QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pathway to Becoming a Bestselling Author

Now that the New Year is rapidly approaching, it’s a perfect time to discuss writing goals for 2011. What you want to accomplish next year may be dependent on where you are on the above pathway to becoming a bestselling novelist (or one with a loyal and growing fan base).

Newbie Writer

So you want to write a novel (or have already started one). Congratulations! The first thing you need to figure out is WHY you want to be a writer. Is it because you want to be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling? If so, quit now. You’re doing it for the wrong reasons. But if you want to be a writer because you hope to write stories that might one day be published and make a difference in someone’s life or entertain your readers, then welcome to the club. But before you join us, there’re some things you need to do:

  • Read Read Read in the genre you want to write. If you woke up this morning and decided to become a YA writer, then you’ve got a lot of homework ahead of you. Same deal if you want to write a medical thriller and have never read one before. Of course, in this case, you might want to consider attending medical school first (or law school if you want to write a legal thriller).
  • Read outside your genre. You might get some brilliant ideas for your story. Plus, you might discover a genre you never thought about writing before.
  • Study nonfiction books on writing.
  • Read blogs. A lot of writers are delighted to share their knowledge and writing tips in bite-sized pieces. This makes it easier for you to remember the pointers when writing and editing your novel.
  • Analyze the writing of your favorite authors and see how it can improve your writing.
  • Join a critique group or find some knowledgeable beta readers.
  • Learn to research. Most novels require research, even if it’s just to make sure your characters aren’t stereotypes.
  • Attend conferences. They’re a great learning and networking experience.

Querying Writer

You’ve written your novel and done numerous revisions based on feedback from your critique partners and beta readers. You’ve polished your novel until it shines, and have given it some much needed distance. Now you’re ready to query.
  • Learn how to write a query and how not to write one. Many queries are rejected because writers did those things that irritate agents and editors the most. Don’t be one of these writers.
  • Research agents. Don’t waste your time and theirs by querying the wrong agents.
  • Write a query and have it critted by your critique group and by people who don’t know the story. And don’t forget to make sure it has voice. If it doesn’t, the agent might think your novel lacks voice, too. (Hint: It needs to be in the same voice as in your novel. Believe it or not, this mistake does happen.)
  • If you’re just getting form rejections, go back and redo the previous three points.If agents are rejecting requested materials, figure out why. IF you’re lucky, they might give you a hint. For example, if an agent mentions the characterization wasn’t as strong as she would like, now’s the time to study some books on characterization.
  • Start working on a new project. I can’t stress this one enough.
  • Consider trying out a different genre. Maybe you aren’t cut out to write legal thrillers, but discover you can write a kickass romantic suspense.

Agented Writer
Congratulations, you’re getting closer to your goal of publication, but you’re not there yet. When you consider how many agents represent your genre and how many editors are looking for it, well, the odds aren’t great in your favor of your book being sold.
  • Keep reading books in and out of your genre.
  • Continue to develop your craft. Just because you’re agented, it doesn’t mean you can stop learning and challenging yourself to do better.
  • Start working on a new project so if your current book doesn’t sell, you’ll have something new for your agent.
  • If your manuscript is only collecting rejections, study the reasons behind them. Unlike agents, many editors do provide some feedback as to why they rejected the book. See this as an opportunity to improve that area of your writing (if that was the reason for the rejections), especially if they’re consistent. Remember, your goal is to be a professional one day (i.e. make money from your stories). And professionals (physicians, accountants, lawyers) are always learning. It never stops. Which brings me to the next point.

Published Author
Wow, you did it. You’ve made it to a place a lot of writers dream about. Of course, you still have a lot of work to do. You have to promote the book (which I’m not going to go into here) and write a new one. But just because yours is published doesn’t mean you can stop challenging yourself and pushing your writing to the next level. Keep studying those books on writing and attend conferences. Unless you’re an award winning author (I’m talking the major literary awards), you probably still have room to grow. Don’t be the foolish author who assumes he knows everything.

Bestselling Author
Okay, I know no bestselling authors are reading this, but hopefully you keep this advice in mind if you ever get to this point. Your fans might be forgiving, but that can only take you so far. If you start to ignore the rules, it might not necessarily work in your favor (though sometimes it can). How many of you have stopped reading books by your favorite author because the writing just isn’t there anymore? The writer has become lazy. Once your fans drop you, you have to work even harder to get them back—if you ever can. That’s why I consider the pathway to being a bestseller (or a much admired author) a two-way circle. It is possible to move backwards and not just forwards. Also, your first published novel might have been a bestseller, but it was mostly because of hype. Your next novel might not do as well if readers where disappointed with the last one.

Remember, no matter where you are on the pathway, you should never stop learning and challenging yourself to do better. Your readers will thank you for it. So where are you on the pathway, and what are you planning to do next year to help you meet your goal of being published (or keep being published)?
(Note: Because of the limitations of my graphics program, this graph is slightly misleading. Only under very rare instances could a newbie writer skip the querying step and go straight to being a bestselling author. And a writer’s first book might be a bestseller (i.e. they skipped the part about developing a fan base over a period of several books), but I couldn’t show that in my graph. Also, you might be published by a small pressed before landing an agent for your next book.)

