Professional writing can be filled with pitfalls at every turn. Many times it’s the little things that will cause a new writer to stumble on the path to becoming a pro, like formatting a manuscript incorrectly. Other times overzealous writers make much bigger mistakes by, say, calling editors at their homes or chasing them into public restrooms with the hopes the editor will accept a manuscript under the door to the stall. I’ve seen all of this happen, and more. Trust me, not only will you greatly reduce your chances of publication by these acts, but you will also be the lead story among the editors when they get together over drinks.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have many pro writers and editors help me on the obstacle-laden path to publishing, so some time back I decided it was my turn to do something. Since then I’ve taught writing classes at conventions, conferences, in continuing education programs, and sometimes when the opportunity presents itself, over drinks. You see, more often than not it’s in the bar where you’ll find the writers and editors.
So here then, are some questions and answers that might help you get started in fiction writing. Let me know if there are other question you’d like answered and I’ll do my best to address them in updates of this site.
- I’ve just finished my first short story/novel/play. Now what do I do?
- Where do you get your ideas?
- What is a story?
- What should my completed manuscript look like?
- Where can I send my work?
- Should I join a writer’s group?
- Do I need an agent?
- Are there some links I can follow up on?
I’ve just finished my first short story/novel/play. Now what do I do? Top
Write the next one. This may seem like an over-simplified answer, but the truth is writer’s write. It’s their job. The business part comes later and it takes a long time, so what will you do in the meantime? Write the next short story, novel, or play.
Where do you get your ideas? Top
Ideas come from everything: People watching at malls , ballgames, or in a doctor’s waiting room; a newspaper story; the antics of your cat; an illness in your family; a night at a spooky old hotel; the lone shoe in the middle of a highway. But the things I listed above are not yet ideas, they’re the seeds of ideas that demand questions and exploration to become ideas, and then eventually stories. Some writers keep a notebook with them to jog down phrases, anecdotes, and descriptions for possible future use. Other writers may use a tape recorder.
On a side note, you’ll hear some writers claim they have more ideas then they could possibly use in a lifetime. Others, however, may get one usable idea at a time and have a little downtime before the next idea arrives. Wherever you fall, don’t worry about it.
What is a story? Top
Whether in the form of a short story, novel or play, a story must have the following: character, plot, setting and an idea/theme.
The character (or protagonist) is an imaginary person who is believable, and changes at the end of the story as a result of what happened during the story.
Plot is a logical sequence of events affecting your protagonist by setting up a problem at the beginning of the story, delaying a resolution by throwing complications and obstacles at the protagonist in the middle of the story, and bringing about a resolution at the end.
Setting is the location of the story in time and place.
Idea/theme is the “what if” question that starts the plot.
IF you’re missing any of these story components, then you don’t have a story.
What should my completed manuscript look like? Top
Here’s where some of the business aspects of writing come in. If a manuscript is not prepared in a professional manner, an editor might assume the story is not professional either.
For all stories you’ll need 20 pound white paper that’s 81/2 inches wide by 11 inches long. Use black ink only, and print on just one side of a page. Use a typewriter-like font. Text is double spaced; consecutively number pages; use two spaces after a period; indent paragraphs 5-7 spaces; and start a short story or novel chapters half way down the page. Italics are indicated by underlining the word or phrase. Margins should be one inch all around (1 1/2 inch for plays); justified on the left; and “ragged” on the right.
A novel is never bound, but a play is. You can use a paperclip to hold the pages of a short story together.
A novel and a play have a cover page with the title and your contact information. A short story has no cover page; the title and contact information is on the first page of the story.
That’s it in a nutshell. There are a few more nuances to formatting, but this will get you started.
Where can I send my work? Top
Professional writing organizations are a good start to finding markets. Conventions and conferences will not only give you a chance to meet like-minded writers, but offer the opportunity to discover markets as well. You can also use libraries and bookstores as research tools to find “houses” that publish the kind of work you do. And the internet can be a extremely valuable, if time consuming.
Should I join a writer’s group? Top
Critique by other than family and close friends can be a wonderful thing, but not all writer’s agree about the merits of a writing group. Avoid groups that spend all their time patting each other on the back, or alternatively, tearing you and your work to shreds. Writing groups work best if the members know what constitutes a story, and are willing to offer critique as well as solutions. Know that even with a strong, supportive and knowledgeable group, you’ll have to develop a thicker skin. Having your work critiqued gets easier with time, but it’s always a little tough to find out that maybe your masterpiece needs a little work.
Do I need an agent? Top
Probably not. At least not until you have a completed novel and interest from a publisher. In general agents don’t handle short stories, and there aren’t many who handle plays. Agents get paid by taking a percentage of your book sale, you never pay them.
Are there some links I can follow up on? Top
Here’s a few you might be interested in. But there are plenty more out there.
Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR)
The Dramatists Guild of America
Mystery Writers of America
Romance Writers of America
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators