Writing Advice #19: The Path to Publication (Part 1)

Well, this is what you’ve all been waiting for, right?

Believe it or not, the Path to Publication is not nearly as complicated as you may think. I think that people who want to be published make it complicated for themselves. I know that I did.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Well, I think there are a number of reasons. Most critically, though, there’s rejection. Right? It’s just a part of life if you’re a writer. (Yes, even a published writer.) We don’t like to think that we could be rejected for a simple reason (such as “This piece just isn’t right for the market to which I submitted it” or, more likely, “This sucks”). We prefer to think that there must be a vast, complicated explanation. And if there’s a vast, complicated reason for our rejections, well, then there must be a vast, complicated machinery behind it, right? And if we can just figure out that vast, complicated machinery, why, then, we’re in the land of milk and honey!

That’s sort of a comforting thought. It turns publication into a puzzle. We figure where the pieces go, assemble them in the right order, and we’re good to go.

Well, look. I hate to break it to you, but this puzzle only has two pieces.

Two.

That’s right. At the end of the day, there are only two things that will dictate whether or not you get published. It’s not complicated calculus or trigonometry. It’s simple arithmetic. 1 + 1 = 2. That’s it.

Now, you’d think that if it’s just two things that it wouldn’t take all that long to explain. But there’s lots of caveats and while those two things are the alpha and omega of getting published, the fact of the matter is that there are things you can do that will help those two things along.

Fair warning: I’m going to talk a little bit about how I got published. For God’s sake, though, don’t think you have to do everything I did! Publishing is made up of human beings. And everyone has their own likes and dislikes, issues and delights, prejudices and biases. What worked for me may not work for you. So don’t look at my experience as a checklist. Look at it as an example. The end result is what you care about. In this instance, the old saying, “It’s the journey, not the destination” couldn’t be less true. You don’t care about the particulars of the journey — you want to be published.

OK.

So.

Those two things?

Here they are:

1) A damn good piece of writing
2) Luck

(I was tempted to end this entry right there and then listen carefully for the sounds of y’all screaming in rage, but I thought better of that.)

Look, #1 is pretty damn obvious, right?

You’d think. But it’s not. I can’t tell you how many times people approach agents and editors with work that they know isn’t perfect. And believe me, when you’re starting out, your work had better be goddamn perfect. Editors and agents already have to deal with pains in the ass like me. You think they want another pain in the ass? Hell, no. They want to look at a manuscript and go, “Wow. This is awesome! I love this! I must have it!” They don’t want to look at your manuscript and think, “Wow. This has lots of potential. If I spend a week on it and don’t see my kids or my husband this weekend, I can probably edit it into shape and hopefully the author will actually be able to effect the fixes I suggest.”

Point number one has been the whole point of this blog series up until now. You must polish and revise and rewrite and do whatever it takes to make that piece as close to perfect as humanly possible.

And, yes, I know — you think it’s there already.

You’re wrong.

Sit on it for six months. Come back to it. Then you’ll know.

You’ll know when you get that little tickle in your gut when you hit a line of clunky dialogue. You’ll know.

Let me tell you a story.

When I wrote The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl there were little bits here and there that I wasn’t sure about. Just a phrase here, maybe a complete sentence over there. Not a lot of ’em — three, maybe. Three places in the whole book where my brain balked upon re-reading.

And I thought to myself, “Well, I’m just too close to the book. I’m overreacting to every little thing.”

When my editor gave the book back to me with her suggestions, guess what she flagged?

That’s right: Each and every damn one of those three instances.

That’s not a coincidence, people! I knew the book was broken in those three places. I talked myself out of fixing them. But my editor saw the same problems I did, and she called me on them all.

So.

If you read your book and you think, “Hmm, this part doesn’t work” and then your next thought is, “But no one will notice” or “But I’ve worked so hard and so long — it must be perfect by now!” or anything like that, know this — you will get busted.

