a word of advice to fiction writers

old fashioned envelope
I received this email, today:

Dear Erin,

I am a professor at the University of Dallas, and I have been running a writer’s group for teenagers for about four years. [A student of yours] is one of the most active members. When he read a novel manuscript of mine, he recommended that I contact you for advice abut publishing.

I am very familiar with academic publishing–I can place nearly anything I write–but I really don’t know how to proceed with fiction; it seems a more difficult market to break into, and the sorts of credentials one needs aren’t the same. I’ve only made two tentative jabs at placing the manuscript–both over-the-r transom, unwise attempts.

If you can help, I’d like to make contact.

Many thanks,
[signature here]

Here’s my response:

Dear [fiction writer person],

Hello, and thank you for connecting.

You’re right: Fiction can be more difficult to break into.

Now, if you’re like me, you read that sentence and immediately, something inside slumped. Fight the feeling. Because agents and publishers are looking for new writers every day. Who’s to say you’re not the one they’re looking for?

(Encouragement of the day. Because writers, like everybody else on the planet, need encouragement.)

content folder
Regarding credentials to be a writer,
 I found it important to go back and get an MFA in fiction writing. And today, my learning continues to be constant…reading books on craft (always), listening to books on tape (for the flow and sound), being a member of professional groups (SFWA and SCBWI), and so on.

But credentials aren’t the end-all.

Because sometimes, along comes a newbie at a conference who makes you (and me) do a royal double take, injecting doubt into our writer world. You know who I’m talking about — the person who was published with their first book, the person with little to no background or training in writing — and POOF! They have a three-book contract and people drooling all over their work.

When I see that, BAM, my mind is uber-boggled and my spirit’s super-deflated. (Whoever decided at that conference to put a newbie in that speaking spot, um, please don’t do that again. She’s not the norm.)

wooden bodies
Oh. And all writers doubt themselves.
So, on that note, I say make peace with the doubt, buy some work gloves, and plow ahead.

Let me throw out a few more ideas on writerly success.

Making connections at conferences is critical.
Being known in your circle is critical. Who you know does open doors.

On manuscript submissions: Follow the must-follow bits — and make sure you’re submitting to those agents only looking for your kind of story (the old, do your homework on the agents to whom you submit thingy).

Which brings me to agents.

For fiction,
yes, getting an agent is important — because the agent’s relationship to publishers is much more imperative for selling your fiction book than for your non-fiction work. An agent has the special relationship where he/she can jump out of the fishbowl, visit the other side, and make the connection for us.

For nonfiction: Especially if you’re a speaker or have any kind of ready-and-waiting audience, you can publish non-fiction on your own and, by golly, make some good money doing it. In fact, in today’s market and social media frenzy, if you have a platform and audience, I believe self-publishing a given. Do it.

But for fiction — again, we’re juggling the proverbial apples and oranges. Seek and land the agent.
gold key

So. The question of the day:
Is there a lock turning gold key to getting published in fiction?

Not really.

But I can leave you with my five-point advice list (because five is a cool number for these kinds of things) that can up the chances of it happening sooner than later. 

performance 1 - notebook and pen
1. Write.
Then write some more. Keep the craft honed. Join a writing group to keep you accountable, or have a good friend who keeps tabs and asks for a daily word count.

My writing time has to be purposefully planned. I meet a group of three other writers monthly; I’m in an online group with alumni from my MFA program that posts monthly; and a screenwriter/director friend I meet with a few times a month, too. Then, on my own, I have writing dates (with myself) that I regularly schedule into my calendar.

Make your in-the-chair writing a calendar priority.

2. Read.
Then read some more. Know what’s getting published and why. Be a competitive intelligence geek, to find what makes good writers tick, tock, and trounce the market.

As I said earlier, I like to listen to stories, in order to feel the pace, hear the rhythm, and catch the power of crisp dialogue.

Whether reading in print or listening on audio, we’ll find the reasons why certain books are published. Understand the reasons. And when you come across a “bad” book, be encouraged that you can do better.

3. Learn.
Never stop growing the craft. Ever. My bookshelf overfloweth. My Kindle and Audible account droneth on and on. Blogs? I read ’em. Videos? I watch ’em. To learn is to become is to up the chances of publication.

If you want to be a fiction writer, truly, then always grow.

4. Develop your voice.
Voice in fiction is critical. Heck, voice in any kind of writing is critical. But for story, that extra pizzazz can be what the agent and publisher have been looking for.

It took many years for my writing voice emerge. I say, be like Dori: Just keep swimming. And, because it’s a part of who you are, your voice will emerge.

5. Attend.
Go to conferences. Get to know people. Build relationships. Pitch to agents. Then sit across from the agent at lunch and get to know her. Don’t, mind you, follow her into the bathroom to ask a question (oh my!) –and do be a normal person who isn’t cray cray or google-eyed in their presence. Resist the urge.

A highlight of my MFA program was hanging with multi-published (“famous”) authors and absorbing cool-beans-know-how from them. Squeezed into a booth and eating pizza with Kevin Anderson is up there on the list…not because I learned some fabulous, single-gem nugget of knowledge that magically took me to breakout-novel status — but because his demeanor and everyday how-he-runs-life-as-a-writer stuff grounded me into the fact that we’re all just people trying to tell stories.

So there you have it. My simple thoughts. They’re not ground-breaking, and I’m sure you’ve heard most (if not all) of it before.

We both know: The knowledge is there.
And we also know: It’s what we do with it that counts.

Here’s to keeping on.
* Cheers


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