When you’re a beginning writer, you’re likely to get bombarded with advice from all quarters—your family, your friends, your hairdresser, and of course that know-it-all guy at work. I don’t know why, but everybody who’s ever watched a few minutes of Oprah seems to think they know all about the publishing business. But chances are pretty good they don’t. And chances are even better that whatever they may have heard is out of date. The business is in a state of rapid change
If you don’t want your heart broken in this ever-more-difficult, soul-crushing process, you need to keep those myths and outdated ideas from infecting your brain. Here are twelve things to disregard when you hear them from those well-meaning friends and relations. (Be polite, but you might be forgiven a slightly condescending smile.)
- Writers make big money. How many times do you hear “You’re a writer! Will you still talk to me when you’re rich and famous?” Tell them to rest easy. It's not likely to be a problem. Even “successful” writers need day jobs these days. Royalties and advances are shrinking at an amazing rate. Yes, J.K. Rowling is richer than the Queen, and Stephen King could buy the entire state of Maine. They are superstars. Of course you (and hairdresser) can fantasize you’ll become a superstar too—we all do—but the odds are mighty slim.
- Genre fiction is easy to write. People will tell you to start out with something “easy” like a romance/mystery/kid’s book. Don’t even try. If you don’t love a genre and read it voraciously, you’ll never write it well enough to publish.
- Never write for free. Professional freelancers will tell you this with the ferocity of union organizers, and they are absolutely right…when they’re speaking to seasoned journalists (although even they aren’t getting paid much these days.) But it’s a long way from writing your first essay to publishing in the New York Times. During your learning process, writing for free is good practice and a great way to get your name out there. Consider you’re being paid in clips and platform-building. And the truth is, if you write literary fiction or poetry, you may never be paid for it. (Most literary writers make their living by teaching.) But the lack of paying markets doesn’t mean your work doesn’t deserve an audience. Plus, it’s important to remember that literary agents work for free a lot of the time—sometimes for years when they’re getting started, just like writers
- Don’t waste time on short fiction, because you won’t make any money on it. You won’t make much money on long fiction either (see above.) Working on short fiction is the best way to hone your skills. Publishing it makes you more attractive to agents and gives your self-confidence a boost. And it’s a whole lot easier to publish a short story than a novel. There are thousands of literary magazines and contests in the US, but only six major book publishing houses.
- Don’t reveal your plot, because somebody will steal it. Everybody’s got a story. It’s how you write it that matters. Since the copyright law reforms of the 1970s, copyrighting your work before it’s published (especially a first draft) has been the mark of a paranoid amateur. It’s copyrighted as soon as you type it onto your hard drive. (And BTW, you can’t copyright a title.)
I should note this is not true of loglines, If you have an especially high-concept, unique, and marketable idea—like the you’re the first guy who thought of “snakes on a plane”—you might feel more secure if you copyright it—but do NOT mention this when you’re querying.
- With talent like yours, you don’t have to jump through all those hoops. The old saw about 10% inspiration/90% perspiration is 100% true. Talent without skill is useless. That means skill at writing AND hoop-jumping. Learn the rules and follow them or nobody will ever find out about that talent of yours.
- Spelling and grammar don’t matter: it’s creativity that counts. When you’re seven, maybe. Words are your tools. If you can’t use them properly, nobody’s going to hire you for the job.
- Be extra creative so you’ll stand out. Don’t write with animated emoticons, invent a new genre, or try to bring back the papyrus scroll. At least not when you’re a newbie. Follow genre and word count guidelines and the three-act structure, or you won’t get read. Publishing is a very stodgy business and if you don’t follow the rules, you won’t get in the door.
- Don’t read other writers’ work or you’ll imitate them. Reading widely is essential to the growth of your craft. The more you read, the better your own work will be. If you imitate a bit when you’re a beginner, no harm done. Your own voice will emerge.
- The sadder your personal history, the more publishers will be moved to buy your book. In spite of what you’ve seen on Oprah, readers are not likely to be interested in your personal tragedies, unless you write beautifully and have something new to say that will benefit THEM.
- Sell yourself. Show them you’re confident! Confidence combined with cluelessness will not help your career—unless you’re Will Ferrell. In publishing, tooting your own horn is more likely to make you the butt of #queryfail snark on Twitter or land you in Slushpile Hell. So when the office know-it-all claims you’re “not trying” unless you query with lines like, “my poignant and exquisitely-written memoir will be bigger than the Twilight and Harry Potter books combined,” smile politely and change the subject to his impending mortgage foreclosure.
- You wrote a whole book! It deserves to be published. Almost all successful writers have a few practice books hidden away somewhere. Getting something published—especially book length fiction—is like getting to Carnegie Hall. It takes practice, practice, practice.
Labels: newbie advice, the publishing biz