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December 6, 2010

How To Get Published
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:20 PM *

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.

Do you have a single comment that, you feel, summarizes this, and if so, can I have the link? ….

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.

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.

See also: Varieties of insanity known to affect authors

Note: I’d considered writing this advice to the tune of the Oompa Loompa song … but thought better of it.


Comments on How To Get Published:
#1 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 09:53 PM:

Thank you, Jim. Bookmarked! Will be directing people here a lot.

#3 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 10:13 PM:

Hey, Teresa. I followed the link to Varieties of Insanity. For the record, I don't have all of those. All the time.

#4 ::: Mezzanine ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 10:56 PM:

So, how does one become an EDITOR?

(Seriously. I have a full qualification - and no job.)

#5 ::: Anticorium ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 11:19 PM:

I'm curious about this one: "If a publisher can’t get books into bookstores, you aren’t interested in talking to them."

How does a new publisher transition from "does not exist" to "has books in bookstores" (and presumably next to "is deluged by submissions")? I know that the answer is "mostly, they don't", but when they do, how do they do it?

#6 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 11:22 PM:

I believe I will be fixing this article up in Word, printing it out nicely and giving it to my bother as a special Christmas present.

I may even make a special sidebar of the concise points of Slushkiller.

He has been scammed by a vanity press, I hope the contract he signed was open-ended enough for him to escape. he did figure out the scam when they started asking exorbitant costs for line-by-line-editing.

Granted that is something he asked of me and I declined out of hand because i'd read his prose and do not want to start with, "this is tedious and you need to just start over." He thinks that if you can write at all it's magic and people should buy it.

He said this to me and ended it by saying, 'well you've had stories published!" And I said, "I started writing fiction when i was in grade school. and started submitting stuff when i was in high school. And started getting things that were better than a form submission letter when i was in my 20s. And sold my first short story for money in 1988.

He just stared at me in a cow-ish way. I think he just expected I submitted stories and people bought then because I was naturally brilliant. NOT.

sigh. it gets tough at times.

#7 ::: Zeborah ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:14 AM:

Write straight through to THE END. [...] The desire to go back and fix the beginning will be strong. Resist the urge.

This little bit I slightly disagree with. I think it depends on the author, and on the book. For myself, I absolutely made ginormous strides when Pat Wrede said "Have you considered *not* going back to fix the first part of the book yet again?" and I thought, "...Huh. I could try that, I guess." It remains the best thing for me to do most of the time, so most of the time, if I get a Better Idea I just make a note and keep writing.

But still it sometimes happens that making a note isn't sufficient. Sometimes I really do have to do a quick run-through extracting the romance to make sure I grasp the ramifications of this before I continue. Or delete 60 pages and start again. (With that accursed book I deleted most pages at least twice, sometimes half a dozen times, but that moment when I deleted the first 4.5 chapters and started from word 1 was... memorable. I did finish the thing in the end, but by God was it painful. I may never know how to revise it into an actual novel-like shape, either.) Not always, but definitely sometimes.

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 it could be before you submitted it the first time. Nothing’s changed.

I'll be a bit contrary here, too. Technically you only made the book the best you could make it before you submitted it the first time. Now that you're writing a new book, you've learnt more so you probably could make it better. But there's the law of diminishing returns: you can either make book 1 a tiny amount better by revising, or you can make book 2 a huge amount better by actually finishing it. Which is the most efficient use of your time? So same conclusion: if the revision's going to take more than five minutes (eg a quick find/replace because, you and your original beta-readers not knowing French, you thought "Merde" would make an elegant name for your protagonist) then just dump it back in the post and get on with the useful work.

#8 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:22 AM:

Under the "write straight through to the END" bit, I submit that "you should not be afraid of digressions."

A lot of times, a digressions is just that: something irrelevant to the plot you have. But sometimes, the digression takes you where the book should go, not where you thought it was going. Or it might lead back to the plot by a different route. You can always remove it later and write from the part where it got out of hand.

Mind you, this is not from book-publishing experience. It's from improv experience. But my one-and-only published story (for the charity book at Unicorn Pegasus Kitten) can only be described as Kid-Inspired Digressions. So thus far, it's worked for me. :D

#9 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:34 AM:

Digressions are great. Straight lines are boring.

But going back to re-write the chapter you wrote yesterday, rather than plunging on to new territory, is a way to make sure you never get a completed manuscript.

(And by the time you add a comma in the morning and take it out in the afternoon, you're just putting off submitting the darned thing. Get it out of the house and do something different.)

#10 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:34 AM:

This post showed up at just the right time. Thanks, Jim.

#11 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:35 AM:

The THE END you imagined when you first got started, and the THE END you arrive at when you get there 500 pages later, may have nothing in common other than the two words: THE END.

#12 ::: Carrie V. ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 01:05 AM:

I have told this (roughly) to people and had them reply, "But that sounds" To which I've been heard to say, "Arrrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Yeah. Bookmarking. Thanks.

#13 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 01:58 AM:

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

#14 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 02:12 AM:

This advice is remarkably similar to what Heinlein wrote back in the 40s. IIRC, the essay is in a little book called Of Worlds Beyond, published by Fantasy Press in 1947. His four rules (from memory):

1. Write
2. Finish what you write
3. Send it out
4. Keep sending it out until it sells

Now, he was talking about short stories, and therefore there's a bit more detail in what you're suggesting, James; but this advice seems to have stood the test of time and remained useful for many people. Had you read the Heinlein piece?

#15 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 02:18 AM:

Don't get hung up on the details of the writing process. The only certainty is that if you don't finish books, you'll never sell them. You don't need to use the same software as anyone else, or do anything else in the same way as any other writer. But, right now, you're learning; try things, and be willing to change.

And get that book finished.

#16 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 02:41 AM:

Bookmarked. Thanks for putting all that in one place.

Tom @ 14: Heinlein had 5 rules. You missed "You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order."

Paula @ 6: ... giving it to my bother...
What an interesting typo.

#17 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 03:28 AM:

I'm vaguely reminded of the fellow in Camus' The Plague who kept obsessively revising one sentence, figuring that he would move on to finish the novel once he had its starting place absolutely perfect. (Which of course he never did.) In all honesty I don't remember much else about the book here at two decades' remove.

