You’ve decided you want to become a writer, to see your work in print and read by the entire world. Maybe you’ve felt you always had the talent, but you’re not sure you have enough knowledge. I’ve been there. Although there is plenty of information out there about writing, it’s hard to find everything all in one place. I’ve searched the internet, talked with writers, and learned through my own trial and error. This article covers everything you could possibly want or need to know, and includes links to a plethora of websites that will help even more. It also answers some frequently asked questions. So, before you settle down at your computer to write your first sentence, read this:
Do I need a degree?
No, you don’t. It isn’t necessary to have a college degree to be a writer. It is, however, a very good idea. It takes much more than a good imagination and a little natural talent to be a successful writer.
Very few colleges provide a Creative Writing degree. Most have English majors with a concentration in Creative Writing. These programs offer courses on fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and many other writing styles. Generally, the classes are small in number so the students can have one on one time with the professors. Fellow students contribute by commenting on each other’s work. With a Bachelors degree in English and Creative Writing, you will have a wealth of information, and your writing will be stronger. Also, if for some reason you change your mind about being a writer, you could go back to school to become a teacher.
Here is a list of colleges that provide Creative Writing degrees: College Matchmaker
With your degree in hand, you need to decide if you’re ready to take on the writing world, or if you should continue on to get your Masters degree. The Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing program is designed, and is perfect, for those pursuing a writing career. The program revolves around creative writing technique, and, typically, the final thesis is a finished work. Like the undergraduate programs, the courses are small and allow for one on one time with professors.
Here is a list of colleges that have MFA programs: Creative Writing Graduate Programs
What if you can’t go back to school full-time to get your Masters degree? Many people have jobs and family, or can’t afford the high price of graduate school. There is another option: low residency MFA programs. These programs allow you to stay at home. You travel to campus for a short “residency” that usually lasts from seven to ten days. These residencies are like writing conferences. You meet with other students, take workshops with visiting authors, and meet with your mentor. While working with your mentor you figure out a game plan for the semester. Then you go home and get to work, sending your mentor your work throughout the semester, and your mentor replies with his/her critiques. These programs are great for writers with families and full-time jobs. They are also a lot cheaper than full graduate programs. Tuition generally includes room and board during the residencies.
Here is a list of low residency MFA programs: Low Residency Programs
Baby steps: Getting your work, and name, out there
Every writer wishes that all they need to do is sit down, write a book, sell it, and become famous. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for most. You need to write, and write a lot, but just writing isn’t going to get your work out to the world.
The problem with contests is that they are generally used by companies to make money for themselves. They charge a fee, and give a small prize. Many publishers won’t care if you won a contest because chances are they’ve never heard of it. However, there are a number of well-respected contests out there. Not to mention, any amount of prize money is good to have.
Poets and Writers has a great list: Writing Contest Database
Whether online or print, literary magazines and journals are an excellent place for your work. Get your stories into The Georgia Review, or a much smaller publication, and you can officially call yourself a published writer. When researching journals you need to visit each website and read their submission guidelines. Many of them will offer a copy of their magazine at a discounted price so you can get an idea of what they are looking for. You could also check to see if your local library carries it. Don’t just send out your stories to every journal you hear about. It’s a waste of your time, and theirs, and is one of the many reasons why it is so hard nowadays to get your foot in the door. Do your research and only send your work to the journals who like what you write.
Poets and Writers also provides a great list for magazines and journals: Literary Magazine Database
Have a knack for writing articles? Then try your hand at freelance writing. Not only is this a good way to practice your writing skills, and create a portfolio, but you could make money at it as well. Many writers make a living off it. There are a number of places where you can get started:
Associated Content: They pay you upfront for your articles, as well as giving you performance payments for all the hits you receive on your articles. This is a very good place for beginners.
Helium: Contributors to the site rate each other’s articles, and your payment is based on that. They also have a marketplace for outside places looking for writers.
Demand Studios: This site pays a lot more for your work, but they are also a lot stricter. Once you have proven yourself at Associated Content, you could give Demand Studios a try.
Constant-Content: At this site, you set your own price for an article and wait for someone to buy it.
Preparing to write a book
Read, and then read some more: Once you’re done with that, read some more. Whatever genre or age group you are planning to write for, you need to know what is expected and what sells. The best way to do that is to read works from that genre and age group. That doesn’t mean you can only write in the styles that sell. You are allowed, and I encourage you, to be unique.
It’s also important to do your research: When you are writing a fantasy novel where your hero wields a sword, it might be a good idea to read up on swordplay. If you’re writing a novel about miners then you should research mining. It seems obvious, but there are a number of times when I’ve read a book and found a simple mistake. You aren’t expected to know everything, but it makes a book more believable if it seems like you do.
