One of the questions I am most commonly asked at author appearances, conferences, school visits, parties… well, actually…everywhere, is: How can I get my work published?
There’s no easy answer to that question, but you’ve come to the right place for answers to FAQ’s; practical suggestions; interviews with agents, editors, and authors; links to great writing web sites, and more.
Getting published can be a challenge, but it’s well worth the effort. If you’ve got talent and perseverance, stick with it!
FAQ for Writers
Q: How long did it take you to get your first novel published?
A: The answer to this question is complicated. For the record, my first novel never did get published. I wrote my first complete novel in high school. It was a fantasy adventure novel, about 300 pages in length, and I never submitted it anywhere. I just wrote it for fun. My second novel didn’t get published either. That one was another fantasy adventure novel, which I wrote all through college and beyond until I lost the entire thing (yes, it’s true – 45 chapters, over 400 pages, all gone). My third novel still didn’t find a home, although that one I actually submitted to editors.
The book people refer to as my first book, Fat Kid Rules the World, is the 4th complete novel I wrote. It was submitted to five editors on a Friday afternoon and I had an offer from an editor the following Tuesday. This just goes to show, there isn’t any one formula that works for everyone.
Q: Were you an English major? Do you have an MFA?
A: I was a Sociology major in college and I do not have an MFA. Most of my writing knowledge is self taught. I’ve always been an avid reader and a prolific writer, and when I became serious about my writing I read every book I could find on the topic and took several non-credit courses for my own enjoyment and education.
Q: Do I need an agent?
A: Finding an agent can be as difficult as finding an editor for your work. It will take lots of perseverance and research, however, if you can find a good one, I think it’s well worth it. An agent can negotiate higher advances than you are likely to get on your own. They can advise you about contractual points which might be unfamiliar to you, and they act as your advocate during the publishing process.
Before being published, I worked for nearly five years at Curtis Brown, Ltd., one of the oldest literary agencies in Manhattan. By the time my first novel was published, I could have negotiated my own contracts, yet I still chose to use an agent. Using an agent allows me to focus on writing, rather than negotiating. Plus, my fabulous agent is patient with my problems, gives useful feedback on my writing, provides much needed moral support and acts as a sounding board so my editor doesn’t have to hear every thought that goes through my brain (not that your agent should have to hear every thought either!).
Everyone’s path to publication will be different, and there are certainly writers who are happy to represent themselves, but for me, having the right agent has been a godsend.
Q: How do I find an agent?
A: There are many wonderful guides to agents and editors. The two I have used in the past are The Jeff Herman Guide and he Writer’s Market Guide (see Recommended Books, below). Both of these guides provide names, addresses, and a brief description of what type of work the agent is looking for.
Q: When submitting my work, how can I stand out from the pack?
A: Be professional. When I worked at Curtis Brown, Ltd. part of my job was reading query letters from perspective authors. Believe it or not, a high percentage of submissions were casual in tone, did not reflect the type of work the agent represented, were packed with gimmicks, or reflected an obvious lack of writing knowledge.
Before you submit, do your research. Know who you’re submitting to and know how your work fits into its given genre. Have you used the correct format? Is it appropriate in length, subject matter, and style? Does the agent you’re sending it to represent this type of work?
Believe it or not, this will go a long way towards making your submission stand out. The rest is up to the strength of your writing.
Q: What is a query letter and how do I write one?
A: A query letter is a one page business letter that tells an agent or editor about you and the piece of writing you’re submitting. This letter is your best tool to open the door of publication, so take your time crafting it.
Read books that include sample letters, read books or articles that give advice about how to write a query letter, and before you send it out, share the letter with someone who can give you good feedback.
My best advice? Be succinct. The same truth that applies to writing and editing fiction applies here as well. A little can go a long way. Make every word count.
Q: When should I submit my work?
A: The rules are different for non-fiction, which is often sold on the basis of a proposal, and fiction. Since I am a fiction writer, I will answer from that perspective.
If you are a beginning writer, your work should be completely finished before submitting it. Not only should it be completely finished, but you should be sure you’ve set it aside for at least a week, given it to several readers, reflected upon and made changes based on their feedback, and revised again, and again, and again…
Q: What if my work gets rejected?
A: This happens a lot. Take comfort in the fact that it happens a lot. Almost any writer can tell you stories of receiving rejection letters. In fact, many great books went through rounds of rejection before finding the right editor.
Be proud that you’ve reached the point of submission. Let every rejection letter you receive serve as a reminder that you had the courage to submit your work in the first place.
Finally, as difficult as this might be, try not to take it personally. The volume of submissions in publishing is phenomenal. Just because you receive a rejection letter doesn’t mean your work wasn’t good. It may just mean you haven’t found the right agent or editor yet.
Q: What should I write about?
A: Ideas come from everywhere. I’ve gotten ideas from news articles, books I’m reading, listening to conversations, traveling…I even got a book idea from my cousin who said, “You should write a book about an apple tree.”
Write what’s near and dear to your heart. Don’t try to follow a trend because chances are, by the time you’re done writing and submitting your work, that trend will have passed.
Q: How do I know if my work is publishable?
A: One of the most helpful things you can do is to find good readers whose opinions you trust. Not everyone is a good reader. Your mom might love you, but maybe she’s not able to give you critical, informed feedback – or maybe she is! My mom is a librarian who is well read in the middle grade and young adult markets, so I absolutely listen to what she has to say. Look for readers who like to read the type of material you write, and if possible, find at least one reader who knows the ins and outs of writing. Know your readers strengths and weaknesses, so you can evaluate their feedback.
KL’s Top Ten Tips for Beginning Writers
- Read books in the genre you’re writing for. Reading is the best way to learn. Read new books to see what contemporary authors are writing. Reread old favorites to study the craft of the book. Reading inspires and educates – two things every writer needs.
- Take a writing class. Give yourself the gift of education.
- Subscribe to a writing magazine. They’re fun and informative and serve as a timely reminder to focus on your craft.
- Join a writing forum and talk about writing with other authors.
- Start a blog to get your fingers moving and ideas flowing.
- Set definable goals that don’t include a major publishing contract. What are some small steps that will help you reach your larger goal?
- Find good readers to critique your work. Join a critique group if you can find one in your area.
- Join professional writing organizations such as SCBWI. They can connect you to other authors and events.
- Attend a conference. Not only are conferences great ways to meet editors, agents, art directors and fellow authors, but they’re also a lot of fun! Check out the Highlights Foundation offerings, where I teach at the Novel Beginnings workshop annually.
- Be tenacious. Publishing is not for the faint of heart. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…
Recommended Books on Writing
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
Woe is I, by Patricia T. O’Connor
A Circle of Quiet, by Madeline L’Engle
Dear Genius, by Leonard S. Marcus
Jeff Herman’s Guide, by Jeff Herman
The Writer’s Market Guide
Professional Organizations & MFA Programs in Writing for Children