First Things First


yellow brick roadIf you’re a writer, here’s what I want to ask you today:

Are you getting ahead of yourself?

There are seasons in a writer’s life: Seasons for focusing on the art and craft of writing, and seasons for focusing on the business of writing. And seasons where it’s appropriate to do both.

If you’re a fairly new writer, unpublished, you should probably be focusing on art and craft. Sure, it’s fun to spend your leisure time cruising the Internet and learning about agents, publishers, and how the industry works. But the bulk of your time should be spent on writing. Learning to write is first and foremost. Are you a freshman writer? If you’re spending more time learning about publishing than working on your writing… do you think you might be getting ahead of yourself? None of the business aspects will be relevant to you if your writing isn’t strong enough.

After you’ve worked on your writing for awhile (usually a year to several years), you’ll be ready to start thinking about getting published. Then you definitely need to be thinking about queries, proposals, platform, marketing, and other business aspects of writing. You need to kick your business-focus into high gear. There may even be periods of time when your writing takes a back seat as you learn the ins and outs of publishing.

Once you’re published, you’re going to have to pay attention to both business and art. You’ll go back and forth more easily.

At the beginning of this journey, it’s tempting and fun to think about all the bells and whistles of “being published,” but your most important job is to work hard on your writing. Don’t be too eager to query. Even if you’ve finished a book, don’t type “The End” and then immediately begin whipping out those query letters. Let it sit. Go back and edit, revise, polish. Do everything you can to get it right.

Now, if you’re writing non-fiction and it’s a platform-driven topic, then along with your writing, you’ll need to be platform building. You might get speaking engagements, build your blog readership, make a name for yourself in your field. That’s going to be just as important as the writing. Novelists and memoirists, not so much. The writing is most important.

So where are you in this process? Focusing mostly on the craft of writing? Or mostly on business—queries, proposals, marketing plans, etc. Are you doing the right thing for where you are on the journey? Or do you need to re-evaluate?

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  5. Susie Klein on July 25, 2011 at 7:50 PM

    You asked where we were in our process: I am raising both hands in surrender. You caught me. I am guilty of wasting time on the future steps involved in writing my book rather than just writing it.
    Will now head back to my writing room and get off of FaceBook! Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  6. Ann Best on July 23, 2011 at 8:33 PM

    First things first: read, read read. Then seriously look at what you’ve read with a critical eye. It can take a lifetime of doing this, while you’re writing your own stories, to finally write something that good enough and significant enough to be published. IMHO, there’s no shortcut.

  7. First Things First | Write for Your Life on July 17, 2011 at 7:33 PM

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  8. Mary Kate Leahy on July 17, 2011 at 8:57 AM

    I think the advice is spot on. I would also add don’t listen to people who tell you to submit on their time table, and instead do it on your time table. I happen to have very good gut instincts, which I went against. But I did learn a lot from querying too soon, and that experience is invaluable.

    I actually never type THE END, just because I don’t want to make it seem like it is done. It will be a work in progress until it’s on a bookshelf (and maybe even after that.) Plus I write books in a series, so there is always the next installment, and therefore I never feel like I’ve reached THE END. Great post and great advice 🙂

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  10. Victoria Noe on July 13, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    Thank you so much for this, Rachelle! Your timing is perfect for where I am right now.
    All five agents I pitched at Writers Digest in January wanted proposals, but…”you need to build your platform”. (non-fiction) So I’ve spent most of those last 6 months doing that, with concrete, amazing results. Now I’m spending most of my time finishing the book and re-doing my proposal which now documents what my platform “is” and not what it “will be”. Now I feel a lot more confident, so I can start sending out proposals again.
    I will keep your words in mind!

  11. V.V. Denman on July 13, 2011 at 1:10 PM

    Yes, I’m guilty of querying before my time. Oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now. But more than that, I wish I knew now what I’ll know later. Hmmm.

