Questions from a young writer

Recently I corresponded with a friend who is writing her first novel. She’s young (mid-twenties), highly accomplished, and about to travel from urban America to its wild hinterlands for a summer job. She had questions about writing, editing, and publishing. Because these are questions that many people starting out as writers are likely to have, I’m posting her queries (paraphrased to protect her and her hatchling book) and my answers.

(Note that my answers are geared for someone who wants to send her work to publishers rather than to self-publish, and who doesn’t have a lot of spare cash to hire freelance editors.)

The questions:

When you first started, how did you find an editor? Did you participate in a writing group? Since I move around quite a bit these days, I’m not sure how to go about finding a class or critiquing partner / group. At what point in your process did you decide to start looking for an agent? Did you send a completed manuscript to potential agents?

My reply:

“How exciting that you’re working on a novel! I hope the writing is going well, and that you’re enjoying it (at least when it isn’t driving you crazy).

As for publishing: the number one thing is to write an awesome book. Before you even consider sending material to agents, finish the novel, revise it, edit it, find a critique partner or an online writing group, and polish it up till it shines. (When I first attempted a novel, I made the mistake of contacting agents when I only had a few chapters written. D’oh… for first time novelists, publishing professionals want to see a completed work.) Focus on the book!

I was lucky enough to find a writing group, and I heartily recommend it. I know it’s tricky if you’re moving around. Writer’s Digest might have links to online groups. I don’t recommend posting material on random blogs or message boards for critique — unless you know the blogger, or the board has prerequisites, you have no idea of the qualifications of the people who are commenting. If you have a well-educated friend who loves books and writing and is willing to take a look at your material, that would be better.

Here’s the important thing: a critique partner or beta reader should focus on the big things — the story, the characters, pacing, dialogue — and tell you what works, where things slow down or don’t make sense, rather than just proofreading or copyediting the text. Otherwise, you can end up with polished, grammatically perfect sentences in a draft that falls flat. BIG PICTURE FIRST.

It’s not necessary to hire an editor to work on your novel before you send it out to agents and publishers. Besides, that can become expensive very quickly (from hundreds to thousands of dollars). I know some good freelance editors but I don’t suggest that you go that route. It might be worth your while at some point to go to a writers’ conference — you might get advice and inspiration, and meet other writers who would be interested in forming a critique partnership.

Publication: Most publishers want submissions to come through an agent. (Some small presses take submissions directly.) Initially, you’ll send queries to agents — a 250 word email or letter that entices them to request pages from your novel. Almost never will you simply send a full manuscript to an agent unsolicited. Nowadays most agents and literary agencies have submission guidelines online. Some will ask for a query alone; some will ask for a query plus the first ten pages, or the first three chapters, or pages plus a synopsis. For an understanding of what goes into a good query letter, check out Query Shark, which is run by agent Janet Reid.

From the description of your novel, a comparable title is [redacted so as not to give away the plot]. Take a look at it to see how the novel handles the topic your book tackles, and how the author develops the characters and creates dramatic suspense from that starting point.

In summary: there’s a lot of work ahead, but it is totally worth it. I think there’s nothing more awesome. Good luck! Keep at it!”

4 responses to “Questions from a young writer

  1. Great post. I would counter on the editor aspect, however, and not just because it means work for me. I see so many manuscripts that have been reviewed by the authors’ writing groups and other “critics” (often family members) that still need major revision or overhaul. Yes, hiring an editor can cost money, typically hundreds not thousands of dollars, but it’s worth having a professional eye look at the mms before you send it out. In so many cases, other member of the writing group won’t want to take the time to help you to polish your book, much less find the gaping holes in the story.

    Sorry, Meg, but I think an editor is a vital step for beginners. Successful writers such as you have an editor for every book. How would it be different for a newbie?

    I will say it is vital to vet your editor, however, and get rates up front, and recommendations or testimonials. There are lots of sharks out there. A new writer should find someone they can trust, and with whom they feel comfortable. But an editor is a must. Agents and publishers won’t waste their time on something that isn’t professional and prepared properly.

    • Maybe I overgeneralized from my specific advice to a young friend who won’t have funds to hire an editor, but is likely to have access to people who are highly skilled writers.

      I didn’t have an editor when I started out, and I certainly made a ton of mistakes. If hiring an editor could have saved me years of anxiety and many rewrites, it would have been worth it.

      And if anybody is wondering: Ann is one of the good freelance editors referenced in the post. Most definitely.

  2. Good stuff, Meg. Possibly the most important point was the last one: Keep at it. (Read Jenny Milchman’s publishing story. Not only did she NEVER give up, but she worked to constantly improve as a writer.)

    While I love, love, love editors and believe they only make me sound way better than I really am, I also think too many writers use hiring an editor as a shortcut or an excuse if they aren’t willing to put in the time and effort to improve their writing skills. I think hiring an editor has a time and place.

    Mainly, when you’ve studied the craft of writing in every spare second and have spent time revising your work over and over and realize you can no longer improve it with your knowledge or skills at that point — then hire an editor. AND learn from what that editor has to say.

    I never had funds for an editor, but was lucky to find stellar critique partners. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the right ones, but once you do, hold on to them tight. I first found CP’s through the Sisters in Crime group and then by taking a class at a literary center.

    Also, social media is a good way to befriend other writers. Not everyone is going to be as lucky as Meg’s young friend and get feedback from someone like her. (Full disclosure, I would’ve been much to intimidated to send my work to you Meg, but how awesome, awesome of you to help her. However, I must admit, I was one of the lucky ones — before I got a book deal, I made some friendships with published authors who took a look at my work and gave it blurbs and comments and encouragement.) The mystery world is amazingly supportive to writers just starting out. I thank my lucky stars every day that when I sat down to write a book it was a mystery. Could not be a nicer, more supportive writing community, and Meg, this post is proof of that!

    • Thanks for the comment and the suggestions, Kristi. Sisters in Crime is a great idea — and a fantastic organization. (Guys, you’re welcome too.)

      You’re right: the mystery world is amazingly supportive. Calling it a community is not an exaggeration.

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