Want to Get Published? Here’s How to Start

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David Iskander for Unsplash

Very few writers write for themselves. We write because it’s a way of reaching out to others, to sharing our world, our stories, our thoughts, our fears, and our hopes. And the best route to sharing is, of course, getting published.

“Getting published” is itself becoming an archaic term in a time of instant ebooks and Uncle George putting his rants out on Kindle. For the sake of argument here, then, I’m going to talk specifically about the traditional publishing model, in which a publisher produces your books and pays you royalties from them. And most of what I’m going to say deals with writing fiction, though I suspect you’re bright enough to apply it to nonfiction as well.

Even if you’ve finished writing your book, you have a long way to go before it’s ready to be submitted to an agent or publisher. Why? Because you have only one chance with it. Either they’re going to like it, or like the kernel of it, and ask you for revisions, or they’re not going to like it. But you can’t submit the same novel to the same agent eighteen times and expect them to read — for free — every single draft. You have to have a finished product.

And that means having it edited.

But wait. There might even be another step first!

I know a little about this. Part of what I do is deliver editing services — from developmental through proofing and everything in between — to publishers and individual authors. I often receive manuscripts that aren’t ready; they’d cost the author a small fortune for me to tear apart and put back together so what’s in it is at least coherent. I tell them so. I tell them: what you should do is put this through a critique group first — you’ll make fabulous improvements — and then come back to me for editing if you want.

Start with a Critique Group

I’ve been recommending critique groups for about 15 years now, and in that time have had only two authors join. Everyone else either still wants me to edit, or goes away looking for another editor who will tell them that their work is ready for editing. It takes all kinds.

Joining a critique group is the single best thing you can do for your writing, your career, and your artistic growth. I absolutely believe that. But if you don’t want to take my word for it, here are some good reasons to join a critique group:

1. It doesn’t cost you anything. Well, that’s not quite true: it will cost you time and energy, as you’re expected to critique others’ work as well as receiving critiques yourself. (But see #4, below.) And the money you save can be better used when your book is ready for editing.

2. You can do it in person. Many writers prefer the weekly meetings that keep them focused and give them deadlines. Check for local critique groups through your chapter of the National Writers Union (you do belong, right?), at your local library, or on Facebook or Craigslist.

3. You can do it online. If you’re not near a group, or prefer to have an assortment of critiques from all over the world, then online groups are terrific. The one I recommend is the Internet Writing Workshop, where you can participate in interesting discussions about the writing life as well as join critique groups for nearly any genre you can imagine.

4. Critiquing others’ work improves your own. I can’t say this strongly enough. Reading others’ work with an eye to whether or not it “works” will give you that same eye when you come back to your own work. Not to mention the karma points!

5. You know you’re not alone. Writing is one of the loneliest activities on the planet. You create alone. You write alone. You read alone. And that’s all well and good, but when you receive your 48th straight rejection, it’s good to have people with whom to share it. People who understand. (And they’ll be your biggest supporters when you finally get that acceptance, too!)

I think every writer needs to be part of a writing workshop, a critique group, whatever you choose to call it. All that “midnight dreary” stuff sounds romantic, but in the cold light of day you have to see that several sets of eyes are better than one.

How To Critique Others’ Work

The number-one rule for critiques is derived from one you may have heard before: Critique as you would be critiqued. You wouldn’t want people telling you your story is no damned good, so don’t do it to other people, no matter what.

The first thing to say about a piece is what you liked about it–the idea, a character, the plot, a glittering piece of writing, whatever. Find something you liked, and mention it.

  • Don’t say only “I liked it!” or “It’s beautiful!” Figure out what made it good or bad, if you can, and talk about that.
  • Tell the writer whether you liked the story as a whole or not. Did it move you? Make you laugh? Make you cry? Leave you cold? Overall, what stood out, good or bad? Whether you liked the story or not, what could be done to improve it?
  • Talk about the writing style. Was the style too flowery, or too pedestrian? Too cute? Were the sentences overlong, or too short? Were they all similar, so they became monotonous?
  • What about the structure? Do the parts of the story follow in the right order? Did you learn something way down that you should have known sooner? Does the story go at breakneck speed, leaving you breathless? Or is it just too slow? Was the piece overwritten–that is, should it be cut? Where? What’s not necessary? What actually detracts? Was it too short? Did you need more information about something?
  • How did the characters strike you? Did you like the hero, hate the villain? How about nuances? Did the characters seem alive? How could the writer have made you feel more deeply with the characters?
  • Does the setting seem real? Can you feel the place? Settings matter.

You can do a line-by-line critique if you want; you don’t have to, but it’s good to show examples of things you think need to be improved.

A good critique takes time and thought. That’s what you want your stories to get–so give that same energy to others’ work.

When someone critiques one of your pieces, say thank-you nicely, even if you think the critique was stupid; at a minimum, you’ve learned how stupid people will view it. Take the good suggestions, and ignore the not so good. If nobody likes it, it needs work. If half love the piece and half hate it, that’s fine, for tastes differ.

