Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009 • 6 Comments on How to Do It
No, not that. I’m talking about becoming published. How to become published. I’m no expert because there are still publishers and markets I have yet to crack (shakes fist at the sky and curses the writing gods), but every once in awhile I get an e-mail from someone asking me how to do it. How to write something and sell it. So, here is my brief how-to guide to getting published, based on over a decade of experience:
1. Write what you like to read—or what you would read, if only someone was publishing it. Write more than an outline. Write more than five pages. Finish whatever it is you’re writing, whether it’s a short story, an essay or a novel. I cannot emphasize this enough: finish whatever it is you hope to sell before you try to sell it. Yes, many writers get contracted on the basis of an idea or a proposal. But the idea is not to get a contract, it’s to be published. Writers who sell on proposal sometimes fail to meet the terms of their contracts and either miss their deadline or do not complete whatever it is they sold. Do not be that writer. Finish what you’re writing, then try to sell it. Trust me.
1a. In my experience, if I spend too much time talking about an idea I want to write, I won’t write it. So my advice is to keep your idea to yourself (unless, of course, an editor or agent asks you what you’re writing). That story, essay or book is your little secret and you share it only with your computer. Not talking about your idea will keep it fresh and exciting for as long as it takes you to write it.
2. Ask two or three people you trust to give you honest feedback. Consider that feedback with a grain of salt and make changes to your writing accordingly. Do not rewrite on the basis of one person’s opinion, unless that one person is going to publish you. Do not ask people who will only say what a wonderful writer you are. That is nice to hear and great for the ego, but it is not a contract and it will not get you published. Besides, no matter how much you love Grandma, it’s better to hear what a wonderful writer you are from an editor offering you a contract. (Some writers use critique groups. This can be a good thing or it can make you want to scratch your eyeballs out and beg for change on the street corner.)
2a. Hone your writing skills. Take a writing class, read a how-to book, be critical of your own writing. Read the blogs of professional writers to glean tips on improving your own writing. Read in the area you are trying to publish. How can you hope to sell a science fiction novel if you’ve never read a single piece of science fiction? Read the best sellers, read the classics, read what people are talking and blogging about. But do not spend more time reading than you do writing. At some point, you have to learn to trust your instincts and write the best story, essay or novel you can write.
3. Once you have completed your magnificent story, essay or novel, do your research and find out where to send it. There are many writer’s resources online and in the bookstores—do you homework. Do not send an erotic story to an inspirational magazine, no matter how “inspirational” the sex scenes may be. Do not send a paranormal romance to a company that only publishes nonfiction. Do not send your fabulous first-person essay to a poetry editor. Find out who is buying what you write and send it.
3a. Wherever you are submitting, be sure to follow the submission guidelines. Do not send a 300 page manuscript if the guidelines call for three chapters and a synopsis. Do not e-mail a story or essay if the guidelines call for a hard copy to be mailed. Failure to follow the guidelines almost always results in immediate rejection.
4. Be prepared for a long wait. Be prepared for rejection after that long wait. Allow yourself one day to mope, then buy yourself a chocolate bar and submit your magnificent story, essay or novel to someone else. After you’ve sent it off to someone else, start writing something new.
4a. If you have written a novel, you may be attempting to secure an agent. This is usually a good idea. Rule #3 still applies, but you will most likely be making multiple submissions. In which case, be prepared for a long wait and to be turned down by 9 out of 10 agents. If the tenth agent requests your full manuscript, send it immediately (see, this is why you have completed that project!) and be prepared for an even longer wait. If you are rejected by every agent on your first attempt, choose another batch of reputable agents and start over.
5. While you are submitting and waiting, you should be writing The Next Thing. The Next Thing might be completely different from The First Thing, but often it’s a good idea to at least stay in the same vein. Look at it this way: if an editor falls in love with The First Thing and asks you what else you have written, it would be nice if The Next Thing was also something the editor might publish. (One caveat: be wary of writing the same thing over and over again. Feel free to branch out and try something new. It might be just the thing to jump start your flagging enthusiasm and lead to a sale.)
6. Remember that writing is rewriting. If you have received several rejections for one piece, it might be time to put it aside and write something new—or it might be a good idea to take a look at what you’ve written and see if you can improve it. If you’ve been lucky enough to get actual feedback from editors (as opposed to a standard “No thanks” rejection), consider those comments to be little nuggets of gold for two reasons: 1) it means the editor thinks you have potential, otherwise he/she wouldn’t waste time giving you feedback and 2) you are getting free, professional writing advice. Take it. Use it. Resubmit. (But do not resubmit to the same editor, unless the editor requested it.)
6a. If an editor gives you feedback and requests you resubmit your project: edit according to his/her feedback and
. Do this in a timely fashion (a week for a story, a month for a novel) and be happy. This is a very, very good thing.
7. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Keep editing. Keep writing. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It will probably take longer than a month to sell your first piece of writing. If you’re writing short stories or essays—and are writing and submitting consistently—you may begin to hope for that first sale after about six months. If you’re writing a novel, that wait might be a year, or two years or longer. Swap the “r” in writing for an “a” and you have waiting. But what are you doing while you’re waiting for that sale? Oh yes, you are still writing!
8. When the day comes and you receive that first offer of publication, celebrate! Buy a bottle of champagne and a case of Ben & Jerry’s and tell everyone you ever met, including Grandma and the staff at Starbucks. Then… go back to writing. Because the only thing better than selling your first piece of writing is selling your second piece of writing.
There are dozens of little tidbits of advice you will pick up along the way to becoming and staying published, but I think these are the most important guidelines to remember. Your mileage may vary based on what you’re writing, who you are submitting to, what the industry is hungry for and how the planets are aligned. Publishing is a crazy business of old fashioned attitudes and cutting edge ideas.
And yes, I have heard the story about the woman who had never written anything in her life before securing a three-book contract with a six figure advance based on four words she scribbled on a cocktail napkin and handed to a senior editor. And if you believe that, I have a nice piece of waterfront property I would love to sell you.
Now, go forth and write! And feel free to add your “rules” in the comments. I love to know how other writers do it.