Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Preparing For Success Part 2: Writing

Preparing for Success is a three-part series targeted to aspiring writers. Any writer who decides to pursue publication, whether through self-publishing, e-publishing, or traditional publishing enters a crowded, competitive field. For most of us it will be a long, bumpy, confusing ride. If we use our unpublished time wisely, we will stand out from the crowd and our hard work will pay off.


The shift from writing for our personal pleasure to writing for publication requires a different approach to our work. The time we put in may not change, but the consistency does. We spend more time studying how to make our writing stronger, and we recognize that outside eyes are imperative to polishing our work. We also start hearing terms like marketability, hot genres, likable characters, queries, agents, and proposals. What seemed so easy—if writing is ever easy!—quickly grows complicated and overwhelming.

By chatting with published writers and reading publishing news, I’ve pinpointed key components to master in our writing that will prepare us for success.

  1. Put in the hours.
Sporadic writing doesn’t cut it. Writing for publication is a job, an amazing, exciting, fun job, but still a job. It’s no longer a hobby to pick up or set down at our whim. We must schedule time to write consistently. Whether it’s five hours on Saturday mornings, fifteen minutes every evening, or eight hours a day, five days a week, we must treat our time with respect. The obvious reason for this is to make progress on our projects, but eventually, we will be given deadlines by our publishers. Most of us will not have two years to write a book when we are contracted. We must nurture our discipline now.

  1. Practice doesn’t always make perfect.
The old advice, if you want to be a good writer, keep writing is true to a certain extent. The more we do something, the better we usually become. But if a child doesn’t have a good teacher or coach to show him the proper techniques, he will grow physically stronger, but he still won’t get the ball in the basket or learn how to play his position. The same is true with writing. If we don’t study the craft, whether through classes, books on writing, or by talking to published writers, we will continue to make the same mistakes, and these mistakes will hold us back.

  1. Study. Learn. Repeat.
Writers are always learning. We never “know it all.” And even when we’ve mastered one aspect of writing, we realize we need to freshen up our understanding of a different aspect. For instance, I have a few books on basic grammar that I read once or twice a year. I also enjoy reading blog posts with short reminders about conflict, pace, and characterization, because they refresh the concepts and spur me to improve my scenes.

  1. Read.
This one will make many writers groan, and it’s just my opinion, but I urge writers to read. Read in your genre. Read non-fiction. Read magazines, newspapers, blogs. Read classics. Read comics. Read for fun. Read for work. Just keep filling your mind with other authors’ take on life, and it will hone your own. Reading forces me to question my beliefs, tighten my writing style, and nourish my dreams.

  1. Critique and be critiqued.
It’s no secret we are often blind to problems in our manuscripts. We don’t realize the brilliant chapter that clears up our hero’s past is really a big info dump, or that our heroine is coming across as a shrill psycho until a kind reader points it out. Finding a trustworthy critique partner and having the maturity to accept her assessment propels our writing forward. Obviously, we need to use our own judgment about the advice given, but regardless, we have to be able to take criticism in order for our writing to improve.

On the other hand, critiquing other writers’ work forces us to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in their manuscripts. We can't help but absorb skills.

  1. Study the Market
So you love your historical paranormal romantic suspense set in the twelfth century told from eight points of view. Who wouldn’t? Well, before you send queries out for your masterpiece, it’s a good idea to study agent and editor blogs and learn about marketability. No one is saying you can’t write the story of your heart, but wouldn’t you rather know now if it’s going to be a near-impossible sell?

Marketability isn’t only about hot genres, it’s about what story elements are popular in your genre, what topics haven’t been selling well, the ideal book length, if multiple points-of-view are desirable, if first person or third person works best, if the setting is appropriate, and which publishers will be the best fit for your book.

The days of sitting down and just writing aren’t over, but expect to devote extra time to studying the writing craft and the publishing industry. And try not to get overwhelmed and feel like you have to fix everything at once. It takes time to put new skills in practice, and slowly they become natural to us.

Most of all, celebrate each small success. In many ways, making the transition from aspiring writer to published writer is like earning a master’s degree. We won’t learn everything overnight, but we’ll pave the new information on top of our general knowledge to build a foundation that will last.

What did I miss? What is essential in writing?

Have a terrific Wednesday!


  1. That's a great list.
    I think the only think I would add is 'keep it fun.' If writing becomes something you loath or feel you have to do I don;t see any writer lasting long at it. I think being too serious can kill creativity.

  2. I think you covered it all! I love the reading part. :)

  3. So good, Jill, especially number two. Lots of writing does NOT make perfect, or even good, if we're not taking the time to study and improve that writing.

  4. Jill, great second installment. Could you tell us which books on grammar you are reading? I need to purchase a few. I've read Self-Editing for fiction. I really liked it. Learned a lot. Thanks!

  5. This truly is a must-read for those who want to turn writing into a career. Excellent, Jill.

    ~ Wendy

  6. I love your posts Jill. From a newbie's perspective, it open my eyes in some areas while driving home lessons learned. Thanks so much.

  7. Good morning!

    Tabitha: Oh, very true! Writing should be fun! But I will say this--sitting at the computer each morning can be daunting. Not every session will be fun, but when we hold a finished chapter or manuscript in our hands, the feeling is priceless!

    Laura: Me too! Since reading is my fave hobby, I love that it's also a job requirement!

    Katie: Yes, I know #2 from experience!! Practice without knowledge does NOT make perfect!!

