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In a post not too long ago, where I was once again trying to tackle the nuance between "write every day" as prescriptive to being a "real" writer vs. as an answer to the ubiquitously solicited advice for how to "make it." I wrote that part of the reason writers talk about writing every day (or nearly so) is because most of the questions they get are about "making it" as writers and they tend to sort of "preempt" that question. However, I added that if writers got slightly different questions their answers might be different. For example, "If I don't care about being rich or famous, but just want to see my name in print on ONE book, once, how can I make that happen?" I went on to say that "That would be a strangely fresh breath of air to us [writers]. (And a surprisingly EASY questions to answer, if you're curious.)"
Many folks commented or wrote in asking me to elaborate on that. "Wait….WHAT?" How can they get that one book published.
Having a paying career as a working creative writer involves a lot of work. Most people can't even conceive of it. They try, but they don't realize how much it takes.
No, more than that.
That's still not enough.
Okay, now you're in a Rocky training montage.
But honestly, like any job and any career, working many hours a day and most days a week is simply part of how you make enough money to live. Except for a tiny sliver of household names, writing isn't any less full time than any other career (and it's usually more). And if you stop working five or maybe six days a week, you stop having that career pretty quickly. ("Well, I was hoping that I could just be a really great dentist for ONE year and then retire…")
Unfortunately, with writing, a certain amount of skill is also involved before one can start bringing in that sweet sweet scrill. In many cases, years and years of practice before any kind of "break," and perhaps another dedicated five to ten years to go from sideline income to career money. Most jobs don't have a decade-long unpaid internship, so that part is particularly shitty (although there are ways to make money sooner). I know multi-best-selling authors who have day jobs to make ends meet. Even my claims that I could be fully independent of side gigs and JUST write if I wanted to would have me comparison shopping for which instant ramen was cheapest at LEAST a couple of nights a week.
But if you're really just looking to get a single book published—or maybe a trilogy—it's pretty easy. That's procedurally easy, my sweet summer children. That's easy-to-tell-you-how-to-DO-it. I mean it's not EASY easy, right? You still have to sit down and write A GODDAMN FUCKING NOVEL, and that's just step ONE.
But it's not a hard question to answer.
Still, as "pretty easy" as it is (procedurally), even THEN, it's only going to be plausible for most people if they let go of everything they fantasize about when they fantasize about getting a book published. They're not going to get "the call." They're not going to make millions. They're not going to be hailed as brilliant before they go through about nine kinds of pain. They're probably not going to MAKE money, and in fact they might end up spending a small fortune. They're not going to have legions of fans.
Those things…..all those things…come from going through the process in the messy, hard, long way with the career-caliber effort and the writing every day and the blah blah blah. You can't shortcut that part. But you can get ONE thing on the shelf if you're really determined. So let's go through your most obvious options.
I'm firmly aware that this should not even be a part of this list and ought to go without saying, but it doesn't. Fully 95% of the people trying to ask me how to see their book in print haven't written one yet. That's the first step. Don't worry about anything else until that's done.
Don't be too good to self publish
Bam. You're in print. No muss. No fuss. No gatekeepers. No one saying no. You push a button and it's done. This isn't vanity press either. You'll get an ISBN number and everything, and if you want to print out physical copies, you can get print on demand for a very reasonable price.
Victory lap. It's Miller time.
Okay, okay. You'd like to sell more than six copies to your nana, which would not even net you enough for a Taco Bell run. So maybe "in print" is not exactly all that you want. Maybe you even want to publish traditionally because there's a "street cred" in being accepted by a traditional gatekeeper and a certain emotional validation in traditional publishing that is absent from non-traditional routes. Okay. In that case I have a few steps you should probably add.
Get ready to revise
Rewrite it. Heck, rewrite it more than once. I don't just mean reopen the file and pepper in some commas and change a few words and then do a "Save as Version 2." I mean print it out, sit down, and rewrite it from the beginning. We get caught up in our "sunk costs" when we're trying to revise existing words. If we know we're going to rewrite the whole thing anyway, we're a lot more likely to make the big changes that most first drafts really need. When you know you can't sort of just ignore how slow chapter seven is (and hope your reader does too), you're going to be more willing to stick your arms down in it to the elbows in order to cut the entire messy chapter, and put the important bits in chapter six and eight.
