Writing Advice

The Publishing Process

Today’s post was originally published in September 2012 on my old blog and has undergone minor edits. It provides an overview of the traditional novel publishing process for anyone who wants to brush up on the basics! Authors may deviate from this path in a variety of ways, but this is the standard journey.

White feminine hands typing on a typewriter on a wooden desk with baby's breath in a vase nearby and written pages

1) Write a novel. Contrary to popular belief, you do have to have a completed book before you try to publish it, haha. Nonfiction operates on proposals and is a whole other kind of process, but for fiction, you want to have the manuscript ready first.

2) Edit your novel. Most of writing is, in fact, editing. You want your work to be as polished and awesome as possible before you start putting it out there. You are selling this to the industry, and they want as great of a piece as they can get. Yes, they’re going to do a lot of editing themselves. No, that does not mean you can let it slide. Make the best product you can on your own.

Start by stepping away from your work once you’ve finished your first draft. It’s important to get some space to improve your perspective. You won’t be able to see your mistakes until you’ve had some time away from them. Come back later to get the job done.

One important part of the editing process is getting readers who can offer even more perspective. Be sure to seek out varied views from people with different skill areas, some of whom tend to be harsher and some of whom tend to be more complimentary. Then look over the responses, consider what you want from your story, and figure out what you need to change.

It’s a good idea to start with the bigger storyline stuff before you get down to editing the exact wording. Over time, as you write and edit new manuscripts, you’ll also find your own special writerly weaknesses and learn how to counter them. For example, I am a plot-rusher. I’m so excited about the big picture and seeing what happens that I tend to leave out important filler. So in edits, I get to go back and fill it in! When it comes to words that are overused or that weaken the prose, like those listed in The Elements of Style, my personal weaknesses are passive voice and iterations of the words “look” and “eyes.” There are lots of tools online that can help you find yours, including word cloud apps!

Once you run out of notable issues to edit, it’s time to move to the next step.

3) Finalize the pitch material.
You may actually find it helpful to draft these documents while you’re in the midst of the previous two steps, but whether or not you do that, you need to polish them afterwards. These documents are key. They’re what you send to literary agents in order to obtain their interest in representing you. Because pitch material is all about summarizing, organizing, and marketing your ideas, it has the side effect of clarifying your ideas. Getting it right is so important.

Here’s what you need:

  • a query letter
  • a plot synopsis
  • a finished manuscript

This step is where you fully switch from artist to business thinking, which means being smart, professional, and exact. It’s similar to what’s required when applying for a regular job. A query letter is a mix between a cover letter and a project proposal. A plot synopsis is like a more detailed project proposal. Samples are often requested, which is why you need that book ready! You also may be asked for an author bio or a marketing plan, and if you attend special writerly events, you’ll have to condense your query letter down even further: 140 characters for a Twitter pitch online or a minute-long verbal “elevator pitch.”

The query letter is the central piece here. It begins with a pitch of your manuscript (make it exciting, specific, but professional, like on the inside flap of a published book), either followed or preceded by a paragraph stating the title, category/genre, word count, and a couple of comparable titles. You don’t want comps that are so blockbuster-popular that you’ll sound egotistical, but you want some well-written, recent titles that have a similar theme, style, and/or genre as your manuscript. Then include a paragraph with any writing credits you may have, followed by a closing where you offer the manuscript to the agent and thank them. You may also want to share your reason for choosing that particular agent to send to. Make sure that your final query is one page only! 

There are all sorts of resources online to help you write a top-notch query, but I recommend seeking out other writers who are familiar with the process, at places like WriteOnCon, to specifically critique yours.

4) Choose who to send your materials out to.
This step involves a lot of research. There’s no point in marketing your novel if you’re marketing it to the wrong people. It’s important, first, to know that it is very rare to get a publishing deal without a literary agent as an intermediary. The agents select the clients whose work they most love, prepare them more, and then send them to editors at publishing companies, who know that these novels are higher quality because the agent chose them. Agents also assist with the entire rest of the process, including contract negotiations, which makes them indispensable.