    It’s been several months since I’ve sent out a query and will probably be several months until I’ll consider it again. I’m having a lot of fun writing and learning, improving my craft. It’s all about patience. There’s a time for everything. And now is not the time for me to be published.

  12. Nairam on July 13, 2011 at 7:14 AM

    I’m definitely still in the writing phase! I follow your blog to “dip my toes” into what the publishing world is like so I’m hopefully not completely overwhelmed when I switch gears, if I decide to ever go that way. I’m not the type to just bungle into a new situation–I like to get gist first.

    Though, what with this blog and my writing mentor, it’s pretty funny (or annoying) how many people find out I’ve written and am writing books and assume being published is part of that bundle…

  13. Jerry Eckert on July 13, 2011 at 1:53 AM

    Thanks, Rachelle. I needed that! Back to basics here.

  14. HopefulLeigh on July 13, 2011 at 12:14 AM

    This is so timely, Rachelle! I just decided yesterday to cancel my publisher appointment at She Speaks. It’s too soon in the process. I will focus on my writing a bit longer and glean whatever I can at the conference.

  15. Beth K. Vogt on July 13, 2011 at 12:07 AM

    I’ve been published in non-fiction–so I’ve gone the whole “how’s my platform going?” route. Now that I have a debut novel slated for May6 2012, I’m back to the business side again, but for a whole new genre–and so there’s a certain amount of learning my craft and connecting with others in the fiction world.
    Am I doing what I need to be doing? I hope so . . .

  16. Heather Marsten on July 12, 2011 at 11:47 PM

    Thanks, I have been honing writing skills, joined an online critique group – Critique Circle. By the critiques I’ve received I’ve improved my writing, and soon will be finished with a rough draft that is more like a second draft. I plan to edit once through. Have managed to get a website for the name of my book, and will be working on my platform. Many years ago I submitted my MS to agents, it was in a horrid state. Knowing what I know now, I should never have submitted it. I got personal letters back from agents because the story was compelling, but they gently suggested improving writing. I came across the letters today, and was so grateful for the kindness of the agents who responded to my story.

    I really appreciate your posts, comments, and suggestions. Very often your posts go in a special file I have for future reference when I get to other points in the process.

    Thanks again,

  17. ellen stevens on July 12, 2011 at 11:10 PM

    Great reminder to keep the main thing the main thing. I’ve often found that my own writing is like a good gumbo; it takes a bit of simmering before all the varied flavors join into one delicious work of art.

  18. Stephanie Scott on July 12, 2011 at 6:34 PM

    I’m defintely more at the beginning end. I’ve learned a lot about writing from blogs, and have found tons of great books from book bloggers, which I believe have also helped me with writing and to know what readers in my preferred genre are reading. At the same time, a lot of blogs have industry stuff in it, and you hear constantly that it’s never too early to start working on your “platform.” I feel pulled in opposing directions!

    I do know I’m not comfortable enough to query yet because my work isn’t the best it can be. I’m not willing to throw all my hard work to the wind by my impatience!

  19. Bonnie Doran on July 12, 2011 at 6:30 PM

    I started a blog several years ago, which at times has been the only thing I’ve written. I let my social networking lapse so I could concentrate on finishing a novel. Now I’m seeing the importance of keeping in touch with other writers.

    I’m an expert on jumping the gun. I can’t tell you how many editors and agents I met before my novel and I were ready. My biggest lesson? Finish the book!

    Thanks for the post and the good advice.

  20. marion on July 12, 2011 at 6:25 PM

    Getting down to revision.
    But also trying to get up to speed with social media.
    Got my feet wet with Facebook (just social). Then started a blog. Because they say you should start a blog at least 2 years before publication.
    In some ways I think the blog is good writing practice. In other ways I think it’s a distraction.
    Also follow your blog & Nathan’s blog.
    And have to give a shout out to Writers’ League of TX for their wonderful support. And the same for my critique group.

