How To Do It Right...Guaranteed!
by D. J. Herda
So you want to be a novelist. No, I stand corrected. You want to be a rich and famous novelist. The first one in your family. The one whom F. Scott Fitzgerald once said writes for fame, fortune, and the love of beautiful women. (Or whatever.)
Well, I can’t tell you about the rich and famous part. I’ve been publishing books since my early twenties, and I’m still looking for that end of the stick. But I can tell you how to get that first novel published. Honest to God. It’s my own ten-point program, and it’s absolutely guaranteed not to fail.
Guaranteed not to fail! Did I catch your interest? Good. Now hang on tight, because we’re going for a ride.
Step 1. Forget all about becoming a published novelist. Huh? But that’s what I just promised to teach you. Oh, don’t give up on the dream, and certainly never give up the quest. Keep on writing your very best fiction. Keep on writing, editing, rewriting, and writing some more. But don’t concentrate on getting published. That will come when you’re ready to be published.
Once you’ve finished writing your novel, put it aside and begin another. Do all of your fiction writing in your spare time. You’ll need the majority of your days to complete the other nine steps.
Step 2. Read the works of a wide range of writers and choose a few whom you admire. My list, carefully culled over nearly forty years of writing, includes Donald Barthelme, William Saroyan, J. D. Salinger, Friederich Duerrenmatt, Oscar Wilde, and Herman Melville. There are others, of course, but these form the cornerstone of my literary library. Each of the writers on my list has a very strong literary voice, writes top-notch dialogue, and possesses a good sense of humor. Not coincidentally, my writing does, too.
That means either that I consciously chose to admire writers who write like I write or—ah-hah!—I subliminally chose them because I wanted my writing to read like theirs. Get the point? No one should ever set out to copy another writer’s style. Just as no two people think alike, no two writers write alike. But it certainly makes sense to find out what it is you like about your favorite authors and strive to improve your writing in those areas. Reading their works will help.
Step 3. Get a job writing news stories for a local or community paper.
But wait! You want to be a novelist, not a journalist!
Yes, but journalists have the opportunity to write every day, to write something that other people are going to read and comment upon, and to write something for which they’re actually going to get paid. That builds both literary strength and confidence.
Now, if you’re good enough to land a full-time job at the Chicago Sun-Times or the Miami Herald, more power to you. More likely, though, you’re going to find the best hunting grounds to be a small weekly paper looking for stringers, or part-time reporters, to cover those notoriously glamorous beats such as town council meetings, high-school sporting events, and restaurant reviews.
As you write, you’ll find your style getting crisper, leaner, and more readable. You’ll also learn for the first time that nothing you write is sacrosanct. Everything is editable. And learning how to edit your own work (also known as critiquing) is one of the perks of being a journalist. Until you learn how to be scrupulously honest about your writing, you’re not going to be a good writer. Guaranteed.
Step 4. Buy a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam Webster’s Manual for Writers & Editors. You can find them new at Amazon.com or used on Ebay. Thumb through them. Consult them often. Consider them your bibles.
Step 5. Go to the public library at least once a week. Spend an hour or two simply rummaging around. Check out Books in Print to see what publishers are publishing these days. Browse the library’s collection of books on how to write better, more successfully, and more effectively—although don’t take all that advice too seriously. Sit down in a cozy chair and thumb through a few different magazines—periodicals you’ve never seen before and to which you would never have dreamt of subscribing.
Peruse the reference section and look through those books you never knew existed—like The Encyclopedia of Modern Humor or the Dictionary of British Nautical Terms. What you’re doing, of course, is expanding your horizons while seeing just what a wide range of material has been published over the course of literary history.
Once a month, stop by the children’s library to see what’s new at that end of the literary spectrum.
Step 6. Pick up a CD of Sibelius or any other instrumental music or mood music. Pop it into your computer and play softly in the background while you work on your fiction.
I used to aim at writing fiction at least one hour a day every day of the week. Today, that seems pretty arbitrary, but you should try to write as often as possible. Do it when the mood is strongest—whether that’s at 5 in the morning before the rest of the household awakens or late at night.
Remember, even if you write once a month, that’s better than not writing at all. Keep in mind that, the more time you devote to writing (and following the other steps here), the faster you’ll be on track to getting that first novel published.
Step 7. Become an editor. Run an ad in your local newspaper or on the Internet, offering your editorial services to others. You’re equipped to do so now, remember? You’ve been reading The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam Webster’s Manual for Writers & Editors for months. Start taking in other people’s work and freelance-editing it for them.
If freelancing is not your bag, apply for a job as an assistant editor at a local newspaper or magazine. Assistant editor is a good place to begin because you’ll be doing the bulk of the work and won’t have to provide a long rambling c.v. of previous editorial experience.
Within a matter of months, you will be a helluva better writer than you were before—simply because you’ll have run into every writing blooper imaginable…and been paid to correct it.
Step 8. Start studying effective query letters. As an editor—either freelance or on-staff—you’ll have the unique opportunity to read a wide variety of queries. Some will strike you as being very effective; most will not. Pay attention to what the best query letters do and how they do it. Chances are they open with a teaser, follow up with some pertinent details, and close with a pitch—the coup de grace.
Try writing a few sample query letters—also sometimes called proposals—of your own based upon what you’ve learned. Read and re-read them. Change them. Hone them. Refine them until they are the most concise and effective proposals possible. Keep a copy of the best one to use as a template for future queries.
Although writing an effective query letter may be difficult at first, in time, you’ll be writing them in your sleep.
Step 9. Write a nonfiction book. Remember all of that stuff you learned while perusing the public library? All of those facts and figures? Decide what area of reality you are interested in—sailing, teaching, reading, eating, baking, pond building, child raising, or whatever—and become an overnight expert.
Create a query letter or proposal based upon your interests and area of expertise that you think you can bring to the world. Interested in diving? Narrow it down. Don’t offer a publisher a book on “diving,” but rather a book on “diving in the Bermuda Triangle.” Don’t offer a publisher a book on child rearing, but rather a book on “rearing a child with Attention Deficit Disorder.”
In other words, find a topic you like, apply your knowledge to the subject, and attempt to fill an existing gap in the marketplace. Don’t worry that we’re talking nonfiction here. It’s all part of the master plan. And it’s the easy way into book publishing.
Step 10. Dig out your favorite novel—most likely, the one you wrote last. Go through it from the very first page, reading every sentence out loud so that your ears can catch any awkward phrasing or stilted dialogue. The ears invariably hear better than the mind, so reading aloud is the best way to catch problems.
As you read, make whatever changes you find necessary. Cut out any dead wood. Sharpen dialogue and concepts.
Once you’re satisfied with the results—that is, you’ve read the novel all the way through and, at the end, actually say to yourself, “Damn, that’s good!”—work up a query letter that concludes like this:
“May I send you an outline and the first three chapters of my book, either by e-mail or regular mail? I look forward to hearing from you.”
Send the queries to every editor actively acquiring the genre you’ve written. (You’ll find a searchable list of publishers by genre in Writer’s Market or on-line at http://writersmarket.com.)
It’s only a matter of time until you hear something positive.
And the rest, I guarantee, will be a matter of history.