Okay, let me preface this by saying I am NOT traditionally published, yet, but I do have some experience in breaking into a difficult field. That is what this blog post is all about. What I am about to share with you are the required steps to be successful at anything, but particularly, the writing field.
Ask Yourself Questions
The first thing you need to do is an honest assessment of your motivation. Why do I want to be a published author? Nope, that’s not the question. Rather ask yourself these:
1. Do I like to write? – I don’t mean the creative part, I mean WRITE, like for hours on end just typing words. If you don’t, this may not be for you.
2. Do I love words, sentences, phrase-turns? – This is important because answering this in the affirmative will make doing #1 much easier.
3. Do I like to read? – Well this is obviously necessary because after all, you will have to read your own work over and over. But you also have to like reading other people’s work, either off the shelf, or in a critique group (more on those later).
4. Do I have talent? – Okay this one is relative to some people, but if you are a good storyteller and can write a coherent sentence, you might be in the right field. However, if you hated English class, are not a good speller, or get your homophones confused, again #1 will be very frustrating. Remember, an editor’s job is not to do these things for your manuscript. That is YOUR job.
Whew. Now that we are passed that, let’s move on to the requirements needed to succeed. Most of you probably have a job. You may even have a profession. If so, what did it take to get into that profession? You certainly didn’t just walk in the door and say ‘here I am!’. You had to perform some preliminary steps. These same steps can be applied to getting published if the above questions were answered in the affirmative.
1. Investigate the business. – When I was a sandblaster in a local factory, I decided I wanted to be a journalist. Well, actually I decided that in high school, but I got sidetracked. But once I finally made the concrete decision to pursue my goal, the first thing I did was enroll in college. Sure not all of us can just go to college, but I had a job, and some time, and needed to see what others who had already reached my goal, had learned. Going to college was not just an academic exercise for me. I did not hang out on the quad drinking beer and pledging sororities; rather, I spent my weekend working as a clerk at the Dayton Daily News for $25 a day. I didn’t need the money, I needed the exposure to the business. In addition to learning how a paper runs, I also took a freelance gig writing articles for the Dayton Black Press. They were desperate for writers and I was desperate for experience. It was a match made in heaven, so to speak. By the way, I occasionally wrote a column for the college paper, too. Yes, I was busy. But I was determined, and that is what you need to be. As a writer, you may be able to intern or even get a part time job at a publishing company. I hear a lot of agents / writers say they started that way.
2. Meet and talk to people in the business. While working at the DDN, I met a few reporters who told me about an organization that helped black media folks get in the business. So I joined the National Association of Black Journalists as student member. Best decision I could make at that stage in my quest. I attended my first convention in Atlanta and met reporters from small papers to major television networks. And I did NOT waste my time eating, drinking and partying – although all of that was available. Instead, I got in front of as many pros as I could who were doing what I wanted to do and came home with 100 business cards. When I got home I followed up with some of them and got some great advice. I am still very close to many I met that first year. In your case, attending writer’s conventions can be just as beneficial.
3. Research your craft. I continued to learn the craft of writing and reporting and read lots of books by folks like Sam Donaldson (ABC) and Dan Rather (CBS) so that I could learn what they had to go through to get into the business. I find that I learn more from others mistakes and triumphs than anything else. As you know from reading my blogs, there are tons of resources for learning about the business, so find them and study them.
4. Do YOU. I never tried to be anyone other than me. I saw other reporters but I had my own style and I focused on that. For you, this simply means don’t follow every trend. Decide the genre that feels best for you and write it. Agents’ tastes change all the time. That’s because readers’ tastes change all the time. Eventually there will be a market for what you do if you do it well.
5. Practice your craft. After leaving the paper but before graduation, I decided to choose TV over print. And right after that I had the ability to meet a local reporter in my political science class. The first thing I did was ask him to lunch so I could pick his brain. As a result, he got me an internship at his station. That internship was my foot in the door, and I made sure I didn’t leave there without a tape of my abilities. That station had NEVER let an intern on the air. EVER. But guess who recorded 10 stories during that internship? Yours truly. A White House reporter I once met said that I was ‘tenacious.’ That is a necessary quality to succeed. For you this means, write, write, write.
6. Be professional. When you’ve done all the above and you are ready to show folks what you’ve got, approach it professionally. I asked teachers as well as professional reporters how to write my introduction letter. I even asked a local TV news director if I could come to his station and do an ‘informational interview’ to find out how he got into the business. He helped me narrow down my locations to ensure I went to a station where I could learn and grow. Again, there are resources you can tap to learn the right way to approach an agent or editor.
7. Do not get discouraged. I know, I know. EVERYONE says this, but it’s true. Before I got my first reporting job offer, I received 60 rejection letters from TV stations. But it was #61 that gave me the job. It reminds me of a line from the 1939 movie A Star is Born when Vicky Lester goes to the casting office and the secretary says, “Do you know what your chances are? One in 100 million.” Then Vicky replies, “But maybe, I’m that ‘one’.” For this to work, you need to learn to take criticism and use it to your advantage. You have to accept change and embrace it. This is a must or you will never, ever grow as a writer. Not everyone who criticizes will be right, but you are smart enough to know what you can use and what you should lose.
8. Believe in yourself and your work. This is the most important thing I can tell you. Again, I do not have an agent or a contract, but I know I can do this, and if I believe in myself and I have the above items covered, it’s just a matter of time.
You can do this too, so go to your corner and come out fighting.