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Perhaps the most important trait for any writer is die-hard determination.
Whenever I have a new book out, I emerge from the confines of my office, momentarily unlatched from my computer, eyes blurred from months of staring at the screen, ready to meet the world and do book signings.
Now, let’s be honest. What I’m there for is to connect with people who enjoy reading and, I hope, sell some books.
Meanwhile, the reasons for those who attend signings vary. Some folks like to drop in just to say hello and tell me that they enjoy my books. Others stop by to ask questions and bring up different aspects of the cases in my books or inquire about the inspiration for my fictional characters.
While those are the main reasons, at least one person in the audience is an aspiring author, someone who dreams of being published. They go for two reasons. First, they inquire about what it’s really like to write books. Second, they’re hoping for pointers on how to get started, how to make their own dreams come true.
I’d like to stress that I don’t have all the answers. While I’m delighted with the success I have had, I’m still waiting to find my name on the New York Times best-seller list. (Fingers crossed. God, are you listening?) If I knew how to make that happen, I’d be Stephen King (hmm, maybe not?), Patricia Cornwell (a bit dark?), or my friend Ann Rule.
That said, my guess is that if you ask them, they’d admit that they don’t know all the answers either. I’m convinced that a healthy percentage of success in any endeavor is luck, that old being-at-the-right-place-at-the-right-time combo. In the writing world, that translates to picking the right topic, doing a bang-up job on the manuscript, getting it in the hands of the best agent, who sells it to the perfect editor, and then having magic happen, the cosmic coming together of worlds that propels a book to the top of the lists.
Still, most of the people I meet aren’t necessarily dreaming of hitting the big time, at least not initially. They’re more interested in seeing their work in print. What I’d like to do is talk now to those of you out there who want to do what I’ve done, build a career as a writer.
First off, and this is important, you have to need to do it. The successful authors I know didn’t have any other choices. Something in them told them that they have to write, often from a young age. There’s so much rejection in writing, so many projects that fall through, hopes that are dashed, that to do it, you have to love it or it’ll drive you near crazy.
So, that’s concern number one: Are you truly cut out to write for a living? How do you know? Well, in addition to feeling the need to write, are you willing to take rejection, because it’ll be there, be assured. Are you focused enough to pound away at your typewriter even when a blue-sky day beckons you to the garden or the guy next door suggests a Saturday morning golf game? Are you dedicated enough to stay up half the night pounding out that manuscript while the rest of the world sleeps, and strong enough to still make it to your day job?
You have to truly need to write, want to write, because there are always easier, more enjoyable and probably more profitable distractions. (Mine? Scrabble on the Net. Geez, I need to figure out how to delete that game.) The desire to write has to be a part of you, like hankering for pasta and a good glass of red wine, like the instant warmth you feel gazing at a beloved child. It has to be as much a part of you as your eyes, for it will shape how you see the world.
If you’ve said “yes” to those questions, your first task as a would-be writer is to read — not just anything, but good books in your chosen genre. And read about writing. My favorite book on writing and life is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Some of the chapters still make me laugh, like the one titled “Shitty First Drafts.”
So, what’s it like being a writer? The scene I opened this post with is the one most folks have of the writing life, authors holed in their offices, feverishly working on a project.
It’s actually kind of like that when you write fiction. You have to be willing to segregate yourself from the world for months at a time, letting your imagination take over and propelling you through a fantasy land populated by your fictional characters. In truth, I actually enjoy this part.
When the writing is going well, it’s as if the characters take over, moving the book along. I’ve had some pop up when I didn’t expect them. The first time it happened, I was shocked. Now I welcome them in, often suggesting they take over the project and tell my story for me.
Non-fiction is quite a bit different. For months before I sit down to write a true crime book, I’m researching, attending trials, interviewing sources. Then there’s the monumental task of organizing all my files, one I dread. Yet it’s important. When I finally do sit down to write, it’s all worth it; I have a wealth of information at my fingertips.
Since I work out of a home office, I wear blinders and walk past the dirty dishes on the kitchen counter, around the pile of clothes waiting to be washed on the laundry-room floor, to get to my spare-bedroom-turned office. It’s easy to get waylaid and find at the end of the day that I’ve accomplished nothing.
One popular question involves my schedule. I write best in the afternoons. I have no idea why. Maybe there’s some truth to that biorhythm theory? For other writers, it’s different. I know some who write through the night and others who get up early to work, before daybreak. But for me, my work flows better after lunch. Once started, if not interrupted, I’ll work until 10 or 11 at night with only the occasional stretch and restroom break.
Next, is that all important question: How to get published.
Well, that’s tricky, it’s true. I’d suggest starting smaller than a book. If you’re interested in non-fiction, try writing for magazines or newspapers, a blog on the Internet, and get some clips in your portfolio. This will give you the opportunity to do some networking, including meeting editors who can recommend you to agents, if they deem your work worthy. If you write fiction, why not enter a short story contest? If you win, you’ll have a published piece to mention in cover letters to agents.
What about writers’ groups? They’re great, but they can also be a trap. Some writers I know end up working on the same short story or book for years, refining it over and over, never feeling as if it’s completed because folks in their writers group are still nitpicking. My advice is to take criticism in context, make changes until you’re happy with the piece, and then consider it finished.
As I mentioned above, there’s that old bugaboo: rejection. Along with loving to write, to be published requires courage. At a certain point, a writer who wants to become an author needs to suck it up, slip the manuscript into an envelope, address and stamp it, and mail it to an editor or agent. That’s scary, because once it’s in the mail, it’s out in the world, and the likelihood is that the return mail won’t bring the preferred response, at least not with the first or second attempt. Maybe it’ll even take longer.
As in any field, those who succeed persevere. Perhaps the most important trait for any writer is die-hard determination. Hang in there and all things are possible.
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