So, here’s the deal — August for me is, as the kids say, “supa-cray-cray.” I’m working on like, 17 novels and two scripts or something like that. As such, I have put out various tendrils and pea shoots and solicited the aid of various Friends of Terribleminds (TM) to drop in throughout the month and plaster their guest posts on the walls here. Today is the Mistress of Bludbunnies, Delilah S. Dawson, author of the Blud Books and also writer of one of this site’s most popular guest posts, 25 Humpalicious Steps For Writing Your First Sex Scene.
This is like that Couch to 5k thing people do to gear up for a marathon. Except you can do it without leaving your couch. And for me, a book is a better souvenir than a popped-off toenail.
What follows is the quickest, dirtiest, most simple route to writing a novel and getting it published by a traditional publisher, which I accomplished from my own couch in Atlanta while nursing a baby and having neither an MFA nor any previous contacts in publishing. The following advice is based on my own personal experience that began with writing a seriously shitty book (about accidentally banging Zeus) in 2009 and seeing my third book (about steampunk vampire circuses) on the shelf in B&N in 2012. Everything I learned came from Google.
Is this advice perfect? No. Is it gospel? No. Is it universally applicable and the same for every writer, ever? JESUS, NO. Will your mileage vary? Yes. Widely, even with Chevron with Techron. But if you’ve never written a book, hunted for an agent, or signed a contract, I hope it will be a good place to start. If not, just read… oh, Chuck’s entire blog. And then hit Google.
1. IF YOU’RE ACTUALLY LAZY, GTFO
Seriously. Writing is a ton of work. No one, not even Stephen King, spits out a first draft that’s worth reading. If you think being a writer is all about dicking around with a Moleskine at Starbucks for two months, just GTFO. Writing a crappy book is hard as hell, and that’s the easiest part of the process.
2. THE FIRST RULE OF WRITE CLUB IS WRITE
This is no secret. Writing is a hugely complicated casserole of grammar, rhythm, vocabulary, pacing, plot, character, word choice, and time spent on task. You can’t edit, revise, or rewrite a blank page. So no matter how good you are, no matter how much you doubt yourself, no matter how elusive your saucy minx of a muse might be, sit your ass in that Ikea Poang chair and write like a mofo. Whether you go by Malcolm Gladwell and Macklemore’s proclamation of 10,000 hours or Stephen King’s avowed 1,000,000 words, you have to put in the time and effort to learn how to write with any skill. You must squeeze out one complete book before most of this advice applies at all. See rule 1.
3. THE SECOND RULE OF WRITE CLUB IS READ
When I started writing my first book, I stopped reading. And it was a huge mistake. Although it can be intrusive to read books that share extreme similarities with what you’re writing, you should always be reading. It helps keep your mind nimble and constantly growing new neural connections. What the author did right, what they did wrong—your brain just soaks it up like Kraken rum in a sponge cake. Read other genres, read the popular books that you think probably suck just to see what makes them so appealing. Read nonfiction. Read writing books. When you’re getting ready to revise or query, read books similar to your own to finesse what makes yours special. But always be reading, or Tyler Durden will punch you in the junk for being an idiot.
4. DO IT YOUR WAY, RIGHT AWAY
If you want to finish the first draft of your first book, you must think of it like skiing downhill. There are lots of different paths you could take, but once you pick one, you need to buckle down and ride it to the end. You’ll never learn anything if you don’t finish a book. At first, you might not know what your process is. Are you a plotter? Do you ride by the seat of your pants? Do you like Scrivener or longhand or writing on your bathtub wall in pig blood? You’ll never know what works until you’ve written one complete book. Your process might change later. But for now, focus on writing a really crappy first draft in whatever way appeals and don’t stop until until the ride is over. And it’s going to be crappy. Because…
5. ALL FIRST DRAFTS ARE WORD VOMIT MADE OF HORSE SHIT
Any author who says their first drafts are fantastic is either lying or highly delusional or John Scalzi, who is neither. A first draft is meant to be a malleable chunk of clay that you barf out onto the worktable. If you keep reworking that first sentence, first page, first chapter, you’ll never get to the end. So just barf it all up. Without judging yourself. Without showing anyone. Without rereading it. Without thinking of genre or sellability or trends. Tell your story in any way you can, in whatever way feels best. Does it change POV or tense in the middle? Do aliens land in your historical romance? WHO CARES? KEEP WRITING. Don’t look back. You can fix it later.
Looking for a leg up on improving your writing at any point of this writing thing? Go read ON WRITING by Stephen King, which is a game changer and, for me, a life changer. Then read BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott. Then read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. Go to a writing conference. Join a writing group. LEARN HARDER, MOTHERFUCKER.
6. OH MY GOD YOU FINISHED A BOOK! FIRE THE CUPCAKE CANNONS!
Congratulations!!! And BOOMCAKE!!! And you should definitely go out to celebrate with shrimp tacos and margaritas. Hell, I used to go celebrate every time I passed the 100 page mark. Finishing your first book is a major victory, and you shouldn’t let the fact that there are 19 more steps terrify you. Even if you put your book baby in a drawer and throw the dresser into the Grand Canyon, you will still spend the rest of your life knowing that you are capable of writing a book, and that is A Big Deal.
