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How to Get Published: Ready, Set, Whoa! (Part I of III)

  • Annabelle Robertson
  • 2007 7 Jul
  • COMMENTS
How to Get Published: Ready, Set, Whoa!  (Part I of III)

"How can I get an agent?” 

It’s the question every writer wants to know – the one posed most frequently at book-signings, and the one readers always email me about.  It’s an important one, too.  After all, you can’t get a book published without one.  Not really.

For most writers, however, trying to find an agent is a bit like asking how to get an audition at Carnegie Hall.

Years before my book, The Southern Girl’s Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You’ve Caught Your Man, went to "auction," with three major publishing houses bidding for the rights – and long before it snagged a USA Best Books Award, I dreamed of being a writer.  I had been the editor of my high school newspaper.  During college and graduate school, I wrote short stories and essays, in exchange for As and paragraphs of professorial praise.  A wisecracking Australian prof even wrote that I had made him cry with “The Curate,” a short story I wrote about a young pastor who accepts a call to St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, where he discovers a viper’s nest in their historic monogrammed pews.

I was in seminary at the time. And unfortunately, I knew of what I wrote.  But that’s the first rule you should follow when trying to get published: “Write what you know.”

I’d also practiced international law in Switzerland, working for the United Nations and as corporate counsel for an American bank, during which I freelanced and honed my writing skills.  And I read everything I possibly could on the craft – at least 50 books about dialogue, narrative, plot, voice and style, to name just a few.

Of course, I didn’t think I was Pat Conroy or anything.  Far from it – he intimidated the heck out of me, in fact.  But I figured I could at least write a book and get it published.  How hard could it be? 

Well, a lot harder than I ever imagined – although not nearly as difficult as what came later (and not even remotely as challenging as losing weight…so hang in there, y’all – it’s all possible). 

To start, I knew I needed discipline.  So I taped a sign above my desk that said, “Writers Write.”  I placed fans throughout our dingy Atlanta walk-up and prayed that my computer wouldn’t blow up from the heat.  And then I wrote – five nights a week, from 9 to 11 p.m., and all day Saturday.  Week after week after week.  I even wrote on vacation.

Two years later, I called my husband into my home office as I typed those greatly anticipated words, “The End.”  I was thrilled.  And I figured I’d have an agent within a few months – a year at the most. 

It took me five.

What I didn’t realize was that no matter how talented a writer is, every first draft is bad.  Usually very, very bad – and mine was no exception.  In her excellent Bird by Bird book about the writer’s life, Anne Lamott calls them “sh*&y" first drafts,” and as any good writer knows, they truly are.  But for some reason, we writers tend to have blinders – big ones – when it comes to our work.  We want to get to center stage as fast as possible.  And, we tend to believe, rather naively, that writing is something which can be mastered easily and quickly.  Just look at those concert pianists!  They make it look so easy!  As Rita Mae Brown says, however, “It takes as long to learn writing skills as it does to become a neurosurgeon.” 

This, I have learned, is an understatement.

I know how disheartening this learning period can be for writers.  After all, I was there myself, not too long ago.  But consider this: Your book must compete with the 200,000 others published each year, of which a mere 1 percent sell more than 5,000 copies.  A full 98 percent of all books published each year, in fact, sell less than 1,000 copies.  So even if you could get published now, is this really what you want to put out there?

To be a success, your writing simply cannot be mediocre.  It has to be phenomenal.  Not only that, but when it comes to wowing an agent, you’ve got one shot, and one shot only.  Do you really want to take yours now?

Maybe you do.  You’ve work-shopped that manuscript (or book proposal) to death.  You’ve rewritten your book, again and again.  You’ve put in the time, and you know you can’t make it any better.  It’s ready to go and it’s very, very good – or so say all the non-relatives and unpaid friends who’ve critiqued it. 

Well, if that’s your case, darlin’, then congratulations for sticking it out.  I’m just as proud as peat, and I can’t wait to read that book.  So please skip to Part III of this article and go find yourself an agent.

