Words for Writers: Getting Started

Today I’m going to answer some questions. I find that I get these questions asked of me frequently, and they all sort of go together, so I figured I ought to address them all in one blog post.


1)      How did you become a writer?


I began writing fanfic when I was about eleven. Eventually started to write original stories. I did NaNoWriMo for a few years before I produced a manuscript that I thought was worth starting to shop around. My story at this point is quite traditional – I finished and polished the manuscript, wrote a query letter and beta’d/edited/polished it just as much as the novel. Then I made an Excel file of all the agents and publishers that accepted unsolicited submissions that I thought I would like to work with. Then I began querying them, one by one. As each rejection letter came back, I revised my query and the manuscript based on the advice I received from them (if any).


However, at the same time, I was networking. I went to book launches, made friends with local authors, and went to a lot of science fiction conventions. At one such convention, a literary SF/F con in Toronto, I brought copies of my pitch and query letter, just in case. Good thing I did, because I met the woman who eventually became to acquiring editor at a room party. We got to talking, she asked about my book, I was able to tell her about it and show her the pitch. (Of course, I didn’t know she was an editor when I did so or I might have been very nervous!)


She asked for me to send her the full, which I did, and after I worked on some revisions she requested, she asked to sign the book to Dragon Moon Press. I agreed, and in April 2011 the book came out.


In the end, the querying wasn’t what got me the contract. However, the querying process helped me improve my pitch and my query letter, so it was professional and persuasive when DMP saw it.


So, yes, I was in the right place at the right time, and I met the right person. But when that moment was gifted to me, I was fully prepared for it. The book was finished, I’d written my query letters, my one-page synopsis, some marketing ideas, my bio, and a pitch. I had a website, some short stories published, and a sense of what kind of writer I wanted to be.


In short, when opportunity knocked, I was able to open the door with my trousers up.


2)      Do you have any advice on how I can become a writer?


Write. A lot.

Read. A lot.

Show your writing to people. A lot.

Hone your craft. A lot.

Write more. A lot.


(I wrote, like, a bazillion words of fanfic from the age of 11 to 28, and posted most of it online. Trust me, there is no trial-by-fire like the anonymous commenters on one’s ficblog/ff.n. I began my first original novel at 19. My first novel took 8 years to complete. The second took one and I haven’t finished editing it yet. My third took about 6 months to write and 3 years to edit and sell. I was doing most of this simultaneously, along with a BA and then an MA.)


3)      Do you work with a beta reading group/writers circle/critique partner?




After I’ve finished a new manuscript, I  give it about a week to cool off. Then I do an extensive re-read and polish. Then I send the completed manuscript to at least three or four people and I collate their feedback when it comes. Once I’ve read and organized all of their feedback – paying special attention to where their comments overlap – I begin draft 2.  I also send my books to my Mum, but that’s because she’s a ruthless typo-hunter. And if something isn’t working, Mum says so. She doesn’t “that’s nice dear” me, and I love her to bits for it.


4)      Can I be in your beta reading group/writers circle/critique partner?


Sorry, but no. I’ve worked hard to find a group of people with whom I can work and on whom I can rely (and whose work I enjoy helping them polish and edit). I’m afraid I’m just not seeking to expand the group. I’ve found a balance that works for me; it’s up to you to find something that works for you.


5)      How do I find a beta reading group/writers circle/critique partner?


I found my beta group through a few avenues – when I was on the JET Programme in Japan, those of us English Speakers who were doing NaNoWriMo in my province got together once a week and we turned into a critique group after NaNo was over. I’ve become critique partners with some of my publisher-siblings, and also with some friends I made back when I was still writing fanfic, and with people I jelled with in my university playwriting and short story classes. I collected my circle quite organically.


If you want to build your own circle, check out your local NaNoWriMo regional chat rooms or forums; put an ad in the student newspaper or newsletter; talk to the fanficcers in your circle; start or join a Facebook group; join MSFV’s Critique Partner Speed Dating; attend local book launches and network with other new writers in attendance; check out the notice boards in the local book store or talk to the owner about if they know some authors looking for an addition to their group; join a local writing group (check out the activity boards at your local rec centre, library, community hall, etc.); join a continuing education writing class; take a writing class in university; go to local literary conventions and hang out in the bar/café to talk with other writers; attend critique events or matchups at conventions; go to local geek pub nights or trivia nights, or other such meet-ups and talk to other writers; apply to and attend writers retreats.


In short – be proactive and network. Eventually you’ll find the people you mesh with!


