Writing is a craft, like playing a musical instrument or painting with oils. Every aspiring writer must acquire this craft, just as every musician must learn his or her instrument. Today some high schools and most colleges offer creative writing courses, and so do various writer’s critique groups. If you look around you will undoubtedly find one in your area.
Whether you take a formal course or not, most of the craft must be acquired on your own. The best place to begin is the public library, which is full of good books written by people who know how to write. Check out good books by good writers in the genre in which you are interested. Analyze their styles, see how they set up a scene, how they do dialogue, how the characters are introduced and developed, how the writer makes the names memorable or fails to do that, how the story is paced, how the action unfolds, how the conflicts develop, how the subplots are made part of the story, how the climax is handled. Analyze the scenes, find the key words which bring out the emotion of a scene, study how the writer got his effect, how he uses verbs and adverbs, try to decide why he used the key words he did. Why did the writer choose the point-of-view he used, did he shift verb tenses, why are the paragraphs where they are, why did he use action verbs in one place and “to be” verbs in another?
I recommend that every aspiring writer join a critique group. Smaller is usually better. Each person in the group must commit to write on their story every week and submit it for criticism, and they must agree to make the time to read everyone else’s submissions. These submissions are all discussed at the periodic meetings of the groups. Craft is learned here, and you can see how your stuff strikes readers. And by pointing out weak places in other people’s craft, you are forced to reexamine your own.
The weak point of critique groups is that egos occasionally get involved. If the discussion is collegial and everyone is trying to help every member get better at the genre they have chosen, all will go well. But if egos get out of control, the wise course is to find another critique group.
I also recommend that every aspiring writer attend one or more writer’s workshops which are held on an annual basis all over the country. Google Writer’s Workshops and see what pops up. In addition to discussions of craft which are scheduled throughout the workshops, attendees bring samples of their own work to show to the professional editors and literary agents who often attend. It is here, in a writer’s workshop, that you will have your first opportunity to pitch your work to an agent, and to see how it strikes a professional editor. The agent you meet at a workshop may well be the agent who ultimately takes you on as a client when you finally have a truly commercial manuscript ready to go. This happened to my wife Deborah.
Beginning writers are well advised to write about something they know. Many beginners try to write about people and places and events that they know absolutely nothing about, and consequently expend vast quantities of time and effort but cannot get the story to read right.
The flip side of writing about what you know is the publishing reality that originality sells. To break into publishing and establish a major career, you must go boldly where no one has gone before, to steal a phrase. First novelist J. K. Rowling wrote of a boy wizard at an English school. Original and fresh, her novels to date have been mega-bestsellers world-wide and made her our first literary billionaire. English housewife Agatha Christie decided to write mysteries, and although she got them published, was an unnoticed pulp mystery writer until she wrote “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” in which the narrator turns out to be the killer. That plot was a stroke of genius; the book was a major bestseller. That idea led to a marvelous forty-plus year career writing mysteries, some of which contain truly dazzling, original plot twists.
The list goes on and on: Arthur Conan Doyle founded the mystery genre with “A Study in Scarlet,” in which he introduced Sherlock Holmes. Tom Clancy broke in with a unique tale of a Soviet submarine skipper who decided to defect to America, taking his sub with him. Amy Tan’s books about a Chinese family plowed ground left fallow since the death of Pearl Buck. My first novel, “Flight of the Intruder,” was the first novel of naval aviation in the modern jet age. The only one remotely similar was “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” by Michener, which was about the Korean War. (It was also one of Michener’s worst books.) I wrote about Vietnam. My publisher asked, “How come no one else ever wrote about naval aviation?”
“Guess they never thought of it,” I replied.
So the formula is originality and craft, workmanship and sweat. Lots of sweat.
First time writers, or indeed, any writer struggling with a manuscript, might consider the services of a book doctor. In the past editors at major publishers might labor over a manuscript, writing, rewriting, and if necessary, inserting or eliminating subplots, all in the effort to get a manuscript up to publishing quality. Today editors at publishing houses do not do this—they simply don’t have the time. Nor can the publishing houses afford the cost. The manuscript must arrive in-house polished and ready for the line editor, who merely checks spelling, punctuation, capitalization and the like. The book doctor, paid for by the writer, fills this empty niche. You can find these services on the web, but check out their references before sending money.
Craft aside, to write successfully you must have something to write about. Every word you write is a distillation of everything you know about life, about how the world works, about how people think and feel, their motivations, their hopes, their dreams, and so on. How do you write a woman in love? Well, if you are not a woman, it would help a lot if you had known one or two who were desperately, hopelessly in love. To write successfully you must understand what it is to be human. Only then can you reduce the human experience to language and put it on paper. Our best writers drank deeply of life. I give you Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway.
One of the common mistakes of aspiring writers is to write about themselves. Some do it to explore their inner emotions, others do so for the simple reason that they know themselves best. Regardless, writing about yourself is a literary dead-end, a place where readers do not care to go.
Students of writing must write about other people, learn to create characters that live within the boundaries of the fictional world created by the writer. This is the very essence of the craft, without which you cannot progress.
At some point every aspiring writer must evaluate his or her work and make a realistic appraisal of its worth. Are you just laying bricks? Here is where a critique group can be of real value. Do not try to write unless you are willing to fail. If you are unwilling to let your friends read your stuff because they might not understand it, it is unpublishable–the book buying public won’t understand it either. This leads inexorably to my next point: if you have to explain to a reader what they should have gotten out of a story, it didn’t work. Go back and work on it some more. The story must stand on its own. How well it stands is a direct measure of how well you have mastered the craft of writing.
