How to Get Published

Allard Writing

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at Writers Block, a group of young writers who are studying the craft of writing. When I asked what the group wanted to learn about, the answer came back overwhelmingly that they wanted to learn more about the publishing side of writing. It took some thinking to figure out how to condense what I’ve learned about publishing into an hour workshop, but I managed to come up with a few thoughts. Here are some of the ideas I shared about writing for publication. There’s nothing earth shattering here, but I think the young writers found it useful because it opened their eyes, perhaps for the first time, to the fact that writing for publication is hard work.

How to Get Published

To Begin:

  • Write something wonderful that someone will want to publish. This sounds obvious, but oddly it’s the step that some writers skip over in their rush to be published. Yes, wonderful is subjective, but if you have a strong grasp of the art and craft of writing, then you’re more likely to win fans with your work. It also helps to learn to be the best judge of your own writing.
  • Find your own voice and your own perspective. What do you have to offer that no one else does? How are you different or unique? That’s your strength. Use it.
  • Read a lot. If you don’t like to read, then writing is not for you. Read stories similar to the ones you want to write. Read about writing. Read about writers. Read the classics. Read your favorite genre. Read the cereal box. Read everything.
  • Be sure to proofread your work—check for spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. Don’t rely on spell check. I can’t stress this enough—sloppy writing will get your work rejected as fast as editors can hit the delete button. Yes, I speak from experience (as both the editor, and, I’m sure, as the writer whose work evaporated into cyberspace).
  • Have someone else (or many someone elses) read your writing and listen to what they have to say. Often, as writers we get stuck in our own heads and we forget that the point is to communicate with others. Remember, just because someone offers a criticism doesn’t mean you have to listen to it; however, if more than one person has the same suggestion for improvement, it might be worth seeing if there’s something to it.
  • Read your writing out loud to listen for the music of your language. We write for the ear, not for the eye. You could have the most perfect looking story or poem—sharp margins, professional looking layout, lovely font—but if the words don’t sound right then they’re not right.
  • It takes time, sometimes a lot of time, to create something publishable. Give yourself time to grow into the writer you want to be.
  • First drafts are never publishable (or usually even second drafts or third drafts or fourth drafts…).
  • If you’re not willing to take the time to make sure your writing is the very best it can be before you send it off for publication, then writing is not for you.

Then:

When you’re convinced that your writing is the absolute best it can be, you’re ready to start submitting to journals, magazines, and newspapers.

  • Figure out what genre your piece belongs in (Is it action adventure? Science fiction? Historical?) and research journals, magazines, and newspapers that publish the type of story you’ve written. God bless the Internet. When I first started writing, we had to do things the old-timey way—we had to actually look through books! Now a list of literary journals is just an Internet search away.
  • When you have your list of journals, read their submission guidelines carefully and follow those guidelines exactly as written. Again, I can’t stress this enough. You want to give your writing the best chance of being published. Editors receive many, many submissions, and often they’re looking for easy reasons to reject a piece. To make your work stand out from the crowd, show the editors that you’re a professional writer and you take your submission seriously.
  • Be prepared for rejections. Sorry, but it’s part of the process. If you don’t have the stomach to deal with the rejections, then writing is not for you. If it makes you feel better, you can find many examples of famous authors who received hundreds, sometimes thousands of rejection letters until they were finally published. Jack London was rejected many times, as was J.K. Rowling, as were countless others.
  • No matter what, keep submitting. It took me four years to get my first piece published. If I had given up three and a half years into it I never would have become a published writer.

However:

If you’ve written a novel, then the process is a little different. If you want to pursue traditional publishing one route is to find an agent who will represent your novel to the publishing houses.

  • You can find agents the same way you find literary journals and magazines—by looking them up online.
  • You need to finish your novel before you start contacting agents because if agents are interested then they’ll often ask to see the whole manuscript.
  • Like with submitting to journals or magazines, you need to be prepared for rejections. If the rejections will deter you, then, once again, writing is not for you.
  • To catch the attention of an agent, you’ll need to write a great query letter. Here’s an article from Writer’s Digest about how to write the perfect query letter.