#18 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 06:26 AM:

I've long been a fan of the Absolute Write thread but this concise version is just what I needed today.

Right. Finish. That's my biggie.

#19 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 08:46 AM:

The last novel I wrote, I did stop in the middle to go back and start from the beginning, and I think it was the right decision -- for me. I already knew I could finish a novel, and a publishable one at that, but I had walked my protagonist into a corner and realized that I had set up from the beginning that she could not get herself out of it. I had gone over the line between putting your hero up a tree, and pure victimization.

(The draft that is now with my publisher bears zero resemblance to either the version I threw away, or the version I started again with. It was a long process.)

Everything else I will heartily agree with.

And yes, it IS still possible to get picked from the slush pile.

#20 ::: ebear ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 08:50 AM:

Jim @7: actually, when I tried to follow that advice, I broke myself so badly I was late on a book for the only time in my life. A *year* late.

"Straight through to the end" only works if you can think linearly.

Which I can't.

I would phrase that "write something new every day. Rewriting is not writing."

#21 ::: Derryl Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 08:59 AM:

All excellent advice, but for the agent part. These days it often doesn't matter if you've written something publishable, since so many agents have way too much on their plates and aren't keen to add to the load. Sometimes the first sale has to come and then the agent jumps on board.

#22 ::: Keith Snyder ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 09:11 AM:

This is terrific.

#23 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 10:03 AM:

The bit about "finish it and then fix it"? That completely kills books for me -- it needs to be fixed now and gone forward from there. I was given this advice, and I'd say it set my career back at least five years.

"There are nine and sixty ways of creating tribal lays, and every single one of them is right."

#24 ::: Dave Robinson ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 10:46 AM:

Jo Walton@23

I think the point about finishing books before fixing them is primarily aimed at people who've never finished a book. I think it makes a good default for most people and that they should try that way first, and only do things differently if finish before fixing doesn't work for them.

#25 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 10:47 AM:

My wife gets frustrated when she has to stop halfway thru her novel to go back and change things before she can resume writing forward. That's when I point out that it's not a waste of time, and that it's easier to fix the foundations before the whole edifice has been built.

#26 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 11:17 AM:

Mezzanine @4 -- how to become an editor:

1. love books with all your heart and soul.
2. get a job as an editorial assistant at a major publishing house. The pay is shit, and you have to live in New York City. The hours are long, and the work is mind-numbing.
3. get your boss to teach you. Get everyone in the house to teach you.
4. as you learn more, begin to acquire books. The hours get longer, the work more difficult, the pay stays about the same.
5. Fling your heart into the fire when the book fails. Pull it out again.
6. Do it again. Fail better.

If you survive a few years of that without nervous breakdown or realizing that you can make a lot more money, and do less work, if you go to law school, you'll become an editor.

It helps if you have a working understanding of human psychology, an ability to read contracts, a knack for public speaking, and a fondness for byzantine politics. Oh, and can write advertising copy.

The editing prose part? You do that on your own time.

#27 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 11:26 AM:

I think the underlying principle here is to maintain forward momentum (as Miles Vorkosigan would say) -- with the caveat that the form the forward momentum takes is going to vary wildly from one writer to another.

The thing to avoid here is the kind of obsessive rewriting of what's already there that resembles nothing so much as trying to get your vehicle out of the mud by spinning the wheels. Eventually you dig yourself in so deep that there's nothing to do for it but call on a friend with a heavy pickup and a trailer hitch to haul you up onto dry ground by brute force.

(I used to think that "mud time" was something that Robert Frost made up for poetic effect. Then I moved to northern New Hampshire, and learned better.)

#28 ::: Keetha ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:20 PM:

Great post!

When I finished my first novel last month, I printed it out and put it away in a drawer. I began a new project the next day. After the holidays I will take that novel out and begin editing and revising.

(I'm visiting from Jason Pinter's tweet.)

#29 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:28 PM:

Paula Helm Murray #6 wrote "I believe I will be fixing this article up in Word, printing it out nicely and giving it to my bother as a special Christmas present." Was "bother" intentional or a Freudian petticoat?

#30 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:37 PM:

Mezzanine @#4: Hmm, IANAPublishing Professional, but if I was aiming to build a career as an editor I would contact writers I like (both well-known and just-starting-out) and offer/beg to beta-read for them. Once I'd built a reputation for giving good and useful critiques, I would get permission from the well-known writers to use them as references. Then I would try to convince an editor of a press or magazine to let me do some kind of beginning-level work--slush reading, maybe?

I don't know that this would be the right or normal way to do it, but I think it would at least get me a friendly meeting with various right people.

#31 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:43 PM:

Write straight through to THE END.

Strongly disagree. If I know something is Wrong in the manuscript, I can't go forward. It's the only thing guaranteed to give me total block. I must go back and fix it before I can continue.

I will freely admit that this is a peculiarity of mine, and that I write iteratively so that by the time I get to the end of a "first" draft it's been chewed over 2-3 times at a minimum (more often 4-6 times). But I think it's worth bringing up simply to demonstrate that not all writers work the same way: there's more than one way to do it.

(Also: putting the finished MS aside for six weeks is great advice, except when you finish it less than six weeks before the deadline ...)

#32 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:54 PM:

beth meacham #26: Do it again. Fail better.

I like that. That works for a lot of things.

#33 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 01:02 PM:

Fabulous post, but put me down as another disagreement on write straight through to the end and then fix. I have to fix as I go along or I don't go along.

In my case it's because the novel-to-date sits in my head as a sort of crystalline structure and if I don't go back and change something when I realize it needs changing then it creates stress-fractures that keep getting worse until I fix them or the whole thing shatters and it all falls apart. Fixing as I go is just part of my novel time-budget, usually about 3 percent of my total ongoing writing time for any project.

#34 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 01:57 PM:

Debra Doyle @27
The thing to avoid here is the kind of obsessive rewriting of what's already there that resembles nothing so much as trying to get your vehicle out of the mud by spinning the wheels. Eventually you dig yourself in so deep that there's nothing to do for it but call on a friend with a heavy pickup and a trailer hitch to haul you up onto dry ground by brute force.

