As you retire or approach retirement, you may find, as I did, a second career as an author appeals to you. I’ve made mistakes, learned, and discovered much on this 7-year journey of pursuing my dream of being a novelist. Spoiler alert: Don’t plan on making a huge sum of money. Authors often write dozens of books before they’re comfortable relying on income from book royalties.
Practice, as the old saying goes, makes perfect. In the case of writing, it may not bring perfection, but it will definitely increase your skills. Sometimes the hardest thing is getting started and staring at a blank page. Giving yourself the job of putting words on paper each day will refine your skills and exercise your imagination, along with providing you a draft—something to edit and improve. If you aren’t working on a project, search for writing prompts, write blog posts, pen an article for your local newspaper, or focus on a short story which is much less daunting than tackling a novel.
When you’re not writing, you should be reading. Select books in several genres and dissect them. Figure out what you like and what you don’t like, examine the structure and style of the book, and practice emulating those things that draw you into a story. Invest in a few books on the craft of writing to learn and get expert advice from experienced writers and editors in the field. Lists of resources for writers are available online and if you query several, you’ll find many overlapping recommendations. Check out the titles at your local library and purchase the ones that resonate with you.
Growing Great Characters from the Ground Up by Martha Engber – a terrific guide that is full of exercises and suggestions to help writers develop and craft memorable characters.
Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell – Explains the structure of a story and provides ideas for keeping your plot moving and troubleshooting problems.
You’re striving to write a book that rises above the noise of the nearly 1,000,000 books that are published each year. It’s not likely to be your first attempt. To be successful, your ideal reader must find your book, buy it, devour it, and tell others about it.
One of the smartest things I did when I was writing my first book was to attend a conference to learn more about the publishing industry, the craft of writing, and valuable lessons and advice from authors and agents. You can find plenty of information on how to write a book online, but nothing matches the energy and camaraderie, not to mention the instructional workshops and opportunities to ask your specific questions, at a gathering of writers, authors, agents, and publishers.
Many conferences offer pitching sessions, where you can practice pitching your book with experienced staff who will help you hone your message. You might want to meet with agents at a conference and you’ll need to have your pitch perfected if you hope to attract their interest. Typically, these meetings are ten to fifteen minutes and you have very little time to introduce your work and yourself, so you’ll need to be prepared.
Look for writing groups, critique groups, or other organizations that cater to authors near you. You can also find such groups online, which is what I did since I’m from a small town. Do your best to look for a group where leaders and members have actually published books since they will give you the best assessment and advice. Technology makes it easy to trade chapters with other writers and get their feedback. Prepare yourself for criticism. Depending on how the person communicates, it can be harsh. Be open to praise and faultfinding, but don’t change everything based on one person’s view. Get as much feedback as possible and be honest with yourself. If you hear the same criticism from multiple readers, chances are there’s a problem with your manuscript you need to address.
The author community is one of the most generous I’ve known. Most are gracious and willing to share their knowledge. Make an effort to meet other authors, in person and online. Follow successful authors and study how they connect with their readers. Reach out to them with questions, but be mindful of their time and be specific about your inquiries.
The traditional path usually requires an author to have an agent which is done via a query letter and synopsis of your book. Once you convince an agent to take on your project, she will pitch and shop your book to publishers with the goal of selling it. The agent will then take a percentage of your royalties as a commission.
In addition to the traditional publishing route, there are options when it comes to self-publishing. There are also many predatory companies that prey on the aspirations of would-be authors and charge exorbitant amounts for publishing debut novels. Be cautious and do your research into any company that wants to charge you for publishing your book.
Amazon and companies like Draft2Digital make it relatively easy to publish your own book. The key to self-publishing is to invest in the services you need to make your novel polished and professional. Rarely are authors experts in cover design, editing, copywriting, distribution, interior layout, advertising, or marketing. You’ll need to hire experienced professionals in those areas that you’re unable to master yourself.
Unless you are already famous or write the next bestseller, expect to do much of your own marketing, even if you published traditionally. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the publisher is going to handle it all for you. You’ll need to understand marketing and you’ll find a good chunk of your time is spent building your platform (followers) on social media.
Writing a book and becoming an author isn’t easy and is not a quick way to make a living. Depending on the path you choose, it takes a substantial investment in time and sometimes money to publish a book. It is, however, very rewarding and satisfying to create a world filled with characters plucked from your imagination and take readers on an escape you’ve designed. One of the greatest joys of being an author is holding your first book in your hands or seeing in on the shelf at a library or shop. If you’re lucky enough to get a note from a reader telling you how much she enjoyed your book, it’s a thrill like no other.
It takes a great deal of effort to go from that spark of an idea to the finished product, but I think it’s worth every keystroke.