At least once a week I get asked one of these three questions (if not all three): How did you get published?
When did you find the time to write?
Can you help me/my wife/brother/cousin/aunt/niece/etc., get published?
The first rule of writing is to tell the truth. And so I am going to save you the bull and get right to it: There is no easy way to get published or find time to write. (No, writers are not granted extra hours in the day.) And as for helping you, your brother, daughter, cousin, etc., get published, I will try my best to give you the most helpful, honest advice I possibly can. Although, you must know, I can only give advice based on my own experiences.
So I have to warn you, if you're looking for any easy step-by-step program to publishing success, you're reading the wrong blog. There was nothing easy about writing and/or getting published for me. And yes, everyone's experience is different. And yes, we all know those few publishing miracle stories--the ones that tell how an author had a dream, woke up, ran to her keyboard, tapped out her first novel, sent it to one agent, got a giant advance, went on to sell millions of copies of her vampire trilogy and then turned them into blockbuster gold. The reason we all know that story is because it is so incredibly rare it is actually newsworthy.
The reality is hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. Yes, you read that correctly--hundreds of thousands. And for an author to have such a meteoric rise to fame takes as much luck as winning the Powerball. There are a lot of mysterious forces at play in the publishing universe. Lots of bad books sell millions of copies, while beautifully written and painstakingly crafted books sit on shelves collecting dust. Ask any writer and they will say they know this: There is no rhyme or reason. Audiences are fickle. Readers and critics who loved your first book, could hate your second or third. And no matter how brilliant of a writer you are, you will always, always have detractors. I know it's hard to believe, but there people who absolutely hate To Kill a Mockingbirdorany number of other literary treasures. (Check out goodreads.com reviews if you don't believe me.) Any writer foolish enough to feel like they are fully in control of their success or whether or not readers will adore them has not fully grasped the power of Fortune's Wheel...or amazon.com.
That being said, this knowledge hasn't stopped writers everywhere from reaching for the proverbial brass ring--a pub deal. Anyone daring to publish would love to have a similar story to tell: I sat down one day and started to write the great American novel. It just flowed out of me. Then I sent it off to an agent, and surprise, surprise she loved it! And it was taken to auction where all the big pub houses fought over it, until we settled on a six-figure advance. Oprah called me and wanted me to appear on her show. And so I quit my job, and now I am on the road making public appearances with my pals Oprah, John Stewart, the Today show team. Isn't being a writer awesome? I mean why doesn't everyone do this?
Okay. Back to reality. This doesn't happen to every writer. Or even most. It just doesn't. I am even going to go out on a limb and say that all those overnight successes we hear about are anything but.
Usually these following steps came first.
How to Get Your Book Published in 10 Exceedingly Difficult and Painful Steps
1. Read. Read. Read. You cannot write without having read. It's that simple. I often have students show up at my office and tell me they are writing their first novel and need advice on how to get it published (even before they have completed chapters 1 and 2). Before even looking at the manuscript, I ask them what books they have read recently. Nine out of 10 will tell me they haven't read anything outside their textbooks in the past year. After I bite my tongue and recover from hyperventilating from the shock of this truth, I usually advise them to stop whatever they're doing and read, and to do so regularly. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can replace reading in preparation for writing. I tell them to pay attention to everything when they read: how sentences are crafted, how the author employs symbolism, metaphors, dialogue, how the author plays with the language and form, how he or she develops characters, and how the author uses and controls his/her voice or tone. I advise reading books in one's preferred writing genre, but to not stop there. Everything I read informs my own writing-- yes, even books on spirituality, quantum physics, Irish history, memoirs, romances, mysteries, classics, and even YA. You can't write if you don't read. And you can't do anything original, if you don't know what's been done before.
