The advice that follows for aspiring writers is of a practical nature. If you are in search of inspiration, we suggest that you read Jon Winoker's collection of literary quotations, Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom From A Dazzling Array of Literary Lights. Equally wonderful is a collection edited by George Plimpton, entitled The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century's Pre-eminent Writers. And finally, we suggest the book that every writer should keep on the night stand, with the chapter on perfectionism earmarked -Annie Lamott's Bird By Bird.
1. Know Your Market
It is particularly important for writers to go to the bookstore, the library, or Amazon.com's search engine to find and review those titles published on their chosen subject in recent years. From the coming-of-age memoir to the diet book, every genre has its success stories, and you need to become a literary expert in your chosen field. Though there are a very few born-brilliant writers, such as Dave Eggers, who seem to write to break the rules, it is clear that even he carefully studied and understood his predecessors - one only need to read Tristram Shandy to see the seeds of our more daring modern works of fiction. Author Wally Lamb notes in an essay that a teacher once taught him an invaluable lesson: "I was never going to tell a completely original story because all the stories that people needed were already out there. The best I could do was to put my own spin on tales that withstood the test of time."
"Study the oldest stories," his teacher advised.
That said, if you are writing a coming-of-age story, read the best
of them - Catcher In The Rye, This
Boy's Life, She's Come Undone.
Study these books for their style, their structure, their story arc.
If you are writing an eighteenth-century detective thriller, read
Richard North Patterson to study his techniques for building suspense.
By the same token, if you're writing a book on relationships, read
the top five best-selling comparable titles. Find out what sets your
book apart from those already on the market. Pinpoint what makes
your message or story unique, though just as appealing as those other
books. Further, research and read articles about the authors themselves
to find out how they built their readership. Did they tour the lecture
circuit? Attend conferences? Publish articles in respected periodicals?
Did they affiliate themselves with a national organization? Join
a writers' organization? Know your competition, and learn from them.
Take advantage of the internet age and explore electronic media.
There are vast resources, electronic literary magazines and blogs
at your disposal. Many of the latest literary splashes have been
discovered in that vein.
2. Present Your Material to Agents in the Correct Form
Novels and Memoirs
For novels or memoirs, we suggest that in lieu of a synopsis, you include a concise summary along with your cover letter to agents. This summary should be written in a tantalizing, yet economical way, much like book jacket copy. Be creative in both content and form, but follow these basic rules: your manuscript should be double-spaced, single-sided, unbound, and page-numbered. Include the title of your work on each page. And if you are submitting only a partial manuscript (per the agent's request), include a synopsis of your story's conclusion at the end of your draft.
Organize your material into the following sections:
Overview: A three-to-five page summary of your book idea which clearly states your book's purpose, its focus and significance, as well as a description of the book's main sections. Here, the art of persuasion can be employed in a variety of ways. Your main goal is to establish the need for such a book at this time by a person with your special background and insights.
Author Biography: A one-page summary of your background which highlights your professional credentials and personal experience, while listing your media appearances and describing your outreach to the public. Today, having an already-established platform is a prerequisite to getting published by a major publisher - this platform is considered as important as your book idea.
Marketing Statement: A one-to-two page summary of those titles, preferably successful and still in print, which are most like your own. Briefly the qualities which set your own work apart from these titles while drawing favorable comparisons to them. In presenting each competing book, cite the title, author, publisher and year published, then offer a one-line description of its focus. Again, this section's purpose is to confirm the originality and strong market potential of your book, while demonstrating the public's interest in your subject matter.
Production Notes: A few sentences informing the editor about how much time you need to complete your book, as well as stating the projected length of the book and its visual content, if any (will there be photographs or illustrations included? how many?).
Table of Contents: A bare-boned table of contents (which should resemble the actual Table of Contents of your book) that demonstrates the logic behind the order of your chapters, and establishes the narrative arc of your book. A list of engaging and informative chapter titles lets the reader know what to expect along the way. Beware of titles that are too dry and text-book-like.
Chapter Synopses: Summaries of one-to-three pages for each of your chapters, written in a succinct and compelling way, that give the reader a sense of each chapter's purpose and themes, while placing it within the context of the whole book.
Sample Chapter: A strong and persuasive excerpt of your work that establishes the book's tone and style. Often, writers will choose to include their introduction as their writing sample. However, if your book is highly prescriptive, the introduction may leave editors questioning, "Well, this promises great things, but I'm not sure how she's going to pull it off in the chapters themselves." Keep in mind that the sample chapter showcases the central theme or argument presented in your book, while offering specifics that are entertaining and informative. Sometimes two sample chapters are necessary to give publishers a firm grasp of your book's ambitions.
