I have had several of my writer friends ask me what I did to get my book published? The question is asked out of kind curiosity but there is often a deeper, implied question in their inquisitiveness: What did you do that I didn’t do to get your book published? Before I attempt to answer that, I need to qualify that although I did secure a publishing contract, it is from a small, independent publisher, Moonshine Cove Publishing LLC. This is not to take anything away from what I have done or from this opportunity that the publisher has extended to me. It is just that I, like many of you I imagine, tried very hard to go the conventional route of securing an agent and ultimately landing a contract with one of the big boys. So back to the question: What did I do to get my book published? Or: What did I do that you didn’t? The easy answer is nothing. The harder, more complicated answer is everything. I know it sounds like writer double speak, but let’s take a look at it anyway. Imagine we have two columns one labeled Nothing, and another, Everything. Let’s begin on the Nothing side.
- For as long as I can remember, I have fantasized about writing a novel. Just like you?
- As a voracious reader, I have finished many a book only to set it down and say to myself, “I can write that,” (sometimes there is an expletive after the word that). Just like you?
- I had what I thought was a great, maybe even brilliant idea (story-line) for a book. Just like you?
- I was always to busy, with work, family, whatever to take my dream and make it a reality. Then, with the economic collapse of 2008, I found myself with time on my hands, and a desire to find another career. Just like some of you?
- So I set down with my laptop at my dining room table, with the life of my family: wife, sons, mother-in-law, (that is a topic for an entirely different discussion), dog and cat, going on all around me and began my attempt to write my first novel. I used my iPod as a source of white noise to drown out the commotion and activity. And write I did. I had a completed story in about 20 pages. Now, I had no idea how long a novel should be, but I did know that was more than 20 pages. Those first pages were written in broad strokes, really, really broad. Then I regrouped and began anew. This time I wrote in detail and when I say detail, I’m not talking the hair on the chin, but how many, what color, and how long, curly or straight each individual hair was. Just like you?
PART 2: Before anyone gets all indignant, it is not the purpose of this Blog to point out things I did better, rather it is to show the evolution, at least for me, of letting go of my work in an effort to become a viable commercial fiction author.
6. I was seriously attached to my manuscript, not only to the story and the way it was told, but to the characters, and every scrape of my life and lives of family, friends and people I have known over the years, not to mention places I have lived and visited that ended up in the novel. In fact, I was so attached that I actually imagined scenarios where certain changes to the ms would be a deal breaker (as if I was going to have people beating down the door to make me offers). Sound familiar?
7. I had no idea how long an average first novel was supposed to be, or how many words are on an average page, or what acceptable formatting was. Just like you?
8. I don’t have a literary or English or journalism background (I do have a college degree), and had never written anything more than term papers, contracts, letters and cards (birthday, anniversary, get well, you get the point.) Just like you?
9. When I finished the manuscript I was certain that I had done it in record time (Began July of 2008, completed, in my mind, December 2008), and that it was an amazing, ready to go, NYT bestseller. Just like you?
10.I had no idea of editing and I’m not taking about spelling and grammar, although those are important. I am talking about content, rhythm, flow, character development, point of view, sense of place, and all the other technical elements that make for good story telling. Just like you?
Stay tuned. More to follow.
PART 3: Let’s see where was I? I had an idea, wrote a book, thought it was perfect and now I’m ready to see my name on the New York Times bestseller list. Well, I do write fiction.
11.I thought that the process of taking this stack of pages, in my case over 800 (nearly 250,000 words), was simple and straightforward. (Understand that up to this point I had not done one single bit of research into what the next step(s) were). Just like you?
12.So, here I was with what I thought was a completed ms. This is an important point to the discussion: This was the FIRST time I was sure my manuscript was agent/publisher/editor ready. Oh, I knew it needed some grammar, punctuation and spelling help, but other than that, it was PERFECT! And I knew a few people who were pretty good at proof reading (not professionals), who had volunteered to help me out. They thought it would take 4-5 weeks for them to muddle through my stuff and get it back to me. Great, just enough time to find an agent. How hard could that be? Ring any bells?
13.Let the agent search begin. What a cluster. I had no idea how many agents were out there, or what they were going to require in terms of submissions. Turns out they don’t want much really, just one page (250 words) that tells them about the work and a short bio telling them who you are and what writing credits you might have. (Turns out that knowing how to write—literally—is not a credit.) As for the three paragraphs about the book, well let’s just say, I completely misunderstood the whole assignment. The beautiful thing about hindsight is I can look back now a see the errors of way as if they are flashing neon lights. It should be noted that this was the beginning of the confusion and frustration phase of my writing adventure, a phase that I am still floundering in. To be clear it’s not the writing part that I am confused and frustrated with. Do you feel me?
