10 Things Beginning Writers Should do Before Trying to Publish a Book

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Here’s more about the mistakes I made so you don’t have to. If I had worked harder on these things instead of doggedly piling up wordcount without having a clue what I was doing, I’d have saved myself a lot of time and heartbreak on my road to publication.

1) Come Out of the Writing Closet

It seems half the people I meet are “working on a book.” A lot of them have been working on that same book for years — even decades.

But they never show it to anybody.

Many of them also never read writing guides or blogs or magazine articles that might improve their writing skills. This is especially true of memoir and other nonfiction writers. They don’t think they need to know about writing craft if they’re writing nonfiction.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Nonfiction needs to be even more carefully structured than fiction — especially memoir. A simple chronology almost never makes for compelling reading. (For more on writing memoir, see my post on How to Write a Publishable Memoir.)

Then there are the writers who pile up files of half-finished stories and essays for years and never polish them or send them to potential publishers.

And I remember a writer who proudly told a Facebook group that he’d paid a vanity press to publish his book. But he’d never shown his writing to anybody. He wanted to know where he could find beta readers before he sent in his manuscript. Ack! (And of course, a vanity press is almost never a great way to publish a debut novel.)

I know why they do it. I was a “closeted writer” in my early writing years.

If you don’t show your work to anybody, and don’t compare it to anything in the marketplace, you can hang onto the fantasy that you’re a fabulous self-taught genius who has so much talent you don’t need to take a class or learn anything about writing craft.

Hey, you went to college. You’ve always got your nose in a book. Of course you know how to write.

Um, maybe not. You may love to drive, but that doesn’t mean you can build a car.

If you hope to publish someday, spending years in a writer-closet will not work in your favor. You’re setting yourself up for nasty disappointment and/or some serious scamming.

2) Develop Rhino Hide

One of the most important reasons to get out of that writer closet is to build up the soul-callouses a writer needs to succeed in this business.

I recommend that beginning writers join a critique group. A writing group can be a great way to learn the ropes without taking a bunch of expensive writing courses, and networking with other writers can help in your career. Often groups can improve your writing. Sometimes they can’t.

But a very big benefit is that they’ll help you toughen up and learn to process criticism.

Hey, if you’re scared the people in that critique group might be hard on you? Wait until you read your reviews. Yes. You’ll get bad reviews. All writers do. It’s the dues you pay for membership in the published writers club.

I know it’s all painful and crushing to your creative soul, but we have to learn to take this stuff with grace. Unfortunately, rhino hide is part of the job description. Ruth Harris wrote a great piece on growing that rhino skin.

3) Read Bestsellers, Especially in Your Genre

It’s amazing how many people who want to be writers do not read. Try to talk to them about books that have sold in the past 5 years and they go blank, or get huffy and say, “I only read the classics.” (Which they probably haven’t opened since college.) I hear so many new writers say they don’t read bestsellers because “they’re all crap.”

Which is usually followed by statements like:

“I’ve read Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner…and every word Vonnegut ever wrote. You seriously expect me to learn from reading books by some Kardashian’s ghostwriter?”

The problem with that argument is that you can’t enter the marketplace if you don’t know what buyers are looking for. As brilliant as the novels of Virginia Woolf are, they’re not bestsellers right now. And even if you are the reincarnation of William Faulkner, you’re probably not going to attract a lot of 21st century readers writing lush, Southern Gothic prose. You need to learn how to write for the people buying books right now.

No, you don’t have to read celebrity tell-alls. But you need to read voraciously in your chosen genre. And yes, literary fiction is a genre.

I once read a great piece of advice from an agent who said you should read the debut novels of top-selling authors in your genre. Don’t only read the stuff superstars are putting out now they’re famous. See what popular writers first created that allowed them to break into the business. Studying those will help you break in, too.

And beginning writers of nonfiction, I’m talking to you, too.
Many beginning writers don’t even Google their subject to find out how many similar books are out there.

Even though nobody in your immediate circle may know what it’s like to be married to a narcissist or care for a parent with dementia doesn’t mean the books aren’t there. (Amazon lists over fifty pages of books on narcissism and at least that many on Alzheimer’s disease.)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t write on these subjects — they are popular and most people need more education about them — but if you intend to publish, you need to know what’s available so you can approach your subject in a fresh way.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

7 thoughts on “10 Things Beginning Writers Should do Before Trying to Publish a Book”

  1. Re: Number one- Danger, danger, danger!!

    Usually it is the “not ready for prime time” wannabes who show their stuff to everybody and anybody. The closet dwellers tend to be more self-critical and suffer from imposter syndrome but they don’t inflict themselves on innocent bystanders. Unless you’re a youngling the closet is the safer place until you actually know what you’re doing and why.

