What it Takes to be a Published Author

Being a published author, I am constantly told what an amazing achievement it is. I agree, but I’ve accomplished other things in my life that were much more difficult. I have a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do for example. Still, there is something mystical to most people about being published that transcends other accomplishments. Perhaps we all lust for fame. Though I’m far from famous, if you google my name, my webpage or book will come up first. I guess I’m the most famous Gary A. Donahue on the Internet today. All because I’m a published author.

So what does it take to be a published author? It takes more than being a writer. A writer is someone who writes. Anyone can be a writer. To be a published author, you need to, well, be published. In my experience, here are some of the reasons that I’m published:

  • Perseverance – This one is big, and deserves to be first. I bothered my contact at O’Reilly, Inc. literally for years before he contacted me about writing this book. He felt that my writing was solid, but every time I submitted a proposal, the timing was off, or the proposed subject had already been done. When he had an opportunity that matched my skills and styles, he thought of me because we had stayed in contact. Be polite, and try to establish a rapport. People buy from people is the adage I’ve heard used in sales, and it applies.
  • Write well – This may sound silly, but I assure you, many writers can’t write worth a damn. Being an O’Reilly author, I’ve been invited to help edit other books. Some of the writing was pretty awful, and some of it was pretty great. Some of the writing was fun to read, and some of it was dry. If the grammar and spelling is bad, the story, details and message will never be read. Similarly, if the story sucks, and the grammar is impeccable, it won’t sell. Even seasoned writers are constantly refining their craft.
  • Care about what you write – Similar to writing well, the idea of caring about what you write takes it a step further. Is it OK to use OK? Is there a better choice for a word? If you swap a word for a synonym, will the sentence flow better while retaining its meaning? How do your words sound when read aloud? Would you want to read what you’ve written? Every word is a building block to the final product. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Use the right word.
  • Write every day – One of the things I learned while writing Network Warrior was that I needed to write every day. If I didn’t get into the habit of writing, then I would go days or even weeks without accomplishing anything. My writing coincidentally, sucked. When writing every day, you’ll find that your writing will improve, and you’ll feel the need to write. A writer can’t help but write. For some this is the way they are wired. For others it’s a habit. Make writing a habit. I like Stephen Hunter’s take on this subject: “No matter which type [of writer] you are, you have to do it steadily, professionally, diligently, consistently. Otherwise here’s the type of writer you are: unpublished.”
  • Enjoy Editing – This was hard for me, since like many beginning writers, I was of the opinion that every sentence I wrote was perfect the first time I wrote it. Most successful  writers will tell you that the first draft of any manuscript is crap. Putting thoughts on paper is only the first step. I would go so far as to estimate that writing the first draft is at most, 25% of the process. In the case of a book being published, 10% might be more accurate. In William Zinsser’s excellent book, On Writing Well, he teaches that you should take any first draft and work on cutting it in half through editing. Not by deleting sections, though that may be necessary, but by removing unnecessary words. Every “He took a deep long breath of fresh cold, clean air” can be replaced with, “He took a deep breath”. Enjoying the editing process will make you a better writer. Don’t get attached to your edited manuscript though. Better editors will further reduce or change it during the publishing process.
  • Be Patient – writing takes time. Editing takes time. The many steps of publishing take time. Writing, as an activity or profession is not a thrill-seeking activity. Many hours are spent alone in front of a computer. When I’m in stream of consciousness mode, I can bang out 10 single spaced pages a day. Cut that to about three or four when writing about technology. That doesn’t include editing. Most publishers move slowly as well. From start to finish, my first technical book took me eighteen months. I could do it in less time today, but I’d still anticipate at least a year. If you’re dream is to have 10 books published, you better get to work. John Grisham, best selling author of many books including The Pelican Brief, spent three years on his first novel A Time to Kill.
  • Writing is harder than most people think – If you haven’t figured it out yet, writing is hard work. Many people think that they’ll write in their spare time and make millions of dollars. While John Grisham did just that with his first novel, it took him three years. It was also rejected repeatedly at first which brings us to the last bullet.
  • Enjoy rejection – The Pelican Brief was rejected by many publishers until Wynwood Press bought it. They gave it a modest 5000 copy first printing. As of 2009, Josh Grisham has sold over 60 million copies of his many books. If he had given up after his first rejection, or even his first ten rejections, we would not have films like The Pelican Brief, The Firm, and A Time to Kill, not to mention many others.

I can hear some of you asking, if writing is so damned difficult, why do you do it?

I need to write. I can’t help myself.


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2 thoughts on “What it Takes to be a Published Author

  1. I’m 17, I have a story idea (knowing that I’m young and that one idea is not an actual acheivement) Is it truly necassary to have colledge to become a proffesional writer? I know I am not the best just because of how many times I’ve used the backspace key… but English four in highschool to me seems acceptable for pro. writing. Is it?

    1. If you get paid for your writing, then you are a professional writer. There are no other requirements. If you want to work for a newspaper as a journalist, then you will need a degree in journalism. Otherwise as a good friend of mine once said, if you want to write, then write.

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