Everything you need to know about writing a novel can be found in books, at workshops, on the web, and within novels themselves (that’s why reading them is so crucial). And yet, despite writing, critiquing, contesting, and submitting, making a sale can still seem so elusive. Why does one author make that first sale and another doesn’t? What does a successful published author have that an unpublished writer doesn’t? What does she do that gives her the edge? And what doesn’t she do that helps her to make a sale?
Are authors keeping secrets from unpublished writers? Is there a secret sisterhood devised to keep those in-the-know on the inside and the outsiders out? Fortunately, the answer is no. But first and foremost, writers who go on to make that first sale and continue on to successful careers have unlocked open secrets that have helped them on their way.
That’s right. Open secrets. Meaning, available to you, should you choose to use them. Below are some open secrets that you can start using today.
A successful author understands the market she is targeting. No matter how fabulous your paranormal time travel erotic novel is, an inspirational imprint like Harlequin Love Inspired is not going to buy it. While this advice seems logical, many writers submit inappropriately anyway, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. Additionally, a novel that straddles two categories of books usually doesn’t fit either one, resulting in a rejection. Avoid that pitfall. Targeting your novel goes beyond mere word count; you need to consider tone, level of sensuality, favorite hooks, number of hooks, and story content. The best way to do that? Read, read, read. If an author isn’t spilling this advice, it’s usually because she’s too busy reading. Voraciously. Some writers have been known to read 100 books or more in a given line or imprint before writing for that targeted market.
The successful author is a professional, in person and online. Remember all those adages taught when growing up? If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything all. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. And my favorite, Never say anything about a person that you wouldn’t post publicly on a bulletin board. Those so-called “bulletin boards” still exist online. We call them chat rooms, discussion groups, and forums. Sure, with keyboard courage, it’s easy to spill your guts online, but the successful author knows when to remain silent. Why? Because she knows that walls have ears. If you mention something negative about an editor or agent at a writer’s meeting, during a conference, or online, chances are very good it will get back to that person (probably later that day!). And guess what? You just lost a chance to work with that industry professional.
A successful author knows that networking is about building relationships. These relationships may even turn into friendships, but let’s be honest, publishing is a business. Networking is about give and take, but it’s not about using people. If you try to make a connection solely on what someone can do for you, or what information you can squeeze out of a person, then that’s not a relationship at all. Giving back, helping others, volunteering, supporting authors, offering your skills/talents to others are good ways to show you are part of a networking support system and what you get in return will be amazing.
The successful author’s critique of your work doesn’t make your novel ready for submission. If you have the good fortune to have a busy published author read your work (even if just the first few chapters), then you have been given amazing insight into the craft of writing. But don’t go submitting your work yet. After receiving the critique and doing the suggested revisions that are right for you, be sure to follow up with your critique group. Your manuscript may require further in-depth revision. The author might have only focused on the basics for now. You will probably need more work later on. The author understands that you must have the foundation done well before you can move onto deeper revision. For example, if you have lots of confusing “head hopping” of characters in your story, you need to have a basic understanding of point of view before you can move onto more advanced craft techniques, like deep immersion third person point of view or stronger emotion and characterization.
The author’s critique most likely will tell you what you do well in your book and what requires some strengthening. The author, just like anyone, wants to be liked and respected. She wants to be upbeat and encouraging in this tough business. She doesn’t want to hurt you, overwhelm you, or destroy you. Because of that, she can only focus on those elements you need to work on most before you can move onto the heavy stuff. This is a process and an author’s critique is but one step in that process. It’s not the end-all and be-all.
A successful author has never been spoon fed. She actively seeks out the information she needs to constantly improve her craft, often keeping her too busy to spill secrets. Today, information is readily available to you. Learning to write is similar to the student going to university, taking classes, studying for exams, and writing papers/theses for four years. She also goes back and studies her notes often. She applies what she’s learned and builds upon that knowledge. And yes, help is there for you, but it is up to you to be inquisitive, look for answers, and be ready to hear them. And that is why being spoon fed doesn’t work. If you are not seeking the information, actively writing your manuscript, and constantly on the lookout for ways to improve your writing and solve problems in your book, then spoon-fed information is useless. Different writers are at different levels. And that’s okay. Sometimes you might hear information and it may not be important to you at the time, but if you are actively pursuing your dreams, then chances are, a year from now, that same information just might become the ah-ha moment that will take your writing to the next level.
The successful author looks at her work objectively and critically assesses her story based on constructive criticism. If you receive a critique that suggests you have to bring out the heroine’s internal conflict more, what is your response? Many a writer has said, “But I mentioned the internal conflict right here, that she was dumped, on page 35, at the end of this one sentence.” (I’ve witnessed this time and again.) Or, if your standard response is, “It’s coming, it’s coming,” (or anything like that), then you are missing the point. You need to layer more and bring the internal conflict to the forefront of the story.
