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Want to Write for Publication?
Sit down and start. There's a T-shirt for equestrians that says (as so many instructors have said) "Shut up and RIDE." For writers, that T-shirt would be "Shut up and WRITE." Talking about writing isn't writing. Complaining that you can't write isn't writing. Reading books about writing isn't writing. Emails and posts to your blog or an online writers' support group don't count either. Sit down, plant your backside in the chair, pick up the pen or pencil or keyboard and actually write.
Keep going...in spite of your day job, your unsympathetic family, your jeering friends, your backache, your depression, your conviction that what you just wrote is awful. If anyone (but the assassin with the 9 mm. blowing a hole in your head) can keep you from writing, you're not cut out to be a writer. Writers have written while keeping house, raising children (including disabled children), working long hours at boring/sucky jobs, working long hours at interesting but intellectually demanding jobs, in the face of hostile reactions from family and friends. So can you (if you're cut out to be a writer.) Put the energy you use complaining about what keeps you from writing into...you guessed it...writing. Finish something. You don't have to finish everything you write (and probably shouldn't) but you have to finish something or nothing you write will be published.
Send your completed work to editors whose selections you already like. If you write novels, send it to publishers whose published novels you admire. Your own work is likely to resemble (in tone, in approach, at the least) those stories and novels you admire...so your work will naturally appeal more to an editor whose other selections you enjoy
Expect to get rejections. Rejections do not mean you're a sucky writer, let along a sucky person. (They might mean you're a sucky writer, but non-sucky writers also get rejections.) Celebrate your rejections. It's a rare writer who can collect 100 serious rejections (rejections resulting from sending things to the most likely markets) without making a sale. Most people give up too soon. If, however, you do get to 100 rejections without selling anything, it's time to check out a writing workshop and find out why.
Deal with rejection professionally. Never blow up at the editor who rejected the submission. It may be that something really was wrong with the story/book/article...or it may be that the editor had no more room in the program. Editorial comments with rejections should be noted, but not necessarily believed (I've had stupid ones; so has everyone else.) Editors are experienced readers, but they must, of necessity, sometimes be hasty readers--they can miss things. If two editors, however, make the same comment--they're right and you have something to fix (or discard the whole thing, if you can.)
Writing groups. Some people find these helpful; some don't. If you join one, find one at your level that is actually dedicated to helping each other write (not just talk about it) and get published. Some writing groups are so "supportive" that no one ever finishes anything or sends it in. Make sure your group accepts/respects what you write: if you're a poet, you're unlikely to find help in a group of people interested in publishing true-crime stories.
Manuscript preparation. Do it the way the books (or the writers' guidelines from your intended markets) want. No, you cannot use both sides of the paper, tiny type, curly fonts, colored paper, or any other deviation from standard practice. You are competing with people who know the standard and follow it--why should an editor bother with your "creative" purple italic font on yellow paper (which hurts the editorial eyes) when he/she has a stack of nice black-on-white? Your creativity is supposed to be in the work, not the presentation.
Cover letters. Brief, minimal, informative cover letters can be helpful. Cover letters that explain your philosophy, plead for mercy since you're a beginner, attempt to convert the editor to your opinion of his/her selections previously, etc. are the writer equivalent of a sign on your back that says "Kick me now, I'm really stupid." If this is a book on an arcane topic and you're the world expert on it, by all means say so...but if this is a mystery story involving the murder of a politician's daughter by a psycho, the editor does not need to know your opinion of mental health care coverage, or politicians, or the difficulties of being a celebrity's kid
Plagiarism I. Don't even try. Even if an editor doesn't catch it right off, someone else will and your name will be stinking toxic waste forever. If you wonder whether your story using something (setting, character, whatever) from someone else's work is plagiarism and an infringement of copyright, the answer is YES. And your answer to your crafty little mind should be NO.
Plagiarism II. Editors do not steal your work. Editors are so overwhelmed with submissions that they don't need to steal yours; if it's good enough to steal, it's good enough to buy and publish under your name. Editors do not steal your ideas and give them to other writers. Professional writers have so many ideas they have no time to write that the last thing they need is your idea.
Avoid scams. Lots of people dream of getting their masterpiece published, and lots of dishonest people prey on them like wolves on lambs. See SFWA's Writer Beware site for some examples of the kinds of scams to avoid. Professional writers do not pay agents, editors, or publishers upfront. Money flows to the writer from the publisher (sometimes through an agent, but always flowing toward the writer.) There are reasons to self-publish some kinds of books (family histories, cookbooks, some others.) If you want to self-publish your work, go to a reputable printer, not one of the scam-publishers: it will cost you less and you will like the product more.
When to quit. Quit writing when you don't enjoy it anymore. No one can force you to become a professional writer (or a writer at all for that matter.) No one can force you to write anything you don't want to write. Even if you dreamed of being a famous writer from the time you first picked up a pencil, you don't have to keep slogging away at it one day past the loss of joy. Most of us don't make enough money at it to justify writing if we don't enjoy the process.
Take care of yourself. Writers tend to sedentary lives, snacking while writing, and solitude. Try to work exercise, at least one healthy meal a day, and some non-writing friendships into your life, and you will be a better writer as well as a happier person.
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This essay ©2005 Elizabeth Moon