This is one of the things I most often get questions about, from the online community and real-world friends and acquaintances who learn my first novel is being published the old-fashioned way. And about six months ago I had an opportunity to talk about that, with Books Show Off 5 at the Tottenham Court Waterstones in London. I always meant to share some of that here, but never got around to it. With publication a mere eighteen days away (!) now seems like as good a time as any. So, from your friendly neighborhood debut author, here are 10 Steps to Getting a Book Published. They might not be what you think.
10 Steps to Getting a Book Published
Step 1: Admit that there are way more than ten steps to getting a book published.
Let’s try that again.
10 20 Steps to Getting a Book Published
Step 1: Have no friends in middle school. Spend all of your spare time reading until you realize that’s not enough anymore.
Step 2: Pick up a pen. Spend two years writing your ‘first’ book. Realize as soon as you finish it that it’s a pile of crap, shove it a drawer and never speak of it again.
Step 3: Keep writing. Write something new. Inevitably realize it is also crap, shove it in a drawer, and never speak of it again, but don’t give up because this time it was slightly less crappy crap than it was the time before and hey, that’s progress.
Step 4: Repeat Step Three for roughly ten years.
Step 5: Take creative writing classes in college. Have professors give you arbitrary rules like “You can’t use the word ‘nervous’” or “Don’t write about snow.” Abide by these rules because you’re nineteen years old and grades are more important than artistic integrity. Then have a professor tell you you’re not allowed to write a male narrator because that’s an experience you, with your feeble female mind, can’t possibly comprehend or do artistic justice to. Turn in your final story, with a female narrator this time, and be unsure whether to laugh or scream in fury when the same professor reads it and says, “Your narrator sounds like a man.”
Step 6: Realize that every rule you’ve ever been told about writing is actually just an arbitrary personal preference disguised as wisdom by a bunch of boring old white men who still worship Hemingway. Decide to make your own rules. Keep writing.
Step 7: Apply to do your senior honors thesis in the creative writing department. Get rejected, probably because you broke the rules. Keep writing.
Step 8: Graduate anyway with a BA in English and a minor in creative writing. Get so sick of the question, “What exactly do you plan to do with that?” that you start responding with “I was thinking of becoming a bum,” or “Right now I’m really enjoying my quarter-life crisis,” or “I got a great offer to join a cult last week. Can I give you brochure?” Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you’re a writer. Because then they’ll want to know if you’ve ever published anything, and when you say “No, not yet,” they’ll give you The Look. That look which is somehow simultaneously knowing and condescending, as if they know that what you really mean when you say you’re a writer is that you write kinky Star Trek fanfiction that only gets published on WattPad and still live in your mom’s basement. Keep writing, but keep it to yourself.
Step 9: Spend a summer at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Denver Publishing Institute. Talk about books and writing with a lot of people who are a lot smarter and more talented than you are and finally realize that the reason you’ve been writing crap for ten years is because you’re trying to write about stuff you don’t understand (and no, Professor, being female has nothing to do with it). Realize that there’s a grain of truth in the old adage ‘write what you know,’ because you know a lot more than you think you do—enough to make a story out of, anyway. Go back to Step 3. Write something new. Write something you know and as soon as you finish it, know that it’s different. It’s still crap, but it’s crap with potential.
Step 10: Get a job in a bookstore to support yourself while rewriting the Crap with Potential. Love your job, but daydream while you straighten the shelves, and linger in the Rs, telling yourself that one day your name is going to go right there. After your first few paychecks, accept that regardless of how great working in a bookstore is, it’s not nearly enough to live on. Get three other jobs. In the wee hours of the morning between getting off work at the wine bar and going back to work at the bookstore, keep rewriting. Keep telling yourself, “This crap has potential.”
Step 11: Apply to graduate school. Apply to ten MFA programs. Cross your fingers and send them a sample and hope they can see that it might be crap now but it has so much potential. Get rejected, again, by every single one.