The successful author understands this, although she may still ask questions to clarify a critique. But she doesn’t waste time arguing or explaining away what’s happened in the story. She knows she has to get it on the page. She learns that the internal conflict needs to go beyond a mere mention of what happened to the heroine on page 35. She realizes she has to dig deep emotionally. How is the heroine feeling about what happened? What are the emotional consequences of such an experience? How has it shaped her as a person today? How does it intrinsically affect her relationship with men, and more importantly, her relationship with the hero? Suddenly a mere mention of internal conflict on page 35 seems inconsequential when the entire fate of the heroine’s future depends on it, doesn’t it?
Sometimes a successful author may not spill about the secrets of writing success simply because her mouth is closed. Why is it closed? So she can listen. It’s a skill she developed early on and has served her well. Listening lends itself to learning…about craft, about the market, about future trends.
Talking about your book won’t help your writing. Talking a good game won’t help your writing. Nor will it get you published. But a funny thing happens when you close your mouth. Your ears open up and you hear stuff. Good, juicy, delicious stuff that can lead to a fabulous ah-ha moment that can skyrocket your writing. If you are a good listener, are a captive audience, sincerely intent on the person (author!) you are talking with, then that person (again, author!) has a chance to slowly open up to you and share a wonderful wealth of information. Even if she is talking about her own work, this is your chance to learn as well as support her by lending a supportive ear. It’s about give and take, without the squeezing of information. A lot of learning can go on, especially over cocktails at a bar or in the smoking area during a conference, just by simply listening.
The successful author constantly learns and adapts. She takes her hits and takes her falls, but she gets up, dusts herself off, learns from it, and goes at it again. She knows that the more times she screws up and the more rejections she gets, the more chances she has to improve, and better her chances of making a sale.
Adapting includes balancing the book of your heart with the book of the market. Due to the volatile nature of publishing right now, industry professionals are hunkering down, not taking too many risks, and seem to be relying on tried-and-true stories loved by readers. So, watch your favorite authors. They are not static. They take their voice, their writing strengths, and strong work ethic and use it to write compelling novels that will sell well in today’s current market, no matter what that market is. Finding that middle ground between writing what you love and writing what readers crave will serve you well.
A successful author has patience. She is in it for the long haul. This is good because getting published doesn’t happen overnight. Neither does developing your craft. Take your time with your writing. Working on your craft, truly understanding the elements to creating a great work of fiction, is a never-ending, constantly evolving process. A successful writer refuses to release her work out to the world before it is ready. It’s important to let the manuscript “cool” and come back to it with a fresh set of eyes weeks later…maybe even months. Why? Because it’s not the writing, but rather, the rewriting that can make a novel great.
Impatience will tempt you to hand a manuscript to your critique partner (CP) although you know of its weaknesses. You hope your CP won’t notice. But if she is a good, honest CP, she won’t let you get away with it. She will critique it, hand it back, and then tell you to take your lovely-but-lazy butt back to the drawing board and do what needs to be done to get the story to be the best it can be. There are no shortcuts; that’s why patience will take you far.
The successful author isn’t spilling this next secret because she’s is actively “doing” this secret. The biggest secret to writing is writing. Writing and fulfilling a daily new-word count remains on the top of the successful author’s to-do list. Building a web site? Not the same as writing a novel. Blogging about writing? Still not writing a novel. Neither is researching, revising, editing, nor polishing. Posting on an email loop may give you a sense of accomplishment, but it’s not writing a novel either. In fact, as you read this, answer this question: did you write your daily new-word count today?
A successful author doesn’t spill these secrets to success too often because she simply isn’t standing still long enough; she doesn’t rest on her laurels. She is too busy on her next project. After completing a novel, taking some time to fill the well is one thing, but once your manuscript is submitted to your dream editor or agent, do you already have an idea for your next novel? Get started on it as soon as possible because an editor wants to know she will be working with a professional writer, not a one-book wonder. Also, working on a new project will help you endure the excruciating waiting game, which could take months or years. When you do get “the call,” the editor may already be chomping at the bit wondering what your next project will be. If you’ve started a new novel, you will be prepared to answer when she asks, “What are you working on now?” You might even be able to turn that single-book contract into a two-book contract. And that is a tell-tale sign of a successful author.
Known as “the Wedding Writer,” Kimberly Llewellyn is the author of five contemporary novels, including her last two published as humorous women's fiction in trade paperback by Berkley Books, Tulle Little, Tulle Late and The Quest for the Holy Veil. Her online workshop, Cracking the Romance Code, will be available at the FF&P Chapter in February. Her website is www.KimberlyLlewellyn.com.
Cracking the Romance Code, presented by Kimberly Llewellyn, runs from February 7, 2011 through February 25, 2011