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outside the lines.


Monday, September 24, 2007

I've written a book. Now what?

I recently received a letter asking how to go about getting published. Many people believe (as I once did) that there
was some magic formula out there that got you published. Whether through connections or seminars or by the osmosis process of actually being near published authors, I believed--like many others--that there was some secret, some hidden door that, once found, would win me the coveted role as a published author. During my entire time as a writer and literary publicist, I have almost always come into contact with someone who, after finding out about my profession, tells me that they have written something/will write something/always wanted to write something/etc. Then they ask how get published. I did the same thing. I asked the same questions. It's what every beginning writer does.

Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer. There isn't even on sure-fire, definitive answer. You want to be a doctor? Go to medical school. You want to be a lawyer, go to law school. You want to be a published author?'s kind of a crap shoot.
First of all, you will be rejected. A lot. That's a given. Once you accept that, you can move on.

Even established writers have difficulties in getting their sons/daughters/aunts/uncles/friends published. Sure, they may have an advantage, but the publishing world is fickle and extremely competitive. Here's the letter I received, and here is how I answered it (and I am in no way the authority on how, when, where and why someone should get published. But this is what I've learned throughout the many, many years of trying to get published.

Dear Megan,
I have recently completed my first novel. My husband has the laborious task of making the first edits. He is approximately 3/4 of the way through. I have arranged for a poetry/literary professor to read it once he's done. Afterwards, I plan to take your advice and seek an agent.
I have the Writer's Market Guide to Literary Agents for 2007 and have researched agencies that take writing in the genre I've written. I've also sought out agents who are currently accepting new writers to represent. Although it is obvious how patient I will have to be through this process, I am very excited. I'd love to hear about your experience in finding an agent and getting your book published.

This was my advice. I know many people have heard this advice before and even though it is frustrating, it is a long, crazy, fickle process:

Dear (future writer),

You've finished the first draft of your novel. Yay! You've overcome the first hurdle.
the hard work doesn't stop there. It sounds like you are definitely
headed in the right direction. I would suggest getting as many readers as you
can to take a look at your book. No matter how many times I thought I was done
revising, I still ended up having to take another crack at it. (I'm actually knee-deep
in revisions with my editor right now--I've probably gone through five to
six rounds up to this point already!!.)

Then, most importantly, you need an agent. It's pretty tricky finding a good match
in an agent. Your best bet is to find someone who's taking on new clients (usually
it's a junior agent, someone who just moved over to a new agency, or a smaller
boutique agency.) There are some online lists of agents that are actively seeking
clients. It's important to do research on what agents are interested in acquiring
different genres. Writer's Market puts out a great book on literary agents, and
they are pretty up to date. Almost every bookstore and library has one.

Another great tip is to find a book in the same genre and see who the author thanks
in their acknowledgements. They almost always thank their agent or even a junior
agent within that agency. Don't try to submit directly to editors. They are so
overwhelmed by the submissions from agents, that they rarely have the time
to read something from the slush pile (or unsolicited manuscript pile). Plus,
they view agents as the gatekeepers-- only passing along work that they think
has merit and will sell.

While you have others look at your book, work on perfecting your query e-mail
or letter. A lot of agents will take queries or partials by e-mail now, which is great.
Send out as many queries as you can. It's all about numbers. The more people
you get to look at your book, the faster you'll get an agent. But make sure that
your finished product is as polished as it can be before it gets out there. Check
out Noah Lukeman's book called The First Five Pages. He basically says that
the first five pages are what will grab an agent, then a publisher, and finally, the reader.

Also use this time to try to get published in smaller literary magazines. Or try
to get a magazine article published. It always helps to have a good "portfolio"
of your writing. Since publishing is getting so competitive, many agents won't
take chances on a completely unknown writer. So if you can get something into
either Ploughshares or any of the other dozens of small literary magazines, it
would help your odds. Join a local writer's group while you start submitting. It's
always good to get feedback from other writers.

Also, don't lose faith if you get rejected (which you will, because everyone does).
It's such a
subjective industry. It completely depends on the person reading it,
whether or not they connect with it or not. NY Time's best-selling author Jodi
Picoult was rejected over 300 times!!! And
even JK Rowling was rejected many
times--the agent who finally took her on told her to keep her day job because
he said she'd never make a living writing children's books (she only got a $5000
book deal with her first London publisher and now she's richer than the Queen
of England).

