1. Sometimes it’s out of your hands
You can write awarding-winning prose and still never land a publishing contract. Conversely, you can be nominated for the Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Contest (www.readercon.org) and still be a New York Times Best Selling Author. Getting published doesn’t mean you write well. Not being published doesn’t mean that you don’t. You may never know why your big break never came. Talent and perseverance are only two of the magic ingredients—luck is the third. You have to be in the right place at the right time, hit the right agent at the right moment. Find a way to keep the self-doubt at bay, find a supportive group of peers to commiserate with, and, when you get really down, remind yourself how long it took some of the most famous works out there to get published. (http://www.examiner.com/book-in-national/30-famous-authors-whose-works-were-rejected-repeatedly-and-sometimes-rudely-by-publishers) and (http://susiesmith13.tripod.com/id12.html)
2. There are many paths to success
If you focus on one particular outcome (i.e. traditional publishing contract) you may be closing yourself off to other opportunities. And I’m not talking just traditional versus self-publishing. By day, I’m a grant writer—I get paid to write, and write passionately, about a cause I love. You may or may not become a famous novelist—but ask yourself, is that the only type of writing you’re capable of or that you would enjoy? If the answer is no, then branch out and find other ways to incorporate writing into your life.
3. You need four groups of people to succeed—cheerleaders, fans, peers, and mentors. Some individuals may cross groups, but most don’t. Keep that in mind.
A cheerleader is someone who encourages you, tells you that you can do it, picks you up and dusts you off when your courage and resolve flag. This is usually your family and friends.
A fan is someone who actually reads and likes your work (and would pay money for it). These people are usually strangers. Most self-published authors only sell 100 copies of their book because they tend to forget that family and friends are not necessarily the same things as fans. If you mom reads mainly James Patterson and you write YA Fantasy, your mom is a cheerleader, but probably not a fan. Be cautious about venturing into self-publishing until you know for sure that your work can generate genuine fans.
A peer is a fellow writer, usually writing in the same or a closely related genre. These are the people you go to for advice and information. This is where your critique partners should come from.
A mentor is someone who has experience and who has agreed to take a formal, active role in your development and growth. This person is there to kick you in the pants when you need it.
4. Everybody and their grandma blogs about writing
By all means, blog about writing craft if it sets your heart on fire. But the market for blogs about writing craft is pretty saturated, so if you’re blogging to build a base, then write about something of interest to your fans—if you write historical fiction, blog about history; if you write techno-thrillers, then blog about technology. And, unfortunately, the story of your trials and tribulations on the road to getting published might be of interest to your existing fans, but it’s not going to create fans.
No, really, it’s ten steps—don’t argue with me on this. No, you cannot skip any of them. No, you can’t do them in a different order. No, your manuscript is not ready to be critiqued (and definitely not ready for beta readers!) if you skipped step two. And, no, editors don’t exist so that you can skip steps two through ten.
1) Put words on paper—this is called the Zero Draft (I just discovered this term recently and I LOVE it). It’s rough, it’s ugly, and you never show it to anyone.
2) Edit—go back over the Zero Draft and turn it into a rough/first draft—turn dialogue carp into stuff people would actually say, get rid of sentence fragments, ensure there are proper transitions between scenes, make sure the plot hangs together, and make a stab at proper grammar and punctuation.
3) Critique—critique partners are other writers who read your manuscript with an eye to craft: grammar, punctuation, writing technique, point of view slips, pacing, plot holes, consistency, etc. Most writers opt to have their work critiqued as they write to help ensure the plot is moving in the right direction, but some wait until they have completed the entire draft. Critique partners will shred your rough draft. If they don’t, get better critique partners.
4) Edit—use your critique partners’ feedback to revise your rough draft.
5) Re-critique—if the critiques identified substantial character, plot, or pacing problems, submit the revised draft to your critique partners to make sure the problems are fixed.
6) Read the entire thing—after you’ve finished the round of editing from peer critiques, and when you think you have a finished draft, print out your manuscript and read it like a book. You’ll find mistakes; trust me.
7) Edit—fix everything you found wrong in step #6. Then put the polish on the manuscript—do a search and replace for almost all “ing” forms of action verbs, delete all your adverbs, change all your dialog tags to “said,” and cut all blow-by-blow details of actions by two-thirds.
8) Read the entire thing out loud—now that you think you have a finished draft, read the entire thing out loud. No, really, read it out loud. You’ll find stilted language, bad grammar and punctuation, and awkward phrasing.
9) Edit—fix everything you found wrong in step #8
10) Beta readers—give the polished manuscript to beta readers (beta readers are people who read your FINISHED and POLISHED manuscript as readers with an eye to readability: is the story interesting, does it pull them in, does it make sense, does it flow well and hold their attention to the end, are the characters likeable, does the ending satisfy, etc.). If the beta readers find substantial problems with the work, then go back to step #4 and repeat from there.
Overall, the most important things I learned in 2011 were that agents are nicer than most people give them credit for (50 rejections and not one of them snarky or mean), writing is subjective and the person I most have to please is myself, and that there is always room for improvement. I can’t wait to see what 2012 has to teach me.