If you have more of a go-getter’s heart, you may want to look into indie publishing.

  • Indie-publishing is a great option for writers these days. Many best selling novels are indie-published.
  • You can create your own e-books on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. You can also publish your books to BN, iTunes, and Kobo. The entire process takes about five minutes per retailer. The directions are easy to understand. You can also create your own paperbacks on Amazon’s CreateSpace or on Lulu. Again, the directions are pretty easy. Best of all, it’s free!
  • If you’re self-publishing, then everything that would normally fall on the publisher (cover design, interior layout, editing, marketing, etc.) falls onto the author. You have to make doubly sure you’re putting out a quality product if you’re indie-publishing so readers will take you seriously.
  • The Creative Penn (www.thecreativepenn.com) is a great resource for writers who want to publish their work independently.

Once you’re published you have to learn the ins and outs of book marketing and publicity and you have to deal with the naysayers. You need a strong constitution to be a writer. It takes courage to put your work out there. I think the young people I spoke to were surprised at how hard it is to be a writer. I think they thought, as I did when I first started, that being a writer meant sitting at your desk scribbling out your crazy ideas and somehow all the other things (getting published, getting publicity, hitting the best seller list) just magically happened.

I wanted the young people to understand that becoming a writer, as in making a career for yourself, takes time. Even the indie authors who are hitting the best seller lists these days are often people who have been writing for years, and I include myself in that list. I’ve been at this since 1994 (21 years now), and it took me four years to get my first publication—a short story in a small literary journal. Then I wrote three novels before my fourth (Her Dear & Loving Husband) hit the best seller list in 2011. Now over 200,000 copies of the Loving Husband Trilogy have been bought or downloaded worldwide.

Was it worth it? All those rejection letters, all those worries that no one would ever read my stories, all those times I very nearly gave up writing for good? Of course it was worth it. If someone had said to me that it was going to take 20 years to get everything I wanted as a writer, I probably would have said, “No thanks. It’s going to take too long.” But the 20 years passed anyway, as time will, and because I didn’t give in I ended up where I wanted to be. That’s really the lesson I wanted the young writers to take away. Don’t quit. Not ever. If you have a vision, a calling, whatever it is, keep going. It will be worth it in the end, no matter how long it takes to get there.

Remembering the Joys of Writing Historical Fiction

I found myself in need of a reminder about why I love to write historical fiction. Lately, with everything else I have to do, I’ve come to realize how much more work writing historical fiction is than other genres. As I’ve been digging myself out from under books and articles about Victorian England for my new novel, I realized that this is my first foray into writing a completely historical story in ten years. That can’t be right, I thought. I write historical fiction. It’s in my tag-line, isn’t it? Then I remembered that I added the word (Usually) so I felt better. After counting on my fingers, I saw that, yes indeed, it has been ten years since I wrote a novel that was completely set in the past. I began writing historical fiction in 1994 with my first novel, the American Civil War story My Brother’s Battle, which I worked on until 2000 (with massive rewrites in 2012). I wrote my second novel, Victory Garden, about the woman’s suffrage movement and World War I, between 2001 and 2003. From 2003 to 2005 I wrote Woman of Stones, a Biblical novella. Then, starting somewhere around 2005, I underwent a period of writer’s remorse. I was getting a few pieces published here and there in literary magazines, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with my novels and I was frustrated. The truth is, I didn’t write much except for journaling and grocery lists until 2009, and four years of not writing for me is a sad time, indeed. I floundered a bit during those years, not really sure what I was supposed to be doing with myself. If I’m not supposed to be writing, then what?

The writing muse returned in 2009 when I came up with the idea for a 300 year old vampire mourning his lost human wife. The spark that became the Loving Husband Trilogy reminded me how important writing was to me, and it was a fortunate coincidence that the indie author revolution had taken off by the time Her Dear & Loving Husband was ready to be published in 2011. I spent four years working on the Loving Husband Trilogy, and while the history of the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, and the Japanese-American internments during World War II are an important part of the stories, the main story between James and Sarah was set in the present day. My following novel, That You Are Here, is set entirely in present-day Portland, Oregon. I wasn’t surprised when I knew that my next novel would be set in Victorian England. It’s based on an idea I’ve been kicking around for about 15 years. What I am surprised to find is that writing historical fiction is a little harder these days. I still love it, but I found I needed to give myself a little pep talk about why I love writing historical fiction.

