Beginning writers (and I know, because I was one, and interact with them daily), are plagued with something we’ve all been plagued with: not knowing what we don’t know. That’s a malady everyone in any new career, new business, new artistic venture, new country, new neighborhood, new culture, new life situation (such as becoming a parent) and so on, experiences at some point in their lives. And it’s okay. We just need to learn how to learn, and for writers, that can be one of the most difficult lessons to learn and absorb.
When I first started writing (decades ago), I thought everything I wrote was gold. I truly believed that what I was writing was going to be met with ticker tape parades, that I’d be invited to Johnny Carson or David Letterman or maybe even to some famous author’s lavish literary party because my novel was that damned good. Oh, and I’m talking about my first draft—not a carefully crafted, edited, rewritten, workshopped novel, but my first draft. Yeah, no. That, my beginning writers, just ain’t how it works. At all.
Beginning writers (or beginning anything) aren’t learned in the ways of writing. They may have degrees in literature, of which there are many, though in the U.S. degree programs that still exist, they’re mostly English Literature or some form thereof. That’s not to say that there aren’t Spanish Language and Literature programs, or Russian ones, or French, Italian, etc., but English Lit seems to be the primary one most universities offer, as default. After all, we’re in the U.S., so that makes sense, for right or wrong.
Those same programs often offer minors in creative writing, with the potential to go into, or apply to, an MFA program in creative writing if one exists at the same university. My understanding is that MFA programs are slowly being hacked away at (the program where I got my MFA in Creative Writing – Fiction, no longer exists), but I’ve done no research on that so I can’t say it’s true with any confidence. As far as I know (again, this is conjecture on my part), students of creative writing tend to seek their MFAs at other universities once they graduate from undergraduate degree programs.
But let’s get back to what beginning writers expect will happen when they put pen to paper (or type something up on their laptops and desktops). Before we get to that, I just want to make clear that I’m not picking on beginning writers (obviously there are exceptions)—all I’m doing is pointing out commonalities I see daily when it comes to writers not yet versed in the ins and outs of writing and the publishing world. Besides my own contact with beginning writers through editing manuscripts and participating in workshops over the years, much of my most recent interaction with beginning writers comes from writing groups and forums on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and other writing venues. Again, there are exceptions to the rule, but I experience these things daily.
Help! It Appears That My Story Idea Isn’t Original!
That’s because there are no new plots. Every story that you can imagine has already been told. Don’t waste any time thinking that you’re going to be the exception when it comes to writing or creating a new plot—you’re not. What you are going to do is write the story in your own way. You’re going to aim for having your own voice, or at least one that sounds original and that’s compelling and interesting. You’re going to show and tell in ways that haven’t been done before, or at least not how you do it. That’s where you show your originality. That’s where you differentiate yourself from writers and their works.
My First Draft is My Last Draft
Beginning writers often believe that writing a first draft is all they have to do to become a published author. They don't quite yet understand what it means to know how to write a novel. While it’s true that you can have your novel or collection of stories or poetry book published by vanity presses and you can self-publish, that’s printing—it’s not really “publishing.” Publishing, in the “respected” literary world, means that someone other than yourself or some of your friends (meaning a third-party or parties) have reviewed your work, edited your work, proofread your work, and helped provide you with constructive feedback so that you could rewrite your work so that all the elements of craft were taken into account to improve your work. First drafts are for getting it down. Subsequent drafts are for getting it right.
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
- Author: Anne Lamott
I Get a Few Pages in but my Motivation Dies
That happens to all writers. Or most of them, anyway. Writing is tough. Writing is about the desire to create a character who wants something and faces hurdles and trouble and who overcomes that trouble only to face more trouble. Writing is about desire—the desire to start a story (short story, novella, novel, etc.), to write a middle, and to write an end. Writing is about persistence. It’s about never giving up, because you’re a writer, and writers don’t give up. If you find it harder to write than to give up, give up. Maybe writing isn’t for you, and that’s fine. You have to want to write more than you want to not write. That’s what a writer is more than anything else—a finisher.
“Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.”
― The late, great, Cormac McCarthy, The Road
People are Mean Because They Don’t Want to be my Beta Readers
That may be true. People can be mean, especially when it comes to reading a beginning writer’s works. First drafts are often painful to read. Plots aren’t developed (if they even exist). Characters aren’t fully fleshed out, and we don’t often know what they want (meaning what they’re ultimately striving for). Novellas and novels tend to be episodic—meaning that this happened and this happened and this happened, but there’s no congruence, no relationship to the events happening. Those bores readers, because it shows there’s no plot, and readers want plot. But beginning writers need readers. They need constructive criticism in order to “see” what they’re doing wrong and what they’re doing right. If you can’t find someone to read your stuff, keep looking. There are other writers out there seeking the same type of help—as I mentioned, on the various social media platforms out there, in your local writing community (if your town/city has one), and in other places. You just have to have patience and persistence in finding your people.
I Just Have to Send my Work to Publishers and They’ll Publish It
Nope. The only time that works is if the “publisher” you’re sending your work to is one you’re paying to publish your work, meaning a vanity press. Vanity presses/vanity publishers are presses that will do the work for you in terms of getting your writing into book form and/or e-format. In essence, they’re printers. Different vanity publishers provide different services, and they do so to make money from you. They may have editors, proofreaders, and cover designers, and be able to turn your manuscript into a book, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to market it or even produce a book you’re proud of. Many vanity publishers are less than professional, so if you do go that route, make sure you do your homework on them. There are plenty of scammers out there, so don’t just go willy nilly into it if that’s how you’re looking to publish your book.
