Hey, writers! I’m excited to announce a new guest post by Theresa Barker. Thanks, Theresa, for sharing your insight into writing and the writing life! Take it away, Theresa!
A blueprint to becoming a published writer
Writing is one of those things you can do almost anywhere, unlike many other artistic endeavors. Pick up a pen, flip open your laptop, and you’re in business. It is a gloriously portable and immediate practice. No need for a large studio space for painting/sculpting/crafting, no need to find a bunch of musician friends to start a band with. You simply start to write.
Let’s talk about fiction. Oh, and let’s include memoir with our consideration of fiction. What does it take to become a published writer?
Step 1. Write. Your aim to build a body of work that demonstrates what you are as a writer. You are imagining new worlds. How amazing! This is not about a single story, or about one book. This is about you becoming a fabulous, inspiring, and seasoned writer. Not sure how to start? See Step 2. For now, just be sure you are writing frequently and writing with an authentic voice. Anne Frank did it – and Jack London. Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. Charles Dickens. Ray Bradbury. Madeline L’Engle.
Step 2. Feeling stuck? Many writers benefit from a warm-up process. There can a feeling of trepidation right before you start. What if it’s not good enough? What if I don’t have any ideas? What if I hit a dead end? It’s like standing on the edge of a pool in a swimsuit, ready to swim . . . but you’re worried about how cold the water might be. You might not feel like jumping in. That’s okay! You’re at the pool, you’ve got your bathing suit on, you know how to swim, you just need something to help you get started.
It took me years to learn this. Have some small, low-stakes exercise or routine that you can use to get going. Some of the most well-known writers recommend leaving off in the middle of a page for the next day, or rewriting the last part of the previous day’s page to begin that day’s work. Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Milhone detective series (A is for Alibi, etc.), starts every writing session with a journal entry. On her computer in a file she jots down questions, concerns, thoughts about plot developments, etc., before she starts her day’s fiction drafting. I did that for a few years, and I found it very helpful.
Step 3. Get feedback. Let’s say you’ve got a few stories (or just one) written, perhaps a chapter or two of your memoir drafted. How do you know if it’s any good? Reach to someone you trust as a reader, and ask if they’d be willing to read your writing and give you feedback. Experienced writers, even published writers, do this, and there is even a name for it: Beta Readers.
Some writers join critique groups, and that can be a good way to hear from a variety of perspectives about your work. But, in fact, you only need one good reader. Choose someone who likes the type of work you’re writing – that’s important – and also someone who doesn’t mind being honest about how they feel. Hint: you’ll get much better feedback if you give them a few (about 3-4) questions that you have about your work. Examples: Was the story believable? Where did you get confused? What do you want to know about the main character? and so on. By getting feedback now, you’ll avoid the beginner-style missteps that agents and editors so often see in unpublished writers’ submissions.
Step 4. Have a good reading program. Many beginner writers say, “I don’t have time to read now that I’m writing my own work.” Big mistake. Even more than writing classes, good books can teach you so much about how to write. Start with what you already enjoy reading. Is it murder mysteries? Thrillers? Memoir? Speculative fiction? Find the books you like, and then read more like them. Pick any librarian’s brain to find similar authors, and read those books, as many as you can get hold of. A good rule of thumb is to read at least one book every two weeks.
But don’t just read a book. Do something to intentionally learn from it. Are you on Goodreads? Write a review. In your review, focus one particular craft item. Dialog, setting, character, first lines, titles of the short stories. Prose passages you especially liked and why – what makes it so good? Then – once you have a dozen of these reviews – or several dozen! – under your belt, you will have your own built-in toolbox for making your writing as good as that of published writers.
p.s. Once you have read thoroughly in your own area, don’t forget to branch out. Try nonfiction. Try classic books by Virginia Wolff, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath. Catcher in the Rye. The Bell Jar. This is a little-known secret to making your own fiction or memoir even more appealing and well-regarded – borrowing techniques from other types of writing. You’ll be way ahead of your peers if you do. Don’t neglect your reading!
Step 5. Find an audience. With a burgeoning body of writing work to your name, how do you get it published? First, make sure you have done the best you can on work you are considering submitting. (See Steps 1-4 above.) Second, consider how you want your work to be received. Publishing is all about reaching an audience. If you’re like most writers, you want most to make that connection with a reader who really enjoys your work. There is nothing like the feeling of having a reader who says, “I loved your story,” or “I want to read more!”
These days publishing encompasses a wide range of options. You can submit to the traditional publishing markets (read New York publishing houses), although the vast majority of these are not open to unpublished or unagented writers. But go to a writing conference that features editors and agents, meet with them, and be prepared to discuss your work. Writers Market is a comprehensive listing of publishers and agents (available at libraries or by subscription).
Another alternative is to participate in (reputable) literary contests that feature publication as a prize. This is especially good for literary fiction or poetry. Poets & Writers magazine is a good source for information on literary contest and competitions. (Check Poets & Writers for writing conference information, too.)
A third way to publish is on your own. On-demand publishing, e-reader formats, book printers – all options for the do-it-yourselfer. With today’s publishing technology, the initial cost can be minimal, and you have complete control over the outcome and the income from your book. If you’re going this route, take a look at some “how-tos” of self-publishing before you start. Writer’s Digest magazine, which holds a annual contest for the best self-published book, has a variety of articles on best practices for self-publishing.
Finally, don’t discount blogging or on-line publishing platforms. I’ve written a blog since 2013, and I am getting close to 1,000 followers. It’s terrific to put out a flash fiction piece or a poem and to see it “liked” by several of your readers, or to serialize a story and hear through reader comments how much they enjoyed it. It is a true thrill! (One caution: if you plan to submit work to traditional publishers, avoid putting that work on an on-line platform. Most publishers consider it already published if you do.) A no-cost blog is available through WordPress.com, and you should also consider Wattpad for fiction or memoir, since Wattpad is oriented completely toward fiction or storytelling like memoir.
Whatever you decided to do to reach your audience, don’t forget that your mission as a writer is to build your body of work. When you’re receiving rejections or struggling to find a market for your work, your own writing will continue to feed you. What new worlds are you creating? What intriguing characters are you developing? The most recognized artists and writers were those who worked on their craft, who constantly strove to improve their work, and who pursued their own vision of their work.
You will be in the best of company if you do the same.
Theresa J. Barker has always longed to live in other worlds, which she accomplishes through her writing. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, and she also holds a Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of Washington. Theresa writes science fiction.
Author website: https://theresabarker.com