Jessica receives a lot of questions from aspiring writers seeking advice. And, as she once was an aspiring writer herself, she welcomes the opportunity to share her experiences and advice with others.
- Do you have any general advice for aspiring writers?
- Do you have any recommendations for improving plot and/or story structure?
- What advice do you have for a writer who’s just starting out? Either trying to write a novel or trying to get one published?
- Do you recommend finding an agent first or just going straight to publishers?
- How do I go about finding an agent?
- How do I write a query letter?
- Can I send you my manuscript to read?
- Would you be willing to speak at one of our writer’s events/panels?
- How do you manage all your IT and technical stuff as a self-employed writer?
A: Take criticism. Believe in your work and stand behind it, but don’t be afraid to make changes. Try to be as objective as possible when it comes to your writing (I know how impossible that sounds) but it will only help you in the long run. Use rejections to evolve yourself as a writer, not just to line your waste basket. When someone rejects your work and offers a reason, don’t just blow it off and claim that they “didn’t get it” or that they clearly didn’t read it closely enough, dissect it and try to figure out if what they’re saying makes sense and if it will inevitably help your work. There a lot of people in this industry—agents, editors, other writers, etc.—who know what they’re talking about and know what it takes to make a book work. After all, that’s what they get paid for! Listen to them with open ears and grateful hearts. There’s a fine balance between staying true to your art and being open for suggestions, try to stay somewhere in the middle. If they “didn’t get it,” chances are, readers won’t get it either. And you won’t be there to explain it to them in the middle of Barnes and Noble.
Also…read, read, read! Get to know your genre. Regardless of how you feel about the books themselves, if you don’t know what’s selling, how are you supposed to write a book that sells? Believe it or not, publishers are in the business of making money. No ifs ands or buts about it. Sure, they’re passionate about literature but they’re more passionate about their bottom line. Because that’s what allows them to do what they love: publish books. I can’t stress this enough: You have to be familiar with what publishers are buying in your genre. You don’t have to be an exact replica, (actually I’d advice against that, it usually ends in a lawsuit) but you should at least know what else is out there.
And one final thing, on a more esoteric level: Be what you want. Don’t ask for it. Don’t hope for it. Don’t wait for it. Be it now. Being a “writer” is not something that happens when you sell your first book or land on a bestseller list. It’s a state of mind. It’s who you are. If you’re a writer, you know it. You feel it in your soul. So get out there and be it! When someone asks you what you do, say, “I’m a writer!” Not, “I work in sales but I’m trying to be a writer.” You are a writer now! I don’t care if you don’t have the check to prove it. Be it first. The money will follow.
A: Yes! It’s called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and it will change your life! It certainly changed mine. People tell me my books read like movies. Well, that’s probably because Save the Cat is actually a book for screenwriting. But I’ve found it translates exceptionally well to novels. A well-told story is a well-told story, regardless of the medium and a fast-moving story keeps the pages turning. Blake Snyder lays out a simple (yet effective) step-by-step beat sheet of how to tell any story and I’ll never write another book without it! He’s very well-respected in the industry and I know many writers (screenwriters and novelists alike) that utilize his books. Plus, he’s extremely funny! Click here to find it on Amazon. Or click here to visit Blake’s website.
I’ve also recently started teaching workshops on how to use Blake Snyder’s beat sheet in outlining your novels. Click here for more details.
A: Well, there’s certainly no short answer here. I’ve learned a lot since I first started trying to get published and one day, I hope to give some seminars on the topic and post the videos here, but in the meantime, I’m going to recommend another book. It’s called The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry and I would advise reading it no matter what stage of the game you’re in. Not only is it very thorough and insightful, it’s extremely entertaining to read. The writers, Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry are literary agents and so they know all there is to know about the publishing business and they’ve presented it in a fun, easy-to-digest format. You can find The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published on Amazon.
A: Although there is no one, sure route to getting published, there is one, much-more-traveled route and that’s working with an agent. It’s how I sold my first manuscript to St. Martin’s Press and it’s how every single one of my author friends found their publishing success as well. So I would definitely recommend finding an agent first. And here’s why: Agents serve as the “filters” of the publishing industry. They read everything and filter out the stuff they think will sell so editors don’t have to. So when an editor receives a submission directly from an agent, as opposed to from an author, they know that agent spent many hours sifting through submissions before they found something that they thought was really good. And this makes the editor much more excited and eager to read it.
Not to mention the fact that most major publishing houses these days will NOT accept unsolicited material (meaning, manuscripts not originating from an agent) and even if you do happen to get it into the hands of an editor, most likely your manuscript will end up in a large pile (referred to as the “slush pile”) along with tons of other manuscripts that have been labeled, “will read when I get around to it”. Well, it could be months, maybe even years before that happens. On the other hand, when an editor receives a manuscript from an agent, they know that manuscript is probably in the hands of several other editors around town and the whole “snooze you lose” concept rings in the back of their mind. Not wanting to miss out on the “next big thing,” they’re going to rush to read it and make it a priority.
To put it in perspective: It took me two years to finally find an agent to represent The Fidelity Files and once I did, she sold the manuscript in 10 days. That’s the difference an agent makes.
A: I would recommend purchasing a membership for an online agent directory like WritersMarket.com. It’s 40 bucks for one year and it pretty much has every agent in America listed on it. Plus, it allows you to search by genre, region, query method, and tons of other criteria. And it tells you how each agent would like to be queried. It’s essential that you query each agent according to their own individual submission guidelines.
You can also use an agent directory in book form like, The 2012 Guide to Literary Agents. If you don’t want to purchase a copy, these books can often be found in libraries as well.
Start making a list of agents that would be a good fit for your material and start querying! Remember, though, it’s a numbers game. Of 100 queried agents, you might find 10 who want to read your manuscript. Of those 10, one might want to represent you. If your results are not positive at first, keep querying and try not to get discouraged. If all of the responses are coming back with similiar feedback (or no feedback at all!), it’s time to either tweak your query letter or tweak your manuscript (see question 1)
A: This is another long answer that I just can’t go into in full detail here. There will be an extensive section about this in my forthcoming online seminar (see sign-up form above). Until then, I must point you to the book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published as the authors have included a very good section about querying agents. You can also google “writing a fiction query letter” and be inundated with information. Both of these sources are a good place to start. I would recommend writing two different query letters and starting with a sample of 20 agents. Send the first query letter to 10 of them and the second query letter to the other 10. If one query is getting better results, roll with that one. If neither are getting results, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.
A: I’m sorry, but I can’t accept any manuscripts for legal reasons (my laywer would have my head!). If you are a published author and would like me to blurb your upcoming book, please contact my agent: Bill Contardi at email@example.com
A: If I can fit it into my schedule, I would love to! Please contact me with more information at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A: I often joke that as self-employed writers, we don’t only write. We also are our own marketers, advertisers, accountants, consultants, photocopiers, promoters, editors, and probably worst of all…IT specialists. As someone coming from the corporate world, I found the technical adjustment to be the hardest (and I pride myself on being pretty tech savvy). Most authors find that technology slows them down because they just don’t know how to set things up properly or troubleshoot problems. Fortunately, I found Stan’s Tech Garage who are like freelance tech guys for small businesses and self-employed folk such as ourselves. They are located in Los Angeles but can remotely fix any of your computer issues from anywhere! I use them all the time and they’re fantastic! And very affordable too. They specialize in both Mac and PC. I recommend them to all my author friends.