14.My agent research began a bit haphazard. I was making lists on yellow legal pads, which was nuts because my hand writing sucks. I mean half the time I can’t even read it. I was using Predators and Editors as my gilding light, and began with the “A’s”, and started compiling my short list of agents, as if I would have my pick. The whole thing was exhausting. I had lists with asterisks and check marks and x’s, (I began this rating system that I couldn’t even remember.) After hours, and mean hours over the course of several days I had my list. Now, I had to visit each agents website and decipher their submission requirements. By this time it was early January of 2009, and many of the agents, my cream of the crop, were closed to submissions and weren’t scheduled to reopen until spring. So I began to refine my search, (I wouldn’t recommend my method, because at the end of the day it was akin to throwing darts at a dart board blindfolded and maybe drunk.) I started by trying to find agents who would take the whole manuscript—not many of those. Then those who would take 10-50 pages—a much greater number. Then there was the whole query letter thing. Some wanted a synopsis. Was that the same as a query? Almost all of them wanted, whatever it was, query, synopsis, 10-50 pages, copy and pasted into the body of an email. I don’t know about your computer, but mine (it’s a Mac), seems to want to paste my word docs into some different formant than they were typed in the original word file. You know stuff not lined up, weird offsets from one sentence to another, strange symbols at the beginning or end of a sentence. Besides that, there was very specific information that HAD to be in the subject line, as well as ominous warnings that if everything didn’t follow the submission guidelines to the letter the email would be immediately deleted. On top of that was the “Don’t call us we’ll call you,” caveat, and the “Due to the number of submissions you will only hear back from us if we are interested, and that might take months,” comment. But not be deterred, after a few weeks I came up with a list of 6 agents who I was going to submit too. Keep in mind that my ms, had not been edited other than by me and a few friends, but it was PERFECT after all. Any of this sound familiar?
PART 4: Agents are like aliens, you’re not sure they exist but you want to believe that they do. But trying to find one is like trying to get into Area 51 to confirm your suspicions —Impossible.
15. My ms was now at a pared down, tight, 200,000 words. Little did I know that this length would be an automatic rejection from some agents. But what did I care if they couldn’t recognize genius when it was staring them in the face—it was their loss. Off I sent my query and the first few pages. Boy was I surprised when, less than an hour later I got my first Robo-Rejection. I didn’t really know what those were at the time but before this exercise was over, I would. Rejection builds character, right?
16. It is approaching the end of February 2009, and I can’t understand why I haven’t been contacted by at least one of the 6 agents, (it’s really only three now, because I have received form rejections from 3). This would be the beginning of moving into the “Everything” column as it relates to the premise of this Blog: What did I do that you didn’t (or might not have) to get my book published? On my own and with the help of a few non-professional friend editors, one was my brother, I had done all I could to get my ms word count down. In truth it was still way to long, by about 100,000 words, (a whole book in itself). I NEEDED AN EDITOR. So Internet here I come. It seemed that everything I read about freelance editors was more on the line of BEWARE! In regard to agents (who are also editors or have editors on staff), it was YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE TO PAY TO HAVE YOUR BOOK EDITED. That’s true if you are under contract and I assume that if people are posing as agents only to solicit paying editorial gigs that the warnings should be heeded. But all that didn’t diminish the fact that I NEEDED AN EDITOR. I knew a woman who had lots of editorial experience working for magazines and newspapers, who agreed to help. She charged by the hour, which seemed reasonable (but I had no idea how editors charged). This was a part-time thing for her, which, at the time was fine with me. You’re in a rush, but don’t know it?
17. This process went on for several months, and all the time I’m still trying to get agent representation, without luck, and the rejections are piling up. Around this time I decided that I needed to have a better system for tracking agents and keeping a record or what I sent to whom and when. I figured that there had to be something out there to help. I used a service called Query Tracker. I found the database to be up to date, and the system was easy to use, plus there was a ranking system, and I am big fan of ranking. This service has a free application but to get the full benefit you have to pay. This is a very important point: YOU HAVE TO PAY. That would become my mantra going forward. Yours too?
PART 5: We are going to move onto the “Everything” column: As in what did I do that you didn’t to get my book published. As I stated earlier, this is a conversation not an accusation. I am sure many of you have followed a similar path, and can relate, I also am sure that many of you held on to an idea, and a draft of your work that you were absolutely convinced, 100 %, needed no substantial work.
- With my friend editing the ms, we were plodding along, it was now mid-summer of 2009 and the ms was still too long and I was more confused than ever as to what I was supposed to do with the editing. It is important to note that this confusion was not the fault of the editor. The problem was mine. The truth was, I wasn’t taking the comments and suggestions seriously enough and I was spending money that I couldn’t afford to waste (by my recollection I had spent a couple of thousand dollars. I would suggest you keep better records than me). I was also having a difficult time with the format of the edit. Looking back, I know now that an editor is like a good pair of shoes, it doesn’t matter how much they cost as long as they fit. If they are the kind of shoes that get better as they get more broken in you find yourself supported by a foundational base that can get you through gentle strolls in the park, as well as long, arduous hikes. By September I realized that I needed to go a different route, these shoes hurt. (NOTE: This woman editor, is a good friend, and has helped me so much, and is currently editing another project of mine, but we had to take the shoes to the cobbler and make a few modifications.) Any similar experiences?