I've done this. In a plane.

#35 ::: Emma Bull ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 02:06 PM:

Bless you, Jim. May I distribute a paper copy of this, with both Making Light and you-as-author identified and linked to, to my Pima College workshop students next month? It'll save them (and me!) a hell of a lot of time!

#36 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 02:41 PM:

Thanks for this post. A timely topic of discussion here as well.

Best advice I ever got: a rejection slip, while never the outcome we were hoping for, is also a sign that you're still trying. Collect enough, throw yourself a party to celebrate your perseverance.

Giving up is the only real failure. (Well, that and maybe writing a novel about an elven pirate/vampire/werewolf from outer space, but that's been done already anyway.)

#37 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 03:35 PM:

Jim - I'm linking this to my region's NaNoWriMo forums. It sounds like just what everyone needs to hear.

Carrie V. @12: "But that sounds like... work." From the other, equally exasperating side: being asked, upon my admitting that, yes, writing is work, "But if you think that, are you sure writing is really your true calling?"

It is possible to *facepalm* hard enough to break your nose. I came close.

Keetha @28: That sounds like my proposed post-Nano schedule as well. January for first round of revisions. Meanwhile, December is for editing/finishing/submitting short stories that have patiently waited their turn for far too long. Also writing at least a half hour of Something New every day.

(My success at this depends on the day. Today is a good day, so far.)

#38 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 04:01 PM:

Emma #5: PERGRA. Which is Navy-speak for "Yes, of course."

All, what I do when I find that the structure-to-date is fatally flawed is to continue forward, but writing as if I'd already made the changes. So that Sharky, who was dead, escaped the explosion and the funeral scene didn't happen, if I suddenly need him back.

It makes for a confusing first draft, but it works for me.

Everything here should have a large "In My Opinion" and "It Works For Me" hung on it.

(Also in my first drafts, a character called "the Author" wanders in from time to time and has meta conversations with the actors who are playing the various other characters about their motivations and their plans. Which ... works for me.)

#39 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 04:36 PM:

#5 Anticorium How does a new publisher transition from "does not exist" to "has books in bookstores" (and presumably next to "is deluged by submissions")? I know that the answer is "mostly, they don't", but when they do, how do they do it?

This advice is for brand-new authors. The general idea is, if a publisher can't get anyone else's books into stores, they won't be able to get your book into stores either (I know, my book is different, but still.)

A new publisher should have enough contacts in the world of books and writing to get known authors for their first list, or strong enough contacts with bookstores, and a good enough reputation, to get shelved. A newbie publisher with newbie authors and no contacts among booksellers ... that path is strewn with the bones of the dead.

#40 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 04:40 PM:

Emma, tell them that Jim giving permission to you doesn't mean he's given permission to them. Also, that if they duplicate it without the attribution and the copyright notice, their writing will be cursed with bad luck forevermore.

#41 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 04:47 PM:

Jim, here's the short version: a trade publisher needs a distribution deal. If they don't know they need one, or they know they need one but can't get it, or they don't give a damn about bookstore distribution, you don't want them.

#42 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 05:13 PM:

"Rejection is nature’s way of telling you to write a better book."

Nature has nothing to do with it.

A more honest formulation would be that rejection is merely an agent's or an acquiring editor's way of telling you they didn't want to read your book. They usually don't give a flying fig at that point whether you ever decide to write another one. In fact, more than likely, if they were to be honest with you, they'd prefer you stopped writing altogether.

And, it's their natural born right to think so, despite the fact that they're obviously wrong.

—james, who is not writing another one, at least not right now.

#43 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 05:16 PM:

The desire to re-write the book between submissions is strongest when you get a rejection slip with a little hand-written note: The opening seemed a little slow. So you re-write the book to speed up the opening, and send it to the next place, where the editor sends back a rejection slip with a little hand-written note that says, "The romance plot didn't grab me." So you re-write it to punch up the romance, send it to the next place, and get a little hand-written note that says, "Opening too fast," so you re-write the book to slow down the opening, send it to the next place, where you get a hand-written note, "Too heavy on the romance for my taste...." And so endlessly on.

Unless the editor says, "I will buy this if," or "Do thus-and-so and I'll give it another look," don't waste your time rewriting between submissions.

You've written the best book you could. Now write a new, different, better book.

#44 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 05:21 PM:

I've been seeing new books come into stores from Angry Robot Books, which is a new name to me. On examination it seems they got started in publishing by being spun off by another publishing house. Am I reading this right? Is this normal business behavior? (HLN: My new year's resolution is going to be "Banish the ellipse unless I am actually removing words from a quote." Wish me luck.)

#45 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 07:00 PM:

In terms of "write straight through" in the context of the next step I think the fundamental point is "finish the damn thing."

#46 ::: Sam M-B ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 11:03 PM:

On distribution: see Solaris Books, or Baen, from whom I can stock books via Simon & Schuster distribution (via PubEasy ordering to be specific).

See Orbit Books, orderable via Hachette (via PubEasy &c.).

See Night Shade Books, distributed by Diamond, available via Ingram, B&T, &c.

See Pyr.

For "how to go from zero to in bookstores" see Angry Robot's US launch this fall. Books from de Bodard and Tidhar and Broaddus, orderable via Random House. (PubEasy, yada yada.)

But being a thumbnail in Ingram's wholesale distribution catalog doesn't make the book appear on the bookstore shelf, either. You go to the conventions where Barnes & Noble and Borders and Books a Million and whatever book buyers go and convince them your book will sell if they order it. You work your butt off to get the book reviewed in a place where people actually read reviews in order to find books to buy. (Not just where other undistributed small press and self-published authors go to wait to see their review.) And then the book doesn't sell anyway, despite its being great, perhaps even award-nominated, loved by all who encounter it. And then you do it all again, and, I like the phrase, fail better next time.

(And you send bookmarks to all the Barnes & Noble customer service counter displays. And maybe pay for front displays that you don't actually get, half+ the time. You buy advertisements in various markets, print, online, heck, get a blimp, run an infomercial...)