So celebrate. Look at your book. Stroke the screen. Tell Twitter. And then, like a hot steak in a cast iron skillet, let your book rest for a while by itself, preferably with a slab of butter melting on top. Because getting some distance from your work is an important part of this process.
7. REVISIONS ARE NOT COPY EDITS; THEY ARE MAJOR SURGERY AND THEY SUCK
I didn’t understand this one for the longest time. I would hork up a first draft, turn back to page one, and start hunting for typos, feeling smug.
Guys, don’t do that. That’s like digging up a lump of coal and spit polishing it in front of Tiffany’s.
After you’ve shat out a first draft and let it rest –BECAUSE YOU DID LET IT REST RIGHT BECAUSE LET IT REST FOR CHRISSAKES GO READ A BOOK– then it’s time to save it under a different name and get out your red pen. Don’t read it like it’s your precious perfect baby darling. Read it like it’s your worst enemy’s magnum opus and your job is to expose its every tragic flaw. Are the characters flat? Does the dialog pop, or is the dialog just you using the characters’ mouths for your own assplaining? Is there purple prose? Does the action compel you to keep reading? Is there a satisfying story arc? Do you switch POV or tense? Because, honestly, I do that all the damn time. If you get bored reading it, so will your audience.
If you see something in the text that needs changing, change it. But keep a piece of paper beside you to make notes on the larger issues, too. This is the time to get macro and look at the big picture, not just the difference between magenta and fuchsia. That’s what persnickety copyeditors are for, later.
8. THINK YOU’RE DONE? YOU THOUGHT WRONG
So you cracked open the ribcage and gave your book a baboon heart. Good. Now go over it with a lice comb, inside and out. Read like a critic, and if a phrase or paragraph makes you wince, cut it. Change it. Massage it. Polishing isn’t just looking for typos; it’s making sure that every single sentence says exactly what you need it to in the most beautiful and exacting way possible. Kick out the cliches and say it in a new way. Drop “I saw” and “I smelled”. Get rid of very and a little and some kind of. Make every word count. If your character is scared, don’t say, “Her heart beat like thunder”, because anyone can say that. Say, “Her heart banged against her ribs like a junky’s fist on a dealer’s metal door.” Make it your own. Don’t be lazy.
Still think you’re done? Wrong again. Print it out and give it to a beta reader you trust. Emphasis on TRUST; they need to be smart and sharp, someone who reads widely, who reads your genre, and who you trust do be honest and help you improve. Tell them to go nuts. Take their opinion very seriously. Polish again.
Now, how do you know you’re ready to move to the next step?
You wrote a first draft. You revised and looked at the big picture, ripping it apart if necessary. You polished it. You sent it to at least one person, possibly more, and they liked it and had no huge issues. You made changes based on informed feedback. You polished again. You honestly can’t think of another thing you could possibly do to improve the damn thing. And you feel, deep in your heart, that it’s ready.
That’s when you’re ready.
Don’t get caught in a loop and never send it on, but don’t jump the gun and send out an error-riddled hot mess. It’s a delicate balance that you’ll begin to figure out, in time. The first time, though? You’re going to botch it up. Everyone sends out their first book before it’s ready. And that’s okay, too. DO IT ANYWAY
9. TIME TO WRITE A QUERY, OR: HOW TO GO INSANE IN ONLY ONE DAY
A query letter, like a unicorn, can be one of two things: a beautiful and elusive dream that will grant you wishes or a dangerous monster that wants to eat your virgin ass. It’s basically a pitch for your book that will let an agent know in 300 words or less exactly why they want to represent you and your book. Here’s a little secret: everything you need to know about writing a good query can be found by reading the Query Shark blog (http://queryshark.blogspot.com) of literary agent extraordinaire Janet Reid. Read the extensive archives—yes, all 200+ of the queries submitted by real writers and critiqued in real time by a true pro who wants writers to succeed. And then you’ll be ready to write your own.
In short: use 250 words about your protagonist and story that will make an agent pee themselves to read your book. Note: it’s not a synopsis; make them care. Follow that up by stating the book’s title, genre, and word count. If you have extremely relevant bio information, such as awards the agent has heard of, traditional pub credits, self-publishing successes of over 10,000 books sold, or a fact from your background that makes you the center of every party, tell them here. Do not mention how long you’ve been writing, how many cats you have, or the 17 sequels you’ve already written. Once you’ve got what you believe to be the Best Motherfucking Query Ever, have someone who has never read your manuscript read it and tell you if it makes any sense whatsoever and if they want to read the book. If the answer to either question is EFF TO THE NO, keep massaging it. Submit it to the Absolute Write forums (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/index.php) for opinions. Rinse, repeat until your query is AWESOME.
In short: be compelling, be professional, don’t be crazy. And read Query Shark before attempting your own query.
