The following essay is based on notes that I wrote up for a Zoom seminar intended mostly for new or unpublished writers. However, much of the advice will ring true for writers at any level of experience. This summary represents an extreme condensation of experience I've gained as an author, editor, publisher, literary agent, and publishing consultant over four decades, working with major publishers and literary agents as well as hundreds of writers. (Full bio here...) — D. Patrick Miller
It’s Not About You. Far and away this is the most important principle of a manuscript that can be published and reach the maximum number of readers. That’s because what sells books more than any other publicity factor is “word of mouth” – that is, readers of your book enthusiastically telling other people that “you’ve got to read this book.” And why would they do that? Because the book touches their hearts and minds in a way that’s personal, that makes them feel like the book is about them. And that’s true of fiction or nonfiction – even memoirs, which would appear to be all about the author. Even if you’re writing your own story (and many first-time novelists are telling their own story in a thinly disguised fashion), you have to tell it in a way that it connects with readers as their own story. Successfully touching the hearts and minds of readers is partly a matter of craft, but it begins with a clear intention. The question that should drive any publishable project is not What do I need to write? but rather: What is my gift to the reader?
Your First Draft is Preparation for Starting Over. In many years of assessing, editing, publishing or assisting in the publication of manuscripts, I have generally found that a new writer’s first draft has to be set aside as source material for a second draft, which itself will need to go through one or two substantial revisions to be suitable for publication. The usual reason for this has to do with key #1. That is, most new writers have written their first draft for themselves: to get their story down in print, settle a score, do some creative therapy, or just generally get things off their chest.
There’s nothing wrong with that process, and in fact it’s usually an inevitable first step in the writing process. This key won’t apply as often to writers who are experienced in other publishing forms, such as journalism – because in real journalism, one of the first things you learn, as I did at the beginning of my career, is that NOTHING is about you. You’ll also have experience with professional editors who have helped you learn to write for readers, not yourself. But for most new writers, the first draft is a “working things out” experiment that often has to be set aside to start writing for readers.
Keep It Under 100K. When I do assessments, I have a stiff penalty fee for manuscripts exceeding 100,000 words. That’s because they are usually overwritten in one way or another, and the author has not learned the disciplines of self-editing and manuscript shaping. Of course there are exceptions to this rule. The most successful book I ever published under my imprint was Gary Renard’s THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE UNIVERSE, which was published at 140,000 words, going on to become an international bestseller under the imprint of Hay House. Everyone can cite famous successful authors who have published at significant length, from Tolkien to Stephen King to J.K. Rowling. But for every successful long-form author, I must have seen 99 unpublished writers whose first manuscript is significantly overwritten. And if they haven't worked with an editor, they don't know that it is.
The same principle applies to writing a multi-volume serial work before you’ve published one book successfully. Until you’ve done that, the rest of the series is just so much overwriting.
Get the feedback of writing peers and professional editors with experience in publishing.Many first-time writers make and perpetuate their characteristic errors of syntax, style, and structure because they have worked in isolation, sometimes for years, without the feedback of other writers. When they think they have a finished draft that has been developed without any instructive feedback, they may be aware that they need an editor’s hand. Too often they turn to a friend, a relative, or an English teacher who corrects their grammar and spelling without examining the manuscript as a whole to see if there’s a book there. Usually the next-door-neighbor kind of editor doesn’t know how to do that, because they have no experience in publishing. I don’t know how many 100,000+ word manuscripts that have been sent to me AFTER the writer has spent several thousand dollars on a full technical edit from start to finish. They may have had all their spelling and syntax errors corrected without ever getting crucial feedback like “you could afford to lose 40,000 words and have a much better book.”
Participating in a writer’s peer group or attending writers’ conferences, online or off, can be critically important experiences. In a peer group you are likely to encounter writers with more experience who can help steer your work in progress. Then when you do have a first draft, be sure you locate a “developmental editor” who’s not just making technical corrections, but assessing the potential of your manuscript to become a book. An experienced developmental editor should be able to show a track record of working in the publishing industry. Referrals to experienced editors are available from the Editorial Freelancers Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, and NY Book Editors.
Start Building Your Platform Now. No matter whether you are working in fiction or nonfiction, or have written only a few pages, it is never too early to begin building your name recognition and following – what those of us in the publishing industry call “platform” – with a website, blog, Facebook and/or Instagram presence, and podcast or other broadcast media. For one thing, it gives you the opportunity to publish parts of your work in progress and get feedback. If you are writing in a nonfiction genre, you can probably put up a “service website” that helps people learn about your subject matter in advance of your book. One of the best examples of a service website among Fearless Literary authors is Sarah Shockley’s Pain Companion website (www.thepaincompanion.com) which she built in the process of independently publishing her first book (now under the imprint of New World Library and sold by FLS). Yet novelists can also maintain effective websites and social media to further their work. For a good example, see the website of best-selling novelist Wally Lamb.
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CHOOSE YOUR PUBLISHING OPTION:
The Fearless Guide to An Author's Alternatives
HOW TO WRITE A GOOD POEM:
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HOW TO BEGIN YOUR MEMOIR
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