At least this is what I think I've learned so far. Probably mostly wrong. Hopefully not wrong in *interesting* ways.

#47 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 11:46 PM:

Oompa Loompa doompety doo
I've got a perfect puzzle for you
Oompa Loompa doompety dee
If you are wise you'll listen to me

What do you get if you don't write your book?
It doesn't get writ and you feel like a schnook.
Do you intend to get to THE END
Or just mess around while you play pretend?
Write some new material

Oompa Loompa doompety da
If you keep typing, you will go far
You will live in happiness too
Like the Oompa Loompa doompety do

#48 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 02:28 AM:

"Get those publishers’ guidelines, and submit your work to them, following their guidelines to the letter."

Is this where you should insert, "Wait about a year for one publisher to get back to you (or perhaps not) because that's the way the business is run"?

And maybe the spirit will move someone to offer a few words on why that is such a great way for the business to be run, for I surely cannot see it on my own.

#49 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 04:39 AM:

Sam @46: one minor nit -- Orbit is an imprint of Little, Brown, which is Hachette's English language subsidiary. Orbit was known for being the *biggest* SF imprint in the UK until Hachette's decision to globalise the brand a couple of years ago, which involved expanding into the USA -- where the general reading public have never heard of them. Despite being new to you, Orbit is in the same publishing tier as Ace or Del Rey (imprints of major publishing conglomerates), rather than Baen or Subterranean or Night Shade (small independent publishers).

Just looking in the bookstore isn't enough; you should also go look at the corporate website then try to get a handle on the scale of the operation.

#50 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 04:52 AM:

“A writer is someone who writes.”
Several years ago, a friend I'd known before she began to get into fandom told me she wanted to be a writer. I replied, "How much do you write?" and she looked a little puzzled and said, "Every day."
Inside, I said "aha!" She's made several sales since.

#51 ::: Sam M-B ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 06:42 AM:

The awesome Mr Stross: Thanks -- I really am clueless about UK imprints, and here I've revealed that more widely than necessary.

Another "not big 6" publisher that has their books widely in bookstores is The Overlook Press. (R. Scott Bakker's current US publisher, among others in the SF genres.) They're distributed by Penguin. But I wouldn't call them "small" either.

Anyway, Hachette, S&S, Penguin, etc. have their submission guidelines as distributors as well. For smaller/independent presses, find a distributor that distributes presses your size and has books in the bookstore you want to be in. If all else fails, submit to wholesalers like Ingram or B&T, etc.

And Mr Macdonald: The Oompa Loompa version is delightful. It makes me want to paint myself orange and dance.

Doug #48: The alternatives to it taking a year are:

1. Hire a dozen more people to read manuscripts
2. Spend every waking moment (and some of those in your sleep) reading manuscripts instead of, you know, editing and publishing and promoting books
3. Stop taking unagented submissions entirely -- no, strike that, stop taking even agented submissions from unpublished authors

Even reading short story manuscripts, paying a nickel a word, is a flood, an avalanche of prose. I can barely imagine reading novel manuscripts, paying 5-figure advances. The amount of paper and electronic mass INCOMING would crush me.

It may be that the only way to understand why reading manuscripts is so hard and time consuming is to actually do it, with a significant amount of money and your livelihood at stake. There's more to it than simply asking "is this a good book?" There's a lot of "good" books. Way, way more than you might think. If all books were either "wow, this is terrible" or "this is amazing! let us buy this immediately!" the job would be easy. But no, alas, there are dozens of really good books in there. These require time to read, and to consider. And then you add the reality factor, which is not only: is this work of fiction publishable? Or even: does this work of fiction *deserve* to be published? It is: will anyone buy this book? Can it be marketed to booksellers? Does it compete with my other books recently out or slated to come out in the next 18-36 months?

The way which comes to mind that this will have to change (i.e. point 1 in the above list) would be if:

1. people start buying a lot, lot more books again! sweet!
2. good enough new authors skip the process entirely and self-publish (or publish with a very small press which got very lucky) massively successful books outside the publishing chain (e.g. through LSI, Amazon, etc.) -- see for example what some established authors have done recently, going straight to Amazon with their books through their agents. This, unfortunately, makes it even harder for the current publishing paradigm to do its (thankless, largely, obviously) job as the massively successful books are the ones which actually allow them to pay staff to read unagented, new author submissions by the truckload in this era of access to time to write novels.

Ways to speed up the wait:

1. write a book so amazing that the manuscript reader takes it immediately to the senior editor
2. get a great agent (see Mr Macdonald's advice to find ones who agent the authors whose books are actually in stores -- Ethan Ellenberg, the late Don Congdon, Adams Literary in YR, etc.) (see #1, though, and/or go to where these agents go and talk to them about your book)
3. go to where the senior editors go and talk to them about your book

In short: be brilliant, write a brilliant book to THE END, network, and work.

(Again; this is what I think I've learned so far. Probably mostly wrong. Hopefully not wrong in *interesting* ways. I am not a writer, agent, or book publisher, and I am naive, inexperienced, and foolish enough to type this anyway.)

There are an absolute brick-ton of smaller presses publishing books. Some of them turn out to be great (Chicago's Featherproof Books' Scorch Atlas for example) and others you will never, ever see in a bookstore or hear of. (You probably haven't heard of FP or Scorch Atlas, either...) There are ones which are even only e-publishers (Candlemark & Gleam), there are ones you certainly should have heard of: Underland Press, Akashic Books, Apex Book Company, Tachyon Books, Small Beer Press, Prime Books, Wyrm Publishing, Payseur & Schmidt, Subterranean Press, on and on, etc. I've seen Tachyon's books in bookstores (The Secret History of Science Fiction in B&N in particular). I even saw a book from Sub Press in a store yesterday. (Lewis Shiner's Deserted Cities of the Heart, The Regulator Bookshop, Durham.) But: go to the SF section, not just of the bookstore but of bestselling lists, such as Locus'. Look at the books. See who publishes them:

Orbit US, Roc, Eos, Tor, Del Rey, Baen, Bantam Spectra, Three Rivers Press (Crown (Random House)), DAW, Wizards of the Coast, Harper, William Morrow (Harper Collins), Knopf (Random House), Pantheon (Random House), Plume (Penguin), Viking, etc. with the occasional home run from guests like Night Shade Books (Nebula-winning The Windup Girl), and media-tie-in powers like DK Publishing, LucasBooks, etc.

