First of all, you probably shouldn’t listen to me. The only reason you might even consider listening is because I was pulled out of the slush pile, without any connections, for the two most important moments in my professional career: my first publication and when my agent found me. I’m going to tell you the twelve things I would tell my best writer friends. (It seemed like a nice number.)
1) Stop. If you can stop writing, do it. Or at least if you can stop hoping to become a professional writer, go do something else. Why? Because it is hands down the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, creatively and business-wise, and pretty much the only people left in the book business at all are those poor (and glorious) suckers who can’t let go of their love of books. Otherwise they’d be making millions doing other stuff.
2) Are you still reading? OK. If you can’t stop writing, if you’re one of those people who will obsess about writing or not-writing for the rest of their lives, then I urge you to show your work to some other people. Preferably people you are neither related to nor sleeping with. Yes, there are solitary geniuses who absolutely need to work alone, but I find it very helpful to get some feedback. Even if they completely misunderstand what you’re trying to do, you can use that information to deliberately mislead your readers, who will also no doubt misunderstand what you’re trying to do. Think of it as a breath of fresh air for your work.
3) Make sure the structure works before you fine-tune the language. I know I’m going in the face of a lot of popular wisdom here and don’t get me wrong – I LOVE to work on the language. I’m a voice-driven author myself and I can’t set a word on paper until I hear the right voice in my head. However, for me, the voice is not enough. I need to know that the whole foundation is basically right before I build the house. Otherwise, I can throw away hundred of (beautifully written!) pages later that don’t work. I know this because I did.
4) Remember in fiction that there are two timelines: 1) the actual order in which your events happened and 2) the order in which you chose to reveal them to the reader for maximum impact. Write down the first for yourself and figure out the second one as a part of the structure of your piece.
5) When you sit down to work, don’t set a time limit for yourself – set a word limit. For me, that’s 1200 words a day, although when I’m under a deadline, I can write many times that. I can sit in the chair and fill an entire morning doing something else if I don’t have a word limit. However, when I know I can’t leave until I’ve produced a certain number of words, I’m motivated to get it done.
6) If you tend to procrastinate (and who doesn’t), set a kitchen timer for five minutes. Promise yourself that if you work non-stop and seriously for those five minutes, you’re allowed to stretch and take a break. This is usually not-scary enough for most people to get going. And once those five minutes are up, take a break, and then reset for another five minutes. You can try ten or fifteen minutes if you’re up to it but keep it short. You can write a whole book in fifteen minute spurts.
7) For your first draft, don’t worry about making it good. Just get it done. Get the whole thing down on paper in the crappiest way possible.
8) On your second and subsequent passes through the work, now is the time to make it as good as you possibly can. Show it to people. Don’t let it out into the professional world until it’s ready.
9) If you have anyone who is incredibly generous enough to introduce you to their agent, make sure you’re ready before you submit. You only have one shot. Don’t fire off a submission because you’re bored or want to set a deadline for yourself or because it’s easier to work on the business angle than the writing itself. If you need incentive, go buy yourself some diamonds instead. Because diamonds are worth less than a good agent’s serious consideration.
10) If you have someone who knows an editor in publishing who might be willing to look at your un-agented submission, don’t do it. Get an agent first. Again, I know I’m going against popular wisdom here. I mean, who would turn down the chance to have a real editor read their work? The thing is, your work can be brilliant but in my humble opinion, that editor is not going to read it with the same positive expectations as they would if it had been submitted to them by a reputable agent. I think chances are high they’ll turn it down. (Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, this is what I believe.) Then, when you finally get that reputable agent, the first thing she’ll ask you is, “Where has this been sent?” If you got turned down by some editor at Norton, for example, your agent can’t resubmit there, while she may well know a Norton editor who would have loved it.
11) Believe in yourself and your work. When my friend, a fierce dancer, goes to an audition and doesn’t get the job, she says, “It’s not that they didn’t like me. They didn’t even SEE me.” And that’s almost always what it is. She just dyes her hair a different color and goes back in again the next time they have auditions. In writing, you can’t resubmit to the same person but just keep going. Don’t let the rejections knock you down. Take a look at my FAQ page for more details on what happened to me.
12) Don’t listen to anything here or anywhere else that doesn’t work for you. Trust yourself and your own gut feelings.
Category: Publishing, Writing | Tags: agents, author, complete unknown, editors, getting published, how to get published, Jean Kwok, procrastination, published author, Publishing, slush pile, structure, writers, Writing 16 comments »