What I know now as a published author, I wish someone had told me when I first started out. It would have saved me a great deal of time and disappointment and I may have got published earlier. Certainly, I would have become a better writer.
I was recently asked in an interview if I had one tip to give to aspiring writers, what would it be? I could have provided more than one. So I’m doing that here.
1. You will need perseverance and self-discipline. You can’t give up because it’s too hard/you got your first rejection slip/so-and-so is a better writer/it’s taking too long. If you feel in your bones that writing is what you want to do, keep trying. You’re going to have to do boring stuff like research and plotting. You might have to slot writing time in between other commitments when you’d rather be watching TV or having a lie-in. You are going to need that discipline when you get published because once the editing process starts, you are going to have to miss out on some of your recreation. You’ll end up burning the midnight oil. It won’t matter how tired or busy you are. You will be expected to do self-promo as well. Did you think the hard part was over when you typed The End onto your manuscript? (Mwahaha).
2. Read your own stuff. Better still, out loud. Do the sentences make sense? Have you mixed up the tenses or used ‘they’ when referring to a singular noun? Have you repeated yourself? Is it overwritten? Are there too many adverbs? Did one of your characters get killed only to have an argument with someone two chapters later? Does the dialogue sound natural and can you tell which character is talking?
3. Read good writers. Notice how their characters evolve and how they create mood. Reading good English will improve your own as well. Words are the tools of your trade so why blunt them with bad grammar and spelling? You should also have access to an up-to-date dictionary and thesaurus, either hard copy or online.
4. When you are ready to look for a publisher (I think publishers’ websites are the best places to look), make sure you choose one that is actually open for submissions and takes unsolicited manuscripts. Do they publish in your genre? Do they produce print books or eBooks? Do they prefer a query letter first? What about word count? If they specify lesbian-romance novellas under 50,000 words, they won’t be impressed by your hulking great 500,000-word manuscript about the zombie apocalypse. (Even though you know it’s a masterpiece.) Do they take email or snail-mail submissions? Should your file be a Word Doc or rtf? Is your manuscript single-spaced when they asked for double? Have you used Comic Sans font because it’s funky when they specifically asked for Times New Roman? It is so important to get all these details correct. You also need to know if they have more than one imprint and to whom you should address your submission.
Many submissions will be ignored merely because they don’t adhere to the publisher’s guidelines. Publishers are busy people and even small publishing houses can get thousands of manuscripts sent to them a week. They don’t want novel-length covering letters either. Just give them the salient information. If they have asked for an author bio, they don’t want your life story down to the last detail, just a paragraph or two. (You may need to learn how to précis effectively). They also don’t want to know if your mother thinks the book should be made into a film. I can’t stress enough how important it is you read the publisher’s guidelines and follow them to the letter.
5. Buy a box file – or better still a box – you’ll need it for all those rejection slips you’re going to get. A rejection slip doesn’t automatically mean your work is an abomination. It’s nothing personal. They just didn’t want it for whatever reason. It might not suit their lists. (Perhaps you didn’t follow those guidelines I mentioned!) If a publisher has been good enough to give you some feedback as to why they didn’t want your manuscript, learn from it and persevere. I took my own advice here and every so often I take out that box file and have a good old gloat.
6. Do you need an agent? The jury’s out on this one. I gave up trying so, at this juncture, I’d say you don’t. (Probably a good idea to rethink this one when Paramount and Universal are fighting over the film rights to your book!)
7. Don’t get precious about your manuscript. When you do get that publisher and have your very own editor, they will slash and burn their way through your work. You’ll be horrified at first. They will point out that something doesn’t work and will have to be rewritten. You will be confronted with plot holes and flaws in continuity you never knew existed. You will be strongly advised to take out some of your favourite bits. You will be required to conform to the publisher’s in-house style, which may or may not be to your liking. Too bad; you signed the contract. However, when you see the finished manuscript gradually emerge from all the carnage, you will be forced to admit they were right and not only is it a better book, but you have become a better writer in the process.