the ten commandments of becoming a published author

Filed under: writing

Well, there were nine, but I’ve been thinking, and I ended up adding one more.

To give a little background: I gave a talk at Wokingham library this weekend, to the creative writing group which they’re forming there. Not all of the writers there wanted to be published, and some of them were published already. But I brought along these commandments (except there were only nine of them, then), to give a structure for my talk, and they ended up sparking some really good discussion, questions and answers within the group.

So I’m posting them here, not because they’re anything new—they really aren’t, and you know this stuff already—but because sometimes restating the obvious is really useful, and might spark off something for you, too.

1. Write.
This really should go without saying, but I do meet so, so many people who say, “I’d like to write, but…” If you want to be a writer, the only “but” that exists is the one you’ve got to force to sit in your chair every day so you can write.

2. Read.
“The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.” —Stephen King

3. Get yourself a support network.
The professional organisations I belong to, the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the Romance Writers of America, undoubtably helped me to get published in so many ways. But so did my local writing group, and the eHarlequin community online, and my very, very dear writing friends. Only fellow writers can understand what it’s like to slave away at something that’s most likely to be rejected. Or to help you shoot down the crows (see 9).

4. Make writing a routine and a priority.
You don’t have to do it every day, but do it professionally. If you wait until inspiration strikes, you’ll never be able to meet a deadline one day when you have one. As far as you can, try to make sure your family knows how seriously you take your writing, and they know how they can support you. If you don’t have enough time in the day to write, you’ll have to give up something, I’m afraid—television, an hour or two of sleep, ironing.

5. Know the market, but don’t let it kill your creativity.
Easier said than done.

6. Finish a project whenever you can.
I think this is so important. Finish your novels. Even if you think they’re crap. Because you will think they’re crap. First drafts are supposed to be crap. It’s okay. Everyone feels this way. We all whine about it all the time. You can make it better. Anyway, you’ll never know unless you finish. And finishing a book changes it in your mind, so you can revise it better. Personally, I like to finish the first crap draft before I do any revision at all, if I can.

7. Revise ruthlessly, but without fear.
You need to do whatever it takes to make your book better, including killing your darlings—you know, all those lines and scenes and characters you love but which don’t really pull their weight. But you can’t be so frightened of failing that you revise the life out of it, or try to take every piece of conflicting critique you’ve received to heart.

8. Learn how to submit. And then do.
When you get a rejection (and you probably will), submit again. You can never get published unless you submit.

9. Prepare to do mighty battle with the crows of doubt.
In whatever way works for you. Me, I whine a lot. And ring up my friends. I have a post-it on my computer saying “You Have Sold 14 Books And Know What You Are Doing” and another that says “Write Crap!” (see 6) When all else fails, there is booze. And Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. Those will always make you feel better.

10. Always go back to Commandment 1.
No matter what. The difference between writers and everyone else is simple: writers write. That’s it.

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46 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. Ah. Commandment 1. That’s the bunny.

    (Actually, I think it should be Write. Write Now. … … I don’t see any new words on the screen yet…)

  2. Brilliant!!!

  3. Thanks Julie!

    I especially like the Stephen King quote 🙂

  4. LOL, Lacey, so you like the bit that I didn’t write the best? 😉

    Jan: Go Write!

    Thanks Liz.

  5. Brilliant advice Julie, particularly just to keep going even if you think it’s rubbish 🙂

  6. Great post, Julie. I might add two more things to (9) – chocolate and ice cream (separately).

  7. Very nice. Have also seen it boiled down to three rules:

    1. Read a lot
    2. Write a lot
    3. Repeat steps 1 to 2 as necessary.

  8. Great post Julie!

  9. Great post Julie.

    Like KateH I too was thinking about the chocolate, and of course, the wine!

