Some very good answers to these questions can be found on my agent’s blog, PUBRANTS. Kristin Nelson is, after all, in the daily business of pitching manuscripts, turning them into published books. She blogs daily about what works and what doesn’t, what’s trend and what isn’t, why a writer should follow or ditch trend and most critically, what’s voice and why it works. Quite honestly, if you want to be published, reading Agent Kristin daily should be required.
But even Kristin notes—several times—good writing isn’t enough.
So what else does a writer need besides good writing?
A buddy. A mentor. A damned good crit partner.
And I don’t mean your mother (unless she’s Nora Roberts) or your cousin (unless he’s Stephen King) or your neighbor (unless she’s Robin D. Owens). The problem many writers who are yet-to-be authors have is they choose a crit partner or writing buddy who is at the same place they are in the literary process. That then becomes the proverbial blind leading the blind.
So if you’re looking for a mentor or crit partner, here are my suggestions. And as with any of my suggestions, if they don’t work for you, if they don’t resonate with you, remember the delete key is your friend:
1 – Choose someone higher up the literary ladder than you are. Preferably someone published with a NY house or one of the respectable small presses (ie: not a vanity press). Why? Because this person is “in the system” and knows how to work the system. This person is working to deadlines, dealing with professional critiques and copy edits. On a deadline. This means working under pressure and learning to push aside “personal” feelings about characters and prose because You Are A Professional.
2 – Choose someone who writes in the same genre and style that you do, who reads what you read, who likes what you like, book-wise, plot-wise, character-wise. This will make the crit process go so much more smoothly and insure the advice you get will work for you. As a case in point, I get asked to read lots of soon-to-be-published manuscripts for blurbs or quotes. You’ve probably seen my quotes on books by Ann Aguirre and Lisa Shearin. The feel and flavor and style of their books are similar to mine so I have no problem heartily recommending them. Their writing resonates with me.
Then on occasion I get a manuscript from a NY editor for the purpose of garnering a quote and the book Just Does Not Work For Me. “For Me” are the operative words. Obviously, this book has been purchased by a major publisher. But the writing style and/or the plot just leave me cold. I find it difficult to care for the characters. I find it difficult to finish the book. So I pass on offering a quote.
Now—point is—this book SOLD. But had that writer—whose style is so opposite mine—come to me for mentoring or critting, I’d likely have told them to chuck the story and start something new and, while you’re at it, please don’t let me ever see you refer to the male protagonist’s mouth as “his chiseled lips” or his hair as “flowing locks” again.
But THAT BOOK SOLD. There are agents and editors and readers who love flowing raven locks and manly chiseled lips on their characters. I’m just not one of them and, hence, I’m not the author to mentor or crit that kind of writer. So it’s hugely important that you match your writing to your mentor’s writing. Or else you’ll be a serious cross-purposes and it’ll be frustrating for you both.
3 – Consider taking a class—online or in person—with the possible mentor-author of your choice. A classroom setting provides a great, “under no obligation” opportunity for a published author to get a glimpse of your work and, if sufficiently intrigued, offer to crit some chapters. Keep in mind published authors also take these same classes. So even if the teacher doesn’t offer, another author might.
4 – Do not send an author your sample chapters or, Heaven forefend, your entire manuscript and ask them to read it UNLESS they’ve specifically offered to do so. About three times a year I get chapters or—Heaven forefend—an entire manuscript in my email inbox from someone I do not know. These things get deleted. Sorry, but they do. I try to mentor two to three writers a year but when I hit that two to three limit, I’m out of time. I write full-time for a living. I have deadlines. On occasion, I even like to see my husband. Unless I or any other author has very specifically said: “Send”…do not send. Same goes for an email request of “will you read my manuscript?” Unless I’ve met you at a signing or a conference and told you to send stuff to me, I likely don’t have time. What you’ll get from me is a polite note telling you that I don’t have time and telling you to read Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer and Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and then read everything on The Essence of Story in the WorldCrafter's Writing Guild on Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Sime~Gen site. Because honestly, until you’ve done those things, I can’t work with you. And honestly, if you do those things, there’s probably little you could learn from me. Dwight, Jack and Jacqueline are just totally brilliant.
5 – Keep running with the Big Dogs. Go to writer conferences offered by professional organizations, hang out on loops run by professional writing organizations and populated by published authors. You will learn oodles.
Above all, BIC HOK! (Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard!)
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