You could have written the "Great All-American Novel" only to get a curt rejection
letter in return. This is why it's important to find an agent who likes the type of
writing that you do. That's why so many writers look at books similar to theirs
to find out who was the agent for that "type" of book. But then, on the flip side,
you could send a book to an agent who has too many books like yours and wants
something different. I had an agent love my book, but she had just signed someone
with a very similar theme, so she passed. Even though I understood where she was
coming from, I was still crushed nonetheless. It's such a tricky balance of getting
the right person at the right time. The same thing happened to me with finding a
publisher. One house was really interested in my book, but had just bought a similar
book only one month prior to my agent submitting my manuscript. You really need a
thick skin in this industry. (Even when you finally get published, you quickly learn
that there are some reviewers that are not that nice!)

I wish you the best on your journey toward getting published. I wish I could say
that just getting the first draft done is the hardest part, but there's still a bit of
work ahead for you. (And then, even when you land the agent, the editor, etc.,
there's only more and more and even more work. It's never ending!!! But definitely
worth it in the end---I hope!)

Good luck to you and I hope to see your book on shelves in the very near future!



P.S. Definitely attend any writer/editor/agent conferences in your area. It's
great to get out there to meet agents and editors and get to know them and
what they are looking for. We've had many clients who've bumped into the
right agent/editor/publisher at just the right time and it made the process
so much easier. So, keep your eye out for any of those events. Best of luck!

Those were my two cents. Hopefully they helped the writer who contacted me.
And maybe they will help readers of this blog. Again, I'm far from being an
authority. I'm just someone who got lucky. (Not as lucky as JK Rowling,
Stephenie Meyer, or Harlan Coben. Plus I don't have Oprah beating down my
door to select my book as her latest book club pick, but I still consider myself
lucky nonetheless.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Title of a Freelance Writer

For those who've stumbled upon this by accident (or through my other blog--the angerball), I've decided to start a blog about freelance writing: novel writing, feature magazine writing, high-tech PR writing, promotional writing--just about every type of writing that you can do (and I've done it all!) to establish yourself as a writer. (Not that I feel particularly established--I know people who've been writing for 20-plus years and who've been on New York Times bestselling lists who still feel like their writing career is a work in progress.)

So my question is this...when do you feel comfortable enough in yourself and your work to actually call yourself a "writer"? I always felt--and still feel-- the need to justify myself and the career path I'd chosen when people asked what I did. It wasn't until I was published in a magazine that people had actually heard of or when I got my book deal that I felt like I was "allowed" to call myself a writer. Yet, I still use the term "freelance" whenever I'm asked what kind of writing I do. If I say novelist, people will start to look for my books in the store (they'll be looking for a long time, because SISTERS OF MISERY is still in the revision stage and won't hit shelves until August 2008). If I say magazine writer, I get asked which magazine I write for so they can start looking for my articles. When I tell them that I'm not going to have a piece in EVERY issue, I get that glazed over look.

For those who are not in this business, they don't realize that this month I could be in Glamour, and next month I could have a piece in Cat Fancy (well, maybe not Cat Fancy, because I really don't know all that much about, nor do I really fancy, cats.) And even if I have a short, say 500 word piece in a national magazine, it took a lot of work and edits and emails and sweat, blood and tears to get that little article.

Think of it this way. The next time you read your favorite magazine and the article wasn't written by one of the in-house writers and you see the little name printed at the bottom of the piece, understand that that is a VERY big deal for that writer. Just to get into those magazines is an incredible hurdle. And just because a writer gets published in Vogue once, doesn't guarantee that they will consistently be assigned pieces for that magazine. Even well-known, very established authors with instantly recognizable names have to pitch (yes, they still pitch, just like you and me) to these magazines just like the rest of us freelance writers. While they may have the added benefit of possessing a household name, they still need to pitch an idea that's fresh, innovative and exciting.

In some ways, it levels the playing field for the rest of us--us freelance writers.

But I digress.

I still do not feel 100% comfortable calling myself a writer. Technically I was a writer when I wrote ad copy, press releases, radio commercials, high-tech PR pieces, advertorials and book reviews, but I still couldn't bring myself to call myself a writer. I even had a business card from a PR company that I worked for part-time that said Megan Kelley Hall - Writer, and I still flinched when people asked what I did. Because when you say writer, instantly people's eyes light up. They inevitably ask what magazines I write for, what books I've published, what essays I've crafted. And up until recently, I could only name a few obscure journals and unknown papers.

Now, when people ask, I can say that I've written for Glamour, Elle, New England Bride, Boston Magazine, American Baby and that I have a novel coming out in August. But I can't drop the freelance moniker. Because, technically, that's what I am. And that's what I'm comfortable saying. And until I have on-going articles in magazines with wide circulation, multiple books in the bookstores with my name on them, and many, many, many essays published in anthologies, I'm sticking with title of "freelance writer." Even if it continues to confuse people.