Getting published was a long and arduous journey for me. I started writing fifteen years ago when I came out of college. Writing was something I wanted to do from a reasonably young age. I would read Stephen King Books late into the night in my basement bedroom. Then spend the rest of the night cowering under my covers. The next day I would get up before everyone in the house and sneak upstairs to where my mother kept her old Smith Corona typewriter from the days when she taught first grade. In the pre-dawn hours as the milky light of day leaked through the grey clouds I would attempt to replicate the fear I encountered the night before on clean white paper snatched from her desk drawer.
By the time high school rolled around I was able to get a job washing dishes after school. With my own money in hand I bought a used Royal Touch Control Typewriter from an antique store half-a-mile from school. I began transforming my experiences hiking in the New England forest into Hawthornian trials of apocalyptic terror.
For my eighteen birthday, my father bought me a Chrysler Lebaron then proceeded to total it at a four way stop on a rain-slick afternoon at the end of summer before college. So I took the insurance money and bought an early Apple MacBook back when they still used the name MacIntosh in their branding. That laptop followed me through college, backpacking across Europe, and the best job writing job I ever had—working the night security shift at Parker Brother, the game company. The long overnight hours with no one around to distract me was prime fodder for clicking away at stories. Also terrifying things were known to happen deep in the night. For instance, a mother called once. I could hear her trembling through the phone. She was on the verge of tears. She told me she was calling from Mississippi. She had been playing with a Parker Brother’s Ouija Board with her two daughters. Strange things began happening in the house. The floor shook. Paintings fell off the wall. They swore they heard the sound of growling coming from the cellar. I could offer no comfort, because I also believed in the devil.
Over the years I had a hundred reasons for writing stories. Most of them were born from vanity. A way to prove I was more than the sum of my middling scholarly exploits proved. What I never expected before I was published was the opportunities that arise once you have a book. The opportunities to speak, to sit on panel discussions, even a weekly radio show in Boston. These were not things I expected.
Another thing I never anticipated was the number of people who would flock to you with questions about how to get published. Suddenly, once you have a book, people think you have sagely advise. Which is absolutely not true. After years of “No” every time I mailed out a short story or query letter, when the “Yes” finally came it was like a lightening bolt. I had no idea why somebody wanted to say “Yes.” I had begun to believe the “No’s.” In fact, in the months preceding the “Yes” I was seriously considering throwing in the towel. All those “No’s” finally got inside my head. I believed I had no talent.
In the blink of the eye I went from believing I had no chance at publishing, no chance at seeing my writing amount to anything to having people ask for genuine advice. This is what happened.
The other night an old friend emailed me. She was someone I worked with for a brief time in New Mexico. But we had bonded. We kept in touch on Facebook after I left. She wrote asking if I would correspond with her friend who had written a book and wanted to attempt to publish it.
The only thing I know for sure about publishing is that it takes persistence, hard work, luck, and timing—that is all.
As I was writing the email however I learned something. I realized over the years of submitting material I had actually devised a system without even realizing it. Looking at it on paper I thought, this is better than a lot of the systems I’ve read over the years. So I decided I would print it on my blog.
1. Write the manuscript three times
Don’t just finish the book. Finish the book three times. Revising comes in many different forms. There is reading with a red pen. There is re-writing in the margins. There is tweaking sentences, words, and punctuation. “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place,” wrote Isaac Babel. These are all important parts of the revision process. However you should also physically type the book three times. Don’t just move sentences, paragraphs, and chapters around on a document. Put in the hard work.
2. Share it with friends.
Find one of two good friends and have them read it. If you have more than a couple good friends willing to slog through your unpublished manuscript than golf clap for you. As a screenwriter turned novelist, I always found it easier to get people to read a screenplay than a novel manuscript. All that white space is less daunting.
3. What’s your demographic?
Who are you writing the book for? Are they girls, boys, men, women? Are they tweens, teens, out of school but still sleeping on mom’s couch, early middle age but one missed paycheck from moving back home with dad, do they put on a suit or do they wear cowboy boots at their job? Somebody is going to ask these questions so you might as well ask them first. It will save you a lot of time when you get to the next step.
4. Do you want to publish with a big five (Penguin/Random House, Knopf, Scribner, Etc.?) Maybe a well respected boutique press (Two Dollar Radio, Unnamed Press, A Strange Object, etc.)?