Supplementary Material: Any related magazine or newspaper articles that demonstrate the timeliness of your subject. Additionally, you should include persuasive professional materials, such as articles you've either written or have been featured in, as well as video cassettes, brochures, flyers, PR announcements from your business activities, and reviews of past works, etc. In turn, include a list of your personal appearances and lectures, as well as a list of media contacts you've made over the years. Remember to list any endorsements you've already garnered or any potential endorsements you expect to receive from notable authors/experts.
For a more complete guide to the nonfiction proposal, we recommend that you consult the following titles: How to Get Happily Published: A Complete and Candid Guide by Judith Appelbaum; The Shortest Distance Between You and A Published Book: Everything You Need To Know in the Order You Need to Know It by Susan Page; Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 Proposals That Sold And Why by Jeff Herman and Deborah M. Adams; and the classic How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen.
3. Have Informed Readers Review Your Work
Your friends and family love you; your professors admire your talent. Because they know you so well and are invested in your personal success, however, they tend to make assumptions about the quality of your work. On the contrary, strangers bring no preconceived ideas to your written work. That said, if you are a writer who hasn't tested his or her work in the marketplace, you might consider joining a writer's group (there are even online writers groups), or attending a writing course offered by your local university extension program or community college. If you're more of a lone wolf, try a weekend writer's conference, where aspiring writers and publishing professionals offer pointed advice and may even take the time to critically review a sample of your work. Artists and writers colonies are also excellent places to find writing comrades and potential readers for your work.
For locating nearby writer' groups, conferences, and colonies, we recommend the following resources: Authorlink.com; The Complete Guide to Writers Groups, Conferences and Workshops by Eileen Malone; Artists and Writers Colonies: Retreats, Residencies, and Respites for the Creative Mind by Gail Hellund Bowler; and The Novel & Short Story Writer's Market published by Writer's Digest Books.
The Novel & Short Story Writer's Market also boasts 2,200 places to sell your fiction. When you submit your work to fiction and creative nonfiction journals you very often receive free commentary. And there's much to be said about starting small - master the short story, essay or creative nonfiction piece first, before moving on to more ambitious, full-length work. Furthermore, most agents scan the better-known collegiate and literary journals for promising writers, so you just may be discovered this way.
Finally, when you are close to completing your full-length work, we strongly suggest that you submit it to a professional developmental editor before approaching a literary agent. We've found that 99% of the manuscripts we see could benefit from a serious line edit and a developmental edit. Only on rare occasion does a manuscript require a light polish.
4. Find the Perfect Representation
In search of an agent who will respond enthusiastically to your work, you may begin either by searching the Web (as you are right now) or by consulting the many resources available that list literary agents - the best among them is the Literary Market Place, which can be found at your local library. It is the single most comprehensive resource - just turn to the section "Literary Agents" where you will find not only the contact names and addresses you need, but each agent's requirements for submission, and most importantly, each agent's areas of interest.
Begin by submitting your material to a targeted group of agents; after an agent responds positively to your work, you are welcome to ask as many questions of him or her about the process, as well as request a list of his/her clientele. Obviously, this can be a protracted process and test the patience of the most optimistic writers! But the author/agent relationship is one of the most important ones you will have in your life, and the search is worth the wait. Clearly, it's in your best interest to choose an agent with whom you personally connect - one who is passionate about your writing, who shares your vision, and who offers the most incisive commentary on your work.
At the end of the day, remember that writing is your life's work and that you may not meet up with success in a month, a year, or even ten years' time - such has been the case for many of our greatest writers. But if you persevere and accept that rejection can teach you something about your work and yourself, you will find the road a tad less rough. What's most important is to examine your motivation for writing - if you are focused on making a million dollars rather on the craft of writing and on your message, you may never find true contentment - for less than one per cent of published writers scale such heights. But if you truly enjoy the process of putting words together, you will be rewarded everyday you sit down at your desk.
In the meantime, we wish you much success with your creative endeavors.
How to Survive a Robot Uprising (Wired's Book of the Year) Where's My Jetpack?, How to Build a Robot Army, The Mad Scientist's Hall of Fame (co-authored with Anna Long), Bro-Jitsu: The Art of Sibling Rivalry, and Robonomincon
Daniel H. Wilson