  10. Fabulous list! Can I print it out and hang it next to my computer?? 🙂

  11. Awesome list, Jules. You do cover everything perfectly. And you’re very right — it ALL boils down to number ONE. WRITE. (Which is, of course, sometimes also the hardest thing to do… 😛 )

    It always has amazed me how many people say “Oh, I’ll write a book one day. It can’t be that hard, can it?” (ESPECIALLY when they’re talking about genre fiction, like romance novels!) I dare those folks to try! 🙂

  12. Thanks Kate L.B. The keeping going part is particularly important to me personally, because I always reach a big old suckage point at least once in every book.

    And I’ve talked to so many writers lately who haven’t ever finished a story yet, and are ready to give up on the one they’re writing. Things look so much different once you’ve finished a draft, it’s worth doing if only for the experience.

  13. Kate H and Carol, I usually recommend chocolate at least but I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone falling off their diet. 🙂

    Thanks Donna!

    Anon, those three rules work, too, but I needed to talk for longer than five minutes! Those are the two most important things, but I think the others can be pretty vital too.

    Rachael, of course you can print it out and hang it up! I’d be honoured. 🙂

  14. Kris, you are totally right. People don’t appreciate how hard it is—the hardest job I’ve ever done, aside from being a parent. They think they can knock out a book in a week or two, having never done any writing before…hmm. Yup. You go right ahead, dear. Good luck.

  15. It’s amazing how many people think #2 isn’t necessary. You wouldn’t try to design a car without driving one, would you?

    (And the “I think I’ll write a book one day” brigade drive me nuts too. I just smile and make polite noises then talk about something else. If you want to write a book, write it. End of.)

  16. Thanks, Julie, these are great! Being an author boils down to stuff that isn’t rocket science but I think that all these things are so easily forgotten. It’s reaffirming to hear them repeated often, especially from a multi-published author like yourself 🙂

  17. This is an awesome post, Julie. I hope you don’t mind, I (cough) put a link up to this post on one of my blogs (http://openaveinandwrite.blogspot.com/), since I’m always on the lookout for writing tips for this particular blog. You’re linked, not plagerized. 😀 ~~(**)~~

  18. Yes, another winner from Julie!

    I still remember a list you sent around once where one of the things was sometimes you will want to clean toilets more than write but write anyway.

  19. Oh Julie, this reminds me of my favourite kind of insult:

    “I’d like to write a romance novel. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading one, but it would be a real hoot to write one.”

    Sadly I’ve actually heard that.

    Fortunately not that often. LOL

  20. Outstanding writing! Love the line about the mighty battle with the crows of doubt. Unfortunately, so very true!

  21. Really, a terrific post full of insight and advice that is frustratingly accurate. The secret of writing a book was to write one? And finish it? It’s so deceptively simple, and yet… so hard.

    Kate, et al. – My eye twitches every time someone who thinks reading is boring or not worth their time decides they’d like to be an author. It’s almost as if they’re blinded by the “author” label and don’t realize at first that to be an author, you have to be a writer. Kind of like those people who go in front of Tyra and say, “Well, I want to be a model, but I don’t like fashion.” And everyone’s like, “What?” because that is what modeling is about. And then you realize after talking to them for a while that what they really want isn’t to be a model at all, but instead to be told they’re pretty all the time, which rarely happens in the world of modeling anyway. Yeah.

  22. If you only knew how normal it makes me feel to hear you putting it in such a down-to-earth manner!

    Know all about the crows of doubt. In fact, one is sitting on the top of my laptop right now pecking at the screen. Shoooh!

  23. Great post, Julie.

    I have to share my favorite writing insult from non-writers, which made me gasp like a fish for about a minute:

    “When are you going to write a real book?”

  24. Kate—yes. I have no sympathy for people who don’t read but want to write. Um…der?

    But I do have some time for people with frustrated writing ambitions, because after all I was like that myself, for several years while I did my MPhil and got into the swing of my teaching career. It takes a certain amount of mental space and energy to begin writing seriously, and sometimes you’re just not in the right place for it yet in your life. Eventually, though, you have to put your typing fingers where your mouth is and just get on with it—and if you’re serious, make the changes that let you get on with it.

