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A Beginner’s Checklist: An Essay of Writerly Advice

Author:  Stella Atrium
Date:  03-06-03

You always wanted to go it alone. You sit at your work computer and wonder, "What am I doing here? I'm a suffering artiste, I must make art! I can live in the attic. I'll be content with handouts from the local baker who loves literature. I can get an agent who promotes me. I am the one to draw order out of chaos.

I must have solitude to develop my characters and write scintillating prose. I'm the next James Joyce."

Yeah, well.

First of all, don't go it alone while in your twenties. No offense, but young people don't have enough experience to fill a 600 page novel with new ideas. Write some rock 'n roll songs. Become the next Jim Morrison. He ran out of material, too, you know.

Second, take a long cold look at your aspirations and their real world possibilities. Can you write? Can you write well? Do you have a specific life experience or world view which makes your story stand out from the 500 other novels that get published each month? I know this is your life's work. I know this is your self identity you're talking about. But there's nothing wrong with an occasional reality check. Ask yourself the following questions. Give yourself real answers. Hold onto your dream and make a plan that includes both the dream and your practical daily needs.

Let's start with the writing basics:

Do you write every day? Do you finish your projects? Do you have a mountain of EDITED work you're sitting on?

Has someone other than friends and family provided positive critiques? Can you provide, while talking on your feet, a polished sales pitch? Do you have a publishing contract? Do you have a secondary source of writing income?

Then there are the practical concerns:

Is your car paid for? Do you have substantial savings? Can you live on air? What is you minimum monthly outflow? Is your spouse tolerant that your income will be cut in half?

Hopes and dreams that must die:

My first novel will make money. My second novel will make money. I'll be invited to speak at conventions at their expense. I'll be invited as a guest on Oprah's show. I'll be invited to do a book tour. I'll enjoy my book tour. My publisher will ask for my second manuscript even before the first is on the book stands. I'm confident that the buzz about my novel will bring in the next project.

About the support staff:

Agents are valuable only after you have been offered a publishing contract. Don't sign the contract until you have talked to an agent or industry attorney. The publisher is running a business and is not your fan. The publisher's marketing department doesn't like you. The distributor is busy, keep it short. Independent bookstore owners do like you and want autographed books. Chain bookstore employees don't know you from Adam. Chain buyers talk only to designated distributors. Fans will gush at you after you've published six novels, not before.

Have I discouraged you yet?

If you still want to take the plunge, do these things:

Get catastrophe health insurance. While still employed, get a fistful of credit cards. Don't use them, of course. Be sure you can afford your car insurance payments. Be sure your house doesn't need structural repairs.

Take these small business steps:

Form a promotional business shell for your sales efforts. Get an 800 number plus letterhead. Get credit card acceptance ability. Develop and personally maintain a website. Call the reviewer back, call him again. Anticipate promotion expenses including postage and travel. It costs YOU as much to market a novel as it does to produce it.

Anticipate the drain on your time. Be a salesperson. Get over your shyness. Make five promotional contacts a day for the first six months of release. Then it'll be a habit.

And be aware of these pitfalls:

There are flush times and longer no-income troughs. Marketing efforts steal writing time. Discipline is everything. You get no applause. A writer's career doesn't provide a pension. You cannot with ease re-enter the business world after a long sabbatical.

So what's the best case scenario? Get a university teaching position. You'll have status and community and time to do research and write. At minimum wage. Of course. You'll need a couple of degrees to be considered for said position. Plus teaching can steal your creative energy. It happens every day.

And if you still feel you must go it alone? Well, Jack London went to Alaska. Try that.

Copyright 2003 Stella Atrium. All rights reserved.

Stella Atrium’s second speculative fiction novel Seven Beyond (ISBN: 1-59129-601-3) was released in January 2003 by Publish America and is available everywhere. She is promoted on the internet at Cecil Guy Productions' website Tsing Tse (pronounced sing-say), where you can read an interview, articles and story excerpts for upcoming publications. Please visit http://www.tsingtse.com.