10. HUNT FOR AGENTS, BRING COFFEE
Close out your writing program and start a spreadsheet called AGENTS WHO ARE GOING TO FUCKING LOVE ME. Here are the columns I used for my two rounds of querying:
rating – name – agency – agency website – email – Twitter – details – sub guidelines – date sent – response – response date
The rating column divided agents into three groups: (1) Big Deal agents or those with whom I imagined a perfect fit, (2) agents who were awesome and would be great, and (3) agents who weren’t at the top of my list, whether because it wasn’t a perfect fit or they were closed to submissions or they were super new or with a very small agency. The thing is that you want to mix it up and send your work to big dogs, medium dogs, and little dogs all at once. You never know who will be the best fit for you, so it’s good to aim lots of arrows.
The other columns are to help you keep track of who you’ve queried, why you queried them, and what the end result was, because there’s a lot of potential for looking like a complete moron if you don’t. The details column is for anything that will get you a leg up: things they love or hate, what they’re looking for, interactions you’ve had on Twitter that they might remember. You’ll need that later, when personalizing your query email.
Oh, wait. You need to find agents, don’t you? Put out a big pile of cronuts and coffee and get in a deer stand… KIDDING.
Go to AgentQuery.com or QueryTracker.com and do a search by genre. Start putting people into your spreadsheet. Look at their sales records, their clients, their agencies. Look them up on Publisher’s Marketplace, check out their agency websites, and follow them on Twitter. Double check them at Preditors and Editors (pred-ed.com) and read this guide to bad agents from SFWA (http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/agents/). The key here is to be EDUCATED and follow your gut. A bad agent is 1000 times worse than no agent.
11. BUT WAIT. AGENTS ARE FOR LOSERS. WHAT ABOUT CONTESTS, SELF-PUBLISHING, AND PUTTING UP SAMPLE CHAPTERS ON MY WEBSITE? MY FRIEND SAYS YOU’RE AN IDIOT FOR DOING IT THIS WAY.
Okay, look up at the top of this post. This is about TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING
Do you want to see your book in a bookstore? Do you want someone watching out for legal legerdemain in your contracts and sending your work out for foreign sales (aka FREE MONEY) and doing the dirty work for you? That’s why you have an agent. My agent took the first offer on my book, nearly tripled it, and then worked it into a three-book deal that sold at auction between three major houses. So that’s more than SIX TIMES the original offer, plus she whittled the rights down from WORLD EVERY LANGUAGE EVEN ESPERANTO to North American English only. And then she sold two books to Germany. I can’t do that myself. Unless you’re a savvy contracts lawyer, neither can you.
So if you want to do something other than traditional publishing with Big Six/Five/Random Penguin Club, I wish you well. But I can’t help you. Because much like building a car from the ground up, I don’t know how to do that. And judging by Amazon, only 10 writers out of every 1,000,000 do.
12. SAY A PRAYER AND PULL THE QUERY TRIGGER
For many people, this is the hardest part of the publishing journey. It’s basically sending a complete stranger an email that says HERE IS THE BEST WAY TO BREAK MY HEART FOREVER. Because you’re going to be rejected. Everyone gets rejected. JK Goddamn Rowling got rejected. Every author you’ve ever loved has been rejected. You’re about to be rejected, too. And that makes you mighty.
I started on the balls-out offensive and sent my very first query for my very first book to my very first choice agent. I was rejected within three minutes. AND I LIVED. Everyone has different query strategies, but I recommend sending queries in bursts of three or four to a variety of agents in your 1 and 2 categories; I had 57 agents in my spreadsheet. While you’re doing this, you should be following agents on Twitter to get a good feel of what they’re like and what kind of books they like and weighing if your personalities would be a good fit. A pertinent little detail or interaction is a nice way to personalize a query, but it has to be genuine.
BAD: Dear Agent(s), I see that you represent romance fiction novels, and I’m going to be the next Nora Roberds.
GOOD: Dear Ms. Smith, Per your recommendation on Twitter last week, I started my pug on a raw diet. He already snorts less, so thank you! I’m such a fan of your client Jane Doe, and I thought you might be interested in a similar historical romance based on a bluestocking pug breeder in 18th century Scotland.
Each agent will have their own submissions guidelines, so be sure to adhere to them when querying. Some agents want just a query. Some want 5 pages, 10 pages, the first chapter, etc., whether inline or as a certain kind of attachment. Most agents want a very specific subject line in the email that will allow them to sort your query correctly. Following the rules is your friend. Be a rebellious weirdo once you’ve got the book deal.
13. DON’T LET QUERYING MAKE YOU CRAZY. BECAUSE IT WILL
No one watches an inbox as creepily as a querying writer. Every ping, every refresh could be the answer to your wildest dream. Or a soul-crushing form response that subtly indicates your general suckitude. If you just sit there, waiting, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Go out in the world and do something worth writing about. Start writing your next book. Read something so engrossing that you don’t even hear that adorable whistling sound my phone makes when I get an email. Go hang out on Twitter and yap it up with other writers, never ever mentioning that you’re querying or that you just got a rejection and can’t stop chewing on your beard.
