Where are you in your writing career? I find it useful to categorize prepublished writers in one of four stages, Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, or Senior. You should not assume that you automatically advance one level per year. One year is a reasonable amount of time to spend at each stage, but it is possible to take much longer. I think I spent eight years as a junior. That’s about seven years too long.
Freshmen are novice writers. They often have very fine content, but their craft is unpolished and they usually don’t have any contacts at all. Most Freshmen are scared to death by the very idea of talking to an editor. Or they have an outrageous scheme for getting an editor’s attention with the creative use of explosives and lingerie. Some Freshmen are simply astounded that editors aren’t lining up to write checks for six-figure advances. But most Freshmen are convinced that they will never sell anything and they might as well give up. It’s fair to say that all Freshmen are very confused. That’s OK!
Sophomores have a bit of writing under their belts. They’ve improved their craft and probably also their content and they’re starting to get restless. Just how long does it take to get published, anyway? And how do you write one of those book proposal things? And do I really have to meet editors? Does anybody ever actually get published by going to writer’s conferences? Why can’t those editors see that my book is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius and just publish the thing?
Juniors have gone even further. They’ve become strong writers. They’ve submitted some actual proposals at conferences. They’ve had an editor say those magic words — “Send me that proposal.” They’ve gotten that unmagic letter — “We’ve studied your proposal carefully and it does not meet our needs at the present time.” They now know a few editors. More importantly, editors are beginning to know their faces. Juniors are a frustrated lot. Their friends can’t understand why they’re not published. There is a reason, of course — they’re not Seniors yet. But they soon will be . . .
Seniors are those few who are ripe to graduate. A Senior is writing excellent stuff. Explosive. Powerful. Moving. But still unpublished. Seniors are worried sick that those mean editors are never going to notice them, that they’ll be submitting proposals forever. Seniors don’t realize that the editors are watching them, hoping to see the perfect proposal that can make it past the committee. Seniors are closer than they think. There is nothing worse than being a Senior. There is nothing better than being a Senior on that magical wonderful stupendous day when your son is busy ironing the cat, rain is leaking through the hole in the roof that you could swear you patched with toothpaste just a week ago, and the phone rings. It’s one of those cranky editors you sent that proposal to last year and . . . she wants to buy your book!
Your Plan of Action
The key thing is to be patient. If you are a Freshman, work on becoming a Sophomore. Don’t try to jump to the Senior level in six months. It won’t work. Move up the ladder one step at a time. Here are some practical things you can do at each stage:
Freshmen: Work on your craft. This means going to writer’s conferences, taking writing classes, reading books on writing, joining a critique group, and most of all . . . writing. You develop your craft by writing. You should also meet other writers at conferences. It’s amazing how many lifelong friends you can make at a five-day conference. Work on your craft faithfully for a year, and it’s very likely you’ll wake up one day to find that you’re a Sophomore . . .
Sophomores: Keep working on your craft, but begin working on your proposal skills. This means reading books on how to write a book proposal, working hard at polishing an actual proposal, going to writer’s conferences with the best proposal you can possibly write, getting critiques on your proposals, and then doing it all over again. Continue making friends with other writers and do whatever you can to help them. Don’t worry — someone will help you too, so just relax and have a good time. After a year or so of hard work, you’ll be amazed to discover that you’re one of those enviable writers who have advanced to the rank of Junior . . .
Juniors: Strive for excellence in your craft. Strive for excellence in your proposals. Broaden your contacts. This does not mean getting in editors’ faces at conferences and making them sick of you. It does mean meeting people. Lots of people. Not just editors. Writers. You may find this hard to believe, but knowing lots of writers is better than knowing lots of editors, and it’s a whole lot easier. If you find an editor you specially click with, keep in touch. Editors are people, not ogres, and they like having friends. Be friendly to agents but don’t expect them to take you on just yet. Agents want to work with Seniors, not Juniors. Don’t get lazy on your writing! If you keep it up, it won’t be many moons before you start hearing that people are talking about you. You’ll be a Senior . . .
Seniors: Strive for perfection in your craft and your proposals. Keep in contact with all your friends–writers, editors, conference junkies, agents. If you find an excellent agent who’s interested in you, it won’t hurt to sign on. But be aware that the wrong agent is worse than none. You can sell a book without an agent. I’ve done it and so have many of my friends. Keep writing! One day, a golden idea will smack you in the face. You’ll realize that everything you’ve written until now was tripe, but now you have the goods. You’ll write feverishly on that idea for a few months. You’ll craft a stunning proposal. You’ll show it around to your many friends. And somehow, from a direction you least expect — probably an editor you’ve never met, who happens to be a lifelong friend of one of your lifelong friends — you’ll get a contract offer. It’s different for every writer. It’s the same for every writer. You’ll be an author.
Comments on Networking: Quite frankly, all those books on networking make me puke. I’ve said quite a bit here about making friends. Friends are important. Your friends — writers, editors, agents, teachers — will make your career. Now please forget I said that! If you spend your time at conferences trying to figure out who can help you the most, and kissing up to those people, trying to get them to do you favors, you are going to waste your time.
First off, the whole publishing game is so random and bizarre that you will never be able to guess who will be the magic person who unlocks the door to your publishing career. So it’s pointless to try. You’ll just be wrong and waste time.
Secondly, isn’t it ridiculous to make friends solely for the purpose of using them to advance your career? Isn’t it disgusting? Fergitaboutit!
My advice is to make friends with everyone you meet, hang out with the ones you click with, and try to do something nice for as many people as you can — preferably for people who can’t pay you back. And don’t tell anyone what you did. There’s something wonderful about a writers’ conference where everyone is doing their best to advance the careers of . . . other writers! Isn’t that a radical thought? Wouldn’t that be the best conference ever?
Randy Ingermanson, Ph.D.
About The Author
Randy 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 32,000 readers.