They say writing is a lonely business. The meat of the work is conducted at your desk, alone: an introverted process of extracting ideas from the recesses of your mind and hammering them into some form others can understand and enjoy.
The reality, of course, is very different. Writing can feel lonely, but it is never a solitary effort. Every author needs a support team!
I don’t really believe that the author is responsible for creating his or her stories. When I write, it often feels as if I have remarkably little input – at least, when the story is flowing and I’m writing well. I always plan my books but the plan usually changes several times during the execution. Why do my stories change? The answer is simple: I’m not the one in charge!
A novel is written by its characters. A strong character has a mind of its own and has the power to influence and interact with other characters, direct the action, and even persuade the author to change his or her mind. If a character does none of these things, and you find yourself having to operate them like a puppet, the character probably isn’t a strong one and needs work.
My job is to write down the images and scenes acted out by my characters – at most to gently guide the action.
Strong characters are a great source of comfort. They whisper to you, direct your hand, and can boost flagging confidence during the difficult central portion of a book. Most importantly, they bring your imagination to life.
Every author needs a mentor: a more experienced, wiser writer who has been through the little triumphs and tragedies inherent to our profession. Not everyone is lucky enough to find a suitable mentor, but make friends with other writers (it’s easy to do this online nowadays) and it will fall into place.
I’m very fortunate to have made friends with Susan Fletcher several years ago when we worked together at the Clachaig Inn, Glen Coe, and her support and advice have worked wonders ever since! It makes a real difference to know there is someone on your side who has been through it all before.
A writing support group
Related to the above, it helps to have a larger network of writers with whom you can discuss aspects of the craft. Online writing support groups have existed for as long as the Web has been around, and today there are many forums to choose from. I am a member of the UK Kindle Users Forum (mostly inhabited by authors), and although I don’t post there as often as I used to, it’s a great community.
It’s impossible to read your own work with a critical eye. First draft material is usually pretty ropey, but the author is so immersed in the work they are unable to see the truth. You need a team of beta readers.
These people must be reliable, impartial, objective, and analytical. At this stage you don’t want people to shower you with praise and encouragement at the expense of more useful advice; you want people who will read your work and say what they really think. With rare exceptions, family members make imperfect beta readers (although their opinions can be useful at various stages of the process).
Look after your beta readers. They are one of your most precious resources and can make the difference between a good book and a bad one.
Perhaps the most important figure in the pre-publication support team is your editor. Writers who think they can publish without professional editing are almost certainly deluding themselves. Yes, it’s expensive, but look at it as an investment; without professional analysis and correction, your work will be riddled with errors and will not survive in today’s competitive market.
It’s easy to assume that you’ll be able to edit your own work, but trust me, unless you are trained as a copyeditor you won’t have a hope of finding more than maybe 50% of the problems with your manuscript. Even experienced authors can rarely produce publishable prose by themselves. We all need a skilled editorial team.
If your creative gifts happen to include the visual arts in addition to the written word, then you’re truly blessed. Unfortunately most of us aren’t so gifted and, if we want pictures in our books, we will need to employ someone to do the work for us.
My illustrator is Catherine Speakman, and her work fits my themes and subject matter very well.
When you publish your first book, you are starting from a blank slate. You (probably) have no fans yet, no loyal readers. If your work is good and you have found your audience, this group will grow over time.
Loyal fans will do a lot of marketing work for you. They will help to build enthusiasm about new releases, share your blog posts and social media utterances, and help to spread the word. In my opinion a corps of loyal fans is the single most precious resource in the arsenal of any modern writer, for without evangelists your fanbase cannot grow and the success you crave will always be out of reach.
Look after these people. Ask your most loyal fans if they would like to be beta readers; they will appreciate the chance to help you out, and may feel privileged to be given early and exclusive access to your new work. If they are also bloggers or have their own social media platform, do what you can to help promote them in turn. Build good relationships with your loyal fans, and they will help to look after you in turn.
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