Turning into a professional writer

It’s the dream of every budding writer, and of many published writers at that.

To turn a street corner, enter a lofty lobby, and see on a bronze plaque, alongside doctors and lawyers: Your Name, Author.

But turning professional doesn’t need to be a dream.

And it has very little to do with writing full-time, which is beyond most writers’ budgets.

After all, John Banville has only recently started writing full-time, and no one would accuse him of being unprofessional over the last fifty years.

What matters instead is a commitment to craft.  The same sort of commitment your employer would expect of you at your workplace.

Doctors heal people, and they work hard to get it right. Lawyers advise clients on matters of law, and they make sure they can back up their advice with opinions and jurisprudence. Teachers convey learning, and they make sure they know how to handle a class, how to excite their students.

(Some might say that only good doctors, lawyers, and teachers behave that way, but what do you want to be if not a good writer?)

Likewise, professional writers are committed to mastering their craft.

Now this sounds like a rather esoteric post, one focused more on psychology than on craft. But writing books is simply too difficult and too competitive to behave like an amateur.

Thinking of yourself as a professional changes your whole approach. You are all of a sudden expected to behave up to a sufficient standard.

Whether it be keeping office hours, revising till it’s polished, writing with a reader in mind, your writing will morph from a narcissist exercise into something with social relevance.

Try it. Even if you’re a full-time mother working a full-time job after you’ve put the kids to bed, thinking of yourself as a professional writer will greatly improve your writing. You might only be able to spare three hours a week, but if you give them all of the intensity you’d give a boss, you’ll find that you make leaps and bounds.

DIY manuscript appraisal

Every month, we come across average books that have somehow made it in print, while our own masterpiece languishes in slush piles. It’s a rather vexing phenomenon, and one tends to either explain it by beating oneself down (my book’s terrible, followed by a tub of ice cream), or by brandishing one’s fist at the publishing industry (they rejected The Help sixty times).

But it’s actually a lot easier to explain. The vast majority of authors just aren’t putting the work they need to in order to get their manuscript to a publishable standard. Every agent has a story of a promising debut author with a killer idea and a great turn of phrase, whom they’ve nursed through twelve rewrites, but who nonetheless never managed to sustain tension throughout their book.

No wonder that less talented but harder working authors emerge from the pack.

Now don’t think that luck doesn’t play a role. It does, and that’s in large part the fault of writers who are inundating agencies and publishing houses with half-baked manuscripts. In the face of so much white noise, is it any wonder that an industry with limited resources makes sub-optimal decisions?

But if you’re on this site, it’s because you’re serious about improving your manuscript, and if you’re reading this post, it’s because you want to know how far you are from the end.

For our DIY manuscript appraisal, use the following heuristics to situate yourself:

Tension/Interest: This is a macro concern, and as such, comes first. Write out a chapter by chapter summary of your book, and ask yourself what sustains your reader in every single chapter. For fiction, and narrative-based non-fiction, we’re talking about tension. For other types of non-fiction, we’re talking about what’s sustaining the reader’s intellectual interest. More than likely, you’ll find that working at this level will lead to major changes in your manuscript. If not, then congratulations: you must have spent months planning and preparing your novel, or you must be on your eighth draft.

Character: Every single one of your character needs to have depth. To a writer, no character is boring. It doesn’t mean that they do extraordinary things, but that you need to be expressing something special through even the most minor of characters. Can you describe the personality of every one of your characters, as you would, say, discuss the personality of your brother’s spouse with your friends? If you’re delving into your characters after you’ve written a full draft, this should also lead to a major rewrite. Note that character feeds into tension. Fleshing out your characters will make your scenes taut, since you’ll now know what your characters are trying to get out of each other and why they’re trying to do so.

Point of view: This is a harder concern to pinpoint and a harder one to address, but it’s one that comes through in the majority of works we give a full work-over. It comes down to two questions: first, are you choosing the right point-of-view strategy for your book, and second, are you being consistent with it? The best way to diagnose your own prose is to read a variety of styles, and think of what works and what doesn’t. For an omniscient narrator, have a look at Zadie Smith. For a very close third, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is superb. For an enthralling first, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground gives food for thought.

Prose: And lastly, is your prose perfectly polished? This is last because there’s no point working too hard on this until you’ve pinned down the points above. This is also what comes across fastest, and what’s most likely to get your book rejected. The idea is that if you’re not willing to work on your prose, you’re not a serious writer. Look for repetitions, flat metaphors, mixed tenses, clichés, dull sentences, awkward constructions, flabby paragraphs, and so on. It’s on this point that writing groups can be most useful.

Where to meet other writers

Too many writers write in isolation. For years, they slave away on their manuscript. And one day, fed up of the torture, they send the thing off to a bunch of literary agents, who dismiss it with a cursory glance.

Torture ends in disappointment, and if they don’t give up then, it’s only stubborn pride that keeps them going.

