My updated list of advice for writers at any stage
As far as writing goes, I’ve received A LOT of advice. Some solicited, some not. Some immensely helpful and some that just didn’t resonate with me. I try to keep a level head about it all, understanding that what works for one won’t necessarily work for all. Here is my most current and updated list of advice, in no particular order. Feel free to add to the list in the comments. I’m always open to learning and “listening.”
Advice I’ve been given (and my counter/additional advice by default):
1. “You need an agent to sell your work.” You don’t, but the right agent can definitely help you. Plus, once you have a contract offer from a publisher, it can be easier to find the right agent to help you negotiate the deal. I sold my first few books to an editor on my own and, three books later, got an agent.
2. “You need to pay a reading fee before we can consider your work.” Run if you hear this. It’s simply not true. Make sure you’ve done your homework and that you’re sending your work to reputable professionals in the business. Know who their clients are and what types of deals they’ve brokered. Research, research, research, and, yes, it's okay to ask questions.
3. “You need to work in publishing to sell something.” (Simply not true.)
4. “It’s all about who you know.” Also, not really true, unless you’re famous, which will help because then you’ll have a built-in audience which will help the publisher sell kajillions of books. Bottom line (in my opinion, of course): if your manuscript is amazing, have faith that it will find its place when the timing is right, market-wise. Even if you’re BFFs with the executive editor at Fancy Publishing House…if your work isn’t ready or if the trends are elsewhere, it’s going to be hard. (It’s hard anyway.) Keep focused on your work, getting it where it needs to be, writing/story-wise.)
5. “You should get an MFA in creative writing.” That depends. While you certainly don’t need the degree itself to publish a book, unless you want to teach at the college level, an MFA can be beneficial if the program supports your growth as a writer. If you don’t need the degree and have an amazing support system in place for your writing growth and publishing goals, i.e. a fabulous writers’ group that reads/critiques your work in a beneficial way and gives you the opportunity to read/critique their work; and if you also have a book group that studies work, looking at it for literary devices such as point-of-view, characterization, plot, setting, themes, dialogue, structure, etc., etc. then you may not need the classes.
6. “You don’t need an MFA in creative writing to publish your work.” (See #5.)
7. “You should make this adult suspense book a young adult sci-fi-romance (or equivalent) because that’s what’s hot right now.” What’s hot right now will likely not be as hot in a year or two years. Trends change, so don’t chase them. Write the novel you want to write. Focus on your intention for the story and characters. What is your goal in delving into this particular story?
8. “This story just doesn’t work. I don’t get it.” I was told this about my novel Bleed, which sold in a bidding war a year later and is now a podcast series. Trends change. Tastes change. You kind of have to go with your gut as far as your own work goes. Do you really believe in it? Do you truly feel the story needs to be told? Or was it a story that helped you get to the next one (which, by the way, is invaluable in itself)? Resist letting others make that choice for you.
9. “I just don’t feel this book can compete in today’s competitive market.” Months later I sold that book, Blue is for Nightmares, to an editor who believed in it as much as I did. It’s spawned a series, gone on to sell over a million copies worldwide, become a podcast series, and is now being developed for a TV series.
10. “Once you sell one book, it’ll be easy to sell another.” Not true. Even New York Times bestselling authors have to work and struggle to get book deals. There are no sure-things in this business. It can be tricky and painful for sure, but those of us who stay in the game do so because we can’t not. Writing is our love; it's a major part of who we are and how we make sense of the world.
11. “You need to get on TikTok.” Do I really? My audience is mostly teens. Do they really want to see a middle-aged woman making coffee, eating breakfast, babbling on about her day/her to-do lists/her DIY manicure, etc.? Is that really going to sell books? Maybe. I’m not so sure. I recently asked my college-aged students – (I was teaching a young-adult writing workshop) – if such videos would entice them to buy books from the author. I also showed them a few examples of young adult authors’ TikToks. The answer was a resounding no; they didn’t want to see the author on TikTok, but they did want to see young people talking about the authors’ books on BookTok. They agreed “Book-Tokking” sells books. The author talking (on TikTok anyway) was just “cringy.” Again, with all advice, what works for some won’t necessarily apply for all. I’m sure there are many, many authors whose TikToks have helped sell their books. But this author is still on-the-fence about it.
Advice from me:
1. Set yourself weekly goals to keep yourself moving forward with your work. It’s how I’ve been able to 18+ books.
2. When it comes to your work in progress, be open to discovering along the way. Even the most skilled plotters will deepen their knowledge of the characters in the process of writing the story. Be open to exploring where that character’s intentions/motivations/psychology take you in the story. And, yes, that means that sometimes you may have to deviate from the original plan.
3. Feeling stuck in your work? Move. Take a walk, hit the gym, do some yoga… Another option, take a notebook and pen and try writing longhand. Start with the basics: what does your character want, why does he want it, what does she need to learn in order to get it. Third, discuss your writing glitch with someone. The other person doesn’t even need to speak, but sometimes just hearing yourself speak enables you to figure things out or think of them in a new way.
4. Be kind to yourself. Know that writing is hard. It takes discipline, lots and lots of brain activity, and a talent for storytelling, language, psychology, sociology, not to mention genre-specific disciplines such as history, criminology, law, biology... It’s freaking hard. Honor that. Give yourself time. And, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t or that you should be doing something else. I received over a hundred rejection letters for my now bestselling book.
5. Consider joining a writers’ group. It may take some trial and error to find one that works for you – one that’s supportive and that also honors your intention for your story. I’ve been a member of groups that were immensely helpful. I’ve also been a member of groups that weren’t serving me/my story/my growth as a writer. I had to let those latter groups go. It’s okay to shop around for a group. It takes time and can be a bit arduous (and awkward), but there’s nothing like having a squad of like-minded writers – to cheer you on in the process or drafting, editing, and trying to sell a work.
6. Be open to learning and getting better in your craft. This comes from reading, listening well, talking to others, doing your research… As you read, ask yourself why a book is working (or not working) for you. What is it, specifically? The voice? The characters? The story arc? The genre? The structure? The point of view? What can you learn that will help you with your particular story? The same exercise can be applied to movie- and TV-watching. What is it about the story, the characters, the dialogue, the themes that work (or doesn’t). I’m still learning, 18 books later.
7. Treat yourself to the little things that make you happy. You’re writing a book, examining the human experience in some way, so treat yourself well with healthy-ish things that will help get you to the finish line, e.g. a solid 7+ hours of sleep each night, good coffee, dark chocolate, healthy lunches, perks for hitting certain word counts, etc., etc. Imagine yourself running a writers’ retreat for bestselling authors. What treats, plans, or services would you offer the writers during their stay? Now, what will you offer yourself?
8. If you don’t love a book you’re reading, it’s okay to put it down and not go back. Not everyone is going to love every book. It’s important to remember that for your own work as well.
9. Always keep a notebook with you (or use your phone). You never know when an idea is going to occur to you.
10. Don’t compare your success to others. Keep moving forward to become the best writer you can be: to tell the most authentic stories that only you can tell.
11. Make time for friends. Yes, you have a lot of work to do, but it’s important to maintain relationships that are healthy, meaningful, and supportive - and that offer perspective and joy.