I’ve gotten a lot of advice since publishing my first novel, most of it contradictory. (Can you hear my teeth chatter from here?) So I’ve set out to gather whatever consensus I could find, from those who are already successful. As always, I share it with you here.
One caveat, I have only included advice from people whose writing or advice I know and who have achieved some degree of success. If they aren’t successful, how can they help you be successful? Therefore, obviously, this is not a scientifically based survey. It’s just stuff I believe should be considered.
The people from whom the advice originated is in parentheses after each listing. In no particular order, they are: Seth Godin (Seth’s Blog), Neil Gaiman (novelist, author of comics and graphic novels), Jeffrey A. Carver (Sci-Fi novelist), J.K. Rowling (author, Harry Potter series), Stephen King (needs no introduction), and me. It’s my blog, okay?
- Do not fear failure. To quote Rowling, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” Period. (Rowling)
- Writing and imagination, are power. Use them. “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.” – Rowling. As writers, you have the power to place others in lives you create. Make those lives matter. Make the trip worthwhile, the destination worth the trip. And, if you can move one mind to take positive action in the world, you have justified the gift you have been given. (Rowling, Jones)
- Read, then read, then read some more. It’s a good idea to read in the genre you plan to write, if only to understand what readers will expect. (That doesn’t mean you have to write the same stuff. ) Reading widely is better. Good non-fiction will show you have to craft a story, and move a reader to action. (Carver, King)
- Write what you like reading. Which is why you must do #1. How, otherwise, will you know what you like reading? This comes down to my favorite quote, from Toni Morrison: “’If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” It makes no sense to read a ton, hate half, then write in the genre that bores you. The result will bore us too. (Rowling)
- Write about characters you care about. I can’t stress that enough. My stories don’t begin to come to life until I’ve fallen in love with my main characters. If you care, it will show up in the details of your writing. (Rowling)
- Write , write, write. It’s really hard to get published if you don’t write. Good writing takes practice. (Gaiman, Carver, King)
- Don’t edit right away. “Once it’s done, try to put it away until you can read it with new eyes.” (Gaiman)
- “Write from the soul, not from some notion about what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal.” Damn. I wished I’d said that. (Carver)
- Get to the point. If it doesn’t advance the story, take it out. (King)
- Remove unneeded words. If the sentence can live without the word, remove the word. King recommends removing 10% of your text (from the first draft). (King)
- Hire an editor. Even if you have found an agent and a publisher, it is rare to have a quality editor provided for you, free of charge. Hire your own. A good editor will focus not only on mistakes, but on content, flow, pacing. (My favorite comment from my editor was, “Chapter 8 was meh.” I deleted all of Chapter 8 except one paragraph. The flow improved immensely.) (Godin, Gaiman, Jones)
- Take constructive advice … . Carver writes, “Take suggestions seriously, and learn from them.” That doesn’t mean accept all suggestions. Some are wrong, others are not for your style of writing. But think about all of them. Gaiman adds that if a critique group makes you want to stop writing, drop the group, not the writing. Been there. Done that. Great advice. (Carver, Gaiman, Jones)
- … Then don’t care (too much) what they say. King uses his wife as a first reader. The point is to listen to those whom (1) get you, and (2) you trust. The rest are just opinions, and yours is allowed to contradict theirs. (King)
- If you are debating whether you should write the book, you should. Seriously. See #1. (Godin, Jones)
- If you can live without writing, then do it. Find another career. Writers write because we must. Don’t believe me? Ask Any Writer. (Carver, Jones)
- Be relatable and honest (in your writing). This is especially true for someone like King, whose plots (hopefully) wouldn’t take place in real life. To bring in the reader, you must create a world that people can put themselves in – characters they can relate to, places they can “see” in their minds. (King)
- Lower your immediate expectations. It could take three years to build a reputation, following, and reader base you need. I’m all for optimism, but being an optimist shouldn’t stand in opposition to being a realist. Pessimism, however, is not the same as realism. (Godin)
- Be determined; be thick-skinned. It’s not about you, it’s about the business (or the book). You can fix the book, and you aren’t being judged. (Carver, Jones)
- Look for publishers who publish the kind of stuff you write. There’s a reason snipers don’t use shotguns. (Gaiman)
- Conversely, write stuff publishers want to publish. Though it pains me to say it, sometimes it’s not them. Sometimes, it’s you. You should be your biggest fan, and harshest critic. (Rowling)
- Consider doing it yourself. I quoted Seth Grodin directly, because I’ve not seen it said better. “Think really hard before you spend a year trying to please one person in New York to get your book published by a ‘real’ publisher. You give up a lot of time. You give up a lot of the upside. You give up control over what your book reads like and feels like and how it’s promoted.” You may want to consider the agent approach after you’ve achieved a following. (“Control Freaks of the World, Unite!” says me. (Grodin, Gaiman.)
- Your cover matters. More than you think, according to Grodin. Admit it. You’ve put a book down at the store, simply because the cover sucked. If you don’t know anyone, I know a guy. (Grodin)
- Do the marketing that pays. Sorry, it’s the word-of-mouth stuff: blog appearances, bookstore signings (you’ll need an actual paper-type book), book clubs by phone. (Grodin)
- Sell to Organizations that buy on behalf of members. (Godin)
- Be relatable and honest (in your marketing). This one is mine, because it’s my blog. Besides, I’ve been involved with marketing a lot longer than I have writing. When you sell – anything – you also sell yourself. You are the product as much as your work. Be genuine, show people who you are; make them interested enough to want to explore your work. What is it about you that gives you’re an interesting insight into life? Show them that. In my life, I’ve had some fairly brutal failures in my home life, as have others. So, I use that in my writing, and I share my experiences in my blogging and marketing. We are more than our books, or we are nothing at all. (Jones)
Keep the faith (in yourself).