  25. Jessica—yup, basically it’s just: do the work. I guess rocket science boils down to that, too, though with a lot more maths and physics. 😉

    Laura—thank you, that’s fantastic! I’m glad you liked it enough to link. Nice blog title, dude.

    Michelle, really, I should have the cleanest toilet in town. The fact that I don’t means that the novel is going pretty well just now. 😉

  26. “I’d like to write a romance novel. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading one, but it would be a real hoot to write one.”

    Then you jump in the air, spin around three times, and perform a mighty karate kick that causes the commenter’s head to fly off his/her shoulders and roll ka-thunk ka-thunk across the floor. Preferably bloodying his/her nose in the process.

  27. Robin—thanks, and lovely to meet you. Good luck with your own writing, and, of course, the crows. I visited your blog and your description of the nursing home really struck me. What a rich vein of emotion to use in a novel.

    Henriette—aside from the booze and chocolate and funny movies, I can also recommend a big old gun full of bird shot. 🙂

  28. Ehle, you don’t even know how tickled I am that you also have an appreciation for “America’s Next Top Model”.

    Y’know, though, I’d love to have someone tell me I’m pretty all the time. Do you think I can get that to happen by writing a book?

    People often don’t realise this is a business and a craft, and that there are so many things you have to learn before you can even get up the first few rungs of the ladder.

  29. “When are you going to write a real book?”

    The karate kick would also work well for this one. But I’m curious, do you have a good snappy comeback (aside from assaulting them with your very material, hopefully quite thick and heavy, “real” book)?

  30. Well, there’s a difference between the “like to write a book one day” group and the people who actually might do it. The latter generally have some clue about how writing and publishing work, while the former seem to think it’s all bonbons and secretaries.

    I would like to karate kick the next person who tells me I should write children’s books, as if they’ve just imparted the wisdom of the ages, because of course JK got so rich from it, and it can’t possibly be remotely difficult.

  31. At the risk of you going all Chuck Norris on me, Julie, I think I’d enjoy a children’s book from you. But I also realize that the lack of hot, shirtless guys would probably suck all the fun out of it.

    And yes, we all probably do want someone to tell us we’re pretty all the time. But modeling? I mean, you’d might as well paint a red arrow on your arse and tape a sign to your back that says, “I HAVE CELLULITE AND OTHER IMPERFECTIONS! PLEASE TELL ME ALL ABOUT THEM IN DETAIL!” I never understood the logic there.

  32. Also, a true story.

    I was once associated with a woman who wanted nothing more than to publish a book. Not write one, publish one. And not just any book would do. She wanted to be a New York Times bestseller.

    Anyway, she joined all these writing groups (but not Romance Writers of America, because she felt that was an organization for novices) and she pitched all these agents (but not the ones that represented romance, because she didn’t “do” romance), and she studied the market (but not mass market paperback because hardcover was where it was at) and the business. She became really, really good at talking the talk.

    But as time went on, and the rejections piled in, it became more and more evident that her desire to write was nowhere near as strong as her desire to become famous. (I know, I’m laughing, too.) One of the last conversations we had, she tried to convince me that “serious” authors were the ones who looked at “the business” as a business and nothing more, and that hiring ghostwriters was “the norm” and I was naive for thinking otherwise, because anyone selling their own book was thinking small.

    Now, I’m all for ambition. Hell, if your’e gonna dream, dream big, right? But there was a flaw in her logic that to this day I don’t understand. If you don’t like writing, why bother?

