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A series of miracles

A reader wrote to me with a series of questions on the writing life, the publishing universe, and everything. I answered the first couple that she had by return of email – but then I realised that the rest were wide-ranging enough for other people interested in the subject to perhaps find of interest. I asked her permission to answer the rest on the blog. Without further ado, here they all are.

Did your book just unfold by a series of miracles or did you usher it through the process?

I swear, sometimes “a series of miracles” is just as good a way to describe the publication process as any.”a series of miracles” is just as good a way to describe the publication process as any.

For a generic book, much along the lines of the first line of that semi-mythical recipe for rabbit stew (“First, catch your rabbit…”), the first thing you need to do with any novel intended for publication is to FINISH IT.

If you are a Stephenie Meyer or Stephen King or J K Rowling or Neil Gaiman, of course, you have reached a plateau where mostly all you have to do is call your agent and say, ‘I have this idea…’ For most of us, and most especially for those who are just beginning, an agent or an editor is going to want to see evidence that you can actually finish what you start. I’ve sold novels on proposal alone, and I know others who have, but that is becoming increasingly rare.

Let’s start at the beginning: First, you finish your novel.

Then you put it away for a little while, just so as your eyes and your mind have a rest from it.

Then you go back and have another look at it. If you’ve developed any sort of horse sense about this writing lark at all, there will be THINGS that will JUMP at you on this second, once-removed read-through. You go over your manuscript, you identify the problems that you can see, and you FIX them.

Then you find yourself a good beta reader, and give this version of the MS to that reader to have a look at. Any beta reader worth their salt will probably identify at least another handful of issues which you, being the author and too close to the book, failed to notice. You go back over the book and you fix THOSE.

Then you go over the damned thing again, just to make sure it’s as good as you know how to make it right now.

In olden days, this would be a moment where you would start thinking about sending it to a publisher – but very few of the major houses accept unsolicited manuscripts these days. You could identify literary agents who represent the sort of stuff that you write, and you could start writing queries – an agented MS has an entrée into the bigger publishing houses. You could send the MS to the one or two bigger publishers who still accept slush direct from authors yourself, and prepare to wait. You could explore the smaller independent publishing houses which are springing up, many of whom have fine reputations. You could web the MS in installments under a Creative Commons license, if it comes to that, and put up a donation button for those who like it to leave a bit of a tip in the tip jar, as it were.

You could also take care to investigate which “publishers” you want to steer clear of – and there is plenty of material on the Web telling you about them. The organizations which purport to ‘publish’ your MS and instead merely ask you for thousands of dollars so that they will provide you with services – anything from a light edit to actual printing – which authors generally get from reputable publishers as part of the publishing deal. You can start with Preditors & Editors, or Victoria Strauss’s Writer Beware – both excellent sites to find out about dodgy companies before you get tangled up with one.

But let us say that you’ve written a killer query letter, and you have been asked to submit your MS. Several things have been said elsewhere before, but bear repeating here.

* Simultaneous queries to several agents are fine. But if one requests your material, and asks for an exclusive, then you should give that exclusive, for a limited period of time.

* Do make sure that your rabbit is in the pot before querying agents, especially if you’re trying to place a first-born novel. If they ask you for a full MS you had better be able to immediately produce one.

* A killer query is short, professional, and to the point. Tell them what you’re sending them. Tell them your credentials, if any (but if you’ve never had anything published please don’t make those up…) Tell them who you are, and imply that you aren’t a one-hit wonder – but don’t tell them all about every trunked novel under your bed. Just imply that you have a career in you rather than just one book. Agents are looking to manage careers these days, not just sell a novel and have done with it.

* Be very very wary of any kind of up-front “representation fees” or “editing fees” charged by agents before they’ll go anywhere. Reputable agents make their living by taking a commission from their writers’ earnings. Some will charge for a few legitimate office expenses – but they are taken out of the writers’ earnings.

Okay. You’ve written a killer query. You’ve received a request for the MS. You send off the MS.

NEXT TIME: You receive an offer.

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About AlmaAlexander

I am a novelist, short story writer and anthologist.

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