A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at Writers Block, a group of young writers who are studying the craft of writing. When I asked what the group wanted to learn about, the answer came back overwhelmingly that they wanted to learn more about the publishing side of writing. It took some thinking to figure out how to condense what I’ve learned about publishing into an hour workshop, but I managed to come up with a few thoughts. Here are some of the ideas I shared about writing for publication. There’s nothing earth shattering here, but I think the young writers found it useful because it opened their eyes, perhaps for the first time, to the fact that writing for publication is hard work.
How to Get Published
- Write something wonderful that someone will want to publish. This sounds obvious, but oddly it’s the step that some writers skip over in their rush to be published. Yes, wonderful is subjective, but if you have a strong grasp of the art and craft of writing, then you’re more likely to win fans with your work. It also helps to learn to be the best judge of your own writing.
- Find your own voice and your own perspective. What do you have to offer that no one else does? How are you different or unique? That’s your strength. Use it.
- Read a lot. If you don’t like to read, then writing is not for you. Read stories similar to the ones you want to write. Read about writing. Read about writers. Read the classics. Read your favorite genre. Read the cereal box. Read everything.
- Be sure to proofread your work—check for spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. Don’t rely on spell check. I can’t stress this enough—sloppy writing will get your work rejected as fast as editors can hit the delete button. Yes, I speak from experience (as both the editor, and, I’m sure, as the writer whose work evaporated into cyberspace).
- Have someone else (or many someone elses) read your writing and listen to what they have to say. Often, as writers we get stuck in our own heads and we forget that the point is to communicate with others. Remember, just because someone offers a criticism doesn’t mean you have to listen to it; however, if more than one person has the same suggestion for improvement, it might be worth seeing if there’s something to it.
- Read your writing out loud to listen for the music of your language. We write for the ear, not for the eye. You could have the most perfect looking story or poem—sharp margins, professional looking layout, lovely font—but if the words don’t sound right then they’re not right.
- It takes time, sometimes a lot of time, to create something publishable. Give yourself time to grow into the writer you want to be.
- First drafts are never publishable (or usually even second drafts or third drafts or fourth drafts…).
- If you’re not willing to take the time to make sure your writing is the very best it can be before you send it off for publication, then writing is not for you.
When you’re convinced that your writing is the absolute best it can be, you’re ready to start submitting to journals, magazines, and newspapers.
- Figure out what genre your piece belongs in (Is it action adventure? Science fiction? Historical?) and research journals, magazines, and newspapers that publish the type of story you’ve written. God bless the Internet. When I first started writing, we had to do things the old-timey way—we had to actually look through books! Now a list of literary journals is just an Internet search away.
- When you have your list of journals, read their submission guidelines carefully and follow those guidelines exactly as written. Again, I can’t stress this enough. You want to give your writing the best chance of being published. Editors receive many, many submissions, and often they’re looking for easy reasons to reject a piece. To make your work stand out from the crowd, show the editors that you’re a professional writer and you take your submission seriously.
- Be prepared for rejections. Sorry, but it’s part of the process. If you don’t have the stomach to deal with the rejections, then writing is not for you. If it makes you feel better, you can find many examples of famous authors who received hundreds, sometimes thousands of rejection letters until they were finally published. Jack London was rejected many times, as was J.K. Rowling, as were countless others.
- No matter what, keep submitting. It took me four years to get my first piece published. If I had given up three and a half years into it I never would have become a published writer.
If you’ve written a novel, then the process is a little different. If you want to pursue traditional publishing one route is to find an agent who will represent your novel to the publishing houses.
- You can find agents the same way you find literary journals and magazines—by looking them up online.
- You need to finish your novel before you start contacting agents because if agents are interested then they’ll often ask to see the whole manuscript.
- Like with submitting to journals or magazines, you need to be prepared for rejections. If the rejections will deter you, then, once again, writing is not for you.
- To catch the attention of an agent, you’ll need to write a great query letter. Here’s an article from Writer’s Digest about how to write the perfect query letter.
If you have more of a go-getter’s heart, you may want to look into indie publishing.
- Indie-publishing is a great option for writers these days. Many best selling novels are indie-published.
- You can create your own e-books on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. You can also publish your books to BN, iTunes, and Kobo. The entire process takes about five minutes per retailer. The directions are easy to understand. You can also create your own paperbacks on Amazon’s CreateSpace or on Lulu. Again, the directions are pretty easy. Best of all, it’s free!
- If you’re self-publishing, then everything that would normally fall on the publisher (cover design, interior layout, editing, marketing, etc.) falls onto the author. You have to make doubly sure you’re putting out a quality product if you’re indie-publishing so readers will take you seriously.
- The Creative Penn (www.thecreativepenn.com) is a great resource for writers who want to publish their work independently.
Once you’re published you have to learn the ins and outs of book marketing and publicity and you have to deal with the naysayers. You need a strong constitution to be a writer. It takes courage to put your work out there. I think the young people I spoke to were surprised at how hard it is to be a writer. I think they thought, as I did when I first started, that being a writer meant sitting at your desk scribbling out your crazy ideas and somehow all the other things (getting published, getting publicity, hitting the best seller list) just magically happened.
I wanted the young people to understand that becoming a writer, as in making a career for yourself, takes time. Even the indie authors who are hitting the best seller lists these days are often people who have been writing for years, and I include myself in that list. I’ve been at this since 1994 (21 years now), and it took me four years to get my first publication—a short story in a small literary journal. Then I wrote three novels before my fourth (Her Dear & Loving Husband) hit the best seller list in 2011. Now over 200,000 copies of the Loving Husband Trilogy have been bought or downloaded worldwide.
Was it worth it? All those rejection letters, all those worries that no one would ever read my stories, all those times I very nearly gave up writing for good? Of course it was worth it. If someone had said to me that it was going to take 20 years to get everything I wanted as a writer, I probably would have said, “No thanks. It’s going to take too long.” But the 20 years passed anyway, as time will, and because I didn’t give in I ended up where I wanted to be. That’s really the lesson I wanted the young writers to take away. Don’t quit. Not ever. If you have a vision, a calling, whatever it is, keep going. It will be worth it in the end, no matter how long it takes to get there.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.