Yes and no.
I wrote a lot of short stories when I was young, and even sent a few in (to
I was never serious about writing in college. I focused most of my creative
energy on music, and was lead singer in a folk rock band, if you can believe it.
After college, I became a teacher, and was quite happy with the idea of doing
that the rest of my life. However, I read a lot of mystery books in my spare
time, and when my wife and I moved to San Francisco, I started missing Texas.
I decided, on a lark, that I would try writing a standard hard-boiled private
eye novel set in my hometown of San Antonio. Ten months later, BIG RED TEQUILA
The strange thing is, I had a feeling that BIG RED TEQUILA was going to get
published. It just felt different than anything else I'd ever written, because
the novel had practically forced me to write it. The idea took me by the
throat and wouldn't let me go until the manuscript was done.
I tell aspiring writers that you have to find what you MUST write. When you
find it, you will know, because the subject matter won't let you go. It's not
enough to write simply because you think it would be neat to be published. You
have to be compelled to write. If you're not, nothing else that you do matters.
For me, that meant getting away from home for a while and learning to
appreciate what I knew, before I could follow the old axiom, "Write about
what you know."
The time I spent waiting to get published was mercifully brief compared to
some. I'll be the first to admit I was lucky. However, the process I went
through was the same as it is for many writers.
Once I had a completed manuscript for BIG RED TEQUILA, I queried agents. Many said no. One said
yes. The only advantage I had at this stage was that a Bay Area creative writing
teacher/author had done a line edit for me. She really helped me clean up the
final draft, and then let me use her name in my query letter, "So-and-so,
author of _____, suggested I contact you." Any foot in the door is good.
Even if the agent doesn't know the author, she knows that someone in the
business has endorsed your work. For this reason, I do think it can be
helpful to pay someone for a line edit, if you have someone reputable in your
area. A good place to look for freelance editors would be writing institutes at
your local colleges.
Once I had an agent, she began shopping the manuscript around. Many
publishers said no, all for different reasons. Some loved the story and disliked
the characters. Some loved the characters and disliked the story. There didn't
seem to be any consensus. Finally, however, we got an offer from Bantam
Doubleday Dell, and the series was published.
I finished the manuscript of BIG RED TEQUILA just before my thirtieth birthday, June, 1994. It
was published in June of 1997. So from first query letter to pub date took three
years. About a year of that was after I'd signed the contract and Bantam was
preparing the book for publication.
I started writing seriously when I was in eighth grade. I had an English
teacher who encouraged me to submit my work for publication.
I became a middle school English teacher largely because of the impact Mrs.
Pabst had on me all those years ago, and I loved having the chance to
encourage my own students to write the way I was encouraged. That's one of the
reasons I was not anxious to leave the classroom to pursue full-time writing.
It's helpful if a young writer can find a mentor who believes in his or her
talent. So don't be afraid to ask for help! Find a teacher you respect.
Correspond with authors. See if you can join a creative writing group in your community (as long as you find it supportive and helpful).
Secondly, read a lot! Read everything you can get your hands on. You will
learn the craft of writing by immersing yourself in the voices, styles, and
structures of writers who have gone before you. Don't be afraid that you'll start sounding like a particular writer you admire. That just means you need to read MORE, not less.
Thirdly, write every day! Keep a journal. Jot down interesting stories you
heard. Write descriptions of people you see. It doesn't really matter what you
write, but you must keep up practice. Writing is like a sport -- you only get
better if you practice. If you don't keep at it, the writing muscles atrophy.
Fourth: writer's block. Almost always, this happens because the writer doesn't plan out where he or she is going to write before starting the book. Make a road map! Outline where each chapter will go. It doesn't have to be very detailed, and you can always deviate, but if you plan ahead, you can minimize the time you spend staring at a blank screen.
Finally, don't get discouraged! Writing a book is always hard work. It's much easier to think of new ideas. You'll get to the middle of the manuscript and you'll think, "Oh, this is too hard. I think I'll start another book instead and that will be easier." DON'T! That new book won't be any easier. Soldier through and finish. Don't worry about mistakes on the first draft. Finish the manuscript and THEN go back and revise. When it's time to submit your work, remember that rejection is a part of writing, and it hurts.
The trick is to keep at it. Wallpaper your room with rejection notes, if you
want, but don't give up.
Taste is subjective, and opinions differ about what "good writing" looks like. Most of us have read a bestseller or two and wondered, "How did this thing get published?"
Nevertheless, I would argue that most work does not get published unless it demonstrates a certain level of technical competence. The grammar is correct. The prose is readable. I would further argue that most manuscripts are rejected because the writing is not technically competent. The manuscript never stands a chance because the writer simply doesn't know the craft of writing well enough.
If you write well, you have already set yourself apart from 99% of what agents and editors see every day.
