January 10th, 2011

Lois Winston, Agent/Author Guest Post

One of the best parts of being a writer, for me at least, is that you get to meet a dazzling array of fascinating people along the way. In my journey from "newbie" to published author, I have made friends with many talented and generous folks who helped me get from there to here.

Not least among these is the charming Lois Winston. Lois is both an author (with two earlier books and one just out now) and an agent, so she has the benefit of being able to see publishing from both sides of the table. Since she has been doing a blog tour to announce the release of her new book, Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun, a crafting mystery, I asked her if she would come here and share some advice for aspiring novelists.

I hope you'll say "thank you" by leaving a comment with a question or an observation...and maybe run out and buy a copy of her book!

Take it away, Lois--

© 2010 Lois Winston
Would you go to a doctor who hadn’t graduated from medical school? Of course not! To work in the profession of your choice, whether it’s medicine or accounting or archeology, you first need to acquire the skill sets needed for that profession.

Yet tens of thousands of people each year think they can just sit down at their computers, bang out a book, and expect the publishing industry to be waiting for them with open arms. The truth is that 99.9% of would-be authors lack the necessary skills to write a book. I know this because along with being a published author and designer, I work for a literary agency. I spend a good part of my day reading queries from these people. Here’s an example:
I haven’t published a book before this is my first book. I’m a screenwriter (not a highly paided one) I want to get away from screenwriting and focus on books. I can expression whats in me through books more than I can in screenwriting. I get nice letters from my small group of fans who love the idea that I’m turning to writing (which I thought I would get hate mail if you like my idea please let me know. As I tell my fans. Thank you for your time of thinking of me.

I chose that query excerpt to share with you, not because it’s unique but because it’s all too common. The sad fact is that most of the population doesn’t know a pronoun from a predicate. They were either never taught proper grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure in school, let alone English composition, or didn’t pay attention when it was taught. Yet they believe they’re the next James Patterson or JK Rowling. When their lack of skills is pointed out as a reason for rejection, they often come back with a response of, “That’s what an editor is for.”
No, that’s not what an editor is for. In today’s extremely tight publishing market, unless your manuscript is nearly perfect, an editor won’t read past the first few pages.
So what if you have a wonderful idea for a book and the urge to write it but lack the necessary skills? Or what if you’ve already written the book but it’s been rejected everywhere because it lacks voice? Or isn’t polished enough? Or because you haven’t grasped the concept of point of view? Or your protagonist has no inner conflict? Or your plot suffers from a sagging middle? Or you’ve front-loaded the back-story? Or your scenes lack the proper pacing? What if you don’t know what in the world I’m talking about?
Should you just give up right now? Definitely not. Unlike brain surgery, you can learn the skills you need to hone your writing without going back to school. And unlike medical school, you can do so for relatively little money and at your own pace. The trick is to follow five simple steps:
1. Join a writing organization. There are well-respected organizations for just about every genre of fiction, and some include non-fiction. Many accept unpublished members. They offer mentoring, critiquing, one-on-one meetings with editors and agents, and networking opportunities with published and unpublished authors. Some have online workshops and online Q&A’s with guest speakers. Many hold yearly conferences.

2. Start a writing library. Treat yourself to a good dictionary and Thesaurus. Don’t rely on ones that come with your word processing programs. They’re seriously lacking. Purchase a good book on grammar/punctuation and one on editing. Read them from cover to cover. Learn the rules.

3. READ. You wouldn’t believe how many so-called writers don’t read. If you want to be a published author of books, you need to be well read in the genre in which you want to write. You can’t all of a sudden wake up one morning with what you think is a great idea for a novel, write it, and expect it to sell. You need to study the marketplace. Find out what the conventions of the genre are, familiarize yourself with what’s already been published.
4. Do your research. And by research I don’t mean relying on Wikipedia or CSI. Both are notoriously wrong when it comes to getting facts rights.
5. Finally, don’t get scammed. There are a lot of people out there who make their livings as professional freelance editors. Some of them are highly respected. However, many are not. Some are themselves unpublished authors; others are out-and-out scam artists. You need to learn how to write if you want to be a published author. Paying someone to professionally edit your work will only make the editor richer.

Lois Winston is an award-winning author and designer as well as an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. Her latest book, ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY GLUE GUN, the first book in her Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. PW said, “Crafty cozies don't get any better than this hilarious confection,” and Booklist stated, “Winston has hit a home run with this hilarious, laugh-until-your-sides-hurt tale. Oddball characters, uproariously funny situations, and a heroine with a strong sense of irony will delight fans of Janet Evanovich….” Kirkus Reviews called it, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” Visit Lois at http://www.loiswinston.com and Anastasia at http://www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com.