  33. Hi Julie. I came here via Kate Hardy’s blog and have loved reading your Ten Commandments – brilliant advice, all of it! Yes, I think if we all had a pound for each person who’s come out with the immortal line of wanting to write a book one day, ‘if only I had time’, we’d be richer than … erm … JKRowling?? I used to feel like screaming when I was working full-time, bringing up kids, AND writing novels, and people said that to me! Want to write? Just DO it, then! DO – IT! x

  34. Great comments and as always another fab post. Thanks Julie! xx

  35. Brilliant post, thanks Julie.
    Just off to start on commandment 7- killing my darlings.

    Right now I have 60,000 words. When I cut all the sections that don’t move the story forward I reckon I’ll be left with less than 40,000. Woo hoo, lots of room for layering more in then!

    But why are they always the “best” bits? I have a 10,000 word kidnap scene involving the heroine, some incompetent criminals, Grace Kelly, and pigs, that I looooved writing, it was an absolute hoot, but I know it has to go!

  36. I don’t think I could write a children’s book. I have friends who do, and it seems like they go through the same angst I do, except worse, because their novel is much, much shorter so they have to worry about every word counting and also they have to worry about whether kids will like it and it has the right message, etc. I have a hard enough time writing for adults, who can make their own minds up (and kids can, too, but their parents and other adults don’t always seem to think so, so you have to write for them as well).

    Anyway, I’ve got a degree in children’s literature which means I analyse the stuff too much to be able to write it.

    And I tell people all this when they ask if I want to write a children’s book, so they look at me confusedly and drop the subject.

  37. That said: Ehle, I’d put a hot, shirtless guy in any children’s book I wrote anyway.

  38. Your would-be famous author…I guess it’s the same for anyone who wants to be famous for the sake of it, without much talent or passion for anything but being successful. It must be a special kind of talent in itself, to get famous. But I’m flummoxed about how she believed that would make her happy, or how that would pan out for a long-term career? Deluded.

    Writers are also people who can’t quit writing, even after all the setbacks in the world. IMO, there’s something that writing fulfills, as difficult as it is, that nothing else touches.

  39. Olivia, I’m thinking of telling each person who tells me they’d like to write a book if they had time, that I’d like to do their job if I had spare time, too.

    Radio presenting? Oh, if I only had a spare hour or two.

    Used-car selling? It might be fun as a little hobby.

    Nursing? I might pick the basics up in a day or two and do it in the evenings, just for fun.

    Accountant? Well, you just need a calculator, right?

  40. Mulberry—have you finished the book? Don’t do any killing till you’ve finished!

    But yes, the sad truth is, that if you suspect it has to go, it probably does. Don’t lose it, though—keep a cutting file for everything you’ve chopped. If nothing else, you can have a “deleted scenes” section on your website for fans, once the book is published!

  41. […] getting the idea that I’m resisting “killing my darlings”, as the ever fabulous Julie Cohen put it in her Ten Commandments, chopping out all the lines and scenes and characters I adore but […]

  42. a brilliant post. absolutely brilliant!

    — Tom

  43. Thank you Tom! It’s nice to get a new visitor and thank you for tweeting this post.

  44. That’s my kind of ten commandments! – although I would have to liberally sprinkle with chocolate.

    I think the support network is so important and, thanks to Twitter, something that I’m happy to now have.

    Great post!

  45. Kath, EVERYTHING is better liberally sprinkled with chocolate. That should probably be added to Commandment 9.

  46. I absolutely loved your post! I have spent the better part of the day, searching for something truly useful to help me in polishing up the final draft of my book, before my friends and family edit it. (I cannot afford an editor) The main problem I was looking for an answer to, is where do I put it so it will be seen? A writer of a Romance Book maybe, or a Struggling Writer I don’t know yet. RIght now it is on an address, and I looked up alot of information on that, most of it had to do with commercial selling of something. And I just want the introduction of the struggle, and the beginning of the book, and your words reached my heart, and helped me become enthusiastic about writing again, and I thank you! And I see that a Google heading might be the best way to go..I gave up publishing it years ago, when I saw all the rules required of the publishers, and I have a different writing style but now I can write my own style by self-publishing!

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