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.

Here is a collection of the most commonly asked questions that Jessica receives on the topic of writing. And for more free writing advice, be sure to sign up for Jessica’s Writing Mastery Newsletter, and subscribe to Jessica’s YouTube channel where she frequently posts how-to writing vlogs

Do you have any general advice for aspiring writers?

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.

Do you have any recommendations for improving plot and/or story structure?

Yes! I use a method called Save the Cat! for outlining all of my novels. (Which essentially breaks down any story ever told into 15 beats or plot points.) It was originally created for screenwriters by Blake Snyder but I’ve adapted it for novels. I even have a non-fiction book all about how to use this methodology to outline a bestselling novel. You can find out more about Save the Cat! Writes a Novel here and also download your FREE Save the Cat! starter kit!

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?

Well, there’s certainly no short answer here. I’ve learned a lot since I first started trying to get published. In fact, I’ve put all my knowledge into a comprehensive online course called Sell Your Novel to a Major Publisher  Learn more about it (and my other online courses) here!

Do you recommend finding an agent first or just going straight to publishers?

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.

How do I go about finding an agent?

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 similar feedback (or no feedback at all!), it’s time to either tweak your query letter or tweak your manuscript (see question 1)

Find out more about agents and publishers in my online course, Sell Your Novel to a Major Publisher!

How do I write a query letter?

This is another long answer that I just can’t go into in full detail here. Please check out my online course, Sell Your Novel to a Major Publisher, for all the details about query letters, querying agents, signing your first book contract, and much more!

Can I send you my manuscript to read?

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: Jim McCarthy at jmccarthy@dystel.com

Would you be willing to speak at one of our writer's events/panels?

If I can fit it into my schedule, I would love to! Please contact me through my booking form