I wrote my first short when I was in junior high school and somehow or another, it got into the hands of one of the girls in my 7th grade class. She, in her infinite wisdom, read it in front of the class...I didn't write again for almost thirty years.
In 1989, while struggling through a turbulent period in which I felt my life both personally and professionally falling apart (I have since learned I displayed all the behaviors of PTSD) I decided to write a novel dealing with my Vietnam experiences (that novel, ELEPHANT VALLEY, is now available through Smashwords.com, B&N Nook Books and the Kindle Store). Unfortunately, I had not a single clue about what GOOD writing was, but I wrote it anyway. For the next few years I wrote feverishly (and quite badly) completing two more novels and numerous short stories. One of my novels, THE WAR WITHIN, took second place in a literary contest and I made my first ever money as a writer ($1500.00) which I immediately wasted by working with a predator agent (I told you I knew nothing about writing...let alone about the business of writing) who charged me a $2.00 per page reading/editing fee (She told me it because I was unpublished). This bad experience led to me turning my back on any serious writing for another eleven years. In 2000 I attended my 35th class reunion and guess who confronted me saying "Why aren't we seeing any books by you in the bookstores?" yup, the same ones who embarrassed me into my thirty year long funk. This time however, I asked myself the same question.
I was going to fire up the word processor, only this time determined to do things differently. To make a long story short, I started to attend writing seminars (many at the Barnes & Noble Store in Manchester, NH) where I started to build a network of relationships with published authors. This led me to joining MWA and from there I was invited to start a writer group with several established editors and published writers (all female I might add). As a result of what those ladies taught me, I was able to offer the following advice to the aspiring author:
- Foremost: Get into a writer group. However, don’t join one unless all the members have a goal of being published. It does you no good if the feedback you get is from friends and family, they’ll love everything you write no matter how much work it needs. My first group consisted of two professional editors and two published authors. I walked in thinking my writing was terrific—I limped out of the first meeting so mad I swore I’d never go back again. After some serious thought, I did go back and I listened and tried what they recommended…needless to say, they were right… my writing got better within a couple of weeks. Try what more experienced group members suggest. If you feel that you aren’t getting better as a result of the group…find another one. Accept their criticism as an effort to make you better. However, if you feel that their feedback is malicious rather than constructive, leave the group.
- Join a professional writers organization. Since most of my work is thriller and mystery, I belong to Mystery Writers of America.
- Find a GOOD writer’s conference and go. You’ll meet many writers who are still starting out, but you’ll also get to meet and talk with some very good, established writers. I’ve attended the first 10 New England CrimeBakes and have had the opportunity to meet and talk such noted authors as Lee Child, Robert B. Parker, Lisa Scottalioni and Janet Evanovich. Talk to everyone and anyone you meet there. It’s tough to get top writers such as those I mentioned to read your work but if you can get them to look at it you may get a reference to their agent—that is a tremendous help. Don’t expect them (or an agent, for that matter) to read anything at the conference, but take business cards and spread them out. They may ask you to forward something to them and will provide you with feedback. One thing I’ve learned is that writers love to help other writers. Make sure the conference is one that offers the opportunity for you to make a pitch to an established Literary Agent…they will usually as for a sample of your work if it interests them. My experience is that you never bring a manuscript to the pitch (the agent will not be able to carry all of them back so they will not accept it). Don’t restrict your pitch to the organized session. Try and obtain a copy of the conference program before hand and research the agents who represent the type of work you do. It does no good to pitch a romance to an agent who doesn’t represent it. Work the cocktail lounge! Agents love it when a writer will spring for drinks and will spend some one-on-one time with you. Also, do not be too aggressive when approaching an agent, they’ll be swamped with people and I’ve learned that I got more attention from them when I don’t approach them with an immediate pitch. I usually start by making small talk and eventually the agent will ask “What do you write?” Don’t go on a long dissertation of your work. Develop a 30 second pitch…imagine that you end up on an elevator alone with an agent and have 30 seconds to tell him/her about your book…make the best use of your time.
- Develop a tough skin, learn to deal with rejection. Remember that writing is no different than any other business in that it’s about sales. You can write the book ever written, but if it doesn’t have a market no one will touch it. If an agent feels that it would require too much effort to sell your book they’ll pass on it. Even Stephen King was rejected hundreds of times before he made it.
- Read everything you can find by successful writers in the genre you want to write. Don’t read for enjoyment, read for how they advance the plot, develop characters and how they structure each and every sentence.
- Last of all, write, write and them write some more. On average, once a person decides they want to be a writer, it takes about 10 years to really perfect your skill (not that many writers haven’t done it in a much shorter time span). Don’t get hung up on reading about writing. As a writer friend once told me, “You spend so much time reading about writing, you don’t have time to write!” You can’t learn how to drive a car or fly a plane from a book…you have to do it.