A Few Writer’s Tips

from Lawana Blackwell

1.  Pray that God will increase your talent, confidence and self-discipline, and guide your steps.  He gives us talents with the intent that we use them, so I believe He cares about your success as much as you do.

2.  Never feel it's too late to start.  I allowed a paralyzing fear of failure to keep me from even attempting to write until I was on the eve of my 40th birthday.  I regret the "wasted" years, but then again, I had a lot to learn about life before I could write about it.   

3.  It's a terrible thing, getting rejection letters.  But I'm proud of the ones I received in the past.  They say I've "earned my stripes".  Get over your fear of being criticized.  TODAY, this minute.  No one ever did anything great without attracting criticism.  Jesus was criticized.  Abraham Lincoln was criticized.  Yes, it hurts, but if you'll take it on the chin it will make you stronger.  And many times the criticism has merit, and can teach you something. 

4.  Along that vein, you MUST develop a teachable spirit.  Oft-times we allow our family members and friends to read our work, and they usually praise it.  Unfortunately, they are reading it through the eyes of affection for you, and even sometimes don't want to hurt your feelings.  NEVER write to an editor, "My friends say it's a great story."  Try to find someone qualified to read your work, and then listen to his suggestions with an open mind.  If you were trying to learn carpentry, and an experienced carpenter pointed out that you were putting a chimney on a house upside-down, would you get miffed and defensive?  Yet many, many, many, times I've seen hopeful writers get angry and defensive at constructive criticism and even give up.   

5.  There is a saying -- Books that get talked about don't get written.  It's so true!  When we tell everyone we know about this wonderful plot we have, we lose the tension we need for putting it down upon paper.  I hardly ever discuss my plots, even with my husband and editor.  Then I feel like I have a delicious secret that will unfold as I write.

Most of the people in my church did not realize I was attempting to have a writing career until my first book was published.  I had only asked a handful of very close friends to pray for me about it.  Why?  Because when you have dozens of people aware of what you're attempting to do, it puts pressure on you that you don't need.  It's like being in your 9th month of pregnancy, and everywhere you go, people express surprise that you haven't had the baby yet.  Your writing suffers, because you unconsciously start worrying that others will be disappointed in you or think you're a failure if you're not published in a certain amount of time. 

Also, you'll lose friends if you talk about writing too much.  It gets boring to them.  When I'm with my non-writing friends, we usually talk about our children, housework, etc.  I save "book talk" for when I'm with other writers.

6.  If at all possible, take a writing class.  My career got started when I took an adult leisure class at the local university.  We met only six times, but I learned a great deal.  There are correspondence courses out there too--Writer's Digest magazine has one, which sets you up with a mentor.  You can find an advertisement in their magazine.  I've heard that the one available through The Christian Communicator magazine--is also a good one, and they also have a critique service.  I've met the woman who founded this service, Susan Titus Osborne, and she is a neat person.  And I do know one Bethany House writer who got his start through this critique service. Website address:   http://www.christiancommunicator.com/

Another good website for writers is http://www.acwpress.com/links.htm

7.  Read good books.  I'm not talking about the old classics, as wonderful as they are, because they're not written in the style that today's publisher wants.  Don't just read for the story, but notice how the author structures her sentences.  How she describes people.  How she uses dialogue (the most important part of a book, in my opinion.  Great dialogue can cover a multitude of sins).  If you own the book, highlight passages that are examples of great writing--not to copy, but so the technique will implant itself into your mind.  That is how I learned the most of what I know about writing.

8.  Read books about writing.  The library is full of them.  And you can check out past issues of Writer's Digest magazine.  Check out a whole stack, and devote a day to reading them.  Much information and inspiration can be found in those pages.  I used to pour over them before I was published.  I still have fond feelings for the magazine, and occasionally buy a copy.

One book that I recommend is The Complete Guide to Writing and Selling the Christian Novel by Penelope J. Stokes, the editor who taught me many things about fiction.  You may order it from Amazon.com on the net (at a discount) or by calling 1-800-289-0963.  It may even be at your library.

***Pay special attention to the chapter on Point-of-View.  Most amateurish writers (and I was once one) make glaring mistakes with point-of-view.  Basically, Penny Stokes tells us not to jump around from one character's head to another in the same scene.  If you've read any of my Gresham Chronicles or Tales of London books, you'll notice that, although I have several characters' viewpoints throughout the book, you're only inside the thoughts of one per scene.  If I use two viewpoints in a single scene, I set them apart with spaces and a line.

Recently I checked out from the library The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) by Jack M. Bickham.  It had some great advice.

9.  At the reference desk of your library, ask to see Writer's Market by Writer's Digest Books.  It's expensive (about $25, but I found it for $18 at overstock.com), and you probably don't need a copy at home, but every writer should spend some time with it.  Has great information about submitting proposals, and what today's publishers (magazine and book) are looking for.  If you're serious about writing for the Christian market, you should definitely purchase Sally Stuart's Christian Writer's Market Guide.  The number for ordering is 1-800 742-9782.  Also, I'm sure any book store can order it for you, or you can find it online at Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

10.  You'll see in the writer's market guides that many publishers offer guidelines on how to send proposals, if you'll send a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  These can be helpful.  Some of the larger Christian publishers are not accepting manuscripts from new authors.  They are serious.  Many secular publishers will only deal with you through an agent.  Do you need one?  I don't believe so, not at the beginning.  I haven't felt the need for one yet.

