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The Road to Publication: Tips for the Journey

Through the years, a lot of people have asked me what it takes to become a novelist. Sometimes I think they’re looking for a secret formula, or an easy way to achieve success—like those ads that promise you can lose ten pounds in a week, safely and painlessly. I wish it was that simple!

Truth be told, there is no easy way to achieve success in the world of fiction. In the end, it comes down to innate talent, hard work and more than a few lucky breaks. As I often tell audiences at speaking engagements, I truly believe writing is a gift—much like the ability to paint or draw. You either have it or you don’t. My husband is a wonderful artist; I can barely etch out a stick figure.

But let’s assume the talent is there. How do you go about learning to write a novel? What does it take to be a novelist?

Best-selling author Leon Uris had an answer to that question. He said the ideal writer would “own the concentration of a Trappist monk, the organizational ability of a Prussian field marshal, the insight into human relations of a Viennese psychiatrist, the discipline of a man who prints the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, the exquisite sense of timing of an Olympic athlete, and by the way, a natural instinct and flair for exceptional use of the language.”

Somerset Maugham chimed in on this topic, too, with a much more pithy reply. He said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

So…where does that leave an aspiring writer? Intimidated, for one thing! At least that’s how I felt when I sat down to start my first novel.

But if writing is in your blood, you pursue the muse despite the daunting challenges and despite the less-than-favorable odds of publication.

I’ve been a published novelist for more than 20 years and have sold 30+ books. Some people might say that makes me an “expert” on writing. Nope. I still learn something new every day—about the craft, about the business, about my own abilities. In fact, the more I learn the more I realize how much more there IS to learn! So what I’ll offer you today are simply some observations about tactics that helped me land my first contract—and that continue to help me grow as a writer.

  1. Read a lot—especially books similar to ones you’d like to write. And read with a critical eye. Why does a particular scene work? How does the writer use dialogue? How is point of view handled? Does the book drag anywhere—and if so, why? What is the mix of narrative and dialogue? Does the author break any “rules”? If so, how did that help—or hinder—the story development? What made this book stand out for you? It’s amazing how much you can learn if you analyze what makes a book a tick. Even better, do this exercise with some fellow writers and learn from each other.
  2. Join a professional writers’ organization. I highly recommend Romance Writers of America, which has a monthly magazine that alone is worth the price of membership. And the organization puts on a fabulous annual conference that provides amazing learning opportunities and also gives members the opportunity to mingle with some of the stars in this genre. You don’t have to be a romance writer to benefit, either. The organization is also a good source of general industry information. But there are many other good groups out there, too. Find one that focuses on the kinds of books you want to write. The networking and information exchange is invaluable.
  3. Master the basics. I can’t emphasize this enough. My background is journalism, and in a former life I was a magazine editor. I can tell you that when a story with typos, misspelled words, incorrect punctuation or bad grammar crossed my desk, I considered it unprofessional and the piece—as well as its author— immediately lost credibility. Book editors feel the same way. If you have trouble with any of these things, bone up on the technical aspects of writing or have your manuscript vetted by someone with these skills before submitting it. (English teachers are good resources for this kind of review.)
  4. Start writing—and keep writing! I had three books finished before I sold my first novel. And yes, there were days when I got discouraged and wondered if I’d ever sell. I amassed a file full of rejection letters before I got “the call.” But because I kept at it rather than waiting to sell the first book before I started another one, when I did sell I had three completed manuscripts ready to go. And my first publisher bought all of them!
  5. Once you feel your manuscript is ready for publication, start submitting it. As important as it is to polish a book before sending it out, remember that it will never be perfect. Waiting for perfection can paralyze you. So get all the technical aspects polished, make sure the book is the best you can write at that point in your career, and go for it.
  6. Listen with an open mind to input from editors and other writers. This is often one of the hardest skills to master. We all make such a personal investment in our work that it’s hard not to take literary criticism personally. But when we do that, we often get defensive—and that can blind us to very good suggestions. Remember that if an editor responds with a personal letter, no matter how many criticisms or suggestions it contains, it means your manuscript caught his or her attention. That’s a huge accomplishment in itself. So consider the comments a free class in fiction writing and learn from them. That doesn’t mean you have to incorporate an idea you don’t agree with, or change your voice. It just means you should take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the experts and use that to advance your career and develop your talent.
  7. Set aside time to write—and do it on a schedule. It’s way too easy to find other things to do, but if you have a schedule you’re more inclined to actually produce. I recall someone once asked a famous writer if he waited until inspiration struck before he sat down to write, and he said something like: “Absolutely. And I make sure I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock.” That sense of discipline—of making yourself write even when the muse is hiding or you’re not “in the mood”—is, to me, the sign of a professional writer, whether you’re writing full time or juggling your writing with a day job. Even an hour three times a week is a schedule. And it signifies commitment.
  8. Finally—believe in yourself and persevere. This is a tough, tough business rife with rejection. We’ve all heard stories about writers who get multi-million-dollar deals for their first book. And yes, it happens. But it’s very, very, very rare. Most novelists try for years to get their first contract. So don’t let rejection get you down. Continue to hone your craft, do another polish on your rejected manuscript and send it off again. And while you’re waiting to hear back, start a new book!