Remember how I told you you’re going to get rejected? You totally are. When you get one, just mark it on your spreadsheet, pick another agent, and send off another query. One comes in, one goes out. Simple as that. Keep the hope flowing. And if you get something other than a form response, no matter what it says, FEEL PROUD. Your immediate reaction might be anger at the criticism, but agents don’t generally risk a personal note unless you’re getting very, very close. Never argue with an agent who has gone the extra mile to provide you with notes. If what they’ve said has been helpful, a brief and professional email of gratitude is acceptable.
And if someone asks for revisions, repeat after me. WAIT TWO WEEKS. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when an agent shows the slightest amount of interest is to freak out, change three words in your manuscript, and send it back as if you’re on that bus in SPEED. Publishing is very slow. Agents want to see clients who can absorb criticism, think about it wisely, and apply it to their work with careful intention and finesse. I blew several chances with awesome agents by making a tiny change and zipping it right back out instead of really digging deep to show my chops. Delilah is a dumbass.
Correction: Delilah WAS a dumbass.
14. I HAVE QUERIED EVERY AGENT IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE, AND NO
Now comes the tough love. Sometimes, no matter how much you love a book, it’s not going to get an agent. When you’re out of names on your spreadsheet, that’s not a sign you should quite writing. Do you hear me? DO NOT QUIT WRITING. That’s a sign that you need to put that book away and write the next one. It hurts, but you’ve got to pull up your big-kid pants, wipe off your nose, and move the fuck on.
Every book you write makes you a better writer. And almost every professional writer I know has at least one book that went nowhere. Hell, some people write a trash book between their real books just to let off steam. My first book was rejected 37 times before two agents gently explained that although the writing was intriguing, the concept was tragically flawed and it would never sell. So I scrapped it and opened a new document, and it was a huge relief to do something brand new. The next book? Got my agent.
In the current publishing climate, many people decide that traditional publishing is dead and editors are snobby gatekeeping assholes and self-publishing is the way to make a quick million dollars overnight. And this is the place where I tell you that for 99.999% of books, you’re just asking for a world of disappointment. If you self-publish, please do so because you are well-versed in marketing, graphic design, and editing. Do not self-publish out of rage, jealousy, or impatience. Because while you can quietly retire a book that didn’t get an agent and start a new one with a clean slate, you can’t kill numbers. Self-publishing takes a ton of work, and there is no easy way to the top.
So write that next book. Revise the crap out of it. Make another list of agents. Write a new query. Hit send. Repeat. And then…
15. WAIT. THAT WASN’T A REJECTION. I MUST BE TRIPPING BALLS
If you keep sending out queries and polishing your query and massaging your manuscript based on agently feedback, you’re eventually going to get a YES. The agent will most likely ask for a certain number of pages, called a PARTIAL REQUEST, or if you’re very fortunate, a FULL REQUEST, which is the entire book. You are allowed a minor freak-out at this point, but don’t show the world or tell social media. Keep your cards hidden. You might only get one chance to hold this agent’s full attention, so make sure your manuscript is at the absolute pinnacle of perfection before sending in exactly what they ask for in exactly the form and manner they request. Google “proper manuscript format” first, and remember not to use Comic Sans or another kitschy font.
Know how to celebrate that request? By sending out another query. Just in case.
16. OMIGOD THE AGENT WANTS TO HAVE A CALL. I REALLY AM TRIPPING BALLS
This is exactly what you’ve been waiting for. Someone has read your full manuscript and would like to speak to you on the phone. In shorthand, that means “I really like this book but need to make sure you’re not batshit crazy.” Because the agent needs to grok your work, and you need to trust her wisdom. You don’t have to be BFFs, but the hope here is that your agent will sell your book and help shepherd your entire career as a working author. And a phone call is your chance to ask your own questions about the changes she’ll need in your draft before it goes out, your ideas for sequels or future projects, and if you think this is a person who will honor your book baby. Write up a list of questions, because you will forget ever single thing you wanted to ask the second you hear a real, live agent say, “So I loved your book…”
If the agent offers representation, it’s customary to ask for one to two weeks to think it over. After all, if other agents are reading partials or fulls, you owe them the courtesy of a heads-up. A quick email with subject: [Book Title – Author name] – OFFER RECEIVED should go to any agent reading part of your manuscript. Do not name names. Simply mention that you have been offered representation and will be deciding in a specified time period. These agents will either politely demur or move your book to the top of their reading stack to see if they want to throw their hats in the ring. Which is awesome and also horrible, because after working so long and hard to find an agent, it’s weird to have to turn one down, especially one you love. ASK ME HOW I KNOW.
Also of note: If the agent is in any way sketchy, demands a reading fee, or says they like the book but you need a professional editor and oh, by the way, here’s my wife’s editing service… run. Again, a bad agent is worse than no agent. Trust your gut. You don’t have to take the first offer.
