Never Release Lackluster Writing
You will not be taken seriously as an author if you cannot demonstrate mastery of the English language. Mastery will not be achieved without concerted effort. Brush up on your grammar. Read about good writing. Hire an editor. Garner feedback. Even read your work out loud (or have someone else read your work back to you). Being prolific matters, but a large body of published work that collectively damns you as an incompetent writer will only hurt your odds of success.
Avoid Common Mistakes
Writers are consistently chided for:
- Creating one-dimensional characters
- Failing to develop distinct voices for their characters
- Crafting poor dialogue
- Muddling point of view
- Not being mindful of pacing
- Lacking succinctness and going off on unnecessary tangents
- Providing lackluster settings and descriptions
To develop deeper characters with distinct voices and personalities, turn them into full-blown imaginary friends. Know what their favorite foods are. Know how they like to organize their closets. Know what drives and motivates them. Should you be able to watch a rich, believable imaginary lunchtime conversation between two characters, you will be in a far better position to present them as interesting people in your book. Even minor characters should be given some depth. As Kurt Vonnegut puts it: "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water."
Read your dialogue (and better yet, all of your writing) out loud to ensure that it flows naturally. Keep your point of view consistent and clear. Should it transition from one character to another, utilize chapters to facilitate shifts. Regulate the growth and release of tension throughout your work to avoid lulls that might lose a reader's attention.
You may have an easier time developing distinctive settings by eliminating common words, straightforward descriptions, and and over-used sentence structures from your vocabulary. Doing so would force you to turn sentences like "It was a hot day" to "Heat radiated from the dark pavement in warped, unforgiving ripples."
While great authors stand on the shoulders of giants, they also bring the world of literature to new heights. While it is fine for you to build upon the ideas of those who came before you, it is not OK to plagiarize, nor is it OK to disguise fictional inventions or personal hunches as nonfictional facts.
As a human, you are doubtlessly capable of contributing something new, original, and truly valuable to the world. Do not miss that opportunity by attempting to take shortcuts or regurgitate others' previous contributions.
Do Your Own Research
As tempting as it may be to outsource your research to an intern, grad student, assistant, or online gofer, you had best do your research yourself. You should be able to stand behind everything you write, and only you can be sure that your research has undergone sufficient due diligence.
While it is entirely possible for you to slide by using a research assistant, you may find yourself in the position of having to do his or her work all over again due to lackluster methodology or results. Even worse, you might find yourself defending poorly-researched books after their flaws have been identified by meticulous peers, readers, and reviewers. We don't consider the minor potential reward to be worth the risks. Besides, if you do not love a subject enough to research it yourself, should you really be publishing a book on it?
Don't Skimp on Feedback
No amount of marketing will save a poorly-edited book. Authors standing behind duds have typically failed to:
- Hire a professional editor to review your book (or get the help of a qualified volunteer)
- Have your book edited for grammatical mistakes, flow, substance, and engagement
- Submit manuscripts to relevant contests to get (relatively) unbiased feedback
- Submit manuscripts to publishers (even if you plan to self publish) to test commercial interest in your book
- Get beta readers to provide feedback on your book before it goes out to a wider audience
Do not be afraid to update and improve already-published books after they have been published. Given that ebooks need only be replaced with updated files, improving already-published work is far less of a hassle than it used to be.
Don't Set Impractical Expectations Regarding Success
Becoming Practical about What it Takes
Success does not typically come with one's first novel. Or second. Or third. In fact, many authors write for years before their work picks up. Should you set unrealistic expectations about the imminence and rapidity of your success, you will not likely survive long enough to make any major achievements.
Be prepared to keep your nose to the grindstone and turn out book after book until one catches audiences' attention. Once one of your titles gains traction, your other work will likely enjoy new readership as well. At that point, you will be glad to have created so much work, as you will be so busy contending with attention that it will be difficult to re-enter creation mode.
