Being published myself doesn't make me an expert, except possibly in how not to do it.
The following are simply things I wish I'd known at the start, which may just possibly be helpful to someone else too.
It seems obvious, but the most important step on the road to publication is to write the best possible book you can. If you're only on your first or second draft, then unless you're a genius the chances are you're not ready. I certainly wasn't...
The editing process is always a learning curve, and for me it's ongoing. I'd arguably got a head start from years of editing scripts, but was shocked at how hard I found it to apply the same objective ruthlessness to my own book. Hundreds of battered scriptwriters out there are finally avenged, and I offer a belated but heart-felt apology to every single one of them...
I'm still only a tyro at self-editing, but here are five of the biggest lessons I learned in the process, just in case they're helpful to other people:
Nothing is set in stone - If the story isn't working, change it. Writing it better may disguise the flaws, but if the foundations are rotten then the book's going to sink like a brick in a swamp.
Nothing is sacred - 'Murder your darlings'. Do it ruthlessly and stamp on the grave. Not only is this the best way to eliminate self-indulgent purple prose, it often gets you out of trouble in other areas too. I've caught myself twisting and contriving characters to make them do or say something utterly wrong - and all in order to keep one line or image I'm especially pleased with. There was one section I gave to entirely the wrong narrator just because his was the only voice that could give me the gag I wanted. It was a nasty moment when I realized, but the feeling of relief as I rewrote it properly was worth it all.
Read it aloud - preferably to someone with a short attention span. Not only will you immediately notice all your glaring errors and repetitions (not to mention the typos that suddenly leap out and throb at you) but you will also become painfully aware whenever a section has gone on too long or become boring. Your listener may be a polite relative who'll tell you how wonderful it all is, but their glazed eyes, fidgeting and coughing will be a dead giveaway every time. Yawning's a bit of a clue too.
If in doubt, cut it out - Whenever you've been struggling with a sentence for more than half an hour, just try cutting it. It's frightening how often this works - and it took me a whole year to learn it.
Niggles don't go away - Unfortunately. Sleeping on it, telling yourself ‘it's fine', even beating up your family until they agree - none of this helps. I left a number of things slumbering, but they went on gnawing until I dealt with them. I can't think of anything worse than somebody spotting the problem when it's way too late to change it, and all you can do is admit that deep down you knew it all along.
These just scratch the surface, of course, but fortunately, there are lots of places to go for advice on all this. The Useful resources page gives a very limited list of those I've personally found helpful, but there are many other good ones out there, so persevere until you find something that works for you.
I'm assuming from the fact you're reading this you already know how difficult it is to get a book published. However, if you realize how many of the manuscripts submitted to agents and publishers are illiterate, plagiarized or just plain bad, you'd find the odds of a good one making it through are higher than you'd think. Have a look at agent Teresa Nielsen Hayden's blog Slushkiller to see what I mean.
A great many manuscripts eliminate themselves on even more avoidable grounds, such as failing to follow the agent's or publisher's guidelines. Most agents and publishers now have websites which detail requirements for submissions (or even if they're accepting submissions at all) and these are there for a reason. Apart from anything else, if a writer fails to follow the guidelines, then the agent or publisher knows right away this is someone who a) can't read, b) can't follow instructions, c) can't be arsed, or d) thinks they know best. These are not especially 'must-have' qualities in a new writer.
But not everything is down to nice simple guidelines, and there are many personal choices to make to determine your own path through the maze. Agent or no agent? Commercial publishing or self-publishing? These days, even Conventional or E-Publish? Nothing is quite as simple as it used to be. The Writers and Artists' Yearbook examines all these options, and is probably the best place to start, but there are good online discussions to point the way too.
Whichever way you choose, the bad news is that there are a lot of pirates out there looking to fleece desperate new writers. There are scam agencies, publishers, consultancies and book doctors all over the net, and not one of them is interested in your book. All they want is your money.
Please check. Be safe. No-one's more vulnerable than a writer with a book they've poured their heart and soul into, and no-one knows that better than these scum. If even one writer reads this, checks someone out and saves themselves the agony of losing their book to a shark, then this whole website becomes the most important thing I've ever done. If that happens to you, then please let me know. You'll make me very happy.
Writing is you and a computer and a head full of doubts.
Don't be alone. Join a real live writers' group, go to a workshop, join a forum. If nothing else, check out the blogs of fellow sufferers, and I think you'll be surprised how much better that makes you feel.
Don't let anyone drag you down either. Finding a publisher may be difficult, but it's nothing like as impossible as you might think. What follows is a joke, but remember that in the world of writing it needn't be. In the world of writing, anyone can fly...