We are a society of fast food, sound bites, Flash-fiction, and light-speed information. We all look for the magic weight loss pill, a way to look buff without exercise, to have knowledge without the pain of experience, and success without sacrifice. The truth, as we all know or eventually find out, is much different—success takes hard work.
I want to share a list of steps that I know will lead you to successful writing and, the Holy Grail of writing, getting published or publishing a marketable book.
Education: There’s knowledge without college
Before any of my academic friends get their Irish up, I’m college educated; but, I think it’s real important to note that not all successful people are educated, and, especially writers. My goal here is to take away your excuses and give you sound advice. Education is the first key to success. Are you feeling sleepy? That may be your problem—read on.
When I say education, I don’t just mean college, although, for me, college has been a joy and very worthwhile. On the other hand, I know several successful writers that are self-taught and have little to no college. The key for them was their willingness to self-educate which takes time and effort. Most potential writers refuse to take the time to become an expert in their field through the hard work of educating themselves about writing, grammar, syntax, and rhetorical techniques. Everyone has a potential book inside of them, everyone has a story, not everyone will do what it takes to make that become a reality.
It drives me nuts when someone asks what I do, and I tell them I’m a writer. Then (wait for it…), they say, “I’m going to write a book,” or, “I’m thinking of writing a book,” and as we discuss it further, I realize that the person has no idea what they are talking about. It’s as if no one has a real respect for the work and talent it takes to write well. They think that writing is the simple act of putting words on paper. And, actually, writing is easy. Writing well, being read, and making people turn the page is not easy—it takes work and talent. The journey of mastering a talent is in acquiring education. You need to develop an immense appetite for information about your field.
I’m going to list four books that are very special to me personally. They are not the only books about writing and grammar; they are not the end-all-be-all books on these topics; however, as a published writer and poet, these books made a huge difference in my life, and my success as a writer, and they are well-known books.
My Book List:
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a classic that has sold more than a million copies. This book will not only cover things like mechanics, styles, and grammar, but Zinsser also gives you the feeling that he’s walking along side of you when you read. It’s as if he’s your personal professor.
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a book that taught me about my own writing voice. Anne is hilarious, her second chapter is entitled, Shitty First Drafts, which is not only funny as hell, but I think we can all relate to the title. The book is a National Best Seller. I loved Anne’s stories about the gut-wrenching process of learning to write, getting published, and just being ourselves as writers.
- Doing Grammar by Max Morenberg is the best book on grammar and syntax I’ve ever read. If you’ve had no college English, if you’re an English major, or if you were a high school dropout, this book takes the very complicated and often confusing lexicon of grammar and makes it simple and easy to understand. This book is a college textbook, so look for it on discount sites like Abebooks.com for the best deal possible. I recently bought my wife a 4th Edition copy for ten dollars.
- Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk is a different way of teaching Standard English Grammar than Morenberg. Kolln is more prescriptive in her style. She teaches you how to parse sentences and to analyze them through Reed-Kellogg Diagraming (Morenberg uses Tree Diagrams). These methods of Functional Grammar help writers to understand parts of speech and the make-up of a sentence or phrase.
Again, these books are not the only ones out there, but I can attest to their worth in my life as a writer, and I can say that these four books taught me more about writing and grammar than anything else in my career thus far.
Work Harder Than Anyone Else
At the risk of sounding cliché, the fact that successful people become the best in their respective fields through sheer hard work cannot be overlooked. In my own life, I quit school in the tenth grade and remained uneducated until my forties. I did get my GED in 1985 while serving in the Navy; however, my biggest leap in education came when I decided to start reading. If you don’t read, you’ll never be a good writer.
This little gem was my greatest obstacle. I love movies; I love sitcoms; I read voraciously as a young man but then quit when I was building my business in the 2000’s. During those early years when I was reading all the time, my vocabulary, my self-confidence, and my wisdom increased to the point that I built a successful company with a six figure income. However, after the housing crash, losing my business, and returning to college, I had lost my love of reading. I would complain to my wife about my continued failures in class, in writing groups, and in my efforts to get published. She would always lecture me about the fact that I had to read more. My wife loves to read and often finishes a small paperback in one sitting. So I set out to make reading a habit in my life one again. It was a definite turning point in my career.
As an example, I read Max Morenberg’s Doing Grammar ten times during and after my first upper-level grammar class in college. I wanted to make the knowledge in that book a part of my soul. I would read and write every day. My earlier writings, some of which remain on this site in the archives, show how bad I was in the beginning. Lydia, our Social Media Coordinator for Two Drops of Ink, asked me if I wanted her to quit promoting the older writings—the ones before the site became a success. I told her no. I felt like it was a good thing for our readers and writers to see the progression that my personal writing made over time. Between my college work, my blogs (I have several), and other writings, I was reading and writing every day. My word count was generally about 2000 words a day. I haven’t arrived yet, but this hard work has paid off.
Today, I have several publications under my belt in various formats and genres. I’ve presented academic papers at conferences, I’ve done the layout and design of several books and magazines, I have a growing freelance editing and publishing business, and I’m in negotiations with a rather famous person to ghost write his book. None of this would have been possible if I had not changed my habits and worked harder than most others are willing to work.
One final note on hard work: sometimes that definition includes having really thick skin. Like I said, I came from an uneducated family and background. When I made the decision to become a writer, no one supported me or took me seriously. My friends would never help me promote my writing or purchase my books. At first, I was offended. I eventually learned that we all have a circle of influence that we have to get out of and move beyond. We cannot rely on friends and family to make us successful. Also, I took some hard knocks in writers’ groups, in comments on my blogs, and from professors in class. It hurt, and I often wanted to quit. I didn’t. Keep writing anyway!
Query Your Work Continuously
I know that we have a large audience of indie authors, and I applaud them for their hard work and success; however, I would encourage every writer to work toward attaining some traditional publications to enhance their writing resumes, create credibility, and to help build an audience.
I published my first book through smashwords.com (under the pseudonym William Power), and it sold about 1100 copies. It remained in the top 10 of its genre for more than six months. I eventually took it off the virtual shelf to re-write it and publish it in paperback through Amazon’s createspace.com. The second book didn’t do so well and only sold a few hundred copies, but it was poorly written and edited. Do not underestimate the importance and worth of paying for good editing if you’re an indie author. I say all of this to acknowledge that with the advances in Print On Demand (POD) technology, some authors are making a living self-publishing. There are many stories of self-published authors making it big, but believe me, these are the exception, not the rule. Traditional publishing opportunities are everywhere, and writers should not overlook them before trying to release a novel.
Take some time to research print magazines, online literary blogs and magazines, guest blog opportunities, and other venues that accept open submissions. I’ve had my fair share of rejection emails, and the modern day rejection is usually “crickets.” That said, try to send out a query once a month to a new venue, or once every two months—set a goal. You will eventually get a yes if you follow the first two steps.
I know and believe with all my heart that if you follow these three steps, your writing career will begin to show the success that you long to see. Happy writing.