My love for writing historical fiction stems from the simple fact that I love history. I think my interest started in high school when I had a cute young guy as my history teacher—I made sure to pay extra special attention in class. But my interest in history outlasted my 10th grade year, and in college I even considered becoming a history major. I’m fascinated by history because, though we can look back to see how the pieces fit together to create the picture of who we are today, there is also a sense of “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’m always amazed to learn about these people from the past who on the surface seem so different from us today—in their dress, their speech, their beliefs, their scientific knowledge—and yet they aren’t at all different in their hopes and dreams. There is something fulfilling about writing historical fiction that I haven’t found in any other genre. First because I get to indulge in my own interest and learn about different periods that caught my attention, and second because historical fiction helps to make history more palatable for those who might be bored by nonfiction accounts. In these fictional snapshots, I can take one moment in time and flesh it out, add characters, both real and imagined, show their dress, their manners, and the events that happened then. Through writing historical fiction, I have been able to imagine life in Salem during the witch hunts, Tennessee during the Cherokee removal, California in the Manzanar Relocation Camp, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City in the 1910s, and now Victorian England.

For someone who loves history as much as I do, the opportunity to write about these different periods, or any historical period, is a blessing. It is fun, after all, to discover interesting little details to share with readers, and it’s even more fun to immerse myself in the period through television, movies, documentaries, books, museums, and music. When I write historical fiction I feel like a time traveler with one foot in the present and another in the past. Yes, that’s right. Writing historical fiction is fun above all else. I remember now that whatever time it takes to complete the research is set off by the enjoyment of finding a special fact or tidbit that adds life to the story. I had forgotten. Sharing these snapshots in time with others is one of my great joys, and through historical fiction I hope to help others develop their own love for history. If I can prompt someone’s interest in a certain time period, then I’ve done my job.

Have I said how much I love writing historical fiction?

How Do You Handle Negative Book Reviews? You Trust, That’s What You Do.

Writing InspirationLike everything else with writing and publishing, there are a lot of opinions about how to handle negative book reviews. Here’s one from Digital Book World, one from Write to Done, and my personal favorite from Joe Konrath. I love Konrath’s advice of just ignore them. In my case, I don’t read them at all.

You read that correctly. I don’t read negative reviews of my books. I don’t argue with anyone’s right to dislike my work, and I don’t argue with anyone’s right to share their dislike. I certainly don’t like every book I read. As an author, I have the right to choose what kind of energy I want to take in, and I choose to surround myself with positive energy that supports my vision. Yes, I know…that’s a little on the woo woo side. Let me try to be more practical.

First of all, negative reviews aren’t always a bad thing, and there’s truth to the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I think the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is a great example. I’ve never seen a book with so many negative reviews (there are thousands of them), and yet it’s become one of the best selling books of all time. If anything, the negativity fueled the phenomenon rather than quelled it because it made people curious. There was a time when writers were told that negative reviews were the kiss of death for their books, and maybe some people still believe that, but I’ve seen many books sell well after negative reviews.

It’s not only the number of reviews you have that matter, but the type of reviews. Not all reviews are created equal. A five star review that says “Great Book!” is okay, but a five star review where readers go into some detail about why they liked the book can be very helpful. It’s the same with one star reviews. One star reviews where readers state why they didn’t like the book are fine. Really, they’re fine. It’s not realistic to expect that everyone who reads your book will like it. People have different tastes, that’s all. Then there are the one star reviews that come from a desire to be snarky. I blame Simon Cowell and the Real Housewives for making insolence something people aspire to. Still, I trust readers, and I believe they can tell the difference between honest reviews and mean-spirited reviews. They can tell if someone is simply sharing their dislike of a book or being mean for the fun of it. And don’t forget those entertaining reviews that comment on the timeliness of the shipping or the condition of the product. Just the other day I was scanning the reviews for a book I wanted to buy and there was a one star review because the book arrived in four days instead of two. I bought the book, in case you were wondering.