Which…..uh…..would then be….the new chapter seven…..you get it, right?
Strong advice: do that twice. Full rewrite. Don't just open the document and revise what you have. Rewrite. Twice.
Did you know that most people's first draft of their first novel gets NOTICEABLY BETTER in prose quality by the end? The author is literally getting better by practicing and you can watch it in real time. You should rewrite (and then rewrite it again) and then revise and come up with the best possible version to hand an editor and/or peer reviewer. Many books you can name off the top of your head as good literature have been completely rewritten five, ten, even twenty times. Now, a professional writer on a deadline to produce content might not have time to rewrite more than once, but YOU can replace alacrity with dogged tenacity and take your time since you just want this ONE book in print, rewriting it until it's as perfect as you can make it.
|This draft sings.|
At this point you could self-publish your book, and it would be much better than publishing that draft. Although you'd still probably only have a few readers. Family and a few friends. If you want more than that (or want traditional publishing), you'll have to go further.
Find Some Initial Editing/Peer Review
Early in the revision stages, the kind of content help you can get from an editor and the kind you can get from a (capable) peer is pretty much the same, so you can replace some editing with peer review (or if you don't have a peer group, you can skip peer review and just go straight to hiring an editor).
But someone needs to read your story and tell you that you lovingly missed a gaping plot hole. Or that some whole paragraph makes no sense. Or that chapter seven was boring AF. Or that the whole Vindameer plot arc was not doing it for them. You've been reading that damned book for probably two or three years now, and you suffer from a tragic case of knowing what you MEANT and being in love with it. You have to get a new set of eyes on it.
Hey, and in case you didn't know, this part sucks. It hurts. Most writers take a while to learn to separate themselves from their ego enough to hear good criticism when it lands (but not so much they don't recognize bad criticism). You thought people were going to say with wide eyes, "Wow….this is (dramatic pause) ….really good." But instead they say, "Yeah….listen. How much time do you have cause there's a lot to go over about what could be improved. I brought a binder full of notes…" You have to be ready for the pain. And when you give them the next draft, it's going to hurt all over again. ("Okay, this is a little better, but I still think…." "Listen, I love you, but you actually made this worse…")
Procure Professional Editing
Okay, this part, you can't skimp on, especially if you are a non-professional writer with an equally-amateur peer review group who wants to circumvent years of practice to get that ONE thing in print.
Enter into a professional collaboration with an editor who you like and work well with. Don't be afraid to shop around. It might take you a few tries before you find one you like. You want someone who will push back, but also who understands what you are trying to do and won't screw up your everything.
Explain to them your goals and objectives. (Not every editor is going to want to take on that much work.) Make sure to be clear that you are under no illusions about how rough the shape of the work is now, but that you are willing to use LOTS of editing to get it fixed up no matter how long that takes. They will read your work (carefully, multiple times) and then begin to help you develop it. The more money per page you are willing to invest, the more direct this help can be. In some cases they may offer suggestions that rewrite entire paragraphs, but the ideas are all still yours. Understand that you are talking about basically months of their time, and that this endeavor might cost you tens of thousands of dollars (or, if you're trying to do a trade, you better make a mean stack of pancakes or whatever).
Don't let people tell you this doesn't count. Lots of people retool their ONE book for hundreds, even thousands of labor hours. All this is….is more efficient.
There will be many kinds of editing, and likely at least a couple of different editors before you're all done. At first you want developmental editing. Eventually you'll want to get into line and copy editing. All of this is going to cost you money.
"But Chris," I hear you ask. "What is the point if I'm going to spend this much goddamn money on editing?"
You're right. You're ABSOLUTELY right. The reason professional writers make money on their writing is because they do a lot of this themselves with skill sets they have built up over years instead of paying to farm them out. A professional writer's rough draft reads a lot like a beginning writer's fifth or sixth draft WITH some editing help. But you just want this ONE thing in print, so you can keep doing it until you nail it.
