Writing Advice #21: The Path to Publication (Part 3)

OK, we’re back!

If our discussion on luck last week taught you anything, it should have taught you this: There are aspects to your writing career that are completely and totally out of your control.

Don’t feel bad about this. This just means FEWER things for you to stress over.

Here are some things new writers stress over:

  • Synopses
  • Cover letters
  • Query letters

I hear a lot of “How long should my cover letter be? Book X says one page, but I can’t fit everything on one page and my cousin who once was an intern at a bookstore for five minutes told me that it should be as long as I want it to be?”

Grr.

Look, people, don’t stress about that stuff. Not right now, at least. Cover letters, synopses, and query letters are simple. God knows I didn’t always think this way. When I was starting out, I sweated blood over those damn things. But here’s the rule, OK? It’s like this: Keep it simple.

Writers tend to think that they need to wow editors with their queries and their cover letters. I understand that urge — after all, we are constantly told that our cover letters and queries serve as an editor’s first introduction to our writing. So wouldn’t it make sense, then, to sweat over it and get it perfect and really wow ’em?

Sure. If it mattered.

Unless you’ve got a cover letter that will have editors from Manhattan to…uh…the next block over in Manhattan howling with laughter and peeing their pants, there’s no point trying to impress anyone. You could write the best cover letter in the world, but if your manuscript is garbage, no one will give you a publishing deal on the basis of the cover letter.

Anyway, I’ve jumped ahead of myself here. I didn’t mean to talk about that stuff yet. Because first we’re gonna talk about critique groups! (Don’t worry — when the time is right, I’m gonna reproduce my own cover letter and query letter for you.)

When you’ve gotten to the point where you feel like your work is damn good, that’s when it’s time to get the opinions of others. And I don’t mean your mom and your boyfriend. (Unless your mom and/or your boyfriend work in publishing, but even then they might lie to you or soft-soap it to save your ego. And you need HONEST reactions.)

So you need to join a critique group. This is crucial. Why? There are two reasons:

1) There’s ALWAYS room for improvement, even when you think you’re done. Joining a critique group will get you something that you can’t get on your own, no matter how critically you examine your own work – a diversity of opinions. The worst thing you can do is rely solely on one opinion . You’re going to have to impress a LOT of people to get to your destination: agent, acquisition editor, marketing director, sales director, publisher, and so on. So you need to have people whose opinions you trust look at your work and rip it apart for you. It’s perfectly acceptable to not like what they have to say. It’s also perfectly acceptable to ignore chunks and accept chunks. In general, you’ll start to find that people complain about the same things. Where complaints overlap, that’s where you want to focus your efforts. If more than a couple of people hate something, that usually means something’s wrong with it.

But don’t listen to their suggestions on how to fix it! Someone once wisely said, “When readers say there’s something wrong, they’re usually right. When they tell you HOW TO FIX IT, they’re usually wrong.” In other words, trust people’s opinions about what to fix, but figure out how to do so on your own.

2) The other reason you need to join a critique group is that by picking apart OTHER people’s work, you’ll become a stronger writer. You’ll see things that strike you as wrong in their work, or things that annoy you, and you’ll become better at finding those things in what YOU write, too. I speak from many years of experience on this: The most valuable thing my writing mentor ever did was let me read her manuscripts before she did her final drafts. It taught me WORLDS about how to revise my own work and where to look for the pitfalls. There’s absolutely no shortcuts in this regard. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

Where do you find a critique group? Well, they exist online, of course, and odds are there are a bunch in your community. Check the bulletin boards at local libraries and bookstores. Look for a good fit. You want a group that has a nice balance of published writers to neophytes. You always want to join a group that is as far ahead of you, on balance, as possible. This way you’ll learn more. You want to be surrounded by people who are further along on the path than you are. Shop around. Find a group you feel comfortable in, with people you respect. Don’t just jump into the first group you can find! If you write horror, for example, a romance group or a group that focuses on chick-lit is worse than no group at all!

Then, after your work has been run through the mill of yourself and your critique group, when you feel like you’ve made the novel as strong as it can possibly be, the time has come to begin looking for an agent.

And we’ll talk about that next time.

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