September 10th, 2014

Six Steps to Writing Success

One of the first things aspiring authors hear is a laundry list of things they should be doing to ensure success. If you somehow missed those directives, here are the “right things” you should be doing:

Join a writing group.

There are quite a few organizations out there to help writers at every stage in their career. Whether you’re looking for a genre-specific association or a broad-reach group, writing associations are extremely worthwhile. Look for organizations that offer a sense of community, workshops, networking opportunities, industry insight, etc. [Note: we ran a post last year discussing writing associations that included quite a few links. Though not an exhaustive list, it might be helpful if you’re just starting out]

Then get involved. Just paying dues to say you’re part of a group won’t get you far. It’s like sleeping with a textbook under your pillow. Read the newsletters, contribute to discussions, volunteer, get to know fellow writers.

AttentionCaution: Now that I’ve encouraged you to get involved and volunteer, I’m going to wave a caution flag. You should do only as much as you can. Emphasis on “can.” Your word count shouldn’t be made up of all the emails you responded to. If you have limited time to write, spending those hours on volunteer work probably isn’t the best way to writing success.

Get into a critique group.

A solid critique group will not only strengthen your writing, they’ll also save your sanity. Let’s face it, writing a novel is lonely (despite the many “people” occupying your brain) and nerve-wrecking. Having trusted readers who will tell you what’s working and what isn’t, means submitting a manuscript that’s polished and ready for outside eyes.

AttentionCaution: Not all critique groups are a good fit and not everyone is a good fit for a critique group. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a group that isn’t working for you. If you don’t like the idea of sharing early drafts with readers, then maybe a crit group isn’t right for you. Consider accountability/writing buddies and a few trusted beta readers instead.

Enter contests.

Contests are a great way to get feedback from readers other than your critique partners and beloved friends and family. Plus having contest placements in a query letter is a great way to show agents that your work is being recognized.

AttentionCaution: Don’t jump on the feedback you receive and immediately make changes. And don’t keep changing those first pages in order to enter more contests. Use the feedback to gauge whether you’re moving in the right direction then finish the manuscript. What good are all those placements if you don’t have a fully polished manuscript to submit when the final round judge asks to see the full?

Develop a social media presence.

Blogs. Twitter. Facebook. Pinterest. Instagram. Google+. And that’s by no means a complete list of social media options available to writers these days. Social media is not only a great place to connect with other writers, agents, editors, and readers, it’s also an amazing place to learn about what’s going on.

AttentionCaution: Don’t try to spread yourself across all social media avenues. Try a couple and see what fits your style best. Set limits. It’s very easy to get sucked into Pinterest boards or Facebook posts and discover that you’ve just spent two of the three hours you have for writing that day on social media.

Read.

We read because we love to read. We wouldn’t be writers if we didn’t. We read books in the genre we write to know what’s selling. We read the books our friends are publishing to support them. We read craft books to learn. We read for fun.

AttentionCaution: And sometimes we read to avoid writing. (Oh don’t look at me like you’re shocked at that!) When you’ve made such a tangle of your plot points or you’re staring at an emotionally frightening scene, the idea of “reading to see how favorite author so-and-so does it is a welcome excuse. And 300 pages later, you’ve read an awesome book. But you haven’t unraveled your plot points or conquered the emotional scene.

So, do you want to be a successful writer? Are you doing all of the above? Are you overwhelmed by keeping up with all of the above?

Are you sitting down?

It’s not enough. What’s the one thing that’s not on that list? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Write the damn book.

Oh yeah!

Doing all the “right things” is great but not at the expense of your writing. We’ve all done it. Writing is hard, querying is scary, rejection bites. The happy world of reading or supporting other writer friends or posting funny cat videos on Facebook can be so much more fun.

But really, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have on Twitter or how many contest kudos you have or how many organizations you belong to. If that novel that’s getting the contest kudos isn’t complete, you can’t query it. If you don’t query it, you can’t get the sale. And at the end of the day, isn’t the goal to make the sale?

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing any of the other things. You absolutely should. But make sure those “other things” don’t get in the way of your writing.

Now I want to hear from you – what of the above steps are you doing? Where could you do more? Where could you do less?

About Orly

OKL-NewAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet.  When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.

34 comments to Six Steps to Writing Success

  • Oh so true, on all counts, Orly. I’m doing them all. And I can just fit it all in every day – but only because I have no other life.