Below are some notes on what I call "sentence level competence" -- the ability to craft prose at the most basic level. These tips reflect the most common problems I've observed in unpublished manuscripts.
Example: It was a sunny day. (the subject "it" is boring and vague.) Better: The sky was brilliant blue. (Here the subject is sky, which is what the sentence was supposed to be about.)
If you are writing a sentence about a guy named Fred, the subject in the sentence should be (surprise!) Fred.
Exercise: go through a page of prose and underline your own subjects. How many are abstract? How many of your sentences are truly focused?
Example: Can you help other writers who are writing books like me? (I got this question recently. I understand what the person is saying, but 'like me' follows the word 'books' so he is implying, without meaning to, that there are people producing books that look like him.) Better: Can you help other writers like me who are writing books?
Exercise: Color-code a page of your manuscript, making each phrase and clause a different color. Match up dependent clauses and phrases with their modifiers. Avoid getting your modifier too far away from the thing being modified.
C. Deft description
Choose your details carefully. A description should be vivid, but surgically precise. The detail must be given for a reason, and have a logical connection to the plot or advancement of character. Avoid long “grocery lists” of details. For a paragraph-length description, offer a uniting theme – an extended metaphor – to give the details cohesion.
Example: He was six feet tall, three hundred pounds, with brown hair, small brown eyes, a big nose and big fists. He wore jeans and a muscle shirt. He looked angry. (this is way too much description for the reader to keep track of, and it is offered as a random list)
Better: He looked like a rhino, ready to charge. (then you can pick a few details that reinforce the image of a rhino)
Exercise: Go through a chapter and delete all adjectives and adverbs. Read through, then add some back in sparingly. You may find you can do with less than before.
D. parallelism – clauses or phrases that are part of a list should be similar in structure. Unparallel constructions are awkward and difficult to read, even if the reader can’t put her finger on the exact problem.
Example: He likes dogs, hiking in the woods and reads books a lot. (Dogs is a single noun, hiking in the woods is a participial phrase, reads books a lot is a simple predicate. These are all totally different things. Make them the same, and the sentence will flow much better.)
Better: He likes walking his dog, hiking in the woods, and reading lots of books.
Exercise: Try constructing your descriptions in parallel units – absolutes, infinitives, adjectives.
Character development is paramount for me. I firmly believe that plot and character development must occur simultaneously. Plot cannot be left to chance. Neither can characters be automatons who carry out actions envisioned in the author's master plan. Below are some things I try to keep in mind when developing my characters:
Rick’s Top Five Tips on CHARACTER
5. Define a character first through action, second through dialogue and description, never through explanation.
A character should be primarily defined by the choices he makes, and the actions he takes. How does he respond to violence? How does he respond to love? Secondly, a character must be vividly but deftly describe through his speech, and through the initial view you give the reader (see #4 below). Never stop to explain who a character is when we can watch him in action and decide for ourselves.
4. Be impressionist rather than realistic.
Describe characters as Dickens did – with a single deft stroke. A laundry list of physical traits is realistic, but it is neither memorable nor compelling. A jarring metaphor for the character, or a focus on one mannerism or physical trait, can be very compelling. Example: She was a human tornado.
3. Do not be afraid to use real people as models, but do not be constricted by your models.
It is very natural to use parts of ourselves or the people we know when creating characters. Do not be afraid to do this because someone might get mad at you. At the same time, let your character develop. Do not force them to do what the real-life model would do. Characters seldom end up exactly like the real people they are based on.
2. The reader does not have to be told everything you know about the character.
It may be critically important to you that your character has blue eyes, or went to Texas A&M. But if these details have no part in the story, the reader will not care. Leave them in your subconscious. If you are having trouble figuring out a character, fill out a character profile, or do some journaling in that character’s voice.
1. Your character must act, not simply be acted upon.
We care about characters because we are interested in the choices they make. We want to boo the villain, cheer the hero, and cry with frustration when the tragic figure makes the wrong move. A character who does not act, but simply receives information and is acted upon by outside forces, is not a character who will compel the reader. Remember, plot is what the characters do next. If the characters do not create the plot, the plot is hollow.
