Saturday, June 24, 2006

How to get published, part 1: You must write something

Once people around you know that you're a writer and that you've been published, inevitably the question comes up, "So how do you get published?" Or the variants: "How much does it cost?" (answer: nothing) "Is it hard to get published?" (answer: Depends. Usually it's easier than unicycling across Siberia in the dead of winter, but not always.) "I've always wanted to write a book." (answer: polite smile -- there are dozens of snarky answers to this, but it's best to be civil and refrain).

So in the spirit of helpfulness to those who would like to be authors, I am writing a series of articles presenting the basics of getting published. I will keep the discussion general, so as to be applicable to all the various forms of book writing, from literary novels to "How to crochet socks for your cat," and everything in between. I've never delved into Hollywood nor into Broadway, so I cannot speak to screenwriting and playwriting, but books and magazines I do know reasonably well.

Let us begin at the beginning, with the writing itself.

Do you want to write, or do you want to have written?

I am assuming in writing this that my readers enjoy writing and want to see their works published; that is, that the reader wants to write, rather than wants to have written. Do you see the difference? A writer is one who writes, and writes regularly, eventually producing publishable material. Many people I've met who dream of getting published, thinking it must be a very glamorous thing, will never get there because they aren't regular writers. The bulk of their writing is a personal essay or two written during a writing workshop they attend once a year, if that. Though they fancy themselves writers, they do not write except under special circumstances, when there is a charismatic coach to prod them on, and others around to watch them do it. But when they leave, they are untouched by the experience, unable to keep up the momentum, unable to make time at the keyboard or to put pen to paper.

And that's all right, if that is what that they want to do, if that is enough to satisfy.

But if you want to be published, not just once but several times over, to make a career of writing, you must do much more.

Why would-be writers -- don't

I have a brother-in-law who dreams of being a writer. His online screen name and email include the word "writer." He talks about the publishing world, and how he has these great ideas for novels.

"So, BIL," we ask him, "how far have you gotten on your novel? Can we read some of it?"

BIL hedges. Well, he hasn't written much on it as such... he has some ideas... he has some notes... somewhere... if he can find them...

And so it has gone on for a couple of decades. So far as we can tell, BIL has never actually written a paragraph of his novel. The notes, if they exist, vanish, as ephemeral as gum wrappers. BIL is enamored with the glamour of being a writer, but his attention is captured far more by his job, the crisis-du-jour in the ongoing drama of his adult children's lives, television programs, and the pleasures of getting in the car to drive to the nearby convenience store for a giant cup of soda several times a week. Someday, he thinks, someday when things settle down and life is normal, he'll have time to write. He imagines "writing" as having long blocks of uninterrupted time, to sit at the keyboard and let the ideas flow. Prosaic on-the-job problems and crises-du-jour are not part of that fantasy. They take up one's time and drain one's energy. So long as they exist, BIL's imagined writing life never happens, and thus his writing never happens.

You must write something

Despite what you may have heard from someone, somewhere, beginning writers can't simply sell an idea. Never waste an editor's time trying to sell an idea. An editor wants to see actual writing. Nor should you approach an author with the deadly line, "I have this great idea, and if you'll write it, we can split the profits 50-50." First of all, most published authors already have more ideas than they'll ever be able to use. Secondly, an author knows very well that coming up with an idea is the easy part. Executing it into a publishable piece is damned hard. What the author hears when an idea-peddler says, "I have this great idea, you write is..." is, "Look, I want to be published and make a pile of money, but I don't want to do anything like real work. So you do all the hard work and I'll take half of the money that your labor actually earns." Such a deal.

Nope, sorry, you're going to have to do the writing yourself -- assuming you're not famous enough nor notorious enough to be of interest all by yourself so you can hire a ghost writer. That great idea you have is going to have to be told in your own words, by the sweat of your own brow as you strain over the opening line, the dialogue, the charming description. It must be yours from start to finish.

What you write may not be good enough - yet

Writing is an art. It is a craft. It can be learned, but learning to write well takes time. That's something that most people don't understand, which leads people to say things to writers such as, "Oh, I've always wanted to write a novel!" Which is why novelist give them a sort of tight look. Sure, and I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon, doc -- think I could come into your operating room and try it out sometime?

