Ask The Writer: “How Do I Get Published?”

This post is a bait-and-switch.

I’m warning you up front that this is me being a Cheaty McCheaterPants in that I’m totally not going to answer the question posed above. First, because despite what you may think, the question of “How do I get published?” (or its variants: “How do I make a game, how do I sell my script, how do I get to write Batman?”) has a many-headed and surprisingly complex answer. (And also: not that interesting.)

Second, because I’m kinda a jerk.

HA HA HA SUCKERS.

Okay, so, to set the stage:

As you know, I spoke at the Crossroads Writer’s Conference this past weekend.

At such conferences and conventions you always end up meeting a wide-eyed and delightfully eager gaggle of hopeful penmonkeys young and old who have not yet had the optimism beaten out of them and, more to the point, have not always had wisdom beaten into them.

(I am of course ever a fan of beating wisdom into writers. Often with a board. A heavy wooden board.)

Part of what always stuns me about these conferences is the focus — more from the standpoint of the question-askers rather than the answer-givers or the conference-holders — on the end game. The then above the now. The result rather than the process. The publishing above the story. More crassly, the questions end up being more about the commerce rather than the craft.

Now, let me jump in here and say: knowing the in’s and out’s of publishing is important. Being aware of the business and its greasy, sinister workings is a feature, not a bug. That business stuff is important, but it only follows the part where you learn how to craft the fuck out of your art, or art the fuck out of your craft (just don’t fuck either out of either). Because, I gotta tell you, for every one question I get about the actual writing or storytelling process I get ten questions about agents, or editors, or publishers, or getting movies made or scripts read or why I won’t have sex with them and love them up with my heroic “beard-style.” (OKAY FINE NOBODY IS ASKING ME THAT SHUT UP *sob*).

Getting an agent or putting your manuscript and script out there isn’t exactly easy, no, but that process is fairly mechanical. That’s one step in front of the other. But writing a book? Producing a killer script? Telling a motherfucking bomb-dropper of a story? That’s really hard. That’s the tricky part! A story is this big, hard-to-contain thing, this overwhelming gas giant of possibility that requires a level of emotional and intellectual commitment drawn from a far deeper well than you could imagine. Knowing how to make a character pop, how to make a story feel impactful, how to elevate tension and keep your readers biting at the bait on your hook — these are the tricky tasks. These are the jobs that have no easy answers, that cannot simply default to a mechanical menu of pre-programmed actions.

The whole “endgame” bullshit is fairly rote and, frankly, not all that magical. But the writing part, the storytelling part — that’s some voodoo, right there. That’s some at-times-awesome, other-times-awful, awe-inspiring, heavily-perspiring, weird and wonderful and fucked up and frustrating and completely imperfect power. It’s your power as the writer. That’s the part that remains entirely in your control.

Hell, I can’t tell you how many people want to know how to get published before they have even finished the story. Which is like asking how to write an Oscar speech before you even get cast in the goddamn movie. (Or, for your sports nuts: like asking how you get on the cover of a Madden video game before you learn to throw a football. Or, for you “aspiring serial killers,” figuring out what your death row meal will be before you’ve even flayed the skin off seven dead hoboes.)

Witness this pair of tweets from (ahem, incredible) author Paolo Bacigalupi:

So: I’m not saying I won’t answer questions about agents or editors or publishing or any of that end-game stuff. And I’m also not saying you shouldn’t ask. But what I am saying is, focus more on the part where you produce the material that matters — the material that will first launch your ass into the realm of the publishable, the editor-needing, the agent-having, the fan-favorite-being.

Work on the story.

Character, plot, theme, process, beginnings, endings.

Ask those questions first.

Don’t be distracted by questions that do not pertain to you. Not yet. Asking those questions and getting the answers is a way to feel productive, to lend some credence to ourselves (and even to others) that says, “Look, I’m asking the important questions, the questions about how I get paid, about how I do this without losing my car and having to take out a second mortgage on my first-born.” But fuck that and forget it — pay attention to the order of operations. Write first, publish after.

As they say, love writing as much as you love having written.

Also, YES, FINE, I’LL HAVE SEX WITH YOU JEEZ.

(Beardo, Wendig-style!)

(*gallop-dances into the wall, passes out in puddle of blood*)


Want another hot tasty dose of dubious writing advice aimed at your facemeats?

