That’s probably the most commonly asked question whenever I do a signing or workshop and the answer isn’t a simple one.
For starters, every writer is different. I’m generally a seat of the pants writer whereas others meticulously plot, diagram and/or post pictures of what their characters look like.
What I know now that I didn’t know when I started is that you need to do some research first before you put pen to paper if the ultimate goal of writing your book is to get it published. What kind of research?
1. What genre will your book fit in? It’s important to know whether you’re book is a romantic suspense, paranormal, women’s fiction, cozy mystery or any of dozens of other genres. For a list of sub-genres in the romance industry, check out this list at the Romance Writer of America. For non-romance fiction genres, here’s another good spot for you to check.
2. Which publishers would be interested in your book? Go to the shelves of your local library or bookstore. See what books would be similar to what you would like to write. It will give you an idea of what publishers are interested in that kind of work. Open the book and check the dedication or acknowledgements. That might give you a clue as to the editor or agent who bought and/or represented the novel.
3. Check the guidelines for those agents and/or editors. Many publishers have their guidelines on their websites. Eharlequin.com is a great example of publisher’s guidelines. The guidelines will tell you how long the book should be, which editors are interested in acquiring, etc. Unfortunately, the guidelines may also say that the publisher will only accept manuscripts from agents. You can also look at books from Writers Digest and there’s a great book by Jeff Herman that I recommend.
4. What do I do if the publisher says I need an agent? Finding an agent can be almost as difficult as getting published, but basically, agents also have their guidelines on their websites. Check and see if an agent is reputable. In general, agents should not ask for fees in advance. A good source for agents is AAR which has a Code of Ethics agents must follow. More importantly, check out Preditors and Editors to watch out for scam artists.
Once you know what genre you are going to tackle and what the length of the book will be, you can start to “write”. What are some of the basic steps I follow when I start to “write” ?(and I put that in quotes because it’s truly before putting pen to paper. It’s about visualizing and getting the story straight in your head first.)
1. I’m a character-driven writer so in general, I have a character screaming in my head that they want a story. Usually a female character. I like strong empowered and tortured women and by tortured I mean someone with emotional conflict.
2. Emotional conflict is more often than not what will drive my story. Once I know what it is that the heroine fears most – intimacy, loss of self-identity, inability to commit, desire to commit – I ask myself what kind of hero and/or story would most effectively bring that emotional conflict to the forefront.
3. With a hero and heroine now firmly rooted in my brain, where does the story begin? I’ll be posting more on the concept of the Hero’s Journey in another blog, but usually it’s best to start the story in the hero’s and heroine’s Ordinary World.
4. What’s an Ordinary World? It’s the place where they normally live – both physically and emotionally. It’s the “safety zone” and the place you will rip them from when you begin their journey of discovery. For example, Diana Reyes from DARKNESS CALLS (and other books in THE CALLING) is most comfortable at her FBI office and in her role as a Special Agent. Why? She’s in control there. She knows the rules of that world and what’s expected of her. As a Special Agent in Charge, she’s in control of other agents and of her partner, David Harris. This makes her world safe. To shake up that world – introduce her to a creature of the night who makes her want to break the rules and enter a dark place she had thought she had overcome years earlier.
5. Decide two more important spots in “the journey” your character will take. The first is the point where the hero/heroine will face their greatest distress. This is the place where they will need to confront their emotional conflict and overcome it (or seem to overcome it). This will be one of the high points of your novel. The second spot – the end. What is the goal of the novel? What lesson will the hero and/or heroine have learned after they complete their journey?
Now that you have your characters, a beginning, middle and end – start to write (pen to paper, fingers on keys this time), keeping in mind the length of the book that the publisher has indicated in their guidelines.
Why is the length so important? If you’re writing category series books, which are generally shorter in length, you will not have time for delving into the issues of secondary characters or creating secondary plots that are related to the main story line. There is not enough length in a 65,000 word book to do that. However, if you’re doing a single title book (80,000 to 100,000), you will likely need a strong secondary character or subplot to enhance the main story line and create the length that you need.
Okay, so now that I’ve written the first few chapters, what do I do? The first thing to do is to go back and look at your first sentence. Does it pop? Does it make a reader want to keep on reading? Does it set the tone for your book?
For example – and I have to credit my two friends and fellow writers Roni Denholtz and Karen Bryan for this analysis – here’s the first sentence of TEMPTATION CALLS:
As lives went, both of hers had sucked.
What does this tell us? For starters, it’s not a happy book. It’s going to be dark. “Both lives”? How many lives does a normal person have? “Both lives” clues us to the fact that this is someone other than a normal person. “Sucked” – a reference to the state of the hero’s life but also an allusion to the genre? It’s a paranormal book — a vampire novel — and the word “sucked” works in two ways – again to emphasize this isn’t a happy book and secondly as a nod to the nature of the work.
Writing that first memorable sentence can take time, so don’t fret it. Write it and then revisit it as you write the rest. It’s important, though, that once you get a few chapters done, you find a critique group. You may locate one at your local bookstore. If you’re a member of a writing organization, they may put together critique groups (the New Jersey Romance Writers do this for their members). RWA has electronic critique groups where members exchange work via e-mail.
Why is this so important? Hearing what others have to say about your work will give you an idea about what’s working and what’s not. Of course, listen to your gut as well. Trust your gut to weed out what doesn’t sound right and what does. You’ll have to learn to do this as well for when you’re published since it’s likely you’ll face revision letters from your editors and will have to trust your gut to know how to make those revisions work.
If you’re not a member of a writing organization, I would highly recommend that you join one. Networking with other writers is a good way of not only learning about the craft of writing, but also about the business of writing. There are some wonderful writers who never learn the business end of things and flounder. Being published is not only about being a writer with some talent, it’s about learning how to promote, move up, and build a brand (more on that later).
Also, if you don’t already get Publishers Marketplace, sign up for it. Whether you opt for the free or paid version, it’s chock full of industry news and deals. Watching the deals that are happening may help you determine who is the best publishing house or agent for your novel as well as what’s hot at the time.
Finally, how do I finish my book? Write, write, write. Every day if you can. Even if all you do is one page a day. In a year, a page a day equals a book. If you can’t write every day, find some kind of schedule where you can sit and work on your novel. Being a writer involves discipline. People will often ask, “How do you write so many books in a year?” It’s a simple answer. I write almost every day for at least an hour. On the weekends, I write for several hours each day.
So in a nutshell, that’s how it’s done. Just remember to write, write and write and more importantly, never give up. We all have stacks of rejection letters, but if you don’t try, you can’t succeed.
Copyright 2006 Caridad Pineiro Scordato