17. YOU NOW HAVE REPRESENTATION. TIME TO TWERK
You have accepted an agent’s representation. You have celebrated with steak. Mmm. Steak. And now the real work begins.
Your agent will want changes before taking your book out, which means you will probably get a horrible document forged in Hell and called an EDIT LETTER. It will basically be a compliment sandwich much like an Oreo Doublestuf with 97 extra stufs in the middle. And your job will be to decide exactly how to implement these changes in your book. Some of it will hurt. You might have to kill off characters, murder plot lines, cut wide swaths of beautiful words. And you must tell yourself that it’s for the best, that you are learning, and that you’re a major boss who doesn’t cry onto her beignets.
You turn in your new draft to your agent, and depending on how well you did and what her timeline is, you could have more rounds of edits or copyedits. Before, you were on your own schedule. Now, you’re just another feisty pony in the stable of an agent who might have 30 different feisty ponies. Your attitude and willingness to learn and grow will not go unnoticed during this process, so keep a brave and tenacious face on, even when you’re dying inside.
Eventually, your agent will prepare a list of editors to whom she will send your book and will write a query letter of her own. Depending on how you and your agent work best, she might share these things with you and ask your opinion—or she might not. Y’all should have talked about this in that phone call. You might also change your book’s title. But here’s the thing, chicken: GET USED TO IT. Once you sell your book, it will be even less yours. If you want to be a traditionally published author, you need an agent who knows the business and who will hammer you and your book into the shape that will get it on the shelf. Unique snowflakes are going to be stomped. Become an ice cube.
18. YOU ARE NOW ON SUB: YOU ARE HUNTING RED OCTOBER
When your agent has sent your book off to editors, you are considered ON SUB. Your job during this crucial time is to tell no one. Don’t mention it on social media or your blog. Don’t go after the editors on Twitter like a leghumping dog. Don’t call or email your agent every day for updates. Believe me: when she hears good news, you’ll know.
Most agents put a cap on the submission period; I think my agent gives 30 days. Depending on what you and your agent agree on, she might tell you as rejections come in or pass on editorial commentary, or she might hold it all until the end, especially if you’re still a tender snowflake with feelings. You will jump every time your cell phone rings. You’re going to be crazier than a longtailed possum in a room full of rocking chairs tipped with Mad Max spikes. That’s just part of it. You might hear something the next day, although it’s rare. Or you might hear something two days after the deadline, after your agent has nudged the last editor off the cliff. The point is, every book and every submission period is different.
Confession: I’ve had two books go to the editorial table with an editor’s heart on ’em and still not sell. It’s about more than you and your writing. It’s about trends, what’s selling, other books in the house’s catalog, timing, and money. Your book might not sell. Your agent might have you make some changes based on editorial comments and submit to another round of editors and possibly smaller publishing houses. Or you might mutually decide to shelve it and get to work on your next project. This is an issue that can only be decided by you and your agent, and it’s crucial that you understand that the only way it’s over is if you stop writing. As always, keep moving forward. Communicate honestly with your agent, decide on the right path, and get back to writing. Your chair misses your butt. We all do.
19. HELLO, HOUSTON, WE HAVE AN OFFER
And then one day, after your first submission period or your tenth, you’ll get a phone call. You know who it is, because your phone has a Contacts list, and your voice is way too squeaky when you say HEY, DUDE!, and your agent pauses smugly in her office in New York and says, “So I have good news!” And then you freak out in the carpool line and almost forget your kid. Or maybe that’s just how it happened to me.
The point is, you have an offer on the table. Your agent will explain it to you, focusing on the figure, the number of books, the house and imprint, the editor, and the rights currently on the table regarding languages, foreign sales, e-book, and audio. And you will probably flip out completely. But you will not say yes, because now your agent gets to do to your editor what you did to your agent.
She gets to send all the other editors on her list an email with subject OFFER ON THE TABLE and then see if any of them want to hop into the chum-gargling pond with the other sharks. For my first book sale, we had three different editors go to auction. That means that each one made an offer, then we told the other ones the offer and allowed them to either top it or fold. An auction can happen many different ways, and your agent is there to shepherd you through it wisely for the best deal. Oddly, money isn’t always the end-all of the decision, as each publishing house has different perks they can offer, such as lead title space or hardcover printing or a publicity push you might not see from another house.
Or you might have one offer, and your agent will make it the best offer you can get, and you accept it and freak the hell out, because BOOK DEAL.
Either way, you now have your first book sale. As soon as everything is finalized, you’ll get the official go-ahead to trumpet it at the top of your lungs. You will soon be hoarse.
20. UM. OKAY. THAT WAS WEIRDLY ANTICLIMACTIC. I SOLD A BOOK. WHAT NOW?
Oh, honey. It’s only just starting.
At first, you were the boss. Then you and your agent were partners in which she was the grizzled beat cop and you were the starry-eyed rookie. And now you have a new boss, and that boss is your editor, and your job is to make her happy while not selling your soul.
