How to get your [debut] novel published

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‘There has never been a tougher time to be a debut novelist.’
Kate Kellaway

‘Publishers seem enormously scared of too much originality. Many of the first novels we had to read this year appeared to be watered-down copies of something else.’ 
Kate Saunders on reading for the Orange Prize

So you’ve written a novel. What a feat! First, congratulate yourself. What do you do with it now?

Make sure it’s the best you can make it. Take it through a writing group, editor, beta readers and refine it ad nauseam. Writing is mostly rewriting. Remember that with agents or publishers you usually only get one chance per manuscript.

Then how do you get published in the current environment, which is saturated with good writing and where writing has been devalued (by Amazon – thanks!) many other forms of entertainment are on offer and publishers are by nature conservative?

As you ponder which method to try first, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How important is artistic control to you?
  • How much do you value acceptance and prestige?
  • What’s your financial situation?
  • How important are royalties and advances to you?
  • How much time do you have?
  • What’s your tolerance for risk?
  • Are you a multitasker, entrepreneur and social creature?
  • Do you hope to make a living from writing?

1. Get an agent

Find an agent who’s interested in your genre and approach them. Some are on twitter and put call outs for specific kinds of work, some check writing groups on Facebook (so always behave professionally), and others can be found through website searches. Their websites will tell you if they’re looking and what they’re looking for. Don’t be restricted to your country if someone overseas specialises in your type of work.

Going down the agent route can be time consuming as they have lists to manage. The minimum wait to hear back is at least six months. But agents can work well for authors. I have two friends who write sci-fi and have been published this way.

2. Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing is for books aimed at a general audience. Often they’re published by multinational or larger independent publishers who have minimum sales targets. In Australia, a very small market, this means around 10,000 books. But with overseas and other rights, possibly more.

Publishing new authors is always a risk and publishers must be confident they’ll achieve commercial success now and in the future. Publishing a book takes around 18 months of work, so the decision to go with a new author isn’t taken lightly.

Check websites to see if a publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts (meaning you haven’t been published before and don’t have an agent) and follow their submission guidelines to the letter. A few offer one day a week when they’ll look at a small sample of work and contact you if they want more. Sometimes approaching a publisher, even if they’re not accepting unsolicited manuscripts, can work too. But you’ll need to have a great hook to peak their interest so they read your synopsis. Make sure you’ve refined these along with your bio and similar books list to perfection. First impressions are everything. 

3. Independent publishers

These publishers almost always specialise in certain kinds of books that appeal to niche audiences. Often, you can approach them directly, which is a bonus. But as a result, it can take a while for them to consider your work. Check writers’ centres websites and manuals of independent publishers in your country. Again, make sure you satisfy their submission requirements and your approach is professional.

Be aware that independent publishers have limited resources, which will mean more work for you in terms of building your brand on social media etc. to generate sales. ON the other hand, they go outside traditional boundaries and in Australia are wining major prizes.

4. Self-publishing

Some people are avoiding the long wait of traditional publishing routes and self publishing. The many advantages include that you have full control, enjoy direct access to your audience, earn a bigger chunk of the retail dollar of your book and you can publish fast. It can be especially useful if your novel falls outside the bounds of typical publishing because of its nice audience, regionality, it’s experimental, has an unusual theme and so on.

But you’ll need to be the type of person who’s happy to drive the process deciding everything from the cover, editing, branding, what format to use (online only, if so with whom, or print to order etc.). Remember, you won’t be able to submit your self-published work into established prizes, although smaller self-publishing awards exist.

Genre books tend to do better than literary novels with self publishing. I have a friend who makes a living this way. She’s a fast commercial writer, highly disciplined and writes in the urban fantasy and chick lit areas.

5. Hybrid publishing

This is the middle ground between traditional and self-publishing. Usually this means the author pays up front to some extent.

Partnership publishing models offer authors willing to pay access to expertise, distribution, review sites and selling into the marketplace under a publishing banner that has a good reputation with booksellers. The manuscript will be vetted before being accepted or rejected, and will be subjected to the usual processes such as editing. This model is financially risky as the author’s investment may not be recouped. Publishers mostly don’t earn out their investments on books they acquire and partnership publishing is no different.

Alternatively, there’s vanity publishing, closely akin to self publishing, where an author pays a business to publish their work but not under their imprint. This won’t necessarily help your book succeed and is really about a business selling you a service for a profit. They usually don’t vet your work or care about editorial quality.

