Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of questions about writing from folks who wonder if they’ve got what it takes to publish a book. I thought I’d share some of the key skills that I have found to be essential in my own writing career.
I think that the biggest factor in becoming a successful writer is just plain stubbornness. Experts on writing say that you’ve got to write a million words to become a competent writer. So you’ve got to be stubborn enough and determined enough to keep practicing even when it seems like you’re not getting anywhere with your writing.
It is essential to be teachable, to be willing to always work towards greater skill. Too often, especially in the beginning, we writers can be too attached to our own work to be willing to edit it. Often editing consists of streamlining– of using fewer words to say something more clearly. Sometimes that streamlining can mean cutting paragraphs and pages that we are fond of. We’ve got to be willing to toss those golden words aside if they don’t move plot forward or add value for the reader.
We’ve also got to be learners. Keep reading about writing. Keep reading the kind of writing you want to sell. Receive negative feedback thoughtfully, always with an eye for improving your own skill. And practice, practice, practice.
Steel yourself for much rejection– agents and editors reject 97% of what is sent to them. You can’t take rejection personally, and you can’t give up if you want to be successful. Back in the 90’s I wrote a murder mystery that was rejected by dozens of publishers — maybe 60? — and never sold. I sent 3 dozen query letters to land my current agent who sold both my books. It takes real mental toughness, and an ongoing confidence even when rejection letters pour in.
What to Do with a Book Idea
So you’ve got a book idea and you think you have what it takes to run with it. What do you do next? The answer depends on whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction.
For fiction you’ll need to have the whole book written. If you’re writing non-fiction, you’ll need a couple of chapters and a good book proposal. Then get a copy of the most recent Writer’s Market . (Sometimes the library has them). There you can investigate which publishers and agents handle the type of book you want to sell.
Your best chance of selling a book is to get an agent. Use the Writer’s Market find 20-30 agents that sell your type of book. Then research how to write a ‘query letter‘ — basically a 3-paragraph letter describing your book in a dynamic and interesting way, and asking the agent if they’d be interested in seeing chapters and (for non-fiction) a book proposal.
Once you get your book (or book proposal) finished and a good concise query letter written, send it out to your list of agents. Pay attention to the instructions in the Writer’s Market about how to submit to agents. Avoid agents who want to charge money to read your work. Some agents want only a query letter on initial contact. Others want the first 10 pages, or 2 chapters, or 3 chapters of your book. If you send more or less than they prefer, you will be rejected or just ignored– they simply get too many queries to be tolerant of writers who don’t follow directions. So do your homework.
If you are able to appealingly present your idea to just the right agent, he or she will hopefully request the whole book (or the full proposal). If the agent thinks he can sell the book, he’ll offer to represent you (usually for a 20% commission) and start to shop it around. If your agent is right about your book, within a few months you just might be signing a publishing contract!