Advice for writers


Advice for writers

My advice (for what it's worth) on how to get published

(NOTE: Before you read below, check out my more recent essays about writing and getting published, halfway down)

Spending years working on a writing project is hard when you know how low the odds are of getting published. I had plenty of rejections of novels before my first book sold. What happens if we're working on a worthy project that would have a real chance at publication -- but we can't get it to the right people who'd give good advice and help? 

I'll share what I've learned about submitting your work, in case it will help. These are just my humble opinions. But before I give general observations, I'll start with the most important piece of advice: Write only a story or novel that you will be glad you wrote even if it never gets published. Why? Three reasons. 

One, if you are passionate about telling the story, it will show in the writing. Two, being passionate about your story will also give you the energy to get through the waves of revision, rejection, and criticism. Everyone gets rejection, even those who write best-sellers. Tastes are just diverse. 

But most importantly: Spending years on a novel just to sell it will end up leaving you angry if it doesn't. There is one book I wrote that I wanted to write since I was seventeen. I never changed my mind, and to this day, I don’t regret the time I spent getting that story out of my head and onto paper, even if it never gets published. If there's a story gnawing at your brain and clawing at your heart, then write it. Your goal won't be publication; it will be having written. Now of course, most of us want to believe what we're working on will inspire or affect readers someday. We often do, inside, need the hope that it will get published. And that's fine. It just might. But publication shouldn't be your only goal. Otherwise you may end up wasting a lot of time on a manufactured book you don’t care about. Even if your writing is not published, it can still help your writing career, and not just because of the practice. You may well get rejected with an encouraging comment from an agent or editor, who may want to see more work later. The editors and agents who wrote on my early novels, "I like the writing, and I'll be happy to look at what you do next" became contacts when I finished Carrie Pilby. Don’t think you have to be like the 20-year-old literary wunderkind who skipped all the hard steps and handed his book to his Ivy League professor or his uncle in publishing. Most of us take a while to get there, and we still struggle with our writing afterwards (and so do they). 

So once you've started writing something you love and you want to send it out, what next? (If you've been at this for a while, you can probably skip 1. and 2. below, but everyone is at a different stage, so...) 

1. Bounce it off other people – which means finding some objective readers.If you don't have a writing group or class where people share critiques, or friends who know how to be constructive, start a writers' group in your hometown. Put notices up at the library, in the local paper, etc. and ask folks to email you with a description of what they write. This may weed out people who are looking for an English class. Find people who write regularly and will trade writing with you. Not everyone knows how to give good critiques. (Instead of just criticizing, they should be able to give you ideas on how you could make it better. Telling you what works is an important part of the process as well.)

2. Consider carefully both criticism and praise, but don’t make rash decisions. People's tastes differ and you shouldn't throw your story in the trash just because a few people don’t get it. See if you get a lot of people making the same comment. Don’t turn your book into something you hate because one person's suggestion. Opinions are helpful on things like mood, tone, and points that aren't clear enough to the reader. If you hear a few people telling you the same thing, don't get defensive -- consider that you might have to work harder to be readable and better describe your points. They might be saying the same thing an editor or agent will say when he/she looks at your work. Balancing your instincts with other people’s opinions is something you’ll have to learn. (Also remember that even two editors can have wildly differing tastes. Their opinion is just that.)

3. Take time off between revisions. Unfortunately, it's very hard to be affected or amazed by our own writing; we already know who murdered Mrs. Jones and the punchlines to our jokes, so we can't keep ourselves in suspense. Giving yourself a little time after writing will allow you to look at your work fresh. Don't rush. When you do send it out to editors and agents, you want it to be your best; they're not going to say, "Well, submit it four more times and I'll look each time." Have another project going so you can focus on that for a while, then go back to your first one. Granted, sometimes it's hard to wait a long time to finish, because someone else might be working on a similar plot. You kind of have to balance the urge to get it out in a timely fashion with the knowledge that it should be at its best when you do. (And note that if you want to keep track of movie and novel plots that have sold, you can check out for films and Publisher's Marketplace for books. For the latter, you can get the short version of the daily newsletter by going to the box near the top that says "Please note" in red.) 

