Guest Post by Rebecca Balcárcel
You’ve written your heart out, and you’re thinking it’s time for the dream to come true. You want to be an author. If only the publishing gods would smile upon you and make it so. Thankfully, you don’t have to make any animal sacrifices, but you do need to sacrifice other things — time, emotional energy, physical energy, and the draft you thought was perfect. Even those sacrifices may not make it happen, but there’s no way to get published without them. My own publishing journey started about six years ago and led to my first novel coming out in August 2019. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Read widely in your genre. If you already do this, you can skip this paragraph and say, “Check!” If you don’t already read many, many books in the genre you are writing in, you are missing out. Reading is your chance to apprentice yourself to the great writers. You can study their plot structure, notice how they describe characters and setting, observe how they dilate some events and quickly summarize others — in short, you can steal their techniques! Stephen King says, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” I won’t argue with the King.
2. Let others read your work, and listen to their experience of it. Whether it’s a critique group that meets every Tuesday or a friend who is as big a reader as you (see above), let new eyes see this thing you’ve been writing. It’s scary, but not scarier than showing an agent or a publisher. You’d rather hear from a friend that the first chapter doesn’t grab them or that the second one lets the tension drop. If people are confused, make the writing clearer. If people are bored, add tension. Don’t fool yourself by saying that no one “gets it.” Trust me: an agent, an editor, a marketing team, a reviewer, a reader in New Zealand, won’t get it either. Fall in love with revision.
3. Research agents. Yes, you need an agent. Unless you are willing to self-publish and become an entrepreneur, you can expect that a publisher will pay you an advance (often $3,000 to $20,000 as a pre-payment of expected royalties), submit your book to reviewers, market your book, send you to a few conferences at their expense, submit the book for major awards, and get your book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. None of this typically happens for self-published writers. But the only way to be traditionally published, in the novel world anyway, is to have an agent submit the book. A few smaller presses may look at unagented manuscripts, but a good agent can work their industry connections, do the negotiation, and check over your contract. They only get money when you do, so they work hard to sell your book. Find reputable agents at https://querytracker.net, https://www.pw.org/literary_agents, and http://aaronline.org/Find. Notice that agents who are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives follow this Code of Ethics: http://aaronline.org/canon TIP: Authors often thank their agents on the acknowledgements page, so look there for names of potential agents.
4. Write a query letter that makes the book sound awesome. Open with a hook — a sentence that either puts the premise as a question (What happens when…?) or states the crux of the character’s problem. Then start a new paragraph and chat up the reader, explaining the beginning, conflict, and end. It’s okay to reveal the general shape of the end. The agent needs to know what they’re buying. TIP: Use the same voice as the novel. Be dark and foreboding, be funny and sarcastic, be sincere and literary — but let that tone match the book’s. End with a paragraph about you, listing any info that makes it sound like you can be trusted to write this book.
5. Embrace rejection as part of the process. When you send queries to potential agents, expect about twenty rejections. Or fifty. The point is, most agents will say no. They may even ask for the full manuscript, and then say no. But look at this as a marriage. You don’t want to get serious with someone who doesn’t love your book or love the book that your book can become. Hold out for a good fit. If an agent wants to represent you, they will propose a phone call. This is a chance for both of you to decide if you make a good team. TIP: Come across as gracious and willing to revise your book — and then BE gracious in every phone call and email and DO be willing to revise your book (multiple times).
6. Fall in love with revision. I actually said this before, but I’m giving revision its own paragraph. Because you’ll revise with your critique group, you’ll revise with the agent’s feedback, and you’ll revise again with the editor at the publisher if the manuscript sells. Even after that, get ready for the sensitivity reader (who makes sure you are not insulting anyone by accident), the copy-editor, and the proofreader — all different people who want to make your book better. The book has become a team effort, and everyone is rooting for it — and for you, but mainly for the book. Don’t be surprised if the title changes, too. That’s a marketing decision that people with a variety of perspectives will vote on. Be glad at every stage. They are shaping your manuscript into a real book.
7. Be patient — this takes years. I signed with my agent in 2015; the book sold in 2017; the book released in 2019. Never mind when I started writing the thing! The good news is that all this baking, so to speak, has yielded the best, most tasty book I could have hoped for. But you should know what you’re in for, time-wise. Why does it take so long? Well, I revised with my agent, sending drafts back and forth for a year. Then she sent it out to nearly a dozen different publishers in batches. Each publisher had to read, review, and get back to us. It took nine months before an offer came. Then came the “edit letter” from my editor at Chronicle. This was a thirteen-page examination of my entire book — including things to fix, expand, cut, etc. (See number six above.) It took me about eight months to revise and send, revise again and send, revise again and send. Then we had the copyediting, proofing, etc. At the same time, they were hiring an artist to do the cover and designing a jacket, plus making marketing plans — submitting my name to conferences a year in advance and such. They also sent the almost-final copy to reviewers and printed up thousands of galleys (or ARCs, advance review copies) to give to librarians and teachers, since my book is for middle-graders. It takes time, folks.
8. Keep the goal in mind. You don’t want just any book out there with your name on it; you want a GOOD book out there with your name on it. Keeping this in mind makes all the other steps possible. Remind yourself that your critique group is helping you, your agent is helping you, your editor is helping you. Everyone is working to make this project a success. Be open to adding scenes or cutting them. Be ready to re-word, re-phrase, and re-work. Your second book will be harder to sell than your first book unless the first book does well. It’s better for a bad book to stay on your computer than ruin your reputation and any chances for future publication. Write your very best and then beyond your best, accepting a boost from your team.
Hard and time-consuming? Yes. But can the dream come true? Yes! If you love words and characters and world-building, spending years on a book won’t be all bad. Much of it will be a pleasure. And when a reader — a total stranger! — connects with your book, well, few things in life are sweeter.
Rebecca’s bi-cultural novel, The Other Half of Happy, received starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal, and the American Library Association named it one of 2019’s Top Ten First novels. Visit her here.