    The only thing that’s different with me, is the order – writing gets top bill.

    I see a lot of writers spending a ton of time on the internet – ‘building a platform’. Which is good, and important, IF YOU HAVE A BOOK TO SELL. If you’re not in the submittal phase, or you’re not done with your first novel – put that first.

    This isn’t one of those ‘If you build it, they will come’ kinda things.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      “This isn’t one of those ‘If you build it, they will come’ kinda things.” <-- Exactly!! Writing has to get top billing! Speaking of ... time to get writing. 😉

  • This is a great post! For years, I wanted to write a novel, but spent soooo much time buying and reading books about writing that I never actually sat down to write. Once I committed to a weekly routine that included non-negotiable writing time, I actually got stuff done!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      “non-negotiable writing time” <-- YES!!! That's the key and that's what so many have a hard time with. Thanks, Lisa!! 🙂

  • I just submitted a short story to an anthology. They are accepting until the end of December, so it may be a while before I know, but it took me weeks to get up the nerve to revise the story and submit it. I realized that while I had stuff published when I was younger (a couple of poems, a few stories), I have never had a rejection letter, so I am guessing I am due. None of them were paying publications – they were contests, then the high school magazine, and then in college, the college newspaper asked if they could use a story I had written. So none of it really seemed to count.
    I do need to find a critique group. I read of people who don’t like to share anything until it’s done, and that would drive me nuts. I have to be able to bounce ideas off of people! I need feedback.
    I also have a website up now, before my book is published. That’s because I hope to self-publish it by Christmas, so I figured starting the site now wasn’t too early. I’m not going to set it to publish to FB until after the book is out, but I do have it going to Twitter and Google+ – kind of a test market thing, since I don’t know nearly as many people on G+, and I rarely use Twitter.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Sounds like you’re doing the right things and now where you’re headed, Laura. Good for you!! And good luck with the submission. 🙂

  • alinakfield

    Great post, Orly. Writing has to come first. I remind myself of that even as I check emails/Facebook/Twitter/blogs. But even my publisher has said the best way to sell books seems to be to have more of them available to readers, so I’m shutting down my browser and going back to my WIP!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Thanks for stopping by this morning!
      If you want to sell books, you need to write the books. Amazing how that works. 🙂

  • jillhannahanderson

    Perfect advice and perfect caution comments! We can drive ourselves crazy trying to do it all (I’m teetering on the edge right now…see my fingertips over the cliff?) and we need this reminder that the most important thing to do is write! (I would never, never, well okay, a lot of the time, pick up a great book to read to avoid a writing slump!) 😉

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      I’m next to you on that cliff, Jill. We’ll back away together … ready???
      And you’re right, never pick up a great book to avoid writing *she says, covering the novel with the WIP pages*

  • S.L. Lake

    Love this advice! A few months ago I listed all the things I was doing to avoid actually writing and editing my manuscript. I thought I could do these things guilt-free because they were in service to my goal. But they were just excuses, and it took me making the list to realize that. My procrastination list:

    • Check Twitter several times a day for any random facts coming from top agents and admired authors.
    • Ditto for Facebook.
    • Find new contacts to follow for above practices.
    • Check Twitter for author-y things to retweet so you can look author-y and smart.
    • Watch on-demand Writer’s Digest Tutorials on numerous topics.
    • Read agents and authors blogs. Revel in other’s success. Live vicariously.
    • Read other books in order to find good comps. Maybe every recent book in your genre.
    • Read query letter critiques. Enter query critique contests. Mourn and complain about • Read recommended books on writing, editing, and writer’s procrastination tendencies.
    • Find articles to support self-diagnosis of being a real “writer”. Especially ones that say writers have dizzying ups and downs while writing the manuscript.
    • Distribute those articles so friends and family understand I am perfectly “normal” in my neurosis.
    • Check Query Tracker to see how others are faring querying your top agents. (Which naturally requires a good deal of research to decide who your top agents are.)
    • Go to bed early because you need more sleep. (Then read in bed to all hours.)
    • Perform mental stimulation exercises. (like watching TV and staring off into space.)
    • Visit bookstores and envision where your book will sit and check out all the literary goodness while you’re there.
    • Comb the internet for the best “writer’s” software. Install some trials. Experiment. Settle on Scrivener.
    • Watch YouTube videos about using Scrivener. After all, if you know your tool better, you’ll be able to write faster.
    • Compile your book from Scrivener and send to your Kindle so you can “proof” your book as if you’re reading a published one. While on your Kindle, why not check out a couple more possible comps.
    • Read how other writers tackle the editing process and try to find the perfect system for yourself. Printed pages? Colored sticky notes? Try these systems one at a time.
    • Spend hours thinking about setting up an author’s web site or blog. Check obsessively for new domain names you might want.
    • Spend hours struggling to find the perfect pen name. (And naturally, preface this with reading numerous articles on pros and cons and strategy for using pen names.) You must have your penname before you can create your author website, blogs, twitter accounts, etc.
    • Use those baby-name websites to spend hours second-guessing every character name.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      You nailed the problem – doing these things guilt-free because they are “supporting” our writing. Right? After all, how do you know what agents to pitch if you’re not actively reading every blog post they write and every tweet they send? All that writerly advice out there … man, that’s a full time job keeping up with all of that. Good for you for making that list and seeing it for what it really is. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing some of it, just maybe not all. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing this exercise with us. I think a lot of people (*ducking to avoid my reflection in the window*) would benefit from doing that.

