I’m Glad You Asked

Patricia Smith WoodPatricia Smith Wood’s father, first as a police officer, and later as a career FBI agent, sparked her own interest in law, solving crime, and mystery.

After retiring from a varied and successful business career (including eighteen months working at the FBI, being a security officer at a savings & loan, and owning her own computer business) she attended writing seminars, conferences, and in 2009 graduated from the FBI Citizens’ Academy. Aakenbaaken & Kent published her first mystery, The Easter Egg Murder, on February 14, 2013. Murder on Sagebrush Lane, the second in the series, is underway.

 

When I meet a group of new people, inevitably someone in that crowd has aspirations to be a writer. Either that, or when they learn that I’ve had a book published, they want to know the “secret” of becoming a published writer.

Sometimes it’s tempting to let them go on thinking it’s a secret, and that once it’s revealed, they can instantly have the thing for which they’ve yearned. But I remember too well how it felt to be that questioner, and the only fair thing is to tell them the truth: There is no secret. At least there’s no ONE secret.

Unless you’ve taken college courses in creative writing, you probably don’t know one of the basic facts: there is no one rule about how to write or how to become published. (There’s the obvious caveat about spelling and grammar, of course, but as far as technique, or strict rules for telling the story, no.) If I could give a seminar about how to do that, I’d start out by telling them the first secret:

1. Put your butt in the chair and start writing. It doesn’t much matter what you write, just write. I’ve heard countless people say, “I don’t know what to write. I need ideas.” To that I’d say, write about yourself and your life story, or write about one of your parents, aunts or uncles. Write anything as long as it gives you practice stringing sentences together.

2. Join a writers group. Find an organization of writers in your area and join. There you will meet writers in all stages of the craft. By associating with writers, you learn things you’ll need as you develop your own writing skills. One of the first things I learned when I joined such a group is that if you’re serious about writing, you need to call yourself a writer−−even if you haven’t written anything yet. There’s tremendous power in taking on that persona. You have to first convince yourself.

3. Take classes, attend writing seminars, go to writers conferences. You’ll meet people who understand the challenges of the craft, and writers at all stages in their careers. Take advantage of the panel discussions where writers share their experiences. When you decide what you are interested in writing, seek out authors of similar interests. If mysteries intrigue you, hang out with mystery writers; if romance is your desire, associate with romance writers.

4. Don’t shackle yourself. When I first decided to write a novel, I was told I should outline. That technique works well for many writers, but not all. I thought if I didn’t outline, I wasn’t doing it right. I wasted a lot of time trying to outline, got extremely discouraged when I couldn’t do it, and gave up novel writing. Another twenty years passed, and by that time I was old enough to realize there might be another way. (I had become a bit rebellious by then.) I tried the “seat-of-the-pants” approach, and at last I got something going. It was a start and I was encouraged. Eventually I met other writers who also were not fans of outlining. That solidified my decision to not worry about getting an outline done before starting a book. If you want to try outlining as you go, that’s another option available to you.

5. Join a critique group. This is probably one of the best things you can do for your writing. But there are some things to watch out for. Make sure it’s a group you are comfortable with. You must be able to depend on their honesty and sincerity when giving criticism and praise. You also must be able to help other members of the group by thoughtfully critiquing their work, too. If you don’t click with the first group, resolve to find another more in tune with your personality.

6. Arm yourself with the proper tools. Obviously you can write your award-winning novel using pen and paper, but I don’t recommend it. You’ll discover that most writers are expected to have basic computer skills in order to electronically transmit their work to an agent, editor, or eventually to a publisher. So if you can manage it, get yourself a computer equipped with Microsoft Word. That appears to be the standard everyone expects when you have your work ready to send out. Be sure you have a really good dictionary and use it. If you can do so, get yourself a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. It’s the industry standard, and as of now, the 16th edition is the most recent.

7. Be prepared to spend some money. I know, you thought you could write a best seller, then sit back and rake in the dough. Well maybe you can, but you’ll have to jump through a lot of hoops first. One of those is to hire a professional editor to go through your finished product. Before you even think about shopping your book to an agent or publisher, make sure your work is as good as you can make it. Raw, rough talent has been discovered in the past, and the publisher might have stretched a point and seen through the bad spelling, grammar, and plot inconsistencies and recognize such rough work could be the next blockbuster. But don’t handicap yourself like that. It’s rough enough to get the attention of editors and publishers with a well written, clean manuscript . You don’t need the albatross of poor presentation hanging around your neck going in.

The Easter Egg MurderPerhaps the most important thing to take away from all this advice is that if you are out to become wealthy and have decided to become a writer in pursuit of that goal, give it up. There are plenty of better ways than writing books to become wealthy. Participating in the lottery is one way that comes to mind. What I’m saying is don’t give up your day job. Never think that you sit down, write a book, send it off, and money will flow to you in large chunks. It does happen, but more often than not, it doesn’t. And if you do manage to find a publisher, don’t sit back and think your job is done. You will be expected to market and promote the book (unless you are one of those few that I mentioned above who DO get the magic book deal.) You must become a salesman, and the product is you and your book.

But if you love to write, none of that will discourage you. You will continue to write, every day if you can, and eventually you will have learned enough, practiced enough, and become a writer for real. And when you do, I want to read your book!