Stina Lindenblatt writes romantic suspense and young adults novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.  


Anonymous said...

Great post! I've got some studying to do! :D

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Terrific article!

I would add that while, yes, it's unrealistic to plan on unseating J.K. Rowling overnight, it doesn't make you a bad person or any less of a literary artist if you have to think about money.

Many of us don't have trust funds or wholly financially supportive spouses or retirement income from previous careers.

Along the way, it's okay to look for opportunities to write articles, speak, and/or, at a certain point, teach in your field. In fact, you can learn a lot that way.

And the pressure of student loans or a monthly mortgage are great incentives to keep your butt in that chair, writing.

S.A. Denson said...

Great article! I'm at the query stage though I've been published before through a small but traditional press.

Stina said...

Great points, Cynthia.

I tried not to focus on the monetary side of things since most authors don't make enough money to quit their full time jobs in the beginning (if at all). But there's nothing wrong dreaming about it. Like there's nothing wrong dreaming about winning the lottery when you buy lottery tickets. Even though the odds of winning are very slight, we can still have hope. Of course in this case, most people don't buy tickets because they want to add them to their prized collection.

Anonymous said...

Is it because you want to be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling? If so, quit now. You’re doing it for the wrong reasons. But if you want to be a writer because you hope to write stories that might one day be published and make a difference in someone’s life or entertain your readers, then welcome to the club.

Sorry, but: nonsense. My wife and I started writing to make money. And we did. Is it the sole motivation? Over time other motivations began to play a role but primarily: money.

And I don't see why people want to pretend otherwise. Or why wanting to make a living is a bad thing.

Join a critique group or find some knowledgeable beta readers.

This may help some people. But it may stop others cold. This should not be universally applied. I never joined anything. Neither did Katherine. Never would. The very idea makes me ill.

Same with conferences. A waste of time and money except insofar as it gets you a face-to-face with an agent. Usually a lousy agent, but that's most of them anyway.

Agents are a necessary evil. Publishers basically outsource the slush pile. So rather than, say, Random House, paying a bunch of new editors to read slush, they fob the job off on agents who are not paid by the publishers, or by the wanna-be's but by established authors. One of several reasons we no longer use agents but work with a pub lawyer. That and the fact that most agents are clueless.

I'm not saying you can avoid an agent. As a newbie you can't because that's how the current system is rigged.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Michael must not write for children...

As a former elementary teacher and as an aspiring writer nothing would please me more than seeing a child reading my book. For me it's not about money...if it was, I'd still be working and not as a teacher. LOL!

Great post, Stina!

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I love the chart! Every writer should have on of those hanging in their office. Writing to publishing is a process and there usually isn't any jumping ahead in line. Whatever the motivation to write is.


Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Cynthia -- great thoughts!

Michael -- I don't think Stina is suggesting (as she said in her previous comment) that we should not aspire to make money. But if your goal is to be The Great American Novelist because you want Fame and Money, you're motivated by what psychologists call extrinsic rewards. And extrinsic motivation actually undercuts creativity.

I think she's saying that you need to do it for internal reasons -- you want to touch a life, or share a story, or whatever. Stephen King and JK Rowling didn't write because they wanted to be the next ___ -- they wrote because they loved it. And they were just so good at it, they became phenomenons.

My dad asked me when my book got published whether I'd keep teaching. I said, "Dad, you don't write a book because you want to make money. You write a book because you have something to say."

Money is fantastic, but just like with any other work, you have to love the job first. Otherwise it's all a grind, and hard to stick with or do well at.

Stina -- One of the things I love about this post is the way you've gathered so many helpful QTB posts and directed writers to them so they know exactly what to do for each step.

Great job!

Tara McClendon said...

I like the flowchart. Timing for each stage always varies. Some writers can make the loop in a year. Others may take a decade.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I do write for kids. I write mostly under the name Michael Grant (GONE, MAGNIFICENT 12) and in partnership with my wife, Katherine Applegate, (ANIMORPHS and various other series.)

Kind of have to say that I love the extrinsic rewards.

The reason everyone plays the game of "Money, pah!" is that as writers we talk an awful lot of bullshit. How much we all love our agents, our editors, writing, reading and on and on. We are public people so we stay on message. I've just decided to stop doing that.

So yes: I love my job. But I also really, really like making money. If I wasn't getting paid I'd do something else.

Christie Wright Wild said...

What a great post, Stina! I like how the graphic image continues to point all arrows in both directions.

Wriggling Writer said...

Great post, Stina. I really enjoyed reading this! I'll be sure to bookmark your blog.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I keep forgetting to hop over here to check out your posts! :) I love this circle/pathway and your points are all spot on. And there IS the danger if you don't keep growing as an author of slipping back - I think that can happen at any level of success, and is a constant challenge.

Great post!