Getting Published: My Mistakes I

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A few weeks ago I was speaking to a Sisters in Crime meeting and I realized that my mini autobiography had morphed into a series of bullets that might be titled Don’t Do This: A writer’s Guide to Decades of Failure. As some of you will know, mine was a long road to getting published, and the gap between writing my first complete novel and getting one published was eight complete novels over a little over twenty years. It didn’t have to be that way, and for the next few weeks I’d like to steer you through some of the mistakes I made in the hope that your road to publication will be shorter and faster. The result, I trust will balance confessional blather about myself with stuff you can really store away and use.
I confess that some of what I will say here will be blindingly obvious to anyone who isn’t me, circa 1985, and this is as good a lead in as any to today’s item on the list.

Things I Did Wrong No: 1—Writing in a Vacuum.

No, I don’t mean drifting in the vastness of space (though it can feel like that). I mean writing by myself. I would start work on a project, hammer it out over a few months or so, polish it, and then send it out. I showed it to no-one but my girlfriend/fiancée/wife (remember we’re talking about a 20+ years span here), and maybe my parents. I had no Beta readers, no critique group, no literary support network, no writer pals, no creative writing classes.

What that meant was that for all the help and encouragement I got from my family (with the occasional note or suggestion), I wasn’t getting any kind of constructive response from someone who saw me simply as a writer. My family’s thoughts were inevitably complicated by their feelings for me, so the first people who read my book who were NOT already invested in it being good, were the agents and editors to whom I sent it.

This is not a recipe for success. As we all know, rejection letters tend to be light on specifics, so learning about what’s wrong with your work this way is like hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Most of the rejections (“Liked it, didn’t love it”) told me nothing, so I kept on puttering away at the same thing, baffled and feeling like I was shooting in the dark, never really knowing if my next project was any better than the last one.

The fact that you are reading this at all suggests you already have me beat. Back in the eighties there were books on writing but there wasn’t anything like this interactive medium unless it was actual people sitting down together, a place like MW where you can feel part of a community of shared interests. I didn’t know how to create such a community, or find one, did not even know what the value of such things was. But it’s worse than that. Because if someone had invited me to join a critique group, I almost certainly would have said no.

Some of that was a young writer’s arrogance: the surety that I basically knew what I was doing even if the powers that be in the publishing world had not recognized that yet. But more of it was the opposite: shyness and fear.

Many writers are private people. We take refuge in our heads and the stories we build there, stories we invent largely for our own amusement. The prospect of sending them out into the world, of losing control of them and putting them in the harsh glare of Other People’s Opinion is, frankly, terrifying. To this day, I get a rush of panic and anxiety when I offer a new piece for someone to look at (including sympathetic readers like my family, friends or agent). So it’s not surprising that I rather kept my work to myself, didn’t talk about it, didn’t ask other people things that might have helped me out, operating as if I might get published by stealth: telling no one until my face was plastered across the New York Review of Books.

I can’t imagine how much this slowed me down, but I know it did, and probably a lot. Even without formal instruction from which I might have learned basic principles, I missed out on the chance to get honest feedback, tips, bits of advice, criticism coming simply from someone who was interested in whether the book worked as a book, not whether they thought they could sell it. This is a crucial distinction, because for years I was able to hide behind the old lie that my work was good but not marketable.

We know this one. We use it all the time. I still do when I produce something I can’t sell, and I know that sometimes—SOMETIMES—it’s true.

But usually, it’s not.

Unless you are writing something truly experimental or generically very odd, there’s a market for it somewhere if it’s good. The trick is assessing that last bit: is it good? We all know readers whose advice is shaky or can’t be trusted, that it’s marked by jealousy, resentment or other factors which color their opinion. But we also know that there is no substitution for getting eyes on your work. I learned this the hard way. Writing is private. Publication isn’t. If you want your book to be something other than a file on your computer, if you want it out there where people can pick it up off a bookstore shelf, you have to share it with people you trust before sending it out. There’s no way round it. You have to swallow your pride, brace for impact, and learn. It’s the only way, and it may just help to get you in print a good deal faster than I did.

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22 comments to Getting Published: My Mistakes I

  • This is excellent stuff, AJ. Thanks for being so honest.

    Really looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • I wish we’d found you back then, AJ. Faith and I would have dragged you to our group, whether you wanted to come or not!

    I’d started writing seriously after my son was born, but sending out the stories generally resulted in those vague ‘no-thank-you’ letters that didn’t help. I noticed a sign at the library one afternoon, advertising a local writing group, took a deep breath and went to a meeting. I was utterly terrified, but it ended up being the smartest thing I could have done. Not only did I get real, honest, useful critique, but I learned how to write on deadline, since every week I was expected to have five pages to read. And I made friends with people who had connections in the publishing world. I learned tons about publishing before I even had a novel to sell.

