When I was an aspiring author, I remember hearing other aspiring authors spending a good deal of time complaining about how this or that NYT best-selling author had just published a piece of crap, and how publishing was all totally about who you knew and once you had it made, everything you wrote would be published, no matter what. Yeah, I actually still hear that part a lot.
But here’s what I believed then and repeated whenever I was given the chance:
You have to write a book that’s not as good as what is being published right now. You have to write a book that is better. In fact, you have to write a book that is so good people find themselves unable to say no. They just love it so much they can’t think of a reason to say no.
Because editors and agents are looking for reasons to say no.
How do you write a book that is so good that people can’t say no?
1. You learn the skills of writing. Usually this means writing a lot of words. Sometimes they get published in smaller magazines or by smaller presses. A lot of the time, they don’t. I’ve said it a lot of times, but I wrote 20 really bad books before I got published, so yeah, that was at least 1 million words.
2. You tell a story that is yours to tell. That means giving up on following trends. If you happen to hit a trend, that’s not why you hit it, so I’m going to insist that’s not following a trend. Sometimes you’re mad about what isn’t out there being published already. Or you’re mad because what’s being published on a certain subject isn’t the truth—and you know it. Sometimes you write the story that’s yours because you are so much in love with a certain genre or story or character that you couldn’t NOT write it, even when people told you it wasn’t ever going to sell.
3. You get feedback from other people. And somehow (believe me, this still eludes me on occasion), you figure out how to hear the useful advice and how to ignore the other advice.
4. You revise the crap out of your book. You do the delicate dance that is truly the art of writing, in keeping what is good and throwing out what is bad. You leave it when the revising is done. But you don’t leave it before then and go work on something shinier. Although if there is something shinier, it makes me wonder if this is really the story that is only yours to tell. Maybe it is and you just lack any self-confidence. That’s not unusual, come to think of it. But look at every word, every sentence, every scene, every chapter. Be willing to do the big changes if they are necessary. Listen to your heart or your gizzard or whatever you believe in.
5. You do the work of meeting editors and agents however you can. Sometimes it’s by forming a relationship by sending manuscript after manuscript in. Sometimes it’s by going to conferences that are nearby. Sometimes you volunteer for something writing-related, and stuff happens. I don’t believe that bad writing is going to be published just because you know someone (it happens, but I wouldn’t count on it), but you learn a lot from these connections. People tell you things about the industry that’s useful to know, for now and for the future. And also, it’s always good to have friends to get advice from. And to hang with.
I’m not going to pretend this is an easy formula. It’s not. You’re signing up for a long apprenticeship and there are no guarantees.
I will admit that I have become more cynical about the publishing world than I once was. Maybe that’s me or maybe it’s that publishing has actually changed. But I still think it’s good advice to write a better book than the one you see published today that you hate. I also think that every book has a lesson to teach you, bad or good. And I think it behooves authors not to diss other authors, however easy it is and however good it makes you feel temporarily. We’re in this together. Let reviewers and readers diss us. They do it plenty.