On Writing

November 25th, 2003

So about 75% of the emails I get are from people who want to be writers. They want tips on how to get published, or on why they can't seem to finish a story, or just on how to write a story at all. I do talk about these subjects elsewhere on this site, but I'm going to take one last crack at it. My answers are divided into three sections. Please skip to the section that you believe most applies to where you are as a writer.

Remember, these answers are just my OPINIONS. They may not work for everyone. If you want some really good writing advice, get On Writing by Stephen King, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamotte. There are lots of other good books on writing, too, but I'm much too lazy to read them.

First, a word of warning:

NOT EVERYONE CAN BE A WRITER. Seriously, you guys are scaring me. Some of you are going to HAVE to become doctors. Otherwise, the world will be filled with great stories, but who is going to prescribe me antibiotics when I get bronchitis?

I am willing to compromise, though. Here is a fact—and I am not trying to scare you:

Only two percent of published writers today make their living solely through their writing. That means only two percent of my peers pay their bills just by WRITING. The other ninety-eight percent are also teachers, firemen, insurance salesmen, flight attendants, secretaries, married to someone rich, have a trust fund, etc. The income they earn from writing probably helps, but they are not able to support themselves and their families on it.

Sad, but true.

I am not saying that you are not going to be in that two percent of writers who do earn enough money from their books to live on.

However, it doesn't hurt to be prepared. That is why I am telling you:

GO TO MEDICAL SCHOOL.

Seriously. Go to medical school and become a doctor so that if the writing thing doesn't work out, you will have something to fall back on.

I did this. Well, not medical school, but my mom made me take typing so I could support myself as a receptionist/secretary. And I'm glad she did this because it took TEN YEARS, post-college, before I started making enough money from my writing to pay my bills.

This is very important:
You MUST acquire a skill you can fall back on if writing doesn't work out, because it is a VERY competitive business and HARDLY ANYONE MAKES A LIVING DOING IT.

And, if you DO go to medical school, you can use what you learn there in your books, like Tess Gerritsen, the medical thriller writer who can ALSO prescribe drugs.

Okay, now that you have totally failed to heed my warning:

Part One:

I have written reams and reams of novels and short stories. How do I get them published?

Go to your local library or bookstore and get a book on the writer's market. The one that I used was called Jeff Herman's Guide to Agents, Editors, and Publishers. You want to find the most updated version of whatever book you get, because you are going to be writing to the people whose addresses are listed inside, and you want to make sure they are still working at these places.

The book you get will tell you that to get a publisher to look at your book, you must first write them what's called a query letter. This is a one page letter describing you, your book, and why a publisher would want to buy this book from you. Just to let you know, I sent out several hundred of these letters before a single person ever asked to see the book I was trying to sell.

Some people say if you get anyone to look at your book at all, you are lucky. I believe that luck is 95% preparation and 5% opportunity. Just to let you know. So basically…you have to make your own luck.

So good luck with that.

Subsection: Agents
You can get a publisher's attention a lot more quickly—and some people believe you can get a much better deal–if you have a literary agent. A literary agent is someone whose job it is to take people's manuscripts and try to place them with the appropriate publisher. A good agent will never charge a fee for her work on your behalf.

However, if an agent agrees to take on your work, when she places it, she will earn a 10-15% cut of whatever money you make from the sale. So if a publisher offers you $10,000 for your book, your agent will get $1,500 of that money. You will get the rest.

You can get an agent the same way you get a publisher: by finding a book on how to get them (such as the one by Jeff Herman) and sending them query letters.

Part Two:

I have started lots of stories, but I can't seem to finish them. What's wrong with me?

There are several reasons for this. You can choose the one that fits you best:

a) It is always more fun to start a new story than it is to work on the one you've been working on for months. This is why publishers don't pay writers their whole advance until they turn in the completed manuscript. Every writer feels this way. Just power through it.

b) You haven't found the right story yet—the one you can't let go. When you do, you will WANT to finish it. So cut yourself some slack, and keep trying.

c) You did not plan your story out well enough before you sat down to write it

or

d) You planned it too well, and now you feel like the story is already told.

In general, when this happens to me, it is c) or d). I know it sounds crazy, but planning your story in too much detail—like writing a 100 page outline, or keeping index cards on every little thing that's going to happen—can sometimes make it feel like your story is already done. Told. Over. Why would you want to go back and RETELL something that's already been told?

However, you have to plan a LITTLE, or your story will lack direction, and you'll get lost in it, then frustrated, then have trouble finishing it.

So the trick is that you need to find the right balance FOR YOU between not planning your story enough, and over-planning it. Practice will help.

If you write a page a day—just ONE page—in three months you'll have a hundred page story. And in six months you'll have a two hundred page story. That's almost a whole book. So don't think about it like: “Oh my gosh, I have to write two hundred pages.” Think of it like, “Today, I have to write a page.” Trust me. It works.

Part Three:

I don't know how to get started on a story. Please help.

The solution to this problem is very simple:

Sit down. Start a story. Finish it. Put it aside. Start another story.

There. Now you're a writer.

What's that you say? You can't think of anything to write about?

Good! Go to medical school!

Ha, just kidding.

Okay, how about this: Who do you hate and why? Who do you love and why? What's happened to you that you wish hadn't happened? What hasn't happened to you that you wish WOULD happen?

Write these things down. There's your story.

Oh, obviously you've got to create a plot and change your characters names so they won't sue you. But that's the fun part.

What's that you say? The sun is shining outside, and the birds are tweeting, and you can hear your brothers downstairs having a fun time watching MTV, and you would really like to join them?

Don't you think I would rather be watching MTV than working on my book? Do you think there is anyone in the world who wouldn't rather be watching Rich G
irls or Made than working at their job? No. Probably not.

Except doctors. Doctors LOVE their job. Because they are helping people.

But when writing is your job, you TiVo Rich Girls and Made and ignore the tweeting birds, because

a) you don't get paid if you don't turn your book in

b) you have a story to tell and it NEEDS to get told

c) on the rare occasions the writing is going well, you love it more than anything else in the world. Except maybe Rich Girls. But there is nothing better than Rich Girls (except The OC of course) so this makes sense.

The most important thing of all for you to remember this holiday weekend is this:
When you do go medical school and realize I was right all along and you discover a love for medicine and science you never knew you had and you're out there helping people and making a real difference in their lives, and then you win the Nobel Prize, be sure to mention me in your acceptance speech.

Love,

Meg