If the act of writing is a solitary activity, then being a writer doesn’t need to be. In fact, it ought not to be. Spending time with other writers will not only make you a better writer, but it’ll help you get your book published.

But if you’re like most visitors on this site, then you don’t know where to start.

Thankfully, it’s never been easier. And once you’ve shared a drink with that first group, you’ll hear of more groups, more events, and writers being a friendly bunch, you’ll soon know an entire community.

Chances are you’re only a Google search away from getting your foot in the door. Meetup.com has open writers’ events in most cities. State and national writers’ associations are also a good resource. They often keep lists of writing groups, and are happy to share them to those who ask.

Don’t forget poetry readings, spoken word events, and open mics. The less organised they are, the more likely they are to be full of writers.

Paid-for writing workshops/conferences/retreats can be excellent. If people attending need to pay, then you at least know that they’re dedicated to becoming better writers.

But what if you live in the middle of rural Nebraska? Granted, it won’t be as easy as New York, Seattle, London, or Paris, and you’ll have to work harder to find writers you want to spend time with. But it’s still possible.

Offline, check out local universities, community colleges, and so on. A two-hour drive each way every week is most certainly a worthwhile investment.

Online, start by searching for online writers’ groups/workshops. Participate in these forums, focus on giving good feedback, and soon enough, you’ll have people who want to help you.

And if you prefer the immediacy of human contact (as we would), you can then start a workshop over Google Hangout with the people you’ve met online, and with others you’ve met at workshops, in cities, and so on. Google Hangout isn’t quite the same as being in the same room, but it’s still an impressive free alternative.

Between all of these methods, you ought to be able to find a bunch of people with whom you can grow into a better writer, people with whom you’ll better enjoy the writing journey.

Receiving feedback

In line with our post on giving feedback, let’s consider how to receive feedback.

Too often, writers lash out at those who want to help them or, just as badly, they smile and nod and let the remarks they’re receiving fall into the moat they’ve dug around their writing.

Writing is not the same as therapy. In joining a workshop, or in approaching a service like ours, you’re not looking for people who’ll prop you up with blind praise.

Is your goal to be as good a writer as possible?

For now, put your publishing worries to one side, since they are beyond your control. Even if you can’t completely ignore them, focusing on writing as good a book as possible will maximise your chances of getting there, without nearly as much of the anxiety. It is a dominant strategy.

To improve as a writer, you’re looking to encourage great feedback. You want constructive feedback, that brings abstracts back to concretes, and offers solutions.

There’s a simple way to get there: ask the right questions, help your writing group attendees improve their feedback. Ask them how you could address their concerns, or how you could improve your piece/paragraph/sentence, and listen to what they have to say. When they come up with an abstract criticism, ask them to point out  where in the text they felt as they felt, and ask them how you could fix it. And when you get what they’re trying to say, show them that you understand. Thanking them is nice, but what they really want is to know that the work they’re putting into your writing isn’t for naught.

Once they see that you’re really engaging with what they have to say, that you’re not one of those writers, that you’re addressing (at least some of) their concerns, then you’ll notice that they’ll work harder for you and give your prose more thought.

Useful feedback: 3 rules

Bad feedback is a sure road to frustration. Discard it, and you’re on for a scrap with the person you’re ignoring. Listen to it, and you’re going off into meandrous territory. No one knows when or in what state you’ll emerge.

Useful feedback, on the other hand, is just as good to the person receiving it as to the person giving it.

Forget praise sandwiches and arbitrary positive-to-negative feedback ratios. Good feedback can be brutal as long as it follows a few simple principles:

  1. It needs to be constructive. The goal of anything you say must be to help the other person improve their work. This sounds simple, even obvious, but actively hold yourself to it, and the quality of your feedback will improve. For example, imagine that you can’t connect with a piece of writing. Rather than dismiss it by saying that it didn’t work for you, try to identify an aspect on which the writer can improve. I had difficulty connecting to this piece, because the scene felt too airy.
  2. It needs to be concrete. Don’t think that abstract feedback isn’t helpful. The scene feels airy, the writing is lax, can be far more useful than a litany of line edits, as long as it is brought back to concretes. For example, the scene felt too airy for me, and I think it’s because there were no description of objects and emotions.
  3. It needs to offer solutions. It’s too easy to stop at a simple criticism. But it’s in offering solutions that you’re really offering value. By engaging on a deeper level, you’re learning to fix the problem, not just to identify it, and you’re giving the writer a palpable sense of what you want them to look at. They may well choose another solution to the one you offer, if only to keep ownership of their project, but in any case, thanks to your feedback, they’ll have a handle on something they need to consider. Back to our example: the scene felt too airy for me, and I think it’s because there were no description of objects and emotions, and you could change this by perhaps telling us what he sat on (was it a red couch, or a high-perched stool?) and by telling us how she felt when he ran out of the room (relief, or disappointment?).

Going through that process will not only make you friends, but it’ll turn you into a better writer. Learning to articulate why something works, or why something doesn’t work, and how it could work better is a consuming process. Even feedback as simple as the one in our example can take weeks to pinpoint.

