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Monday, April 21

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

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 author:

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. It's helpful to remind yourself of this during those tough moments. It's not you, it's writing in general, and every writer at every stage struggles from time to time.

2. Learn the 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 to sell a novel without putting in the work? Writing is a skill like any other, and there are rules to learn and muscles to develop. Even those born with natural storytelling skills still need to learn the technical aspects of writing a novel. Talent gets you so far, training pushes you over the top. Allow yourself the freedom to suck at first (we all do) while you build your writing skills. Don't feel like a failure just because your first submissions get rejected or you get a bad critique.

3. The 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. If you're lucky enough to sell your first novel? Then enjoy the win and remember that feeling for the days when things don't go so well.

4. Revision is Part of Writing

Much as we love our words, they aren’t set in stone. When and how you revise is up to you, but revision is part of the business and part of the process to crafting a great novel. Being open to feedback and learning the skills needed to use that feedback will serve you well in publishing. 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 we write–and read–in the first place. We 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. As important as good craft is, a great story is what matters most. So cut yourself a little slack when a technical aspect has you banging your head against the keyboard. It's not the end of your career, just a bump in the road.

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. This can be frustrating when you're struggling to understand a technical aspect or analyzing why a particular novel is doing so well. A novel might do something every rules says not to do and sell a million copies. But something in that novel connected to readers in a profound way and make breaking that rule work. To quote Pirates of the Caribbean, the rules are more like guidelines. Forcing your story to a set of rules because “everyone says so” might not be the best thing for your novel. However…

7. Rules Are There for a Reason

Guidelines are part of the business, so ignoring them because you don't like or understand them is also a bad idea. Ignoring the rules of grammar or doing twice the average word count rarely says creative genius, it says unprofessional writer who doesn’t know their craft. Breaking a rule often works best when it's not obvious a rule was broken, because it fits the story so well. It also works when it's so clear about how and why the rule was broken, and that knowledge actually makes the story better. 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 it, 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. Usually, those books are by famous authors or unknowns who because famous because of that one rule-breaking book. These books are exceptions for a reason. 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? But if you admire a famous book that breaks a rule you also really want to break, then determine why it works for that story and figure out how to make it work for yours.

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. If your gut is telling you not to do it, listen.

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. Writers have so many options these days to get their stories to readers, with paths for every personality and career goal. If one path doesn't feel right, try another, or even forge your own.

What rules do you break in your writing journey? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  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 Merkiel11/23/09, 6:34 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. :)

  17. Once again, you've made extremely valuable points. This is definitely a post I'm going to keep referencing when things get tough.

    1. We all need a "cheering up" file to dip into for those moments :) Mine has really helped on rough days.

  18. To Rebecca -- Don't shy away from writing an idea you love. Passion is so important to writing.

    What you write now may be unpublishable, but if you come to an impasse with improving the novel, you can set it aside and return to it, be it a first draft or several revisions deep, after honing your writing skills.

    It's also possible that your idea may be interesting enough to catch the eye of an agent / editor who will work with you to make it publishable.

    Now, this is going to sound like shameless brown nosing, but it's true. I'd suggest you get a copy of Janice's book (or e-book), Planning Your Novel. This will help you evaluate whether your idea is meaty enough to form the backbone of a novel. If it isn't, the book will give you tips on how to flesh out your idea so that your first effort will be the best it can be.

  19. This is such a long game, isn't it? Determining which criticism to take and what to ditch is hard. I think it comes with time and looking for consistency and patterns in the criticism. I heard from someone that YA can't be historical. If that had deterred me that would have been disheartening (though certainly a head scratcher when you see YA historicals in bookstores--the real answer, they can be a challenge to sell, so yours needs to be high-concept and well-written. Much different than you can't do it at all).

    1. It really is. A few lucky ones hit the literary lottery with a debut novel, but most of us will work hard to put out novels and cross our fingers things take out around book four or five (which is common).

      Who said YA can't be historical??? Pshaw I say. I have a number if YA historical on my shelf right now, and they sell just as well as any other genre. I remember when the Luxe series hit historicals were fairly popular in the YA market.

      They're a smaller niche, true, so it might be a tougher sell depending on how the market is doing at any given moment, but they can certainly sell. I'm glad to hear you didn't give up on yours.

  20. Wonderful points!! Thanks!!

  21. Hear, hear for historical novels -Stephsco and Janice. And of course, LOTS of hard work. But I have to admit, I sure hope that the book I'm working on and working on (how about dubbing in the theme song from the "little Engine that could"?) does get published. Thanks for re-running this post, Janice. Good reminders.

    1. Fingers crossed for you. What's that famous quote? An author is just a writer who never gave up.