I’ve been writing for all of my adult life, but for most of it, not professionally. For the majority of my writing life, I was new, untutored in the craft, writing words that shouldn’t have been shown to anyone. I didn’t have the information I needed to make my work readable and didn’t know how to get it.
I felt embarrassed for even thinking that I could be an author.
One day in 1990, I stumbled upon a book that was offered in the Science Fiction Book Club catalog: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. The day that book arrived in my mailbox changed my life. It was possible for me to become a writer, and one of my favorite authors was going to tell me how to do it.
In the years since that book, I have amassed a library of books on the craft. Some are brilliant, some not so much, but I always learn something from them. However, personal experience is a great teacher, and I’ve learned many things by trial and error.
So here in no particular order are five things I would like to pass on to you:
Make a style-sheet as you go, a glossary of words and spellings unique to your story, and be sure to list names especially. I use an Excel spreadsheet, but use anything you like, and that will help you stay consistent in your spellings.
Develop a good system for naming your files and save regularly. Save each version of your manuscript with a different name so you can go back and retrieve bits you may need later. I use a system like this:
That stands for Heaven’s Altar version five, and I work out of Word, so the extension is automatically a docx.
Find a local group of writers to meet with and talk about the craft. Critique groups are great, but they are only one small part of the picture. Authors need to network with other authors because we need to discuss the craft with someone who doesn’t look at you with glazed eyes. I gained my extended author network for by joining The Pacific Northwest Writers Association and going to their conferences. This is how we educate ourselves. I also gained a local support group through attending Write Ins for NaNoWriMo.
Don’t even consider signing with any slick-talking publisher that contacts you out of the blue, saying they want your work if you haven’t submitted your work to them. How can they possibly want work they haven’t seen?
Make use of SFWA’s Writer Beware site. These predators want your work all right—and want to sell you publishing services you can do for yourself. You won’t benefit from the publisher’s “services,” but they will benefit from your desperation to be published. They will publish your work unedited, and your payment is the glory of having it published, as you will never see any royalties. They will expect you to market their product and offer you all manner of for-payment services that are dubious at best. Worst of all, you will have signed away the rights to your work for nothing.
Even though you are writing that novel, write short stories. Short stories are a training ground, a way to hone your developing skills. They’re also the best way to get your name out there. My advice is to build a backlog of work in lengths from 2000 to 5000 words ready to submit to magazines, anthologies, and contests. All those fabulous scenes and vignettes that roll though your head can be made into short pieces. Get the Submittable App and see who is asking for what sort of work, and start submitting.
These are five things that I wish I had known in 2010 but didn’t.