    It’s lovely that the internet offers so many chances for writers to climb out of that vaccuum. The right critique group can change your life. It did mine. 😀

  • Great post and great advice! I also think that joining a critique group lets you see other people making similar mistakes that might be easier spot because it’s not your own work so you’re not as close to it. I know that it was in judging writer contests that I realized what it meant to have a slow opening or be generic — these were all very well written entries but they helped me understand and recognize that gap between being able to write well and writing a publishable story.

    But it did take me a while to feel comfortable sharing my own work. Now I go by the adage: I’d rather hear from my critique partner it stinks than my editor and from my editor than a reviewer or a reader.

  • Ed,
    I had been struggling to come up with something to write about for today, but the moment I realized that my expertise lay not in discussing my skills and successes but my stupidity and failure, I suddenly had tons of material… :)

    Misty,
    such a great example of exactly what I should have done. Thanks. Fear is so central to writing and the business of publication, but I think those who haven’t had a lot of success yet assume it’s just them. It’s not. It’s all of us and it can be paralyzing. FDR was right.

  • Carrie,
    that’s a great point. It’s so hard to develop those crucial critical/editorial skills when all you see is your own work. Thanks.

  • AJ, I’d love to write a similar series of my experiences, but so far, you’ve pretty much written my story. 20 yrs, lots of failed books, wrote in a vacuum, a bit arrogant about my abilities, only family and friends reading my work. You name the mistakes, I’ve made them. But, to quote Billy Joel– “Things I did not know at first, I learned by doing twice.” Hopefully, we really are helping people at MW cut some years out of our rough learning curves. Thanks for sharing with us.

  • AJ, This was spot on. I wrote in a vacuume too and it was agonizing to not know what I was doing wrong. (Still is sometimes.) Beta readers — ones how know what the publishing market is and isn’t are critical to a lot of writers.

    The MWBeta readers on Yahoo (see link at top of MW page, beneath the POLL section) are providing that beta-reading-expertise to 30-ish writers. Jagi Lamplighter has offered her expertise there and it is really making a difference. I recommend that if anyone here is terrified and yet willing to take a chance on seeing what others think about your work, join. You DO have to join here first, tho. :)

  • Stuart,
    ah, my friend, there’s much more to come. My screw ups are legendary.

    Faith,
    excellent reminder about the MW beta readers section. Thanks for making my point concrete.

  • ::grin::

    I was *just* talking about this issue last night. Then, I said that I moved into publishing from a point of no knowledge – none about how other authors wrote, how they reached out to agents, how they handled just about every business aspect of what we do…

    I did a panel at this year’s Romance Writers of America conference called “Do As I Say, Not As I Did”, which was a compendium of my mistakes. Pity you couldn’t have joined me! :-)

  • Thank you for sharing AJ! This is something that I’ve struggled with recently. I’ve been taking a writing course this summer, and I’ve loved hearing the feedback from the other students and the professor, even when it’s negative (masochistic? me? nah…). However, all that I’ve shared have been flash fiction pieces that we’ve written in class or other class assignments. When it comes to my novel, I’m holding on to it like a lifesaver in the ocean. Part of this is because it isn’t finished and I know that I have a lot of revision work that needs to happen.

    So my question is this: How early to do you start to get feedback from family/friends, critique groups, and beta readers? And do you share the whole novel all at once, or a chapter at a time?

  • Mindy,
    sounds like we could have been a great double act! Another time, perhaps.

    Megan,
    this is tough and I’m sure you’ll get as many different pieces of advice as there are writers. I generally don’t share anything with anyone until the first draft is done and pretty clean (few beta readers are really good at treating a draft as a draft and not a finished product). BUT, there are good reasons to share much earlier than this, and lately my contracts have forced me to block out the entire manuscript in outline. I don’t really like doing this, but it forces me to clear up the basic shape of the story and that’s invaluable for seeing large issues of arc, rhythym and genre. I’d be wary of working a first novel to a high shine before showing it to anyone in case you start getting notes suggesting you need extensive revision. In outline or draft form it’s less of a problem if you start to hear a repeated observation that the book doesn’t get going till page 70 and you should probably cut everything before that point. Many of my beta reaers don’t want to see the thing in process: they want a true reader’s experience as if they’ve just picked it up in a store. I’m confident enough now that I can do that and know that what I give them is at least in the ball park. Twenty years ago I now think I should have been saying “I have an idea of a book about X: what do you think?” If this is your first book, I’d say start showing it (not sending it to agents or publishers) and see what people say. It might really help you in your revision/editing. That’s just my 2 cents, of course. But if you DON’T share it with other people yet, have a reason other than fear. Hope that helps.

