Literary agents are a really big deal. They're the gatekeepers to the industry, unless you choose to self-publish, which is also a fair option. But if you're going traditional like I'd like to, agents are what will help you guide your career, improve your writing, and collaborate with other people in the industry. I recommend you get one.
B: Beta Readers
You need people, besides your mom and your agent, to look over your work. Beta readers, essentially, to help you edit, to give you real reader reactions, and to encourage you on your way. As much as it may be tempting, if you want to be a serious writer, you can't hide your work from other people. Be brave! More thoughts on this here.
If you don't have a very good character, it's hard to have a good story. There are three basic aspects you want to work off of as you create a character in order to make them a good one -- relatability, likeability, and interestingness. Focus on these traits as you create your very real, very human character. And when they start running the story themselves, then you've got it. Don't fight them. Read some more about this (and generally where ideas come from) in this post from the POV of one of my own characters.
Though it's important to follow the rules in writing, you also need to have a little daring, to try something new and different in your work. If you pull it off right, you'll have something amazing to give to the world. If you don't, you've still learned something. Challenge yourself -- it'll be worth it. More thoughts on challenging yourself here.
All artists have to put some of themselves in their work, and this comes not just through experiences, but (and primarily) though emotion. You have to feel your work and put that feeling through in a way so that the readers will feel too. Emotion matters. You can't let yourself get blocked by personal struggles or an inability to face up to yourself.
Relationships matter, and that's why it's important to write them into your work. Friends and family should be included in some way, so as to better show the nature of your character, to deepen the story, and to give some more interaction to the world of the story. Put some thought into those who surround your character. Some related thoughts here.
Even though it's important to stand out, you also have to fit in so that librarians, bookstores, and everyone else can market your book and shelf it appropriately. Know your genre and keep to it as you write, edit, and promote your book. It'll keep everything nice and in line. If you need more info on genres, read this post.
Conflict. Drama. The central idea. All of these need to be emphasized in order for you to hook the reader into your story, which means they're needed for any agent or editor to pick up the book in the first place. Know what your most exciting, central point is and focus on it in your writing and your querying. Pull them in so they can't let go.
It's important to read the works of other writers in order to better understand the way literature works. Figure out which writers you idolize most, and figure out what it is about their writing that makes them so powerful, like I did in this post. Learn from it. Apply it. It'll make you all the more better.
Comic relief is important, as any screenwriter can tell you. While the intense stuff is totally necessary for the hook and for the emotional influx, you need to give your reader (and yourself) a break every once in a while. Have lighter moments, allow your character to make suiting jokes. Otherwise your reader will be too exhausted to make it through.
K: Kill Your Darlings
This common piece of editing advice is very important: there will be lots of phrases, paragraphs, even scenes you've written that you love but that just don't fit into the book. You have to cut them. YOU MUST KILL YOUR DARLINGS. Don't let your ego get in the way of the story.
Love is one of the deepest and most vital human emotions, so in accordance with letters E and F, you need to put some kind of focus on it. Don't shy away just because it might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar for you. Explore it. I've got a post on this here for those needing some advice.
Remember, when you send out to agents and publishers, you've got to have everything formatted properly. This is a business, so be professional and do what you're told. They'll take you a lot more seriously and it shows that you respect them and their needs too.
N: Not Just Art
Related to the above, while so much of writing is about the art, it's a business too. It's a hard dichotomy to balance, but you've got to find the business person in you and use them as well as your natural artist in order to be successful as a writer. I've got some tips based off of James Patterson's life here.
You are the writer, and you will (or should) know more about the story than any of your characters. You also will have your own agena, your own focus, your own voice. But it's vital, absolutely vital that you don't let that get in the way of actual story and the writing. To make a brief religious segue, God loves us and he's got a plan for us, but he doesn't commonly just throw himself into the middle of things -- that's not how life works. For an Inception-themed post related to this, click here.
The most important quality you can have as a writer is perseverance. So much of this process, at least at the beginning, is self-made, so you'll have to have that dedication and focus to get it done. It also takes a lot of stubbornness to get through the many, many rejections you will receive when you get to the point of sending out to people. If you give up, then you never get anywhere.
Querying agents and editors is one of the hardest parts of this career, I find, because this is the point at which you're switching from the art brain to the business brain. You've got to work on all the professional, business-like, marketing stuff that will pull those you're querying in, and you've got to follow the rules as closely as possible. Stay focused as you adjust into it, and again, persevere.
Amidst all that perseverance, take a break now and then to recharge. You get your best inspiration from life and you can't live life just by writing, unfortunately enough. Take care of yourself, do some fun stuff, and then get back to your writing when you've gotten yourself together again.
Plot is important, and stories are amazing! Don't forget, in all of this, to stay true to your central story and the inspiration for it. What you are creating is one small piece in the giant story that is mankind, and the way it fits into that scheme is incredible. Tap into the human experience, maybe explore archetypes a bit, and make it a good one.
This is a musical term used to describe the difference in sound between different instruments and voices. Your story has a feel, a flavor that needs to be brought out and differentiated. Voice, tone, and setting are all important pieces to making your book a beautiful piece of the larger symphony as described above.
You gotta fit in enough to be marketable, but you also gotta stand out. Find what about your idea, your writing, your character is unique and make that a focus in your business campaign for marketing and querying. It helps to think about why you chose to write this book in the first place -- most likely, there was something unique in your inspiration that made this matter to you. If you can't think of anything unique about your book, you need to do some rewriting.
First thing to understand about the industry, everything moves at a really slow pace. I'm talking maybe years to write, probably years to edit, definitely years to get it published. You've got to be patient through all of this and keep your expectations realistic for the pace of the industry.
World-building is one of the hardest and the most important aspects of writing, particularly for speculative fiction. One great thing to remember, as I learned at Ch1Con from Patrice Caldwell, is that your world-building should be very character-driven, focused on the world as your character sees and knows it. POV in world-building is absolutely vital.
X: X Factor
Here's a really hard truth: There really is something to this that's totally beyond our control, the x-factor. Luck, a sense of je ne se quois, finding the right people to support your book, all of those things are beyond you, and that's something you have to live with. Just keep working and focus on making your writing better. That's the one thing you do control.
Y: Your Audience
Remember your audience in all of this. You should write for you, but edit for them. In accordance with letter O, you can't let yourself get in the way of the story that your readers need to hear and understand. Remember what their prejudices and habits are and play into that as much as you can (as I will discuss in an upcoming post!).
After all of this, you have to rise up from the dead and do it again. Perseverance. Dedication. You should be trying to make some progress at all times, increasing your skill, learning new things. Another zombie-related tip? Look back at old stories and books or journals and recycle those ideas to create a new one. You might find something really awesome.
Images via marafitzgerald.blogspot.com, weheartya.com, breathlessbooks.wordpress.com, scribendi.com, and Flickr.