Writing Advice #20: The Path to Publication (Part 2)

I want to tell you two stories this week.

The first story is about an editor. We’ll call him Editor X.

Editor X is happy. Last night, his girlfriend spent the night and even though he didn’t sleep much, he’s a VERY happy guy. Better yet, his girlfriend made him a pot of coffee this morning before she left for work, so he can take his time getting to the subway station because he doesn’t have to stop at Starbucks.

So he hops on the subway with time to spare. He’s drinking his favorite coffee in the world and he’s just as happy as he can be. When he gets to the office, he plops down in his chair and looks at the pile of manuscripts sitting there. Your manuscript is on the top of the pile. He puts down his coffee (ah, hot, steaming java!) and grabs your envelope.

Now, in your cover letter, you make a sort of snarky/funny/self-deprecating remark. It was a risk, but you decided to chance it, as it gives you some personality. Editor X reads your cover letter and chuckles at the remark. So he glances over the first page of your manuscript with a little more than the usual effort and then decides to keep reading.

That’s a nice story, isn’t it?

Here’s the second one.

The second story is also about an editor. In fact, it’s about Editor X, but in a parallel universe.

In this parallel universe, Editor X is NOT happy. Not one bit. His girlfriend came over last night…but only long enough to break up with him. He spent most of the night on the phone with his best friend from college, trying to figure out where the relationship went wrong.

When he gets up in the morning, he’s groggy and out of sorts. He cuts himself shaving. He gets caught in a line at Starbucks waiting for his coffee…and misses his usual train.

By the time he gets to work, he’s half an hour late and his coffee is cold. His boss yells at him for being late. He trudges into his office, tries to sip some of the coffee (God, does he need a caffeine boost!), but it’s like drinking sludge. He pitches it in the trash can and the lid pops off and now there’s a spatter pattern of coffee on the side of his desk. Great.

He flings himself into his chair and grabs the first manuscript on his To Be Read pile. It’s yours.

He scans the cover letter.

That funny remark you made in your cover letter PISSES HIM THE HELL OFF! Who the hell do you think you are? What’s so funny about YOU?

He tosses the letter. And then he tosses the manuscript without even reading it.

Not such a nice story, huh?

Now, tell me, young writers, what YOU could have done to make the second story more like the first one.

Take your time. I’m not going anywhere.

Time’s up!

Odds are, you said, “Not use that funny comment in the cover letter.” Ah, but re-read the first story! It was that funny comment that made Editor X want to read your manuscript in the first place! If you take out that comment, there’s no guarantee he’ll read it at all.

No, the sad truth is this: The difference in outcome between the two stories has nothing to do with you, your cover letter, or your manuscript. In both stories, those things are identical.

The difference in outcome has everything to do with Editor X. Or, more precisely, Editor X’s girlfriend.

Run those two scenarios through your mind a million times or more. You can go CRAZY trying to figure out the right combination of events that will lead to Editor X reading your manuscript in the best possible frame of mind.

Guess what? There’s almost NOTHING you can do about it. Editor X is going to read — or not read — your manuscript on his schedule and not all the voodoo in the world can help you.

This should not discourage you. Far from it. Look at it this way: The next time you’re rejected, you can just tell yourself, “Oh, well — it was just bad luck.” (Ahem — only tell yourself this if you’re 1000% [that’s not a typo] positive that your piece doesn’t suck.)

And then you can move on.

Still don’t believe me? OK, look at it this way:

Many years ago, I was trying to sell a science fiction novel to a specific editor. I was good friends with a guy who had been in publishing for twenty years. He started out in marketing and worked his way up to associate publisher at one of the big publishers before it got bought out by an even BIGGER publisher to form a yet-BIGGER publisher. He knew everything there was to know about publishing and he was FRIENDS with all the right people.

So I mentioned to him that I had this novel and that I was going to send it to a specific editor. Turns out the editor was a friend of his.

“Yeah,” he said, “definitely send it to her. But Big Name Author just turned in his new manuscript, so she’s not gonna be reading new stuff for a while.”

Whoa! I had never even CONSIDERED that before, that something like that could impact me. It was like a bolt of lightning. Time is a precious commodity, and just because we expect a lot from them doesn’t mean that editors get any greater allotment of time than the rest of us. They get twenty-four hours in a day, just like you do.

But when a bestselling author’s new book lands on an editor’s desk…at the same time as your manuscript… Well, which one would YOU look at first?

Be honest now. 🙂

Again: There’s NOTHING you can do about this! You can’t know that your favorite editor has just been slammed with a late revision of a book that HAS to be out by Christmas. Or that your manuscript is next on the pile…but the editor’s dog was just hit by a car and she’s spending the night consoling her daughter (and herself).

In future weeks, I’m going to talk about how to find the right editor or right agent for your project, but I want you to bear in mind what I’ve said thus far in this blog: Even if you find your editorial SOULMATE, there are no guarantees. If your manuscript lands on, say, MY editor’s desk the same day as my new book, I’m pretty sure which one is gonna be tackled first. (Margaret, David, Greg — if any of you are reading this, please don’t burst my bubble.)

But for now, I really want you think about luck and the role it plays. It can be discouraging, I know, because you feel like everything is out of your hands. And things ARE out of your hands, to a degree.

Remember what I asked you to think about last week, though: Surfing. You’re a surfer, your board is your knowledge, and the wave is luck, right?

That’s EXACTLY how you need to think of yourself. Surfers go out there and guess what? They can’t control the waves, people! All they can do is get the best possible board (knowledge) and go out there with all their skills (the skills YOU use to write a kick-ass story) and then cross their fingers and wait for a wave to break in their direction.

This is what YOU need to do: Get out there. Use your knowledge and your skills. Keep plunging into the water, over and over.

And when the luck-wave breaks your way, you’ll be ready.

How do you deal with this? Just like the surfers — keep going down to the beach. Always bring your best board. Keep getting in the water. You never know when the ultimate wave will break, and do you really want to miss that?

Translated into writer-ese, this means: Keep sending stuff. Again, that sounds so simplistic that it’s almost idiotic, but there’s an important message in there. An important assumption. Namely, this:

In order to keep sending stuff out, you have to have stuff to send!

I used to think that the way you got published was like this: You write something. You hone it. You send it out. It gets rejected. You send it out again. It gets rejected again. You tinker with it a little bit, changing some adjectives. You send it out again. And guess what? It gets rejected again. After years of this, maybe you move onto something else.

No. Don’t do it that way.

The only to way to get published…is to write. And keep writing. All the time. Because the odds are, they won’t accept your first pitch. Or your second. Or your third. But by the time they see the tenth, you might just wear them down. Or, more likely, the luck-wave will break in your direction and you can surf it to publication.

Keep writing. Keep sending. If you get anything OTHER than a form letter rejection (and this includes form letters where they’ve been kind enough to insert your name and/or title — that’s not a personal touch; it’s just a courtesy), follow it up with your next piece.

What this means is that you need to be writing constantly.

What this means is that you need to know to whom to submit, and how, and when.

All things I’ll talk about next time.

For now: Keep writing. Remember that there are only two components to this puzzle. In the weeks ahead, we’re going to look at how you can increase your odds of being able to capitalize on good luck. Think of it as learning how to surf. 🙂

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