Writing 101

Carla can't stop talking about books.

Carla can’t stop talking about books.

“What’s your best advice for an aspiring writer?”

All authors get asked this question. Most try to be helpful, but what can you say in a few minutes when entire books, conferences, and grad programs are dedicated to this topic? Writers spend years studying the endless secrets of the craft. We use jargon and acronyms—such as, WIP for work-in-progress, and POV for point of view—and some things that we consider common knowledge simply aren’t.

So, when someone touches my elbow and asks for advice, it’s often tough to give an appropriate response. The answer depends largely on the questioner’s level of expertise. If you’re an intermediate or advanced writer who has invested serious time and effort into your work, I’ve written a couple of articles that you might find helpful: A Tiny Pocket Guide for Writers, which you can find right here on AlgonquinRedux.com, and The Pros and Cons of Getting an MFA in Creative Writing,  published by WritersDigest.com.

Recently, a relative asked me for advice, and I countered with the question: “What are you writing?”

The response was a wink, a tap on the temple, and the words, “It’s all up here.”

I admit that I bit my tongue, trying not to respond with, “Write the damn book!” (Really, it’s not just me; I’m quoting Laura Lippman, Joseph Finder, and others.) But I took a deep breath, remembering that we all start at this point.

Still, the more we talked, the more I had to backtrack and explain unfamiliar vocabulary. Usually, I’d refer a novice writer to the two articles I’ve already written, but I quickly realized they would be over his head.

So, this article is dedicated to those who are just getting started. These are the basics. If you want to write but don’t know how to take the plunge, this is for you.

1. I can’t stress enough how important it is to start educating yourself about the writing process. Join a writers group. Go to workshops and conferences. You don’t have to bring a manuscript to mingle with writers, just as you don’t have to be a yoga master to sign up for a yoga class. Besides, it’s fun and you’ll meet interesting people.

2. Read books, magazines, and blogs about the craft and business of writing. (Since you’re reading this, you’ve got a good start.) Ask a librarian for guidance. Check your local bookstore. You may want to subscribe to Writer’s Digest magazine. Take a look at the annual Writer’s Market. Browse and buy reference books that spark your interest.

3. Fully research the genre you wish to write. That means you must read, read, read. Let accomplished authors inspire you. (You’ll soon find that, when you’re having trouble with some aspect of your writing, you’ll find a solution in another author’s book.)

4. During the writing process, you must learn the proper formatting of a manuscript. If you’re a serious writer, you will write a first, second, and third draft. You’ll learn what a query letter is and how to write one. (If any of this is confusing, go back to Steps 1 and 2.)

5. Even if you ultimately decide to self-publish, you need to understand the pros and cons of traditional publishing.

6. Find where your book would belong and check the other books on that shelf. Pay special heed to the authors’ acknowledgements. Note the publisher, the editor, and the agent for those titles you especially admire. The authors who have come before you have forged a path, and it’s much easier to follow that path than to declare yourself a writer without precedent.

7. Consider whether you need an agent. Certainly, you do not want to send your manuscript to a massive publishing house and simply hope that someone reads it. The agent’s job is to deliver your how-to book to an editor who specializes in how-to books, or your sci-fi novel to an editor who loves that genre. (On your own, you risk doing the reverse.)

8. Check the agents’ websites for the types of books they represent and their submission guidelines. Disregard this step at your peril.

9. If your book is nonfiction, it might be possible to sell the book before it’s complete, based on a comprehensive book proposal. Start with a table of contents, the first 3-5 chapters, and a synopsis. If you have an area of expertise and an impressive biography, your work is much more marketable.

10. Fiction and memoir are almost never sold except as complete, polished manuscripts. (And yes, we can all cite Stephen King and J.K. Rowling as exceptions. That goes without saying.)

11. With any book—whether a children’s book or an economic treatise—you’ll need to hold back until you can present a polished manuscript. You can’t just say, “That’s good enough,” and decide you’re finished. Be open to constructive criticism and keep learning.

12. Good luck! With professionalism and persistence, you’re on your way to publishing your work.

9 thoughts on “Writing 101

  • Sarah Lovett

    Thanks, Carla, great advice. I always tell clients and writers I meet: don’t “talk the book away”. People avoid therapy by telling their friends all their woes and they never make progress–and some would-be writers do the same. I have one dear friend who has told me her story so many times…needless to say she never wrote the book.

    • Carla Norton Post author

      Excellent advice, Sarah. Someone once said, “Those who talk don’t write.” (Was it Hemingway?) I certainly find that my enthusiasm for a project dissipates if I make the mistake of blabbing about it.

  • Katherine Ramsland

    Great list. I tell aspiring writers to find a supportive friend who will reassure them during the inevitable self-doubt and suicidal depression.

    • Carla Norton Post author

      Yes, there are bound to be periods when it’s tough to fend off rejection and self-doubt. (My friends who are painters and musicians have similar issues.) We all need to find friends who lend emotional support. Have a cry, have a beer, then pick yourself up, summon the muse, and start afresh.

  • Norb Vonnegut

    How about this one?

    13. Don’t tell anyone, “I’m writing a book.” Inevitably, somebody will ask to read what you’ve written, and that exchange invites a million reasons to stop. It’s better, I think, to complete your first book and then start talking. The benefit is that you’ve finished a book and no one can take that away.

    Just saying.


    • Carla Norton Post author

      I love this idea, Norb. It also stops people from asking what your book is about, then undermining your efforts by offering up the names of a dozen brilliant authors who have already done a superlative job of writing about exactly that topic.

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