A correspondent writes:
… it occurred to me that I’ve seen many iterations of your Classic Uncle Jim Advice (Go into a bookstore and find out who publishes books like yours; figure out what agents have clients you’ve heard of; start writing another, better book while your current one makes the rounds), but when I go looking for one, it doesn’t fall into my lap.Well, there is this post that I made many years (like, in 2003) ago (and it wasn’t new for me at the time). Here’s another example from 2005. But I’ve elaborated in other places since then, streamlined in spots, combined elements, and thought about it a bit. So I might as well go again.
Do you have a single comment that, you feel, summarizes this, and if so, can I have the link? ….
The question keeps getting asked. Usually it’s in the form, “How can I get my book published for free? Also, I’m 15 years old.” Sometimes the questioner adds details about having always wanted to be a professional writer.
Well, let me say this about that. Once upon a time, I was that 15 year old. And, as it happened, I went to a presentation by a Big Name Pro about his Works (in our beloved genre, as it happens, a name you’d all recognize) for in those days there was no Internet. And, at the very end, in the question and answer section, using all of my courage, I raised my hand and asked, “How does one become a professional writer?”
He went on for quite some length about Inspiration and Art. I’m certain it was utterly true. It was also completely useless.
Here is the answer that I was looking for, that I wished I’d gotten, and that would have saved me a lot of time and confusion.
To be a writer, you must write.
Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Researching is not writing. Pre-writing exercises are not writing. Only writing is writing.
Write every day. If you only write a page a day, at the end of a year you’ll have a novel. Read every day. If you want to be a writer, you must be a reader. If you are not a reader, perhaps being a writer is not in your future.
Write straight through to THE END.
The urge to give up, particularly in the dread Mid-Book, will be strong. The desire to go back and fix the beginning will be strong. Resist the urge. You won’t know what the beginning is until you reach the finish, and perhaps not even then.
Every synapse in your brain will be screaming “This Is Crud!” Perhaps it is. That’s okay. You can’t make a pot without clay. We’ll fix it all in the second draft. If you need permission to write badly, I grant it to you.
Besides, if you give up in the middle, when and how will you learn to write endings? One failure mode that I see all the freakin’ time is the writer who, at the end of ten years, has twenty half-novels.
Note that while you will think that your writing is crud, and it may objectively be crud, you should still write to the very best of your ability.
On the day you reach THE END, put the book aside for six weeks.
You’ll want to clear your palate before you begin to revise. You need to forget the exact words. You need to forget which parts were a struggle to write, which parts came out in a white-hot blaze. Which parts you thought were crud. If you start too soon you won’t be reading the words on the paper, you’ll be reading the words you remember being on the paper.
Start writing your next book.
The same day. Or the very next day at the latest. Here is why this is necessary: Regardless of what happens to the book you just completed, you’ll want to have another in your suitcase.
One of two things may happen. The first book may sell. When that happens your agent or editor will say, “Do you happen to have another?” Or the book may not sell. In that case, you’ll want to try again with a different book.
You want to know what’s heartbreaking? Writers who spend ten or fifteen years trying to sell their first, only, unpublishable novel. In ten or fifteen years they should be ten or fifteen books on, and ten or fifteen books’ worth of better. Maybe their second book would have sold. Maybe the third.
Rewrite and revise your book.
If the story doesn’t get good until chapter four, cut chapters one through three. (Readers need far less back story than you’d imagine.) Hold a pistol to the head of every adjective and adverb and make them justify their existence. Tie up the plot threads. Plant the clues that support the climax.
Rewrite and revise it again.
Fill in the plot holes. Add characterization to the minor characters. Improve the dialog. Check the facts. Tighten up the sloppy parts. Cut the dull ones.
Rewrite and revise it one more time.
It’s helpful to print it out in a format, and with a font, that you don’t usually use for your reading copy. It’s also helpful to read the book aloud, putting a check mark in the margin every time you stumble or find something you want to fix.
Give copies to your beta readers.
These are friends who are willing to tell you the brutal truth about your book. Ask them to tear it apart. To nitpick the heck out of it. A dirty-minded high school freshman is a wonderful thing. Pick someone who can’t count to seventy without laughing, to make sure that you haven’t inadvertently written a hilarious book. An expert in the location where the book is set would be good. So would an expert in the professions of the main characters. Don’t abuse your beta readers’ good nature by giving them anything less than your most polished final draft.
With the beta readers’ suggestions in hand, rewrite your book again.
Take the suggestions or don’t, but thank them for taking the time to read and comment on your work. And mean it.
I’ve found that when readers say there’s a problem in a book, they’re usually right. When they say how to fix it, they’re usually wrong. Recall too that if a problem gets pointed out in chapter twenty-four, the real cause of that problem may be in chapter nineteen.
Now find a publisher
Go down to a doors-and-windows bookstore and find books on the shelves there that are similar to your book. Get the publishers’ names and addresses. You’ll find them on the back of the title page.
If a publisher can’t get books into bookstores, you aren’t interested in talking to them.
Get those publishers’ guidelines, and submit your work to them, following their guidelines to the letter. Start at the top and work down. Don’t start with the bottom-feeders. Writers usually find their level early, and stay there.
If it is true that 90% of the books bought in America come from the same half-dozen publishing conglomerates, I see this as an argument for making jolly sure that your book comes out from one of those conglomerates.
It’s possible, indeed likely, that the very top publishers on your list will say, “No unagented submissions.” That’s okay.
Get an agent
If you’ve written a publishable book, this won’t be a big problem. If you haven’t written a publishable book, then you’re already working on a new, different, better book, right?
Take that list of books similar to yours, books that you found physically on the shelves in physical bookstores. (No, “Listed at Amazon” is not the same and is not good enough.) Find out the names of the agents who sold them. (Often, an author will thank his/her agent in the acknowledgments. Or, you could try Googling on [Author’s Name] + “represented by”.)
Get those agents’ guidelines and submit your work to them, following their guidelines to the letter.
Remember: A useful agent has sold books that you’ve heard of. Any agent who charges a fee is clueless, a scammer, or a clueless scammer.
See also: On the Getting of Agents
Rejection is nature’s way of telling you to write a better book.
If/when your manuscript comes home with a rejection slip, send it out again that same day to the next market on your list. Don’t let a manuscript sleep over. And resist as the pomp of Satan that it is the desire to rewrite and revise the work before sending it back out. Remember, you already made this book the best you could make it before you submitted it the first time. Nothing’s changed. And you’re already working on a new, different, better book.
Only if the editor and/or agent says “If you make the following changes….” should you consider rewriting before final acceptance. In that case, let your conscience be your guide.
Do not engage in Rejectomancy. Anything other than “Yes” is “No.” Send the work out again.
See also: Slushkiller
The only thing worse than remaining unpublished is to be published badly
You may not believe me, but this is true. Do not accept an offer from a publisher unless you have read several of their titles (that you personally bought off the shelf of your local bookstore) and liked them. Do not pay to be published. Readers pay the publisher. You don’t.
By now the next book you were working on should be written all the way to THE END. Go back to “Start writing your next book” and repeat the steps in order.