I hate that quote. It grates my nerves every time I hear it. You wanna know why?
Flying to the moon takes three days. The nearest star to our planet - Alpha Centauri - is four light years away. If you shoot for the moon, there's zero chance of you making it to a star.
I've met writers who I feel shoot for the moon and expect to land among stars. People like that write one draft of a book, finish their query in an afternoon, send the query to a hundred agents, and are shocked when no one is interested.
I've even met writers who hardly read books. That's like an anorexic trying to be a chef. A flight instructor who's afraid of heights. A computer technician who's Amish. It's ridiculous.
I've said this before in what was a pretty brutal post (I wonder if I was angry that day?), but I'll say it again; a hobby will not make you rich and famous. You can't churn out a first draft and expect to make it on a bestseller list. If you want to make writing a career, you have to put forth a career's worth of effort.
So what can you do to reach the stars? Here's a list of how a successful writing career seems to work, from what I've seen (obviously, I'm still trying to figure it out):
- Your first draft will never be good enough for an agent to see. End of discussion. I'm sure it's fabulous and you have ever right to beam with pride - after all, you finished a book! - but no one, not even the pros, publishes their first draft.
- Your second draft won't be good enough, and your third probably won't be either. I've always believed you can make as many mistakes in a book as there are words (around 85,000 - 100,000). If I had one piece of advice for writers, it's revise, revise, revise.
- You cannot revise your book enough without help. Once you've made your book as good as it can be, the next step is critique groups and beta readers. They see your book objectively, and they're a wealth of knowledge. It takes a village to raise a child; it takes about that many to create and publish a book.
- Read your genre. This will teach you methods of writing, what works and what doesn't, and what people like. The more successful books you read, the more you will be able to apply to your own writing. Reading bad books in your genre is helpful too because it powerfully demonstrates what not to do.
- Study the industry. You wouldn't expect someone to become a CEO straight out of college, would you? They have to be interns, get entry level jobs, build connections, and they have to learn, learn, learn. Aspiring authors are basically interns (unpaid and unappreciated labor for the sake of experience). Writing is more than an art; it's a business, and you have to learn how the business works.
- Spend weeks on your query letter. A year and a half ago, I would have said this advice is stupid. Why on earth would it take more than an hour to write one page about a book? I did it in high school all the time. I didn't realize how complicated a query can be until mine was unanimously rejected by agents and ripped apart in writing forums. It's important to study the craft of writing a query.
- Don't send your query to every agent in Writer's Market. This might sound like a good idea because if every agent in the world has seen your query, you can't miss out on the right one. I've learned that I'm supposed to know who the right agents are before submitting my query to a handful of them, and then if they reject me, I need to revise and send to a handful more. This sounds dumber than step 6. Can't you just do it right the first time? While I've always been skeptical of this step, I've heard this from enough agents and authors to take their advice.
- Repeat. If you're anything like me, you'll have to do these steps more than once.
Feeling overwhelmed yet? I read an article on Distraction 99 (can't remember which) where an author said if she knew how much work getting published would take before she started, she never would have done it. So if this list makes you want to quit, forget I said anything. Take things one step at a time.
In closing, I want to share some advice from Jane Friedman that stuck with me:
- Be bold once it's clear what you want
- Be patient
- Be persistent
- Don't be afraid to fail. It's what you do after that counts