By Mark Alpert
There’s a myth among beginning writers that one’s professional career begins after the publication of the first novel or short story or magazine article. According to this widely held belief, the writer remains an amateur — a hobbyist, a scribbler, a literary dilettante — until some august authority (usually an editor or agent in New York City) declares that the writer’s manuscript is publishable and thus transforms the amateur into a professional, like the Archbishop of Canterbury anointing the Queen of England.
This sequence of events may actually occur from time to time, usually when the writer is preternaturally brilliant. But in the great majority of cases, the sequence is reversed: the writer becomes a professional before he or she is published. By “professional writer,” I mean someone who has adopted a businesslike attitude toward fiction or journalism. A professional has a much better chance of getting published than an amateur does, because a professional can demonstrate that his or her work is worth investing in.
But how does a writer become a professional? I have identified a few common-sense steps:
- A professional sets goals and follows a schedule. If you’re serious about writing a novel, give yourself a deadline. Figure out how many words you can write in a week. Divide 100,000 (the number of words in a typical novel) by your weekly output. That’s the number of weeks you’ll need to write the book. Mark the deadline on your calendar (maybe give yourself a couple of extra weeks to allow for vacation time, family emergencies, and so on). Then stick to the schedule. If you fall behind, catch up.
- A professional seeks advice and instruction to get the job done. Take a writing class to learn the basics. Join a writing group to get constructive criticism of your work in progress. If you’re writing a novel, read lots of novels, preferably in the same genre. If you’re pitching an article to a particular magazine, read the magazine.
- A professional is willing to change course. If the critics in your writing group say your novel isn’t working, determine what’s wrong and fix it. If a literary agent says your book idea is a tough sell, consider new ideas.
- A professional learns from setbacks. If your first novel turns out to be unsellable, try to figure out why. Then apply those lessons to your next book. Maybe try a different genre, but never stop writing.
- A professional is polite but persistent. Don’t be a pest when you’re dealing with agents and editors, but don’t be a doormat either. Don’t let anyone keep you waiting forever; follow up your queries and pitches in a timely manner. End every email with a thank you.
- A professional knows how to network. If you’re looking for an agent, seek help from everyone you know. Order business cards for your writing business and distribute them. Go to writing conferences and make contacts. If you meet someone who can help you, offer to buy lunch for him or her. Learn as much as you can from those meetings. And send grateful follow-up emails.
- A professional sweats the details. Professional writers don’t make spelling mistakes. Bad grammar is also inexcusable. Be careful with everything you write, even routine emails. A professional writer has respect for the language.
- A professional keeps promises. If you promise an agent or editor that you’ll finish a manuscript in a certain amount of time, don’t blow the deadline. Before you sign a contract, make sure you can fulfill its obligations. In the publishing business, as in all businesses, the key to success is reliability.
- A professional prepares for the future. Gain experience and build a platform for yourself so that the publishing industry will take you seriously. Draw attention to your talent by writing op-ed pieces and blogs. Enter short-story contests.
I’m sure that some of the TKZ-ers out there can offer additional tips for amateur writers who want to turn pro. I believe there’s some wisdom in the adage “Fake it till you make it.” If you act like a professional and treat your writing like a moneymaking business, then sooner or later you’ll start making money from it.
I’m going to Oklahoma City next week to speak at the annual conference of the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (see image above). On Friday May 4th I’ll host the conference’s “WhoDunIt?” luncheon and explain how to write a science thriller; the next morning I’ll talk about “Putting Real Life In Your Fiction.” If you happen to be in OKC and want to stop by, the full schedule is here.