Sunday, December 28, 2014

How Does One (Honestly) Become a Writer?

As a 40-something woman at the mid-point in my career, I am often asked the one question that almost every writer hears: "How did you become a writer?" I always smile while answering them honestly, "By accident."

You see, unlike so many of the "bestselling" authors I've read about with multiple degrees in English, Literature and/or Journalism, I studied Art History in college.

That's right. Art.

Although I was talented in languages and creative writing and loved to write short stories and poems, I never got that "push" from an adult, teacher or mentor to explore my other creative side -- the one that ended up lying dormant for far too long. And while I enjoyed drawing and painting and felt comfortable sharing that side of my creativity with the world, the closet writer never broke out until I was well into adulthood. Why? Because of my own prejudices and *gulps* lack of self-esteem.

I had convinced myself that I wasn't good enough to call myself a writer. I had a hard time believing that other people could ever enjoy reading my stories -- after all, I was no expert -- I didn't have a degree in Journalism or English. I hadn't worked for a newspaper or publisher, or even a library for that matter. I wasn't talented enough to become a professional writer.

I was wrong.

For decades, the most fantastic story floated around in my head but I never took it to the next level by putting it down on paper. Why? The idea of placing my innermost thoughts and ideas on the written page was too risky. What if someone read it? What if they thought it was complete and utter garbage?

My reasons for not writing actually held those stories hostage inside my head. Not only that, but for years I operated under the false assumption that if I wanted to become a successful author, I had to write things that would please others. Wasn't that how most writers managed to land an agent -- by following the latest trends and writing the stuff that agents wanted to read? It took me a long time to realize that my misconceptions about writing were completely and utterly wrong.

Then, one fateful day in September, I decided to sit down and write. Just for me. No one would ever have to know. Each time my husband or one of my kids came through the front door, I would hit "save" and quickly close my laptop. It was my own special secret.

I pecked away at the keys, hesitating at first, but then faster with more confidence as the story flowed through my head until finally it came rushing out like a tidal wave onto the page. It began with two main characters entwined in an epic love story. They were from different worlds, but somehow they would find each other after being apart. The female protagonist didn't know she had been lost but the male protagonist knew everything.

From there, the story grew as more characters took the center stage. I could easily visualize their actions and feel their motivations as each and every one of them quickly became as real to me as any living person I had ever known. Every book I had ever read, every movie I had ever seen, and every experience I had ever lived suddenly came into play. I didn't care that vampires and werewolves were the current, popular trend -- I was writing this story for me! It was the classic story with knights, princesses, monsters -- the whole tamale but with a modern twist.

Before I knew it, not only did I have the first story, but I also had the base for a second book. I worked on bettering my craft by reading more books and recruiting the assistance of beta readers. They helped me to improve upon the story, showing me holes in the plot and pointing out grammatical errors. Slowly but surely, my writing improved to the point where I was confident enough to start submitting it selectively to agents.

That's where the momentum broke.

When I began querying, I knew that the chances of getting picked up by a literary agent were slim to none. It was equivalent to being a needle in a haystack and hoping that someone would find me amidst all the straw. Agents receive thousands of queries per year and most only take on a few new writers at any time -- sometimes not at all.

Undaunted, I knew that my story was different. It was fresh, bold, and I loved it! I headed in full-force, querying right and left, twenty agents at a time. And each day, I received email responses telling me that my story "wasn't a right fit." Half the agents didn't even bother to answer at all. But so what?!? I'd read somewhere that Stephenie Meyer received eight (8!) whole rejections before Twilight was picked up by an agent!! Now it was my turn!

After a year of querying and receiving only one request to read the full manuscript out of two hundred rejections, I was feeling extremely disappointed and discouraged. I decided to change my game plan by pulling back and working on improving the story. During the next few months, I realized that I had queried my novel too soon and there were too many lingering issues with my story. I had four kids and a full-time job, so finding time to re-write was sparse to say the least. I spent nights and weekends working on it, re-working entire chapters at a time.

When I was finally satisfied that I had taken the story as far as it could go, I made the strategic decision to self-publish. Knowing I couldn't stand the emotional roller-coaster of querying agents for the next year or two, going indie publishing for me was the only acceptable alternative. Besides, by self-pubbing, I could keep creative control over the integrity of the story while maintaining rights to the novel.

Today, I have published two books and am currently writing both a third and fourth book simultaneously. I am happy with my accomplishments and excited about future projects. My fan base continues to grow every week and I have learned so much about the publishing world. With the desire to spare other writers weeks and months of wasted time, I have come up with a set of tips to help wannabe writers on their own publishing journey:

Tip #1 - Whether or not you think you're a writer, you are right!

Until you can carry yourself over the mental threshold of accepting that you are a writer, you will never be in the place you need to be. For too long I told myself I could never be a writer because I didn't have the degree, the talent, or the right. Stop telling yourself this! Be like the Little Engine That Could and repeat the mantra, "I think I can, I think I can!"

Tip #2 - Write ONLY the story you would want to read!

One of the biggest mistakes I see fellow writers making is writing stories based on current trends. If the current fad books are about zombies, werewolves or other mythical creatures, don't feel you have to write about those subject just to get your foot in the door. Chances are, by the time you finally get your story done and tweaked enough to start querying agents, the fad is over and the market is already over-saturated. Be original and write about something that intrigues you. I am passionate about writing original stories that I would want to find on a bookstore shelf. Write the story that has not yet been written!

Tip #3 - Learn all you can about the craft of writing!

Don't make the mistake of thinking you already know how to write and that your style can't be improved. All writers from amateur poet to bestselling novelists go through difficult periods, but truly great writers are constantly improving themselves through practice and by reading a wide variety of books written by other authors.

Tip #4 - Don't query agents until your story is PERFECT!

Another big mistake that writers make is to query their project to agents too soon. Do yourself and the agent(s) a favor and make sure your story has been worked to death. It isn't unusual for a story to go through the editing process at least fifty times or more before it is finally ready to be pitched!

Tip #5 - A little bit of humility goes a long way!

The only difference between a talented, unknown writer and a world-famous author is a little thing called opportunity. Some of us stumble across it and some of us don't. And some of us make our own opportunities. Never let one pass you by -- it could make all the difference in the world! But no matter how successful you may wind up in your writing career, never forget the place where you started. There are millions of books out there competing with your own, so always be kind to anyone who is willing to spend precious time reading your story. Accept help from other writers and readers wherever you can get it!

Tip #6 - Know Thy Genre!

Although it seems too basic to mention, know your book's genre before pitching it to anyone. Don't make the mistake of thinking that your book is so original and spectacular that it is in a class of its own. Agents and publishers need to know how to market your book, and if it doesn't fit into one of the main book categories, you will have a very difficult time selling it to anyone. Decide who is your primary audience -- men or women? Adults or teens? Fiction or non-fiction? Is it fantasy or contemporary romance? Learn your book's genre and pitch it to the right agents who specialize in that category -- it will save you from wasting every one's time!


Tip #7 - Build Your Platform!

In order to be heard above the screaming crowd, you need something different that attracts people's attention. A successful writer uses all the tools in the toolbox to create a successful platform. There are enough articles and blog posts out there in helping a writer a build a platform, so I'm not going to get in too deep here, but sites like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram -- these are all ways to make your voice be heard. But above all, you need to decide what you want your message to be, and then preach it, sister! But how do you decide what that message is? Answer this simple question and then base all your tweets, posts and photos around it --

"What do you want your writing/life/career to be known for after you're dead?"

So what is my answer to the question of how does one become a writer?

They simply do!

Has this post helped or encouraged you in your writing? I'd love to hear your comments in the section below!