6. Form your own publishing company

This involves a lot of work, but if you’re an entrepreneur type and self-publishing doesn’t offer the kind of ‘legitimacy’ or recognition you desire, perhaps this is for you.

Going down this path means you’ll be responsible for choosing your genre and market, taking care of the registration aspects, creating a business and marketing plan, establishing distribution channels, knowing about bookshops and libraries, developing a network of reliable professionals such as cover designers, editors/proofreaders, getting on top of legal stuff like rights and options. Phew!

But this offers the opportunity to grow. Ask yourself, do you love the business of publishing? Will it allow you time to write?

7. Whatever you decide, network

Join your local writers’ centre, go to writers’ festivals, attend workshops and courses, and so on. In short, get to know the publishing industry and make valuable connections. From there you can decide what means suits you best. Having a name or being given a business card by an editor (a rare invitation to contact them) is a foot in the door.

 

 

 

 

Persistence beats talent

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All the writing talent in the world is meaningless if you don’t stay the course. You must apply ‘bum glue’ to adhere you to the process of producing work, consistently, relentlessly and unconditionally.

For many people, writing is hard and good writing—where readers are inspired to read on and recommend your work to others—is even harder. Often there are few rewards, at least initially. Yet most of us are conditioned, through education and parenting, to expect benefits for our efforts. With writing, we may need to endure years without recognition,  remuneration or reward.

At times, the process becomes mired in negativity. For example, submitting work to agents and publishers often results in rejection. Even if you don’t submit to agents and publishers and self-publish, there’s no guarantee your e-book will sell. There are days too when you realise that despite your efforts, your work isn’t where you want it to be.

The hardest times, or crises, are often turning points that shape your writing self. But how do you keep going when you feel like giving up? The answer is through rabid determination. Here are some specific ways that might help:

  • Acknowledge that writing is something you do alone in a room – Michael Ventura wrote this brutally honest and powerful piece on writing saying ‘The only thing you really need, is the talent of the room’. He explains that the ability to sit alone in a room and write day after day is the main talent a writer needs. Without it, no words will be produced and natural talent is rendered useless.
  • Identify your writing passion and root yourself in it – Ask yourself ‘Why do I write?’ Write it down and insert it in the header or footer of your work or stick it up around your writing space. When times are tough—e.g. you’ve just received your twentieth rejection, your current project isn’t working and you don’t understand why—you’ll be able to read that sentence, remember what it is you love about writing and continue.
  • Imagine what it’s like not to write – How does that make you feel? You don’t have to write, it’s a choice. Are you really a writer? Find your truth.
  • Get zen and let go of expectations and conditionality – Write to achieve your best work, whatever that is right now. You might dream of fame and fortune, but learn to appreciate the process for what it is in this moment. For every writer, there are times when persisting is the main reward. Despite what some people espouse, good things rarely come to us easily.
  • Create a REALISTIC strategic plan for your current writing project
    • Begin with defining your goal. Your goal is the primary high-level outcome you want to achieve for your writing project e.g.
      • To publish my work in the next 18 months (be specific and choose a date)
    • Now define your strategy or your approach to achieving your goal e.g.
      • Complete my MS over the next 9 months (specify a date)
      • Determine the optimum publishing method/s for my work
      • Find a writing group so I can share my work and gain support
    • A tactic is a is a measurable step you take to achieve your strategy e.g.
      • Diarise 2 hours of writing 5 days per week and stick to that
      • Or write 5k words per week
      • Install software on my computer so I don’t get distracted by emails and social media
      • Find 5 agents and 10 publishers who might be interested in my work and send my work to them
      • Or take a course in self-publishing.
  • Stave off boredom and failure through continual learning – Every writer can always improve. Take courses, seek constructive criticism (see this post), and read, read, read to learn how to overcome obstacles and renew your inspiration.
  • Write anyway – Push your doubts, fears and hopes aside, move away from self-doubt, self-pity and negativity and see what happens if you simply apply yourself. Write your way out by using that bum glue.
  • Seek moral support – Read blogs such as this and find interviews with authors where they explain their struggles. This helps you to realise that many of those so-called overnight successes worked at it for years. It also reaffirms that you’re not alone.