Don’t feel bad if there’s plenty wrong with it; nothing’s perfect, and you can make it better. If a critique hurts, that’s okay; you’ll survive. Nobody has a thick skin, even those who say they do.

So let’s say you’ve gone through a critique group, you’ve made changes and improvements, and you’re ready to send your opus off to Famous Agent #1. Stop right there, bucko. You’re not ready yet.

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Editing Your Own Work

It’s happened to us all. You write something, maybe under a tight deadline, maybe just feeling like you got it right the first time, and you send it out. And then, later, you see it in print … and cringe. Errors. Typos. Places where it’s glaringly evident that you could have done better, but didn’t.

The best way to make sure that the work you send out is the best it can be is to have someone else edit it, because none of us is very good at editing our own work, at seeing our own mistakes, at discerning our own unfortunate habits. But if you must edit your own work, then follow these four tips to make it the best that you can make it:

  • Wait at least an hour, and preferably a day or a week, before proofreading. The longer you can wait, the better it’s going to be. Getting some distance from your work allows you to see it with fresh eyes, and a fresh attitude. But what if you don’t have a day or a week? You can accelerate the process by stepping away from the desk and engaging in some activity that will totally absorb your mind; the goal is to forget what you wrote. But the time factor is still the most efficient; it will help you see both typos and places where better phrasing would help the document.
  • Print it out, and use a colored pen for marking it up. Something you may not know is that your eyes process words differently on the computer screen than they do on paper, so looking at a printout can make all the difference in making yourself see what’s actually there (rather than what you meant to say.
  • Read it aloud. Do this especially if it’s dialogue that you’re writing; but do it no matter what the content of your piece. When you stumble over reading words out loud, there’s a good chance that your readers will stumble over them, too.
  • Read it backward, word by word. Yes, it’s tedious. But it’s still the best way to catch typos, incorrect wording, and other mechanical errors. It doesn’t work well for the meaning of what you’ve written, but can be used as your last check.

All these activities can be combined to make sure your document is as error-free as one person can make it. The first one is the most effective and efficient way to ensure you have a clean, clear manuscript, and I hope that you’ll take the time to use it.

Why Hire An Editor?

I seriously can’t tell you the number of times a beginning writer has said to me that typos and grammar aren’t that important in making a submission, because their story is so fabulous that any agent will overlook these small issues that are to be dealt with by (presumably) small people, not our budding Bestselling Author.

I am here to tell you: it doesn’t work that way. Over 500 books are published every day in the United States alone. Literary agents receive thousands of queries every week. Do you really think that someone is going to look at your shabby manuscript and think anything besides, “who is this bozo?”

Submit your absolute best work. Never submit anything that has not been critiqued, edited, even re-critiqued. I don’t care how much your mother loved it. If you want a career, then you’ll follow that career’s rules.

Few people actually do. For every author who sends a manuscript to be edited, there are 10 more who don’t. This is especially true of beginning writers.

Here’s the thing, though: No one can edit their own work. Not really. Certainly not well. I’m a published author many times over, and I don’t edit my own work. I pay to have a colleague edit it before I send it to my publisher, and my publisher then pays for another person to edit it, and then I get a final look at it, and guess what? Even with that level of attention, there will still be the occasional typo, the occasional error. Think how many there would have been without that process!

But this is not, as we have seen, a concept embraced by a lot of writers.

I was at a writers’ conference not too long ago, and I noticed most agents asked newbie authors the same questions at pitches: “Is the manuscript finished?” and “Has it been professionally edited?”

While there are agents somewhere willing to take on a manuscript that hasn’t gone through a professional editor, début novelists are held to a higher standard than authors who’ve already been traditionally published.

A big part of an agent’s hesitation to take on a novice author has to do with the steep learning curve writing that first novel represents. Once it’s gone through an editor, the agent heaves a sigh of relief — the thing is no longer a diamond in the rough. Few agents have the devotion to cull that diamond and cut it and polish it into shining glory.

An editor is more than just a checkbox, though, in the agent-getting process. Imagine your favorite writing partner or workshop critique partner, the one who loves your story but still pushes you hard to make it better, who always has great insight, who makes great suggestions, being available to talk about your story, being there to bounce off ideas, committed to reviewing your revised chapters over and over again with a fine-toothed comb and yet with the big picture in mind. And this critique partner, on top of all that, has publishing experience and know-how. This is an editor.

Okay, so here’s the thing. No one likes being edited. Any author, any writer who tells you they enjoy the process, is lying. That’s all there is to it.

Second truth: everyone needs to be edited. Everyone. Every writer has idiosyncrasies at best and errors at worst, and there’s no way the writer can be aware of them all. One editor probably won’t be aware of them all, either, but they have a lot better chance than the writer.

An Aside for Nonfiction Writers

In some ways, you have it a little easier than novelists. Novelists have to prove to an agent they can create a sustainable story arc, provide a beginning, middle, and end, and write well. To do that, they have to send off a critiqued, edited, and polished manuscript.

