Thursday, August 23, 2007

Talent, Persistence, and Luck: How to get your book published

Elizabeth Zelvin

Even though my first mystery isn’t out yet, I periodically get requests from friends and colleagues to allow someone who is writing a book or wants to write a book to contact me. I know what they want to know: "Can you help me get my book published?" I can tell them what it takes: the proverbial talent, persistence, and luck--in most cases, including mine, a drop of luck in a sea of persistence. But can I help them? Not quite the way they hope. Why me? Either it’s because I live in New York, or the aspiring author is a fellow mental health professional, or, simply, I’ve written a mystery and miraculously found a publisher. I have been tremendously grateful for every speck of encouragement, support, and generosity I’ve gotten from established mystery writers along the way. I’m glad to respond to an email and give what tips I can. But the truth is that there are no short cuts. I thought it might be helpful to put what I can say in one place (ie the archives of Poe’s Deadly Daughters) where I can refer people to it rather than reinvent the wheel each time. So here it is. If you want to publish a book, here’s what you have to do:

1. Write the book. The whole book. That’s true for the first novel, whether it’s literary, genre, or mainstream fiction. It doesn’t matter if you’ve published in other fields. If you haven’t published any kind of novel, you’re an unpublished writer as far as the fiction world is concerned. I had two books of poetry and a book on gender and addictions. It didn’t matter.

1a. If you’re, say, an academic or professional who’s published in scholarly journals and with professional presses, and you want to write nonfiction for the popular market, you’re still an unpublished writer as far as trade publishing is concerned. You don’t have to write the whole book. You do have to write a complete outline and sample chapters. There are books that can tell you how to do this correctly. You also need a platform: an audience or market or public visibility that will sell your book. Being an experienced professional with an interesting career is not a platform. The ideal platform? You’re already Oprah when you decide to write a book.

2. Get critique. Revise. Kill your darlings. A first draft can always be improved upon, and considering how tough the market is, you need every advantage you can get. I learned this slowly and the hard way. But if you know you can’t tolerate criticism or rejection, reconsider your dream of getting published.

3. Research agents. There are no short cuts. I queried 125 agents—including two who took me on and gave up too quickly, as well as maybe 40% who liked my query letter well enough to read a full or partial manuscript—before I sold Death Will Get You Sober. Some good places to research agents, all updated annually (or more frequently if online):
. LMP (Literary Market Place). THE reference—read it in the library.
. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents.
. I subscribed to the online service for $30/year, didn’t bother with the book. It’s updated constantly. Most helpful feature for the newbie: it gives the percentage of new and unpublished authors each agent represents. You can then use that as a hook in your query letter: “I understand you are receptive to new authors…”
There are others, but these will give you plenty to work with. Oh, and check each agent’s website before you send your query. They may include submission criteria and biases (not in a bad way) that don’t appear in the guides and directories.

4. Write a killer query letter. Keep it on one page, and don’t try to squeeze in more with no margins and smaller fonts. They’ll know.
Paragraph one: Your hook and what kind of book you’ve written. If you can say “So-and-so suggested I ask if you would consider…” that’s great. But if you don’t have a contact, the hook can be that you know they represent the kind of book you’ve written or that they do take on new authors. If you met them at a conference or even at a party, that’s great too.
Paragraph two: A concise description of the book. Make it sparkle.
Paragraph three: Who you are, ie what’s interesting about you and why you’re qualified to write this particular book.

5. Write a synopsis. Expand the paragraph describing the book in your query letter into a one-page synopsis. Be prepared to parlay it into 300 words, 500 words, and three pages as needed.

6. Get a support network—local or online or both. If you’re a woman writing a mystery, join Sisters in Crime, and then join the Guppies, which is the online chapter for prepublished writers. They’ll hook you up with a critique group, help you polish your query and synopsis, share the scoop on agents they’ve contacted, eat virtual chocolate in commiseration when you get rejection letters, and drink virtual champagne when you find an agent or a publisher. If you’re a guy writing a mystery, ask yourself: do you have the guts to be a male Sister? There really is nothing quite like Guppies for men. Your local chapter of Sisters in Crime may be supportive and helpful too. So may your local chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Online, mystery lovers (not just writers) hang out at and crime fiction lovers (all part of the spectrum) at Folks on these lists and sites will point you toward others. Many will be helpful. I don’t know if anything like the good will of the mystery community exists in other genres. We are lucky!

7. Start sending out those query letters. Include a stamped self-addressed envelope with your query. Don't email queries unless the directory and/or the agent says they accept them. Follow submission guidelines on the agent's website. Your support network will help you not take those form rejections too personally and share your elation and despair when you get what we call a “rave rejection.”
7a. Keep sending out.



Sharon Wildwind said...

You've got it all here. As discouraging as it is, there are no quick fixes. Writing is truly a marathon. We should all crown ourselves with laurel leaves for keeping at it.

Sandra Parshall said...

My own road to publication is strewn with decades of rejections -- and that pond over on the right is filled with my tears. :-) Some people achieve publication quickly and easily, but for most, however talented they are, it's a struggle. You have to be honest with ourself about how much rejection you can take, and whether being a published writer is important enough to justify putting yourself through the ordeal.

I wish I'd made it into print early. But at the same time, I know that my writing when I was younger was nowhere near as solid as it is today. If my earlier work had been published, would I have pushed myself so hard to improve? I'm not sure.

Darlene Ryan said...

That's a great list, Liz.

What's the biggest misconception would-be writers have in your experience? I'm constantly surprised by the number of people that think a roughed out idea is all they need to start looking for agents and/or publishers. When I tell these people they should write and re-write their manuscript first they tend to look at me like I've left the house without pants.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good question, Darlene. I can think of a variety of answers, but I'll go with thinking talent is enough. I'm thinking of writing a Part 2: my own saga, which many have heard but I haven't actually blogged. It was the sea of persistence and the drop of luck that did it. And Sandy, amen about age and experience and many years of writing yielding published work we can be wholeheartedly proud of.

Writer, Rejected said...

Good list. Also, be prepared to keep on keeping on. Check out Literary Rejections on Display if you think it can't be done. The unflagging spirit of the writer; there are inspirational stories of very famous writers and famous books who told they would never amount to anything. As writers, we must plug our ears!