    • Love this list! Saw myself there 🙂

      • Orly Konig-Lopez

        I think we’re guilty at some point or another. I started laughing when I realized I was nodding and mumbling “yeap” while reading it. 🙂

  • Great advice, Orly!! Particularly about joining a critique group — I don’t think I would have ever been published without mine!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Thanks, Lisa.
      I agree about the critique partners – I would probably still be hiding in my cave without mine. 🙂

  • Yes – it’s so hard to juggle everything! So many “should do lists.” I have to remember that WRITING is number one. Nothing else gets equal billing.

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Should-do, want-to-do, need-to-do, must-do … so many lists!!
      As long as writing is number one priority. Well, maybe second after taking care of yourself and your family.

  • Sort of ashamed to say I am not on any social media sites, which sounds like a must.
    My first non-fiction is being edited and formatted ….then Amazon, hopefully.
    If I had to pick ONE social site, which one is suggested? I really have avoided them because it’s a choice not to aimlessly chatter with a stranger. Am I doomed?

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Hard to say which one would be most helpful. You might want to look at other authors publishing similar books and see where they are most active. For non-fiction a blog may be more appropriate for establishing yourself as an subject matter expert.

      And certainly not doomed … after all, you have a book that’s about to go live. Now you just need to make sure you’re getting it in front of the right audience. 🙂

      • Wow, immediate feedback….You are wonderful. I think a blog might be the easiest for me, with the help of my grand-kids. I have read where most new authors don’t break even on their first book. But my bucket list is close to having an item deleted, which makes it a valuable investment.
        Again, thanks.

        • Orly Konig-Lopez

          You might want to see if there are established blogs that you could join as well. Or start one with someone in your field.

          Wishing you all the best in whatever path you take! 🙂

  • Excellent and valuable advice here. Thanks for sharing with us.
    Regards, S.J. Francis

  • Fae Rowen

    Yep, Orly. I’m thinking of chaining myself (okay, with a chain long enough to reach the kitchen!) to the computer. I tell myself that the book won’t write itself–and, wouldn’t you know it, I’m right!

  • Four years ago I left a many-hour job for a 9-5 job and time to write. I have done each of the things on your list and have needed each of the cautions. The most recent additions to my list are a critiquing group and buckling down to get my desk-drawer novel written. The group that has helped me the most in this process is the NH Writers’ Project and this Writers in the Storm blog. Thanks so much!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      What a lovely thing to say, Barbara! Thank you. 🙂
      Isn’t it amazing how much time you can spend doing everything but what you need to do. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  • These are great steps to follow and I appreciate your warnings as well. Building that social media platform for me can often lead to a time suck-so I have to be really careful about that. And I haven’t gained the confidence to enter a contest, yet. 🙂

  • Great advice, especially the last one. My writing advice is three words, posted above my desk: ASS IN CHAIR. It’s worked so far!

  • I read a lot. One of my favorite writers is Stephen King – but not because I like scary books. I love the way he creates & draws his characters. By the time I am finished one of his books I feel like the characters are either friends or enemies. The first time I read one of his books I read for pleasure. Then a little while later I re-read his book to study his dialogue & character development (the 2 areas where I feel I am the weakest).