You don’t.

Don’t start with writing the book and having it edited. I’m not saying your book doesn’t need editing; I’m sure it does. But that editing is going to be very expensive, and it may not be the best use of your funds at this time.

Instead, consider: what you really want to do is capture the attention and interest of a literary agent or of a publisher. That’s your real goal here, not having a picture-perfect manuscript.

What will you be sending out in your quest for arousing that interest? You’ll be sending out a proposal, which will include — at most — three completed, edited, polished chapters. It will also include other essentials, such as a synopsis, an analysis of competing books already in the marketplace, a statement of your platform, an outline, and other components.

So in the nonfiction world, your first order of business is to make this proposal the best it can possibly be. So by all means have it edited and hold off on the whole manuscript until someone has asked you to send it to them.

You can have someone write the proposal (it’s one of the things I do for clients), but that’s relatively expensive. Consider writing your own and sending it to a top-notch editor. You’ll pay up to a couple thousand dollars, but you won’t be in for too much; and if no one asks for it (perish the thought!), you’ll still be able to pay next month’s rent!

Agents and Editors and Fees, Oh, My!

Right. I get a lot of questions about literary agents, mostly from new writers eager to obtain one. And anytime there’s a demand for something, there will be scam artists eager to make a quick buck off that need.

So here’s the scoop on who you should pay, when, and why.

“Literary agents” (quotation marks deliberate) who ask for a fee for editing, or who recommend an editing service, are likely scam artists who have no interest in placing manuscripts with publishers. Run, do not walk, away from this sort of interest in your book. Yeah, it’s exciting to hear their enthusiasm. You’ll be a lot less enthusiastic once you’ve spent time (and money!) with them.

Legitimate literary agents comply with ethical standards that prohibit them from charging authors a fee (beyond minimal office expenses for postage and copying — many do not even charge for those, and most charge only against advances received).

Agents make their money only on manuscripts sold. Agents pay money to authors; they do not collect money from authors. When your book is sold to a publishing house, your agent will collect an agreed-upon percentage of whatever it is that you make from the book. You should never write a check to your agent.

What do Acquisitions Editors Want?

The great question is, of course: what are publishers looking for? Are they waiting for the next Dan Brown, the next Stephen King, the next Liane Moriarity? Does the proposal you craft have to be about whatever happens to be popular — next year? Or do you have a chance of getting out of the slush pile and published, even if your book doesn’t fit into any of those stereotypes?

The answer is, yes. You have a chance. But you need to play by their rules in order to get there.

The first thing that agents, editors, and publishers are looking for is marketing. They want an author who can promote their book. Wait a minute! Isn’t that like putting the cart in front of the horse? Shouldn’t the book be brilliant and original before worrying about marketing? And doesn’t the publishing house do the marketing?

I had a contract with St. Martin’s/Minotaur for two mystery novels. Here’s the marketing support I was given: if I tweeted something, they’d re-tweet it. Period. The rest was up to me. If that sounds unfair, stop right now and choose a new career. It’s not fair. It’s not unfair. It just is.

The first rule in publishing is Market Thyself.

Your first sale is much more likely if you already have a name. Even in fiction, it helps if you’re an expert writing about your subject of expertise. Look at all the novels about forensics experts written by forensics experts, the novels about lawyers written by lawyers. Editors and publishers want to know that you know what you’re talking about. If you’re an expert, they assume you do, and can promote you that way. If you’re not an expert, think about taking one on as co-author.

And that’s just the beginning. You need to make it clear from the start that you will do what it takes to advertise your book. That you’re ready and willing to construct and maintain a website, that you’re ready for (and prepared to finance) book tours, that you’ll break down doors to get reviews and interviews. Show yourself to be creative, energetic, and perseverant, and you’ve come a long way toward winning your editor’s heart.

The days are long gone when an acquisitions editor can say yes to a book by themselves. They’re going to have to convince a whole slew of people — other editors, managing partners, and yes, the marketing department — that this book is going to sell. Make it as easy for them as you can.

The second thing you need to project is professionalism. Take the time to learn what is expected of you, and do it. If the publication wants submissions between October and June only, submit between October and June only. Show in your query letters that you aren’t broadcasting them randomly (even if you are) but know something about the publishing house to which you’re addressing yourself.

Don’t call the editor unless they invite you to. Don’t ever send anything hand-written. Don’t ever mention how much your mother likes your work.

If you want to be treated like a professional, act like one.

Finally, be able to encapsulate your concept or idea in as few words as possible. If you can’t articulate it, no one will buy it. Try what is called an “elevator speech”: describe your book in the time it would take to tell someone about it on an elevator. Can’t do it? Then you’re not ready to try and get a publisher’s attention.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, it will show. This is your job now, treat it the same way you’d treat any new job: by playing by the rules, being flexible and professional, and by using every opportunity to press your concept home.

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Priscilla Du Preez for Unsplash

Written by

Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at jeannettedebeauvoir.com.

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