  21. otin on July 12, 2011 at 5:22 PM

    I bought a computer about 4 years ago with the intent of writing a novel. I got sidetracked by blogging, but I still used my blog to practice writing. I soon became a mostly short story blog. As a blogger you can always know when someone reads your material and when someone genuinely likes something. I was getting to the point where I’d get emails every day from people asking me why I wasn’t published. It was that inspiration that drove me to basically abandon my blog and start a novel. Two novels later, and after rave reviews from the people who have read them, I still can’t get anyone in the publishing business to bite. I’m not usually a real self confident guy, but I know that the one story is very good. If I like my own work then that is saying something..LOL.

    Here is a link to a short story that I wrote. Please, if anyone would like to read it and give me an honest critique, I would be very grateful!

    • Ike Obidike on July 16, 2011 at 12:46 AM

      I read your short story and this is my observation:

      I think you started in the wrong scene. The fire should have been the starting point and the rest of the story told as a flashback. From where you started, it forced you to rush through too many events that a reader would have loved to know the details.

  22. Sarah Thomas on July 12, 2011 at 4:35 PM

    Like a couple of others, I jumped the gun. I knew enough to edit the thing before I queried, but I didn’t know enough about editing! The pitch garnered interest, but the huge chunks of backstory made eyes glaze over–ouch! I’ve spent the past year learning, revising and writing book two. I feel much more “educated” at this point and am working hard to balance learning with pursuing publication.

    The funny thing is, I’d read enough to know writers often get ahead of themselves. And I did it anyway. Guess I’m a hands-on learner!

  23. Giora on July 12, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    Yes. I was getting ahead of myself. I jumped into the ocean of queries without learning to swim first. Now, I am back on the shore, learning to swim before I’ll jump again.

  24. Preslaysa on July 12, 2011 at 3:53 PM

    Where am I in my writing? I’ve been seriously writing fiction for three years now, writing and re-writing (and re-re-writing!) I’m starting to get my feet wet with the publishing side of things.

  25. Jeanne on July 12, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    I am definitely a newer writer, and I’ve had the opportunity to go to a couple of retreats to learn the craft. With small children, and daily life, I haven’t even started a blog. But I am writing and learning, trying to improve and move foreward in finishing my first book. Thanks for the encouragement to focus on craft, Rachelle.

  26. Michelle DeRusha on July 12, 2011 at 2:16 PM

    I was definitely too quick to query the first time around. My ms was way over the typical word count for non-fiction, and I should have been spending my time cutting and editing instead of querying. Now that I am in a better position to concentrate on the nitty-gritty aspects of publishing, though, I still find that I spend too much time on that part of the process, and not enough time on writing. I think I use platform-building and social media as an excuse to procrastinate actual hard-core writing.

  27. Loree Huebner on July 12, 2011 at 2:13 PM

    In the ten years that I’ve been writing, I’ve been the freshman…queried too soon without learning the craft properly. I did have nibbles but I was not ready. The rejection stung. I didn’t know it then, but it was part of the learning process.

    I’ve been the student…still a student -always learning as the publishing industry changes.

    In the past two years, things have really started to click. I understand my writing and the process. I’ve edited and revised two books of a three book series and a novel that I hope will be a “break in” novel.

    I have two other books still sitting on the shelf as I concentrate on hitting the query process again for the novel.

    Last month, I had a smaller level of success with the publication of a 10 page, non-fiction, history article. It felt good to finally see some of the hard work in print.

    I am getting ready to query the novel. I’ve got to get the query right this time – so I’m not rushing it. I had planned on querying right after the holiday, but have found that I need more time as the summer has been a busy and demanding one in other areas.

    Thanks for this post. I can see how I got from there to here. It feels good.

  28. Jacqueline Windh on July 12, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    I agree that learning the craft of writing comes first… but just. I think that as soon as a writer realizes that they are aiming for publication (which, for some, might be the same moment that they decide that they want to write and for others might be years later) they should start learning about the business.