This is the "shortcut," remember?
This is why it takes years to develop this skill set (and it is a skill set) and why everyone you know doesn't have a book or two published. You really have to ask yourself how much you want that book in print. If you don't want to spend that much, you have to go through the harder processes of reading and writing for years so that you have a sharper, more professional-caliber sense of good writing and cultivate a more developed peer group. Then your editor spends less time per page because it's more like polishing silver, and THEN…..the cost of editing is much, much less, and if you sell enough copies, you'll make it all back.
But if you replace these things with professional editing, you are going to have to compensate someone, somehow.
That ought to get you to a decent self-published product. More than just your nuclear family and close friends will buy it. If you are insistent on traditional publishing, read the next four suggestions, but whether or not you do traditional or not, be sure and check out the self-promotion part if you want to sell more than a modest run of a couple hundred copies.
Yes, Get an Agent
If you want to go traditional, get an agent. I don't know how to be more clear about that.
Knowing where to submit, when to submit, being able to suggest changes that will make a work more marketable, who to talk to avoid the slush pile, having people who will take your call, and how to negotiate a contract when the time comes……those are SKILLS, and writers don't have those skills (unless they are ALSO agents, in which case they already know how foolish it is for writers not to have agents). An agent will pay for themselves and then some.
Don't Go Big
If you just want your book in print, don't worry about that big-five contract. That's just frosting. Tell your agent you're happy to have a small press that will take a chance on you. That gives them SO many more options for niche publishers who are maybe all about the type of book you've written. Sure, you're going to have a more modest run and probably lower distribution. And you will have to do more of the groundwork in self-promotion. But the chances you'll simply be rejected are much lower.
Keep Working on It and Make the Changes They Suggest
You're probably going to get rejected a few times. Okay, when I say a few I mean….buckle up, kiddo, you're in for a ride. You will probably be able to wallpaper a room with rejection letters before this is over. Still rejection tells you that you still need to work, and sometimes a rejection letter comes with very good suggestions. If you get a form letter or a flat rejection, it's back to the drawing board. Find an editor who can still see places to improve it and work with them. However, sometimes you get feedback with a rejection. If the agent turns you down, but gives you reasons why, apply the suggestions. If the publisher rejects you, but gives you reasons why, apply the suggestions. And if you don't know how to do it, bring an editor on board to help you. If you just want this thing in (traditional) print, you might have to make some pretty substantive changes to it. Maybe even some "sellout" changes. Make them.
But—and I realize this is frustrating, contradictory advice—don't be afraid to NOT make those changes if these folks are telling you to change something that is TOO fundamental to the soul of your work. And if you're having trouble navigating that difference, talk to your editor and see what they think. Certainly if you keep getting the same feedback over and over, you might need to set aside your ego and listen. Sometimes you have to add a car chase if you want to get published. But, then again, sometimes you need to know that a publisher just doesn't get what you're trying to do with your art, maaaaaaaan.
A professional writer has to get their shit published and get on to the next thing or they're going to starve to death. You, on the other hand, have all the time in the world, so you can keep going back and retooling what you have until it's perfect. You only need to get this right ONCE. It may take you a lot of rejections, but you'll probably get it eventually.
Promote it if You Want it "Out There"
Okay, your book exists. By now editing and revision have hopefully made it good enough that folks will read and enjoy it, and it will seep out beyond family and supportive friends. It's never going to go far because you don't have a platform or an audience, but it COULD if you wanted to promote it. People would probably pick up your book and might even enjoy or recommend it, but you have to get them interested first. However, because you didn't spend years building an audience eager for your latest content, you're going to have to replace an existing platform with promotion, and promotion will either cost money or require a LOT of your own hard work. You can spend hours doing it yourself by putting copies on consignment or putting out a merch table at literary events and doing book signings and every other form of aggressive self-promotion. Or you can spend money doing targeted ads on social media*. Or you can rent a billboard. Or you can sell copies out of your trunk. You're probably going to "spend" the same countless hours either way if you really want good results. If you've written something that will generate word-of-mouth buzz, you may find your efforts get a lot of traction. If not, you may have to put in a lot of effort or money to sell far fewer copies.
