I’ve had a few requests for a post like this, so here it is! I don’t consider myself an expert on writing—I’ve only written 3 ½ books, after all—but I hope these tips help others. This post is mostly for fiction writers, but I think some of the suggestions will apply to other types of writing as well.
Learn the craft
There’s a lot to learn about writing: the basics of grammar, how to create realistic characters, how to pace and how to plot. Fortunately, there are books you can read to help you (a lot of them). Read good books and see how others do it. And read books on writing to get a good nuts and bolts breakdown. I think one of the most useful things for me had been attending writer’s conferences. (I even taught at one this past May, which was kind of exciting.) If your location or budget prevent you from attending writer’s conferences, you can still find classes on youtube. And chances are, your local library will have a few books on writing you can borrow. You wouldn’t try to perform surgery on someone without intensive study and training, so why would you try to write a novel without at least a little education?
In 2011, I went to the LDStorymakers Writer’s conference and met some wonderful people. We sat with each other at lunch, swapped notes about classes and teachers, and then they invited me to be in their critique group. Part of me wanted to, but I didn’t think I had time for a critique group. I was trying to write my second novel and trying to keep two babies alive and healthy. So I said no thanks.
About a year later, I decided to give it a try. And I’m so glad I did. I think my critique group actually saves time by helping me fix problems earlier, and we do a good job of motivating each other. We’re excited about each member’s writing and we sincerely want to help make each manuscript better. If you can find a critique group like that, it can be an advantage for you.
On the flip side, I’ve heard horror stories of critique groups gone bad, where members maliciously tear one another’s work apart, or all start sounding the same, or demand too much of each other, or never get anything done. If your critique group is working for you, it can be a boon. If it’s not, move on and try to find some other partners.
Test readers are another great source. Find intelligent people who read a lot, and get their honest opinion. Someone who simply tells you everything is wonderful isn’t the ideal test reader. A good test reader will tell you what’s working, what’s not working, and they may even catch some typos.
Learn more about agents and publishers
Be aware that when you submit something, whoever you’re sending it to is looking at a huge number of submissions. They can only take a fraction of those, so they are looking for reasons to say no. They might be looking for a different genre or different target audience, they may dislike your voice, and yes, maybe you still have some work to do. Do your homework on the agent before you send in a query. If they only accept young adult urban fantasy, don’t send them your cozy mystery. Follow their submission suggestions exactly. If they specify margin width and font style, make sure your manuscript meets those requirements, because you don’t want bad formatting to be the reason they reject you.
Don’t be in such a hurry to publish
It’s exciting to finish a book and it’s perfectly natural to want to share your work with everyone else. But first drafts aren’t ready. Nor are second, third, or fourth drafts. Sometimes first, second, and third novels aren’t quite up to where they need to be—or up to where they can be if you wait a little longer. Does that mean you should get discouraged? No. If you can’t find an agent or editor, should you go Indy? Not necessarily.
Like most things in life, you will get better as you go along. You will learn how to spot mistakes earlier, how to balance character traits, how to show rather than tell. As you keep writing and keep working, you will learn rules and trends you weren’t aware of before. (Note: in writing, there is almost always a good reason to break a rule, but you should be aware of the rule and its purpose before you break it. Don’t break the rules because you’re ignorant.) You’ll go back to that manuscript, clean it up, and chances, are, you’ll be glad you waited, because now your book will be so much better. There’s nothing wrong with going Indy, but sometimes just waiting a while and being patient for a few years or through a few manuscripts can really pay off. Very few athletes become professionals after their first season in a particular sport. Likewise, most writers won’t land a huge deal after finishing their first novel.
If my first novel had been accepted by the first person I submitted it to, I would now be a little embarrassed to have it in circulation. I’m glad it was rejected a few times, because each time someone said no, I went back to the story and made it better. I finished the first draft in 2005. It was in bookstores in 2012. A long wait? Yes. Do I regret waiting? No.
Fingers on the keyboard
Bottom line, the most important thing is to keep working. Keep learning. Keep practicing. If writing is a priority, you’ll find a way to make time for it, maybe not every day, but close. And then you won’t be just an aspiring writer, because regardless of your success level, you become a writer not by winning an award or selling a hundred thousand copies of a book. You become a writer by writing.