Writing and (Finally) Getting Published
And So It Begins
When I was a child, I had the idea that you had to be a certain age before you could become a published author. After all, that's the way it works for other jobs. You can't be a professional dump truck driver at thirteen, right? But I loved to write stories, and I used to fill notebooks with elaborate tales of aliens and monsters, talking animals and superheroes.
My uncle had published a couple of non-fiction, religious books, so one day I asked him how old you had to be in order to get published. His response blew my mind.
"It doesn't matter how old you are. All that matters is whether or not you can tell a good story."
Mind blown, I went home and immediately began work on my first novel. It was going to be epic, a science fiction story about planets at war, full of dramatic space battles and heroic characters. Of course, I was in over my head. I managed about twenty typed pages before I got overwhelmed and gave up.
In fact, I started many novels throughout my high school years and finished none of them. It went the same way every time. I started off with a mind full of ambition and determination and then slowly lost steam along the way. To this day, I have a large plastic tub full of these old unfinished novels sitting in a closet in my study.
The Years Go By
As it so happens, I would not actually sell my first novel until shortly after my 38th birthday. What took so long? Well, that's what I want to discuss. You see, I believe I might have gotten published much sooner but for three tragic mistakes on my part. My hope is that by discussing them here, I can save other future writers a little time.
Mistake #1 - Aversion to Rewriting
My first published novel was actually my fourth completed novel. Could one of the previous novels have been published? Perhaps, but for one tragic flaw: my aversion to rewriting.
Finishing the first draft of a novel is a big accomplishment, requiring a great deal of tenacity and hard work, but it is merely the first step in producing a publishable manuscript. Rewriting and revising that novel is a massive undertaking, and it's not nearly as fun as writing the first draft.
You see, I had this strange notion that if I finished the first draft, did a simple spell check and sent it off the every publisher on the face of the earth, someone would be able to see through the occasional clunky sentence or plot hole to the gem hidden underneath. After all, isn't it the job of the editor to fix all those little problems after the contract is signed?
Well, for the record, it's not. A publisher wants to see your best work. Once you've finished the first draft, you have to go back through that manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, fixing plot holes, mistakes, spelling errors and polishing prose. Let people whose opinions you trust read it and provide constructive criticism and make further revisions based on their feedback. You have to be willing to work on that manuscript until you are absolutely sick of it (and you will be).
My first novel came out in July of this year. The version that sold was the twelfth major revision of the manuscript. You have to be ready and willing for the long, occasionally traumatic rewriting process, but if you want to fulfill your destiny, then you've got to be willing to work hard to get there.
Mistake #2 - Wasting Time
Even though becoming a published author was my dream, I let life take over. I had to work, support a family and do all of the other necessary things that come along after college graduation. But let me be painfully honest--it wasn't my job, my family or paying bills that really got in the way. I had a lot of free hours, and I spent them in pointless activity. Consequently, my writing became sporadic. I let whole years go by where I barely wrote anything. Don't do it! In the long run, you will not regret spending less time playing video games or watching television, but you will regret letting your dreams fall by the wayside.
Make yourself write! I can't emphasize it enough. The path that finally led me to selling a novel began in November of 2009 when I decided to quit wasting time and achieve my goal. So I began to write. And write. And write. I set a personal goal of 1,000 words a day, and I forced myself to stick to it. I wrote short story after short story, night after night. Even when I was on vacation, I found time to meet that daily goal. Over time, this constant writing prepared me for a novel (and some of those short stories got published).
Chop some leisure time out of your schedule and set it aside for writing. If you work a lot, find small amounts of time throughout your week and make yourself sit down and write. Even if you are exhausted after a long day at the office, you can manage 500 to 1,000 words, and you will feel better and sleep easier knowing you are making your dream come true.
Mistake #3 - Neglecting Self-Promotion
Somehow I had this dreamy notion that if I could just create a good novel, it would sell itself. A publisher would see the inherent quality and swoon. Nothing could be further from the truth. You have to learn how to sell yourself to publishers. After all, they are inundated with manuscripts and queries. Catching a publisher's attention means hooking them with just a few short sentences or paragraphs.
Can you summarize your novel in a sentence or two in a way that makes it sound compelling? Can you write a blurb for your book that will make a publisher want to take the time to read it? Forget about all the little twists and turns of your plot. Instead, boil down the novel to its essence and make it sound amazing. Include this brief synopsis in the cover letter, and if you pique the publisher's interest, your manuscript will stand out.
The novel also needs to open strong. Paragraphs full of dull exposition will help your manuscript go right into the trash. Hook the reader early. If you can get the publisher past the first page, you've got a chance.
Of course, you can go down the self-publishing route if you want. The market is flooded with self-published novels, so it's a dangerous way to go. Many of these books lack professional editing, and it shows. Increasingly, readers are becoming resentful of spending their money on low quality, poorly-written e-books. If you go the self-publishing route, you will be doing yourself and your readers a favor if you get some help with editing. Also, self-promotion will be even more important since you don't have the backing of a publisher's name or reputation. A strong blurb, opening paragraph and cover art will make you stand out.
What does it all come down to? A willingness to work hard and hone your craft. It might take years to get your book on the shelves. Is it worth it? Of course. You might not get rich from writing, but you will never regret working hard to realize your dream. You will only regret not trying.
So go forth, dear future writer, and get to work!