As for me, it's even ludicrous to seriously aspire to be half as successful as the smallest publisher you can think of, but, when I can afford to pay an author a 4-figure advance (sorry, that's all I can do), when I have the time to read manuscripts (haha), and when I feel comfortable enough with my ability to edit to the point where I wouldn't do a book injustice (likely never, but some time the cutoff will come), when I feel that I have enough of an understanding of distribution, marketing, publicity, and so on, I'll stick a billboard out and be absolutely crushed by the weight of incoming submissions. Why? Because there are a hundred thousand unpublished novels waiting, just waiting, to kill me. And most of those books' authors will end up hating me, asking why it took me so long to reject their (possibly even good) books, etc. Writing an advance check, even a pittance one, doesn't pay itself back. You have to then go do the work of publishing. Which costs more money, which more work is required to recoup, if you're lucky and readers actually buy your book. And still find time to (and a place to) sleep and eat.

(This really, really isn't intended as decrying authors as not understanding publishing. I understand neither, only insofar as I think I have begun to realize how heartbreakingly hard it is to both *write* an amazing book (they don't write themselves) and, also, to publish one. And, yet, I still want to be a part of the world of books: obviously there is a mental defect at work here.)

#52 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 08:58 AM:

Sam, apropos #51, here you go again: I wouldn't advise a newbie to touch Wizards of the Coast or LucasBooks with the proverbial shitty barge-pole. They're in the business of publishing books, sure, but their intellectual property model is radically different from the general fiction publishing business, and they're likely to want to buy your copyright rather than merely license it. (Work for hire, in other words.) Same goes for the likes of Marvell and DC Comics: they own the IP, you're just a hired gun with a pen word processor.

Of course, if all $NEWBIE wants to write is Star Wars spin-offs, then the only game in town is LucasBooks. But the media tie-in market is in effect a different type of industry from general fiction publishing.

NB: here's a bunch of blog entries I've written on the topic of common misconceptions about publishing. Which is a work in progress and probably contains numerous misconceptions of my own.

#53 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 09:12 AM:

Sam M-B @ 51:

I admit that this is almost never the way it works, but sometimes it goes very fast indeed. I started sending a novel query out to agents at the beginning of July 2008, got an agent the next week, and she sold the novel to a major publisher by mid-August.

Yes -- get a good agent, and it is possible to do it without previous sales if your book is good enough and marketable enough.

(This was the sixth or seventh novel that I'd written, so -- yes, an overnight success in some ways, but the kind of overnight success that you work on for a decade...)

#54 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 09:56 AM:

Charlie @ 52 -

That's a great primer on publishing - thanks!

#55 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 10:04 AM:

A lot of the time, the distinction doesn't matter, but in the end all this is about getting your books bought by end-users, rather than getting them published.

The writer needs a publisher who can sell the books she writes. And a publisher needs writers that people will buy. It isn't easy.

#56 ::: Sam M-B ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 10:30 AM:

Mr Stross, definitely did not mean to "recommend" one or another publisher; I have friends who write for WotC, Marvel, DC, etc. and do understand a bit (only a bit, mind you) of that side of things. (Submitting blind to a publisher without knowing what and how they publish... wouldn't recommend it!) As always, your blog is a fount of knowledge and commentary about said knowledge.

#57 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 10:58 AM:

Doug #48: "Wait about a year..."

Oh gods, if only.

#58 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 11:34 AM:

If Hollywood wants to ruin one of my books, hey, over here!

#59 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 02:08 PM:

Jim @58: just remember, whatever else you do, to grab the right to use stills and publicity materials and quotes from the movie on the cover of the reissue of your novel. (Because even if it's a mediocre movie that tanks in the theatres and the studio accountants rape you in the small print, your publisher will thank you from the bottoms of their wallet for the extra 300,000 mass market sales those stills and publicity quotes pulled in.)

#60 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 03:02 PM:

Lots of advice given by authors is more specific to the author giving the advice than a lot of them realize, I think. It's frequently mostly about their strategies for avoiding their own worst failure modes as a writer.

Jim does better than most at giving generally-useful advice (though I do agree with some of the comments about parts of this being too specific; but Jim has copped to that @38 anyway).

Pat Wrede does very well I think at demystifying writing, and addressing the wide range of individual differences.

I originally started typing because I wanted to emphasize "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." I've seen and heard about examples of this repeatedly (listening to Scribblies stories, and later stuff with other writers as well). One person saying there's a problem doesn't absolutely prove it, but that's the way to bet. But advice on how to fix things (especially from readers, but even from writers with experience) has a much lower success rate.

Luckily, knowing there's a problem is a huge step forward, even if you don't yet know how to fix it.

The romance of being a writer permeates the culture. I suppose it's not THAT surprising when you realize that a lot of people's ideas about the world come from what they read. But this does put a lot of people in the position of starting out with amazingly incorrect ideas.

#61 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 03:18 PM:

Paula Helm Murray I believe I will be fixing this article up in Word, printing it out nicely and giving it to my bother as a special Christmas present.

Oh hey! That's brilliant! I now have a prezzie for my buddy Merredith!

#62 ::: Maddia ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 03:28 PM:

Excellent post - has really helped me and given me more confidence to continue writing my book, Before, I've tried and retried to start writing the rest of it but i think I gave up too soon. I'm determined! You're right thinking about writing is not writing! Thanks for this helpful article. :)

#63 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 03:53 PM:

Thanks, Sam (#51), for the detailed exposition.

But I've seen a lot of venture capitalists at work, and they work with sums that are significantly larger than many publishers invest in first-time authors. (When I covered German biotech for a trade publication, my editors didn't even want to see a full article if the investment was less than $10M). And they get buried in business plans. They get crazy plans; they get plans that belong at a completely different investment group; they get plans that look good at first but have subtle, fatal flaws; they get plans that they would love to back but can't see an exit strategy for; they get plans that are great but too much like one they already have in the pipeline. (I hope this is starting to sound familiar.) And yet their turnaround times are typically measured in single-digit weeks.

