I wasted a large chunk of my life stumbling around in the dark, trying to become a “writer.” I became a writing coach in recent years solely motivated by the desire to spare new writers the pain and misery I went through—all because there were a number of important things I didn’t know. And the problem was, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wished I’d had the future “me” to tell that naive “me” what I needed to know way back when (nearly thirty years ago). So before I share the things I wished I had known before I started my professional writing journey, I decided to ask some other seasoned, experienced authors what three key bits of advice they would give new writers that they wished they’d known when they started writing.
Today’s post is from Jessica Bell, whom I met when she hired me to critique and edit her novel, String Bridge (a terrific book that haunts me even years later). Jessica has jumped into the indie writing scene with a strong voice and presence—from Greece, by way of Australia. Here what she has to say:
1. Don’t try to eat the melon whole. It won’t fit in your mouth.
In other words, improve your writing craft one small step at a time.
Writers constantly have rules thrown at them left, right, and center. Show, don’t tell! Stop using so many dialogue tags! More sensory detail! More tension! Speed up the pace! Yada yada yada . . . it can become overwhelming. I used to feel overwhelmed by it all too. In fact, I still do sometimes. It’s hard enough to get the words on the page, let alone consider how to put them there.
In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she says that in order to not be overwhelmed, a writer needs to focus on short assignments. She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how that little picture frame reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. Basically, if you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole.
I believe the same applies to learning the craft of writing. If writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting.
So, when the time comes to cleaning up that first draft, break the process down. For example, first focus on plot development. Second, on “showing,” rather than “telling.” Third, on implementing sensory information. Forth, on subverting those wretched adverbs and clichés. And so forth.
2. Literary magazines are not trees. They’re bean stalks.
Submit short pieces of work to build a portfolio of writing credits and consequently excellent connections.
Writers often overlook literary magazines, or forget they even exist. But what many fail to realize is that they offer the perfect opportunity for you to get your name and work available to the public. Let’s face it, the more you have the chance to be noticed, the better.
Getting your work published in a literary magazine is a bit like having “proof” that you’re a worthy read. Why? Because it means there are editors who loved your work enough for it to represent their publication. A publication that they consider their pride and joy. No literary magazine or journal is going to publish work that isn’t good enough. Their reputation is on the line, and they want to make sure the loyal readers they have gathered over the years will stick around.
“What readers?” you ask. “Who really reads these things anyway?”
Writers. Lots of writers. And more importantly, literary magazine editors. They all want to see what their fellow magazines and journals are publishing. And there’s always a chance that you’ll make great connections with these editors too.
I’m the copublishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and I can tell you for a fact that there are more than a few handfuls of authors we’ve published, whoI now follow on various social media platforms, whose writerly news I like to pimp. I love their work, and I think they deserve to be noticed. I’ve even bought various books by authors that we’ve published.
See what’s happened here? Not only have these authors had their writing published in a literary magazine, which they can flaunt on their website, but they’ve made a new fan, a sale, and wowed a magazine editor enough to gain extra web exposure for subsequent published works.
But your chance of making great industry connections doesn’t stop there.
The community of writers that regularly submit to literary magazines is huge. And I can guarantee that if your work gets published in a literary magazine, every other writer that is published in that same issue is going to check you out. Why? Because they want to see what other writing their work is being associated with.
And guess what’s going to happen when the issue these writers are published in is released? They’re going to share it with all their friends and family. And their friends and family are, of course, going to share it with their friends and family (because everybody likes to know a published author, don’t they?). And all these people are going check the magazine out and read their friends’/family members’ piece(s). This means that these people could potentially read your work too. Bam! More authors to discover and connect with. More exposure.
If you’re new to the fabulous world of literary magazines, I suggest the very first thing you do is subscribe to The Review Review’s newsletter to get all the latest news in lit mags delivered to your electronic doorstep.
Then, the very next thing you should do is become a member of Duotrope.com. Duotrope is an established award-winning writers’ resource, whose listings cover the entire spectrum. They offer a robust search feature to help you find the perfect match for your work from thousands of current fiction, poetry, and nonfiction markets. They have also gathered millions of points of data on the publications that they list and compiled it into useful reports that help you make smart submission decisions. They also have a submissions tracker, which will keep you organized. You’ll know what you sent where, when to expect a response, and when, if necessary, to write a follow-up query.
While you’re at it, I also suggest you check out NewPages.com which offers colourful “news, information and guides to independent bookstores, independent publishers, literary magazines, alternative periodicals, independent record labels, alternative newsweeklies, and more.”
I must stress that you don’t ignore nonpaying and token-payment markets. In fact, if you’re new to this, I suggest you focus on these for now. The list is massive, and if you submit widely, you’re bound to spark the interest of at least one editor. And if you collect a decent amount of publishing credits, you have a better chance of being published by the big guns like Granta, Tin House, or The Paris Review. Also, if you decide you’d like to query a literary agent in the future, these credits will look nice and sparkly in your bio, and show the literary agent that there are other editors who liked your work enough to publish it.
3. Not having an online presence is like a honey bee without a hive.
Develop an online presence before you publish your first book.
There is nothing worse than having a book published and not having a support system to help you promote it.
I’ve been blogging for five years. Before I published my first book, I had been blogging for more than one year. In that year, I’d gained enough followers to organize a blog tour of epic proportion. More than 300 blogs signed up to help promote my debut, and within the first week of its release it hit the Amazon best-seller lists in both the US and UK.
If you have a support system—a community of fellow writers and readers who have gotten to know you online—they are going to be more than willing to share your wonderful book news with their own world. But the key is to interact with your fans. Don’t just write a blog post and expect people to suddenly read it. You must read other blogs, comment on their posts, let them know that you are there, become their friends.
Form genuine relationships and reciprocate their support. This is important. If you have no relationship with your readers/followers, you have no support system.
Get your name out there as early as possible, whether it be via a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or an online writing community. It doesn’t matter which avenue you choose, or even if you use multiple, but make sure you choose at least one that you dedicate quality time to.
Look at it as if it’s a part of your job. Allocate a time of day in which you focus your efforts on establishing your platform.
Jessica Bell is an Australian contemporary fiction author, award-winning poet, and singer/songwriter/guitarist. She makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First, and Cengage Learning. She is also the copublishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca.
CLICK HERE to subscribe to Jessica’s newsletter. Every subscriber will receive The Hum of Sin Against Skin for free, and be the first to know about new releases and special subscriber giveaways. Connect with Jessica online via Facebook and Twitter, and check out her website here.