1. Be a Good Writer and a Good Storyteller
“Well, duh, stupid,” you might be thinking. Everyone has to be a good writer! (And don’t call me stupid.) But many people forget that an author has to be both a good storyteller and a good writer. What’s the difference? Well, I’ve edited many novels that had great plots and characters, but the author couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag (sure, that metaphor doesn’t make much sense, but I like the sound of it). There are also many brilliant writers who can’t create or move along a plotline to save their lives. The key is to learn how to do both seamlessly—the result is pure gold.
- Write Something Different
This might seem like common sense, but I can’t tell you how many authors don’t think about a good hook before they start a book. You are going to have a much greater chance of catching an agent or editor’s eye if your characters, setting, or plot is unique in some way. If there’s nothing that makes your novel different from what’s already out there, the writing can be great and it won’t make an agent jump up and down with excitement.
- Get a Good Agent
Obviously. However, it’s important to note and accept that if you can’t get a top tier/solid agent, you might want to consider rewriting or starting on a new project. If you’re only attracting sub-par agents or getting hundreds of rejections, you need to look at the material itself. Once you have a legitimate and respected agent, you can trust them to handle all of the mind-numbing details—protecting your rights and negotiating terms including advances and royalties—allowing you to concentrate on your writing.
Don’t only research what you need to know in order to make the setting, plot, and characters come alive (and who wouldn’t love “research” trips to Ireland to clomp through old castles getting details for your latest swashbuckling romance?). Also, dig up everything you can about agents, publishing, editors, and the art of writing—in other words, learn everything you can about the industry and the craft. Knowledge is power. Don’t just say, “Hey, I can write a book,” pump something out, and expect to be published in a few months. Do your homework in all aspects.
As an author, your own writing will only grow stronger by reading everything you can get your hands on—classics, bestsellers, genre novels, books on writing, bad books, scary books, magazines, Publishers Weekly, newspapers, the instruction manual for your DVD player—everything! Who knows where you can glean new ideas, inspiration, and knowledge? Read, read, and oh yes, read!
- Have a Platform
This specifically applies to non-fiction authors. Build a platform. This is what will sell your book, and publishers recognize (and usually require!) that. It is how you will reach readers, it is your own important network, and it increases your visibility. Do you write a weekly article on your topic? Have you appeared on television or radio? Do you have a blog? Anything you can tap into in order to sell your book will make a publisher see dollar signs. This might sound crass, but welcome to the world of publishing! On the fiction side, the above-mentioned “hook” will also come in handy for establishing a platform. You can reach out and market to the massive underground vampire-turned-accountant-romance-adventure-literary-novel fanatics.
- Join a Writers Group/Get Feedback
Yes, even though your mother read your novel and loved it, you don’t have a surefire winner on your hands. Join a local writers group in order to be critiqued on your work. Most of writing is rewriting and having honest feedback will only improve your work. You can also look into hiring (warning: blatant self-promotion to come—hey, I’m using my platform!) a freelance editor to review your work. However, make sure that you choose someone who is legitimate and professional—i.e. always check out experience and references! Don’t get scammed.
- Master the Query Letter
Easier said than done, you’re thinking. But honestly, buy a book on writing one, attend a panel on the topic, do research—anything to help you improve that letter. It’s the only thing that will get you in the door. Hemingway could’ve written a query letter that began with, “I really hope you like my book that I wrote about this guy who likes to fish and I want you to sell it for me and call me, thanks,” and he would’ve gotten 1,000 rejections for The Old Man and the Sea.
- Don’t Cold Call Agents or Editors
This is annoying, unprofessional, and will immediately put you on the “Don’t take any further calls or emails from this person” list. Don’t do it, no matter how tempting it might be or how good you might think you are at selling your novel over the phone. Stick to the submission guidelines and don’t be a stalker.
- Don’t Give Up
This is the most important tip if you truly have the spirit of a writer. If you don’t find success with one novel or book, put it aside and start on another one . . . and another. Or move on to writing short stories or articles. Or even write a blog. If you are a true writer, you write for the love of writing, not to get published. If you have this mentality, you will end up finding success somehow—even if it’s not where you originally sought it. Hold onto your passion.