Thursday, May 10, 2012

So, you think you're ready to write a book? (and other writing tips)

Being in the business of publishing, we get a lot of questions from authors and would-be authors about the publishing process, the time it takes from acquisition to publication, ebooks, distribution channels, marketing, and everything in between. These questions are valid and important, but sometimes in the midst of all the excitement of getting a book published and learning about the ins and outs of the publishing business, authors forget about the importance of focusing on their book.

This will be the first in a series of posts offering tips to authors who are curious about the publishing business. I'll not only address all of the usual concerns mentioned above, but also things like query letters, agents, submitting unsolicited manuscripts, finding the right publisher for you, what to expect (and not to expect) from your publisher, and how to focus on the goal for your book. To begin, we'll talk about whether you're even ready to write a book, let alone publish it.

You define yourself as an author. You may not write books for a living, but you do write. Perhaps you're a university professor, an expert in your field of study, or a business owner. Maybe you just write in your spare time, or maybe you have a story that needs to be told. You could be an academic with a compelling new theory or idea you'd like to share. Maybe you've had books published before, maybe you've tried the self-publishing route, or maybe your only claim to fame is your blog.

No matter your profession, you might decide that want to write a book. The great thing about technology in the 21st century is that it's quick and simple for anyone to sit down at the computer and type up their book on a word processor.

But, the awful thing about technology in the 21st century is that it's quick and simple for anyone to sit down at the computer and type up their book on a word processor.

The fact of the matter is that the publishing industry is overloaded with manuscripts and queries from people who want their book to be published (read: people who think they can write). Publishers and agents get thousands of unsolicited manuscripts each year from writers trying to break into the business. Most of these manuscripts are not anywhere close to being polished enough to be seen by a professional editor, let alone put into print for public consumption. Many of them never will be. If you want your manuscript to make it past (or to) the first set of eyes, it needs to be unique, interesting, and well-written. Without being all three of those things, a publisher isn't going to look twice at your submission.

With that in mind, when considering writing a book for publication, the first thing you should ask yourself is: Do I have a topic or theme that will bring something new and different to my target audience?

For example, if you've written a scifi/fantasy novel, are your plot and characters unique, or are you simply rehashing Lord of the Rings? If it's the latter, you need to go back to square one, because no publisher wants another Lord of the Rings. They already have the original, and frankly, it will sell better than your knockoff ever will. If you're composing your memoir, is the story you're trying to tell really compelling enough to make it to the shelf of a bookstore, or is it really only something your mom or best friend will read? If you're writing an academic or current affairs book, is your take on the subject unique enough to contribute to the already saturated market?

It's incredibly important for the book you want to write to be compelling for readers. That doesn't necessarily mean the book needs to appeal to the mass market, but it does need to have a platform and provide something new to the market. If it can't do that, it doesn't matter how interesting the subject matter is, how well-written it is, or how many years you spend working on the book. It won't get published.

Assuming you have an audience and a topic, the next thing to address is how interesting your take on your subject is.This isn't so much an issue for fiction, because often a basic plot line is rehashed and then repackaged and repurposed by making characters, details, descriptions, settings, etc., unique. In these cases, quality writing skills will play a much more important role. In nonfiction, you could have a unique theory or perspective on a subject, but if you can't make it interesting to the reader (and the publisher), then it's not worth querying.

A book or topic can be made interesting in several ways. This ties in a bit to writing skills and the uniqueness of the book itself; without those elements, the book won't be interesting. But just as important are the details you decide to provide, how you organize the contents, and how you grab the readers attention. The quality of the writing counts. Let me say that again, for those of you that didn't really get it the first time. The quality of the writing counts.

Take a writing course. Self-edit. Let your friends read your work. Self-edit. Have someone else look it over. And finally, when you're certain not one more thing can be changed, self-edit. And don't forget to spell-check.

The importance of re-reading your own work cannot be stressed enough. So many aspiring authors write their book and then just send it off and hope for the best. Before its published, a typical book will go through at least twenty revisions before it's ready to be published. If you want to impress your agent and publisher, send them a piece that is well-written and carefully revised.

Another tip: The thesaurus is your friend. Using words repetitively or writing with oversimplicity won't be well-received.

Unfortunately, good writing isn't all grammar and spelling and punctuation. You need to have compelling details, engaging dialogue, comfortable pacing, fleshed-out characters... it ties back into making your story interesting (and unique). If you've written a journalistic piece with various interviews, don't simply record the conversations. Paint a picture of what the interviewee looks like, the type of personality they have, what their background is. Help insert the reader into the conversation instead of just writing down questions and answers.

Suppose that you've written an academic text about economics. Instead of laying out the bare facts and bombarding your readers with numbers and complex theories, create a simple and easy way to relay information and engage readers, especially if you want to appeal to a wider audience than college professors and economists. A great example of this is Freakonomics. At its heart, that book was about the economy, but it was couched in such a way to appeal to all types of readers. Every book should find the best way to appeal to the target audience while still getting the point across. Good writing (including mechanics) is important and integral to creating a good book.

Not everyone should write a book, but for many, with hard work and dedication, publishable material can be produced. And writing the book is just the first step in the journey to publication! There's querying or submitting author applications, working with an agent and/or publisher to finalize the manuscript, interior and cover design, proofreading, publication, distribution, and marketing. It's a big step to submit your book for publication or representation, but hopefully this post has helped you decide whether you're ready to take that step.

Want to read the next post in this series? Click here.

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