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.