Create a loose outline: I don’t think I have ever written a story where the ending is exactly as I first planned it to be. Write up a brief outline of what you want to have happen within the next few chapters. Then start writing. If you get a new, and better, idea then go with it. You aren’t required to follow your original idea exactly. Keep writing outlines as you go along. This will keep you on task, and you can just write without have to stop and think about your next step.
Writing the book
Always try to write at least a little bit everyday. If you wake up sick and groggy, and you just can’t seem to write a half-decent sentence, then don’t force it. However, that doesn’t mean you should waste the day watching television. Take a break, and then go back to work. It’s better to write something bad that you can rework later, than to write nothing at all.
There a number of websites that will help give you writing tips. These are valuable places for writers to visit. Many of them are written by successful writers that want to help aspiring writers, like you. Browse these sites, especially when you’re in a bit of a writers block, and use the information to better your work.
Be A Better Writer: The link takes you to a checklist of writing tips that every writer should use.
Fiction Factor: An online magazine for fiction writers.
Writer’s Digest: Sign up for their newsletter and you’ll get a free ebook!
Don’t forget to save numerous back up copies as you’re writing. Periodically email yourself your work as well. You don’t want to lose everything, do you?
Re-writing the book
I know it’s said that the first try always comes out the best, but I’m not convinced that holds true for writing. Once you’ve finished your novel, read through it from a creative perspective. You will probably find many areas that you suddenly don’t like, or want to change or reword. After that, read the manuscript a second time. This time use an editor’s perspective. Check for grammar, or sentences that don’t read well. Use the tools provided above, and check to make sure you follow those guidelines. Every time you make major changes, read the book again. If you are anything like me, you’ll never feel your work is perfect, but at some point, you have to say it’s at near perfect and call it finished.
While doing this, it is also a good idea to have someone else read your work as well. Have them read it twice, too. First, have them read it from a creative standpoint, and then from a critical perspective. Make sure they write down anything that pops out to them, the good and the bad, and beg them not to be too nice. When you get your book published, don’t forget to thank them in your acknowledgements. It will make them feel special.
Do I need to copyright my work?
Not really. Once you write it, it’s yours and no one else’s, but it’s also a good idea to protect your work if you feel it is necessary. You can trust legitimate agencies and publishers, but I know I am always nervous about sending my hard work all over the internet and through the mail and wondering who’s getting their hands on it.
To copyright your work go to U.S. Copyright Office. You can file your work electronically for $35.
If that seems too steep of a price to copyright everything you’ve written then there is what they call the “poor man’s copyright”. This is when you mail a copy of your manuscript to yourself. That way there is a date stamped on the envelope and you can use that as proof of when you wrote it. Do NOT open the envelope, ever. This is not a guaranteed protection, and should only be used as a precaution while sending out your queries to agents and publishers. It will not hold up in court if you have to sue someone.
The dreaded query letter
You’ve written your bestseller, and now you need to get it noticed by agents and publishers. Unfortunately, you can’t just send your work off to an agent and expect them to read it. They get tons and tons of stuff every week, and they don’t have time to read entire manuscripts unless they are interested in it. So, agents ask for query letters. These letters are usually about a page long, and require you to sell your work in that short space. You have to convince the agent, in just a few sentences, that your book is worth reading.
It seems impossible, and completely unfair. However, it is not impossible. I’m not going to spend much time on query letters here because the internet is filled with articles and how-tos on the subject. There are entire books written on the subject. There is so much out there because a writer’s entire career tends to rely on that short letter.
I do suggest writing more than one letter and having someone read them. One of them might be perfect, or you might need to mix something from each letter to form a new one. The point is, keep re-working your letter until it is perfect. It is good to show a bit of your personality in the letter, but not too much. You should also get straight to the point, but still be informative. Writing this letter is a very daunting task, but don’t freak out about it. You’re a writer, remember? You can handle one measly letter.
Agents and Publishers
Do I need an agent?
No, but also a very big YES. Very, very few publishers nowadays accept unsolicited manuscripts. They won’t even look at your well-written query letter. Those publishers that do accept query letters and manuscripts call the tons of work they receive the “slush pile”. Your work could be sitting on someone’s desk for over six months before that hired reader, who’s been staring at typed words all day, finally scans your hard work before tossing it aside and sending you a form letter rejecting you.
Publishers like agents. They like them because the agent has read your work, helped you edit it and tweak it, and has made it the best it could be. Publishers trust an agent’s word on what will sell. With an agent, the publisher will actually read your work.
What’s great about agents is that you don’t pay them unless they sell your work. They generally receive 15% of what you earn. When you’re making millions of dollars, that 15% will just be pocket change.
Sounds great to me! How do I get an agent to represent me?
You send them your nicely written query letter. Like with literary journals, you should visit the website of every agency and read their guidelines. Some only want a letter, while others will allow you send them a few pages of your manuscript. You should also research each agent at the agency to figure out which one would best represent your work, and to address your letter to them specifically.