    Partly because you can get publishing credits even when you are just starting out – in small local mags and newspapers. If you have nothing at all on your publication list, these credits are good to have – and they do give you practice querying, dealing with editors, and writing to word lengths and deadlines. And they get your name out there.

    I am most of the way through my MFA program in creative writing (at U British Columbia). I am shocked by how many of my fellow students know nothing about the publishing industry. Many of them do not know how to query a magazine, or what standard royalties are in traditional publishing, or how working with an agent works. They do not know about the many alternatives we authors now have in independent publishing and ebooks. They do not have websites or blogs; they do not know how (or why) to use Twitter.

    These are people who have invested years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars into their writing careers! They’ve been working on the craft of writing for years, but they have little or no publications to their name, no one has heard of them, and they have little idea of how the industry works…

    I know that people write for different reasons. But I really believe that, for the writers who are aiming for publication, learning the business is an essential part of becoming a professional writer, and that should be done fairly early on. You don’t have to ignore the craft of writing in order to be learning the business… it is not either/or.

  29. Lori VanGilder on July 12, 2011 at 1:23 PM

    I really appreciate this article. While still working on writing I have also been researching the business. I keep running into articles on the need to have an established social media &/or blog following to get published so I have been trying to balance the two.

    I also have to admit that at times I seem to fall down the rabbit hole of social media and lose valuable time when I could and should be writing on my project(s).

  30. Cameron Mathews on July 12, 2011 at 1:16 PM

    Bang my head against the wall with this one repeatedly. I need to sit, focus, and REVISE. REVISE REVISE. Even if it’s not as “fun” as creating. Even if it’s not as “exciting” as imagining a published future. I must sit, focus, and REVISE.

    OK, just saying that here doesn’t get it done. Time to stop reading blogs and REVISE. (If I repeat enough, maybe I will do it.)

    Thanks for the post. As always, helping guide us where we need to be.

  31. Liberty Speidel on July 12, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    Terrific advice, Rachelle.

    I’m kind of on that delicate point where I’m still concerned about my art (what artist shouldn’t be?) but am shifting focus to more publishing aspects–learning about the proper markets, following agents’ blogs and twitter feeds (love the agent list you’ve put together!) and getting ideas on where to query. Of course, I’m trying to learn the “art” of writing a successful query, too. 🙂

  32. Heidi Windmiller on July 12, 2011 at 12:55 PM

    This is a wonderful post. Sometimes I feel like I should be querying more. I’ve been writing seriously for five years and am working on my fourth novel. I’ve never queried one of my novels because they just haven’t been good enough, and I don’t want to have a mess of rejections weighing me down.

    But I think number four might be “the one”.

    Regardless, the authors I enjoy never stop pushing themselves and learning about the craft. That is part of what making writing so enjoyable–the capacity for learning and growing is limitless.

  33. joylene on July 12, 2011 at 12:40 PM

    I’m marketing my second book, but should probably think about finding a new agent. I don’t like marketing and I hate querying for agents. I’ve had three, they did nothing for my career but make me crazy, so… Yes, I know. Time to grow up and smell the roses.

    I love your blog. Wish you lived next door. I’d plant myself at your door until you agreed to represent me. Scary thought, eh?

    Thanks for making it a not-so-scary world.

  34. Cynthia Herron on July 12, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    It’s a bit of a juggling act. I’m continuing to write while focusing,too, on the business/marketing aspect, and enjoying the journey!

  35. Megan Meredith on July 12, 2011 at 12:17 PM

    This is just the neon sign I needed today. Getting ahead of myself only gets me frustrated. I need to hear this. Thanks!

  36. Rachel Pudelek on July 12, 2011 at 12:13 PM

    When I first started writing I wanted badly to surf the net for any info on being published, but I made a rule for myself that I wasn’t allowed to look at anything business wise until my second draft was complete. That made me push harder for completion.

    Now I have my first book on an agents desk (hoping she likes it) and I’m working on my second book. I think not getting ahead of yourself keeps you from tripping on your own dreams in the marathon of writing a book.