You will find out a release date. Then (according to my experience; YMMV) you will wait for yet another EDIT LETTER that’s got 160 stufs instead of only 97 between the Oreo cookies. If something really crazy happens, always go to your agent with your concerns instead of barreling up to your editor like a rabid bull. No one wants to work with a megalomaniacal crazy person with a knee-jerk reaction to change.
In the next year, you will receive several rounds of edits, then copyedits, then line edits. You will see your book design evolve to the point that you’ll run fingertips over your font and your layout and your wingdings. You’ll see a cover, possibly before they’ve ever asked for your input. You might love it or hate it or gently request changes—through your agent, of course. You’ll be asked to supply or proof the cover copy. They’ll want a bio and a professional headshot. They might ask for your input on blurbs, and you might find yourself crossing your fingers to see if the people you respect will say something nice about you. And through all this tumult, your job is to remain personable, sane, and accommodating but assertive, because no one wants you to hate what you or your book have become. It’s all about balance.
21. IT’S ALMOST RELEASE DAY. WHAT NOW, SWAMI?
Simply put, release day is like your wedding day. Exciting, terrifying, and no matter how well you plan and hope and dream, completely out of your hands. You will never feel ready. You will never feel as if you’ve done enough. So you just hustle your ass off and then… let go.
Your publishing house will assign a publicist to you, and she may be super helpful or close to useless. Your publicist might ask you for a list of bloggers and reviewers to whom to send galleys, or she might help set up signings or blog tours or get you guest blog placement and interviews. BUT! She is not the end of your publicity. No, snowflake; that’s up to you. It’s time to think out of the box and werk it inside the box. Get your name out in any way possible—outside of getting arrested or embarrassing your publishing house. Talk to local papers, try to get on radio shows and podcasts, apply to be a guest at local conferences or to speak at schools and libraries, depending on your strengths. Make friends online and look closely at what other authors are doing to successfully get their name out there. Make it easy to find you. And above all, with anything regarding publicity, be a pleasant and professional person to work with.
Also, if you sold a series, you should have a timeline for deliverables on your other books. Deadlines are a big deal in publishing, as missing one can push back your release date and generally muck up everyone’s life. Make sure that you’re taking care of business in all the other facets of your writing life. It’s easy to forget everything but BOOK OUT SOON.
You’re also at a golden time for networking. More experienced authors are generally happy to offer advice or answer questions, especially on Twitter. You can join author groups to share each other’s book links and publicity. You can go to other authors’ book launch parties and meet people and see how it’s done. You can go to writing conferences and go to panels on marketing for the new author. In short, get your Twitter bio current and prepare to be friendly, because you now have colleagues.
Unless you are A Really Big Deal, don’t expect to be sent on a book tour, flown around the country, or to see a lot of media buy. If you find a time machine to the 80s, let me know. I want my own bus, too.
22. PARTY TIME, EXCELLENT
Your book launch party, if you want one, is your victory dance. Find a great venue like your local indie bookstore, set up a time and place, and work together to publicize it, including keeping your publicist updated. Buy a new outfit. Order a cake or a box of wine or whatever, to you, says CELEBRATE MEH. If you want a party but aren’t sure you’re ready to be the center of attention, you can invite other local authors to read a few pages of their books or have a musician friend play music or, if you’re me, invite a fire spinner to juggle flame on the town square.
The point is that your book launch party is YOUR party, so live it the eff up. I remember standing at the counter of my favorite cake place, and they asked me how many people would be at the party, and I said, I DON’T KNOW AND I DON’T CARE AND I WANT HALF A DAMN SHEET CAKE WITH ALMOND BUTTERCREAM ICING. And there was cake left over, and I froze it and ate it for breakfast every morning for two weeks. And every bite tasted like VICTORY.
This is the time for no regrets. You will stumble in your writing life. Everyone does. But you’ll remember your first book launch party forever, so go all out. And make sure someone is taking pictures. Because you won’t have time.
23. I’VE BIRTHED A BOOK. I’M SORE AND BLEEDING. NOW WHAT?
Bad news: there is no certain path to success. There is no secret to bestsellerdom. No matter what you tell yourself, you’ll spend the day staring at Amazon to see how high your book can climb, which isn’t necessarily healthy for you but can’t really be stopped. Enjoy your release day, thank everyone who tweets a link or wishes you well. And then move on.
The only way to stay sane in this profession is to keep. moving. forward.
So when you come out the other side of your book release, get back on the writing horse. Start something new. Distract yourself with a good book. Whatever you do, try as hard as you can not to compare yourself to other authors, because you will, and chances are… it’ll make you feel like shit. There’s always someone selling better and getting better numbers, whether they’re a young upstart or a seasoned pro with a backlist and a street team. And you can’t pay attention to that noise, because that’s not what it’s about. That’s not why you opened that first document and started typing. At the end of the day, at the end of the party, at the end of the Amazon numbers, you are a storyteller sitting at a keyboard and dreaming, and so long as that’s what it’s about, you’re going to be fine.