    Jessica P: Of course! I have three: a. Painless Grammar by Rebecca Elliott, Ph.D (This is written as a refresher for high school students. It has exercises after each chapter and is a fabulous reference!) b. Essentials of English Grammar by L. Sue Baugh (This is a slim, easy to use, reference book. ) and c. Chicago Manual of Style (It's the definitive guide, but it's horrible to try to find anything! I use this mainly for nitty-gritty details like italicizing book names and such. )

    Wendy: Oh, thanks, Wendy! And did everyone hear the great news?? Wendy has an agent!! She just signed with Rachelle Gardner!!

    Kerry: Your words mean so much to me, Kerry. Thank you. I'm still learning new lessons all the time!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  8. Absolutely true! (I posted something akin to this yesterday after I saw an interview with Mark Cuban. He said "the only thing a person can really control is his effort." That struck me as an essential piece of advice for everyone, but particularly writers.)

  9. Excellent tips, Jill! I think passion is a must, even when it's not in every writing moment, because I always feel like I can tell when a story was just plopped out there as opposed to when the author writes it with great feeling. Hope that makes sense.

  10. Great tips, Jill! I'd agree that passion is a must. If we don't love writing, it shows in our work. We're not going to put the effort needed into it.

  11. These are wonderful tips Jill. I learned recently, and the hard way, not to lose momentum. Even if my day falls apart and I didnt' get to put in the writing time I wanted, I need to open up my project and do something with it...even if just re-reading character sketches or the last scene I wrote.

  12. I'd say passion...the best butt warmer when ours are stuck in the chair for all those hours.

  13. Karen: Effort--absolutely. No matter what, we can feel good when we've given our project maximum effort.

    Jessica N: I agree. If we don't feel anything when we read our stories, how can we expect someone else to? Passion is a must!

    Stacy: And I think passion weeds out the writers willing to continue their pursuit of publication. This isn't for the lackluster!!

    Lynn: Momentum is a huge deal. It takes me twice as long to get into a story if I take too much time away from it!

    Jaime: Ha! Thanks!

    Em: Passion IS a butt warmer! (And a butt enlarger at times. I can't tell you how many M&M's I've eaten trying to muster the passion to write that day!)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  14. Wonderful advice! I wouldn't change a thing about this list...and I need to apply it more assiduously. :)

  15. I think you covered it. You must celebrate the small successes - finishing the novel, a difficult chapter, or revisions...etc. And keep focused on the positive.

  16. Awesome advice!! I love that you point out how we have to continue our education as well as practice. I think that's so true!

  17. Jill, this is awesome. I'm constantly learning, trying to get to that point where I don't doubt my skills, and where I know enough to make my first drafts lovely. But that isn't reality. No one knows it all, so I'll just soak up the awesome information that's out there and just keep learning!

  18. Great list, Jill. I've nothing to add. =)

  19. Great advice, Jill! 4 and 6 on the list struck me. It can be hard for writers to briefly stop what they're doing to read someone else's published work or study the market, but it's so helpful in the long run.

    What would you say is better suited to writing fiction these days? Chicago Manual of Style or the classic Elements of Style? I'm looking to add to my references. Thanks for your help!

  20. Great question, Brandi! I'd like to know as well. Jill, great list. Writing is work, and until we look at it that way, we probably won't get very far.

  21. AWESOME post, Jill. I esp. like the point about Practice doesn't always make perfect. I agree! Practicing is essential, but not necessarily enough! (How's that for a profound statement??) It takes all of the things you state--getting good critiques, studying the craft, reading, attending workshops, etc.

  22. Another awesome post. Thanks :)

    Due to sickness I had to set my writing aside for a year. I am now recovered and excited about my return to the keyboard, but the last two weeks have been a mental slog. It's amazing how one year off can have such a huge impact on my writing.

    Slowly I'm making my return and posts like yours are doing wonders :)

  23. I think you nailed it - Reading and Practicing are my two number one necessities for writing....

  24. Erica: We all have our moments! Sometimes I more on top of them than others!

    Loree: I'm so with you on celebrating the small successes!

    Lisa: I always cringe at how easily I forget basic concepts! For me, continuous education is vital. :)

    Julie: I've given up on the perfect first draft. My process is that I make my books good through multiple rounds of revisions. I'm okay with that!

    Keli: Thanks! :)

    Brandi: It is hard! But it's worth it. And I would say Elements of Style is valuable to read and study, while Chicago Manual of Style is great to look up random picky grammar rules (you don't want to read this bad boy--it's a pain!). I own both and refer to them often.

    Susan M: True! Thankfully, it's fun, rewarding work!

    Patrice: I learned that one the hard way. I just made the same mistakes over and over until I devoted myself to learning!

    Melissa: First, I'm sorry about your illness but so happy you're on the road to recovery. How wonderful! Try not to put too much pressure on yourself. Ease into it with small, daily goals. You'll feel great about your progress when you meet little goals!

    Tiffany: Reading is my favorite thing to do, so I'm thrilled it's part of my homework!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  25. Jill, what a great post. Some of us are natural storytellers and have always had a voice. I'm one of those and thought for so long if I read about how to write or learn from others I might lose my voice. I was very wrong.

    Reading, learning and offering help are the keys to being a good writer.

    I have learned so much by offering to help others and taken away much more than I gave. And listening to other authors when they critique my work is where I put my ego away.

    A wonderful post. Thank you

  26. Dannie: Thanks! I agree with you on helping others. I always learn something! It's a win-win in my opinion!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!


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