Don't let all of this discourage you--if you have the talent, the drive, and are tenacious enough, the doors will eventually open.  You may simply have to start with a smaller publisher, as I did, to get your foot in the door.

Most companies who are accepting manuscripts from new authors would like you to send a query letter, telling what your story is about and asking if they would care to see it.  Make it no longer than one page.  The first paragraph should tell about your story, and should be interesting enough to grab an editor's attention.   There are library books on effective query letters.

If a publisher (many Christian publishers still do) in the market guide will allow you to send part of your manuscript (or a whole short story), you must enclose a cover letter.  It is almost the same as a query letter, telling the editor why your story has merit.  Again, one page. 

The first paragraph, again, should tell about the story.  Second, about yourself as far as writing goes.  Anything you've ever published, any writing classes you've taken, etc.  If you haven't done any of that, don't despair.  Everyone was a beginner at some time.  Be honest, tell why you want to write this story.  The last paragraph should thank the editor for considering your story, and if you're familiar with the publisher's books/magazines, why you chose him.  Also include your address and telephone number.  Don't include your social security number--if they buy the story, they'll ask for that later for payment.

The opening sentence to the cover letter for my first published novel was:

Can you imagine the feelings of a seventeen-year-old British serving girl upon finding herself all alone in the States after her new employers are killed?

Immediately the editor was drawn into the story, and wanted to hear more. 

11.  Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope for the editor's reply.  If you want the publisher to return your submission too, you should have the post office weigh your package and affix postage to the envelope you're to enclose before you seal the outer envelope.  You'll have to fold the envelope you enclose, and make sure you make a note of it at the end of your cover letter.

12.  For any submission longer than three pages, I always send it in a large manila envelope.  You want the submission to be user-friendly, and it's easier for the editor to read pages that haven't been folded.  Never use fancy colored paper, enclose photos of yourself, or any other gimmicks.  And NEVER say in your cover letter, "God told me to write this story".  Christian publishers receive letters like that often, and they usually accompany an inferior story.  This was told to me by a top editor.  You should give God the glory, but wait until after it has been accepted.

13.  Some advice about the actual writing:

  • Check your grammar.  The Elements of Style is a great little book for writers, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.  There are some basic rules you want to follow.  Be sure you never split infinitives, which is to put an adverb between "to" and a verb, such as "to merrily sing", "to quickly run", etc.
  • Spelling too!  One mistake I see all the time is the misuse of its and it's.  Its is possessive, and you would use it this way: The dog lost its leash.  The school changed its policy.  It's is a contraction meaning it is or it has:  It's (it is) a fine day.  It's (it has) been a long day.   
  • Imagine that you have to pay money for "ly" adverbs, and don't overuse them.  It is better to write "He hurried across the yard" than "He walked quickly across the yard." 
  • 15.  If you are unpublished, most publishers will want you to finish your book before sending it to them.  Many will accept three chapters and a synopsis of the rest (one page is enough).  If you have three chapters finished, you may as well send them out to those who will look at them.  Telephone the publisher (the market guide gives phone numbers) and ask the name of the person to whom the proposal should be sent.  It is always better to have a name on your envelope and cover/query letter.  The calls will only cost you about 25 cents each, and are worth it.  The market guide will often give names, but people change jobs all the time. 
  • When I was trying to get published, I sent three-chapter proposals to six publishers at a time.  It's like baiting a trout-line instead of using a single fishing hook.  When one would reject my story, I'd turn around and mail it to another publisher.  It's scary, yes, but fun and exciting too!

    16.  When an editor finally telephoned about my first proposal, he asked to see the rest of the book.  "I can have it to you in three months," I told him.  It ended up being my first sale, to Barbour & Company.  Their Heartsong Presents romances are not lengthy as books go, so I knew I could finish in that amount of time.  I sent the whole manuscript in with a cover letter reminding him that he wanted to see it, and wrote REQUESTED MANUSCRIPT on the cover, addressed to that particular editor.  He bought it, and I was on my way!

    17.  If you can join a critique group at the library or elsewhere, that might be helpful.  I belonged to a great one for a couple of years.  Just make sure it's not a group of overly-critical people who have never attempted to publish, and are in love with their own writing.  A good critique group WANTS to see all of its members published, and any criticism is given out of caring, not obnoxiousness or jealousy. 

    Also, you might want to see if a chapter of Romance Writers of America meets in your town (call the library, or search the internet).  Even if you're not interested in the romance category, the support is helpful.  Several of my multi-published friends are members, though they don't write books that you would classify as "romances".

    18.  You'll notice in Writer's Digest magazine several ads for companies which will publish your books for a fee.  These are vanity presses.  Avoid them.  Book stores are not interested in self-published books.  You should NEVER have to pay anyone to publish your book or story.  They pay you.   

    19.  I'm telling you how my career began, but please bear in mind this was ten years ago.  Some things regarding submitting proposals may have changed.  It's up to you as a writer to research all you can and learn the business.  Also, I only write fiction, so I haven't a clue about non-fiction writing.  But I would imagine 99% of these tips would apply to that as well.

    20.  I grew up with the idea that writers were a different breed who didn't do laundry, wipe children's noses, scrub toilets and get athlete's foot.  But we're no different from anyone else.  You have every right to be published, if you are willing to develop your talent and work hard.  I have many writer friends, and we're all just people.  We all wondered if we would make it, sweated out those rejection letters and all that good stuff.  So, don't be intimidated by those who are successful.  We're just a little farther along the path that you've started walking.


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