2.Live your life. And by that I mean do anything but write for a living. Every writer worth her salt will tell you this: Get out from behind that desk. Get outside and do something. Anything. Take risks. Fall in love. Get your heart broken, chewed up, and spit out. Then do it again. Travel. Work. Before I turned 21 I had worked as a waitress, a farm hand, a receptionist, a flight tracker at a regional airport, a nanny, a store clerk, a professor's assistant, a file clerk, a hostess...to name a few. I spent my days talking to and watching people, all while learning all types of other skills. I paid attention to my surroundings and learned how things worked. I practiced describing what I saw, so I could later capture it in full detail. I sketched pictures of people I met. I tried to zero in on what made each person who they were--not just their physical features either. I asked more questions than I answered. I listened and let people tell me their stories. When I was in college and broke, I traveled with friends. We slept on the floors of people's homes or in the woods. We made our way up snow-capped mountaintops and back roads. We got lost. We got found. We took risks. While living in Nebraska in grad school, I got in my car and headed west, and sometimes south. I saw the Rockies, the desert, the plains , and so much more this way. I climbed a few more mountains. I fell in love. Got pregnant. Had a baby. And then lived life as a single mom. No, I didn't do all this because I thought it would make great material. I was just willing to take risks and put myself out there. When you're a writer you will rely on these skills--observation, risk-taking, empathy, and human understanding--to write and create. You cannot write anything if you lack any one of these, no matter how beautifully you can put a sentence together.
3. Nevertheless, write daily and make it a habit. If you really, really want to tick me off--say this to me: "I would so be published right now, if I had the time you do to write." Yeah, people say this to me. Like I said before, a fairy did not bestow a few extra hours a day to me upon my birth. I, and every writer out there, was granted the same 24. And, I have to add, when I wrote my first book, I was working full-time as an editor for a non-profit at home while caring for my preschool-aged son and teaching three writing classes at the University of Cincinnati. I made every meal, folded every piece of laundry, kept the house clean, and chauffeured both of my kids to their respective schools, doctor appointments, and play dates. I stayed up late. I woke up early. I knew if I wanted to get published, I had to write. I told myself this: Make no excuses. I was merciless to myself. Was I sick? Tired? Yes. Was it painful? Yes. But, I did it. Because if I didn't do it, it would never get done. If you want to write, but you claim there is absolutely no time then all I can say to you is this: You don't want it badly enough. And that's fine, too. But, here's the thing that is true for anything in life: If you want anything badly enough you will find the time. You may have to give some other stuff up, but you'll find it. Trust me. You will.
4. Revise. Revise. Revise. This one is self-explanatory. Writing is revision. Whatever you write, write again, and then again. The process will make you better.
5. Have trusted, but honest, friends and critics give you feedback. When you are ready to show your work, do not dash it off to the first agent's name you see online. Have a trusted friend who will not be afraid to give you honest feedback review your work. (And I would advise not asking published writers or people who you think will give you an in to do this. I know so many writers who are inundated with requests to read others' works. Do not be offended if a writer says no to you. They are trying to find any spare minute in the day to write--reading another's work is a great sacrifice. If you find one who is willing to do it, shower them with praise, thanks, and take them to dinner.) Besides, it's better to ask readers and not writers to review your work anyway. Readers know what works and what doesn't. What keeps them interested. What doesn't. Get beyond Did you like it? Did you enjoy it? That's not enough. And be aware of how you react to the reader's feedback. Are you defensive? Do you feel hurt? If the answer is yes, you're not ready to put yourself out there to agents and critics. Use this time as practice for thickening your skin, and for making your work better.
6. Get used to people not liking you. Submit your work. Get rejected. A lot. One of the best pieces of advice I can give to all aspiring writers it to get comfortable with people not liking you--or your work. (I know, I know...we are not our work. Blah, blah, blah. Every writer knows the truth: Their books, stories, and characters therein might as well be bodily appendages connected to their own blood and nerves, so when someone cuts or hacks at their works they feel it, too.) The only way to get comfortable with this sensation is to submit work regularly--to scholarly journals and/or popular online and print magazines. I started submitting articles and books 19 years ago. At first it was brutal. But, then I got the hang of it. Some readers were kind and said some encouraging words that buoyed me and kept me from plunging into pits of despair. Others gave me helpful tips to improve. I could wallpaper a room with all the rejection letters I received over the years. But, each one made me a better writer. And, it's the dues every writer has to pay. Eventually (almost 10 years later) I got my foot in the door with an interview with the incredible author, Janet Fitch. Soon I was writing profiles and interviewing other literary icons, like Pulitzer-prize winner Dave Eggers, U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, and NPR Fresh Air host, Terry Gross. During those interviews I learned so much about writing--their process, their tips, and their journeys, and that kept me moving forward in my own career. This practice of submitting and getting rejected steeled me for the future, too. Because, rejection letters pale in comparison to your agent's or editor's criticisms, let alone readers' once your book is published. Let's just say people can be way harsh.