Dispelling the Fantasy
The fantasy of an author contentedly writing away in a romantic woodland cottage- or typing furiously in a smartly-appointed apartment overlooking the city is not so uncommon. Many like to imagine authors as living magnificent lives- going on book tours, being adored by fans, and signing lucrative deal after lucrative deal with a big-name publisher.
While successful authors do sometimes live in charming houses, enjoy the admiration of fans, go on book tours, and sign deals with publishers, a minuscule number of authors actually enjoy those privileges. Even those who do argue that such perks are not all they're made up to be. Charming houses can feel isolated. Writing a book can be a nerve-wracking, frustrating, horrifying experience. Book tours can be long, exhausting ordeals that remove you from your favorite people and creature comforts. And publishing deals are hardly so lucrative as you might imagine.
For a reality check from the horse's mouth, read Charles Stross' account of an author's lifestyle. While this may be the ideal lifestyle for you, it is most certainly not all chocolate-dipped strawberries and back rubs.
Avoid Viewing the Traditional Publishing Route as "Tried and True"
Authors who are determined to only publish through traditional publishers:
- Experience far higher barriers to entry
- Experience far more variable income (than independent publishers) once contracts are signed
- Typically earn lower margins (as publishers have to pay for sizable overhead)
- Can experience a false sense of security after signing deals with publishers (that will really only cover them for the next six months)
- Are more likely to be caught in publishing scams
Though signing a contract with a traditional publisher brings about a major ego boost, may introduce your work to offline audiences, and is certainly something worth considering later on in your career, we have found that attempting to publish using old-school approaches yields more potential drawbacks than benefits. Authorship now is more like entrepreneurship than it is like working for an employer; you stand to gain far more by creating your own legacy rather than relying on a publishing house.
Avoid Publishing Scams
Should you, as an aspiring author, wish to work with a publisher, do not:
- Pay for an agent's contact information
- Pay agents or editors to introduce you to specific publishers
- Pay agents, service providers, or editors who promise to land you a great publishing deal
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If it seems unbelievably easy, it's a scam. Get references, do your research, and review professionals' track records before signing over time, money, or intellectual property to another party.
Don't Quit Your Day Job as Soon as You Sign with a Publisher
While it is no small achievement to gain an agent and a publisher, the presence of such parties in your life does not mean that you have a sustainable career. Should you only be making money as an author through a traditional publisher, your future earnings are contingent on how well your book performs in its first six months. You will have to prove your worth over and over.
As a self-published author, you may enjoy more stability in the form of monthly royalty checks and control over your pricing and marketing. That said, we do not recommend quitting your day job as a self-published or traditionally-published author until it is clear that you will continue to be able to support yourself from book-related earnings for years to come.
Don't Succumb to Peer (or Publisher) Pressure
It can be tempting as an author to publish work in a specific genre or style because conventional wisdom has it that such work will sell. Beyond general peer pressure, even publishers will push authors to wedge their work into a certain mold.
If a genre or style does not feel right, do not force yourself to work within it. Write what feels natural. Write what you think people really want to read, not what people say is hot right now. Before the Young Adult and New Adult novel boom, many authors were told by publishers that their style of writing would not sell- that it needed to be changed and adapted. Many of those who stayed true to their own styles and hunches (and in many cases, self published their work after being rejected by publishers or refusing to bend to their required changes) have grown to become bestselling authors.
Never Give Up
Your work will be rejected. This will happen whether or not you have talent and potential. Should you give up because your work is rejected by publishers or readers twice, five times, or even 129 times, you will never succeed.
Keep in mind that there are several forms of rejection with which you must be prepared to contend:
- Rejected manuscripts
- Discouraging words from editors
- Discouraging words from friends, family, and other beta readers
- Published books that garner no initial attention
- Published books that get lackluster reviews
What matters is that you intelligently endeavor despite setbacks. Instead of blindly moving forward, learn from your mistakes. Adapt. Turn rejections into opportunities to become a stronger researcher, storyteller, and communicator.
As Calvin Coolidge puts it:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
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