If you haven’t written your million bad words, then you still suck, right? We talked about that waaaaay back. There’s no prize for finishing first and sending off a piece of work early.

TAKE YOUR TIME.

GET IT RIGHT.

Look up above again. Two things determine whether or not you will be published. Two. And you completely control only one of them.

YOU CONTROL THE QUALITY OF YOUR WORK! NO ONE ELSE DOES!

I can’t emphasize this enough. So many writers look to external factors for their success. They want to know the best way to address a letter to an agent, or the best way to approach an editor at a conference, or the right weight of paper to use. But look, I’m telling you: You are totally in control of one of the two factors that get you published!

Writers sometimes see “writing” and “getting published” as two separate things. They are not! The quality of your writing directly impacts your chances of publication.

This may seem obvious. But we live in a world in which there are books, web sites, seminars, and more, all devoted to “How to Get Published.” And here’s the thing: Damn few of these ever begin with “Write a good story.”

Maybe that’s supposed to be assumed. But I’ve met and heard too many newbie writers who are obsessed with learning everything they can about “the business,” tracking down every name, ferreting out every clue…and they’ve written pure shit.

I met a woman at a writer’s conference a couple of years ago. I was giving a class for beginning writers. She approached me between sessions to ask some very detailed questions about agents and editors.

Partway through our conversation, I thought to ask her, “What is your book about?”

She waved me off. “Oh, I haven’t written it yet. But I have a lot of ideas.”

EXCUSE ME?

If you haven’t written the goddamn book yet, what the hell are you doing asking about cover letters and how to talk to an agent and what to look for in a publishing contract? I mean, really! It’s just insane. But you’ve got these people out there who are so obsessed with “Getting Published” that they forget that the story is what matters.

Don’t be like that woman. Or like the many, many other writers like her I’ve met over the years.

Maybe I’ve talked too much about this. Maybe you’re thinking, “We get it, Barry! We get the point. We need to be good writers. That’s what you’ve spent the last nineteen weeks telling us!”

Yeah. I have. And now you know why. Because this is the most important thing you can do and you have complete control over it.

Many writers feel overwhelmed and helpless when they plunge into publishing. They feel like their destinies are out of their hands. God knows I did. I felt like I bled on the page and then sent it out there into the ether and crossed my fingers, and no matter what I did or said or thought, I was at the mercy of the Fates.

But here’s the thing: Writing well is half the battle. YOU HAVE COMPLETE CONTROL OVER HALF THE PROCESS!

Isn’t that liberating?

Isn’t that EMPOWERING?

HALF!

Not an editor.

Not an agent.

Not a marketing guy. Or a sales guy. Or the guy who sorts mail at Random House.

YOU. YOU CONTROL HALF OF THE PROCESS!

The other half? The luck half?

Well, you can’t control it, obviously. By its very nature, luck can’t be controlled.

But luck can be anticipated.

Luck can be CAPITALIZED ON.

We’re going to talk about luck a lot next week. Until then, though, I want you to think of yourself as a surfer. Your board? That’s knowledge. And that big wave off on the horizon…?

That’s LUCK, my friends.

More next time.

(And hey — feel free to ask questions below. I’m sure you’ll have ’em. I can anticipate a bunch of them and you’ll see answers to them soon, but you might hit something I wasn’t planning on talking about. So don’t be shy.)

Comments

  1. Hi Barry,

    1st off, great cover for Blood of my Blood, can’t wait to get a hold of it earlier than before!

    2nd) I’ve been writing since middle school, continued throughout high school and have written another two manuscripts/novels within my freshmen and sophomore year thanks to continuing NaNoWriMo. When do you really feel that it’s perfect? I’ve edited to the best of my ability and feel like it’s ready. How to you even get a hold of sending it to a publisher? Since I don’t have an agent it’s just even more waiting to have it read. I know it must be worth the wait I just would like to know how in high school you sent out your work and received feedback/rejection.

    Sincerely yet another hopeful newbie writer,
    Mimi

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