Answers to a Young Writer’s Questions

A young writer wrote to me recently as part of a language arts career project. He’s interested in becoming a writer and asked me some specific questions.

 Here are the questions and my answers:

1. Where do you get most of your ideas on a book?

Ideas come from everywhere. My novel Stroke of Luck is based on my personal experiences, but my forthcoming novel Dream or Destiny was sparked by a television documentary about people who have psychic knowledge about crimes. Within each story, ideas for specific characters and events came from many places: people I’ve known or observed, situations that happened to me or someone I know, items in the media …

Most writers keep track of ideas as they occur to them. Many keep a writers journal that they carry with them all the time to jot down descriptions of people or places, thoughts that pop into their heads, events they see or conversations they hear, anything that might come in handy in a story or a book.

Other writers have an “idea drawer” or “idea box” to collect newspaper clippings, pictures, brochures, pamphlets, and other items they want to remember in addition to notes about their own ideas.

For nonfiction, I usually see a need – a problem people have, for example – and write something that will fill the need – the solution to the problem.

2. How long does it take to get a book published?

This question is impossible to answer. Several years ago, a romance writer was published for the first time after twelve years of writing and submitting manuscripts. She wondered how long it took most people to get published and discovered through researching new writers for the major romance publishers that, on average, first-time published authors had been writing for seven years and had seven completed manuscripts before making the first sale. Although she researched only romance writers and publishers, it is likely that this is typical.

Of course, some writers have their first book published very quickly, and the majority of writers who try to get a book published never succeed. Only about 10% of the manuscripts submitted to traditional publishers are accepted every year.

There are other ways of being published besides the major print publishers. Small presses (small publishing companies often specializing in a specific genre or a region of the country) may be more accepting of new writers, and electronic publishers (generally small companies specializing in e-books but sometimes also publishing trade paperbacks) offer additional opportunities to writers. In fact, electronic publishing is growing faster than print publishing.

Most writers have to submit their work to many publishers and get many rejections before having a manuscript accepted. A dedicated writer continues to believe in himself and write, write, write and submit, submit, submit – no matter how long or how many rejections it takes.

Once a manuscript is accepted by a publisher, it usually takes one to two years for it to actually be published.

3. How hard is it to get a book published?

Very, very difficult by the traditional publishing route. However, a writer can be published very quickly if he decides to self-publish. Self-publishing means the writer also becomes the publisher and hires editors, designers, artists, printers, whatever is needed to produce the book. Then he also is totally responsible for promotion. The writer arranges and pays for everything, but he also receives all the income.

Writers need to be wary of companies who claim to be “self-publishers” – companies that do all the work of publishing a book for a fee. Subsidy publishers can be legitimate businesses that do a quality job for a reasonable price, but many companies that publish books at the author’s expense are “vanity” presses. They are in business only to publish books that feed the author’s vanity but don’t really sell to customers. These companies will publish anything a writer will pay for, regardless of how well or badly it is written or whether or not there is a market. Writers who don’t want to go through the hard work – and often years – to be published traditionally may be easily scammed by someone who promises publication. A writer who pays for publication must research the company very carefully and make certain he is spending money wisely.

To improve your chances of getting published by a company that pays you, you need to work on your craft constantly. Some people say serious writers write every single day, whether that writing is entries in a personal journal, chapters in a novel, a blog … anything. I’ve heard a writer has to write a million words before he can expect to be a good writer – whether that exact number of words is valid or not, a writer does have to write a lot – just like musicians and athletes have to practice, practice, practice.

Another way to increase your odds of being published is to join a writers group, either in person or online. A good writers group will provide writing training, market information, and networking and critique opportunities. Having other writers read and critique your work, while you do the same for them, is invaluable and one of the best ways to grow as a writer.

You will find links to many resources for writers on my Resources for Writers page.

4. What type of college do you need to go to get a degree in writing?

I’m not qualified to answer this question because my college degree is in sociology with a minor in psychology. All the training I have had in writing has been through writers groups; conferences, seminars, and workshops; and self-study.

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