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The REAL steps to getting published

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.

Happy hunting!


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The JSB Effect

I know many of you have heard me talk about  James Scott Bell (JSB); either on my other blog ItsKidlitKnight, or on my blogtalk radio show, SelfPublishIt!

But I can’t really help it. The day I went into the Barnes and Noble looking for books on becoming a better writer, his was the first one I bought. Plot & Structure is not his only book, though. You can find all of them on writersdigestshop.com. But this particular book has so many good lessons, I consider it my go-to text. Granted, I am a new fiction writer and still have not incorporated all the things he espouses, but I will in time. This particular post; however, is about one thing I do try hard to incorporate: the notion of knowing where you are going in your story.

I often reference Mr. Bell’s approach, which uses ‘doorways of no return’ to indicate when a character is moving further into his conflict and that has helped me to shape my story before I even write it. Bell says the protagonist must be shaken out of her routine and forced into action, and this needs to happen fairly early in the book; about 1/3 of the way in. Some say 1/4 and others don’t indicate when, but I like the idea of the third because it gives me time to introduce the character, set the stage for her issue, and show her normal world. Once that is accomplished I am ready to push her out of her comfort zone! She has to act — usually due to some external force since she is reluctant to move forward, for whatever reason. Then the fun begins! I have time in the middle to create a more detailed world and all its complications that can prevent the protagonist from reaching her goal. She has to have obstacles, the stakes have to increase, and these can be either internal or external things to overcome. The last third begins when she goes through the last door. At this stage there is no turning back. We are headed to the final showdown and the resolution (or not).

Of course, I won’t go into all the details here, but Mr. Bell’s book explains in detail all the things she needs to face before she can reach her goal. It’s an excellent guide with examples so that you can actually see how it’s done.

Well, I’d say more but I have to run to my novel-in-progress class. But don’t hesitate! If you need writing resources, JSB’s book is the first place I’d look.

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Characters v. Stories

Everyone who reads has certain pleasure points when it comes to a good book. Some like to curl up with a romance novel while in their stocking feet holding a big box of tissues. Others like to sit out on the screened-in porch with a tall glass of ice tea and a good mystery novel. But what is it about that book that the person loves? Is it the story or the characters? Maybe it’s both. But for me, it matters not the genre I choose but whether i can visualize the characters. I don’t mean see them as in what they look like or what they wear. I don’t need those details because I am going to fill them in with my own image. What I want is for them to be a near to real as possible so I can like them, laugh at them, and even scold them! I LOVE characters.

So that is a big goal of mine as I write for kids and teens. I want to build characters that people just want to follow and get to know, regardless of the storyline. Of course that has to be good, but when I think of shows, movies and books that I’ve liked, it always comes down to the character. When I was a child and watched Bette Davis on our black and white TV, it didn’t matter what the story was about. I was there for HER. Same today. I love the Madagascar movies (which are not for kids in my opinion) not for the plot but for the characters — especially how they interact with each other. I’d watch those animated animals no matter what they did or where they did it. They have great personalities and that is what makes me watch. As many know, Bette Davis was larger than life on the screen — the way she walked and talked. Her attitude about things. I have to admit as an adult I’ve purchased all her DVDs on TCM and anywhere else I could find them.

Another character that I would read no matter what is Lamar in Crystal Allen’s MG book. “How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba Sized Trophy.” From the very first page that kid is hilarious. And he thinks he’s so cool. I could not put the book down. He had a unique voice that carried the story and would have whether he was a bowler (and he was believe it or not) or a brigadier general.

I truly believe that with well-developed characters, books can be so much better. I am still learning how to make mine sing so that when anyone reads about them, they want to know them too.

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Still Writing After Work

Jeepers! It’s been over a year since I posted here so I doubt this even gets read! LOL. Well, to catch everyone up, I won the 2013 African American Literary Award for best cookbook in September. Yes that was awesome. After that, I completed my first book for middle grade readers called Halle Harris & The Truth Seekers. It is in second draft with the goal of seeking an agent for it sometime in the next year (I hope). I also found a critique group and am taking a novel-in-progress course with author Zoe Fishman. 

Well now. What has been going on with you? 🙂

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Lessons from SWA

Just left the Southeastern Writers Conference on St. Simon’s Island. As is the custom at such events, there was the usual advice: don’t think you are going to get rich writing, and write what you love, blah, blah, blah. But what I really want to share is the important stuff that came out of this one.

First, children’s book author Lola Shaefer shared her 25 questions to ask your characters. This helped us to really think about who they are through a personal interview. Those questions were things like what is the character’s favorite color, does she have siblings, what does he fear, etc. It really helped me think critically about who I am writing about.

Then suspense author Michael Wallace told us 9 ways to fix a scene that is not working, first ask:

1. Does the character have a goal for that scene?
2. Is the main or sub character passive?
3. Can someone who is passive pick up more of the load?
4. Is there strong enough opposition to the goal?
5. Make a character act on faulty information (dramatic irony). Reader knows something character does not.
6. Raise the stakes in the scene. Protagonist faces an obstacle that prevents her from getting closer to the goal.
7. Try to mix up your characters who may not get along with each other.
8. Add a ticking clock; a deadline for accomplishing the task.
9. Things get worse but not because of a No answer. In other words, instead of the attempt failing, let it work but let the result be different than the character expected.

Finally, historical fiction author David L. Robbins showed us the 5 levels of POV, which was extremely helpful in turning a ho-hum sentence into one that delivers. He uses the example sentence written with 5 different approaches:

1. Action – John ran across the street.
2. Internal – John could not wait to get across the street.
3. Intent – John hurried across the street.
4. Voice – John scooted across the street. (as is typical for his personality)
5. Thought – John thinks, ‘I’ve got to get across this darn street.’

The higher the number, the deeper the POV. With each level you are moving from what the camera sees (Level 1), to things only the protagonist knows, thinks, or remembers (Levels 3-5). He suggests you number your own work to see where your sentences fall among the levels.

Robbins also emphasized the need to not just ‘kill your darlings’ but to never give them life in the first place. Essentially, he advised that we keep the non-cooks out of the kitchen: if they do not play a role in moving the story forward, they should not be there taking up space.

The conference goes on for a few more days, but my husband and I had to get back. Even though I only got one day in, it was worth the trip. I intend to start applying all the tips I received as soon as we start the ride home.