How to get published

How To Get Published

I hear quite often from aspiring writers who desperately want to know how to get published. It doesn’t take a magic wand to break into the publishing world but it does take some effort. OK, it takes a whole lot of effort. I’d love to help each one of you in person. However . . . there’s only one of me and there are many of you. Which means I really can’t mentor you all. I’m sure you understand. I do mentor people on occasion, but honestly, neither I nor Tom Clancy nor the pope can help you unless you have done your homework. So first let me sketch out what that homework involves.

Your Homework: I believe strongly that you need three basic things in order to get published:

  • Content — what you have to say
  • Craft — how well you say it
  • Contacts — who you know that you can sell it to

When you have excellent content, excellent craft, and excellent contacts, you will radically improve your chances of getting published. Please remember that there are no guarantees in the publishing world. It’s a tough, tough business. But from what I’ve seen over the last couple of decades, content, craft, and connections are the three things that contribute most to success. If you are short in any of these categories, then you need to work on it until you’re excellent. That’s your homework assignment. Simple, no? Well, keep reading . . .

Content

Developing content is easy. So easy that I never bother to teach it. All you have to do is be a genius with tons of brilliant ideas who reads, reads, reads. Presumably that describes you, approximately, so your next step is to learn the craft of writing. This is less easy, and will take the bulk of your time.

Craft

Becoming a publishable writer is a multi-year project. When a publisher buys your book, they are risking tens of thousands of dollars that you will at least break even. Would you risk that much money on someone who’d only been writing a few weeks? Neither will an editor.

Take a minute right now, please, and read my article Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author! It will help you figure out where you are in your career. It will also tell you (in very general terms) what you need to do in order to amp up your craft and your contacts. The rest of this page will have more specific info on how to improve, but you first need to see the forest before we start talking about trees.

Now, if you’ve read the article, you know where you stand. If you’re a Freshman or Sophomore, you probably need to spend some money on a few books. For some sterling advice on which books to buy, see my page Books on Writing. I’m sorry, but it really is easier to read a few books on writing than to figure it all out for yourself. Life is too short to painfully discover the secrets of Scenes and Sequels (see Dwight Swain’s book), or using dialogue to advance conflict while revealing your character (see Sol Stein’s book). Buy the ones you need. Read them. Apply them to your writing. And watch your critique group’s eyes get wide over the next year as you slowly develop your skills.

One thing you’ll need to learn is how to write a scene. This is so important that I’ve got a page here on my site on Writing the Perfect Scene. I hope you find it helpful. It contains some of the tips I’ve given to a number of writers that have proven especially valuable.

Let’s say you’re a Sophomore or Junior or Senior, or even a published novelist. If you’ve got the basics down, I’d like to share with you my own methods for organizing my efforts. I can’t help you be more creative. I’m assuming you already are extraordinarily creative. But maybe you could use a little help in getting it all organized. In that case, let me recommend my Snowflake Method for designing a novel. I use this set of techniques for my own novels and I’m constantly refining my process.

Hundreds of thousands of people have read my Snowflake page over the years. No kidding, hundreds of thousands. People all over the world use the Snowflake Method. You may find that some of my ideas work for you and some don’t. OK, here’s a huge tip — USE THE ONES THAT WORK FOR YOU AND IGNORE THE ONES THAT DON’T. Different people are different. I don’t expect that all my methods will be gold in your grubby paws. But hey — if half my methods work out for you, that’s still an improvement, right? And if you find that it does all miraculously work out and you are suddenly writing better than you ever have before, well . . . be a doll and mention me in the acknowledgments of your Great Lithuanian Novel, OK? I won’t expect any royalties, but a brief mention of my name when you accept your Pulitzer Prize would go a long way to easing my bitterness that you got the prize and I didn’t.

How to Write a Proposal. OK, so at some point you’ve got most of the basic craft skills down and you’ve become a Junior or even a Senior. At that point, you need to learn how to write a proposal. There are several books out there. Seems like a new one comes out every year. I’ve read some of these over the years. They were a bit helpful. But truthfully, I’ve never thought much of the sample proposals they showed. I think the proposals I write are better. You may agree or you may disagree, but you can’t argue with the price. Free.

