June 17, 2009

Tips for Aspiring Writers

Tips for Aspiring Writers
Emily St. J. Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal (my review here)

I think it’s important to read a lot. Reading good books will give you some sense of how a good book works—the sheer mechanics of the matter, plotting and structure and such. Occasionally you’ll come across a book that sparks something in you and changes your prose style forever. But even reading a bad book isn’t necessarily a waste of time, in that figuring out what exactly was wrong with it might help you identify pitfalls to avoid in your own prose—were the characters flat, was the ending preposterous, did you have a hard time following the plot?

Educate yourself about the publishing world. I subscribe to Shelf Awareness and Publisher’s Marketplace; I like getting articles and news about books in my inbox every morning. There are also countless blogs out there by publishing professionals, and they can be a great resource: I personally love Miss Snark’s blog at misssnark.blogspot.com. Miss Snark was the pseudonym of an anonymous NYC literary agent who took questions from writers and posted her answers on her blog for a number of years. The blog’s no longer being updated, but the archives are vast and informative.

Another great educational resource for me has been Twitter. Twitter has a shaky reputation: the popular misconception is that everyone on there is tweeting about what they ate for breakfast. And yes, admittedly, some of them are, but you don’t need to follow those people. Follow the people who are talking about books.

How, you ask, do you find these people? Go to the Twitter directory at www.wefollow.com, and enter the keywords for groups of people you’re interested in: i.e., bookseller, editor, writer, etc. I’ve learned a lot about the publishing world from the links to articles that these people post and from the conversations they have, and it’s a great way to get book recommendations: booksellers always know about the next great books that haven’t reached shelves yet.

Take your writing seriously. Writing is work. This isn’t to suggest that it’s a joyless grind—there’s nothing that I’d personally rather do with my life than write novels—but if you wait for inspiration to strike before you sit down at your desk, it will take you a very long time to finish anything. You need to spend a lot of time writing for the same reason that an athlete needs to spend a lot of time training; as with any discipline, you’ll improve with practice.

And lastly, don’t assume that the publishing world is closed to you. A sentiment that comes up fairly frequently on the blogs of aspiring writers is that the only way to get published in this day and age is to know the right people, to go to the right cocktail parties or to have attended the right MFA program, to have some sort of an inside track. I can understand how after multiple rejections a struggling writer might reach this conclusion, but it just isn’t true. I had no connections in the publishing world when I started trying to get my work published; I landed an agent by cold-querying agents until I found one who liked my work. There are always people in publishing whose job it is to find great new books.

Petunia here: Thank you Emily for this helpful advice, and for taking the time to share your knowledge with me and my readers.

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