Oh. And don’t read or respond to negative reviews. You will always look like a raging douche. Let reviews be a safe place for people to talk honestly about a book, and let your brain be a place to ignore the haters. Criticism from your agent, editor, or writing mentor is a great gift. Criticism from HOTGIRLREADER286 on Amazon is the personal opinion of a stranger who’s possibly uninformed, unintelligent, unqualified, or unbalanced
What? I said possibly.
24. MY BOOK WAS A WILD AND INSTANT SUCCESS AND IS #1 ON THE NYT LIST!
FUCK YOU. And congratulations. And can I have a blurb?
25. MY BOOK SALES DID NOT EXCEED MY WILDEST DREAMS AND I’M DISAPPOINTED BECAUSE MY PUBLISHER DIDN’T GET ME ENOUGH PUBLICITY AND BARNES AND NOBLE DOESN’T CARRY IT AND I WASN’T ON OPRAH AND 50 SHADES SUCKED BUTT AND WAH.
FUCK YOU. We are all disappointed. This business is tough. Don’t whine. Art harder.
Seriously, though. Just as you must accept that writing is hard and first drafts are crap and revisions are like cutting out your eyeballs with a spoon and publicity is like a baby mole squeaking in the Thunderdome, so must you accept that being a writer can be filled with disappointment. With yourself. With your book. With how well your book did.
Much of publishing is completely out of your control. The only thing you can control is the power of your storytelling and the professionalism with which you deliver it, and that means tuning out the noise, putting your butt back into the chair, and getting better.
Once you’ve mastered any part of this process, it’s SIGNIFICANTLY EASIER the next time around. Although every book is different, for the most part, you know what works best for you while writing, and now you’ll have an agent to gently nudge you in the right direction from the very beginning. You will also, hopefully, have a publishing team willing to tell anyone what a joy you are to work with and an army of colleagues, acquaintances, and fans who are willing to cheer you on, even on those tough days when you think about quitting.
Take from this list what you will and throw the rest down the penmonkey Port-a-potty. Every writer’s journey is different. Every writer’s process is different. Every book is different. Every market is different. Just keep moving forward. Keep learning. Keep writing, even when it doesn’t come easily. You have to push through, even when it’s hard. You have to get up when you get knocked down. You can’t stop. You can’t give up. You have to remember what’s important: the passion and joy of storytelling.
You can’t be a lazy bastard if you want to be a writer.
* * *
More questions? Ask in the comments or on Twitter, @DelilahSDawson. Need more links? Check out the Resources page on my blog at www.DelilahSDawson.com, which encompasses everything I used to go from couch-squatting stay-at-home mom with no writing chops to published writer in less than three years. And if you want to read some of my kickass stories, check out my steampunk paranormal romance books WICKED AS THEY COME and WICKED AS SHE WANTS, my story in the CARNIEPUNK anthology, or my Amazon Kindle Worlds e-novella with Valiant Universe, SHADOWMAN: FOLLOW ME BOY.
273 responses to “25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard Edition (Guest Post By Delilah S. Dawson)”
[…] 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard Edition (Guest Post By Delilah S. D… There are lots of different paths you could take, but once you pick one, you need to buckle down and ride it to the end. You’ll never learn anything if you don’t finish a book. […]
I found this post almost two years ago and have been following your guidelines ever since. I am happy to say that I’m finally ready to move onto step #10 (finding an agent). It’s been a long crazy journey so far and I expect that long crazy journey to continue as I press on ahead. Wow!
Made it to step 15 3 times. Mostly hanging out on step 14. Really close to giving up, but what’s the point? That’s just like rejecting myself and gods know everyone else is already doing that so NOPE.
Wow… that was about the best summation of life as an author I have ever read. I’m an author (that’s what I tell my kids anyway) on my third book and have made every mistake you comically write about here. I sincerely appreciate your candid thoughts…
[…] most important information I read came from this blog posting over at terribleminds. It proved something of a minor miracle it certainly reinvigorated my wilting […]
This is AMAZING! SO informative, to the point and awesomely funny. I think I’m in love.
Hi! New reader and fan. First of all: THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for these tips, they’re incredible. Second of all: your reference to Kraken rum has led me to believe that we are soul sisters.
[…] 2. 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard Edition […]
do you have any different/extra advise for a teenager? I’m walking in blind and this really cleared up stuff for me. Like just how much rewrites are going to kick my butt… I don’t know where my book will end up, but if i make it passed rewrites, extra agent advice would be top-notch wonderful to hear =) (Especially since the book Afterworlds by Scott Westerfield made the whole process seem terrifyingly easy, which i logically knew it wasn’t) Please and thank you!
Hey, I’m a teenager trying to publish her book too! That’s so cool. =D
Hey there. For a teen writing a book, the process is the same, but you have a leg up on the rest of us when it comes to time. I always thought I could’ve written a book as a teen, but I never did. Boy, I wish I had. I would probably have gotten so much farther as an author than I am right now.