Click here for a PDF file containing most of the proposal that John Olson and I wrote for our Christy-award-winning novel, Oxygen. Be aware that we were targetting this to Christian publishers. If you’re targetting the general market, there are some obvious changes you’ll want to make in your proposal. Also, because our book is actually in print and we don’t want to spoil all the surprises, we have snipped out roughly the second half of the plot synosis. There’s enough to give you the idea of what a proposal should look like. Our editor told us this was a stellar proposal and sailed through committee. Which is kind of the point of a proposal.

Contacts

There are two main ways to contact editors, if you are part of the Great Unwashed Masses who don’t have an uncle at Random House. You can either meet editors at writers’ conferences, or you can get an agent. One way to meet agents is at writers’ conferences, but you can also just contact them directly (see the usual market guides for contact info), but another way is to get a recommendation from an author who has an agent.

I sometimes recommend an author to agents I know. Please don’t write me asking me to hook you up with an agent, because here is my rule on recommendations: I ONLY recommend authors to an agent if it was my idea. If somebody asks me to set them up with an agent, my answer automatically becomes NO. If you think for five seconds, you’ll see why I have to have a rule like that. Many authors have the same rule.

Be aware that a bad agent is worse than none. A bad agent is defined as “one who does not work well with you”. Some agents work great with one author and terribly with another. You do NOT need an agent to sell your first book, but it does help — if you’ve got the right agent. The wrong agent will just slow you down, so don’t be in any big rush. And I believe that agents who charge reading fees are scammers, so I advise you to just skip those kind and deal with the ones who don’t charge.

How I Broke In To Publishing

Let me put in a plug for writers’ conferences. I spent 8 years polishing my craft and going to a small annual conference in my neighborhood. And selling nothing. I even had an agent, who assured me that it was only a matter of time, yada, yada. Finally, in 1996, after 8 years of misery, I decided to take charge of my career. I decided that I would go to the huge and famous Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference that year and that I would keep going every year until the industry buckled before the extraordinary force of my heartbreaking work of staggering genius, etc., etc. Or until they got sick of me and threw me out.

That was the right decision. By then, I had my writing skills down pretty well, but I had no contacts other than my agent. I went in 1996 and it was great. I went again in 1997 and it was better. Later that year, my agent died. I decided not to get another one. I went to Mount Hermon again in 1998, and that year I met an author on the faculty who saw that I had ten years of craft-development under my belt and I had an astoundingly good proposal. So this author wrote me a letter of recommendation to a few publishers to go atop my proposal and . . . one of them bought the book! That was a nonfiction book, but within months, I also sold my first novel, Transgression, and my career was launched. The editor for that novel, Chip MacGregor, later quit editing and became a powerhouse agent with the largest Christian literary agency, Alive Communications. He was my agent for several years, until he went back to work in a major publishing house.

I continue to go to the Mount Hermon conference every year. It is the very best Christian writing conference in the country (I may be a little biased here, but everyone agrees it is fabulous). My circle of friends–writers, editors, and agents–continues to expand. And I’ve discovered that this writing game is fun! It’s possible to get published, even if you’re a nobody who knows nobody. I did it, and a number of my friends have done it too. You can, if you’re willing to work hard and work smart.

Now you may be thinking that you’ve done everything I suggested and all you need to succeed is for me to mentor you. Oh dear. That may be a problem. Don’t get me wrong. I do mentor a few people. A very few people. Mostly, these are people who are clearly very hard workers, who have good craft, who are TEACHABLE, and most important of all, who are polite. If that describes you, then meet me at the next Mount Hermon conference and let’s talk. Although, if that describes you, and if you actually go to Mount Hermon, you probably won’t need me at all. But I’ll be happy to talk with you anyway. It’s the least I can do. See ya there and let’s celebrate your imminent success!

Other Matters

If you’ve read this far, then you probably know whether you like my whackball way of looking at the world. If you do, then I invite you to sign up for my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, a free monthly newsletter on the craft and marketing of fiction. Sign up today and get a free 5-day e-course on How To Publish A Novel. There’s a signup form at the upper right corner of this page.

If you prefer to first read some back issues of the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, hop on over to the e-zine archives on my Advanced Fiction Writing web site dedicated solely to teaching the craft of writing fiction.


About The Author

Randy IngermansonRandy Ingermanson is a theoretical physicist and the award-winning author of six novels. He has taught at numerous writing conferences over the years and publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, the largest electronic magazine in the world on the craft of writing fiction, with over 14,000 readers.

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Writing Prompts

Use the following sentences to begin: “It’s not the street I usually go down. But for some reason, that day I turned down a different road.”