- Back I went to the Internet in search of an editor. I stumbled on Book Editing Associates. Here I was able to look at the credentials of freelance editors, and sort through them by genera. Once I narrowed down the list to those that worked on fiction in my genera (thriller), I was able to come up with a short list. My short list was short, only one name. Then you go through a process of applying to your selections. They need a description of the project, word count and some basic personal info (there is a form). My understanding is that each editor sets their own rates and negotiates directly with perspective clients; at least that is how it went for me. To say I was in no-mans-land would be an understatement. I had no idea how editors charged or even a remote notion of what the cost would be to edit 200,000 words. Reality check?
- This was the beginning, for me, of trying to stand back and objectively evaluate my work. As a big time reader, I have finished plenty of books, many bestsellers that were basically crap. So I had to ask myself: How much do you believe in this ms? Is it as good as you think it is? Can you handle it if someone tells you its junk? For me the answer to all questions were a resounding yes. I like to think that I am a confident, (and yes at times arrogant), individual, but I am also a realist. So it was time to put up or shut up. Ever been in this position?
- In a few days I heard back from my selection. He had time coming up to fit my project in, if we could come to terms. Really it was me coming to his terms. He offered me several options ranging from a flat rate to look over the ms and provide an editorial evaluation, to a more general and cursory editing process, and finally, to a full blown edit. Man, how I wanted to go with editorial evaluation. It was the least expensive and hell my book was perfect, right? He was able to give me a few days to think it over, but had other options out there and if I wanted into the queue I had to decide. I didn’t need any time at all, my book needed a full-blown edit and despite what my fantasy-mind was saying, I knew it. He had given me pricing for each option and even went on to say that his cost on the full edit was high and that I would certainly be able to find another editor for a lot less money. Integrity and honesty in the publishing world?
PART 6: I didn’t realize until I started this blog just how long I’ve been at it this whole journey of trying to get my book published. I have to say that I thought it would happen a lot faster. The one-year mark had come and gone, and I had thought I would already be a published author with another book ready to come out of the chutes. Once again I was letting my active imagination cloud reality.
5. About the cost of editing. Because I had only used my friend who was charging by the hour, I had no other point of reference as to the cost. It did know though, that it would be by the hour, the page, or the word. My guy was a by-the-word-guy. Since then I have seen advertised editing costs that are all over the board, with pricing as low as $1.25 per page, which, for an average page of 250 words, works out to about half a cent per word. Let’s just say I paid several times that amount. What about you? I should also mention that I am a proponent of, “you get what you pay for,” although that hasn’t always worked out. I should also note that in my contract with the editor, I paid a non-refundable amount up front and then paid in installments based on the completion of structured percentages of the ms. Also, there was an OUT clause that allowed either party to dissolve the arrangement at any time-no refunds of course. Because of the length of my ms, it was decided that the edit would take place in chucks of approximately 100 pages (8 chunks). This seemed reasonable because it would give me the opportunity to work on the edited copy as more was being edited. Make sense?
6. The editing began in November of 2009, and was scheduled to be completed by late February of 2010. That worked, I could have a publishing deal by mid 2010 only about 6 months off my one-year goal. Delusional? This is a word I have become fond of. I think because it sounds better than, dumb ass. Although I stepped up with my wallet, I still hadn’t committed to the editing process. Oh, I sent my first check and first chuck of ms, but I was sure the editor would send it back with a note that said, “This is some of the best work I have seen in years, and as it turns out you really don’t need the full blown edit, and I can save you a big chunk of change.” Delusional again?
7. I remember how excited I was when I saw the email and the first 100 pages had come back from the editor, around Thanksgiving 2009. I opened it up and when I saw that it had been returned as less than 25 pages, I thought there had to be some mistake. No mistake! My first 100 pages had been reduced by almost 75%. (Remember, my ms was 200,000 words and I needed to get to around 100,000, that’s 40 pages). Besides being in shock, I quickly did the math and realized that at this rate, I wouldn’t have enough for even one novel when the process was done. All of a sudden the whole, “You get what you pay for,” thing wasn’t look so good
8. The format of my edit was: I received two copies, one a line-edited copy, with notes, questions, and suggestions made in text, and one clean copy. This allowed me to put up the original; the line-edited version and the editor’s clean version all at the same time and compare them. This is a good system for me. Note: For me nothing is as good as reading the ms to myself, out loud. This way I can hear my words, and read them like I hope they are being read. The funny thing is though, that depending on my mood I don’t always read them the same way. You ever thought you were losing your mind?