Writer's ChecklistThe Aspiring Writer's Checklist

(or: Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Writing)

by Rowena Cory Daniells

First of all, why write?

Few writers actually make a living from their writing. In fact many writers I've met make more money from things associated with writing like literary festivals, lecturing and workshops.

Who does make a living from writing?

The top sellers whose names are house hold words. What about Australians? Well there's, Bryce Courtney and there's ... Bryce Courtney. No, seriously, there are writers making a living in Australia. The average romance writer who is selling regularly to Mills & Boon is making a good wage. The top sellers for Harlequin Mills and Boon are earning very good money. Some of the children's writers would be doing well, Gary Crew, Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman.

But, if you start out wanting to write because you think you're going to make as much money as Stephen King you're in for a shock.

Writing is intrinsically satisfying. I don't have to make myself sit down and write. I have to make myself hang out the washing, cook dinner and do the shopping. If you enjoy what you are writing, you are a writer whether you ever get published or not. Of course getting paid to do something you love is just about as good as it gets. An old Chinese philosopher said the person who works at something they love, never works another day in their life.

Okay, so you love writing, you've decided it is more than just a hobby for you. You want to write and sell your stories/novels. Here's a handy-dandy check list to see if you're taking all the steps towards publication.

1. Take your writing seriously, but not too seriously!

Think of yourself as a writer. If you don't, no one else will. Give yourself permission to buy that book on plotting, attend that workshop or go to that conference. Take the time to learn your craft. Sometimes this is hard when members of your household, husband/flat mates, children, regard your writing as a hobby. Why should they give you time alone to write? Why shouldn't you be on tap all the time to answer their questions?

Before you make your first sale it's very hard for anyone closely related to you to take your writing seriously. After all, authors are those mythical people who inhabit a higher plane than us. Rubbish.

Watch your friends' expressions change the day you receive your first acceptance and cheque; the day they see your story in print. (In a way it is easier to sell short stories than novels when you first start writing. There is less time involved in writing a short story and more chance of a sale. A few short story sales or places in competitions is a good recommendation when you submit your novel or approach an agent. The publisher's reader will begin your manuscript with a more positive expectation).

So take your writing seriously, invest time and money as well as yourself.

2. Research and learn.

Subscribe to your state writer's centre. Join a specialist writing group like Romance Writers of Australia or a Crime Writer's Group, or the VISION writer's group (science fiction, fantasy and horror), or a children's writers group.

Associate with people who write in the same genre and critique each other's work. In a mixed-genre group like this find someone who reads in the genre you want to write in. Ask them to critique your work, while you critique the work of someone else in an area you read.

Join on-line writing groups and e-lists, buy books in the genre you want to write and read widely because input must exceed output. You need to do your market research and all costs can be written off against your earnings (once you are earning). This includes the subscription to your writer's centre, the cost of petrol/public transport to meetings and conference, and any workshop costs.

3. Set aside a writing place that is yours alone.

Preferably this room should have a door you can close to keep out the noise of day to day living. Make this spot your own, put your books around you, your guideline files for markets etc, all within easy reach. Make this spot a haven where you feel welcome.

4. Make time to write.

Set aside a particular time each day which will be your writing time. Sit at your desk and, even if you aren't working on a project, put a few ideas down on the computer, (make a few longhand notes if you prefer this method), check over your markets, or visit a professional website such as RWAmerica, or SF Writers of America.

If you are working on a project and find it hard to get back into it after interruptions, use triggers to get started. One writer I know downloads all her email and responds. This gets her writing and then she moves onto her novel. Personally, I flick back several pages and re-read the last part I wrote. Naturally I can't keep my fingers off it and I begin editing. In no time at all I'm onto a fresh page but instead of it being daunting, the flow is there and I just sail along.

5. Get organized and do your Market Research

Subscribe to the Australian Writers Market Place. http://www.awmonline.com.au/Home.aspx From this you will get up to date information on publishers, magazines, writers' groups, agents and more.

Buy yourself a portable filing system (or use the kids' old school folders). File all your market information in either hard copy of on computer. If you think of yourself as a writer you'll start noticing things -- a story which appeals to you in a magazine. Take a note of the editor's name, estimate the word length and write down the magazine's address.

If you want to write articles for magazines, all the magazines you buy for research are tax deductible (once you are earning). Look at what various magazines are publishing. Can you come up with articles they might find interesting?

You have to know your market. If you're writing novels look at what is being published and winning awards. Read them, research the market.

Maybe you could write something like that. Take a note of the magazine's fiction editor and address or the book's publisher. Every time you come across a magazine or publisher, file the address, download or bookmark the submission guidelines. You never know when a story/article idea might hit you and having a market on file is a really good motivator to get you working.

6. Keep track of submissions.

When you submit somewhere keep track of it either on your computer or on hard copy. Get an empty book.

It doesn't have to be fancy; one of the kid's old school books will do. Rule four columns. When you send a story out, write the title in the first column, the market in the second, the date in the third and then the date when you get a reply. This will give you response times on markets and help you keep track of where stories are.