Develop a character or create a scene in the style of a “film noire”.

Writing the known and the unknown. Close your eyes, let a landscape appear. Allow yourself to view the landscape, taking note of texture and mood. Next, pretend that you have a rose petal in your hand. Feel it between your fingers and give it color and scent. Allow yourself time to make it a realistic experience. Now go back to creating your landscape, again focusing on details and texture. Continue writing about your landscape.

Create a progressive story chain that follows the trail of an object, or begins with the introduction of one character leading into the introduction of another, producing a chain of unrelated events that are linked by one momentary “shared” element.

Write a story about a person who has an obsession with shoes and claims he can predict a person’s future by the shoes they wear.

Write a list of five first and last names. Select one of the names and write about the character.

The 10 Commandments of Fiction Writing

By: | March 11, 2008

Most experts agree that when it comes to writing fiction, no rules are carved in stone. A writer is free to bend, twist, smash or shred any of the golden platitudes of writing that have been handed down by the well-paid, well-respected writers we all hope to become. Certain writing guidelines, however, are so self-evident few writers would dispute them. When these guidelines are broken, you don’t need a burning bush to tell you your writing will suffer.

1. Take yourself seriously
This is the most crucial commandment—and the most difficult to follow. Many beginning writers feel guilty about working so hard at something for which they haven’t been paid a cent. Immediate family members or friends may look on writing as a harmless little hobby, to be encouraged only when it doesn’t interfere with their own lives. Because of the cavalier attitude of others, writers may fail to prioritize writing as a necessary part of their lives, regardless of whether or not money exchanges hands.

You must emphatically demonstrate to yourself and to others that writing is a part of who you are, not just an amusing pastime. The measure of being a writer is not how much money you make, but how important writing is in your life.

2. Act like a professional
To be taken seriously as a writer, you must act like a professional writer. That means whenever you deal with other professionals in the writing business, such as agents, editors and publishers, you should act the same as you would for a job interview, and present a professional appearance. This is especially important in cover letters and manuscript preparation.

First, proofread for grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. I have heard many editors admit they sometimes reject a manuscript within the first few pages solely due to the number of grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. After months or even years of hard work perfecting your story, novel or screenplay, it would be a shame to have it rejected just because you didn’t bother to check your spelling or fix a sentence fragment. And don’t rely solely on spell-checking and grammar-checking computer programs—they make errors all the time. If grammar is your weakness, then find someone, either a friend or professional, who can proof the pages for you.

Second, perfect the format. The place to be creative is in your writing style, not the manuscript format. Avoid fancy fonts. They’re distracting and hard to read. Stick to standard margins. Narrow margins crowd the page and slow the story’s pace; broad margins make it appear as though you don’t have a substantial story. Don’t design your own cover. It smacks of desperation.

Third, polish the cover letter. Just tell the editors what they need to know. That includes: (a) a brief summary of the work, one to three paragraphs, and (b) anything about yourself that might be relevant to the work (if you’re submitting a police procedural novel and you’re a journalist who worked the crime beat, that’s relevant). Avoid overhyping yourself or the work by making extravagant claims: “This will earn millions of dollars!” or “The world has never seen a novel like this before!” Hyperbole makes agents and editors less eager to work with you.

3. Write your passion
Some beginning writers try to write for whatever trend is popular. But by the time you finish your manuscript, get an agent and send your work to a publisher, the trend will be on its way out. You’re more likely to produce publishable material by writing what you’re passionate about. If you love romances, then write one. If you love mysteries, then that’s the genre for you. You don’t have to write only that genre, but as you first start out, if you write what you know, you’ll have a stronger feel for the proper conventions to include as well as the cliches and stereotypes to avoid.

Ultimately, all that matters is that you care about the material and convey that passion to the reader.

4. Love the process
If you want to become a professional fiction writer, you’d better love the writing process. That doesn’t mean you don’t have doubts, fears and an aversion to your computer. It means that despite those hesitations, you still sit down and write. Even after you’ve sold your novel, finished your book-signing tour and watched Brad Pitt star in the film version, you still have to spend most of your days at a computer. That process must thrill and delight you, since all the rest of the celebrity trappings are only a small part of what you do.

5. Read—a lot
While it’s a very good idea to know your genre, the best writers don’t limit their reading to that genre. Artists need to experience other artists’ work, which can teach and inspire as well.

