Currently I am at the Melbourne Writers Festival and thus I am fielding many questions about writing and publishing. I noticed again that many of the questions unpublished writers ask are coming at it from the wrong end of the stick. Ally Carter calls this asking the wrong questions.
For instance, after yesterday’s event an adult came up to me and explained that they are an aspiring writer working on their first novel. They said they wanted my advice but the questions they asked really confused me:
What’s the best way to get started writing fan fiction?
How do you build up a following?
Should I be using wordpress, livejournal or blogger?
It took me awhile to realise what was going on. They wanted to know what to do to get a publisher’s attention. And they had decided the best way to do that was to reverse engineer other writers’ successes. Two of their favourite writers had started out as fan fiction writers and developed big followings. Another of their favourites was a blogger who had sold a novel they had first posted on their website.
The problem with that plan1 is that there only a handful of writers in the entire world who got published that way. You’d be better off buying lottery tickets.
Besides which, none of those writers did it on purpose. They wrote fanfic because they loved it. They blogged for the same reason.2 Because they loved it and were good at it they developed a following. None of them blogged and wrote fanfic in order to develop a following.3
I stood there, mouth agape, trying to figure out how to respond to these wrong questions. Should I tell this aspiring writer that they had the cart so far in front of the horse that the two were never going to meet?
Instead I asked AW a question:
Justine: “How many novels have you written?”
Aspiring Writer: Silence.
Justine: “Have you written one novel?”
AW: “Well, um, I’m halfway into my first one.”
Justine: “You don’t have a finished draft?”
I told the AW about how I started at least twenty novels before I finally finished one. I did not sell the first novel I completed. Or my second. I sold my third novel. I know many, many writers who sold their fifth, eight, or twentieth novel first. The majority of published writers did not sell the first novels they wrote.
I explained how bad it is for you to start thinking about marketing and promotion before you’ve even learned whether you can finish a novel. It will do your head in. It’s bad enough angsting about all that stuff when you do have published novels.
I think I got through to AW. I think I finally know how to get other wrong question asking aspiring writers back on to right questions. From now on I am going to ask them how many novels they’ve written.