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500 MORE WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER: $2.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING: $0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY: $4.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

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39 comments

  • Finished another chapter of a revision of a novel I’m working on and came here to find some wisdom based on the title. It didn’t do what I wanted, but I’ve finished my tea and am energized to get back into the muck and dig some rubies out of this goldmine. (I’m a metaphorical mixologist!)

    Thanks again, Chuck.

  • How you could find time to worry about this stuff when you’re still dragging yourself through the storytelling swamp is beyond me. It’s taken days of bashing my face against the keyboard just to make it through my latest plot hiccup. Maybe I should have learned to type with my fingers. Or maybe I’ll just worry about the ‘endgame’ when I get there. And wear a helmet.

  • This is so true. The first writers conference I went to was four or so years ago and all I wanted to know was how to approach agents and I remember one of my questions was, how long does it take from getting an agent and selling your novel to seeing it on bookstore shelves (I was very disappointed to learn that could take over two years).

    The one question I actually needed to ask the most and get a really good answer for was, How the hell do I rewrite and make my crappy novel less crappy? Cause me not knowing how to rewrite, meant the first draft I wrote before that Conference still sits mostly as a first draft today.

    But this isn’t done on purpose. I think a lot of writers who ask the publishing questions before the craft questions are those who honestly believe they got that part down already. That they already know how to write publishable material, their story is already great and will be an instant best seller without heavy revision, or their idea will write itself once they start, so the more important question in their minds (and mine at the time) was how to sell it once they were done.

    The last Breakout Session at the Crossroads Conference I attended was the best imho because it was basically a lecture/workshop by Christina Ranallo about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and how it translates into a great story regardless of genre, and how to use it in our own stories. Pure storytelling craft. I loved it and definitely needed it.

    So yes, totally agree. Craft before Math.

    (Cause really its just a numbers game in the end, isn’t it? Also that sounded cool. Shut up. I’m a writer!)

  • We have a new member of our writers’ group who’s one of these. He’s paid to file copyrights on his novels which are still nowhere near ready for prime-time. And talked about researching publishers but then didn’t know standard manuscript format. I facepalm, but hopefully we’ll help him get his work to where he can offset those filing costs.

  • Every greenhorn thinks he’s going to be the exception (I know I did) but the most helpful answer is the honest one that nobody wants to hear… the grade A perseverence you’re going to need to compile a spreadsheet full of rejections without losing faith, the fucking iron rod tenacity you’re going to need to rewrite your pitch a gazillion times, is best developed by sticking to your goddamed daily word count, finishing your deeply flawed first book despite its flaws, and then rewriting it 5 or 10 times until it stops getting rejected and starts getting some traction.

  • “These are the jobs that have no easy answers, that cannot simply default to a mechanical menu of pre-programmed actions.” And honestly, thank god for that. Otherwise, enter the story bots and what’s the point?

    Thanks for saying it all out loud, sir.

  • @AmberJGardener: How to rewrite a first draft? Well, here’s my process, for what it’s worth.

    First, make sure you save a separate copy of your first draft. In fact, archive revisions periodically, so that you can access the old material if you ever decide you’ve taken things in a terrible direction. This gives you the freedom to make big, bold changes without worrying about making a mistake.

    Then, start at the beginning and read forward, making notes about your thoughts. Make small changes immediately (or ignore them, under the assumption that you’ll catch them in a later draft). Look for the big things, like trying to understand your character’s motivations and narrative arc, plot holes, opportunities to tighten, etc. I put the notes in the manuscript, surrounded by brackets [ ], but you do what you gotta do.

    Honestly, I think it makes sense to do a reading/notes pass before making any changes, but I rarely have the discipline to pull it off.

    Alternate between evaluating and fixing, draft after draft, until you stop seeing a manuscript strewn with suckage. At this point, start looking for outside readers to give you their thoughts. Join a writing group, perhaps. They’ll help you learn to see suckage that was invisible to you before. Once you’ve upgraded your suck-o-vision, go through the manuscript again and eliminate the new, subtler suckage.

    Warning: sometimes your suck-o-vision upgrades so quickly that you’ll decide a manuscript cannot be salvaged. It’s a depressing moment, but it also means that you’re getting better at writing things that don’t suck. Call it a learning experience and move forward with another project.

  • Good post. I think it happens so much because it’s easier to focus on things that have structured, tried and true steps (i.e. writing a query letter) than revising that chapter one more time or changing a stubborn plot point.

    That said, since we scribes should be focused more on craft, how do we know when a story is finished?

