1. Start with a brilliant idea…and if you can, come up with a perfect title, too. Don’t worry about what is selling out at Barnes and Noble’s this year. Don’t try to write the next “Jurassic Park.” Just come up with a central concept that is big and fun and larger than life – and one that is yours alone.
2. Write a proposal and/or an outline.
a. What kind of book will it be? A thriller? A non-fiction “how-to”? A series of stories about your travels? An autobiography?
b. How long will it be? Different kinds of books require a different word-counts.
c. Hit all the highs and lows of your story. What events happen, and what changes occur with your characters? Remember, action by itself is not a story –the character must go through something that will alter his or her life.
d. How will you tell the story – first person or third? Will there be several sections, and if so, what will each of the sections cover? It’s usually best to do a quick chapter-by-chapter outline. This will change as you work on your book, but it gives you a good starting place, and it usually helps to know how your book will end.
3. Write a lousy, crummy, horrible first draft. Don’t sweat the small stuff, just spit that story out!
4. Reread what you have written, and look for places to make improvements.
5. Rewrite your first draft until you have a made the best book you can – that means using just the right words for your story, the ones that will make each scene exciting and dramatic for your reader. Get rid of any places where you wander away from your story. Strengthen scenes or characters that are weak – if you find yourself tired of a scene or character, do something different with them. Throw in some danger – or an important revelation. Don’t be afraid to dump and change and play with everything in your first draft. Sometimes, just cutting extraneous material makes a story work much better. You may need to rework your manuscript many times to make it just right.
6. Print out a copy. Correct all spelling, punctuation, typos and formatting on that manuscript – make it perfect! – and print it again.
Getting your book published
1. Get an agent to represent you. You will almost always need an agent. An agent is the person who presents and sells your book to a publisher. They act as “pre-screeners” for the publishers, weeding out bad work or work they believe will not sell. They are familiar with the market and are usually very savvy. They are also very busy and very hard to land. Your manuscript must be exceptional and you must be persistent and have faith in yourself and your work.
Most book agents live in New York City because that is where most publishing is done. Try to get a New York agent. Do not give up.
a. There are books that have the names of literary agents. Buy a current book listing them once you’ve finished your manuscript.
b. Find agents that are interested in books similar to yours. Make a list of their names and addresses and read the listings very carefully to find out how to contact them.
c. Draft a “query” letter. That should introduce you and your work to the agent, and should highlight anything that makes you especially knowledgeable or expert in the field you are exploring – that you are an expert in dominoes because you’ve won the world championship, therefore you’ve written the definitive study on winning at dominoes; you’re a professor of abnormal psychology and therefore you know all about kleptomaniacs and that’s why you’re uniquely qualified to write on the topic of movie stars who are petty thieves; or you’re a Harvard-educated lawyer and would do anything, even write legal thrillers, as long as you never, ever have to try another case in court.
d. Enclose a one page synopsis (that’s a summary) of your manuscript and the first three chapters, if the agent requests them. (That is usually said in the listing). Also enclose a SASE (a self-addressed, stamped envelope). That is an envelope addressed to you, and means the agent can easily respond to your query by sticking something in the envelope and throwing it into a mailbox. You want to make it easy for them. Yes, you do.
e. Give the agents two months to respond. If they have not written back, drop them a note asking if they’ve had a chance to look at your query dated ______. Keep after them, but be careful about calling. You don’t want to alienate these important people.
f. Begin again, at “b”. Getting an agent may be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, even harder than writing that book.
2. Get your book out to publishers. Once an agent decides he or she likes your work and wants to represent you, that person will contact publishers and try to sell your book. With luck, there is a publisher out there who will love your work, too, and your agent will find him/her!
3. Get it published. The publisher makes a deal with your agent. Your agent runs the deal by you. If you are willing to accept the money and terms they offer, your book will be published.
4. Party! You deserve it. And meanwhile, be thinking about your next brilliant idea. Remember, a writer is always working, even at a party.