Four Steps for a Successful New Fiction Writer

#76 - The Harvest Writerphoto © 2010 John O’Nolan | more info (via: Wylio)
When a friend discovered that I am an author and have sold several short stories he asked how to begin writing fiction. And much to my surprise, I had a list of strong suggestions that broke down into four main areas.

Step 1: Write

Yes, if you want to be a writer you do have to put the work in. This is the difference between someone who says they want to be a writer, and someone who is. Don’t have time? Make some. There is no other way.

Step 2: Improve your writing

There are many ways to improve your writing, and depending on what you need and what you’re ready to hear, you can take several approaches. You don’t have to try them all; see what appeals to you:

A) Read books on writing, such as those by Jack M. Bickham, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, and Dwight V. Swain. I know you want to write, not read, but these books give you greater control over what you already (think) you know from reading fiction. Learn the lingo. Know what scene and sequel are? M-R units? POV?

B) Join a critique group, because friends and family aren’t objective and shouldn’t be expected to give coherent appraisals of writing unless they, too, are writers. If they are, then you have the core of a critique group. If you aren’t that lucky then look on meetup.com, inquire at your local library, join an online critique group, or form a new one yourself.

Here are a few online critique groups. Warning, they do require a time commitment:

C) Take a writing course either through local schools, conventions, or online. Keep in mind that the quality varies. So does the price. My own belief is that you should read up and join a critique group before investing. There is no shortage of writing courses. It seems as if the only thing writers like more than writing about writing, is talking about it. The most discussed in science-fiction and fantasy is Clarion, but the course is six intensive weeks, which is hard for most lifestyles and many marriages.

Step 3: Submit your writing

I realize that you’re still critiquing, researching, writing, and re-working. At some point, you have to just get over it and begin submitting. Some people want to start with this step. Others might never arrive there. I say, it’s a necessary part of your education. Take your fragile jewel and send it into the world. Better yet, send a dozen. Odds are, most will be rejected. Go into it knowing that this is likely. Not a short story or article writer but exclusively a novelist? Then submit your opening chapters to contests and agents at conferences. Get real world feedback. You’d be surprised how just having that goal, knowing a stranger will be examining your words, takes you to another skill level. And if you’re lucky enough to get feedback, or to sell a story or win a contest, even better!

It may feel like you’re at everyone else’s mercy, but there are ways to improve your odds. First, have more than one baby. Sure, if your one perfect story is rejected it hurts. You’re crushed. So make sure you are invested in several different stories. Even if they are all rejected, the blows are smaller and you can keep rotating rejected stories to new markets so you always have hope. Even if one market doesn’t like your story, another might. Heinlein sent out stories, got rejections, and sent the story out again. He never made changes unless someone requested them. Be like Heinlein.

Improve your odds by sending your stories to the right markets and meeting their requirements. Logical, right? And researching markets is easier than ever.

Find the right market:

  • http://duotrope.com/– let’s you search for markets and track your submissions. Tells you how long it typically takes to get a response and their acceptance rates. I unequivocally love this site.
  • http://www.critters.org/blackholes/index.html– This page shows publisher response times. In addition to telling you just how long your manuscript is likely to be held up, it’s a list of places other people are submitting to.
  • http://www.ralan.com/m.pay.php– list of markets

Keep in mind that many contests are exclusively for amateurs. Enter them while you still qualify. Submit to markets where you have an edge, such as a special theme months for magazines, anthologies with narrow topics, or exclusive contests that you’re perfect for. Each small win adds to your confidence and the list of credits you’re keeping for that all-important query letter.

Step 4: Persevere

Everyone has to start somewhere. The key is to start and then keep going. Contact other writers for advice, write agents, and query publishers. If they won’t respond, consider self publishing, print on demand, and ebooks. Podcast your novel to find your audience. And above all, keep writing.
Writers persevere.

Hope this is helpful. This is a high-level overview and every step could be broken into more steps. Leave a comment or write me on twitter or facebook if you’d like to chat further. Like I said, writers love talking about writing. And I’m a writer. Are you?

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2 thoughts on “Four Steps for a Successful New Fiction Writer

  1. Heather- I love those tips and have alot of the books you mentioned, like OSC’s “How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction” and “Character and Viewpoint” and the Stephen King book. I also liked Bradbury’s “Zen In The Art of Writing” and I have Damon Knight’s book on short story writing. (I need to get through it though). Another free writing site is the one I podcast for, David Farland’s Writers’ Groups (farlandswritersgroups.com).

    Sign up is free, its sub-divided into groups based on the type of story or novel you’re writing. Check it out!

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