  37. Kristy Ks on July 12, 2011 at 11:10 AM

    I’m definitely in the new writer stage too. I feel like I should be ahead of where I am because I’ve been a freelance writer for years. But now that I have more time to focus on writing, I see how much I don’t know about the craft and how much I need to improve.

    I still plan to read your blog… just for fun :).

  38. Laurinda on July 12, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    I’m new. I’ve had a blog for 2 years. I also just starting writing my first book. I’m working with a professional editor through this process. She just advise me to finish up the book proposal as I continue writing. I’m still focused on the craft. I haven’t found my voice yet.

  39. Elizabeth Kitchens on July 12, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    I’m ashamed to admit that in my initial enthusiasm I started researching publishing information before I even finished my first short story (which was very short). However, I learned a good bit about writing through that research. In addition to learning about different genres and about word counts, I came to realize that a fruitful imagination, good grammar, and a knowledge of how to use quotation marks were not the beginning and end of writing. I am still at the stage where I need to focus on the craft of writing and not so much on publishing.

  40. Lingchen Jurmey Dorji on July 12, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    Thank you for the wonderful advice.

  41. April on July 12, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    Definitely mostly working on my craft, and I have been for a good six years now. When I finish a manuscript and polish it, I focus a bit on the publishing end – researching agents and querying.

    Then as the rejections come in, it’s back to my craft.

  42. Rain Laaman on July 12, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    I am not a new writer. I’ve been writing for 10 years and written 5 novels since I was twelve, BUT only one of them is somewhat close to publication, and that’s probably the only one I’d ever think of publishing. After going through it 4 times to edit and revise, I thought it was ready. I sent out 3 query letters. But then I read my synopsis and realized it is a very raw story at this point. Bummer. I’m too burned out to revise anymore right now, so I’ll be writing other stories until I can come back to it. Guess that puts me right back at the “new writer” stage. Sigh.

  43. Leigh Caron on July 12, 2011 at 6:08 AM

    Oh, wise, wise, woman…you. I’m still learning craft.

  44. Lisa Fredersdorf on July 12, 2011 at 5:42 AM

    I am still writing. Writing a lot. Of course, I learn a bit about publishing by reading your blog or by reading the websites of publishers here in my home country, but I do nothing more than that. Just writing.

  45. D.R. Chisholm on July 12, 2011 at 4:14 AM

    I’ve been writing for three years and am only now finding my voice. I have some short stories and a finished manuscript, but I’m not interested in querying it out because my writing has become so much better, I’d rather have my introductory work represent the writer I have become. I wrote my first novel (137K words) to teach myself how to write a novel. My other first drafts became increasingly better and I began to understand my process. I think it is important to take as much time as necessary to learn how to write well before seeking to be published. I want my eventual readers to trust me and I want a reputation in the business I can be proud of.

    Thanks for a terrific question/post. It helps to look at oneself now and again!

  46. Dorothy Bentley on July 12, 2011 at 2:21 AM

    Loved your post, Rachelle. With all the social media outlets, it’s easy to get sidetracked and spend copious amounts of time networking and building platform rather than spending the necessary time to hone craft. I decided about a month ago to turn off my Facebook page and take a break to focus just on editing my novel this summer. So far I’m loving it. Not sure if I’ll go back!

  47. Crafty Mama on July 12, 2011 at 2:03 AM

    I’m working on my craft. 🙂 I’m trying to perfect my writing AND editing.

  48. Carrie Butler on July 12, 2011 at 1:41 AM

    Great post! The editing, revising, and polishing process is threatening to steal my sanity, but I’m confident it’ll be worth it in the end. I’m itching to query soon. 🙂

  49. Kate Larkindale on July 12, 2011 at 1:29 AM

    I try to do both without too much success. I’ve written 5 books so far, none published, and am working on number 6. I’ve published numerous short stories though. I know I need to get more business focused and query more,s pend more time researching and getting my work out there, but I like the actual writing part so much, I find it hard to give up writing time for the other stuff.