Second, Writer’s Market and the website QueryTracker are two great reference tools that can help you find agents. Each agent has different genres they specialize in. Narrow down the field to the agents that work with your novel type and look at their websites. Be sure you’re considering not just the overall agency, but the individual agents to find which one fits you best. You will be expected to address that person directly in your letter, and it’s to your advantage to know a good bit about them. Check places like Writer Beware and Absolute Write online to make sure they aren’t scamming you. Find with whom the agents have worked and what books they’ve sold. You can also look at their social media to see how they interact publicly with others.

Third, once you have a list of agents you’d like to work with, find what their submission requirements are. Each one will have slightly different rules about which materials they want sent where, and they’ll have different response times. (Many of them are so busy they don’t respond at all unless they want to read more.) Get that information and follow it to the letter. Again, professionalism! Be the person others want to work with.

5) Send out your work.
Once you’re ready, I recommend sending out to a handful of agents at a time. You want to query multiple agents because you’re very unlikely to get a yes the first few times, but not too many agents because it can get confusing and you need time to correct your materials based on the responses. Keep track in a spreadsheet so you know if they’ve exceeded their response time and if it’s time to a) check in or b) move on, depending on what their website says. 

Remember that you will be rejected. It happens to all of us. For example, I’ve been rejected 111 times so far! If I’m not your prime example, you can look up any author and see what their experience was like. Rejection happens. It’s part of the process. Be strong, never give up on becoming a published author, but be ready to move on to another manuscript if the time comes.

If they haven’t asked for the full manuscript up front, which is rare, agents who are interested will ask for that once they read your query. Based on where in the process you’re getting rejected most often–whether it’s with the query, the first few chapters, or the full manuscript–you can figure out where you need to focus your edits. Reconsider your materials. Get more opinions from people you trust. A lot does depend on the current market and individual taste. Agents may also ask for a revise and resubmit (R&R), where you edit your manuscript based on their critiques and they check whether it’s right for them afterwards. You don’t have to make those edits if they don’t feel right for you–just move on to somebody else.

If it’s really just not happening, you might reach a point where you have to “trunk” that novel. If you’ve been writing another book while you’re been querying (which you should do!), you can move on to that one. Sometimes a manuscript you write ends up just being for you. That’s valuable in so many ways, so don’t feel bad that it wasn’t meant for more. Move forward until you get to the book that does work.

6) Here’s what happens after an agent makes an offer.
Hopefully, you’ll reach a point where one or more agents decide they want to represent you. At this point, you need to notify the others who have not yet responded. There will be a phone call so you and the agent can discuss your visions for the manuscript and your future career. That’ll help you figure out if you’re the right fit for each other. Your agent is your business partner, so you need to be able to communicate with and trust them. Once you and an agent officially decide to work together, with a signed contract and all, take a moment to celebrate! This is such an important step forward. (One I haven’t yet reached myself!)

Done celebrating? Okay. This is a business relationship, and like all relationships, it takes mutual work. You might do some editing together. Then your agent will start sending out to editors at publishing houses who the agent sees as a good fit–and you’ll get more rejections in the process. With luck, you’ll find the right editor, but things can go wrong. You might still have to move on to a different manuscript. It’s also possible that someone might end up breaking the writer/agent contract, and you’ll have to start over. This is a difficult, messy industry, but if you’re really here for this, it’s worth it.

Once you’ve negotiated and signed a contract with a publisher (which requires the okay from multiple editors, usually), there are still more ways it can go wrong. It often takes a year or two for the book to actually hit the market because there are multiple levels of editing that you have to undergo along with designing and formatting and marketing. Your agent will help you through it all. Together, you and your publishing team will hopefully be able to kick off your authorly career!

Then you can look at how far you’ve come. You made it to publication. YOU WIN! (I mean, you still have a whole career to manage, and there are a million more ways it can go wrong. Your book sales will determine how likely you are to get published again, and you don’t have much power over that! The best determiner is actually how much marketing the publisher chooses to do for your book. There’s also all sorts of complications with payment schedules and advances and taxes and a sad lack of health insurance. But that’s life! This moment is still monumental and deserves congratulations.)