My point is that other businesses in structurally similar situations manage a faster turnaround. One key element is that publishers seem to be able to enforce a social norm of no simultaneous submissions on authors, though not (significantly) on agents. VCs know that there is competition for their investment. It seems to have concentrated their minds.

Anyway, I won't keep asking people to defend the indefensible. It's not even my trade anymore; I got out of bookselling (the late, lamented Oxford Books of Atlanta) more than a decade ago. But it is a bit disheartening to see the business cling to outdated practices as structural change proceeds apace.

#64 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 04:17 PM:

Doug #63: I'd bet publishers, or even their individual editors, are far more "buried" in manuscript submissions than venture capitalists are buried in business plans. Not to mention the manuscripts written in crayon etc.... (ISTR some pictures of the Tor offices....)

#65 ::: Sam M-B ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 04:36 PM:

Doug: In addition to the differences you pointed out (the payoff/margins much significantly below the $10M for publishing, exclusive submissions, etc.) a novel manuscript doesn't have the same kind of shelf-life as biotechnology. Combined, this means a lot more money is to be made, more quickly in biotechnology, which both provides a financial ability to have more people looking at the applications, and a financial incentive to look through them quickly.

#66 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 04:46 PM:

Doug@#63: I believe you've answered your own question.

A book selling 50,000 copies (a New York Times bestseller, if I recall from the publishing discussions) is a million dollar book- revenue to bookstores, that is. Your "hunt for the next successful book" fund is probably something like $100K.

A small VC deal is $10,000,000. Your "hunt the next successful deal" fund is going to be $1 to $5 million.

Even if a VC deal does take the same amount of work as bringing a book to publishable state- I'd be surprised- the VC has ten to fifty times the resources to throw at the problem.

#67 ::: Katrina Lantz ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2010, 11:49 PM:

This is amazingly helpful advice that took me years to find (when I finally started looking for it) hodge-podged across the internet. I came by way of lit agent Jill Corcoran's blog, and I'm glad I did. Your reminder to keep writing the book even if you feel stuck in the middle is just what I needed right now. Play Sims3 or write? Play Sims3 or write? Fine! I'll write.

Thank you. :)

#68 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2010, 08:19 AM:

Thanks, David, Sam and Sandy. I meant the VC example to be illustrative, rather than exhaustive. (And biotech may have been the wrong sub-field for examples; seed and first-round software investments can be much smaller. I named sums to address Sam's "livelihood at stake" concern.) But let me turn the question around: in what other part of business is it ok to let matters sit for a year or more?

(In re the number of proposals, a couple of minutes of googling shows in Nov 2010 VC John Doerr said his firm had more than 600 proposals just for social gaming–type companies; ARPA-e (not VC but similarly modeled) had 3700 proposals in its first year.)

(Further parenthetically, Sandy, the VC's involvement is really just beginning with the deal. Like a publisher with an author, VCs will use their industry experience to develop and promote the fledgling company, with everyone hoping for mutual benefit. This is of course tangential to the main point, which is that reply times measured in years are an inefficiency that does no one any favors.)

#69 ::: Suzanne ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2010, 12:43 PM:

Though perhaps too esoteric, there may be value in a similarly enlightening post on How To Write Cover Copy.

I bring this up only because on my way out to grab lunch just a few minutes ago I was given a free "adventure novel" by a couple of earnest folks handing them out on the sidewalk who told me they are trying to establish an east coast presence for their California-based publishing company. The first paragraph on the back of the book describes how the main character is "roused ... to live in a new world of inexhaustible passion." Which is fine by itself, but I think it's a deeply unfortunate choice to have the very next sentence be about sheep.

#70 ::: Elizabeth Varadan ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2010, 01:48 PM:

Great writing advice. I'm going to print it and refer to it regularly!

#71 ::: Kelley Wegeng ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2010, 03:00 PM:

I made this my homepage when it came out to sort of remind me that in order to be a writer when I grow up I really might need to do some writing. I haven't finished anything longer than a short story or song since sixth grade, which does not bode well. It hasn't worked very well yet; this is the Week of Doom for my holiday season.

I have around ten half-written novels laying around, every one of which I stopped writing when I became convinced each was utter tripe. Maybe just as an exercise I ought to go back and force myself to finish them all. Although this thought feels a little like clean all the things.

#72 ::: Sam M-B ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2010, 03:01 PM:

Doug, thanks for those software and VC numbers. (My day job is software, and there's always this bug to do the entrepreneurial thing in that area now and again.)

I think it's still pretty easily explained.

1. Whether software or biotechnology, the shelf life is very short. There's a window where Facebook could be launched and become dominant, where two year's waiting on MySpace to have evolved further would have seen the market slammed shut, etc.
2. The potential payoff for success, even for software startups rather than biotech, can be in the 8, 9 figures. You can afford to microfund 20 software startups if 1 or 2 take off.

But I do think you have an interesting overall point: Perhaps a more VC (or Y combinator, etc.) approach to publishing books could be possible. Maybe that's what agents are doing, though? Submitting to Ethan Ellenberg, for example: "We normally respond to email queries within two weeks. If we haven't responded after two weeks, then we are not interested in the material." I'm 0-for-3 there, but it is fast! Agents might occupy (outside of the funding part...) the portion of the economic ecosystem that the microfund software VCs do in software.

One problem is that there is an additional disincentive for publishers to advertise being fast at responding to novel submissions: the inevitable deluge of submissions they would then receive. It would be easy to have a short turn around time with the following algorithm:

1. is the author's name familiar? no? reject.
2. is the first page interesting? no? reject.
3. is the first chapter interesting? no? reject.
4. &c.

But, and I'm glad for this because of the books I later get to read, even the big publishers actually read books from new authors, past the first chapter.

I'd now like to read an article about how, say, Tor reads submissions. :)

#73 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2010, 04:07 PM:

Kelley #71: I have around ten half-written novels laying around, every one of which I stopped writing when I became convinced each was utter tripe.

