Six Ways to Cut Years Off Your Writing Apprenticeship

From the age of seven I was determined to be a writer. Ten years later I finished my first novel however it took another twenty-three before my first book was accepted for publication.

Most of those twenty-three years were spent in the creative wilderness. Yes, it’s true I wrote five more books which were submitted and rejected. Yes, I developed the thick skin from those endless rejections which stands the published writer in such good stead when the reviews are not as positive as they might hope.

But I made so many mistakes – mostly of omission – and had I only taken the time to educate myself I could undoubtedly have cut years off my writing apprenticeship.

Here are Six things I wish I’d known when I started out:

Work Hard and Have Confidence in Yourself

My dad’s mantra was the old adage that success is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. He might have added that you also have to have the confidence to follow through on all that hard work.

I was passionate about my writing but also secretive and totally lacking in confidence. I didn’t share my work and the form rejection letters I received were secretly filed away and simply endorsed my belief that these novels were no good, anyway.

Revise – Remember, It’s a First Draft

I now realise those manuscripts I sent out in my teens and early twenties were first drafts. I’d never had others read or critique my work and I was too close to my creation to know where the story lagged, or where the plot became too convoluted. When the inevitable rejection came I simply pushed the ‘yet-another-manuscript-that-didn’t-cut-it’ under the bed and started with bitter determination on the next novel… another manuscript I never had critiqued.

So the moral of this is…

Become Part of a Critique Group

Disclaimer: Join the ‘right’ Critique Group. Dynamics play an important part and criticism has to be constructive and delivered in a positive and helpful manner. If you don’t feel enthused by the critiquing you receive then something’s not working. Either you’re not ready to accept advice or that advice is not being delivered in a constructive and helpful manner.

These days, ease of communication means virtually anyone can be part of a critique group. My three wonderful critique partners live in Sydney, Melbourne and London while I live in a Victorian country town.

Most professional writing organisations offer a service that will match writers who want to become part of a critique group.

Often like-minded writers will get together but we were ‘put together’ like the Spice Girls seven years ago after we’d registered interest with Romance Writers of Australia and although we write in different genres the value of each other’s constructive criticism cannot be overstated. In the early days we’d preface each negative comment with, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this but… ” Now, however, we’re all experienced critiquers and thoroughly thick-skinned regarding criticism of our work. In fact, we welcome it. It’s great to be told where and what the problem is. Knowing where the problems are can be difficult for the writer to identify but much easier for a critique partner who has the necessary distance from the work. The easy part is fixing it.

Join a Professional Writing Organisation

Most ‘overnight successes’ come on the back of years of hard work. An average apprenticeship of ten years is a figure that’s bandied about amongst my fellow members of Romance Writers of Australia. That’s a long time. Ten years of writing, submitting, being rejected and then finally getting ‘the call’ – that sweet, joyous moment that makes one feel that all that hard work has been worth it.

Being part of a group of like-minded writing friends can be wonderful but I strongly suggest becoming a member of a professional body, such as Romance Writers or Sisters in Crime – or several – depending on where your writing interests lie.

It was only when I became a member of Romance Writers of Australia that I gained an in-depth understanding of how publishing worked and learned how to make professional submissions. As a lone writer I had no idea about the protocol of submitting to editors, checking guidelines to see if queries only were preferred, or if the editor or agent’s preference was for a partial or full manuscript.

Critique groups and writers’ groups can be the best thing that ever happened to some writers, but be sure everyone knows and follows the guidelines with regard to critiquing. I’ve heard of hitherto enthusiastic, aspiring writers whose confidence has been shredded by wounding, unhelpful criticism.

Write What You Love – and Do Your Research

In my late twenties life took an unexpected turn and I found myself living in a thatched cottage in Botswana’s beautiful Okavango Delta with the handsome Norwegian bush pilot I married after a whirlwind romance – and all the time in the world to write.

Regency and Georgian historical romance were my first love but I figured I couldn’t fail if I wrote a romance set in the Okavango, inspired by my own experience. The trouble was, the manuscript didn’t capitalise on my unique perspective for, instead, I wrote an African-set love story pitched at Harlequin Mills & Boon which I addressed generically to ‘Dear Editor’ with no idea of what line it might fit. In fact, I didn’t know there were even specific lines with guidelines regarding the level of heat, suspense, etc.

So while the research for the setting was no problem – I was living ‘on location’, so to speak – I failed to do my research with regard to the publisher I was submitting to. I had preconceived ideas as to the kind of story M&B would be looking for but I’d never read a M&B story. My lack of research would have hit the editor between the eyes like a beacon of ignorance.

Enter Competitions

Entering competitions was my route to getting published. I chose competitions with feedback from three judges and where the finalists would be read by an editor from a publishing house I was targeting. After winning three Single Title competitions judged by Erika Tsang from Avon (twice) and Cindy Hwang from Berkley, I knew I was close.

With the advice of mentors, critique partners and a nurturing, professional writing organisation, I knew what editors wanted, what types of stories were selling and how to put together a professional submission.

Finally I had skills, confidence and a selling product to power me across the finish line and my 8th book – Saving Grace – will be released by Pan Macmillan Momentum on January 01, 2013.

With a bit of strategic career planning, I might have been published a good deal earlier than what amounts to nearly a life sentence.

That would have been nice.

Then again, maybe I’d not fully appreciate today the achievements of my long, and definitely interesting, journey.

So to all of you reading this with a view to publishing your own stories – good luck, make sure you have fun… but be strategic!


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