Monday, August 4, 2014

10 Steps to Success as a Novelist--Summer Rerun, sort of

Note: Yep, this is a summer rerun, too, but I've done some tweaking. Are we not all editors at heart?

One perk of being a published writer is gaining credibility whether I deserve it or not. I'm frequently asked to speak to church groups, book clubs, service groups, and writer groups. I love it! I'm a teacher, first and foremost, and a bit of a ham.

I spoke at my first writers conference not long ago. They asked me to speak on what it takes to be successful in publishing. (Don't worry, I'm doing research!) These are my notes on 10 steps to success (I know, there are more than 10. I'll have an addendum in my handout):

1. Determine if you're a dabbler or a writer (This is from Sharon).

A writer will trouble over the perfect word, insist upon writing draft after draft until the manuscript sings, dream about her characters, forget to eat, listen to critique and make changes as needed, and never, never, never give up even in the face of repeated rejection. A dabbler is easily discouraged.

2. Read poetry.

We've all heard to read the best fiction the world has to offer. Let me add poetry to your reading list. No other writing form can train you on the power of word economy. And poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary. I've learned to see my world more fully through a poet's eyes. Above all, a novelist must be an observer. It's the details that bring authenticity to our stories.

3. Care about people.

Be fully engaged with the people around you and take every opportunity to broaden your circle of friends. LISTEN to people. Hear their stories. Become part of their stories. As a novelist, you write about people. And since I believe you have to love your characters--the good, the bad, and the incorrigible--you should practice loving the people around you. The result will be more fully developed characters and a broader variety of personalities.

4. Duct tape yourself to the chair! (From Latayne)

A writer writes purposefully. Some writing teachers will say you have to write every day. That works well for some people. It's impossible for others. I say, find what works for you. Come up with an achievable goal, even if it's a paragraph a day while sitting at soccer practice. And do it. My goal is to write 1,000 words per day. I find that is about my limit for creating slop in one day. Apply duct tape as needed.

5. Learn the publishing biz.

Oh my. The publishing biz is really changing with eReaders and self-publishing and the economy upending the publishing houses. Go to a writers conference and make a gracious pest of yourself by asking every editor and agent what is going on in publishing. Be a student of the industry. Read professional journals like Publisher's Weekly, The Writer, and Writers Digest. There are many more!

6. Don't stagnate.

Take classes. Read books. Grow as a storyteller and write the very best story you can. By the way, this is the strongest element of your marketing plan. 

7. Ask your prospective agent these questions:

  • Will you read my story?
  • Will you offer editorial comments? (This is becoming more typical as the publishing houses are looking for manuscripts that are ready to go. Also, sadly many publishing houses are letting editors go to save money. And we LOVE our editors!)
  • Do you LOVE my story?

8. Fall in love with your craft.

Genius is highly overrated and possibly nonexistent. On the other hand, you can't quench the passion of loving your art. You will do anything to perfect your technique. You will gladly--almost without notice--invest the 10,000 hours it takes to master a skill.

9. Be patient.

It just so happens that all of us are learning this at the moment, and we aren't exactly happy about it. You have to be patient with people who have promised to be beta readers but have gone AWOL, an endorser who eats your manuscript for breakfast, your agent may seem to be sitting on your manuscript, a critique partner keeps rescheduling, and/or agents aren't as much in love with your story as you are...and they're dead wrong. It only took God six days to create the earth, but publishing moves much slower. I hope you're the one exception to this, but that's not what I'm hearing.

10. Define success for yourself

Let me ask you a few questions: Are you a born storyteller? Is entertaining people one of your gift areas? And here's the tough question: Can you be happy with a small audience? Is connecting with your reader the reward you crave, or are you hoping for a rancho in Napa Valley? We hear get-rich stories about big-time writers all the time, but the reality is quite far from that. If you're going to pour your life into a story, you must love what you're doing and define success for yourself. For me, telling a redemptive story that entertains is a huge challenge. The payoff is hearing that people connect with the characters and say that they look at the world and eternity a little bit differently. 


Nicole Amsler said...

Edit others.

It can be constructive criticism in a writer's workshop group or the silent red-lining you do in your head when you read published books. Editing others helps identify the same errors I am blind to in my own work.

I absolutely agree with 1-9. Thanks!

Kathleen Popa said...

Be gentle with yourself. Everything doesn't depend on you. It actually depends on God, and he is good.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Tweeting this as soon as I'm done sharing my 400 cents. ;)

Loved what Nicole and Kathleen added.

There's a certain dance that needs to happen with your work. You need to develop keen sensory skills with knowing when to draw close to it and when to create some distance. I'm learning so much about this right now.

Hope I expressed it well enough, but my gut says you know what I'm getting at.