    I’m not sure if you ever wrote a post on that before, but it would be helpful for those of us (raises hand) that tend to revise, revise, revise.

  • Crossroads was very exciting for me. It was the first conference I’ve attended, and by Wendig’s Beard, it won’t be the last. But, I’m glad to see I wasn’t the only one to notice the lack of Craft questions.

    Luckily there were so many others to talk to. I had many interesting conversations with both attendees and authors about plot, process, and writerly pet peeves. Just hearing others discuss their work and their problems with said work made the trip worthwhile. And it was all so similar to my own writing experiences. For once I feel I’m not alone in this bog of prose.

    Craft is key, publishing will come.

  • Came up with a query hook in the shower this morning. I can’t expect an agent to sell my work to a publisher if I can’t sell my work to an agent. I majored in journalism and minored in marketing. It’s coming in handy right about now.

  • The reason they race to the end game and ask “How do I get an editor/agent/advance/publisher/mega-movie-deal-n-my-book-staring-Jensen-Ackles” is because they believe they already know HOW to write. They just plunk words down on paper over the weekend, right?

    I was invited to my kid’s school for literacy day where I talked to the sixth grade about writing as a job. Now I’ve done all kinds of writing, journalist, magazine freelancer, PR guru, Harlequin writer, but I was honest about ficiton writing. “How many of you would like a job where you spend about 50% of your time online?” Most of them raised their hands. “How many of you would like a job where you get paid to make things up?” Again, most raised their hands. “How many of you would be willing to work for 20 years to get your first paycheck?” One girl down in front raised her hand. I happened to know her. I looked at her and said, “Mikayla, you might be a writer.”

  • I’m new to writing so take my advice with a grain a salt.

    All of the answers are in Chuck’s books. He has chapters on finding an agent, the proper format for sending in your book etc… I’m on his fifth book right now. When I’m done with the sixth book I plan on going back to the first book. Is that repetitive? Yes but I need to be constantly reminded not to abuse junk words, to keep on top of my outline, to not linger off into writing beautiful passages that do not move the plot forward.

    If my book is average or straight out bad in the end I know that it will be due to me not being a talented writer. It won’t be because I didn’t know the rules. That’s important.

    That said how do you find a reputable editor? Just kidding. I’m not kidding but I will force myself to put that question out of my head until my book is done.

  • I have some “writers” in my writing group that seem to think coming to the groups workshops, write-ins and other gatherings will write the novel/poem/memoir/article for them. But you’re no writer if you’re not writing. Every.fucking.day.

    First and foremost, go write, chucklehead.

  • I sent out queries once. I thought I had finished that novel. Now I look back, after many years and lots of new skills, and cringe. The story was nowhere near done. But it’s often a case of you don’t know what you don’t know. The more I learned the better the story got. The more I learned about storytelling the easier it was to see the problems. All newbies will make similar mistakes. It takes time and patience.

  • I’m trying to win myself an agent just now, and posts like these are very much needed. It’s very hard to stay focused on the story with the publishing process pressing down on you do. But the story is the key. The story is always the key.

  • I think one reason newbie writers (myself included) spend time thinking/worrying/asking about topics like the agent/editor/pay side of publishing is because it’s a way to procrastinate that feels like you’re being productive. Of course, I’ve been at it long enough to realize that worrying about publishing stuff isn’t really productive. Only sitting my butt in the chair and writing/revising/crying/revising/writing is productive at this stage. But I still feel the seductive pull of that particular procrastination-train.

    • @Bookewyrme —

      Exactly — thinking about publishing feels not only productive, but also acts as justification for doing what you’re doing. Writing is not exactly the most sane or stable of paths, and walking that road is not the fast way to a big truckload of respect. So, talking about publishing and thinking about the end-game diffuses that.

      — c.

  • When I started really taking my writing seriously, I educated myself about the publishing stuff just so I knew what I was getting into. Specifically, so that when I told people I wanted to be a writer and they rolled their eyes I could feel justified in punching them in the face (in my head of course, completely fantasized not literal punching in the face, I promise) because dammit I knew what I was doing.

    Now that I know how the system works, whenever I see a post or advice about querying, finding an agent, editorial letters, etc, I skim it at best. I’m nowhere near that point, and acting like I am is just going to get me depressed when I go back to my mangled half-formed manuscript. I know right now what I need to do is keep my shoulder to the wheel and write.

