Career Plan for Fiction Writers

by Victory Crayne

See Also:
"Home Page"
"How to Critique Fiction"
"How to Succeed in an Online Writing Workshop"
Writing Resources 

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Learn how to write better.
  3. Learn how to critique.
  4. Seek clips of your writing being published by others.
  5. Submit manuscripts.
  6. If you are writing novels.
  7. Submit (booklength) new material via your agent, if you use one.
  8. Pay attention to the business of writing.
  9. Treat editors as human beings too.
  10. Keep in mind these helpful hints.
  11. References on writing

1. Introduction

This is a posting of ideas for a career general plan to succeed as a fiction writer. Non-fiction writers may pursue a different path.

It is meant as a GUIDELINE ONLY and was compiled from the ideas of many postings to the Usenet newsgroup misc.writing as well as other sources. This is not intended as a strict edict but rather as a list of possible steps a beginner may follow to a career in fiction writing, benefiting from some of the collective wisdom of many who have gone before them.

The author, Victory Crayne, is solely responsible for typos and misquotations.

2. Learn how to write better.

  1. READ! READ! READ! in the area of your interest in writing AND other areas/genres as well. This will help you recognize good writing when you see it.
  2. WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! every day. The best way to achieve this is to set a goal of how much you will write every day, either in words or pages. Write even if you don't feel like it. The mere act of writing can stimulate your creativity.
    "By making writing a part of your daily routine--just like brushing your teeth--you'll discipline yourself to work as a writer instead of a hobbyist who only writes when there's some fun to be had." - Theresa Grant
  3. Lurk on the Internet and read paper copies of other people's writing and critiques of same. You may pick up some useful ideas on how to improve your own writing.
  4. Attend a class on creative writing.
  5. If possible, take a class in writing in the field you want to pursue, for example, science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery, romance, historical novels, etc.
  6. If your grammar or punctuation has been criticized on a number of occasions, attend a class on grammar or study up on grammar on the many websites available. Poor grammar will turn off any editor and will reduce your chance of having your piece accepted. It will also turn off many readers who care about the language.
  7. Try to complete something to submit to magazines, critique groups, or newsletters as often as you can. The guideline here is: "Learn to fail fast." That is, test the waters with your best efforts, submit them for review, and study carefully the feedback you receive with an open mind to self improvement. Realize that you will not learn as fast if you wait until your material is "perfect" before sending it out.
  8. However, never submit something that is not your best effort to date. One good way is to critique your own piece. Can you find the weaknesses BEFORE you send it to anyone?
  9. Remember that the secret to success is revising.

    "I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's great rewriters." - James A. Michener.

  10. Ask some fellow writers to review you piece before you send it to the "'outside world." Be willing to return the favor by critiquing their works promptly when asked.
  11. "Never ask a friend, family member or coworker to review your ms. Get a writer who is on the same level or higher than your own experience; you'll then be assured that you're getting feedback you need from someone experienced, instead of someone who will pull punches or tell you what they think you want to hear." - Theresa Grant.
  12. There is some debate on whether posting your writing to public outlets like the newsgroups alt.prose and rec.arts.prose could be interpreted by some editors as "publishing" and would decrease the attractiveness of your submissions to them. This subject is being hotly debated on the Internet.
    "Copyright, publication and the net are hotly debated. Putting something in rec.arts.prose is no more 'publishing' than making a printout of your ms. and letting someone else read it for fun and/or feedback." -Theresa Grant.
    "I think it makes no difference any particular way, except perhaps to some on-line, non-pay 'zines' that are in competition with the newsgroups, in a sense. Real publishers wouldn't know or care." - Jack Mingo.
  13. Another way to get reviews by others is to join a writers critique group, either in your local area or on the Internet. In all fairness, you should also read and post your critiques of other writers' contributions to such a group. To get information on online critique groups or workshops, see Writer's Resources at http://www.crayne.com/wri-res.htm. In addition, you will find other web sites there for writers, many of which list writers workshops on their home pages.
  14. Some people use the "buddy system" to help their productivity, asking another writer to communicate with them FREQUENTLY, to help each other develop a better habit of writing daily.

3. Learn how to critique.

  1. Learn to critique others' writing. The better at critiquing you become, the better writer you will become. In your critiques, try to list positive steps for improvement in the story.
  2. Read my article "How to Critique Fiction" at http://www.crayne.com/howcrit.html, which goes into detail on points to look for and questions to ask yourself as you prepare a critique.

