The no-brainer guide to becoming a published writer

Becoming a published writer isn’t complicated. It’s hard but it isn’t complicated. I hang out at a couple of writing forums and often see people making assumptions that there’s some trick or secret to writing and getting published. That you have to have an “in”, you have to know someone in the publishing industry, you have to go to conventions and meet agents and editors, you have to already be a star in the blogsphere, you have to sacrifice thirteen black cockerels at dawn on the Winter solstice…

Well, all those things (okay, not the last one. Probably not.) might lie ahead on your path to publication, but none of them are essential, and none of them will do the trick if you don’t have a decent book to publish.

Breaking it down, I think there are three basic steps. None of them complicated.

UnderwoodKeyboard1) Write a book. Yeah, this is definitely pretty basic. But the Internet is full of people who talk about writing a book, who talk about how difficult it is to get published, who talk about how it’s not worth writing a book, because new writers can’t get published now. And never write a book. Don’t be all mouth and trousers. Step 1 is to actually write a book. Outline or don’t. Write it in a frenzy over a month, or by doing 100 words a day for six months. It doesn’t matter how you do it, there are a hundred ways to get that book done, but there’s no trick to it. You just have to write it.

Cultivate good habits and discipline and get the words down in whatever way suits you. No tricks to it. Just doing the work.

Pens and Paper2) Revise and edit your book. If the internet is full of people who talk about writing a book and never do, it’s also fairly well populated with people who have at least written a first draft of a book. And then… then they either do nothing, or they submit that first draft, and, unless they’re an undiscovered genius, it’s rejected and they eventually give up and complain on the internet that new writers can’t get published these days. It’s something you’ve got to accept as a writer, that you will have to edit your first draft. And guess what – you’ll probably even have to do so if you edited while drafting. There are no shortcuts.

The amount of editing and the process of editing required will vary. Some people need to do little more than a quick line edit, others will do more extensive rewriting, others will start an entirely new draft of the story. But whatever your book needs, you can be sure it needs something. If you think you can skip editing because the publisher will have an editor fix all that stuff up, then you’re thinking like an amateur and will continue to be one!

3) Submit your query, to appropriate agents or publishers following their submission guidelines. The only hard part about this is writing a good query. Sending it to the right place should be the easiest part of this whole process. But every day agents and publishers receive submissions that are not suitable for them. They don’t represent/publish that genre, or the publisher doesn’t take unagented submissions, or the agent’s list is full and they’re closed to submissions right now – as stated in big letters on their website. This just wastes everyone’s time and increases the number of rejections you get. And no, they won’t make an exception based on the fact your book is totally awesome. Follow their submission guidelines. Everyone’s seem to be a little bit different, so check. All of this will be on their website. If something is unclear, email them and ask for clarification. Don’t give them an excuse to reject you out of hand.

These are the three basic steps. Like I say, hard, but not complicated. Well the last one isn’t even hard (aside from the actually putting together a good query part!) No special secret that you need to be in on. No tricks. No shortcuts. (If anyone offers you a shortcut to guaranteed publication they are almost certainly trying to con you out of money.) No special stroke of luck required – though always be ready to take advantage of luck should it happen to strike. Don’t let fantasies or wishing convince you that there’s some magical secret door into the publication world that you need to find. Don’t waste precious time trying to find it, just concentrate on writing. Write a book. Edit and revise it into the best book you can make it. Send it to an appropriate place in the way they specify they want it. No-brainer.


22 thoughts on “The no-brainer guide to becoming a published writer

  1. So true! The minute you say you’re a published writer, it’s amazing how many people say they’re going to write/have written a book, but getting through those steps seems to be something they’re not terribly motivated to do. Or maybe frightened – sending that first query letter off is pretty scary.

    And may I just add, a good query email is a simple one. No hyperbole, no fancy fonts – just setting out what sort of story you’ve written and a teaser blurb. Nothing else required if it’s the first thing you’ve sent out.

  2. I would add “If you see an opportunity, grab it at once.” I had a terrible habit of writing and editing the book and then thinking that I would submit it one day. It wasn’t until I had a sudden brainstorm and actually entered a competition whose prize was publication (despite thinking ‘that’s a terribly short deadline. I don’t know if I can have the book finished by then) that I won it and became published.

    There are lots of submissions calls out there which mean that publishers are actively looking for [whatever]. If you grab the chance to write [whatever] for them, you’re already giving yourself an enormous boost past the slushpile.

  3. Excellent advice – but of course “the rules don’t apply to meeeeeeee” says every special snowflake out there. Of COURSE Samhain will be interested in my literary stream of consciousness novel. Of COURSE Harper Collins will want my unagented steam punk m/m erotica – why would they not–it’s brilliant”


    1. Maybe next month’s opinion piece will be called “You are not a special little snowflake”. 😉 I know it’s one I make sure to remind myself about often. If something works for 95% of the people who try it, it will probably work for me too.

  4. The last part might be easy, but it’s bloody scary!

    Actually, I’m not always sure it is easy. They sort of say you should have read some of the authors the agents/publishers have taken on, and that’s not always easy to do. That would take as long as writing the book. lol!

    At least I’ve done point 1. In middle of process point 2. I’m getting there!

    1. Ah, well you could research early on who you’re going to submit to and do some reading while still editing the book. But I don’t know that it’s always needed to read a big stack of books from that publisher or agent’s writers. It’s not hard to get a good idea of the tone, audience, and subject matter of a book with all the resources on the web these days, without actually reading more than the excerpt.

  5. Arrived here by way of Charlie Cochrane’s link.
    Great post.

    Congrats to Teresa. You’ve done far more than most already.

    Occassionally I hear from folks who have an “idea” for a book and want to know who they should talk to. I generally say when they’ve written “The End” I’ll tell them where to begin.

  6. Great post, Becky!
    I’m always surprised when people keep nagging about having to follow the formatting guidelines. As much of a layout bitch I am, I’m surprised people find their layout/fonts more important than pleasing a publisher.

    Personally, I find writing a query more difficult than the book itself (not to mention the synopsis).

    @Jo: even as an unpublished author people tend to tell me their dreams to write … but they never do.

    1. From back in my old days in fanfic I always used to hate it when people resorted to fancy formatting tricks to draw attention. If your words don’t stand up to scrutiny in just plain text then no amount of sparkly effects with help.

    2. It’s the blurb I find most difficult! And as that comes as part of the query, I suppose I do find them challenging…

      What is it with all the people who dream to write but never do? I suspect they’re frightened that what they end up producing won’t live up to the version in their head – I know I was for years. Thing is, the only way you can really get any better is with practice…

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