No pre-published author has any moment of greater elation than placing the period on the last sentence of the last page of the last several months, or years, of writing their very first book. Finally, the story has been told, all the characters are proverbially put to bed and it is time to start writing query letters...or is it?
If you've never been to a writer's conference or have not found your place among the varied existence of a writer's group, or if you haven't splurged on that writer's rag subscription, maybe no one has yet shared the secret with you. Blindly you may be wandering the forests of manuscripts-en-limbo when the most evil of all demons raises his head and bares his teeth. He is the Letter of Rejection and he attacks with a vengeance and a great appetite for the aspiring author. The LoJ lies in wait for the unedited, raw, weak manuscripts and after a sentence or two rips into their flesh with hawk-like talons and lion's incisors leaving nothing but sorry remnants and bruised ego.
Not submitting, self publishing instead? Not a problem. That demon waits too but his voice is quiet. He reserves his comment to preserve feelings and relationships. He waits in the shadows and may never utter a sound. His bite is worse than any growl, and the imprint is long lasting.
When I finished my first book and looked at the pages I printed off my home printer I thought, What in the world did I just do? I wrote a book but I wasn't quite sure. Thumbing through the pages I found an array of errors. Simple things like misspelled words and misplaced punctuation. Would this character even say something like that? I wondered about the personalities of my characters. At some point in the story Sarah and Donovan morphed into one voice. She started off humorous and carefree but by chapter three she was as anal and demanding as her husband. There were no events to change her demeanor but I had forgotten who she was. Quietly, I pulled out a pen and searched the bottom of my desk drawer for a highlighter. Illuminating the pages by the light from the chandelier over the kitchen table I tore the manuscript to shreds; some time after page seven opting for the dreaded red pen and marking away at the words with a passion I didn't even have when I wrote the...dare I say it...first draft.
Many new authors have yet to discover what I learned back then. The first draft is NOT a book. It is not ready and it must go through the pangs of revision, polishing, and rewriting, maybe many times over. It is also not enough that the author edits and proofreads their own work. Think of your favorite author and I guarantee that he, or she, hired a professional editor. Professional writers need professional editors. And books that are written must be rewritten and re-edited and rewritten again. It is embarrassing and frustrating to have editors point out the array of errors in a manuscript, but better they find them than the readers with whom we are trying to build a reputation. When people ask "what's going on with your writing?" I always respond with the same words I offer as advice to new authors, "I'm in the editing stages." This part is important and sometimes takes a while.
Now that I am a viable part of a publishing company partnership I have come to bare my own teeth, opting for a gentler yet no less lethal bite in potential manuscripts. Giving advice and helping new authors is part of the plan, and I give, for free, seven simple pointers for new authors who dare venture among the trees:
- Develop a plot. Every piece of fiction should have a beginning, middle and an end. There should be characters (or events) with conflicts escalating into some sort of climax before they are resolved. The plot drives the story along, it keeps the reader...reading.
- Decide on which characters and which points of interest are integral to the story and consider deleting what/who doesn't drive the story. No one cares about the background of the bus driver unless the bus driver is IN the story and his background is relevant.
- Consider what the moral or take-away might be. Ensure that the reader has something at the end they didn't have before they read the story. Why should anyone read the book? Is there a lesson to learn? An a-ha moment?
- Review for spelling, grammar and punctuation. It really is heartbreaking to start reading a story riddled with errors. I write with my writer's handbook and thesaurus at my fingertips. I'm a decent speller but grammar...ugh! Closely edit and submit the very best and splurge on an editor BEFORE you submit. At the very least, find a few brutally honest and willing sets of eyes.
- When you submit, write the story without page breaks and follow the normal conventions of writing. Follow, follow, follow submission guidelines.
- Be serious. When I decided that writing is what I wanted to do I made three investments in myself.
- The first investment was time. Time to write, time to read and time to commune with other writers. I joined a writer's group and took their feedback to heart. I learned and I am still learning from them. Iron sharpens iron.
- The second investment was in tools. Aside from my computer the best tools I own are my writer's handbook and thesaurus (sorry for beating this horse again), my magazine subscriptions, journals, and marketplace. What good am I without the resources I need to be better and produce?
- The third investment was in conferences. Learning from the pros is, obviously, totally different from learning from my peers. In some cases it's not what you know but who you know and talking, listening and learning are vital in this industry. We never stop learning. With so many people willing to share what they know...glean!
- Be patient. Writing takes time. There are many writers but few follow through to publish good books. Be one of those.