Monday, November 11, 2013

For the New Author

As a published author, I often get approached by closet writers at dinner parties or other events. I call them closet writers because they’ve written a book (or have an idea for one) but have no idea what to do with it. They may be shy about this skeleton in their closet or they may be eager to let it out. Either way, my first advice to new writers has little to do with actual writing. It has more to do with navigating the rushing waters of the publishing industry. This summer alone I was asked for advice from three would-be authors. I thought it was time to sketch an outline of what new authors should know before they send their first manuscript out into the world. 

Join a critique group

Showing your work to family and friends can be daunting or exciting, but either way, loved ones will rarely give you the unbiased, detailed critique that you need to move your craft forward. This is the job of a critique group. Many such groups exist online (I’ve listed a few of my favorites below) or you can often find one at your local library or writers' group. Some groups are large and you may never get to know all the members personally. The advantage of these groups is that you may get many critiques from people with varying backgrounds. The down side is that you may get critiques from people who don’t read or enjoy your genre. These critiques may or may not have much value to you.

Smaller critique groups are more personable. Over time, you will develop a solid working
relationship with the others in your group. They will be able to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and offer good advice in this light. The down side to a smaller group is that they may become used to your writing style and be less valuable as a ‘focus group.’

Join a writers’ group

What’s the difference between a writers’ group and a critique group? It’s like the difference between eating just your carbs instead of a well balanced meal. While many writers’ groups incorporate critiquing services, their scope is much broader. Writers’ groups are generally organized by geography or genre. Local groups are wonderful for meeting other authors in your area, and offer monthly meetings with keynote speakers and workshops. Genre groups, such as Romance Writers of America (RWA) or the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), are generally nationwide with local chapters. Either way, these groups offer great opportunities for networking with writers, editors, agents and other professionals in the field. Some of these groups also offer legal advice.

Go to conventions

The writer’s life can be that of a hermit. We shut ourselves in a room with only a coffee pot for company. The internet has opened up many opportunities for writers, but nothing can take the place of face-to-face introductions. There are writing conventions all over the country for different genres. They offer workshops on writing craft and marketing as well as keynote speakers in the field. Often top agents and editors offer one-on-one critiques. But
the real benefit of these conventions is the after-hours networking opportunities. Here you will meet published authors, agents and editors in a relaxed setting. Not the best place to pitch your latest book (unless invited) but the perfect opportunity for making contacts in the industry—contacts that may help you next time you send in a query. Editors can see you're not crazy, you're presentable and professional. When your name comes into the slush pile, they have a face to put with the name, and it's a sane face.
Find conventions through your local writing group or regional chapters of national groups.

Research trends. Read submission guidelines.

At one time, I spent more time reading submission guidelines than I did novels. Apart from pinpointing likely publishers, this allowed me to get an overview of current market trends. For adults, I mostly write paranormal fiction. I was shocked to read that editors didn’t want vampire fiction. This was around the time of the Twilight phenomenon and editors were inundated with bad vampire stories. Sometimes, you can write against these trends. I made
myself a vow to write vampire stories for editors who said “No vampire stories!” By working with the popularity of a genre and knowing that editors wanted something unique, I was able to publish three vampire stories (Black Bet’s Home for Toothless Vampires, The Raft, and Megan’s Baby).
A simple online search for publishers will bring up guidelines. Services like or are also a good way to get started. They charge a small fee, but list publishers guidelines and contact information for easy access.
Another way to research trends is simply to browse current titles either online or in a bookstore. The problem with this method is that the books currently on shelves may not be what editors are looking for. The publishing industry moves fast and the ability to predict the next great trend is akin to choosing the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby.

Start with small press magazines

While many editors and agents don’t require you to have a publishing history to look at your manuscript, it definitely helps. Also, the best way to polish your craft is: write, write, write. I read stories I wrote ten years ago, stories that I thought were great, and realize that in those ten years I have learned much about the craft of writing. I have my critique group to thank for much of that growth.
Small press magazines give you a chance to get your feet wet. The thrill of having your first story published is incomparable. You can build your writing track record and hone your skills at the same time. Lists like are an easy way to view hundreds of magazine guidelines in one place.

Immerse yourself in the publishing industry.

This last tip encompasses all the others. First time authors often don’t realize that the writing part of an author’s life is only half of the job. The rest is networking and submitting manuscripts. After publication you will also need to market your book. Sometimes this business side can feel overwhelming. There are days that I wish I could just write but instead, I have to send queries or create a marketing plan. Knowing the quirks of the publishing industry can make these jobs easier. And the time to learn these quirks is now, before your first book is published.

Romance Writers of America
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

Online critique groups

✍ Kim McDougall

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