Many aspiring writers have approached me with these words. “I want to write a book.” That’s a good goal. So why don’t I show more enthusiasm when I hear these words? The problem comes when writers want to start by writing a book.
Veteran writer and editor Terry Whalin says, “80% of people feel like they should write a book and get paid for it.” Why do so many people want to write a book? Well, it sounds like fun. You get this great idea for a book and you start playing around with it until it becomes a parallel existence with reality. You have decent English skills and determine to make the time to write the book. Why not just do it and become a rich and famous author?
Does the paragraph above makes perfect sense to you? If so, I’m not a prophet, or the daughter of one, but I can see disappointment in your future. It takes more than a basic knowledge of English and a good idea for a plotline to write a successful book. Even very experienced book authors start books, maybe even finish them, only to find that they cannot sell them. I’ve got one of those books. I’ve gotten good responses from several editors about the book. I’ve had the first chapter critiqued by a professional who said she thought it had a good chance at publication. But in spite of trying to sell it for many years in many forms, it just hasn’t found a good fit with any publisher.
Of course you can publish a book if you want to badly enough. You can pay to be published or you can self-publish. We’ll discuss a few of those options in my next article. But if you’ve never had anything published by a traditional publisher, you are probably not ready to write a book for publication.
Writing for publication is a very specific kind of writing which is more art than grammar. Those articles and books which you find easy to read probably required extra skill and effort to write. Writing takes study and practice to do well. If you have a strong desire to learn that skill, you probably can learn to write for publication. But the best way to start is with articles and short stories.
Shorter pieces allow you to practice your writing. You will gain even more benefit if you write pieces specifically targeted at certain markets. Write and rewrite. Read good articles on writing. Get feedback from others. You may find a critique group helpful. When the article or story is your best effort for your current skill level, submit it to a publisher. If she gives any comments, listen and learn without being defensive. Learn and grow with each article.
Maybe that seems like a lot of trouble to go to when you just want to write a book. But if you are not willing to endure the discipline of the learning process, you will probably never publish much anyway.
What do you gain from starting with articles and stories and submitting them for publication?
First, you develop skill. Some of the ideas in my articles may not make sense to you now. You may read books on writing and find that the ideas sound good, but you don’t know how to put them into practice. The more you work at writing and rewriting and polishing, however, the more you will understand basic writing principles. Your writing will improve, even if you don’t notice it at first. In time you will look back on your early efforts and see that you have learned more than you thought. Some ways of learning writing skills are more effective than others, but somehow you must learn those skills. Every writer should be a lifelong learner, constantly seeking to improve.
Writing articles and stories for publication also helps you understand the market. As you write for various publications, you study the market to see what different publishers want. If you’ve done your homework, you only send articles which are targeted to meet the needs of individual publishers. You learn from rejection as well as acceptance. In time you may find a niche, a publisher with whom you work particularly well. With that publisher you have a good chance of acceptance, because you know how to give the editor what she needs. All of that helps you understand the market.
As you begin to get articles and short stories accepted, you also build relationships with editors. An editor watches to see if you are willing to learn, take criticism well, honor your commitments, and work hard to meet his needs. If so, he may be willing to make small but helpful suggestions. He may be able to recommend you to other editors. Guard your relationship with every editor you meet. Always act as professionally as possible. I go by this rule: the editor is right even if he is wrong. Be careful not to say something, in the heat of a moment, that you could regret later.
Writing articles and short stories also allows you to earn some credentials. Let’s say that you send an absolutely brilliant book proposal to an editor. And we’ll say it actually grabs his attention and he thinks the book could be a good fit for his publishing house. But you have absolutely no writing credits. He’s got to wonder lots of things. Do you have the skill and credibility to bring the book to completion, even if asked to make major changes? Will you work with him or against him when he makes suggestions? Have you truly learned good writing skills or is he going to have to teach you these himself? Will you be reliable and work to meet a deadline? If you have absolutely no name recognition will many want to read your book? If he’s going to risk major money to produce your book, he’s got to have a strong indication that you will be able to deliver. Every book author had to start with his first book, but earning credentials with shorter pieces will help build credibility with book editors.
But let’s say you’ve already written a book. You put a lot of time and emotional energy into it. You’ve never had anything published, but now that you’ve written the book you don’t want to throw all that time and energy away. What do you do?
Well, you could start sending it out to a lot of publishers without knowing what you are doing. You could spend more time and energy,and money as well, and come back bitterly disappointed. Sorry, but the chances of you doing any better are extremely slim.
You could self-publish the book. You can guarantee that it will be published this way. If, however, you haven’t developed your writing skills sufficiently and you end up publishing a poor quality book, this book could tarnish your future reputation. If readers read one of your books that they don’t like, they may never want to try another one of your books. We all learn and grow in the writing process, but if you’ve never had anything else published, chances are you aren’t ready to publish a book.
Don’t throw the manuscript away! But this is what I recommend: Put the book away for safekeeping. Follow the steps I have outlined in these articles and begin to submit articles or stories for publication. Attend a writers’ conference and read some good books on writing. Work at submitting shorter pieces on a regular basis until you start getting some of them accepted for publication. After you’ve gotten ten or twenty shorter pieces published, take out your book and look at it again. Can you see areas in which you have grown in your writing? Do you see areas in which you need to grow? Are you honestly ready to write a book? Probably not, but you may be able to start thinking about it.
When I started writing, most Christian publishers would consider book proposals sent in from freelance writers with whom they had no previous contact. Today, however, many publishers only accept book proposals from agents. They may accept proposals from authors they have met at conferences or authors who have been referred to them. Selling a book to a publisher today is not impossible, but it certainly takes experience and know-how. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is only beginning to write for publication.
That may not be the news you wanted to hear but there is good news. Writing for publication is entirely possible for the person who is willing to learn his craft and consistently submit articles or short stories to appropriate editors. Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that books are the only thing worth writing. You may actually make more money and reach more people by submitting articles to magazines and other periodicals. At any rate, writing shorter pieces is definitely the way to begin.
Book publishing has changed dramatically in recent years. For more about book publishing options see my next article.