Saturday, May 26, 2007

Questions To Start A Holiday Weekend

I get one or two emails every day from aspiring writers and would-be writers. (Note I'm differentiating between "aspiring" as in "really wants to write" and "would-be" as in "really wants to be famous"). I also get about one email a month from someone with an idea for a book who wants to give it to me so that I can write the manuscript and then we'll split the profits 50/50 (!)

I thought I'd cover some of the questions I get most frequently, beginning with the most popular one:

How do I become a writer?
The only way I know is to W*R*I*T*E. I've met people who worry about film rights, who start blogs to promote their planned book and who want the names of publicists, but who haven't written the first word of the proposed manuscript. You HAVE to write.

Should I write fiction or non-fiction?
You need to write the manuscript you're likely to finish. Dan Poynter reports on a survey in which 81% of the population claimed they had "a book inside them." Writers Digest reports their average reader has been writing for 14.6 years.

Don't bother trying to write a book because you've heard the subject matter is hot right now. By the time you finish and find a publisher, any trend will probably have ended. Write the book you CARE about. If you care about it, you're more likely to finish it. You'd be amazed at the number of writers who get five or ten chapters in and then abandon the effort. It's NOT easy.

How soon should I start querying agents and editors?
One of the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make is to write "The End," and immediately put their first query letter in the mail.

"The End" is just the beginning. You need to hone and polish that manuscript until it glows like a nova. I personally believe you need critique partners--not family, not friends--to give you independent reviews of your work. You have to be willing to slash and burn in order to create a lean, mean manuscript, and you have to have people who will point out where the slashing and burning needs to happen.

What are the biggest mistakes new writers make in their first chapters?
There are a slew of them. The biggest are probably: (1) Getting off to a slow start. You need a hook to catch the reader's interest immediately; and (2) Including a ton of backstory. Eeek!

I know you can point to a dozen great books that didn't start in the moment with here-and-now action, but, I promise, in today's tough publishing world you'd better be ready to get right into your story without a lot of yadda yadda yadda.

If you want to read a great hook, go to the first chapter of Lee Child's latest book, Bad Luck and Trouble here. I defy any reader not to read on after that opening. It leaves you needing to know what happened.

Good luck to you. You haven't picked an easy profession, but it's a great one.


Stephen Parrish said...

Would you settle for 60/40?

James N. Frey (author of HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL) said most people would find it easier to row a bathtub across the ocean than write a novel.

Looking back, I agree with him.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Oh man, did I ever do the whole 'query too soon' thing. I was so green you could've sprinkled me with fertilizer and covered me with dirt. After I finished my first book, I did one deep edit, sent it off to a few people to proofread, and then jumped into querying with both feet. I sent out a slew of really REALLY bad queries.

I've learned a lot since then, thank goodness.

Sherrill Quinn said...

Don't forget that you end up rewriting the thing based on agent and/or editor recommendations... Oy!

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: I like the bathtub metaphor. Thanks for sharing.

B.E.: Hey, I'm with you. My first manuscript was a mess--backstory weighed the opening down, and I depended heavily on narrative. But you gotta start somewhere.

Sherrill: Oh, yeah. Most writers believe they will have arrived once they have an agent or editor. What they don't realize is that this just the beginning :)

Marie Tuhart said...


Love this topic. I'm one of the ones that started off thinking, how hard can this be? By the end of my first manuscript, I went "who was I kidding this is hard work." I've made lots of mistakes in the beginning, but I also learned from them.

Writing is not an easy profession, but it can be the most rewarding one and the satisfaction level at doing something personally pleasing is high.