[*If I can make a suggestion. Don't be too good for social media advertising. It may feel like selling out, but if you spend ten hours hitting book stores all over town to sell two copies on consignment, have you REALLY been any more of an artist than if you take ten hours of your wage, buy a hundred or so dollars in targeted ads, and get ten times as many sales?]
But it is out there now. And more than just your mom, BFF, and Aunt Gertrude have a copy.
"Wait a minute. That's a lot of shit. I've spent thousands. This took years. I got rejected hundreds of times. I put in so much goddamned work that I can't even see straight. This looks suspiciously like everything that writers actually do? And all I have is this ONE book. I thought you said this was easy."
No, I said the ANSWER was easy.
Also… it WAS easy when all you wanted was your book in print. Finish it and self-publish. Bam. Your book is in print.
But that's not all you wanted.
Every subsequent goal you hung onto that dream book took you further down the road of exactly what it actually takes to be a writer. By the time you wanted a well-promoted, traditionally published book that lots of people have read and maybe sets you up for a future career in writing, you're talking about exactly what a regular writer does for a living. Not to put too fine a cliché on it, but that's why BEING A WRITER IS HARD. But since you didn't write every day, build an audience, develop a reputation, and do the hard work, you had to use money, editors, advertising, and years of patience and revision to replace what writers learn to do faster, more efficiently, for themselves, and on the fly.
Some people even become working writers this way. May the gods have mercy on them, but they do. Their first book is a travesty of invested time and money and energy, but they learn a lot from the process and try again. By the second book, they are writing a little better and have a tiny little peer group. By having their shit edited to oblivion and back, they learn what mistakes they often make, and what they need to look out for. (Or they skip the editing and notice what they get dragged for.) They have a sense of the needs of the industry and desires of the market, so they take a little LESS time, money, editing, and energy. Book three is even easier. By now they may have a little audience and don't have to promote as hard. A publisher might even be more likely to take a chance by book four…five…six. Of course, they are GUTTING out these books over years and years of hard work, so it's basically the same fucking timeline that every writer has to invest in their craft plus a shit-ton of front-loaded cash. But…some people spend that same amount on MFA programs or lose that much in traditional income when they quit their jobs to write full time, so I'm not sure there's a solid group that gets to throw stones in this equation.
And yes, this entire process absolutely favors people with lots of money. Because that's the world we live in. They can hire the editors (and pay the "rush job" fees). They can even hire ghostwriters and just sit back and literally let their book write itself. ("Just make it about a farm boy who fights a dark lord who turns out to be HIS REAL DAD! Isn't that fucking cool?") Then they slap their name on it and call themselves a published author. It's fucked up. I wish I could change that about the industry, but I can't.
If this is making you feel a little like the trope of the student who wants to cheat on a test and spends SO long and works SO hard writing notes on their arms that they end up having a half decent study session, you're right. Once you start wanting book deals and good sales, it starts to get a little surreal not to simply go after it in a more traditional way.
It's a bit like how you could probably learn a song on piano, that you could play for a big audience even, if you had five years and you only learned ONE song and practiced it constantly and hired an orchestra to accompany you that made you sound good if you messed up a little. You wouldn't need to learn to read music or actually play piano. You just work that one song over and over until it's total muscle memory. Eventually, after YEARS, you'd get it. (I don't play piano past a very beginner level, but I hunt-and-pecked out the Phantom of the Opera tune, even slowly learned the left hand, and practiced it so much when I was a freshman in high school that the muscle memory remains to this day.)
|And now…Stravinsky – Trois mouvements de Petrouchka,|
which is the only song I know.
However….any actual pianist would be ABSOLUTELY CORRECT to point out that with as much time and energy as you just sunk into all that artifice, you could probably be well on your way to being able to play piano pretty gosh dang well. Maybe even well enough to be playing that ONE song for real….but also a bunch of other songs too. The same thing applies to that book and writing.
So really there are no shortcuts….again.