1. Great writers are teachable. This is the first step toward becoming successful. If you feel like no one can teach you anything because your writing is already perfect, stop now and go be a plumber or something, because you will never be a successful author.
Share your writing with people who know something about writing. English teachers may be of some help--it will really depend on the individual teacher--but your best bet is to connect with other writers and join a writers' critique group. This can be helpful, especially if there is someone in the group who has publishing experience. I have been fortunate to be part of such a group.
Part of being teachable is being able to take criticism graciously. A good writers' group can keep you motivated to constantly improve, which brings us to our second point:
2. Great writers practice. Learning to write well is no different than learning to play a musical instrument or excel at a particular sport. Your magic idea is not going to just pop into your head and flow through your fingers to your keyboard any more than you'll suddenly be drafted by the Chicago Bears when the only football you've ever played is on your Playstation. Practice, practice, practice!
3. Great writers never give up. Now, before I explain that idea, let me clarifiy something:
There's no shame in quitting if you discover that your passion lies elsewhere. I love football, but I was never built to play it, and I'm not a big fan of compound fractures and smelly locker rooms. I'm happy to just watch the games on TV. If you feel the frustration and rejection that go with the writing life are not for you, by all means pursue another career and be happy! You can always write just for fun.
But if all you can think about is writing--if you wake up at three in the morning wondering how you're going to fix your plot problem in chapter three--if you find yourself scribbling ideas on restaurant napkins--if you're daydreaming about a story when you should be listening to the teacher or your boss--then you owe it to yourself to give it everything you've got. Make time to write every day. You have the incurable writing bug, and the treatment is to write. So get to it! And never give up!
My fellow Holt author Clare Dunkle (The Hollow Kingdom trilogy) offers great information about the writing life and helpful links on her website. She covers most of what I have written above, but in much, much greater detail. Pay special attention to her sections about the realities of the publishing industry and advice for young writers.
The Children's Writers and Illustrator's Chat Board is no ordinary internet forum. Here you can mingle in cyberspace with aspiring writers and established professionals. Noted authors who participate on this board include Jessica Burkhart (Canterwood Crest), Maggie Stiefvater (Shiver), and many others in all youth genres from board books to young adult.
Bestselling fantasy writer T.A. Barron offers a wealth of sage advice on his website. These are universal truths that every writer must know to be successful. You can also watch video interviews with him here and here.
Writer's Digest has a terrific interview with Orson Scott Card (Enders Game, Speaker for the Dead, Shadow of the Hegemon ) that covers what it really takes to be a writer, and what has worked for him. It's an informative and entertaining read.
My good friend Dan Case of AWOC Books publishes the e-newsletter Writing for Dollars. Article and book market listings are included in each issue, along with articles by successful freelancers about the business of writing.
I met the prolific author Charles W. Sasser at a writers' conference in 2004. He gave me a copy of his book Magic Steps to Writing Success and told me I owed him fifteen bucks. Two years later I sent him a copy of my first book and told him we were even! I highly recommend Chuck's book--it helped me unlock the magic inside myself.
I meet a lot of people who say this when they find out I'm a writer. The next thing they say is "I have a great idea for a book. Can you help me get published?"
Everyone has a book, supposedly, but the reason that most are never written, and that most of the ones that are written never get published, can be described in four words: writing is hard work. Most people are not willing to work that hard, especially at something as uncertain as writing.
The story is told of the woman who, upon meeting a famous violinist after a performance, said, "I'd give half my life to play like that." The musician replied, "That is exactly what I have done."
I have been writing all of my life--practicing, you might say. I started at six years old. but I was forty-seven when my first book was accepted. Yes, you could say I was lucky--I sold it to the first publisher I sent it to. Some would call that instant success. What most people don't know is that I worked on the story for twenty years before I felt it was ready, and that once it was accepted it still required almost a years' worth of rewrites before the final version was ready to be published.
So, the answer to the question, "can you help me get published?" is, well, no. But you can help yourself get published if you take the right steps. Below are three observations I have made about great writers I have met.