Also, don’t be disheartened if you agree to work with someone and you find you can’t. Finding a great critique partner is like finding your spouse – sometimes you have to edit with some frogs before you find your prince(ess). Just part ways amiably and burn no bridges, and things should be fine.


6)      Can you read my story and give me feedback?


Again, sadly no. I used to be able to say yes, but I’m afraid the constraints and demands on my writing time have grown such that I cannot take on extra responsibilities. I wish I could, but if I have to choose between getting my work done and reading yours, I have to work on mine. I hope you find a great critique partner of your own to work with!


7)      How do I get published?


When people ask this, they are usually really asking for me to share the Secret Magic Trick of Becoming a Published Author.


I’m afraid there isn’t a Secret Magic Trick of Becoming a Published Author.


There is one way and one way only to Become a Published Author, and it is this:


  • Write a book.
  • Polish the ever loving crap out of it
  • Send it out to beta readers / critique partners and get their advice.
  • Edit your book based on said advice.
  • Polish the ever loving crap out of it
  • Send it back out to your betas/critique partners.
  • Edit your book based on said advice.
  • Polish the ever loving crap out of it.
  • Write an incredible query letter. Polish the ever loving crap out of it.
  • Decide if you want to go the a)big-pub route, the b)small-pub route, or the c)self-pub route.
    • If A:
      • Research agents in writing guides and on sites like DuoTrope, Absolute Write, or by figuring out the agents of authors that you admite/whose work resembles yours.
      • Very politely and very professionally query said agents based on their individual and specific submission guidelines.
      • Make any revisions and polishes they recommend in their rejection letters/requests for revisions.
      • Continue with the above until one of them agrees to represent you, or until you’ve run out of options and nobody has agreed to represent you or your manuscript
      • Start a new manuscript and start from point 1.
  • If B:
    • Research small press publishers in published writing guides, on sites like DuoTrope, Absolute Write, etc. or by figuring out the publishers of authors that you admire/whose work resembles yours.
    • Very politely and very professionally query said publishers based on their individual and specific submission guidelines.
    • Make any revisions and polishes they recommend in their rejection letters/requests for revisions.
    • Continue with the above until one of them agrees to publish your manuscript, or until you’ve run out of options and nobody has agreed to take manuscript
    • Start a new manuscript and start from point 1.

If C:

  • Research self-pub options and companies and go with the one that you feel is safest, most reliable, and most suitable for your needs.
  • Work with an excellent and professional editor to polish the manuscript again; preferably someone with a good CV. Be prepared to pay for this. It’s totally worth it.
  • Design or hire a designer to do your marketing/cover/etc.


  • Work with your acquiring editor / professionally hired editor to get the book ready for the typesetter/publication.
  • Sign and adhere to your contract.
  • Do all the stuff you need to do for marketing, wait an agonizing bunch of time for the book’s release date.
  • Ta da! Published!*


*Expect this to be a 2-20 year process.


Okay, so I apologize for being a bit blunt and glib there, but that’s really the truth of it. You write a great book, you find someone to publish it, and it gets published. There’s no secret, no back door, no short cut. You have to write a great book and someone has to agree to publish it, or you choose to publish it yourself. Either is fine – it’s just what you choose.


And if the book you write isn’t great, then you write a new book, start all over again, and see if people want that one.  And if that one doesn’t sell, you do it again.


This is a process that you might have to do over and over until something sticks – like an Olympic diver learning how to enter the water without a splash, it takes dozens, perhaps hundreds of attempts to get it right.


Also – bribing agents/publishers will not work. If anything, sending a box of cookies with your manuscript will just make the agent/publisher wig out and think you’re a weirdo, or a pain in the arse who can’t read the query submission rules and therefore is not worth working with. Gifts are not appropriate until such a time that you HAVE a relationship with that agent/publisher/editor. Neither are extras. Neither are bribes. Neither is begging for special compensation or special treatment. Neither is ignoring the submission/query guidelines.


YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL. If your book isn’t good enough to stand on its own merit, then it’s not good enough to publish. Period.


If it helps: Triptych was the third book I’d written. The first two I shopped a little bit and then put in the morgue when it was clear they weren’t going to get any bites and that I wasn’t on the level of writing that I wanted to be at yet. Triptych accumulated thirty-four rejections (with very few requests to read the full manuscript) before Dragon Moon Press decided to read it. Even then it was rejected conditionally; there were lots of edits the editor wanted me to do before I was to resubmit. So, even my first victory wasn’t effortless or like some magical fairy tale. It took lots of hard work and sixty-four drafts before the book was ready to be seen by the public. And I wouldn’t trade in a second of it.


I hope this blog post has been helpful for you, and not too harsh!



For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Getting Started

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