So don't be surprised if the stuff you write when you start out is less than stellar. But don't be discouraged, either. Hemingway, at some point in his life, had to learn that "apple" starts with "a" and had to learn to scrawl his name legibly. Everyone starts somewhere. You may start with straight A's in English and a finely-tuned ear for dialogue. Or you may not even be able to write a grocery list that others can follow. No matter. If you want to be a writer, begin where you are. Write what's in your head now. It may be good or it may be embarrassing. Keep writing. Native talent is all well and good, but talent without actual production is nothing. Write, and the talent will come.

Read about writing. Some writers fear that if they read other people's work, they'll lose their own voice. Or they get overwhelmed by writing instruction books and say, "But I don't want to think about all this! I want my writing to be natural!" All well and good. Your writing should seem natural, just as the circus performers make three double somersaults and a half-backflip in mid-air while juggling two flaming swords and an elephant seem easy. But it's not easy, and it only looks easy after the circus performers (and, presumably, the elephant) have practiced over and over and over.

So you, too, must practice. If the writing books seem overwhelming, pick one thing to concentrate on for a while. Maybe dialogue. Maybe overused words. Maybe cliche phrases. Pick one thing to improve, and work on it. Then pick another.

Keep writing

Keep at it. Write essay after essay, poem after poem, story after story, even novel after novel. It doesn't matter what you write. It doesn't matter if what you write is laughably bad and will never see the light of print. Just keep at it. Prove to yourself that you can carry an idea through to the end of a novel.

How long this writing apprenticeship lasts depends on you: your level of skill, your dedication, the time you have in your life to devote to your writing. Most published writers report that it took anywhere from two to ten years, from the time they start seriously writing, to finally get published. So give yourself time. Write lots of stuff. Out of that stuff will eventually come some material that you think is pretty good.

Is it good? You may rely on your own tastes to tell you. Or you may find a local writing group where you can share writing and get it critiqued. Or you might find an online writing group where you can do the same. Don't simply paste your piece into a discussion board and demand critiques, especially if that's not common practice on the board. But do get some good feedback if you can on your work. You may find that your work isn't quite as polished as you thought. It may need only a tiny tweak or two. Or it may need some major re-thinking. That's all right. It's all part of the apprenticeship.

Finally, something publishable

If you've stuck with me so far without turning away in disgust, thinking, "Oh, but that sounds like work! I don't want to do that! I just want to get published!" and if you've actually written for a good long time and have a piece that you think is worth publishing, you may think you're ready to ship it out there to agents and editors. Hold on for just a second. We'll run the piece through again, with an eye for the final polish, which is the subject for the next article in the series. Then we'll get to the exciting part, where we actually start looking up publishers and agents.

How to get published series


Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

You're quite welcome.

Anonymous said...

I love the advice you give. It really inspires me to write. I often find myself daydreaming about getting something that I have published, having fans who understand the depth of characters I created...But I think sticking to your advice here is the best thing I can do. I need to put down my distractions and actually write when I feel the urge to. I so often think of ideas, but I think of them in words like how I would write them, but so often I end up reading someone elses creation and thinking, "I'll never have the depth that these authors do. I mean, look at what I've already written... :(" But despite that, I am even more enthralled to continue to pour my ideas onto paper with the encouragement from this page. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

I had to stop myself from reading the first couple of paragraphs. There is some great advice given; though, certainly not encouraging.

Unknown said...

Great article! Thanks for sharing it.

"Some writers fear that if they read other people's work, they'll lose their own voice."

I have to admit that I feel that way. I'll read a great novel or short story and after I've finished it, forget about it. Until a week or so later when I discover this "other" voice that crept into my own narrative when I wasn't looking.

Samir Asthana said...

I think this can actually be applied to most of life: what usually seperates people's dreams from realities is only action: they are completely capable of doing something, they just have to do it.

Samir Asthana said...

I think this can actually be applied to most of life: what usually seperates people's dreams from realities is only action: they are completely capable of doing something, they just have to do it.