But do it right, and you’ll reap the rewards.

Best writing group practices

A good writing group is worth the best writing program, and it’s a good deal cheaper. Not only do you get your prose workshopped, but you also get to think about what works and what doesn’t work in other people’s writing.

A bad writing group, on the other hand, represents a clear and present danger to your back molars.

So what makes for a good writing group?

Three key ingredients:

  1. Dedicated writers willing to improve both their work and yours. A writing group isn’t a form of therapy. It’s a way to become a better writer. Don’t be on the defensive, and do try to help others. Expect the same from other members.
  2. Clear rules. Who gets to read, how long for, in what order, and so on. There are always people who take advantage of opacity, and that’s the quickest way to fester resentment.
  3. An enforcer. Someone needs to call time, to cut off the person who speaks too much, to get people back on topic. If someone likes to be the enforcer, don’t roll your eyes at them. Let them and be thankful for it. It is a tough but necessary job.

If your group covers these basics, then chances are it’ll be effective. Now, if you’re putting together a group, you may want to play with a few more parameters.

Reading in advance versus reading on the spot. The former’s a lot more work, and it might be unreasonable for those with full time jobs, but it does lead to more thought-out criticism, and you can submit longer pieces.

Writer reads versus someone else reads. It can be useful for writers to hear their work read out loud by someone else. They’ll often trip on awkward constructions, pinpointing what needs reviewing. But it does take one potential reviewer out of the equation, and writers need to learn to read their own work out loud.

Time per reader. There needs to be a maximum to avoid abuses, but that can vary from fifteen minutes to an hour (this includes reading and critique time).

Structure. When do people give feedback, is there a window for last comments, and so on.

Frequency. Nothing kills a group quicker than irregular meetings. The easiest is for it to be at the same time every week. Side bonus: only dedicated writers will want to belong to such a group.

Meeting space. In a quiet bar, at someone’s house, always at the same place, or on a roster. Or online: on Google Hangout, via email, on forums.

Open versus closed. Some groups are open to all, and they perform a crucial role in your writers’ community. But precisely because they are open, they are not conducive to useful feedback on book-length projects. Sadly, the propensity to voice opinions is only very weakly correlated to the quality of feedback. Go there to meet other writers, contribute to the debate, and soon enough, you’ll know of suitable closed groups, or you’ll meet people with whom to form such a group. Finally, if your area doesn’t have such a group, consider putting one together: you’ll be doing a great service to the community.

New entrants. Inevitably, a successful group will attract other writers. If it gets too crowded then not everyone will get to read. (Six is a good limit). Remember the first golden rule, and don’t let in tourists. You need a probation mechanism. It doesn’t have to be explicit (that can be a bit intimidating), but don’t go adding people you haven’t vetted to your group’s mailing list. Don’t be too closed either: that new person might just unlock your book with their feedback.

How to get a literary agent

You probably already know the official answer to that question. Open up the Writer’s Market, or the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, parse through the agent list, select the ones who represent books like yours, and send them whatever they ask in their submissions guideline.

And voilà, welcome to the slush pile!

Your work of art may well resurface, but in all likelihood, it just won’t have the legs to push past the hundreds of other manuscripts and find its way on the lap of a sleep-deprived, homeward-bound assistant fighting for elbow room on a crowded bus.

You should still go through the process. It’s a sure way to bond with any writer you’ll meet.

But there is a better way. Here goes the Paris Book Doctors’ four-step approach on how to get a literary agent:

  1. Write a bloody brilliant book. Don’t settle. Aim high. If you haven’t spent thousands of hours sweating over it, if you haven’t planned and prepared (or gone through ten rewrites), if you haven’t made sure that every section is taut with tension, if you haven’t cleaned your prose till every word has found its place, then you’re settling. Aim higher. Write a better book.
  2. Network. Meet other writers, go to book launches and poetry events, attend writing conferences, enter competitions, find yourself a good writing group and if you can’t find one, then start one. Look through your university’s alumni list and make friends. One disclaimer: make sure you help others. No one likes a user, plus there’s a lot to learn in fixing someone else’s prose.
  3. Repeat steps one and two until you have a great book and a network of writing-types. As your writing improves, and as your criticism of others’ writing becomes more constructive, you’ll start knowing more established writers, and you’ll get lots of good advice on how to improve your book.
  4. You’ve finished your book, written a great synopsis, an enticing blurb. Now take a moment to look around you. If you’ve followed the above steps, you not only have a very good book, but you also know people who like it and are willing to pass it on to their friend/agent/publisher. Careful, don’t rush this, don’t waste contacts. If you’ve spent too long networking, and not long enough writing, you might well get your book in front of the right people, but it won’t go any further. No one wants to represent a mediocre book.

Now your book will get the attention it deserves. It doesn’t mean that you’ll find an agent or that it’ll get published. But it does mean you’ve given it everything it deserves. And more importantly, it means you’ve become a better writer.