I’m still flying high on the inspiration from the writers and presenters at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop here in Dayton, OH on April 15-17. Yeah, I know, I’m a little late. I’ve been distracted. It’s gardening season, after. Better late than never, right?
What a wonderful workshop! I met talented, brilliant writers like New York Times columnist Gail Collins, novelist Bell Scheft (a writer for David Letterman), and memoirist Wade Rouse. I had to hold hands and dance to Loretta Laroche singing “That’s Amore” with Danny Gallagher (TVSquad.com) and Christian Lander (“Stuff White People Like”). I discovered the wonderful blogs of Tracy Beckerman (“Lost in Suburbia”) and Karen Walrond (“Chookoolonks”).
I was honored to be asked to present a session on “Paths to Publication” in which I shared the unusual story of how I came to be published, stories of more traditional routes, other writers’ journeys, and the three things that all the paths have in common that could help a new writer forge her own.
The short version of my personal story is that I had an editor interested before I’d managed to secure an agent. (I’d queried 27 agents in the course of one year—which is really nothing—and only three had asked to see the first fifty pages. Of those three, only one had asked to read the whole manuscript, and she ultimately passed on it. The point: rejection is part of this business and you need to get used to it, develop a thick skin, and persevere!) But, at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, I was asked to read a passage from that first novel to the whole conference. A guest editor attended the reading. As a work fellow, I had to drive this editor to the airport the next morning. Her first words on getting in my car were, “I really liked what you read last night. Is that book finished?” By the time she’d flown away that day (after we had breakfast in the airport while her flight was delayed. This was pre-Sept. 11. Remember when you could go in and hang out with someone at their terminal?) she’d given me her card and invited me to send her the whole book...which I did, the very next day. Months later, she was able to read it, and went on to acquire it for her publishing house. Huzzah!
NOT how it usually happens. Lots of people told me how “lucky” I was. How I “was at the right place at the right time.” I love my editor forever for correcting someone when she heard them say that. She said, “Katrina was at the right place at the right time with a finished manuscript.”
Although my story is perhaps unusual, it shares these three things in common with MOST publishing stories you will find. Here are the top three things you can do to make your publishing path easier:
1. WRITE THE BOOK
Sound too obvious? It’s really not. Soooo many people say they want to be writers. Very few of those people will ever stop talking about writing, and actually sit down alone in a room and write the book. As long as you’re talking about writing in the abstract, you’ve got nothing. As soon as you have words on the page, you are steps ahead of everyone else and can begin to revise, hone, and polish.
My editor’s first question to be, upon getting into my car that fateful, foggy morning was, “Is that book finished?” She admitted she wouldn’t have asked me anything else if I’d said it wasn’t.
2. LEARN (AND CARE ABOUT) THE CRAFT
"In order to even begin to learn how to play his instrument, it takes the guitarist weeks to build calluses on his fingertips; it takes the saxophonist months to strengthen his lip so he may play his instrument for only a five minute stretch; it can take the pianist years to develop dual hand and multiple finger coordination. Why do writers assume they can just ‘write’ with no training whatsoever—and then expect, on their first attempt, to be published internationally? What makes them think they’re so much inherently greater, need so much less training than any other artists?”I’m always a little bit disheartened when I do readings or classes, how people only want to talk about agents and publishing—even people who admit they haven’t written anything!
—Noah Lukeman, literary agent
Don’t put the cart before the horse. You want your work to be as polished as possible before you start this step.
Don’t get in a hurry. Publishing is a small, incestuous little world (more on that later!). People leave one publishing house for another all the time. Agents become editors and vice versa. Don’t blow your chance by sending out work too early. They might remember you later. Make a good, first impression by making sure your work is as gorgeous and brilliant as you know how to make it.
That way, you might get published the way one of my friends did. She was invited by an editor to submit some chapters. The editor loved her writing so much that even though she didn’t like this particular project, she invited her to send her anything else she wrote, which my friend did and that book got published.