Thanks for reading! I hope this overview proves to be of assistance to my fellow writers tramping through the publishing wilds. I’ll be back again later!

Image via rawpixel.com.

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Personal Life · Writing Advice

Figuring Out What Works for You

This post, about a vital epiphany I had about my writing, was originally shared on my old blog in November 2019. I’ve made minor edits.

Over the years, as I’ve developed as a writer, I’ve had many moments where I realized that everything I had written so far was just not original enough. I’d write a bunch of manuscripts, try to get an agent with one of them, fail repeatedly, and then realize, I still haven’t figured this out. My writing’s still too derivative. It’s still not marketable.

Success/Failure road signs

One of those realizations hit me in September 2019, and it was crushing. Years of failure have sapped a lot of my hope and excitement about publication. That makes the hard moments even harder. I kept thinking, How can I be such a slow learner in my writing career when I’ve always been a fast learner in everything else? But then I realized something, something big. And now I understand that it’s not an issue of being a slow learner. I’ve likely been improving at a decent enough pace.

The problem was that I wasn’t writing in the way that works best for me.

When it comes to writing advice, the cardinal rule is that you need to do what works for you. Quite simply, not every piece of writing advice will be right for every writer. I knew this. What I hadn’t realized was that finding what works for you doesn’t always come naturally. It won’t always be the first method you try. You have to experiment. You have to apply those pieces of writing advice and see if they improve your work.

I tend to be stubborn, which I think is an important trait for writers, but it has downsides. Right from the start, I settled into one method of writing, and I never really considered the alternatives. I started out each of my books with an ending or a climax in mind and then blazed a path towards that. I never planned any other part of the story before I began to write. On top of that, I was a “plot-rusher,” someone who moves so quickly through the first draft that it ends up skeletal. Instead of needing to delete a lot of content the way most writers do in editing, I needed to add scenes and bulk it all up.

And I was proud of and enjoyed my way of doing things! I was proud to be the person who wrote nineteen novels before turning twenty-one. I was proud to be a repeat NaNoWriMo winner who once managed 50,000 words in two weeks. I had settled into that identity, and I felt loyal to it.

But then my chronic illness crisis hit.

It’s strange to think of my chronic illnesses as being positive. My chronic illness crisis was difficult and traumatizing, and it shifted my entire life in so many ways I consider negative. But it turns out that this crisis also did me an important favor: it forced me to slow down. It’s been a frustrating struggle, going from blazing to glacial, from Stephen King to George R.R. Martin. Nevertheless, a few months ago, as I realized it was time to trunk my old manuscripts because of their unoriginality, I also realized how important slowing down had been for me.

I am not really a creative thinker. I’m a rule follower, Lawful Good, not great at getting outside the box. This is exactly why I had been failing at originality over the years. Someone like me cannot thrive as a pantser and a plot-rusher. All my obsessive enthusiasm, along with my longtime distaste for outlines, has kept me from realizing that slowing down is exactly what I’ve needed, at every stage of the process.

"SLOW" painted on a road surrounded by trees

I seem to get book ideas at the rate of about one per year. But when I became sick, I wasn’t able to write a new book for a handful of years. That means the ideas started piling up, and I had more time to consider them and add to them. Apparently, ideas for novels are kind of like Lego blocks: you have to take multiple pieces and snap them together before you get something special. So now, instead of having basic ideas with a couple of components, I have ideas that are taking on more pieces before I ever start writing.

My slowness once I get to the writing stage has also caused a number of important changes. When working at this rate, I have to write every day or I lose both momentum and perspective. I forget too much of what’s come before and have to go back to the start. Outline or no, I think every writer works off of instinct to some degree–you have to develop a “sense” for the story, and if I don’t write every day, I lose that. But writing every day is actually the first writing process advice I’ve ever tried out. It’s showed me how changing up my style might be good. It’s certainly improved my mental health.

Additionally, writing this slowly gives me time to consider my options. When I was racing through my stories with my basic, non-outlined ideas, it was very easy for my Lawful Good brain to default into overused tropes instead of thinking in more complex ways. I believe that I’ll be able to be more original and creative now that I’ve slowed down. The slowness further allows me to layer on more details and do more research during writing instead of doing it in editing.