  • I agree with Bookewyrme, but I also think that part of the insanity on asking questions about the business of publishing is that the writers asking them have gone a little batty because they’re chin deep in a draft so full of mistakes and structural issues that they have no idea what questions to ask about the craft, or even how to recognize where their weaknesses are.

    The questions about the business end of things are the easy questions; they’re the piece of driftwood one hangs on to while trying to ignore the fact that you’re drowning and you never bothered to learn how to swim. (And I think these drowning writers typically end up blaming the driftwood for not saving them, or not dragging them to shore, or whatever slice of blame they want to throw around).

  • Finally, Chuck. I have waited so long for you to tell me that you want to have sex with me. Now, what are you doing on Thursday? We have to set this thing up, you know. Get the chilli-scented candles and mariachi band of orangutans.

    I think most people start asking the business questions first stems from the fact that writing is often perceived something everyone can do it and get rich and famous, so wants to learn the ins and outs of the craft. At least that’s how I see it after hearing reactions of people, who do not have an inkling of talent, tell me after I say I’m a writer, but don’t have a gazillion publications (I have three so far).

    How easy the business part will be for you depends on how exceptional your writing is and well, most people asking these questions first think very highly of themselves.

  • the writing part, the storytelling part — that’s some voodoo, right there. That’s some at-times-awesome, other-times-awful, awe-inspiring, heavily-perspiring, weird and wonderful and fucked up and frustrating and completely imperfect power.

    Exactly. I can’t help wishing more people got that….

  • I have ever-graceful family and pals who like to say warm and encouraging things like, “Why haven’t you published a book yet? What’s takin’? Geez.”

    Well, because I’ll know when I’ve written a book so good no one will be able to say no to it. And when that day comes, I will hire a sniper to shoot the people who’ve asked with frozen peas. In the eyeballs.

    Until then, I really don’t have the energy to care about agents. This makes me feel like a Beardo-Wendig Winner. Is there a pin? A sticker? No?

  • ALSO, I agree with Mr. Harry Markov. I think people ask those questions early on because they think writing is eeeeeasy and they have NO clue that they have no clue. Makes me want to beat them in the face with a gravel burrito.

    Good thing jail gives me a rash, eh?

  • I support Aimee with the pea-snipper. Say that 10 times really fast. I double-triple-dare you to do that. I have similar experiences, when people ask me how come I haven’t published been on the bestseller’s list. “Come on, you have been saying you write for years now.” It’s one heck of a learning process and writers don’t get a publication deal just because they join the writers’ club (a sad, sad club of alcoholics; what am I the only one to hug vodka bottles?)

  • ~What am I the only one to hug vodka bottles?

    No, you are not. Save the empties and build a glass wall around your desk. Call yourself Sam. Cry a little. It’s cathartic.

  • I understand your not wanting to answer the question you bated us with, but I do think that there’s value in inquiring about people’s publishing paths early on. The first book I read once I started writing my first novel was a compilation of “How I Got Published” stories. Reading those stories instilled in me the notion that publishing success was possible, and that it came in a whole crazy variety of ways. Writing is more important, yes, but inspiration can be a great thing, too.

    As a side note, I love your posts. Thanks for raising the bar in the blogosphere.

  • This brings to mind a story. Want to hear it? Here it goes!

    I used to work at the one remaining mega-bookstore, I’ll call it Farnes and Koble, and we had a local guy who always made use of our cafe and the library-like atmosphere of a bookstore where you are allowed to read without paying. Well one fine afternoon the local asked to speak to our manager, I went and grabbed her and they spoke and spoke and spoke, there were a lot of spokes, like Snoop Dog in a lowrider with rims kind of spokes. At the end of it my manager comes over to me smiling and laughing, so I asked what he wanted and her response was:
    “He asked how to go about sitting up a signing for his book. So, of course, I asked about the book explaining how the process of a local author signing works and making small talk. I asked him when he would be able to bring in a copy of the book for us to read and he looked at me like I was insane. ‘Why, I haven’t written it yet, I’m just trying to get the details worked out first!'”

  • Sometimes I worry that I’m writing for the wrong reasons – you know, when the mere thought of tree-book publication or not having to subsist on banquet hall dumpsters surfaces. And then something like this comes across my digital desk and I remember I’m not THAT big of a douchebag. I wouldn’t be stressed about character, plot, theme, or where the fuck that stack of notecards went if it was just about fame/cash/bitches. Thanks for the reality check.

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