I've been amazed and impressed at the number of people who've contacted me on Facebook or by email to ask for advice. Some are friends of friends, but there are many I've known for years without knowing they've been writing quietly - like me - waiting for the right time to send off their work. It's so exciting that all that creativity is swirling around us. Keep working, y'all. Those award winners and best sellers started with a computer and a quiet room and a little bit of time - just like you.
Here's the advice I've given those who've written me. If you're not already writing, maybe this will inspire you to start. It's fun . . . and frustrating, rewarding . . . and draining, exciting . . . and terrifying. I hope these tips on how to get started (and keep going in the face of rejection) will help.
1. Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keys. Nothing happens if you don't start. Make a decision NOW to spend at least 3 days a week at the keyboard for 30 minutes for the next 3 weeks at least. If nothing comes to you, just sit there while you train your brain to seek stories. The muse will come eventually. I promise.
2. Don't Get it Right, Just Get It Down. Make your peace with the fact that your first draft will be terrible. Don't worry. Just get the story down; you can make it pretty later. Fear of what Anne Lamott calls "Shitty First Drafts" keeps so many potential writers from ever getting started.
3. Tell someone else's story. It sounds strange but the easiest way for me to start was to write down anecdotes other people had told me and change them up to suit myself. This worked better than writing from my own life because I wasn't so tied to the truth. Personal writing is often hindered by our reluctance to change details we know are accurate.
3. Read books on craft. My favorites are ON WRITING by Stephen King, BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott, and THE WRITING LIFE by Annie Dillard. These are short, easy reads full of great information and inspiration. I probably read 30 books on writing. That thing people say about how you can't learn to write from a book? That's laziness. Do your homework. It helps.
4. Join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and attend the conference closest to you. Not writing children's books? Doesn't matter. The things you'll learn about writing and revising and submitting to agents are universal. You can pick the sessions that you're most interested in and get advice and critiques of your work from visitng professionals in the industry. You will learn A TON and you'll meet other like-minded souls who will encourage you. (For AL/MS/GA, google SCBWI Southern Breeze; there's a fall conference in B'ham, a spring one in Atlanta, and several local ones during the year. The Nashville conference is under Midsouth SCBWI.) There are tons of regional chapters across the US. And if you can go to the national meetings in NYC or LA, I highly recommend them.
5. Read blogs and online info about writing, getting an agent, and/or self-publishing. Google is your friend. Some good blogs full of tips on every aspect (like writing query letters, ugh) are Nathan Bransford's, Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants, and my agent's, Jill Corcoran's. Agentquery, AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler, and Verla Kay's Message Boards are good resources, also.
6. Find a writing group or organize one or seek out other writer friends. Having others critique your work can be really eye-opening, and having writer buds keeps you from being lonely in a fairly solitary line of work.
7. Turn off your inner voices. The ones that say you can't do it. In this business, you must believe to achieve. The same drive that pushes you to write will serve you well in training yourself to do it. Don't let self-doubt hold you back. Rejection is a part of the process. That agent isn't saying your work isn't good - just that it's not what he's looking for right now. They typically get 50-100 submission a day and take on 30-50 new clients a year. You can increase your chances in this massive lottery by working hard, but there's a certain amount of luck and timing involved. (And don't believe people who say you have to know someone. My agent plucked THIS IS NOT A DRILL right out of the slush pile.)
8. Practice, practice, practice. One of the hardest lessons is that you will write hundreds of pages that may never see the light of day. Most writers (moi aussi) have an entire novel in a drawer, one that never got picked up by an agent or editor. You MUST focus on process and not product. You are teaching yourself a skill and time spent writing is never wasted. Just like playing tennis or piano, you hone your skills through lots of practice. The average time to break into traditional publishing is said to be 10 years. It took me 5, but I worked really hard for many long hours. Patience is not just a virtue; in this business, it's a life preserver. You can't rush the kind of work this goal involves. Perseverance is everything!
9. Build an online presence. Having a self-published book (LAST BUS OUT) helped me do that, but you can submit articles to magazines, essays to contests, guest blog entries to bloggers. And you can chat with other writers and readers through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and other sites. Don't just promote yourself. Let people know who you are and post interesting links to information they might like. And promote others; we're all in this together.
Good luck, everyone! Hang in there. If you care enough to work and study and believe, it'll happen for you! Can't wait to hear about your book when it does.