When a story sells, give yourself a big tick and cross the title out. It is very satisfying to flick back through your book and see how many stories have sold. Of course there will be pages with no sales, but hang in there. Writers serve an apprenticeship. (They say 10 years). It takes time to learn your craft and learn the markets.

7. Learn to love rejection!

(Don't laugh!) Keep those rejections on file with your market info. Unless you fluke onto a sale right away you'll start with rejections. The basic kind are standard slips. The next level of rejection is a scribbled note on a standard slip. Eg. Not a bad idea, but not what we're after. The next level up is a personal reply. Eg. Liked your writing style, but I bought a story very similar to this last month. Keep trying. This is an excellent rejection. Pat yourself on the back. It means that your story is saleable, or nearly so.


8. Learn from your Rejections.

Whenever a rejection comes back with an editorial comment on your story you've done well. The editor liked your work enough to comment. Editors are busy people. He or she has done you a favour. Learn from their comments. Take another read through your story bearing in mind what they said. Can the story be improved? Sure it can. Do a rewrite and find another market. Your stories/novels won't sell sitting on a file on your computer!

9. Send your work out.

Keep submitting. Some markets will take email submissions. This is great, it saves postage and wasted paper. If the editor wants hard copy, you'll need to send return postage. I found the cost of return postage from overseas prohibitive. So, if I submit overseas, I send one international reply coupon (IRC -- $2 from post office), and a self-addressed envelope (SAE), and I tell the editor to discard the story if they don't want it. It is cheaper to rewrite and print up a fresh copy. After all publishers often hold onto a novel for 6 to 12 months, by that time your writing has improved and you'll want to rewrite your book.

10. Presentation of manuscripts.

Present yourself and your work professionally; fresh, crisp manuscripts.

Standard submission rules:

  • A4 paper (letter size if you live in the USA)
  • 12 point courier font (for ease of word counts, all characters are the same size. 20 pages -- 5,000 words)
  • 2.5cm margins all around
  • Indented paragraphs and dialogue
  • Anything that should be in italics, underline
  • Title page -- title, word count, genre, and your name in centre. Your contact details in bottom left hand corner
  • First page of ms -- start half way down with title, word count, genre and your name. Header should contain your name, page number and title
  • on't staple, don't bind. For a short story use a paper clip, for a novel, place it between two sheets of cardboard and put elastic bands around it
  • NEVER FORGET return envelope and postage

11. Use a professional approach.

Design your own letterhead on your computer. Create it as a piece of stationery and keep it there on file to use whenever you want to write a letter. Being naturally lazy, I have created a manuscript format in my stationery file. It saves setting margins and doing headers each time I want to write a story. I also have a standard title page in my stationary file. This saves writing my name and address every time I submit a manuscript. There are several programs for writers to help them organize their books. Ask around. See what other writers recommend.

Because editors want to know your background when you submit it is customary to enclose a CV of your published work. Update it whenever you sell something and print it to go off with each submission.

12. Apply for grants.

There are both state and national grants, which have many subdivisions. The grant bodies will give you advice over the phone and they will send you a booklet on how to apply. Also, the Australia Council send someone from the Literature Board to each state so that they can advice people in person. You can make an appointment to see them.

Consider applying for Professional Development grant to help you get to a workshop or conference, especially if you are a regional writer.
Then there are grants specific for writers to help the complete a project. The details are available on-line.

13. File all information.

Either keep a hard copy file or create a file on your computer for your submission letters, create a folder for each market and save all correspondence to that folder. Create separate folders for all your stories/novels in every sub genre you try out. It makes it so much easier to find that gem later.

14. Save all your work.

Back up all stories and put the back-up somewhere safe. I know writers who carry copies of their work-in-progress around with them, for fear someone will break into their home and steal their computer. I have a fear that my house will burn down, destroying the years of work I have put into my books.

The ideal way to preserve your work is to save two sets of back-ups, one to hide somewhere in your house so that if your computer is stolen you still have your files and one to give to a trusted friend/family member to hide in their house. Am I paranoid? No. Think of the hours of work you have lavished on your manuscripts. Could your rewrite them from memory?

15. Set goals, but be flexible.

Set yourself writing goals but remember Life happens, give yourself room to miss a goal. When you finish a story and send it out, give yourself a mental pat on the back.

Set short term goals -- Today/this week/this month I will write the outline of my novel, or I will finish that synopsis.

Set mid term goals -- by the end of the month, or this quarter, or this year, I will finish this short story and send it off. I will finish the first draft of my novel.

Set long term goals -- Within one year I will polish my novel, get it read by a critique service, polish it again and send it out.

Have DREAM GOALS -- Five years from now I want to have sold my first novel length fiction, my first children's book.

Be flexible in what you write. Try out sub genres or try a totally different genre if an idea comes.