For everyone else – especially those just getting started – I invite you to pull up a chair and pour yourself some sweet tea.  Sweet tea is good.  But experience is better.  And if there’s anything we Southern Girls like to do, it’s share our experience and hand out advice – especially if we can save someone a little heartache.

So here’s my take, for what it’s worth, on what you really need to produce a manuscript that will wow a good agent:  

Read lots of books about the craft of writing.  You can get them online, from the library or a book club.  I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club and, thanks to their generous “buy four get one free” policy, now own a small collection of writing books that I refer to again and again.  These were not only great fun to read, but they also fueled my writing, giving me lots of creative inspiration. 

Read books in your genre.  Examine them as an editor would, studying structure, style, content and voice.  Other authors will give you fresh ideas, improve your vocabulary and teach you how books work.   

Hang out with other writers.  Writing is a lonely discipline, and you’ll need likeminded people to encourage and teach you what’s what.  So visit bookstores, where you’ll find future authors lurking in the coffee shop or in front of the reference shelves.  Check out the local library or the classified ads section.  Run an ad yourself.  Go to author readings.  And don’t be afraid to talk to published writers.  People approach me all the time, and I don’t mind a bit.  I see it as “paying forward” the help I’ve received from others.

Attend writer’s conferences.  You’ll learn lots about the craft and the business of writing, as well as the all-important publishing industry.  You’ll also meet published writers who may mentor you and perhaps even give you a quote for your book someday – which agents and editors love.  Network.  Listen.  Take notes.  And learn as much as you possibly can.

Find or create a writer’s group.  My group, which I formed after we all met at a local conference, consisted of four other writers at different stages of their novels. They taught me things I could never have learned otherwise and pointed out mistakes that I should have seen, but did not.  They encouraged me, supported me, and gave me wonderful suggestions – especially when I got bogged down.  Our bi-monthly evenings spent laughing, dreaming and scheming are, to date, some of the happiest memories ever.

Finish your manuscript/book proposal before searching for an agent.  Don’t make the mistake of interesting a potential agent, only to be forced to admit that you haven’t finished the book.  If an agent likes your first three chapters, he’ll ask for the rest.  If you can’t immediately provide that, he’ll likely lose interest – which will be difficult to snag again.  Even if you do a rush job and finish, you’ll still be submitting your first draft – a very bad idea (see above). 

Make sure your writer’s group critiques your entire manuscript before submitting it.  You need their objectivity, and they need yours.  Be sure to take their advice, too – especially when they’re all in agreement.

Be open to criticism.  After rewriting my novel no less than three times, a fellow writer (now a six-time New York Times bestselling author) read my manuscript and pronounced me a “future bestselling author.”  Before I could bask in the heady compliment, however, she gave me some “suggestions.”  I took them all – and rewrote the book again.  Early on, I learned not to take criticism personally.  If you want a writing career, you will, too. 

Give your latest rewrite to at least three people who are not afraid to tell you the truth.  These volunteers should not be close friends or relatives, who will be tempted to equivocate – and who will unconsciously read your voice into the manuscript.  They must be objective.  Have them edit it, line by line, and provide a written critique (if they will).  If their advice is vague, ask probing questions like “What did you like best?”, “What did you have trouble believing?” and “What would you change?”  Make rewrites accordingly.

Do not hire a book “doctor” (editor).  They’re expensive and extremely subjective – and you’ll only get the same feedback that fellow writers will provide for free.  I paid $1,200 for my professional critique years ago, a sum I could ill afford.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best advice.  Instead, turn to your writer’s group, where you’ll find a consensus (or not) – which will help you decide whether to take their advice (or not).  With a book doctor, you’re only getting one opinion, and a very expensive one at that.

Next week, in Part II of this article, I’ll offer suggestions on creating and running a writer’s group.  The following week, in Part III, I’ll provide strategies for snagging that agent. 

In the meantime, stay sweet y’all.  And don’t give up.  Remember: writers not only write – they keep on writing.

Annabelle Robertson is an attorney, an award-winning journalist and the author of The Southern Girl’s Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You’ve Caught Your Man, winner of the 2006 USA Best Books Award for humor.  To watch a video of Annabelle and download the first chapter, visit www.SouthernGirlsGuide.com.