How To Get Started

This chapter appears to be in the wrong place. Most how-to-write books place it in the beginning—after all, if you don't start, how can you ever do anything?

I place this at the end because I don't think it does you much good to start unless you understand what you're starting. Some of you may already have completed manuscripts; others may not have put word one down on paper. I believe the first half of this book gives you the tools to start and complete a novel. The willpower is up to you. The second half gives you the information you need to submit your completed work and get it published.

What about something in between, though? What about getting some publishing credit before finishing the epic novel (something that may even help the sale of the novel)?

Most creative writing classes focus on the short story as the basic building block. My opinion is that a good short story is much harder to write than a good chapter in a novel. That is because you have to have the complete story in the short story whereas the chapter is just a continuation of a longer story. Also, a short story usually is better written style-wise than a chapter in a novel simply because there is more focus.

The problem is that it is extremely difficult in the present market to sell short fiction. Top-notch freelancers with glittering resumes supply the top of the line magazines. The bottom of the line doesn't pay you for your work. And, like book publishing, there doesn't appear to be much middle of the line in the short fiction magazine world. I've noticed, though, the short story market is starting to pick up a little bit.

One way to get around that is to find a new niche. I listened to a short story freelancer talk one time and his niche was adult Christmas stories. He'd narrowed his subject matter down to that area and focused on it and had been quite successful, not only getting quite a few stories published in reputable magazines, he'd also had a collection of his short stories published. Of course, he also worked full-time as a lawyer.

My recommendation is that if you want to write a novel, then write a novel. Don't spin your wheels writing short stories unless you feel you need the practice in writing. Don't get me wrong—it is certainly excellent practice but don't look at it as a way to make money unless you are very good. Short story writing skills don't necessarily translate into successful novel writing.

If you do want to get published in a magazine, my choice there would be to write non-fiction articles for sale. The first question I always get back is "I'm just a student/housewife/candlestick-maker. What could I write about?" Well, write about school, home or the candlestick business is usually my answer. Pull out your atlas and look around at a hundred mile radius of your home. Is there any place interesting that you might be able to write about? Where I lived in Tennessee, about fifty miles up the road in Kentucky is the Jefferson Davis Memorial—sort of a smaller version of the Washington Monument sitting there in the middle of a small town (Davis's birthplace). Bet most of you don't even know where Davis was born, never mind that there was this large monument to him. That's an article waiting to be written and I've pitched it to several students so far.

So far, my articles have been about—you guessed it— writing. But to start with I narrowed my area down. I combined my two careers—writing and the military—and sold an article about writing for military members to Life In The Times, the supplement to the Army/Air Force/Navy Times. You have to know your marketplace. Again, that last line focuses on the business aspect of writing. No matter how great a writer you are, if you don't have an idea how to operate as a businessperson, you aren't going to get very far. I've done this enough that now the editor at Life In The Times calls me every time the supplement comes up.

The economics of becoming a writer is very difficult. Even if you get a manuscript accepted for publication, the odds are very strong that you still won't be making a living off of writing. It will take as long to become a good writer, as it will to become the good architect we talked about earlier. Many people have the talent—not many have the courage and fortitude to go where that talent can take them without any guarantees of success.

The other problem is that not only does it take time, but there are no job openings with salaries in the classified section of the newspaper. (Of course there are some jobs that are writing related, but I've never seen an advertisement for "unpublished author" yet). Novel writers are generally self-

employed which is a difficult way to live for many people. If you desire the security of a monthly check and a company health plan and retirement, forget about writing for a living.

I feel that the life that someone lives prior to getting published is part of his schooling to be a writer. I spent years in the Special Forces, during which I was not writing novels, but I was experiencing a life that I was able to use in my novels later on. Whatever you are doing now is part of your preparation. The other things you can do to prepare for a writing career is to read extensively.

Another thing that I did wrong in the beginning, and I now recommend, is to network. Go to writers' conferences and workshops. Meet other aspiring authors. Meet published writers. Meet editors and agents. One nice thing about the field of writing is that there is no sense of competition. You aren't going to meet established writers jealously guarding their knowledge because you might steal their contract. As I said before—everyone will be helpful if you have a worthwhile manuscript.

A path many people take is the masters of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing. I know next to nothing about this path so I won't say much. I do wish I had had a better background in literature when I had begun writing. In my third year writing full time I signed up for 6 credit hours in graduate literature courses and found what I learned there to be useful. Another big advantage of the MFA programs is that you are around others who want to write.

But sooner or later you do have to start writing. Earlier in this book I mentioned where some famous writers found time to write before they made a living at it. I just read another interview with a young female author who wrote in steno pads that she carried with her everywhere and wrote in every chance she had. Think of all those times you've sat there with time on your hands. Again, like the Nike commercial says: Just do it.

I don't mean to be discouraging but you have to be very realistic when you consider being self-employed. When a publisher cuts you a $5,000 check for signing a contract, it seems in the publisher's eyes, that you just made $5,000 in profit.

The reality?

Your agent takes 15% off the top so you're down to $4,250. You have overhead like your computer, printer, paper, fax, laser cartridges, etc. etc. You have taxes including the 15% up front for being self-employed. You need health insurance. You'd also like to retire some day won't you?

So in reality, in most cases when you get that check, depending on how long it took you to write the book, you've probably lost money. No one knows for certain, but I would say there are only a couple hundred people in this country who make their living writing novels.

What would I do if I were an unpublished author with a complete manuscript right now?

First thing I would do is start writing a second manuscript ... Too many writers get caught up on marketing their one and only manuscript that they put all their eggs in one basket. You've learned so much from writing the first one, the best thing to do is to put all that to work in writing a second one. Also, remember, the odds are you will get a two book contract. You might want to be well into your second if that does happen.

To market that first manuscript (while I'm putting most of my energy into writing the second one) I would do the following:

1. Write a good cover letter.

2. Write a good one-page synopsis.

3. Research agents and editors and make a list of at least 10 agents (non-fee charging) and 50 publishers (ranging from the big ones in NY, to the one down the street working out of a garage). I would then mail to one agent and ten publishers on week one. Then another agent and ten publishers in a week or two. Then keep that up until I run out of agents and publishers. This way you spread out the rejections—just joking. This way you keep your hopes up.

I would also try to attend a writing conference where I might meet some editors, agents and authors.

And then, I would never quit.


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