The Courage to Fail
Speaking of the courage to fail, through the years I have noticed a curious phenomenon. People who are experts in literature, who know grammar, who can discuss the intricacies of plotting, characterization, setting, pacing, etc., until hell won’t have it, people who seem to have all the equipment necessary to succeed at writing fiction, rarely try it. Although these people sometimes have PhDs in English and literature, they seem quite content watching hacks like me turn out commercial novels. I’m not complaining, you understand, but I have a theory about why this is so. These folks would be satisfied with nothing less than writing a masterpiece, and since they know that is highly unlikely, they write nothing. On the other hand, I have no ambitions about masterpieces–I just want to write fun books that entertain people and make a living doing it. I want to write the kind of books that I like to read. So I write and the experts read. In a way it’s sort of sad.
Once the manuscript is well written, all typos and misspellings removed, you are ready to try to get it published. The manuscript should be double-spaced on plain white paper, one side only, not bound in any way. Your name, address and phone number should be on the first and last pages of the manuscript. Do NOT submit the manuscript anywhere until you are convinced it is the best it can be.
Agents today perform the screening process that used to be done by publishing houses. Agents read unsolicited submissions and accept those they think are publishable. Today most publishing houses will not look at an unagented submission. Don’t even try. Get an agent.
The best place to find agents is at writer’s workshops or one of the big three conventions, ThrillerFest, The Mystery Writers Guild, and The Romance Writers of America. Their annual gatherings are happening events, well worth your time. Check them out on the web.
I would pass up any agent who wants to charge a “reading” fee. Bona fide literary agents make their money selling manuscripts to publishers, not reading them. However, do not expect a bona fide agent to return your manuscript with a long letter full of incisive literary criticism. If you want literary criticism it is only fair that you pay for it.
Publishers and agents all say that they are actively searching for the raw material required to keep the presses running and cartons of books on the way to bookstores. There is no conspiracy to lock out unpublished authors. Two hard realities govern the publishing world, and you must overcome them both to break in:
1. Book buyers like to buy brand names. They will buy a new book by an author they have read and enjoyed without even reading the blurb on the dust jacket. First novels sell an average of less than 5,000 copies. (And just how many first novels have you read this year?) The consumer’s focus on established talent makes it incredibly difficult for a publisher to make a first novel a commercial success.
2. Most aspiring writers haven’t acquired the craft of writing, so 99% of the stuff agents and publishers see is unpublishable. Consequently, while book people are looking for publishable material, finding the jewels is like searching a hog pen for diamonds. (One editor told me that editors see so much trash, sometimes the glitter of the mediocre seems irresistible, which is, he explained, why so much forgettable stuff gets into print. The book-buying public, less jaded, is more fickle.)
The challenge to beginners is this: you must write a book so good, so compelling, the agents and publishers decide that the book can be sold despite the brand-name focus of the book-buying public. Remember, these people are trying to make money publishing books; they must sell books to survive.
My editor at St. Martin’s Press publishes fifty books a year. In addition to the books he is publishing, he looks at several hundred manuscripts a year sent to him by literary agents, who presumably have screened out the treacle. He makes offers on those manuscripts he thinks are publishable by his house. He has just two assistants. Since he works in corporate America, he is held accountable for the sales of those books he publishes. He survives by picking more winners than losers, so the question he must answer is, Who will buy this book? Yet even if he believes there is an audience out there, he will not sign a writer unless he is firmly convinced that writer can deliver a commercial manuscript ready for the line editor with a minimum of editorial guidance, or he is holding such a manuscript in his hand.
NEVER forget–publishing is a FOR PROFIT business. Your manuscript must convince everyone all along the line that they can MAKE MONEY by publishing it. Notice that I said “your manuscript,” for truly, it must sell itself. Regardless of who you know or how persistent your agent is, the manuscript must be good enough that publishers can see how it can be sold.
More people are writing today than ever before in history. Word-processing programs and PCs have freed writers from the clerical drudgery that plagued the craft since the invention of the alphabet. In addition, the booming economy has given huge numbers of people the luxury of time, which many folks are spending at the keyboard of one of those PCs. The result is an unprecedented flood of manuscripts. The market for books, however, continues to grow slowly–while more books are sold today than ever before, the percentage of people reading continues to shrink as technology and lifestyles change. As you might imagine, all these writers searching for agents and publishers have created a bonanza for scam artists.
Anyone can claim to be a literary agent; there are no licensing or knowledge requirements and ethics are strictly optional. Many writers have been rejected so often by the bona fide publishing industry that they become easy prey for the unscrupulous. A few words of praise is the usual hook. Regardless of how the scam starts, eventually the subject of money will come up. The writer is requested to pay reading fees, acceptance fees, all kinds of fees, and promises flow like beer at a biker bar. Some of these people are being actively prosecuted for mail fraud, but jailing scoundrels is a slow business and once your money is gone, it’s usually gone forever.
Often folks who decide to self-publish then think of me. They send me an email or even a book, wanting a puff or plug for their tale. I do not read or plug manuscripts or books that have not been accepted for publication by a commercial–i. e., large, royalty-paying–publishing house, almost all of which are headquartered in New York. I have neither the time nor expertise to read the three or four self-published books that arrive in the mail every week, so I don’t read any but those recommended and sent to me by editors I know in the New York publishing industry. And I plug only those which I think my fans will enjoy reading. Sometimes, alas, I guess wrong, and irate readers feel free to tell me so, too.
Once your novel is accepted by a publishing house, you will find that today you must get actively involved in publicizing the work. Publishers used to do all the publicity and promotion, but we live in a changing world beset by inexorable economic realities. Your ability and willingness to help sell the book will be a huge factor in its success.
Write because it’s fun, because you enjoy the creative process. If what you write ever gets published and you make a few bucks, that will be the icing on the cake.