  50. Lacie Nezbeth on July 12, 2011 at 1:17 AM

    This is such a great thing to hear! It’s so easy for me to get ahead of myself in this process. I think the excitement of having an agents/editors interest can sometimes overshadow the fact that I need to learn more about crafting a great story first.

    Occasionally, I get caught up in “cart before the horse” activity – hoping beyond hope that I might be the exception to the rule. That’s usually about the time I wake up and remind myself to slow down. If it’s meant to be, it will be…in His perfect timing.

  51. Barbara Kloss on July 12, 2011 at 12:46 AM

    What a great post, as always! I go back and forth with this. When u started writing I had NO idea I’d actually finish a book. So in that respect, I think I was unintentionally lucky – I wasn’t researching or blogging or networking…I was just writing. As I became more serious (ie I realized I could finish a book) I looked into publication. *dies* Much revision commenced (oh, about another year of edits and relearning 🙂 )

    Now I oscillate bw the two, but I miss the days where it was just me and my story…not trying to keep up with social media – it wasn even on my radar. I can never seem to find enough time to practice my craft AND do all the homework I want.

  52. Michael Seese on July 12, 2011 at 12:35 AM

    Where am I? All of the above. I have published three books. And yet I still spend at least one hour each day writing, honing, creating, editing, etc. And then 30 minutes networking, querying, blogging, etc.

    If only it weren’t for that pesky day job…

  53. Gillian Marchenko on July 12, 2011 at 12:30 AM

    I spent two years writing my memoir. I paid an editor after the first draft, and now that I’ve finished the second draft of my book, I am pushing myself to delve into the business end of the project (platform building, learning the biz), especially right now as I keep my grubby hands of my ms while the editor I hired does her thing.

    But I am still writing. I know how important it is to stay loose. Writing a few times a week (I can’t seem to do every day with four kids, go figure!) is helping me stay focused on what I love about this project, the actual writing. I am working on excerpts from my memoir to submit to literary journals and on a few short stories for publication as well. I am also writing articles on topics related to my memoir for magazines.

  54. Anna Saikin on July 12, 2011 at 12:27 AM

    I’m currently working on the craft of writing while dipping my toes into the business side of writing by submitting short stories. I am using short stories to practice editing and to thicken my skin.

  55. marta on July 12, 2011 at 12:26 AM

    Where am I in the process? Well, I’ve got one agent looking at some pages. I’ve had a few other agents request pages then pass. I’ve got the novels finished (though I’m always open to rewriting) and five other novels in various conditions and a stack of short stories (one published). So, I don’t feel like a freshman writer. However, I’m not published, which makes me a freshman anyway, right?

    I find that most writing advice columns focus on either the person who has or is trying to write a first novel or the person who has published and is trying to maintain a career. Generally I feel in the neither/nor category.

    Perhaps this next agent will like me, but either way, I’ll keep writing.

  56. Jacquelyn Sill on July 12, 2011 at 12:23 AM

    Thank you so much for this. I needed to hear this. I often feel guilty, because I am wanting to write and learn to do it as well as I can, but then I will feel the pull to try to build a gigantic blog following. Thank you for encouraging me to keep the main thing the main thing.

  57. Sarah Allen on July 12, 2011 at 12:21 AM

    Definitely something I’ve been struggling with. I’m so one of those newbie writers who are all into the marketing internet thing. That will pay off at some point, I hope, but I’ve really been working on focusing more on the actual writing.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  58. Angie Dicken on July 12, 2011 at 12:20 AM

    I typed those words, “The End”, and promised myself to go through and edit. I thought I’d get through that part quickly so I could move on to querying…SO GLAD I went back to edit…my story needed some more twists and character development. I feel like I took two steps back time-wise, but I am so glad I did. Although I get antsy to move into the next stage, I think I would have been so disappointed if I rushed into the business side too soon.