What a difference a few hundred years makes. If you were a wannabe writer in the time of Jane Austin or Charles Dickens, your chances of meeting them and asking writing-related questions would be practically nonexistent. The advent of writers’ conventions has given aspiring authors the chance to connect with bestselling scribes from every genre.
In the last few years, the wall between full-time authors and authors-in-training has gotten even more transparent. Blog posts, podcasts, and social media give you the opportunity to chat with successful authors on a daily basis. Once you get an author’s attention, however, it’s very important that you use your time wisely.
If you’ve ever been to a conference or a live Google+ Hangout with a successful author, you’ve probably seen similar questions pop up in every session. How do I find an agent? Should I seek a publisher or self publish? Where do you come up with your ideas? While these kinds of questions present themselves in most open discussions, that doesn’t mean they’re a valuable use of your face time. If you’re serious about being a successful author yourself, then you need to ask questions that have actionable answers. It’s not worth asking a question if you’re unable to use the information that you’ll receive in return.
Here are five questions that will provide you with much more useful answers:
1. How Did You Develop Your Writing Habits?
Many aspiring authors are under the impression that all books are a magical blend of inspiration and the perfect agent. In reality, the most successful authors are the ones who’ve developed the rights habits and mindset. Their daily ritual gives them the practice they need to keep writing, while their mindset compels them to continue without the visual or financial indications of success.
While bad habits die hard, good habits may seem impossible to apply. There are many books out there about writing every day and hitting a certain word count, but you may get some interesting tidbits of wisdom by hearing a successful author’s input on the subject. Take notes on his or her response, and see if there’s anything that you can try out yourself.
2. What Did You Do to Improve Your Writing?
This question is worded very specifically. Plenty of aspiring writers will ask, “How can I get better at writing?” This question is often rewarded with a canned response. The author may say to go out there and read a bunch of books or that you should keep plugging away and you’ll eventually see improvement. By making the question personal, however, you may be able to glean some wisdom from their success stories.
Many bestselling authors have faced rejection, from Stephen King to J.K. Rowling. Following the notes in the margins of their returned manuscripts has been a common path to success. Other authors read a certain book or took a particular class that helped them go the extra mile. It’s rare that reading or writing alone got them to where they are today. Listen to the author’s individual path to improvement, and see if there are ways for you to apply those lessons to your own work.
3. How Should I Divide My Time Between Writing and Marketing?
If you asked this question at a traditional publishing conference, then it’s likely that half of the room would stare at you in awe and the other half would decry you as an evil marketer. But most authors wouldn’t flinch. Even the biggest names out there know that marketing is simply part of the game, though you may get more of a straight answer from successful self-published authors.
It’s been proven again and again in this industry, but the authors who treat their writing like a business are the ones who find the most success. Authors who are in the know will tell it to you straight. You need to spend a lot more time on marketing your books than you might think. The most proficient authors may have some helpful advice for allocating your time effectively.
4. What Steps Should I Take to Build My Author Platform?
The Dan Browns and James Pattersons of the world have massive author platforms that came as a result of their writing success. Other authors like John Green and Hugh Howey used platforms like Facebook and YouTube to build their fanbases as they became more popular. This is another question that may get you some funny stares from the traditional publishing lovers in the room. Don’t let their reaction stop you from trying to learn as much as you can about this important aspect of your writing career.
Push for specifics when it comes to how the author spends his time on email and social media. This isn’t the kind of question most aspiring authors ask, so you may find yourself getting some previously unreleased information. Take advantage of this opportunity and attempt to apply the advice on your own platform.
5. Why Do You Think Your Books Were Successful?
This last question is another effort to get personal with the author. When you ask general questions, you get general answers, but when you push deeper, you may find out some advice you’ve never heard before.
An author posed with this question might give his publishing company all the credit or praise the fans for buying his book. Don’t let him get away with something that vague. Ask about the genre. Push further about what he personally did to promote the book. There are few authors who become a success by accident. The less magical an answer you can coax from the author, the more likely you’ll be able to get something out of it.
There Is No Shortcut
The reason so many aspiring writers ask formula-type questions is because they want to take the shortest possible path to success. They believe this successful author before them has gone through all the hard work so that he can tell his followers how to do it cheaper, faster, and easier. That’s simply not how it works. There is no formula. Questions seeking a shortcut are completely worthless.
Seek puzzle pieces instead. Ask the authors about the parts of your process that aren’t working. Don’t try to solve everything in one fell swoop by getting an agent’s contact info. Learn how to get better and smarter. Ask questions that will allow you to work harder and make improvements as you go along. Now that there are more opportunities than ever to get in touch with a bestselling author, you should make sure that any question you get the chance to ask will yield something you can immediately take home, apply, and improve upon.
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