4. Whom should you submit to?Now for the hard part. These days, you should submit to an agent. Publishing houses claim not to look at unagented submissions. They’d rather see it from an agent because if an agent has read it and found it worthwhile, they already know they’re probably not wasting their time. Thousands of people are writing novels. They can’t read, so publishers need a weeding process. Agents are also very selective. They don't speed-read either. Which begs the next question: How do you get an agent?

5. Getting an agent.  Agents are busy but many do look at new writers – they are afraid of missing the Next Big Talent, which could be you.First, you want to find an agent who represents your genre of writing. Some handle teen books, some like sci-fi, some like women’s fiction, some non-fiction only, some a whole array. These days, you can find almost every bit of information you need on the internet. That wasn’t the case years ago. Now, you can put a phrase like “literary agents” into Google and get a list. Some agents even keep blogs and give out helpful advice, or they Tweet. One of the more popular ones was Miss Snark. Her site still has a lot of useful advice and some great links to other agents. Click here for her blog. Get familiar with the lists and blogs. Another way to find agents is to look at books in the bookstore or library that are like yours, and check the acknowledgements to see which agent the writer is thanking. You can write to that agent and say you like so-and-so’s writing, and you have something similar. Or, email the agency and ask who there is looking at manuscripts from new writers. Sometimes an intern or assistant gets promoted and is looking for clients, particularly the one who will make their careers. That could be you! Just don’t contact any agency or agent who charges a fee to read your work. A reputable agent makes money by taking on only projects he/she really likes, and then selling them to a publishing house and getting a commission. Someone who wants you to pay for his or her services is simply out to rob you. (Good agents can charge you for copying and postage, although most will not.) When you're ready to submit, send out the first three chapters or about 50 pages to a few agents. Find out what format they prefer. Also include a letter and synopsis of the book - I've heard that it can be anywhere from two to ten pages, but I'd guess that you're better off being on the lower end. (People don't have a lot of time). Now, remember that no matter what you send – just a letter or more – you should make those pages great. Imagine you’re an agent who gets 200 submissions in a week. What's going to make you spend time on one and not the others? What's going to make you sit and read all 50 pages when you've got 200 submissions to get through? Snag them right away. Include a one-page single spaced letter saying what the book's about, where you've been published before (if you have), and anything else relevant. Make it neat and well-formatted. Make your first few pages really, really great. Consider what it is that keeps YOU reading a book when you pick it up at the library or in the bookstore. Agents and editors are no different. They want to be intrigued. 

6.  Don’t get discouraged. Since the odds of a book selling are so low, in order for an agent to pitch it and overcome all those obstacles for you, they have to REALLY love it. They can't just think it's semi-okay. And then, they have to find an editor who REALLY loves it who will tell his or her publishing company why she or he REALLY loves it and why readers will REALLY love it. You wouldn't marry someone you only sorta like just as a reward for their pursuing you, would you? You have to love them enough to get through the obstacles of life. It's all about commitment. Publishing companies are not charities to subsidize you because you spent so many years on your book. (I know - I wish!) If they buy your book, they're committing to spending a year or more editing it with you, and to spending a lot of money to publish it, and they need to recoup some of their investment, either in money, in reputation, or both. That's why those initial obstacles are there. Not everyone to whom you send your book will love it. One writer I know started off by sending a few chapters to a handful of agents, and only one agent was interested. She worked with him on revising the ending, sold his book, and it became a hit. That doesn't mean that all of the agents who rejected it had bad taste. They just had different taste. 

