Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How Do I Get Started as a Writer?
Read, read, read. If you’re a true book lover, you’ve been doing this your whole life. And you’re rejoicing in the fact that reading – your absolute favorite thing to do – is a job requirement. As a kid, I couldn’t wait for Saturday because that was the day I’d spend in the library. Not the small library in our town (Commack, N.Y.), which was a humble prefab structure with a limited supply of books.
My mom would drive me in her Ford Galaxy to the Half Hollow Hills Library in the far more posh community of Dix Hills several miles up the hill. I can still see the cathedral ceiling and skylights… and row after row after row of stacks! She would drop me there and come back four hours later. I did this on a regular basis probably starting in fifth or sixth grade. I spent hours in the Fiction stacks, mostly in mystery and suspense YA, and come staggering out the door with a towering pile of books. I devoured them. There is no university degree that can prepare you to write as well as thirty or forty years’ worth of reading this way, week in and week out.
Q: How Do You Actually Write a Novel?
There is no secret! If you’re reading this, you probably have had ideas rattling around in your head for years. Maybe you’ve taken some workshops and learned a lot, enjoyed every minute of it, and produced some really good scenes or chapters. Maybe by now you’ve had the thrill of reading your work aloud to a critique group, and the joy of hearing they liked it. Or at least parts of it. But you just don’t know how someone sits down and bangs out a 400-page story.
The answer: one page at a time.
The only way to do it is do it. Famous writers don’t have a secret handbook that makes it easier for them than it will be for you. The only thing they have that you don’t have (yet) is guts. Because they are brave enough to do what you haven’t done (yet). Which is sit down every day for a year or more and bang that sucker out.
I’ll use a meatloaf analogy. I live in a cold climate and we all like meatloaf for dinner on a winter night. But I hate getting my hands all slimy. I mean, really hate it. So, you crack your egg, put that raw hamburger meat (salmonella! E.coli! eek!) in the bowl, add your bread crumbs and your seasonings, take off your rings and (ick!) plunge your hands right into that cold, clammy mess and mush it around. I can feel it oozing up under my fingernails and getting wedged in there right away. This grosses me out more than I can say. I count the seconds until I can run to the bathroom and wash it off with antibacterial soap.
Writing a story is no different. Notice I am saying the word story here, as opposed to novel. Because the word novel to me refers to a certain type of format. Story is raw. Story is what you create. And you’ve got to be willing to get your hands dirty, and stay dirty squeezing around in the ooze, for many months to get that story down on paper.
Just start telling the story. Start at the beginning and go on from there. I tell my stories in sequence. I have a linear brain. I start at the beginning and tell it in order, each and every scene, until I get to the end. You might change the sequence in honor of the novel (novel implies a product you hope to sell), but that comes later.
Once you have told your story straight through to the end, you have a big, raw mess that needs a long slow session in the oven before it’s ready to serve. Which – you know where this analogy is going, don’t you? – means you’ve got many many hours of editing before that story becomes a novel.
But the big thing is, sit down and tell the story. Make a start. Even just the first few pages. Say a little prayer every day to whatever God you pray to, that you will be granted the courage to go back and tell a little more the next day (even if you’re up half the night worrying about the fact that you have no idea what comes next – - it beats the heck out of worrying about your job, your mortgage, or even the mites that have infected your rosebushes, don’t you think? I’d much rather worry about Story People than real problems). Trust me. The next part of the story will come once you sit in the chair. Not one second before, many days. That’s the magic of writing.
Q: How do I get an agent?
We’re skipping way ahead, far ahead, all the way as far to the end as we can go! Because there is a very long road between writing a first draft and searching for an agent. You have many, many go-rounds of editing (joining a critique group is the best way forward for new writers) before you need to worry about finding an agent.
But it is the question I get asked most often at booksignings and readings, so here is the method I used.
Go to the bookstore or library with a pad and pen in hand. Find the latest releases from those authors whose work is most likely to appeal to readers who you feel would buy your book. They’re probably the authors you love to read.
Make a list of these authors. Check the acknowledgements page at the front of their book. Mostly every writer thanks his or her agent there. If not, head to a computer, plug the author’s name and the word, literary agent, into a search engine.
Here is your list of agents to check out.
Put the agent’s name into a search engine. See what is being said about them. No legitimate agent should charge a fee to read your work. Or charge a fee for any kind of representation (they earn their commission after they’ve sold your book). There is a wonderful website, www.absolutewrite.com/forums, where authors post feedback about their dealings with agents. I really enjoyed reading the comments here and learned a lot.
Once you are satisfied you have a legitimate agent you’d like to approach, check out their agency website and follow their submission guidelines to the letter. If they want email submissions in a strict format, do it. The days of sending a snail mail letter with a SASE may be on the wane, but many still prefer new submissions to arrive this way. Do it. Don’t get even one thing wrong. Make it as perfect as you can. The old adage is true. You have just one chance to make a good first impression. Make a good first impression with a prospective agent by showing you at least know how to follow instructions.
Having worked on the editorial staff of several magazines, as well as in the PR department of a major international airline, I’ve had responsibility for going through slush piles, of sorts. We called it cold pitching. Weeding through queries from writers who wanted to sell my magazine a feature, or approaching my airline for a free business class ticket worth thousands of dollars so they could travel overseas to do research.
It didn’t take long to limit my firm’s dealings to a very small A-list of people I could trust. I was amazed by the poor quality of ninety-nine percent of the queries we received. Some of it was scary – so obviously the work of people battling mental illness – that at times we alerted security. The vast majority was just so poorly done that if it came from my fourth grader I’d hire a tutor. I’m not kidding. Some of it was scribbled in pencil, with well-thumbed copies of copies of copies to show their work.
It’s good news for writers who want to break in. Because if you just craft a good clean query letter with good grammar and follow the submission guidelines, you are bound to make it to the top of the slush pile.
It’s a good place to start.
From there, it depends on how much time and effort you spent editing, and how good the story was to begin with. More on that another time. Feel free to send your questions to me via email.
That’s my take on it. Watch this space for updates.