So, You Want to be a Writer…
Sometimes I get questions from readers, and I enjoy answering them. I know a lot of you out there are into writing, so I think you’ll find this interesting. Here’s the question and my answer.
“I have a question for you since you are a published writer. Was it hard to get your work published? How did you decide on genre? I would like to start writing and just didn’t know how to get started.”
Well, when I began this journey, I wasn’t sure how to get started either. I was an avid reader, but I knew nothing about the publishing industry—how the process works, how to query an agent, how presses choose what they will publish—none of that. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now, and I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons. I still don’t have all the answers, but maybe what I’ve learned will make your path easier.
I started writing because I had a story in my head and I wanted to see how it would play out. I can’t say I set out with genre in mind. I was simply writing the kind of story I wanted to read. I wrote a fantasy story with a teen protagonist, so my books are classified as young adult fantasy. At some point, the story took shape and became a novel, and I thought I’d attempt to get it published. Thus began years (YEARS!) of querying agents. Scary, right? Okay, stay with me—don’t get frightened away just yet.
One thing I did correctly is I finished the novel before sending out queries. This is important, because if an agent likes your fiction, they will want to read the whole story. If you don’t have a completed manuscript, game over. (For non-fiction, it’s different. You query with a proposal which may include an outline and sample chapters, depending on the agent’s submission guidelines, and the book does not have to be finished.) So, step one, finish your story.
How do you get started? Begin with short stories or with characters in a scenario, and write every day if you can. Try for an average of 1,000 or more words a day. If you do that every day for three months, you’ll have a novel of 90,000 words. (A note on length: 80-90 thousand words is a good range for a book, depending on genre.) It may take you more than three months, because, let’s face it, other obligations get in the way. But keep going. Don’t worry if it sucks. That’s what revision is for. Finish that first draft.
While you’re working on your book, read as much as you can. Read books similar to yours. Read books that are different too. Think critically about what you read, noting the choices an author makes. Think about what works and what doesn’t. Read books on the craft, and challenge yourself to do better. My favorite writing book is On Writing by Stephen King. It’s a practical and entertaining read, and the guy knows what he’s talking about.
Step two, edit your story. Polish it as much as you can, then give it to a beta reader for critical feedback. After reading your book a number of times, you’ll no longer be able to see the typos. Find somebody smart to give you an honest critique, who you trust to have your best interests in mind. Somebody who can be brutal, but who you’ll still talk to afterward. I have friends who do this for me, people who I respect deeply, who are intelligent and can tell me the truth, whether I’ve got a plot hole or my fly is down. You might also consider hiring a professional editor. The cost is worth it. I truly believe that without my editor, my work wouldn’t be as strong, and I wouldn’t have found a publisher. Another option is to join a writing group. Your fellow writers can give you feedback on your writing and may have insight into the publishing industry.
Your book needs to be as strong as it can be before you send it to agents or publishers, because if your sample pages have too many errors, they will get annoyed and stop reading. Agents get thousands and thousands of queries. Publishing is a competitive industry. If you want to get through the slush pile, your query letter and sample work need to be free of errors and compelling enough to keep them reading. Great writing doesn’t guarantee a contract, however, so don’t take rejections personally. Even if you write beautifully, the agent has to be able to sell your work. Sometimes they love your concept, but there’s no market for it.
That doesn’t mean you should give up. If you really want to do this writing thing, keep going. Research the industry—what type of books agents represent and how to write an effective query letter. Two good resources for this are WritersDigest.com and BookDaily.com. I also recommend reading How Can I Find A Literary Agent?: And 101 Other Questions Asked By Writers by agents Chip MacGregor and Holly Lorincz. It’s full of practical advice to help you as you query. In the meantime, you can keep writing, working on your second book, right?
Do you need an agent to get published? No, but most large publishing houses won’t review your work without one. You can also publish your work independently, not going with a publisher at all. The advantage to that is you make all the choices about how your book will look, and you keep the profits. The disadvantage is the market is flooded with independently published books, and without exposure and a distributor, your book won’t be on shelves in stores unless you do the work to get it there. (I’m oversimplifying for the sake of brevity here—the process for getting books in stores is complicated.)
So how did I get published? I went a different route. I attended a local writing conference called Summer in Words, which I highly recommend if you’re in the Pacific Northwest. There, I met a publicist who also serves as a book shepherd. A book shepherd functions like an agent, except instead of working with an author long-term and on commission, the shepherd sends out proposals on your behalf for a fee. Our proposal package consisted of a description of my book, my bio, a list of comparable titles, sample pages, and a marketing plan. We sent it to ten small publishers who did not require representation by an agent. One of them offered me a publishing contract for my young adult trilogy.
I’m grateful to all the people who helped me get published—beta readers, my editor, my book shepherd, my publisher, other authors who mentored me…I’ve learned much through the process. I’ve learned about the industry in marketing my books and in working as an editor for another press. It’s interesting to be on the other side, to be the person critiquing submissions. You gain insight into what works with queries and what doesn’t.
It’s tough to get published. Believe me, I know. I’m in the trenches with you right now. I’m still looking for representation by an agent, but I get more requests for full manuscripts than I used to, so I’m getting closer. I’ll keep you posted if I get an offer. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m hopeful I’ll find the right publishing home for my new books. I’ll keep going, and if you want to get published, you keep going too. Don’t give up.
I hope that answers the question. If you have more questions, send them my way. I’ll help if I can. Best of luck.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016