Here's a character profile worksheet I sometimes fill out if I'm having trouble understanding a particular character I've created:
Age in story: _________
Hair color, length, style: ________________________________
Regional influences: _____________________________________
Accent: (include voice, style of speech, slang, signature phrases or words) _______________________________________________________________________
Marital status: _____________________________________
Scars or other notable physical attributes: _____________________________________________________________________
Handicaps: (emotional, physical, mental) ____________________________________________________________
Athletic? Inactive? Overall health? ___________________________________
Style of dress: _____________________________________________________________
Favorite colors: _____________________________________________
How does the character feel about his/her appearance? ____________________________________________________________
Relationship with parents: _____________________________________________________________
Memories about childhood: _______________________________________________________________________
Educational background: (street smart? Formal? Does he/she read?) _______________________________________________________________________
Work experience: _______________________________________________________________________
Where does the character live now? Describe home (emotional atmosphere as well as physical) ________________________________________________________________________
Neat or messy? _____________________________________
Sexual preferences/morals/activities: _____________________________________________________________
Women friends/men friends: ____________________________________________________________________
Enemies? Why? _____________________________________________________________________
Basic nature: ________________________________________________________
Personality traits (shy, outgoing, domineering, doormat, honest, kind, sense of humor):
Strongest trait: _____________________________________________
Weakest trait: _____________________________________________
What does the character fear? _____________________________________________________________
What is the character proud of? _____________________________________________________________
What is the character ashamed of? _____________________________________________________________
Outlook on life (optimistic, pessimistic, cynic, idealist) _____________________________________________________________
How does the character see himself/herself? ____________________________________________________________
How is the character seen by others? _____________________________________________________________
Do you like this person? Why or why not? ____________________________________________________________
Will readers like or dislike? __________________________________
Most important thing to know about this character: _____________________________________________________________
Present problem: ___________________________________________
How it will get worse: _____________________________________________________________
What is the character’s goal in the story? _____________________________________________________________
What traits will help/hurt the character in achieving this goal? _____________________________________________________________
What makes the character different from similar characters? _____________________________________________________________
Why will readers remember this character vividly? _____________________________________________________________
Dialogue is arguably the hardest thing to do well in narrative writing. Below are some points to consider:
Rick’s top five tips on DIALOGUE
5. No two characters should sound the same.
You should be able to open to any page, read a piece of dialogue, and know which character is speaking, simply from the voice. Give each character his or her own style by using dialect (but keep it light), favorite colloquialisms, or speech patterns.
4. Avoid authorial intrusion.
Leave your characters alone and let them talk. Avoid descriptors or padding when possible. Only insert tags when: a. you need to delineate the speakers, in which case do it as simply as possible, i.e. John said.; b. you want to deliberately slow down the pace to give a sense of scene, or convey unspoken information; c. you have a first person narrator who is filtering the dialogue through his or her thoughts.
3. Compress dialogue.
Dialogue often sounds more realistic if the sentences are compressed and abridged. Pick only the critical parts of the sentences and clip the rest. Try to cut anything that might be a throw-away line. Instead of: “Okay. That’s a good point. But there’s something I’ve been thinking. Do you think Bobby really went home last night? I don’t know,” it might be enough to say, “You think Bobby really went home?” This gets to the point without drowning in unneeded words.
2. Show only the dialogue needs to be shown.
Realistic dialogue is important, but don’t make it mundane. Zoom to the part of the conversation you want the readers to hear. Do not repeat information the reader already knows. When Character A must retell part of the story for the benefit of Character B, simply say, I caught him up on what had happened since yesterday. Fast-forward to the part that is the most interesting.
1. Use dialogue to display conflict, not impart information to the reader.
Too often, dialogue is used as a way to let the readers get information the author thinks they need. The speakers end up having a conversation with the audience rather than each other. This is called a “false triangle” problem, because the speakers are making the reader a third party to their conversation. In every dialogue, the speakers should have opposing agendas. They do not want the same thing out of the conversation. Their words should reveal their character, not just backstory.
How I craft plot has changed radically over the years. With BIG RED TEQUILA, I did very little plotting in advance. I simply began writing, then went back later and tied up all the loose ends, of which there were plenty. With each successive novel, I've done more outlining in advance. Strangely, this has made writing no easier -- it's only made the process harder in different ways.
My attitude about plot and how one develops effective pacing is evolving, but below are five points I stand by:
Rick’s top five tips on PLOT
5. Don’t write the parts the reader would skip anyway.
I'm paraphrasing the great Elmore Leonard here. Most readers, from time to time, have skipped over portions of a chapter to get to the “good stuff.” For instance, many readers will skip a long paragraph of description so they can find the next line of dialogue. One trick for keeping the reader’s interest is to zoom in on the content they want to see and leave out the rest. Writers, especially beginning writers, tend to over-explain.
4. Distinguish between mystery and confusion.
It is good to keep the reader guessing. It is bad to keep the reader confused. The key to successful plotting is giving the reader sufficient information to keep them interested and engaged, but not so much information that they no longer care about what will happen next. The plot should be built in layers of compelling questions – “What will he do?” “What is his secret?” “Why does she hate him so much?” The reader should always have at least one question in mind, and be dying to find out the answer.
3. Get going!
Beginning writers tend to believe that they must “set things up” before they get into the real meat of the novel. They want to introduce characters, history, and setting before they start on the central dilemma. Chapter one is often limp, because of this. Even worse, some writers are so hesitant to get to the point in chapter one that they put off the action even further by writing a prologue. The problem is, until we know the dilemma, we won’t care about the set-up. Get to the point! Often manuscripts are better if they start with chapter 2, as Lawrence Block once rightly pointed out.
