FAQs on Writing and Publishing, A.K.A. the Longest Post E.V.E.R.

So, this post answers FAQs about writing and getting published. If those topics don’t interest you, I promise that this will be the most boring post ever. Well, okay, even if those topics DO interest you, chances are you’ll get bored, because I wrote SO MUCH! I apologize up front for length.

1. When and how did you start writing?
I’m going to give you a sleep-inducing answer, but I have a reason for doing so.

I did critical writing for years, but didn’t get serious about creative writing until 2003, when I was nearing the end of my master’s degree at Simmons College’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. I took an intro to writing class, then finished my degree with a creative writing independent study, with the marvelous writer and teacher Liza Ketchum as my mentor. With Liza, I began a middle grade contemporary realistic novel. I started working on it in September of 2003 and wrote maybe a third of it during the semester. After graduating, I completed it on my own time. I think I finished it in late spring of 2004 (the whole thing took about 9 months), at which point, I immediately began to write Graceling. I worked on Graceling just about every single day — it was practically all I did other than my paid work and reading and eating and sleeping — for about 1.5 years, until finishing the first draft some time around late summer 2005. Then, I immediately began to write a YA contemporary novel that was a sequel to the MG I’d completed before. That took me about 9 months, into late spring 2006, and the minute I finished it, I began to write Fire. By the time I got my deal for Graceling in the fall of 2006, I was already well into Fire. Fire took about 1.5 years, at which point, I immediately began to write Bitterblue. I’m still writing Bitterblue now. Bitterblue is taking longer, partly because I’m doing a lot more things now, but mostly because that’s its nature.

I should mention that I also did revisions of the various novels at different points, especially once I got the deals for Graceling and Fire. Graceling alone went through 5 or 6 revisions. I can’t remember when the revisions took place, exactly, but they were usually based on feedback from others — my editor, my agent, and my early readers, who include my sisters and a few friends.

The reason for the detaily, boring answer is that I wanted to get across a few important points. One is that I was a critical writer and student of literature for years before I became a creative writer; I know that years of studying books and pounding out papers helped me once I began writing books of my own. Another is that I took a creative writing class and experienced a mentorship, both of which were enormously helpful. Another is that Graceling was technically my second novel, not my first; my first is on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be resurrected and rewritten. Another is that I gave my manuscripts to trustworthy people for feedback, which was scary, but ultimately helpful. Another is that I wrote for as long as I could every single day, or almost every single day, for years (and still do); I always had hopes of getting published someday, but the actual act of writing was way, way, WAY more important to me.

2. How did you get your “big break” into publishing? Do you have any advice?
This is a weirdly personal question. I find I’m much more comfortable giving details about the things I’ve failed at than the things I’ve succeeded at. Is that normal? Well, anyway, I’m going to answer this question in two ways. The first is to tell you some of the specific things I did with an eye to publication. I’m going to list them — the smart ones, anyway — just in case they give you some ideas for yourself:

  • I submitted various manuscripts and partial manuscripts to contests. (Examples: a WIP contest with the SCBWI [the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators] and the Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Contest at HarperCollins. [I can’t find any current info on the Nordstrom contest. Has it been discontinued?]) I never won any contests, but an editor at a big house did take an interest in one of my manuscripts once (Novel #1, the MG novel I’d started in grad school), sent me an editorial letter, and offered to read my revision. I did a big overhaul based on her suggestions, and can say with confidence that it was much better afterward — she helped me tons!! In the end, she decided not to acquire it. But it was a confidence builder and it taught me more about the craft… my point here is that entering contests is one way to get the right people reading your work. This is really important, because one of the hardest things when trying to get published is getting your work in front of relevant people. (Plus, who knows, you might win! Did you read Jo Knowles’ SBBT interview? She did win a WIP grant from SCBWI, and it helped her land her agent.)
  • I queried a small press that had a list I admired. This gave me querying practice, and I did get some interest in Novel #1, which was encouraging, even if it led to a rejection. The point here is that there are some great small presses out there, and it pays to research them.
  • I joined SCBWI. Their bi-monthly bulletin is full of great info, tips, and news (like, about contests!), and they have local chapters which often organize writing groups and hold conferences. The point here is that joining a relevant writing organization will keep you in the loop.
  • I did things like go to a regional SCBWI conference, where I listened to writers, editors, and agents speak, and where I shelled out a little extra money for professional evaluations of excerpts of my work. The point here is that conferences, especially conferences that provide opportunities for face time with respected professionals in the field, are a way to make connections and, once again, get your work in front of relevant people.
  • When I heard a name, I wrote it down. My big break happened when an agent read Graceling, loved it, and agreed to take me on. She was one of several agents I’d heard people speak well of; in fact, a trustworthy friend of mine knew her and could vouch for her work. It was lucky that my friend recommended her, because I might never have known to look into her otherwise, and I might never have queried her — and she has turned out to be fabulous! The point of this section is: pay attention, ask trustworthy people for advice and recommendations, and work your connections. What’s that? You say you don’t have any connections? Well, try getting involved in some of the ways I’ve mentioned in this post: classes, contests, queries, organizations, conferences. Connections can be made, if you’re patient. I know this is true, because I’ve made them myself (little, introverted me!) and I have watched other people make them.

The other way I’m going to answer this question is to try to stress something I think is really important:

My road to publication involved research, rejections, near misses, and a lot of luck. But the other thing it involved was a LOT of writing. I spent some time working toward getting published, but I spent the vast majority of my time writing. Two of the best ways to get published are to become a better writer and to expand your portfolio, both of which are accomplished by writing. :o)

Maybe my truest point is this: the whole process needs to be about the writing more than it’s about the getting published. You need to love to write; you need to want to write whether or not you get published. The fulfillment comes more from the act of writing than from the state of being published. TRUST ME. Don’t give writing short shrift in your goal to get published! The writing is what it’s all about.

Just my opinion, based on my experience. Other writers who’ve had different experiences might give vastly different advice (and should feel free to do so in the comments).

I cannot advise you on the publication process beyond what I’ve done here. However, there’s loads of information out there about how to find an agent and/or publisher. Members of the SCBWI and other writing organizations often have resources available to them, and there are free forums online, too. As far as marketplace dictionaries, The Writer’s Market is one of the classic tomes, and I’ve also heard good things about Jeff Herman’s Guide. Do your homework and you’ll find the info you need to get started.

3. Do you have any writing advice?
Yes, sort of, though I don’t think it’s going to bowl you over.

IMO, learning to write is something every writer must do on his or her own. You learn to write by writing. You learn your own habits and tendencies by writing. You learn to ignore the voices of self-doubt by writing. To become a better writer, read, read, read, and WRITE WRITE WRITE.

Joining a writing circle or taking a class helps, because you can learn more about yourself by rubbing up against other people, and because feedback — from the right person or people — is a necessary part of becoming a better writer. Reading and studying books you love is also critical. But the real work happens by yourself, writing.

One more thing: don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one way to write. It’s okay to write fast and it’s okay to write slow. It’s okay to write in one big chunk in the middle of the night and it’s okay to write in patches throughout the day. It’s okay to type on a computer and it’s okay to write on waterproof paper upside down in the bath with a space pen. If the way you’re doing it isn’t working for you, well then, try something different. But no one can tell you how it should be done. Every writer must find his or her own way.

If you find this to be pathetic advice, I recommend three books that helped me a lot early on. They are: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King; and Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels by Phyllis A. Whitney. More recently, I’ve also read and loved Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and On Writing by Stephen King.

Have any advice of your own? Feel free to leave it in the comments.

Coming on Monday: A SHORT POST.