    Which is where Number Three comes in. A big part of “doing your homework”, that. It’s not just wannabes that go tbat route, though. Many an experienced writer thinks that because they have been competent in one genre they will be competent in all. (Gore Vidal, for one.) Such a creature has yet to materialize. Even Asimov knew better and steered clear of romance.

    As Dirty Harry Callahan said (more or less): “A person has to know their limitations.”

    • The problem is, in the US we’re intentionally taught that we are afflicted by limitations.

      We’re taught what we can’t do instead of what we can, or what we can’t do without input from others. That even goes to something as insignificant as storytelling, an art form most of us practiced even before we were aware the alphabet existed.

      • When it comes to wannabe writers, it’s a feature,not a bug.
        Self defense.

        Real story, at the day job:

        “I hear you read SF. I got a story I wrote. I can bring it in so you can tell me what you think…”

        ” Uh, sure… One of these days… But right now I’m working my way through PERRY RHODAN. In publishing order… It’ll be a while… “

  2. Even genre writers who are writing for commercial purposes would be wise to avoid some of this.

    1) OK, so you’re writing genre X. What age group (generation) is your target? Do you really care if it’s not the largest demographic currently buying woke YA books in the genre? There are many possible targets — you don’t necessarily have to go for the lowest (largest) common denominator.

    2) Do not, do not, do not… expose yourself to the critique of people who know as little as you do unless you have a VERY thick skin. (I’m looking at you, most writers’ groups.) Not only may they be useless as guides (no experience, wrong genres, wrong ages), they can be guaranteed to find something wrong — as many things as possible. After all, they would have nothing to say unless they did. Now, if you can find one or two friends or colleagues whose writing opinions you trust, then buddy up, toughen up, and go for it — those discussions can be helpful, and far less calculated to be motivated by scoring competitive points.

    Little is as fragile as the ego of someone dabbling for the first time in something creative far from their current comfort zone — why break it? [This is not a personal complaint — I avoided writing groups, though I’ve spoken to a couple since. But I’ve personally broken into fiction writing, musical performance, and semi-pro photography fields (creativity in public) and my memory of being a newbie admiring the work of masters I could never equal is still vivid. Some of the angst can be avoided, and should be.]

    Frankly, I don’t care if people want to nurture their muse in private with work that is not perhaps appealing to others. The journey itself has value (c.f., Diary). Even vanity presses serve a purpose, as long as your primary aim isn’t profit. While the “So you want to be a writer… here’s how” movement is worthwhile and serves a purpose, not everyone needs to be commercially motivated, down to the level of “study exactly what bestsellers do today and in what genres, and imitate that”. Not everyone wants to write in an arbitrary genre in an arbitrary (and transient) style. Maybe that won’t be wildly commercially successful, but a successful creative should be able to find a sweet spot in the middle of “what I want to write about”, “how to write”, “who would pay to read it” that satisfies their muse without losing money.

    I do support group guidance on how to format, edit, publish, distribute, etc. — the pointers into the what to do with the work once created and the business around it — those tips are much more invaluable.

    • Those last are required of anybody serious enough to do the homework.
      After tbey outgrow the 8-year old mentality of “I’m special”.

      Commercial writing is a business, not ego stroke.

      • I vehemently disagree, Felix, with my tongue firmly in cheek. The only possible explanation for commercial publishing is orientation toward ego and not business. And the less said about what “literary fiction” has become since the 1950s…

        • Can’t argue with the general case.
          However, I think there are two exceptions as far as narrative fiction goes:

          First, the obvious: the outliers. Folks competent enough to live up to their ego. Few but they exist. Each one a different case. Rowling is nothing like Grisham who is nothing like Sanderson who is nothing like… the few. Black Swans each. The only thing they share is they know exactly what they are doing. and don’t care about what pundits offer up.

          Second, the clear-eyed: folks who don’t go into the business expecting success. Just “let’s see what happens”. This includes a lot of Indie, Inc. Folks who aren’t disappointed by modest, steady success and instead just go with the flow. Folks who define “success” as something other than “big bucks! ” They too know exactly what tbey are doing.

          Neither group includes the folks the OP has in mind.

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