The slower rate even helps during editing, because I have more time to consider and list all the changes that would improve the story before I send it to my beta readers and critique partners. They get a better product, one that I’ve already done a lot of work on, to critique. I’m also having them read it one at a time instead of all at once now, which I think will increase the potential for improvement.

Without my illnesses slowing me down, I don’t think I ever would have discovered what I needed. I don’t think I would’ve realized how important it is to write using the methods that are best for you individually, and I never would’ve realized that I needed to test methods out in order to find that right path. But now I know that I need to experiment not just with what I write but with how I write it. Little by little, this will bring me to a place where I can write better–not just because I’m learning writing skills but because I’m discovering how to write in a way that maximizes my unique potential.

This epiphany also emphasized for me the importance of this piece of writing advice. In the linked Tumblr post, the writer discusses how J.R.R. Tolkien exemplified someone using what they know and are passionate about to write a story that’s both high-quality and uniquely personal. I was struck by that piece of advice from the moment I first read it. Now, I see that it aligns with this concept of finding what works best for you.

Close up of a fountain pen writing in a notebook

Initially, I didn’t know how to apply the advice because I see my passion as mainly being “stories.” That’s just too broad a topic. But as I’ve thought it over, I realized, first, I had to let go of what is typical for speculative fiction stories. I think most writers struggle with this; after all, there’s a reason we love the genre(s) we write! While it is important for us to examine what we love in our favorite authors/stories, it’s also important to consider what fits us.

As much as I love epic sci-fi/fantasy, I am not a strategist, and I don’t know much about war or political schemes. That kind of thinking doesn’t at all come naturally for me. So the stories that fit me aren’t big epics with worlds in need of salvation. The stories that fit my skills and interests are more personal and focused. These smaller-scale conflicts don’t have to be smaller intensity–what people usually connect to in stories are the characters. And that’s what I’m best suited to focus on, with my interest in human-related topics in general!

Writing small-scale stories does mean I’m less likely to become a Harry Potter- or Hunger Games-type phenomenon, but my vision of a dream career has changed anyway. I’ve realized the better goal isn’t to become a phenomenon, but rather to have a long and steady career with many published books. After all, you don’t have to touch millions to make a difference in the world. Even just one can be enough.

So instead of writing epics, it’s better for me to write about what I have more experience, knowledge, and interest in. I have experience in complex family relationships, in mental and chronic illness, in music, and in social media use. I have a slightly more-than-average amount of knowledge about psychology, sociology, religion, and medicine. I also know a lot about cats, should that ever become relevant, LOL. Though I wouldn’t say I’m knowledgeable about it, I am very interested in romance. Finally, what draws me to speculative fiction is its focus on all the potential in the future, the universe, and ourselves. Between that and the many tropes I enjoy, there’s a lot I can work with in my writing to make it more unique! And of course, experiences and interests can change over time, offering even more possibilities.

Throughout my small and unsuccessful writing career so far, I’ve had a few “most important pieces of writing advice” to offer. I think it’s important for writers to become stubborn enough to never give up on their dreams. I think it’s important for writers to explore as many different stories from others as they can. I think it’s important for writers to recognize the autonomy of their characters. Now, I’m adding this to the top of the list: I think it’s important for writers to experiment with different writing methods so that they can find what works the best for them personally.

For me, this is a career-changer, and it might very well turn out to be a career-maker. Because of my chronic illness crisis, in multiple ways, my writing will never be the same.

Images via ccpixs.com, Kimchi.sg on Wikipedia, and Free-Photos on Pixabay.

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Personal Life · Writing Advice

My Authorly Bucket List

Hey, friend! For this month’s reposted content, I’m sharing my authorly bucket list, which I first published on my original blog in April 2020. A couple of items have been added since then–but none have yet been crossed off. Here they are: what I’d like to accomplish as an author in my lifetime!

