I’m a firm believer that we get back when we give, so I’m happy to offer some insights I’ve learned in my ongoing journey as an author.
1. Write what you know & love
I write speculative fiction, specifically urban fantasy and steampunk. My debut novel, Discovering Ren http://www.cogwheelpress.net/discovering-ren.php, was released by Cogwheel Press http://www.cogwheelpress.net/ in 2012. It’s an urban fantasy retelling of an ancient Egyptian myth, with werewolves, a Chinese fox-fairy, and the occasional vampire, all told from a Christian worldview. (Nope, I’m not kidding.) I’m working on the sequel and hope to release it in late 2013 or early 2014.
Both “write what you know” and “write what you love” are true old adages, for very simple reasons. It’s easier to write what you know, and because all writing is excruciatingly hard work, it’s only worth doing if you love what you write. Usually, the two go hand in hand. I’ve been interested in Egyptology since I was a kid, and I’ve spent more than two decades working for and in history museums. So incorporating that experience comes easily. By contrast, I don’t write sci fi, although I enjoy it, mostly because I don’t know enough about space to make it believable.
2. Don’t write alone
We all know stories of brilliant recluse poets and writers who slaved away in garrets creating masterpieces while driving themselves insane, but James Joyce didn’t bathe, either—would you follow his example? Most of us writers have to live in community with families, coworkers, parishioners, etc., so it’s not a good idea to isolate ourselves too much. We get weird, otherwise, and chances are you still need your day job.
Sure, find a place where you can work alone, talk aloud to yourself, have conversations and even arguments with your characters (we all do it), and really be productive. But don’t rely on yourself as your sole editor or critic. I’ve found I’m only writing well when I’m writing for a reader.
You need a group of like-minded souls whom you can meet face-to-face regularly and share your work—like the proverbial lamb for slaughter. It’s called a writing group, and these people will kill your children. You don’t want encouragement—you need to find that in yourself—you want honest, well-thought-out criticism. You want a writer who is better than you to identify your weaknesses and not pull punches or be mean. It’s a balancing act. Without my writers group, I would never have finished my first novel, never learned to pitch it, and never gotten it published. Can’t find one? Start one. You’ll have a certain amount of turnover, especially at first, but you will eventually find the core group of people who will help build the ladder for you to climb.
Connect with as many other writers and publishing types as you can. Explore Facebook and LinkedIn for appropriate groups. Budget time and funds to attend at least one writers’ conference a year to network and take advantage of workshops and pitch sessions. Recruit beta readers. Do whatever you can to build a community in which you are an author, first and foremost.
3. Be bold and believe in yourself, but don’t think you’re exceptional.
One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to lack self-confidence. This isn’t a game of logic; if it were, the odds against success are so great, no one would bother to try. You need to hold on to the arrogant belief that you have words within you that deserve telling. That’s what will keep you together when the lovely people in your writing circle say you need yet another draft, or that those pages you stayed up late to finish really aren’t moving the story along.
At the same time, don’t be tempted to think that the rules don’t apply to you. Listen to your reviewers and critics and writing partners. If something hurts, it’s likely because on some level they’re right. Know the rules before you try to break them. I’ve seen many writers fail because they don’t take time to work and improve.
4. Controlled demolition is necessary and desirable.
The first draft of Discovering Ren was 177,000 words. I knew it was too long, and I had every intention of editing it down, but it was still hard to murder those children. In the end, I took out 30,000 words and had a much stronger, tighter, compelling story. It’s still long, but it’s a good long.
Back in March I realized that my sequel’s plot line wasn’t resolving properly. It was literally wandering in the underworld. This time, I didn’t hesitate, and chopped out 13 problem chapters, knowing that I’d just added six months to my completion date. I’ve struggled since then to pull all the plot threads together in a truly climatic ending, but the end result will be worth the effort. Already I know it’s a much better book, and I’ve got new energy to finish it.
5. Have a publishing goal, whatever it may be.
With the advent of CreateSpace, Smashwords, Lulu, and the rest, there has been an explosion of publishing options, including small presses like mine and authors self-publishing. If you don’t get a contract with a big New York house, you still have options, and that’s great.
But here’s the thing: setting a publishing goal gives you motivation to really hone your craft. I encourage everyone to pitch their novels to publishers. Don’t assume you won’t succeed, or that the editors and agents who reject you don’t know what they’re doing. I think back on some of my earliest pitches and I cringe, because of what I know now that I didn’t back then. I thought querying was an afterthought; now I know that it’s an art. I thought it was okay not to know the right genre for my novel; now I know it’s essential. I thought that no one was “getting” the novel; now I know my query was faulty.
It took me a year to get my query right. In January 2012 I made a resolution to either find a publisher or self-publish by the end of the year. I wrote my query in fifteen minutes, after all the thinking and rethinking. I sent it to five presses, received five requests for the full manuscript, and three offers of publication. The publisher I ended up signing with got back to me in four hours. Why? Because I had a clear goal and a timeline.
There have been bumps in the road, of course; small presses can go in and out of business quickly, and they don’t have the marketing resources of the large houses, but there is often a lot of personal attention and camaraderie. I’m now part of a Cogwheel community that spans three countries, and I’m in constant contact with my fellow authors, whom I count as friends. None of us is rich off our writing, but we share pride in what we’ve accomplished.
6. Write the best book you can at the time, and then move on.
This is a brilliant piece of advice I found at a writers’ conference. As much as you need to rewrite, edit, and polish your work, you also need to recognize when a project is done. https://newauthors.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/stop-editing-and-ship/ Don’t get caught in editing hell. One author I know is on her twelfth draft. Having read her writing, I’d say the problem isn’t weak prose—it’s letting go. She’d have a better chance of jumping to the next level in a new manuscript with fresh energy.
It’s good to have more than one project going at a time, so you can put the current one away if necessary and not lose momentum. While you’re pitching your completed manuscript, don’t neglect new writing. It will feel schizophrenic to move your focus back and forth, but doing so allows you freedom and gives you time away and fresh insight when you come back.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Jennifer Eifrig is an author, consultant, and full-time mom in Middletown, Conn. She loves speculative fiction of all kinds, from the great sword-and-sandals epics to the grinding gears of steampunk—anything with magic, weapons, costumes, and seat-of-your-pants action. Jennifer also is writing a romantic comedy/urban fantasy novel on Twitter. Connect with Jennifer through her website, www.JenniferEifrigAuthor.com.