If you decide a big five is in your future then it’s time to get to know the agents of the world. There are agents everywhere. New York and LA of course. But also they hang out in Wichita, Kansas, Louisville, Kentucky, Boise, Idaho (find any excuse to hang out in that town, it’s just great fun), and Columbus, Ohio. As for boutique presses, you will need to get familiar with publishing databases like Submittable. Set up an account. It’s super easy. Find the press that is interested in the demographics you outlined above.
5. Create an Excel Spreadsheet
If you are like me and the only program you use in your Office Suite is Word than glance at your tool bar, two to the left of the big blue “W” is a big green “X”. Hit it. That is Excel. That is a spreadsheet. They are complicated. But I just type in the little boxes. They are actually called “cells” and you can do all sorts of fancy things with them. When I was a bartender I was supposed to use them to track my above and below the line sales and purchases. But—wink, wink—I never learned. I gather all the names of the companies I want to submit to. I rank them by interest level. Will they like me? Do I like them? Then I research each one individually. I read everything I can on the agencies and the publishers. I find interviews, I read the website bios, I read their sales over a given period, I read about latest acquisitions. Yes, it’s a long process. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass. Yes, I would rather be writing. But it is the reality of the game, so buck up Johnny, and keep your eye on the ball.
6. Create a file dedicated to just your pitch
I write a short bio and a long bio. That goes into my file. Then I write the one-sheet or query letter. Invariably I end up at a Barnes and Nobles or my favorite indie bookstore Jabberwacky in Newburyport, MA (gratuitous plug). I sift through every book even remotely in my category. Reading the inside sleeve of hardcovers, the back jackets of paperbacks, I look at the nuance of every turn of phrase. I try to filter my story through the mind of an expert copywriter. You can’t tell your story on the back of a book. You have to sell the potential of your book on the jacket. The best query letters read like the back jacket on the shelf of your local bookstore. Read them all! Then add it to the file. Develop an opening sentence that hooks with the essence of your story while providing genre, word count, and title. I like to think of this opening sentence as the logline of my story. This is the elevator pitch. (Let’s take a second and talk about the elevator pitch. In my opinion, the worst thing an elevator pitch can do is hold-up someone late for a meeting. If you are in an elevator, you are going someone. Usually that somewhere is important, because you are in an elevator. Buildings that can afford elevators are full of people that need to get stuff done so the company can afford the building that can afford the elevator. You can’t sap someone’s attention for even three minutes with your pitch. You need one sentence. And that one sentence needs to both grab their attention and sow a seed of interest that will grow long after they walk away. That’s an elevator pitch. It isn’t your story. Your story is by necessity a million other things. Your pitch is that thing you want your story to be.)
Now you have a query letter:
Logline/opening sentence (word count, genre, title)
Two paragraph synopsis or pitch (reads like a back jacket)
Short Bio (one or two sentences that say this is who I am as a writer)
7. Don’t send to your top editors or agents first
You have made some mistake in your super well-crafted query letter. I promise that you will not score an A on your first query letter unless perhaps you have worked ten years in marketing and you decided to write a novel at night, after you clocked out. Although I doubt any marketer with ten years experience is clocking in and out. But that’s beside the point. The reality is this kind of writing is on another planet than the kind of writing you have been doing on your short stories or novels or poems. Copywriting is a world away from telling stories. Don’t expect to jump right in and score big. So I always recommend sending to the people at the bottom of your list first. Sure, they might actually like your story. Who knows that person you thought was the bottom of the list might be the best person possible for your first novel. You can decide that later. The reality is this is a blog post about strategies to get published not what do I do once an agent digs your book. That’s another set of problems to be dealt with in a separate post. What is going to happen as you send out your first few queries is you will learn everything you are doing wrong. Even in silence—and there will be a lot of silence—you will learn something. So don’t make all your mistakes in front of the closing night audience. Make your mistakes in previews for the people in the cheap seats. Also don’t SPAM! Don’t just send out one query letter to 100 agents or publishers. Be calculating. Send five or ten to begin. Spell everybody’s name right. Pay attention to details. Don’t cut and paste. If you have followed step five then you have done your research. Tailor your letters to the individual agent. You want to be seen as a unique and special snowflake. Well they do too. So follow the golden rule—do unto others. Because it can’t be stated enough: DON’T SPAM!
Good luck with your endeavors to get published. Be prepared before you begin, it will be a long road. It takes time to get the query letter written, then the research, then the submission. It takes time for agents to read your letter. It takes time before you hear back. The process is lumbering and slow. So don’t rush it at the beginning. It will actually save you time in the long run.
Publishing isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. Start training now.