That's why I said "Write straight through to THE END." That's one of the three big mistakes I see folks who want to be novelists make: One is the writer who, at the end of ten years, has twenty half-novels in the desk drawer; another is the author who, at the end of ten years, has re-written the same half-novel twenty times. (The third big mistake is the author who finished a novel all the way to THE END and spent the next ten years trying to sell that novel.)

I see these over and over.

Maybe your books are utter tripe. I don't know. But you can't throw a baseball in Barnes & Nobel without hitting utter tripe. The difference being that those guys finished their books.

There are also the writers who can't write chapter two unless chapter one is perfect, the ones who can't write page two unless page one is perfect, the ones who can't write paragraph two unless paragraph one is perfect, the ones who can't write sentence two unless sentence one is perfect, and the ones who can't write sentence one unless the title is perfect.

Thankfully, with the advent of word processors, we've gotten past the authors who couldn't type the perfect title unless it was perfectly centered on the page. (Yes, I really did know such a person. That individual, so far as I know, remains unpublished to this day, and it's been thirty years.)

The day after I posted this piece, in another place, I ran into an author who wanted to know if a particular workshop would help him. He's been working on his novel now for ten years. He has ... fifteen pages.

Don't lose forward momentum. Even if what you're typing is crud. Especially if it's crud. Dull to the point of madness, as Mr. Earbrass finds it. Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful.

Keep going. Revise along the way if you must, but don't forget to create original material every day.

#74 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2010, 04:08 PM:

Sam M-B@72:

1. is the author's name familiar? no? reject.
2. is the first page interesting? no? reject.
3. is the first chapter interesting? no? reject.
4. &c.

You know, you've just described your average bookstore customer's evaluation process for a random paperback idly picked up from a shelf.

#75 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2010, 04:16 PM:

#20 ebear "Straight through to the end" only works if you can think linearly.

Which I can't.

Who said anything about thinking linearly? The first thing I have to do with my first drafts is figure out what order the scenes should be in for the second draft. I'm perfectly capable of having the antepenultimate scene be the second thing I write. That doesn't matter. What matters is having the raw material to cut and paste and copy and delete and rewrite later on.

#76 ::: Sam M-B ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2010, 04:25 PM:

abi@72 -- True enough! Except there's also the cover art and design, and spine design, to even catch an eye in the forest of books.

#77 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2010, 05:51 AM:


Publishers don't need the slush pile at all. There's no reason (other than tradition) to have one.

Between already-contracted books, new books from their current authors, solicited books, and agented manuscripts, every one of their publishing slots is already full.

Agents have much faster turn-around times than publishers, measured in days or weeks rather then months or years.

#78 ::: Kelley Wegeng ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2010, 01:53 PM:

Thank you so much for your response, James. I remember a time when I would write every day - I'd get home from sixth grade and sit down at this clunky AT&T word processor for hours. I learned my lesson about hand-writing when a teacher offered to type up a completed novel and then after months of inquiry said she'd lost the notebook. (My mother remains convinced that she stole my story but that sounds a bit too crazy to be true; even had I been a prodigy, a fifth grader's manuscript isn't likely to make it very far.)

I am going to try to recapture that drive. I started by writing a scene last night. Just one scene, just a page and a half, but it was something. I suspect this will be much like a running program - the second run is always much harder to make yourself go on than the first, but I can do it - I need to know what happens next.

#79 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2010, 06:03 PM:

Jim: Thanks. I've seen all this advice from you before (Including some of the follow-up debate about the details, and the spirit vs. letter of the advice, and different already established writers' exceptions to the rule) but it is fabulous to see it in one place.

One thing that reading advice and writing commentary from professional writers has really helped me with, over the years, is the illusion that at some point, you're competent enough that first drafts are beautiful polished things.

Right now, after rewriting, then revising, the umpteenth draft of a novel, and seeing that final, polished product*, I've returned to writing first draft gunk, and I keep thinking, "These characters are barely 2D. I forgot to even mention the lights again. Ack. This dialogue. How did I go from that peak down to this? I was competent yesterday."

The reminder that writers of multitudinous published works have clunky, or odd, or derailed first drafts is a very good way to kick myself in the head and keep going.

(It also helps to look at first drafts from a few years back, to prove to myself that I'm *also* better at even this clunky stage than I used to be.)

* Actually, the one from VP**. Which is, yes, due to be sent out to agencies very soon now. The query letter and the synopsis are almost done. Sadly, they take more time per word because they need to be so compact.

** Yes, that was five years ago, but in my defense, I finished two other novels in between.

#80 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2010, 11:29 AM:

Regarding writing new stuff every day until finished, even if what you have is crap - that's one thing I like using NaNoWriMo for.

I had been writing since I was a kid, but I had never finished a novel until my first nano in 2003, when I decided I wasn't just going to do 50,000 words, I was going to do 50,000 words and a story that ended. (The ending is rushed, but it's there. That was the first novel I ever finished.)

I'm currently editing a story slammed out that way from a couple of years ago. Cut a lot, added even more, and it's shaping up to be good, I think.

#81 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2011, 05:04 PM:

Here's an interesting take on self-publishing, specifically WRT e-books. I dug far enough into the comments to notice that even this guy says to stay away from PublishAmerica and AuthorHouse, though!

#82 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2011, 05:48 PM:

Oh, wow.

J. A. Konrath again. The M. J. Rose for today's generation.

Weirdly, he seems to be the only author who's seeing those results from self-publication on the Kindle.

And, also weirdly, he became a born-again convert to the Kindle after his print publisher turned down his next book.

#83 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2011, 08:07 PM:

Jim #83: Reading the article, I'm immediately struck by:

Selling 1000 ebooks a month equals $24,000 a year. Being on submission for 6 months is a loss of $12,000, and then waiting 18 more months for the book to be published is a loss of another $36,000.
Mistaking an S-curve for a straight line, much?

The bit about "your publisher's liable to go bankrupt before your book's published!" is also a hoot. Yeah, it happens, but mostly I hear about that happening to webcomics and the like, with much smaller (and newer) publishers. On the other hand, he does have a good point about the price advantage, and the proportion of the sale price that goes to the author.

