to create a workable novel out of it. If you can't, you may be able to use some of the material as a subplot in a subsequent novel. And don't worry, you'll have more great ideas that you're passionate about in the future. Novelists are full of passion and great ideas. That's why they're novelists.

  12. thank you so much for these confidence boosting tips. I write a blog at which people seem to find amusing and although i wish to consider this style in my novel I am aware it would not work in a longer piece of writing.
    I have now subscribed to this blog and will no doubt spend a long time reading your excellent advice, thank you.

  13. One thing I'm learning, too, is just how subjective and mysterious the publishing process is. We try to fence it in with rules and principles. And these are very helpful.

    But ultimately, we are dealing with people! That means there will be surprises, things that work outside our boxes, and mysteries. And ultimately, that's part of what makes it fascinating.

  14. Oh, totally. Tastes differ so wildly, but that's a good thing, really. It ups the odds of every kind of book finding a home. Someone somewhere is bound to like that story or genre, if you can just find that person.

  15. I really like your point about famous authors being able to get away with things that an unknown can't. There are probably unpublished novels out there that are way better in terms of craft and originality than what is on the shelves.

    @Rebecca - if you're worried about diving into the writing, spend some time playing with the idea. Think of some characters who might play out the world of the idea and the kinds of things that might make dramatic moments. don't start writing until you've got a strong idea of where you're going. Most novels that start with a Great Idea and then suck are like that because they don't know where they're going.

  16. these are some GREAT points. especially about the feedback dilemma. in my experience, it's always helped to take the feedback, step away from my work for as long as it seems necessary, then read over my work and assess it with the feedback I've received. that way I'm less attached to my work and can evaluate it more objectively. :)