This, I have learned, is an understatement.

I know how disheartening this learning period can be for writers.  After all, I was there myself, not too long ago.  But consider this: Your book must compete with the 200,000 others published each year, of which a mere 1 percent sell more than 5,000 copies.  A full 98 percent of all books published each year, in fact, sell less than 1,000 copies.  So even if you could get published now, is this really what you want to put out there?

To be a success, your writing simply cannot be mediocre.  It has to be phenomenal.  Not only that, but when it comes to wowing an agent, you’ve got one shot, and one shot only.  Do you really want to take yours now?

Maybe you do.  You’ve work-shopped that manuscript (or book proposal) to death.  You’ve rewritten your book, again and again.  You’ve put in the time, and you know you can’t make it any better.  It’s ready to go and it’s very, very good – or so say all the non-relatives and unpaid friends who’ve critiqued it. 

Well, if that’s your case, darlin’, then congratulations for sticking it out.  I’m just as proud as peat, and I can’t wait to read that book.  So please skip to Part III of this article and go find yourself an agent.

For everyone else – especially those just getting started – I invite you to pull up a chair and pour yourself some sweet tea.  Sweet tea is good.  But experience is better.  And if there’s anything we Southern Girls like to do, it’s share our experience and hand out advice – especially if we can save someone a little heartache.

So here’s my take, for what it’s worth, on what you really need to produce a manuscript that will wow a good agent:  

Read lots of books about the craft of writing.  You can get them online, from the library or a book club.  I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club and, thanks to their generous “buy four get one free” policy, now own a small collection of writing books that I refer to again and again.  These were not only great fun to read, but they also fueled my writing, giving me lots of creative inspiration. 

Read books in your genre.  Examine them as an editor would, studying structure, style, content and voice.  Other authors will give you fresh ideas, improve your vocabulary and teach you how books work.   

Hang out with other writers.  Writing is a lonely discipline, and you’ll need likeminded people to encourage and teach you what’s what.  So visit bookstores, where you’ll find future authors lurking in the coffee shop or in front of the reference shelves.  Check out the local library or the classified ads section.  Run an ad yourself.  Go to author readings.  And don’t be afraid to talk to published writers.  People approach me all the time, and I don’t mind a bit.  I see it as “paying forward” the help I’ve received from others.

Attend writer’s conferences.  You’ll learn lots about the craft and the business of writing, as well as the all-important publishing industry.  You’ll also meet published writers who may mentor you and perhaps even give you a quote for your book someday – which agents and editors love.  Network.  Listen.  Take notes.  And learn as much as you possibly can.

Find or create a writer’s group.  My group, which I formed after we all met at a local conference, consisted of four other writers at different stages of their novels. They taught me things I could never have learned otherwise and pointed out mistakes that I should have seen, but did not.  They encouraged me, supported me, and gave me wonderful suggestions – especially when I got bogged down.  Our bi-monthly evenings spent laughing, dreaming and scheming are, to date, some of the happiest memories ever.