Note: Join Jane on January 14 for The Anxiety Talk.
Every year, countless people attempting to write their first book will reach out to me directly and ask if I’ll read their work and tell them what to do next.
The request is perfectly natural, especially for those who know me in some way. I’ve spent 20+ years in the writing and publishing community, and my name gets around as an expert. Yes, I can often read something and know exactly what a writer should do.
But here’s the real superpower: I often know what writers should do without reading a single word of their work.
Here is what I say, assuming it’s someone’s first book.
Maybe your loved ones have told you to write this book, or you’ve long wanted to give voice to a story or an experience—or share your expertise. Possibly you’ve been holding onto a story idea for years and now you finally have time to realize it on the page.
But as you get started, uncertainty creeps in. It’s hard to keep moving forward, alone, as innumerable questions arise. Questions like:
- Is this any good? Am I any good?
- Should I continue based on what I have?
- Am I wasting my time? Does anyone care about this except for me?
You might be seeking a verdict on your effort or validation of the idea, or even permission to continue. Maybe you don’t know much or anything about writing and publishing and feel it’s better to secure guidance before making any further investment of time and energy. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you want help. Hopefully encouragement.
Here’s the tough part.
You’ve just taken the first step in a long journey. Right now, you’re likely at a delicate stage, where I could either crush your dreams or provide that encouragement.
To write, to create something, then open it up to the judgment of others, requires courage. I hope you continue, but at the same time, I have to be straight and honest that most people’s dreams of what will happen with their book do not come to fruition because they give up early in the process. At some point, the criticism (both constructive and not-constructive), along with rejection, arrives. And what so often determines success is what you do in response. Will you shut down and stop, or will you grapple with the challenge and grow?
If I were to tell you today that your project is a waste of time, would you abandon it? If so, perhaps it’s best that you did. To keep writing in the face of rejection is required of every professional and published writer I know. I can offer encouragement and tell you it’s a wholly worthwhile endeavor—and that will be true—but to achieve results that spell success (especially on a commercial level) requires more than my blessing or validation or permission. It requires an inner drive that pushes you forward no matter what feedback you receive. In the end, I believe it requires enjoyment of the writing process in and of itself—to see that as the reward.
The writing process is doubt-filled and circular.
Writing is rewriting (revision), and most beginners don’t appreciate that at first. It’s especially critical for people who haven’t been writing and reading for years already, and may still be figuring out their own best practices for first drafts, revisions, and polishing. (Every writer is different; there is no “right” way that works for all.)
If you don’t regularly read contemporary literature, if you haven’t been attending writing conferences, if you haven’t picked up a writing guide of any kind, then the best thing you can do is start a self-education process to bridge the gap between your current skill level as a writer and what you envision achieving. Writing is an art form; it is also a craft that can be studied and learned. Most of us don’t just start writing well enough for commercial publication on our first attempt, although some natural-born talent certainly helps.
Do you need a mentor or coach?
Some people, when they ask me for direction, seek a mentor or coach. Or they know they’d benefit from an expert who knows all the pitfalls and can help them make progress more efficiently and constructively. Fortunately, I have people to recommend in this regard; see my resource list or use my contact page to ask for a more extensive listing.
But first, you should probably read at least one or two writing guides that will school you in the psychological traps of the writing life. The War of Art is a good place to start. The four-part Ira Glass series on storytelling is also excellent and free. While his advice is geared for storytelling for TV and radio, nearly all of it applies to books as well.
Some people reach out to me because they think they need or should have a connection who will help them get published. Even if that were true, I’m not the person who can send your work to the right person (i.e., agent or publisher). Plus you’d need to have a completed or polished manuscript (or proposal) as a first step anyway and most people I encounter are very far away from that milestone when contacting me. When it is time to look for an agent or publisher, a referral is not necessary. There is a standard submissions process you can follow, and if your work fits the current market, then I guarantee you will hear back from agents and publishers.
If you enjoyed this article, join Jane on January 14 for The Anxiety Talk.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.