I understand why writers feel so hurt when they read criticism of their work. I used to be hypersensitive about such criticism myself. Creative writing classes in college were hard for me because there was an unnecessary sting in the feedback from other students. I thought the point of writers workshop was to help each other, not to hurt each other, and I didn’t understand the meanness in the other students’ critiques and I didn’t find those classes useful. Then when I began The Copperfield Review nearly 15 years ago, I received a number of anonymous e-mails that put down the stories Copperfield published. I guessed at the time that the e-mails were from disgruntled writers we had chosen not to publish, but I still let the negativity bother me. Around the same time my first novel, My Brother’s Battle, was published through Xlibris (don’t ask), and someone, also anonymous, asked how I could put such drivel into the world. Again, most likely a disgruntled submitter, or maybe even a legitimate naysayer, who knows, but it got to me.

When Her Dear & Loving Husband was published in 2011, I was known by exactly zero people. I read every review that popped up because I was fascinated by these total strangers who took the time to say things about my book. After a while, I began to realize that the reviews—both good and bad—weren’t about me or even my book. I know that sounds odd, but I believe that reviews have more to do with the reviewer than the reviewed. The Write to Done article says as much. If you give two people the same book and one loves it and one hates it, is that about the book or about the people reading the book? When we read, all we have is ourselves—our personalities, our perspectives, our likes, our dislikes, our interests, our emotions, our imaginations—and all of those traits come into play when we read. Sometimes that works in favor of our books and sometimes it doesn’t. Besides, haven’t you noticed how whenever someone writes negative reviews online, whether it’s for books, restaurants, or whatever, it’s almost always done anonymously under a false name like PookieICU or TinyTom789? Are you going to let Pookie get to you because he (or she) is venting about whatever is actually bothering him (or her)? Very rarely do people own up to their meanness (unless they’re the afore mentioned Simon Cowell or the Real Housewives). What does their negativity have to do with you or your book? Really? Haters gonna hate. Why let them pull you down?

And if someone is writing an honest review and they didn’t like your book, it’s okay. I promise—both you and your book will be fine. It just means that person isn’t meant to be your reader. Focus on the readers who like what you do. They’re the ones who are going to buy your future books. Why make yourself crazy over someone else’s opinion? That is, unless you have a mother like mine. When Her Dear & Loving Husband was first released and the reviews were popping up on Amazon, I was so happy because the majority of reviews were five stars. At the time there was something like 20 five-star reviews and one one-star review. My mother said, the way only a Jewish mother can, “Did you read that one star review?”

Despite my mother, I had grown in fortitude in the 11 years between My Brother’s Battle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I had such faith in Her Dear & Loving Husband, and I felt in my gut there was an audience for it. As a result, the negative reviews didn’t sting because I had a sense that if that person didn’t like the book, there would be others who did. After reading reviews, both good and bad, I realized I believed in what I was doing, and that was enough. That’s when I stopped reading reviews. It’s not that I don’t care if people like my work, and I don’t completely ignore reviews. When I do check my books on Amazon or iTunes, I don’t look at individual reviews, though I do look to see the average star count. I look at it this way—as long as I have more good reviews than bad, it’s all good.

Am I missing out on some feedback? Perhaps. But I have beta readers who help me through the review process, and I have editors, so I feel I’m getting the necessary outside point of view (as in outside my own head). The fact is there’s no one tougher on my own work than I am. That’s why I only publish one book a year. If there’s a book out there with my name on it, then it has passed the test of the toughest reader of all—me. And even though I’m proud of my books, I know not everyone will like them. That’s okay. Like I said, different people have different tastes. I keep writing and publishing books. I keep finding ways to grow my audience. And I keep trusting the readers. That’s what this all boils down to—trust. Trusting yourself, your talent, and your vision, and trusting the readers who want to find good books to read.