2. Identify the moral dilemma driving the novel.
The successful novel will haunt a reader because it deals with some ethical or moral dilemma that makes the reader wonder what he or she would do in the protagonist’s place. Action may hold a reader for a chapter. A surface dilemma like a kidnapping or a romance may hold the reader for fifty pages or more, but only a moral dilemma will hold the reader for an entire novel.
1. The protagonist must exert influence to solve the problem, and the antagonist must exert influence to stop the solution.
The book must be about conscious choices, carried out in active terms. It must be about conflict. A book about random events happening to passive people will not be compelling. Coincidence is taboo – things can’t just happen. There must be a cause and effect.
For traditional publishing with a major publishing house, yes, the odds are long. Don't get discouraged, but it's best to go into the
submission process with your eyes open.
Some points to consider:
One agent recently told me she receives over 200 unsolicited manuscripts and
query letters on her desk every week. Can you imagine that she has time to
give all those submissions a carefully considered reading?
According to one survey of the publishing industry, 3 manuscripts out of
every 10,000 submitted are actually published. Of those, only 1 out of 10 will
actually turn a profit.
Depending on which survey you believe, the average salary for a published
writer is between $2000-$7000 a year. Most writers keep their day jobs. Very few hit the
bestseller lists, especially on their first time around. Yes, there are
exceptions, but people win the state lottery a lot more often. Write because you have to. Not because you expect to get rich!
The publishing world is changing a lot with electronic books. It is quite possible to publish your own book yourself, and sometimes people get noticed this way, but it is not really a shortcut to success. Most e-books sell fewer than 100 copies. Breakout successes do happen, but I would say the odds are about the same as breaking out through traditional publishing . . . not that great!
You can increase your chances of getting published with a major publisher if:
You write well. Most rejected manuscripts are nowhere near
publishable, because the writer does not have a solid command of the
You are businesslike. This can be hard to do when you are selling something
so near and dear to your heart -- more like a child than a product.
Nevertheless, agents and editors appreciate a polite, businesslike approach,
because they see it very rarely.
You are persistent. Many writers fail to get published because they get
discouraged and give up after a few rejections.
You open yourself to reasonable criticism. The key word is reasonable.
Find readers you trust and listen to them. Do not reject criticism out of hand.
However, you must believe in yourself, and trust your instincts as well.
Don't submit too soon. Make sure your manuscript is complete, and as good as
it can possibly be.
Target your submissions well. Make sure the agents you send your manuscript
to represent the sort of work you do. Check the WRITER'S MARKET or
LITERARY AGENTS GUIDE for information.
Assuming you want to go the traditional route and send your book to a big New York publishing house, rather than e-publishing on your own:
The Process of Getting Published
1. Make sure your manuscript is finished. No one will want to talk to
you otherwise. Anybody can write a great first chapter, or even a great fifty
pages. Very few people can actually finish a book.
2. Send query letters or emails to agents. Spend a day in the reference
section of your library, going through the LITERARY MARKETPLACE or similar book.
(You can also find this online.) Make a list of agents who seem to represent the kind of work you do. Draft a one
page query letter and submit it to a LOT of agents -- 10-20 for starters. Some agents prefer email queries. Other still prefer standard mail. Honor their preferences.
Your query letter should:
Introduce yourself, including any publishing experience or expertise that is
relevant to the subject matter of your book.
Explain what sort of book you have written.
Offer to send sample chapters and a plot synopsis.
If submitted via regular mail, enclose a SASE.
3. If asked, and ONLY if asked, send the agent sample chapters and a plot
synopsis. Usually they will ask to see the first three chapters, or the
first fifty pages. The plot synopsis can be short -- no more than a page. The
point of the plot synopsis is to give the agent a brief idea where you are going
with the plot, and whether your ending sounds solid.
4. If asked, and ONLY if asked, send the agent the whole manuscript. By this time,
months of waiting may have gone by, but if the agent likes the sample chapters,
they may ask to see the whole manuscript. Send it and be prepared to wait some
5. If the agent likes your work at this point, the agent will offer to
represent you. At this point, you have to decide whether or not the agent
sounds like the sort of person you can work with. Refer to the web site of the Association of Authors' Representatives for more information.
6. If you agree to let the agent represent you, the agent will then begin
submitting your manuscript to the publishers.
The short answer is 'yes,' if you can get one. Agents earn their commissions by getting you a
fair hearing with the right editors -- something that is almost impossible to
get on your own. They also advise you on contracts and sell your foreign
For more information on agents, I highly recommend visiting the Association for Authors' Representatives.
Yes, it is possible to get published without an agent, especially if you
target the small presses or go with electronic publishing. However, I think it is always preferable to get an agent if you