This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Trevor Shane, author of the debut thriller CHILDREN OF PARANOIA) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
1. Query in tiers. My most practical advice is to query in tiers. Everyone (myself included) will tell you to be careful to choose the right agent for your work. The problem is, when you’re trying to get your first book published, it’s really hard to turn down any agent who wants to represent you. The simplest solution is to query in tiers. Identify your top five dream agents. Send your initial queries to them and then wait (the waiting, as they say, is the hardest part). Only move on to tier two when you’ve exhausted tier one. Then rinse and repeat.
2. Don’t write what you know. Let what you know inform what you write. Herman Melville knew a lot about whaling. He spent time on whaling ships. Whaling is pretty exciting stuff; more exciting than anything I do during the day. And yet, when Melville sat down to write Moby Dick, he didn’t simply write a book about whaling. He wrote a book about a one-legged, tyrannical sea captain obsessed with killing a near-mythical, giant, albino sperm whale that bit off his leg.
3. Pace (#1). This one is essential if you’re writing a thriller or action book but important no matter what you’re writing. The most important, least discussed aspect of any book is its pace. You need to control the pace of your book the way a composer controls the pace of his music. Sometimes you want sections to speed up. Sometimes you want sections to slow down (not everything needs to, or should, be fast). The easiest way to control pace is through sentence length and word choice. Shorter sentences and shorter words make for quicker reading.
4. Pace (#2). This one is literal. I’m a big proponent of physically pacing. Some people will advise you to turn off the internet while writing. I won’t go that far because I find it’s too good a research tool to turn off. Instead, whenever I’m stuck on a plot point or dialogue or anything else, I literally stand up and pace the room. I go for a walk. I fold some laundry. I do something physical that is otherwise utterly mindless. It gives my brain time to rest and work things out without my frustrations getting in the way. I believe that some problems simply can’t be solved sitting down.
5. Pace (#3). Be aware of the pace of the publishing process. Nothing in this business happens as quickly as you’ll want it to. Agents are busy people. It sometimes takes them a while to get back to you. Publishers are busy people. The publishing process has a lot of steps I never knew about. Even after you’ve sold a book, it takes a long time for it to actually be published. Be aware of the slow pace of the process and realize that the best way to stay sane during all of this is to keep on writing.
(Check out our growing list of thriller agents.)
6. Try to work with people you trust and then trust them. Getting feedback on your work, whether from friends, agents or editors, is incredibly frightening but it’s essential. The only way to get over that fear and that doubt is to work with people you trust. Getting criticism from someone you trust doesn’t make it easier to take but it does make it easier to accept. Once you’ve accepted it, you can use that criticism to make your work better.
7. As far as I can tell, it never stops being scary. Letting people read what you write is frightening. This doesn’t change because you get an agent. It doesn’t change because you sell a book. Maybe Stephen King isn’t frightened anymore when he sends a first draft of his latest work to his editor—but I’d be willing to bet that he is. Very simply, if it’s not scary, it’s probably not worth it.
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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- Notes to the First-Time Novelist.
- “How I Got My Agent,” by Novelist Holly LeCraw.
- Literary Agent Interview: Jessica Sinsheimer of Sarah Jane Freymann Literary.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Write Now, Edit Later.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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