~ Wendy

Laura S. said...

I agree with Nicole. I've learned a lot about my own writing from critiquing others' work in my creative writing classes. For example, I'd point out something that wasn't quite working and discover I was doing the same thing in my own story. It's very helpful to be part of a critique group!

Patti Hill said...

Nicole: Wonderful advice. Anything that drives you crazy in other people's writing is probably in your own to one degree or another. Also, editing the work of others gives you the emotional distance to get the job done.

Kathleen: Yes! Oh boy, picking #10 is going to be tough. I'll include an addendum to the addendum in my handout.

Wendy: Ah, the dance. Very tricky. Very necessary. I understand exactly what you're saying.

Laura: I can't write without a critique group, either. It's great practice for working with an editor, although my editors have never laughed at me.

Nicole Amsler said...

How about retitling the speech to 101 Steps to Success? I think we can all contribute many more truths to writing, beefing your list up.


Patti Hill said...

Nicole, bring 'em on! I'll add your ideas to the handout and give credit to anyone who submits.

Kate said...

Thanks for sharing these great ideas. It is helpful for the beginners(me) to have a few points to ponder!
Blessings and joy!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Great list! I especially like the description of writers versus dabblers. I've been known to miss a meal or two. Or, unfortunately for my waistline, I sometimes do the opposite...Pace around my kitchen munching on chips and candy until the perfect word pops into my head. :)

Stephanie Reed said...

Very nice. I especially like the poetry point. I read Emily Dickinson. Children's classics are good, too. If you haven't read Old Yeller in a while, you're missing out. It's a masterpiece.

How do you define success in publishing? Just getting published? Or is it based on sales? Something to think about.


Mark 9:23 says, "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes."

Yes, edit others and belong to critique groups. Learn the publishing biz and check your manuscript for the errors that make editors cringe. But if you want to be successful in publishing, you have to really, really believe you can do it (with God's help). If you don't believe it's possible, no one else will.

Patti Hill said...

Kate: Thanks for stopping by and encouraging me with your words.

Sarah: I keep baby carrots and dry roasted almonds around for nervous nibbling. I may turn orange.

Stephanie: I start the class offering a wider definition for success. Publication isn't always the destination. Every piece I've written has forced me to think harder about faith, love, and who I serve. Trust me, I wouldn't think this hard if I didn't have to.

Eric W. Trant said...

Stephanie NAILED your #10. I can't top that one.


Isn't that little faith in ~ourselves~ what so many of us lack.

- Eric

Samantha Bennett said...

Love this post and all the comments! I especially love your #2 step. Ah. Good for the soul.

Patti Hill said...

Eric and Samantha: Thanks for joining us. Appreciate your amens.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Totally agree with the point about reading poetry. Some writers treat words like house bricks - practical, necessary components to build the story they desire. Others (like you) love the medium itself as much as the end result. That's what distinguishes the labourers from those who are true artists with words.

Also loving your point 3. You know, I hadn't really thought about it that way before. So very true.

Meg Moseley said...

Those are all excellent points. I wish I'd seen this list about fifteen years ago.

I would add: Try new things in your reading and in your writing. Explore and experiment until you recognize your niche and your voice. If you don't know yourself as a writer, nobody else will know you, either.

Cynthia Schuerr said...

These are all great steps to follow.
Thank you so much!

Be authentic in your voice......
Your words are God given, so don't try to change too much. Let your voice come from your heart and be yourself.

Anonymous said...

I love the advice about reading poetry. I have a couple of books of poetry already, but haven't read through them completely yet. The two I have are Dan Gioia and Emily Dicksinson, and I really want to get Amy Clampett's collection of poems as well.

Carla Gade said...

Thanks for sharing your notes and asking for feedback from us, Patti.

There's one for you - connect with your writing peers, published authors, and industry professionals. Networking is a valuable resource. I did a whole workshop on this at a writers conference last month. This is how we can learn, be encouraged, make professional relationships, find mentors, help others, sharpen our skills, find opportunities and so much more.
(This can be done off and online.)

I hope your speaking engagement goes well!

Anonymous said...

Great point, Meg. I find it especially true. In my years of learning who I am as a writer I tried several genres and found my niche in Women's Fiction. For me it was like arriving. And now I'm experimenting within my genre: different tenses (I love present tense!), different types of POV characters, etc. It's like splashing in the perfect pond.

Terri Tiffany said...

Wonderful!! I love the unique way you have presented them--refreshing!

PatriciaW said...

Love this. Dabbler vs. writer. Oh, how I've struggled with this, wanting to be the latter but acting like the other.

I find that LaTayne's suggestion works well, although scrubbing off all that adhesive makes for longer showers.