7. Determine if you would like to self-publish or find a publishing house to represent you. Once you feel like you have a complete book that's edited and been reviewed carefully by peers (and I would even suggest a professional editor), then determine if you want to self-publish or find a publishing house to represent you. Back in the day, when I got my start in publishing and writing, there were just few websites with submission guidelines for publishers or agents. I used to buy an annual giant Writer's Digest manual with a complete list of publishers and another volume with a list of agents. I carefully read the writer submission guidelines for each and submitted my work that way via snail-mail. If you go the self-publishing route, you won't need an agent. Just be wary of scam artists or anyone who asks you to pay to publish. I didn't want to mess with any of that, so I chose the latter. I wanted to be published and represented by a big publishing house. It was a lifelong dream of mine. (Oh, vanity of vanities.) Not only that, I knew I couldn't market a book on my own, and I knew I wanted a professional editor and the expertise of all the in-house publishing staff members to take my book to the next level.
8. If you choose the latter, you'll need an agent. Now you can find most agents online or even on social media. When I submitted my first novel Proof of Heaven back in 2009, I did my research. I looked in the acknowledgment sections of some of my favorite books (ones that seemed to match the genre I was writing in) and looked for the name of the agent that the author thanked. I wrote the name down, looked him/her up online, reviewed their submission guidelines, and matched my manuscript to their specifications. I carefully constructed a query letter and pushed send. No, I didn't know anyone in the industry. I just followed the agent's submission guidelines to the letter and made sure the book I was sending was the best I thought it could be. I heard back from several interested agents this way, and I picked the one agent that I felt was most passionate about representing my book. She called me right away after reading my submission, and we just clicked.
9. Perfect your book with an agent and professional editors. That's not to say after that it all went smoothly. I did ten more drafts with my agent and other paid editors. Yes, ten. I rewrote the ending no less than six times. My agent and her staff editor knew better than I what it takes to get a book published by one of the big pub houses. I willingly accepted their critiques and worked hard, draft after draft, to get it to near perfect condition. It was exhausting. At times, soul-sucking. You can't even imagine how much you will begin to loathe the process of writing once you have to sit down and work and then rework the same damn chapter you've worked for three weeks in a row. (Now, that could just be me. I could be that bad of a writer. There may be people who can sit down and write perfect first drafts, but I am not one of them.) But, I was lucky. I had an agent and an editor who truly cared about my book. They cared so much they were willing to work with me. They knew how difficult it was for a first-time author with basically no name and virtually no writing past to speak of (a few articles in a trade magazine does not a writer make) to get her foot in the door. And so they took their time with me. And it was worth it.
10. Look for the perfect home for your book. The day my agent called me to say that she accepted the final draft of the manuscript and was ready to go to market with it, I wept. I actually hung up the phone, collapsed on the floor, and wept. Loud sobs. Like I did after I gave birth to my daughter--feeling the release, the joy, the exhaustion, the beginning of something new, and the end of something long, painful, and hard-fought. And yet, little did I know, we were about to go another ten revolutions on the merry-go-round of publishing. Calls were set up so I could talk to editors. I had choices. Actual choices. (This is a testament to how awesome my agent is. Really.) My agent wanted me to hear what the editors/publishers had in store for my book. She wanted me to listen to their ideas. I am not going to lie. I hated this process. It's like having your firstborn dropped into a room and having ten people tell you how ugly, stupid, and ill-conceived she is. (Okay, I may be overstating, but that's really how I felt.) One of the publishers wanted me to scrub my book of all swear words (imagine a FDNY firefighter who says, aw shucks and gosh darn it?), tone down the Catholicism (um, sure, let me go and scrub out the entire motivating force behind my main character. I'll get right on that), and possibly consider having my formerly Hindu-now agnostic character convert to Christianity by the book's end. I know, I know. I should have shut up. I should have said: Great ideas! All! Let me get right to that and un-write my entire book. But, I didn't. I shot my mouth off. And the conversation ended before it began. Needless to say, I was not published by that publisher and missed the opportunity for a double-book contract and a nice advance. One could say: Dumb move. But, in the end, I felt like I could at least sleep at night. Granted, I'd be sleeping on my 9-year-old mattress, because I couldn't afford a new one, but I could sleep. Then I spoke to a couple of other editors, too. Having learned my lesson, I kept my mouth shut and listened. And eventually it all clicked. I fell in love with my editor at William Morrow/HarperCollins. She totally got me, my book, and what I was trying to achieve. It was a match.
And, that's how I got published.