In the words of Winston S Churchill:

‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’

How to write again after a break

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For whatever reason you’ve had a break from writing. Perhaps life happened, you had a holiday, you felt burnt out or were just sick of your own words. Writing breaks can be good as they can:

  • Re-energise and refresh your writing enthusiasm
  • Give you a new perspective 
  • Re-inspire you
  • Allow your subconscious to solve writing challenges
  • Make you miss and remember why you write
  • Heal or prevent burnout

But how do you get back into it? The page seems daunting. You re-read what you wrote before and you aren’t sure if you can write that well again (It was a fluke. Not!). Or perhaps you don’t like what you wrote and it hits you that there’s more rewriting to be done.

Here are some ways to get back into it:

  1. Do morning pages, even if only for a few days or a week. They really are the way back into creativity versus rote writing. I’ve written about them here.
  2. Just do it. Take a breath, sit down (or stand if you’re like me) and begin. It may not be as bad as you think.
  3. Write something, anything to get your juices flowing again. A journal, a short but rich descriptive piece about your cat or big toe, a room or people you’ve watched in the street. A few paragraphs will do.
  4. Copy a page from one of your favourite author’s books. This is always a good way to get our writing going no matter whether you’ve had a break, need inspiration or want to take your writing up a notch. It’s a good way to learn from others you aspire to.
  5. Don’t forget to read good writing. That’s always motivating.

Don’t forget to have fun. You write for a reason, because you want to, you need to. Remember and honour that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How long’s a piece of string or how many REWRITES should you do?

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You thought your novel was finished. Did you send it out to publishers who rejected it? Or did you put it away for a while like you’re supposed to and realised months later it needed more work?

What to do? This is the point where plenty of people self publish. If you’re convinced — and others in the know are too — that your novel is ready, then go ahead. But if you see problems with your manuscript and are serious about your writing (as in you want to continually improve it), you have other options.

You could shelf it. You could see your story as a learning experience and move on to the next project with a sense of liberation. On the other hand, is there a voice in our head niggling at you to keep going until you get it right? Perhaps your story is too good to let go or you’re simply stubborn that way.

1.  Should you rewrite?

Recently I’ve been considering whether to rewrite my first novel again after already having rewritten it twice. I’ve had six months away from it, which has given me a new perspective on its strengths and weaknesses. 

There might be things you can learn by rewriting and improving your novel. For example, in writing my new novel I’ve been working hard on improving my style and other aspects of craft, which I could apply to my old story.

When discussing this with a friend, however, they suggested that after three versions and much time, I should give the old story up and move on; I should focus instead on finishing my current novel. Are they right?

2.  When should you let your manuscript go?

There are situations when you might consider giving up your novel such as:

  • You can’t finish the story, it ran out of steam and there’s nowhere to go
  • You’ve lost your passion for it and you can’t get it back even though you’ve honestly looked at everything that might be blocking you such as structure, style, voice, character etc.
  • It’s just not working despite having rewritten it umpteen times. Perhaps you’re too close to the story or you’re being held back by the first draft, which you wrote when you were less experienced
  • It’s destroying your love for writing after many attempts at rewrites. Ask yourself, is it worth it?
  • You’ve put it away for months, tried to rewrite it and you have nothing more to give. Your story is dead.

I’m not at the point where I’m ready to let go of my first story. So what now?

3.  How to rewrite your story for the umpteenth time and not lose your will to write:

  • Apply new craft skills such as  improving dialogue, heightening conflict, adding nouns and verbs, creating a compelling first page, showing not telling and so on. Really get into the words and challenge your grasp of technique. I love this stuff, even if it’s hard. It keeps me from getting bored.
  • Change your manuscript sufficiently so the process becomes engaging again. Don’t just edit, which is where you tighten your manuscript by moving line by line from the beginning to the end. Rewriting involves meatier processes like adding, subtracting or deepening characters, making structural changes such as moving chapters or the order of events, and cutting large sections. Rewriting involves prioritising problems by issue, not fixing the smaller stuff in a straight.

I’ll let you know how this goes in six month’s time. I’m encouraged by author Richard Flanagan’s struggle with his Man Booker prizewinning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which took him numerous attempt over many years in various formats before he created something he considered publishable. The story was problematic, I suspect, because it was close to him, which is my challenge too.

My only decision now is should I burn/trash every single earlier version like he did before starting afresh? This sounds dangerous and scary, but possibly liberating. What do you think?