My Authorly Bucket List

1) Sign a contract with a literary agent. I have yet to achieve the very first step towards traditional publication despite many attempts. I look forward to making this professional connection and having another person on my team!

2) Publish a novel. This is the big one I’ve been looking forward to for years and years! It’s only the hoped-for beginning, of course, but it would be a huge step all by itself.

3) Run a book giveaway. Once I have a book to promote, I plan to run at least one giveaway. Since I’ve won many books from giveaways in the past, I’m excited to offer the same chance to others.

4) Hold a book release party. I’m not sure where I’d have one–the library is the only place in my little town that seems appropriate–but I’ve seen photos from the parties authors hold when they release a new book, and it looks delightful. There are cupcakes with book covers on them, y’all! Even if it was very small, I’d love having such a party.

5) See my book on a shelf in my local library. I’ve had this image in my head ever since I first realized I wanted to be a novelist, I love the library, and I’d be thrilled to see my book there among the others I’ve enjoyed! I’d also be excited to see it in “shelfies” of all kinds from all over. 

6) Publish another novel. People say that the second book is the hardest, and a lot of writers do end up dropping out of the field after their first book comes out. I want to make a career of this, and that means getting past the second book hurdle.

7) Earn out an advance. In publishing, you receive an advance payment when you sign a book deal with a publisher. You then don’t see any more money from that book until the book has earned a larger amount than your advance was. This is called “earning out,” and a lot of writers never see it happen! I hope I do; I hope I get some royalties someday.

8) Receive a fan letter. Even just a single positive letter would buoy up my soul so much. To know that I’ve had an impact on a stranger’s life through my writing would be huge. 💜

9) ​See fanart made of one of my books. I adore fanart, and I know ​I’d be all over any fanart that was made of my creations. I’d save it on my computer and maybe even buy it for display in my house if it was for sale!

10) Hit a bestseller list. There are a few of these, of which the New York Times version is the most famous. I know from what others have said that the bestseller list is a bit of a crapshoot–it’s not the most accurate as to actual sales, and there are ways to game the system. I’d like to get on one anyway.

11) Get a starred review. I don’t know a whole lot about this, but I know that starred reviews from professional reviewers like Kirkus are a big deal! So yeah, I’d like one.

12) Get a book published outside the U.S. Some American books end up getting foreign rights deals, where a publisher from outside the U.S. will publish it, often in another language. I think it would be amazing to have that happen.

11) Have one of my books featured in a book box. I haven’t ever gotten one myself, but I love looking at pictures of subscription book boxes that feature newly released YA novels along with themed merch from various fandoms. I think it would be awesome to have one of my books be in one!

12) Participate in WriteOnCon as a published author. I’ve been a fan of WriteOnCon, a low-cost online kid lit writers conference, for years. It’s done a lot to improve my query game, if nothing else. I’d love to give back by being a part of the other side of the conference, whether through a panel, a blog post, a video, or official forum participation.

13) Attend an in-person conference or event as a published author. Because of my disabilities, I won’t be able to attend as many in-person events as most published authors. However, I loved the conferences I attended before I got so sick, and I love online conferences too, so I do want to go to at least one in-person event once I’m published.

14) Be in someone else’s book acknowledgements. I already have a few writing friends, but I hope to make more in the future, and I’d love to be an important enough part of their lives to earn a spot in the acknowledgements of one of their books!

15) Win a book award. I don’t know much about this either, but some books I adore have won big awards, including Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. I’d love to achieve something like that!

16) Have one of my books made into a movie or TV show. Since I joined Netflix and started watching TV show book adaptations there, I’ve realized that TV shows tend to do a better job at adapting books (or at least book series) than movies do. I think the extended time allows for a more direct interpretation. However, most of my writing is in the form of standalone novels, so I’m not against the idea of a movie either. This is a stretch goal, of course–most books do not get adapted–but it would be truly awesome.

BONUS: Have a long-term romantic relationship
Get married to a good guy.
Travel somewhere outside the United States.
See a musical live in person.

Learn more Spanish.
Have a whole library room in my house dedicated to books (preferably with a cool secret entrance).

There you have it! What do you think? 

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