When I read a fascinating novel or watch an insightful movie, I can’t wait to get back to my own writing and make it better. This also works when I read a boring novel or watch a cliched movie; then I can’t wait to make sure I haven’t made similar mistakes in my work.

Reading nonfiction is also helpful to fiction writers. I’ve been so inspired by articles on scientific discoveries, political events or historical facts that I’ve later made the ideas significant parts of my fiction works. A 10-line filler in the newspaper about the auction of Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis inspired the opening chapter of my novel Earth Angel.

6. Stick to a schedule
The main difference between successful writers and wannabe writers is not talent—it’s perseverance. They finish what they start. Create a writing schedule that works for you and stick with it. Two types of scheduling work best for most writers.

1. The Gridlock Method. Fill out a weekly grid with all your responsibilities that cannot be changed—work, school, family, etc. Find two-hour blocks on at least three days of the week that you can claim for writing. Announce to your family and friends that those are your writing hours, and you are not to be disturbed during that time except for emergencies. (Be sure to define “emergencies.”)

2. The Spare-Change Method. This method is for those whose schedules are less predictable. On a calendar, write the number of pages you intend to complete per day. Regardless of how busy you are that day, commit to staying up until that number of pages is complete.

Whichever method you use, the result will be the same: You will end up with a completed manuscript.

7. Be critical of your work
Writers live with the hope that someday they will read what they’ve written and not want to tear it up. The bad news is that the better you become as a writer, the more critical you are of your writing. The more you know about writing, the less you can tolerate bad writing (your own or others’). The good news is this critical ability will make you better. You will learn to reject the predictable and strive for invigorating style, plotting and characterization. Stop worrying that you’ll never be a good enough writer, and embrace the inner critic.

8. Develop thick skin
As a beginning writer I dreamed of the day when I would never have to face another rejection. Forty published books and 12 sold screenplays later, not a day goes by when something I’ve written or proposed to be written isn’t rejected by someone. Usually some publisher or producer buys what I’ve written, but not always. I still have a few unsold novels stashed in my garage, rejected stories and poems in my filing cabinet, script treatments on my desk.

Rejection still stings. But it doesn’t hurt as long as it used to because I have so many projects to pursue. I no longer mope around and curse the short-sightedness of a universe that fails to recognize my genius. I just work on the next project. And if the same manuscript keeps getting rejected for the same reason, I re-evaluate the work and maybe rewrite it.

9. Trust your editors
First, I’m going to broadly define editors as not only professional editors at publishing houses but also writing teachers and writing workshop members who read and offer editorial suggestions. Most editors aren’t frustrated writers—some are accomplished writers publishing more than you. In general, they have your best interests at heart. That doesn’t mean you won’t have disagreements with their suggestions. You most certainly will. You may even be right sometimes. But you will miss out on some very helpful suggestions if you refuse to listen.

The goal of most editors is to help you best realize the story you want to write. Because they come at it with fresh perspectives, they may be able to see flaws that you can’t because you’re too close to the work.

My typical first reaction to editorial suggestions is this: “What an idiot! You understand nothing of what I’m trying to say.” An hour later I think, “Maybe that’s not a completely stupid idea.” After I incorporate the idea I think, “I’m a genius to have thought of this change.” Point is, I have learned to carefully consider each suggestion. Sometimes I reject them, but many times those suggestions have significantly improved my work.

10. There are no certainties
William Goldman said it about Hollywood in his excellent primer for screenwriters, Adventures in the Screen Trade (Warner Books), but it applies equally to all writing. No one knows for sure what’s going to sell and what isn’t. If an agent from a big agency or an editor from a major publisher rejects your book saying that no one’s interested in that type of story anymore, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Think of all the “knowledgeable” studio execs who rejected Star Wars or big-shot editors who turned down The Godfather.

You must develop your own instincts about writing and have faith in them even when no one else does. That doesn’t mean you will be inflexible to suggestions, it just means you will feel confident in whatever decisions you make.

 

Fiction Prompts

First line exercises:

  1. There had been many theories about how she had been murdered
  2. The whole family had been cursed since
  3. She was beginning to realise how far down in her memory she’d buried her teenage years
  4. Most vivid amongst the memories of his home town
  5. They say everyone who looks into their family history will find a secret sooner or later
  6. The Ferrari stopped and the tinted window opened to reveal
  7. Under normal circumstances he would speak his mind, but, with a gun against his head
  8. Spider threads caught at her face, a sign that no-one had been there yet