Or another who kept working on short stories and getting them into journals and magazines, for which you don’t have to have an agent. An agent contacted her after reading one of her stories, and asked what else she had. She happened to have a novel, which she and the agent are beginning to send out.
3. DO THE RESEARCH
There is no real mystery to it, it just takes a lot of tedious research. You have to be really passionate and tenacious and do the work.
I'm always amazed at the people who contact me and ask, “I was wondering if you could tell me what I should do to get published.” My shoulders slump and I think, “Really? You’re not going to do any of the work yourself?”
LOTS of people helped me along the way, so I believe in paying it forward, but I also believe that knowledge is power. It is so easy to find out the basics. Don’t be lazy!
There are a bazillion and one books on how to get published. Read them all (I did) and only then ask another writer questions. Ask them the questions that aren't answered in any of the books.
There are also a bazillion and one websites and blogs written by editors and agents. They write these blogs to help us, they want to receive the really, really good stories, they want to open the mail and find the next big thing. They’ll love you forever if you hand that to them, but too often we fall far short because we didn’t do the research.
One website I recommend is agent Noah Lukeman’s. He has a free download on how to write a great query letter.
EVERYONE I KNOW WHO HAS PUBLISHED HAS FOLLOWED THOSE THREE STEPS.
They have also put themselves in the path of editors and agents, or other writers. Networking is hugely important. But, there’s a right way and a wrong way to network! Make certain you’re making real human connections and not solely trying to get published every single second. People can tell the difference. Easily. Remember how I said that publishing is a small world? Well, that leads us to an additional tip...
DON’T BE A DESPERATE STALKER
Agents and editors are people. When they come to conferences it’s overwhelming. A lot of writers are desperate and pushy, and the desperation is obvious from several yards away. Make a human connection first. Make an impression by talking to them about something in common (again—do the research!) Make sure you’re never one of these people:
One agent told of having a book pitched to her while she was in the bathroom at a conference—literally in the stall, with someone still talking to her while she was literally using the toilet.
Another agent’s gynecologist pitched her story while they were engaged in her annual pap smear. That’s being held hostage!
Another agent was handed a manuscript at a friend’s mother’s funeral.
I think you should get permission to pitch in a social setting. If someone asks about your book, have a one sentence premise pitch then STOP. Let them ask more. If they don’t, remain interesting. Pay attention to social cues, talk about something else.
A final story sums up all the steps, including a funny vivid remind of how small the publishing world is. Tina Wexler at ICM answered my request for a funny publishing story with this email:
"Funny stories...Well, I don't know if others will think it's funny, but I do. Before she was my client, Donna Gephart queried me about a non-fiction project for kids, which I asked to see but ended up passing on. (This is not the funny part.) In my rejection letter, I said that I'd love to read the novel she said she was working on, as I really liked her sense of humor and writing style. (She'd made a passing reference in the cover letter accompanying the first ms to a story about a girl whose mom is running for president, and it sounded fun.) What I didn't know was that this story wasn't a ms for a novel but a short story she'd been noodling around with for a magazine. And I never would've known because Donna got my rejection, saw my interest in this other idea and immediately began turning that short story into a novel, which I later sold to Delacorte. She's now on her third book with them. I just like to picture her at that moment when she got my response, asking to see her novel, and she thought, what novel? That's a ten-page short story! But she knew what I liked about the first project, she had a great premise, and she had the writing chops to pull it off from years of working on her craft."So I read this, and I think, "Donna Gephart, Donna Gephart, why does that name sound so familiar?" I pull up the pdf of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and I look at the presenters and I send an email to Tina saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but Donna Gephart is also presenting at the same conference.” (I got to meet her and she’s lovely. Her books and blog are both wonderful! She just had a new novel come out this spring as well.)
You think what are the odds? But the odds are quite high. It’s a small world.
And if you’re the desperate stalker, they’ll remember you! Make sure you’re remembered for the right reasons!