4. Seek clips of your writing being published by others.

  1. Seek information on publications that might be interested in what you have written.
  2. Try to get samples of the publications to which you are interested in submitting. Ask yourself: Will my piece fit in here? If not, then the editor is not likely to buy your story. Editors get a lot of material every week. Don't waste their time and your postage submitting to the wrong publication.
  3. If you are sending a short story, send your entire manuscript.
  4. If you are sending a long piece, first send a query letter. Write a brief one paragraph description of your story to send with your query letter. Send multiple query letters for the same piece to different publications, to save time. This is different from "multiple submissions," where you send complete copies of your long piece. Besides, it saves money on postage.
  5. Do not use a vanity publisher, which is like paying someone to say they liked your writing. Not credible if you wish to get paid by an editor for another piece. The key here is: Which other editor has thought enough of your work to publish it? A vanity publisher is one in which you pay to publish.
  6. Send your work to the appropriate market.
    "Don't sell yourself short; dare to dream. You might sell to a top market before you ever sell to a non-paying market - you won't know unless you try. In the same way, it's good to be cooperative, but don't be too humble either." - Rheal Nadeau.
    "Start your marketing at the top; that is, with the best magazine that you think has a chance at wanting your story. Work down the list from the top. The 'best' means different things to different writers. If you're writing for money, it means the magazine that pays best. If you're looking to be widely read, it may mean the one with the highest circulation. To some people, 'best' is an intangible; the magazine that you think has the best reputation, the best production values, one that puts you alongside other writers you respect. If you're an academic looking for tenure, it may mean the one that's most respected in the academic world." - Geoffrey A. Landis
  7. If you have some non-fiction writing to your credit, mentioning it might help. For example, writing articles for non-fiction magazines, press releases, pamphlets, etc.
  8. Keep a goal of getting published for money--which earns more respect. Therefore, after a limited number of these easier targets, start sending your work to paying editors only.
  9. Be willing to closely follow the guidelines for submission of each editor you use.
  10. Format your work professionally for the editor's reading and run it through a spelling checker before mailing. If grammar is still a weak spot, run it through a grammar checker AND have someone who has a good eye for grammar look it over. An electronic spelling and grammer checker will never be perfect. Proper formatting is better covered in books, other magazines, etc. and will not be covered in detail here.

5. Submit manuscripts.

  1. The concept of submitting manuscripts "simultaneously" to different editors is a very controversial subject. This is known in the business as "simsub."
  2. If the editor's guidelines say "simsubs" are okay, then by all means do it. That increases your chance of finding acceptance for publication. Tell the editor you are submitting simultaneously to other publications, for example, "This piece is being submitted simultaneously." They know what that means; you don't have to apologize.
  3. If the editor says "NO simsubs," then by all means send out ONLY ONE copy to ONE editor and wait for their response before sending out to another editor. [I have second thoughts about that. Why should an author wait on one editor? They want to save their time but what about the time of the authors?]
  4. Keep the number of simsubs at a level you can keep track of. The more you send, the better your chances. But--when one editor accepts a piece, you MUST inform those other editors PROMPTLY!
  5. Discipline yourself in handling submissions.
    "Earmark a day of the week as 'submissions day.' On that day you WILL get out at least one submission. Do it on a regular day of the week. If you pick one solid day to ALWAYS generate a submission or query, you'll start snowballing the effect of acceptance and rejections. As responses pick up you'll get into the 'business' of being a writer, all because you earmarked one day where submissions and queries WILL be done." - Theresa Grant.
  6. In your cover letter, you may wish to OFFER to send a floppy disk, CD, or email attachment containing your complete work.
    "In general, editors don't want to see a floppy with submissions; it clutters up their desk, and, worse, it won't stay paperclipped to the manuscript. It will probably be discarded before the manuscript is read. If editors want an electronic copy, they will ask for one *on acceptance*. (If you want, you can put in your cover letter that you will send a floppy on request.)" - Geoffrey A. Landis
  7. Of course, some publications will accept email submission. CAUTION: Do not send your manuscript via email unless that is stated as acceptable in the editors' guidelines! Editors do NOT appreciate having their email inbox full of unsolicited manuscripts. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
  8. Don't stop writing while waiting for replies. Realize that you may have to submit five or more different stories before you gain recognition.
  9. "Keep good records of which story has been to which market and where it is now. You may think, on starting, that you couldn't possibly forget where you sent something. Wrong; you can and you *will*, if you don't keep good records. Start out right with your first story. Records don't have to be *elaborate* --the name of the story, the market submitted to, and the dates of submission and response, written on a piece of paper, is fine." - Geoffrey A. Landis

6. If you are writing novels

  1. [Feb 2015: I now recommend that all novelists try self-publishing and avoid submitting to a literary agent and then a traditional publisher. The publishing contracts are usually very abusive and one-sided. They want to own your work for 75 years after your death, which means your ancestors cannot benefit from your body of fiction.]