I have been working as an agent for the past several years, until an emergency spinal surgery in March that I’m recovering from. If you have specific questions, I’m happy to help. Meet me on Twitter @haskinauthor and message me. Remind me that you come from this post.
[…] in my little oh-my-god-how-do-I-make-this-a-good-novel panic is that Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and this blog I found all seem to share the same idea: once the rough draft is done, take a step away from […]
As someone who just completed her very first horseshit vomit, I appreciate the thoroughness of your explanation. Some of what you mention is covered by a lot of people, but – as an example – I’ve never read that, should I receive an agent offer, I should email other agents and give them a certain amount of time to shit or get off the pot. It seems somewhat obvious after reading it, but I think that – should I ever reach that stage – I would have been far too excited to think of it. Now I’ll know to smack myself into the land of calm, where stuttering responses before thinking is not permitted.
Keep your extremities crossed for me. I’m nearing 48 hours into the “just finished the first draft” life, and am already struggling not to get my red pen out. If I can wait two weeks I’ll be at least half as proud of myself as I was with finishing the 105k behemoth of a first draft. (Can’t wait to see the cutting floor….)
I love this post, thank you for writing it! I stumbled across it while looking for agents to query (about to start screaming in frustration). My book is urban fiction and I am having a really hard time finding agents to query. Thank you for the links, the advice and the encouragement.
[…] that, I hope you will all check out this article: 25 Steps to Being A Traditionally Published Author by Delilah S. Dawson. There is something here for writers who are at every point in the process, […]
I had a blast reading this. Thanks for the info, it helped me tremendously.
What a great post! I found your information incredibly helpful and love your writing tone. Thank you!
Excellent! Thank you for sharing.
Like all the other author dweebs, I share the opinion – YOU ROCK THE HOUSE!
This piece is what I needed when I needed it blah blah blah – but honest to God, your prose, insight, and generous sharing of knowledge IMPACTED my life. I don’t know about you, but as a writer, that’s all I ever wanted – to affect people, and you have. Thank you from all us dweebs.
Laughed myself stupid – can see me doing most of this, great stuff! Just starting out writing so from 2020 either (a) thanks for the great tips that helped me become the published author I wanted to be; or (2) enjoyed the ride and I m still laughing even thought I’m cleaning army toilets for a living.
Appreciate the advice. It made me smile, nod in agreement and secretly admit to myself that, though I’ve been telling people I’m a “writer” for years, I am not even close to being an author.
Step 8 of Book One will be completed over the long weekend. I have several agents loaded, and ready to fire. I’ll be taking some time out to convert a screenplay into a novella afterwards, then jumping straight back into this glorious/horrible machine. Again and again. Until I die from either malnutrition, or too much money.
Thank you. D
[…] next for me was Google (d’uh!) and discovering Delilah S. Dawson’s post on Chuck Wendig’s blog. And through that, […]
Thank you for the fun (if intimidating!) read, funny yet practical.
I’ve been toying with the idea of publishing since my teen years but that just seems like a world of it’s own.
I have a question though, suppose I’m an international author and was hoping to get my book published outside my own country. Would that be an issue when looking for an agent or publication house?
Thanks gargantuanly for this post. Quick question: is there a limit on the number of agent queries I should have out there at any one time? Is it five? Is it 100? Is it infinity? Thank you!
Appreciate the post, very helpful.
[…] 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard Edition […]
Thank you, this is very helpful.
Brilliantly written with the honest truth, thanks for sharing 🙂
I just found this and I think you’re my favorite person.
Informative… Thank you!
Interesting, funny, on point! Excellent way to explain how to become a traditional published author. As an author that has experience with both a publishing house and with self-publishing, I couldn’t agree more with #11! Thank You!
This. Is. Amazing.
[…] 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard Edition. This has been, by far, the most accurate list of the steps it takes to write a novel that I’ve read yet. I would read and re-read this with every new step I took along my journey, just to check that my experience was vaguely normal. It mostly was. Phew. […]
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[…] 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard EditionWhat follows is the quickest, dirtiest, most simple route to writing a novel and getting it published by a traditional publisher, which I accomplished from my own couch in Atlanta while nursing a baby and having neither an MFA nor any previous … […]
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Re. throwing furniture and/or drafts into the Grand Canyon; that really pisses off the Rangers. (I also hear they steal people’s ideas!)
so, what does it mean if there are tears streaming down my cheeks as I read this article?
[…] 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author: Lazy Bastard EditionWhat follows is the quickest, dirtiest, most simple route to writing a novel and getting it published by a traditional publisher, which I accomplished from my own couch in Atlanta while nursing a baby and having neither an MFA nor any previous … […]
I heart this post so hard. Nailed it!
I come back to this post whenever I feel like giving up on my writing. I’ve been hovering between step 14 and 15 for a while now. This is seriously gold.
Great advice here, it’s not an easy gig we’ve chosen. I’m pinning this post to keep for future reference.
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I love this guide! I just found it from Josh Funk’s website. This post is so awesomely funny and true. I will be returning to this post again throughout my writing and publishing journey.