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 . . .
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.
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.
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!
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.
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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 16,000 readers.