7. Pay attention to the business of writing.

Remember at all times that to make money as a writer you must pay attention to the "business of writing," a rational activity. This is not the same as the process and emotions of writing, a creative activity.

8. Treat editors as human beings too.

  1. Some editors are also writers and appreciate what you are going through. However, they have their own demands, perhaps even an autocratic, unreasonable publisher who expects them to come up with winners in every issue, and "do it now!"
  2. Be patient when expecting a response from an editor. Pay attention to their posted response times and remember they have many other manuscripts to look at also.
    "It's one thing to be meticulous about response times, and even better to realize that the editors are also human, have lousy days, kids with chickenpox and days where we just don't want to deal with a manuscript. - Theresa Grant
  3. If you have not received a response after TWICE the quoted response time, then is the proper time to send a letter asking something like "How goes the war? Have you read my manuscript yet? I realize you may be swamped, but when can I expect a response?"
  4. If you still don't get an answer in a couple weeks, withdraw your manuscript and send it elsewhere.
  5. Your best bet? Keep writing and submitting new stuff all the time. Don't place all your bets in one basket.

9. Keep in mind these helpful hints.

  1. Pursuing a career in writing may mean more than just altering your tax preparation methods. Keep your day job until your writing income is STEADY enough and HIGH enough to pay all your bills and then some.
  2. Accept total responsibility for producing something that someone else WANTS strongly enough to pay money for it. Do not expect anyone else to pay for your way as you learn. Expect them to only pay for what you provide that is of value to THEM.
  3. Learn to live with the rules of the trade and "pay your dues" before you can expect success. Strive to learn what works and what does not work for your market niche.
  4. Strive at all times to act as an adult. Be polite at all times. Remember that editors belong to their own networks of editors. You want to create a reputation as someone who is nice to do business with. You can practice being an eccentric AFTER you are a great success.
  5. Remember that a lot of success in writing comes from learning the craft. And a lot of that can be learned by almost anyone who commits themself to learning.
  6. Keep up the firm conviction that you have or will get the talent to be a good writer.
    "Believe in yourself, even at 2:00 a.m. and surrounded by rejection slips." -Theresa Grant
  7. For your mental health, remember to have a life outside of writing. Be kind to yourself.
  8. Try to write with enthusiasm.
    "If you don't feel enthusiastic about what you are writing, readers (and editors) won't feel that way about it either. I say this to people who talk of having 'writers' block' because they think of writing as drudgery. If they're going to have to slog through it, so will the reader, so the writer may as well just go become an accountant!" - Kim Costello

10. References on writing

  1. Manual of Style
    For detailed studies of punctuation, I recommend The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, ISBN 0-226-10403-6. The book is a little expensive at $55, but I strongly recommend the investment for any serious writer. It is the most common reference manual used in the novel publishing industry.
  2. Grammar (books)
    1. For an easy to read but very useful book on grammar, I recommend Painless Grammar, 2nd Edition (Painless Series), by Rebecca Elliott, Ph. D., ISBN 0-8120-9781-5, trade paperback.
    2. Another book that offers correct grammar instruction in some detail is The Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference by Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson, ISBN 1-58297-335-0, 6 x 9 hardcover.
    3. A Dash of Style, The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman, copyright 2006, ISBN 987-0-393-32980-3, paperback, $13.95, 201 pages. This is a book written for creative writers, not grammarians.

  3. Grammar (websites)
    1. Online English Grammar at http://www.edunet.com/english/grammar/index.html from the Hampstead School of English, London. Maintained by Anthony Hughes. Searchable. This is an excellent source, well organized. Bear in mind that it came from Great Britain so some American rules may be a little different.
    2. Confusing Words at http://www.confusingwords.com has a collection of 3210 words that are troublesome to readers and writers, such as affect versus effect, lie versus lay, etc.
    3. Words That Are Often Confused at http://lbarker.orcon.net.nz/words.html includes many pairs and groups of words that are often confused, such as accept and except.
    4. Common Errors in Englsh at http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/errors/ describes proper use of common pairs of words that are often misused, such as advice/advise, lay/lie, etc.

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