If you get an idea for an article and you've never written one, study the way articles are written in the magazine you plan to approach. Find out how the editor likes you to submit, what length they want. Do they need an outline of the proposed article or the whole article? Are they offering you a firm contract or do they expect you to do it on spec?

16. Have a Career Plan.

Some multi published writers believe it is better to stick to one genre and make a name in that to create reader following. Keep this in mind because a publisher will see you as a marketable commodity. If you leap around too much they won't be as pleased as they would if they could slot you into a genre and publicise you.

Maybe you write so much that one publisher doesn't want all you write, or the books you write in other genres. Consider using a pseudonym for the other genres.

Part of your career plan could be how to get that first novel sale. It is hard to get your work read by a publisher unless you've been published. This creates a catch 22 situation. Agented work will get read sooner and be more favourably approached but how can you get an agent without publication credits?

I've spoken to many published writers and discovered a lot of them entered competitions. If you win or place in the competition you can mention this in your submissions. You might also get noticed by an editor and have an 'in' for further submissions. Romance Writers of Australia run competitions designed to place your winning entry in front of an editor. They all run Pitching Sessions at their national conference. Speculative Fiction Conventions have begun offering the chance to pitch at their conventions.

17. Do you need a pseudonym?

Ask Mercedes Lackey, an American SF/F writer. She has been stalked by an over eager fan. You're probably thinking, I wish I had her problems. But look at it in another way. For reader recognition you want to publish under one name and stick to it for that genre. Many published authors write under several names in different genres.

If you are writing something controversial, consider your family. Do you want to end up like Salmon Rushdie?

Give your pseudonym some thought because people will address you by a name that isn't yours. You could use your first name with different last names. Or you could use the one surname and with different first names (or just the initials) so that readers can trace your books in different genres.

18. Keep a file of ideas.

Most writers have more ideas than they will ever be able to write. If you jam up on a story don't beat your head against a brick wall, change track, write something different. While you're mowing the yard or driving somewhere, you'll get a break through on that story and come to it refreshed. Even if you don't, it will always be there on file.

19. When you sell share the good news!
It is very important to tell everyone. Your writing friends will be delighted for you and for themselves, because it will confirm their belief that if it can happen to you, it can happen to them. Your friends and family will be delighted because they know a real 'author'!

And when you get your printed story, put it somewhere near your work area. When ever you get a rejection, look up and remind yourself that you have been published and you will sell again.

20. Be ready to promote your work.

Once you do sell you'll find publishers expect things like publicity photos and blurbs. I was so stumped when I had to write my first self promotional blurb I jammed up. Now I can dash off something funny suitable for kids or something suitable for adults.

You'll need a web page and blog. These are easy to set up. Before you are published do your research. Read other writers' blogs and research their web pages to work out what you want to have on yours.

21. Write!

You heard me, get in there and write. If your big break comes and an editor says, 'Yes, I want to see that novel.' Have it ready. Have the synopsis ready. Have an idea for a sequel if that is appropriate.

Don't worry about getting your writing perfect. Get the story down on screen/paper. You can always come back and polish later.
The other temptation for new writers is to send off that manuscript as soon as they've finished. Don't!

This is hard to hold back, but take a deep breath. Put your novel away for three months minimum. Read in the genre, do workshops, start your next novel. When you take that first novel out to reread you will be amazed by how much work it needs. This is good. It means you are learning. Now you can rewrite it.

If you can bring yourself to put it away again wait another three months and do the same. As long as you keep learning you can keep improving. Of course there comes a time when you must send out your work. It will never sell sitting in the bottom drawer or filed on your computer. Mind you it will never be rejected either, but we've dealt with rejection.

22. Network!

Keep in contact with other writers, share market information, support each other through rejection as well as acceptance. Follow Blogs, join writing groups as well as your state Writers Centre.

Make contacts who can keep you in touch with what's happening around Australia and overseas. When you hear about an anthology or a new line opening, have stories/books on file ready to submit, ideas ready to be polished into three chapter proposals. Strike quickly and follow up all positive interest.

Don't sit back waiting for people to come to you. When I heard about the original 'Dreaming DownUnder' anthology edited by Jack Dann, it was an 'invitation only' anthology. But I wrote to Jack telling him about my sales and asked if he'd like to see a story. I sold to his anthology on the second try. The anthology went on to win Best World Fantasy. Fortune favours the brave. After all the worst the editor can do is say no!

23. Believe in yourself!

Sure rejections hurt and there will be days when you doubt yourself but if you give up you will never be published.

Remember once your writing reaches a certain standard it is only a matter of time. There is a percentage of luck involved in getting published.

You have to have the Three Rs working for you. You have to hit the Right editor with the Right story at the Right time to sell and this won't happen if you aren't submitting.

So keep writing and keep sending those stories out!

© Rowena Cory Daniells


The Busy Writer's One-Hour Plot

The Busy Writer's One-Hour Character

Book of Checklists

The Busy Writer's Self-Editing Toolbox

The Busy Writer's KickStart Program

Write a Book Fast