Depending on how I tabulate my time trying to get published, I’ve either been at it for 26 years or 4. (Long story.) At long last I found a publisher for my memoir, and a few journal editors who agreed to publish short work of mine. I’m grateful for those opportunities, understanding that all of this work amounts to a series of tiny steps toward making my writing a part of LGBT literature, however miniscule that part may be. When people come up to me and thank me for creating something that resonated with them or with which they could identify, I am beyond pleased. Writing is not about making money, after all, at least not for me. It’s about connecting people and adding what I think is a rare voice in the market. I neither apologize for being transsexual or bringing humor into my delivery, because both of those aspects are sorely missing in literature about people in my community.
I admit there are many ways for an emerging writer to keep her/himself from reaching the market, however. And I speak from experience on several of these points, as I’ve fought against making them or have actually gone full bore into materializing these errors. I’ll also note that this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Feel free to add on in the comments. But as I have lived it, the big missteps are these:
1. Grousing–There is so much stress associated with being an unknown writer, I get it. We worry if our work is any good, if anyone will notice our value, we incur piles of rejection slips, even while we watch vapid celebrity book projects get tons of hype from traditional publishing (hey, ghostwriters need to make a living too). One expert will tell us our book is too long, another says it’s not long enough, and so on. But if you’re working on establishing an audience, remember that readers–seasoned readers in your genre especially–have no tolerance for complaining. Nothing will make you look unprofessional faster and with less effort than negative statements about how crappy the publishing industry is or how blind agents are to your talents. Complain in private, among your most solid friends.
2. Splattering your queries–Once upon a time, in what one could argue was a slower-paced world, writers were expected to query only one literary agent at a time. The information age changed all of that, as it swept over publishing more generally. Now agents expect that they are not the only ones getting your synopsis and bio, but still, there is a limit. Don’t email 200 agents at once. Do actual research to determine who is appropriate to receive your query, and don’t rely solely on a print publication to identify agents, as they often post on their blogs or agency Web sites that they’re not taking queries during certain dates. Jeff Hermann’s guide is great for putting consistent screening questions asked of each agent in the same place for your review, but remember that is only published once a year. Agenting is a much more dynamic process than his book can accommodate. Find three to four to contact at a time, and keep a spreadsheet of who you contacted and how they responded. Don’t give yourself a reputation for being sloppy.
3. Querying too soon–You finished the first draft, and NaNoWriMo isn’t even over yet, yay!!!!! Post about it on Twitter on November 28 and pat yourself on the back. But for the love of Pete, do not send out the manuscript to anyone. Especially people who work in publishing. Anyone who has read more than 5 books will see right through a first draft. Take a deep breath, do something celebratory–for the end of the first draft is a big deal–and then get into the work of revising. If you want, work on the synopsis. It can be a good exercise in prioritizing how you should approach revisions. But hold off on sending out queries until the work is as good as you can make it. Rushing the process will only result in more rejections, and the rougher the work is when you send it out, the more poorly it will reflect on your credibility.
4. Not reading enough–We all have to keep up with our genres, both the foundational, “classic” texts and the latest books on the contemporary market. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard an emerging writer tell someone else that their plot idea is a major series for ABC, or just came out half a year earlier. Very, very few ideas are truly “high concept” these days. And that’s okay. Great writing trumps almost everything else. Every popular thriller on the market today bears some resemblance to every other popular thriller on the market. But they’re individualized and well written enough that they continue to capture agents’ and readers’ imaginations. Keep up with who is writing what in your area so you can make your book special, too.
5. Confusing promotion for production–Agents and editors at literary agencies and publishing houses large and small want to see that emerging writers can connect to readers. And the more easily they can categorize those readers into a niche, the better for the writer’s chances of getting picked up. It’s how the industry works, for good or for ill. But there are parameters for finding and keeping such readers plugged into your projects. You can’t harass people into buying or reviewing your book, you shouldn’t spend so much time working on your online presence that it displaces your writing time or priorities, and you should never, never berate anyone who criticizes your work, even if their criticisms are unfounded or they clearly misread the text. Promotion is part of what you have to do to get published the first time and the fifteenth time around. But what draws readers is your stellar craft and the substance of your work. So keep those in the forefront of what you do. Your promotion should help readers access your work, but promotion is not the main focus.
Thoughts on these? What do you all see as mistakes from we early-career authors?