Also, like literary journals, do not just send off your work without doing the proper research. Agencies are bombarded with queries every day. If you don’t follow their guidelines, they will toss aside your work without looking at it. Not only does that hurt you, but it also hurts every writer who does follow the rules but lost their chance for representation because the agency didn’t have time to read their query thoroughly.
Keep track of your letters
You can send out multiple queries, and in fact, this is a good idea. Just make sure you mention that in your letters, and offer to give the agent exclusivity if they request it. If an agent asks for exclusivity, and you grant it, you can no longer send the manuscript to another agent that might request it, until the first has given you a reply. So, be careful when deciding who you grant exclusivity to. If you haven’t heard from the agent you really want to represent you, then you might want to wait until you do.
Keep a list of every agent you have queried. When you get a reply, mark it on your list. I like to keep my rejections, and you will have plenty of them, and I separate them as “good rejections” and “others”. I claim a rejection as “good” when the agent took the time to send an actual reply, or to give me a little help. I will keep them in mind for the future. Many agents will send a form letter, apologizing for being too busy to do anything else. Although it is disheartening to receive those form letters, feeling that your work didn’t matter to them, push the feeling aside and keep believing. Those agents could still be there for you later. For those agents who can’t even bother to send a form letter, who needs them?
Just never give up.
Finding an agent
Look at the acknowledgement section within your favorite books, or within books that are in the genre you’re writing. Many authors thank their agents.
Here are some of the best websites that list agents and what type of work they represent. Use these sites to create a list of agents, but then visit the agency websites before sending out your queries.
AgentQuery: One of the best sites for finding the right agent for you.
1000 Literary Agents
So, sending queries to publishers isn’t a good idea?
Not really, but it also couldn’t hurt. If a publisher, like TOR Fantasy for example, accepts unsolicited manuscripts then go ahead and try. Your work just might make it through the slush pile.
It is good to look at publishers to get an idea of what places publish your type of work. That way, when your agent is looking for a place for your work, you’ll know about the publishers he/she is sending your work to. It is always good to know as much as you can.
Publishers Marketplace: Find publishers, agents, and editors here! An indispensible site for writers.
A few extra tips
Absolute Write Water Cooler
This forum has an amazing amount of information, provided by writers just like you. If you need information on an agent you heard about, look them up here and you are sure to find everything you need to know. Other writers will provide their own personal experience with agents and publishers. This will help you get an idea of whether you would want to work with them or not. If an agency is a scam, someone on that forum will know about it and will warn you. There is nothing better than your peers for some of the best, and honest, information.
This wonderful place provides a list of agents and publishers that are actually scams. They also mention agents that have had some iffy behavior. A writer has to be careful, and this website is the best protection you can have. If an agent charges you for services, or offers someone to edit your work for a fee, then they will be listed here. If an agent or publisher’s contract charges you an outrageous amount of money if you say one bad word against them, they will be listed here. Always check this website when you are unsure about an agent or a publisher.
Every year Writers Market puts out a new list of every agent and publisher out there, what they represent, and how well-known and established they are. You can buy this in book form, or you can sign up on the website to access everything. It costs around five dollars a month to subscribe, but they also offer you a one week free trial. You could use that free week to get as much information as you can out of the website. You could also visit your local library since they generally carry the book.
This book is mentioned a lot by writers because of all the information it provides. There are usually tips on writing query letters, as well as information on dealing with agents. There are also different versions of the book, for short story writers, children’s book writers, and a guide to literary agents.
If you’re interested in buying the book, or any of the others: 2010 Writer’s Market
Literary Market Place
This book has it all. It also costs about $300. Before you start choking, I am not telling you to buy this book. You can visit the website and sign up for its free services. You can search for agents, publishers, and journals. The free service will give you the names of all these places, and that’s all. You will have to find each individual website to find out anything about them, but since you have to research each place’s guidelines anyway, then it doesn’t matter, does it?
If you want, you can purchase a weekly subscription to the site for $20 and use that time to gather all the information you can.
Take advantage of what your favorite author has to offer
Some of the best places to find help with writing are directly from your favorite authors. Visit their websites and see what they have to offer. Many of them are more than happy to help and provide tips and guidelines that worked for them. Some help with writing tips, some share their query letter that helped them snag an agent. Christopher Moore, author of Lamb, has an entire forum for discussing the creative writing process. Visit it here: So You Wanna Be A Writer?
These writers know what it’s like to work hard on a book, to get rejections from agents, and to finally succeed, and they want to help others attempting to do the same thing. No, they aren’t going to read your work for you and give you feedback, so just take what they have to offer on their websites.
With all this information, you are now ready to start becoming a successful writer. I can’t wait to read your books someday!
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