The other two options are traditional publishing (meaning with an indie publisher or larger, perhaps Big 5 publishing house like a Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, etc.), or self-publishing (using platforms like Amazon’s KDP, or Kindle Direct Publishing, Rakuten Kobo, Barnes & Noble Press, Apple Books, BookBaby, and others), where you, the author, do all of the work using these platforms’ tools, marketing included.
Traditional publishing is the most difficult and arduous way of getting your book published. Mostly (though not always), you’ll need a literary agent to submit your work to the editors at the publishing houses that they have relationships with. Many of these agents have been working in the industry for decades, and they know all the acquisition editors at the publishing houses, what their preferences are in terms of books, what they’re currently looking for, and more. In short, they have their fingers on the pulse of the publishing industry.
But literary agents do a lot more than just read your book and send it off to editors. Agents also negotiate contracts, some help their authors in the editing process, and most already have a vast client list that keeps them busy to the point where they may not even be taking on clients. Anyway, traditional publishing houses are the ones you know because they have the space on the local bookshelves in your favorite bookstores, and they have the infrastructure to get your book published, reviewed, and out there into the world unlike any other methods that exist because they have the capital behind their efforts, and the reputations to go along with it.
Self-publishing means you do it all. You write your book. You either edit your own book or pay someone to do it like we do at Novelmasterclass, and then you learn how to use the self-publishing platform by going through their tutorials and watching their videos, and then you format your book, buy or leverage creative for your cover design, acquire blurbs from writers you may know, create the e-book if that’s a direction you want to go in, and then you market your book once it’s all said and done. This, obviously, comes at the expense of writing, but it also comes at the expense (read cost) of publishing, if you have hard copies of your book (which are often print-on-demand). I’ve done it (though only to learn what the ins and outs are rather than actually trying to sell a self-published book), and it takes time and it means your book will be looked at differently by consumers than if you were published traditionally.
Now, that’s changing slowly—self-published books are becoming more accepted, but there are still plenty of criticisms of self-published books, namely the quality of the work (the writing, the proofreading and typos, the cover art). Be that as it may, self-publishing is definitely an alternative to traditional publishing and may just be the route for you if you have no interest in dealing with the hurdles of getting a literary agent (which is tough), and then hoping a traditional publisher picks up your book, and then waiting a year or more for your work to be put out into the world. It’s your decision. But research everything before you move forth on any of the aforementioned options.
I’ll Get Rich Like John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, and James Patterson
Now, I don’t want to dissuade you from your dreams of literary fame and riches, but the chances of that happening are about as likely as your getting struck by lightning twice in a day. For most writers, making a living strictly off of the sales of their books is damned near impossible. Most of the writers I know (and I know plenty), teach. They teach at MFA programs around the country, both in-person and at low-residency programs affiliated with universities that have MFA programs. They teach at public and private schools. They’re administrators in those schools. They work as copywriters and proofreaders and in other roles at advertising agencies. They’re employees at companies that have nothing to do with writing or publishing. They work at these things because they aren’t selling a million books. According to Book Riot, “A traditionally published author makes 5–20% royalties on print books, usually 25% on ebooks (though can be less), and 10–25% on audiobooks.” The royalties come after the author has met their advance, and advances, for first time authors, is roughly somewhere between $5,000 - $50,000, according to The Bindery Agency. When you take into consideration how much time it took you, the author, to write your book, I’d bet that that doesn’t come out to a lot per hour.
“Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
— Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
No One is Going to Steal Your Idea
Seriously, no one. No one is looking at your Facebook post thinking, “Now that is the novel I’m going to write and become rich and famous from.” You may think your idea is brilliant—and maybe it is. But someone’s already done it. And if it’s published, they’ve probably done a pretty good job at it. Look, writing is tough. If you’re serious about writing, you know it’s tough. You have to have a story that needs telling, and you have to put the words on the page in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading, and then you have to make sure there are no errors in the novel in terms of typos, grammar, plot holes, writing that sounds like writing, and ten million other things that scream amateur.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, there are no new plots. Everything’s already been done. Your job as a writer is to write something in your own voice in a way that tells the story in as compelling a way as possible, in as an original way as possible, so that your readers remain captivated. That’s it. If you think someone’s stolen your story, think again. You probably stole it from someone else without even realizing it. So, get over it. Just write. That’s your only job.
“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”
Being a beginning writer is one of the greatest things a person can experience, because you can only be a beginning writer once. There’s nothing quite like picking up a pen or pencil and paper or your computer and creating characters who live in worlds and fight dragons or their bosses or their family members or nature to get what they want. As a beginning writer, the world is your oyster (that’s a cliché and you don’t want clichés in your writing, by the way). Writing excites you. It opens your eyes to possibilities you didn’t know existed. It allows you to express yourself in creative ways you weren’t aware were ready and waiting inside that brain of yours. And once you get that story down, no one can take it away from you. It’s yours, and you can do with it what you wish. All you have to do is make sure you’re learning as you go along. Your goal, besides getting the words down, is to learn craft so you get to a point where you’re self-aware. Being self-aware allows you to know when your writing sounds like writing. It allows you to know when your plot isn’t working, or if it has holes in it, or if you need subplots to help enhance it. Being self-aware means you’ve attained a certain level of expertise that shows others that you know what you’re doing, even if (or, rather, when) you’ll need outside help to get your book to the next level. And that, my fellow writers, is when you’re on your way towards publication.
Cully Perlman is an editor at Novelmasterclass, focusing on helping writers improve their novels. To reach him, email Cully@novelmasterclass.com to discuss your project.