Step 12: Actually have that quarter-life crisis you used to joke about. Wonder if this whole writing thing is just a pipe dream but keep writing anyway, because at this point it’s kind of like a drug and you can’t quit cold turkey. Put what’s left of your faith in the Crap with Potential. Do ten drafts in six months and when there’s nothing else you can fix, take a deep breath, and write the first draft of a query letter. Then scrap it and write fifty more drafts of that query letter, wondering how in the hell you’re supposed to turn your 110,000-word Crap Masterpiece into three paragraphs and somehow do it justice. Eventually, cross your fingers and hit ‘send.’
Step 13: Query 25 agents. Receive no response from most of them, a couple of polite “thank you but no thank you”s, one weirdly personal rejection, and finally get a nibble. Schedule a phone call. Talk to a real live agent who actually read your book, actually loved it, and actually wants to represent you. Try not to say anything nuts that might scare her away, all the while secretly screaming on the inside. Reach an agreement. Say how excited you are to work with each other. Hang up the phone and burst into tears.
Step 14: Go meet your agent in New York. Feel like a real writer for the first time. On the way out of the restaurant, have her turn to you and say, “By the way, we’re going to have to change your name.” Ask why and find out that you have the same name as a Colombian porn star. (Realize much later that this should have been your first hint that pretty much nothing in publishing goes according to plan.) Do revisions with your agent’s input. Be thrilled to have someone involved who actually knows what they’re doing and try not to draw too much attention to how totally clueless you are.
Step 15: After a few months, decide that the book’s ready for submission. Try to take your agent’s advice to heart when she tells you that you probably won’t hear anything for a few weeks and not to hold your breath. Hold your breath anyway.
Step 16: Wake up to the phone ringing at seven in the morning two days later and wonder if you might still be asleep and just having a really kickass dream when your agent explains that an editor read your book in two days, loved it, and wants to talk to you. Do the same thing you did six months ago where you tried not to say anything crazy and play it cool while kind of secretly having a meltdown. Call in sick to work and spend the rest of the morning pacing back and forth in your driveway, waiting for the phone to ring again. Silently pray to every god you’ve ever heard of because you’ve never wanted anything so badly in all your life and if it doesn’t happen there are pretty good odds the disappointment might actually just kill you. When your agent and the editor call back to tell you that yes, they bought it, it’s happening, scream into the phone together like a bunch of teenage girls at a slumber party. For the second time in six months, hang up the phone and burst into tears. Stand there crying in your driveway in your pajamas with all your neighbors staring at you like you’re a lunatic. Let them stare. Call your mom and scream with her. Drink an entire bottle of wine and cry some more.
Step 17: Start working with your editor. Realize that she, like your agent, is a lot smarter than you are and be desperately relived that they’re both there to help you tease the Potential out of the Pile of Crap and keep you from publicly embarrassing yourself. Do forty-five drafts. Then venture to admit to yourself that with a lot of professional help, you’ve finally written something you’re proud of. Resist the urge to send a smug note to that one professor, and anyone else who ever made you think that that was never going to happen.
Step 18: Bask in the euphoria, but only for a few weeks, because getting a book published is a lot more complicated than you thought and there are still a million things to do. Start writing letters to writers who are much better than you, telling them how much you love their work and not-so-subtlety begging them to read yours and maybe, if they have time, if they like it, if it’s convenient, and only if they want to, say something nice about it. Read through an RBM, then first pass, second pass, third pass, all the while wondering when it turned into a baseball game.
Step 19: Reach a point, finally, where there’s nothing else you can do. Let the book fall into more capable hands, count down the days until release and wonder what to do with yourself in the meantime. Pick up a pen again. Start writing something new. Because as insane as the last three years have been, and as scary and enormous and overwhelming as it is to get a book you wrote published, it’s also the most fun you’ve ever had and you can’t wait to do it again. So you keep writing, and you start to call yourself a writer, because you feel like you’ve earned it.
Step 20: Last but not least, plug your book shamelessly. Because marketing is important, and you know your publisher will never forgive you if you don’t.
I wrote a book called If We Were Villains. It’s about seven young Shakespearean actors who make some really big mistakes. But more than anything it’s about loving books and words and storytelling, and if that’s something you love, too, I think you might like it. It comes out in April, but you can pre-order it now, and I would love you if you did. Thanks for reading.