In my writing posts, I’ve been talking about writing advice that’s good or that depends on the individual. I found myself thinking once again about that convention panel on career planning for pre-published writers, and there are some things that you might be able to do to give yourself a boost besides just writing. I don’t think all of these are mandatory, but they could be helpful if you do them well. Still, though, the main thing you need to be doing is writing. If you don’t do that, none of the rest of these things will do you any good. I’ve seen a lot of writers stall their potential careers because they got caught up in being involved in writers organizations and conferences, etc., and they thought of that as being writing work, but it kept them from actually writing. They may have been a big shot in the organizations and knew lots of editors because of that, but without anything written, all those connections did no good. So, with each of these activities, you have to ask yourself if you’d be better off spending that time writing.
1) Join a writing organization
This is a good way to network with fellow writers, learn about the craft and the business, meet industry professionals, get feedback on your work, and start getting your name out there even before you’re published. Some of the national genre-specific groups allow unpublished writers to join, and many have local chapters with monthly meetings. There are local groups that meet for critiques or that have speakers. Many libraries and bookstores sponsor writing groups. Check Meet Up, your local library calendar of events, bookstore calendars, or do an Internet search for writing groups associated with your genre.
2) Attend writing conferences
Many of these writing groups sponsor annual conferences. They may be smaller local affairs, just one day with a few guest speakers, or multi-day national conventions with a number of industry professionals. At these events, you can hear expert speakers on the craft and business of writing and schedule pitch sessions with editors and agents. These can be rather expensive, so you might get more bang for your buck if you’re fairly advanced and have a manuscript ready to pitch.
3) Look for other events that include writing activities
While a lot of writing conferences may cost hundreds of dollars to attend, there are fan-oriented genre conventions that include writing activities that may only cost about $40 for the weekend. Look for science fiction or mystery conventions. Many of them include a writers’ workshop and panels on writing. The guest panelists for these events are usually published authors, so even if the convention itself doesn’t include a lot of how-to panels, it may offer you the opportunity to network with writers and talk to published authors.
For any of these in-person activities, you need to present yourself professionally. Don’t shove your manuscript at anyone, don’t corner anyone and force them to listen to a description of your book, don’t derail a panel by asking an irrelevant question that only applies to you or that is only a thinly veiled pitch for your book. Don’t be a jerk, in general. Meeting industry professionals in person can be a positive that helps your career, but it can also hurt you if you make a negative impression or come across like someone who’d be difficult to work with.
4) Study on your own
There are a number of online writing workshops and classes, some free, some at a reasonable cost. Authors, agents, and editors have blogs and write articles on writing. There are books about writing. There are online communities for writers. There’s a lot you can learn without leaving your home.
5) Establish a platform
Do you know a lot about something that might relate to your writing? You might be able to establish a platform based on that before you publish a book, and leverage that into a platform to promote your book. If you’re a lawyer who’s writing legal thrillers, you could write a blog or tweet about legal issues in fiction. Review books and movies involving lawyer characters from the perspective of a lawyer (though you might want to be careful about too much snark about books if you hope to sell a book to editors who published the books you’re tearing apart). Ditto if you’re an aerospace engineer writing science fiction, a folklorist writing fantasy, etc. You can talk about costumes in genre movies, analyze the music, create recipes for dishes mentioned in fiction, or whatever your area of expertise or interest might be.
You can also do this sort of thing if you have a strong voice and can write funny pieces about your own life, witty dissections of movies or TV series, or explorations of pop culture. There are novelists who had huge followings before they ever had a book published.
But don’t feel you have to do this. It takes a lot of time and effort and only really pays off if you have a huge impact.
6) Enter writing contests
I’m actually kind of iffy on this one. There are some manuscript contests sponsored by reputable writing organizations that can get your manuscript in front of editors or agents, skipping the slushpile. But there are also a lot of scams out there. I would be wary of any contest that promises publication as a prize because that prize comes with strict contract terms, with no negotiation. If your book is good enough to win the prize to be published, it’s good enough to be published the normal way, and you might get better terms doing so because then you’d be able to negotiate. For short stories, getting the prize of having your story published on a website means you’ve given up first publication rights and will have a harder time selling it to a real publication. So be sure of what you want out of a contest, who’s judging it, and what happens if you win.
Mostly, though, it’s about the writing. None of these things will do any good if you don’t finish a book and revise it until it’s in publishable condition.