The Wednesday Writer’s Corner: Can you give me some tips on how to get a novel published?
I have a “contact” email address attached to this website, and the question above is by far the most common email I receive. In fact, most of the emails I receive are from hopeful writers looking for advice on how to get published.
This is not an easy question to answer, and in truth, it took me years to sort of figure all this out. However, keep in mind that at this point in my life, I’ve been working with the same publisher and the same literary agency since 2001, and so the process for publishing has been a different for me over the last eleven years then it would be for someone trying to break in. But . . . I don’t think things have changed that much. I do have friends who’ve recently landed their first agent and sold their first novel project.
The basics are:
Complete a publishable novel. Get the book finished and polished.
Write a 4-5 page novel synopsis.
Get yourself an agent.
But of course, these steps are all a lot more complex than this simple list.
First off . . . when speaking to hopeful writers in person about this, I’ve encountered some surprised stares and heard, “I have to finish the book first? I thought you wrote up three chapters and a novel synopsis and then a publisher offered you a lot of money for the book so that you’d have the freedom to finish it?”
That is true once you’re established (with the possible exception of the “lot of money” part), but not with a first sale. With a first sale, the agent/editor wants to read the entire book first, both to see that can finish writing a novel and to see that the book is truly as good as what the synopsis promised.
Second . . . a lot of new writers often have no idea whether or not their novel is publishable. I’ve had three editors, and one of them was good about attending those conferences where people sign up for a spot to “pitch” a novel to her, and she told me that out of dozens and dozens of those conferences, she only encountered one project that was plotted, structured, and developed well enough for publication.
I think work shopping a novel with other writers at your own level is a waste of time—and could even be damaging if you’ve got an angry, bitter, know-it-all in the group. I never once work shopped a novel, but I’ve seen a few friends try this, and it seemed more damaging than helpful.
How to Write and Sell your First Novel
This book may help you gauge whether the book is ready for prime time viewing—or if needs a little more work. Also, writers who read a lot of novels tend to have a better handle on structure, plot, and character development.
Okay, so let’s say you’ve finished your novel, and you’ve polished it, and now it’s time to try to get it published. Of course you could go the “indie” route, but you don’t need my help with that. Anyone—and his cousin Margaret—can do that. I’m just chatting here for the folks who want a New York publisher. The first thing you’ll need is a query letter. So, you research agents and make a list of all the agents that you think are reputable, meaning they’ve been in the business a little while and they have a list of clients you recognize—who also represent the type of work you’re writing. You can send queries to any number of agents. Send twenty queries if you wish. The query letter introduces you, lets the agent know you have a finished manuscript, and then attempts to “sell” the agent on your project. If you remember from one of my earlier posts, the only thing on the agent’s mind is whether or not he/she believes the project can be sold. Once an agent contacts you and says, “Okay, I’d like to see the project,” that’s when you send either a synopsis and the first three chapters . . . or the synopsis and the entire manuscript. The agent will let you know how much he/she wants to see. At this point, you cannot show the project to another agent until you’ve heard back from the first one. This can be frustrating if the first agent is taking months to get back to you. At a certain point, if you haven’t heard back, just move on to the next agent who’s requested to see your book. But normally, most agents will get to you in a timely fashion.
The second thing you’ll need is a four to five page novel synopsis. Keep in mind that you don’t want to cram in every single plot point from the novel. You want to pique the agent’s interest and get him/her dying to see the book itself. Here’s a decent bit of help for writing a novel synopsis:
Okay, gang, I hope this is helpful. The main thing you want to do first is finish that manuscript.