7.  Other types of writing:Screenplays: For screenplays, the process is different. It's hard to get producers to look at your script. They don't want to get sued for allegedly stealing your idea. So if you have a script and no contacts, it's best to send to agents or to enter screenwriting contests. You can get a list of agents willing to look at query letters from the Writers' Guild of America in NY or LA. When you send to film agents, most just want a letter first. Include a one or two-page summary of the script. Then they may request the screenplay. As for contests, you'll probably have to pay $20 to $65 to enter. That's the breaks. But your script will get read.  Individual short stories: Send to literary reviews, consumer magazines, wherever. Or enter contests, where you’ll be competing with budding writers. Only submit to literary magazines you’d be happy to be published in. They may own the rights once they publish it. These days, the biggest literary mags allow you to submit online, sometimes for a small fee. Glimmer Train is a popular literary magazine that constantly runs short story contests with decent prizes. Writer’s Digest does it as well. (You needen’t have an agent to submit short fiction to magazines.) Short story collections: They are often considered the hardest things to sell, unless you are a big name. If you can get some stories individually published first, it’s a bit better sell. That’s how Junot Diaz and David Schickler started, to name a few. 

8.  Should you self-publish? I get asked that question a lot. The answer is: It depends what you want to get out of it. With today’s technology, many companies have sprung up to help you publish your book. Some even masquerade as regular publishing companies, saying they will publish your book, then revealing you have to pay them thousands of dollars. In any case, there is nothing wrong with self-publishing if you realize that you will lack the distribution into book stores and the visibility of going with a major company. Some people want to publish their book just for their friends, for their family, or to achieve a lifelong dream. Others want to design and produce their book their own way. If you can face the fact that it will be very, very hard to sell your book to strangers (or even friends), and you will still get satisfaction out of self-publishing, go ahead. There are a few contests for self-published novels each year, too, so there is always the vague chance it could become a hit after all. Just don’t expect it. It is honestly pretty rare. 

9.  How I did it. As for my novel, the short version is that I sent out the first 50 pages to six agents. They were relatively new, and at agencies that were either famous or had represented books like mine. (The two biggest agencies I sent the book to were William Morris and ICM, both in New York City, but this was years ago). The William Morris agent gave me two pages of good suggestions even though he wasn't ready to represent it. The ICM agent wanted to meet me because I was “funny,” but  thought the book was unsalable and that I should write humor and try to get it into the New Yorker (which I tried for a while). I revised and revised. Meanwhile, another agent gave it to someone at yet a different agency who he thought might like it. A chain of contacts that emerged from one of the other people led to an agent. Then she gave me more suggestions. I made some slight revisions and she sent it out. Lo and behold, a new category of writing was starting: Chick lit, books about young women dating and finding their way. My book didn’t fit into that category completely, but it sorta fit, and a very wise editor liked it. Finally, it was sold! (Incidentally, “chick lit” as a marketing title is pretty much dead now because of the glut of those books, but “women’s fiction” sells quite well. In fact, a terrific, original story will often sell.)  It feels a lot better when I write now. I'm not completely in the wilderness any more. But it's also making my writing process a lot longer because I don't want to rush my next project out. I'm revising and revising.I love writing and publishing, but it's damn slow. So...E-mail me with questions or comments.

P.S. Here is a sample query letter: 

Dear Ms. Editor, I'm enclosing the first three chapters of my recently completed comedic novel, UGLY IN PINK. I'm a big fan of Readme Inc. books, and I think my book would be perfect for your line.UGLY IN PINK is a dark comedy about a not-so-great-looking 26-year-old female who goes to a Halloween party disguised as a mermaid and meets the man of her dreams -- except, she has to keep dressing like a mermaid every time she dates him to satisfy his fetish. She also has an angry parrot who talks back to her and a father who runs a religious cult.I was a journalism major at Catatonic State University and have written short stories for some time. Last year I published my story, “What People Talk About What They Talk About What People Talk About” in the Southern Quicksand Review. Full-time, I work full-time as a hair dresser in Manhattan. My novel is approximately 310 pages.If you would like to see the rest of UGLY IN PINK, please e-mail me at or call me at (212) 555-5555, or feel free to send a note in the enclosed stamped envelope.