#85 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2011, 10:55 AM:

Stupid Author Tricks, or How To Keep Yourself From Getting Published (video) from Ian Randal Strock

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing by Dean Wesley Smith

I don't agree 100% with either (it would be a wonder if I did, eh?) but still, worth checking out.

#86 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2011, 09:23 PM:


Here's how to write a novel.

And I've never done any of those steps.

Wow. Who would have thought writing a novel was so hard?

#88 ::: grandpa norm ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2011, 02:45 PM:

thanks for telling meabout this site.seems for a newbeeiam right on target now ineed to follow your advice and go to the bookstore and domy research .ihave written 14 children's books they are in manuscript form of coursc and are 35 pages long full size paper . all 14 are simular in length . i have a romance story that is simular in length also a sci fi all simular in length . my mind won't stop writing .not a day goes by that i don't write or think about my story line and what is next . ihave gone from hand written to typed . this is my revision by typing it changes as i type . i would like a person to read my stories ,but really don't know anyone who wants to read children's books even though these are about 6-8th grade level readers . any thoughts on what i should do to get a reader that is interested in this level of reading i realy don'tfeel i should be seeking out 12yr olds to read my book and review it seems a flawed plan .
thanks again you are terrific norm wilson sr.

#89 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2011, 03:16 PM:

James @ 88

Nah, that's how you establish the groundwork for a five-year LARP. They just got the title wrong. It's unfortunate that their editing team didn't catch that little glitch.

#90 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2011, 03:28 PM:

Okay, let's start.

Kids' books, you say? You'll want to look at the info that the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has.

You talk about pages. I presume you're talking about pages in standard manuscript format (Courier 10 or 12 cpi, double spaced, single-sided, one-inch margins all around)? Could you give me an idea of how many words in each?

35 pages (presuming standard pages; 8-9000 words) is short for a 6th to 8th grade novel. That's short story territory. Check your library for a copy of the current Writers Market, or look at duotrope's digest for markets. Remember to read several books from any given publisher, or issues of some given magazine, before submitting. It'll give you a better idea if what you have will fit with what they publish.

I presume you've edited your stories so the grammar and spelling are perfect, the plot and dialog and descriptions are what you want, and you're ready for a beta reader. Do you have any friends who'd be willing to take a look, with a red pencil in their hands? That's what the beta-reading step is all about.

While you're waiting for your beta readers to come through, if you haven't read Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, now would be a good time. Agree with it, disagree with it, it's all the same to me. You'll need to be familiar with it. A lot folks recommend Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Your local library should have both of them, or be able to get them for you.

You can find some on-line writers' groups (e.g. Critters), or you might look for a local writers' group. Your librarian might know if there's a writers' group in your area. (Your librarian is your friend.) Not everyone is helped by a writers' group, and not all groups are created equal. Use your judgment there. See if they're moving you ahead, and see if you're helping others get ahead.

And spend a lot of time in the children's room of your library, reading books similar to yours in length, age group, and subject matter. Knowing what's out there, what the standards are, what's fresh and original, what's done to death, is helpful. Read books very different from yours, too. All writers are readers.

Best of luck to you.

#91 ::: grandpa norm ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2011, 04:30 PM:

mr. Macdonald i find it awesome that you are even reading these e-mails to you at all .thanks so much my pages are 10 and the margins are 1 inch they are not double spaced . as i am a newbee i guess these are things i do not know as of yet . i hope to keep writing during this learning curve. in the water cooler is there anyone who will read these stories ???do they charge for this help ??? once again thanks sincerly norm wilson

#92 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2011, 05:39 PM:

Norm: At the Water Cooler, you can post stories in the Share Your Work forum (password: vista).

People will read and comment on them.

This is 100% free.

Make sure you read the stickies (that is, the threads that are at the top of each list; the rules of the joint) in each of those fora first. They'll clarify what goes on there.

My advice would be to work on your strongest story until you've made it the best you can.

There is nothing that makes a writer happier than seeing another writer succeed.

#93 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2011, 05:48 PM:

Note that you have to have 50 forum posts at the Absolute Write Water Cooler before you can post your work for feedback.

This gives you the chance to look at others' work and feed back to them, get the feel of the community, and generally settle in.

It's more than a good place for asking questions about writing. It's a true community as well. Worth the time.

#94 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2011, 07:34 PM:

Wasn't sure whether to post this here or on the current Open Thread, but I just got an email ad from Borders* about Give the Gift of Publishing! Sigh. Actually run by BookBrewers, and it seems mostly to be a tool that will let you cut&paste stuff and have them output an ePub file with is ostensibly available for sale through major eBook distributors. I can't tell if this service includes the ISBN or if that's extra. At least it's a cheap scammy service, even cheaper than getting a star named after you :-) Professional cover design is extra (insert filk song about "There's a bimbo on the cover of my book"), and there's no indication about offering editing or promotional services, although I'm sure they're there somewhere.

(* It's not s.p.a.m., I'm signed up with Borders Rewards so I also got mail from them about one of my local stores closing, fire sale pricing, etc.)

#95 ::: AM ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 07:42 PM:

I really am 15 and want to become a pro writer and i really loved your advice. and i was just wondering, do authors get a say in their cover art. Also, can a high schooler get published? thanks so much for the advice.

#96 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 07:57 PM:

AM, my understanding is that authors get little say in their cover art, until they become big name authors.

Getting published does not depend on your age, but the quality of your work. Older people have had longer to work on that quality, but everyone does not start out from the same baseline.

#97 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 08:10 PM:

Cover art ... traditionally, the author's rights there are limited to bitching about it.

Remember that cover art isn't meant to illustrate the book, it's meant to sell the book.

(Having said that, Doyle and I have had a remarkable amount of input on our covers with several different publishers.)

#98 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 11:19 PM:

Well... given your age, you can probably keep them from putting naked women on the cover. :-)

I once overheard an exchange between two authors: "Well, it'll sell more copies..." "Yeah, but I can show my book to my daughter!" Amusingly, the cover in question did in fact depict a scene from the book... except that in the text, the woman was fully clothed, with descriptions of the clothes.

#99 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 12:21 AM:

AM, #96: I believe that Vera Nazarian was your age when she sold her first story to one of the Sword and Sorceress anthologies. So yes, it does happen.

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