  • Megan, I never share my work with family until it’s published. Family loves me and wants me to be happy. That means family is going to be so focused on making me feel good about myself that I won’t get an honest critique.

    Of course, others may have a different view. 😀

  • Thanks AJ. I think that makes a lot of sense. This is my first novel, so I think my plan (current, always changing) is to finish the first draft, do a run through to clean up the most glaring errors or plot discrepancies, and then start sharing it with a limited selection of beta readers.

    Mindy – I totally understand your point. My Mom has asked to read my work, and I’ve shown her a few things, but all I get is “oh, it’s wonderful”. Not very useful. Luckily though, I have a wonderful sister who is actually trying to break into the publishing/editing world. She holds no punches. She’s also a fantastic sounding board for ideas and plot points. So I’m lucky. But otherwise, I can 100% see your point.

  • HarryMarkov

    Thank the heavens for the Internet. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be even close [maybe I would be a writer at all] to where I am now. Living in a country without an interest in SFF literature in order to have an internal market and a scene AND writing in a language that is not spoken by about 70% of the population, much less read in it, is a huge pain. It’s natural isolation, because there is nobody to appreciate/critique what I have written, if I ever wanted to share. So thank you, Internet.

  • AJ,
    You’re a far braver soul. I too never let anybody read my stories, except for teachers when I wrote for assignments. Then realizing my stories were crap, I buckled to external pressure to give up on writing and pursued what others called ‘a serious career.’

    Had there been a little more encouragement back in the day, I might just have struggled on for 20 years as you did. Hats off to you for hanging in there.
    Cheers,
    NGD

  • Harry,
    you’re right that the internet has created all kinds of connectivity between communities that didn’t clearly exist before, and though I often complain about the abundance of data breaking down the hierarchies of knowledge in a bad way, I agree: for people like us, it’s a vital way of staying in touch and learnign from each other.

    NGD,
    I don’t think it was about bravery for me, so much as pathology. I can’t stop. And having a ‘serious career’ doesn’t make it impossible to continue writing, even if it does make time tight. I’ve had to drop a lot of other hobbies and interests in order to use my free time effectively, but it has been worth it. I hope you haven’t given up!? I think David is the only one of the core MW bloggers who has spent the bulk of his career doing nothing but writing professionally (though Misty has lately joined him). You can always come here for encouragement!

  • Young_Writer

    Sorry I haven’t commented sooner. I’ve been having trouble logging on…
    I can’t find any critque groups, but I have found a course at my library for my age group. It’s already on my calender- October 23rd. I hope I’ll learn as much as I do here on Magical Words.

  • YW, best of luck with the library course. Delighted to hear you find the material here at MW helpful.

  • I had made several starts in the past at writing the novel I’m currently working on and when I read over those starts I thought I was pretty darn good.
    Turns out that I wasn’t. I mean I was ok and if you really wanted to read what I wrote you’d read it without much trouble but you’d never buy it or say it was good. Then after much researching of what makes a good story and how to write it (eg: show/tell, passive voice, emotion through action etc…) I started again. I’m 75% through and managed to find this place as the Beta Readers group. Just being able to read other people’s work in progress let me see the bits I struggle with in another light. Without reading other people’s work and having them read mine I would have sent my first novel out and not really known why it was rejected (and despite my natural thought that my novel will be accepted by the first publisher to see it I know it would have been rejected).
    I am looking forward to more of your mistakes so i can see if I’m making them too!

  • Scion,
    perfect. That’s just what we hope to hear. And the need to constantly assess your work never really goes away, I think, no matter how proficient you get. All first drafts, no matter how good, can stand an edit/polishing. I hope some of my other errors are similarly useful.

  • Sorry it took me so long to comment on this, A.J. This is start of school weekend for both my girls….

    I love this idea for a series of posts, and I have to admit that I did the same thing when I started out. My wife read my first efforts, and so did a couple of friends. But I had no idea what a Beta reader was, much less where to find one. And I would have been afraid to send the book to anyone even if I had known. To this day I have trouble sharing my work before it’s polished, but I’m getting better about this. So watch out — I might hit you up for feedback at some point….

  • Thanks, David. Yes, school starts tomorrow for me too. Where did the summer go? And yes, I still feel self conscious about sharing my stuff. At some point I will talk about this secret collaborative project I’m working on now, my first co-written book. It’s been a real education, and forced me to get over my hestitation about showing people what was really no more than first draft. More on this later…