Since I’ve made the announcement about selling MECHANICAL FAILURE, I’ve had a bunch of people ask me how to get their novel on the shelf at the local Barnes and Noble.
Let’s be honest; there are thousands upon thousands of articles out there on the interwebs on how to get your novel published. At the risk of being redundant, I’m going to try to break down my own personal journey into five phases (I hate the word “steps” because it implies a non-iterative, linear process) that got me here. Just remember that this was my journey. I know many authors that came about this in different ways. Take this for what it is: a personal story, and not a prescription.
And because I’ve been in the military, I’ll give all my phases operational code names. I haven’t gotten to do that in a while and it’s kind of fun.
1. Operation WRITE, DAMN YOU
A lot of people don’t give this step enough attention for a couple of reasons. First, it’s hard. Second, it’s hard. Third, it’s also difficult. Writing takes a long time, a lot of trial and error, and, actually, a lot of reading as well. If you’re not consuming literature, or at least reading books on writing, you run the risk of writing things that are not very good. But the main point is that you might have to produce an awful lot of words before any of them are worth reading. David Farland, a renowned writing teacher and author, asserts that you must write a million words before you write anything good. That will take you time. START NOW.
To further bust the myth that publishing just happens, here’s what I did. For me, between 2010 and 2015, I wrote 6 novels and about 40 short stories (about 15 of which were sold to semi-pro/pro markets). I sometimes used NaNoWriMo as a jumping-off point, but for the most part I just wrote as much as I physically could, to the tune of – wait for it – 1,005,972 words before I wrote the first word of MECHANICAL FAILURE. Weird, right? According to the aforementioned urban legend, I’m 5,972 words crappier than average. Awesome.
2. Operation TALK TO PEOPLE SOMETIMES
I am of the firm belief that art is pointless if done in a vacuum. I mean, all those tubes and all of that suction really make it hard to see whatever you’re doing, never mind concentrate with all of the noise going on.
Do you see why I sold a humor book?
Anyway, I meant what I said. Art is a form of deep communication; in order for it to “work” you need to communicate with someone. This comes in many forms, but at first you need to have people read your work. They need to be people whose tastes you trust and whose opinions you value. Your mom does not count unless she is a literary agent or editor and is also mean. You can join a writing group or pawn off your work to a book club and discuss. Be prepared to reciprocate; nobody wanted to read my crappy 150,000 word novel unless I read their crappy 150,000 word novel in the attempt to make them both less crappy.
How did this go for me? I was in an online writing group for a while, met a couple of people whose opinions I trusted, and broke off from that group, keeping those relationships I had fostered. I found fans of SF/F in the air force unit I was in and asked if they’d mind reading it. It worked; I got lots of great feedback.
Also, get engaged with the community at large. I went to WORLDCON – the world’s premier SciFi/Fantasy convention – and started talking to thought leaders, agents, and editors in the industry. Schmoozing, if you will. I weaseled my way onto a couple of panels because I was ostensibly an expert in military affairs, having been in the military, even though I hadn’t published a book yet.
3. Operation SHOW THAT YOU ARE NOT F$#KING AROUND
One of the greatest pieces of encouragement I ever got from another author when I was starting was from Myke Cole, the first professional I ever became friends with. I asked him to take a look at my novel, and he agreed. Afterwards, he encouraged me to send it to his agent, saying that “this manuscript absolutely demonstrates to anyone who reads it that Joe Zieja isn’t f$#king around.”
You need to show the right person that you are not f$#king around.
Once you’ve got a manuscript that is probably going to win you a Hugo Award, it’s time to send it out so that people can tell you it will never win a Hugo Award. The best place to start is with an agent – someone who the industry respects as a taste-leader in fiction, who will be taken seriously by editors when she/he sends them your book.
Back to my story. The novel Myke was talking about? That was novel #4. Not MECHANICAL FAILURE. Don’t get ahead of yourself yet. Publishing is about building your talent, but it’s also about building your relationships. Joshua at JABberwocky Literary Agency did read the book, did see that I was serious about this, and then absolutely did not accept it for representation. Why? Because it wasn’t ready.
The next book was.
But woah there. It was not so simple. You see, things always happen in ways you never expect. Did Joshua read the next book? No. Why? Because his assistant, Sam, took one look at the title and stole it from him. It was a much better fit, and you’ll find that there is a lot based on “fit” in this business. Some people love stories about evil teddy bears. Some people don’t. You can’t please everyone.
4. Operation PULL YOUR HAIR OUT AND CRY AND ASK WHY GOD WHY DID I DO THIS
All artistic endeavors are about learning to accept rejection gracefully and not be discouraged from continuing what you are passionate about. Even when you get the 100th rejection letter (you will get 100 rejection letters) you have to keep writing. Because when you get that agent, when they finally accept your book and say “this should be on the shelves,” you know what you get to do?
Get rejected. Except this time it’s by editors.
The book that JABberwocky originally snagged from me was not MECHANICAL FAILURE. It was a zany, ridiculous fantasy novel called DEATH BEAR AND THE SNUGGLE OF DOOM that I really hope you’ll get to read one day. I don’t think the world was ready for it. It got rejected by everyone my agent sent it to. Someone even found my house, put the manuscript on my doorstep, lit it on fire, and then rang the doorbell and dashed away.
Okay that’s a lie. But that’s what it felt like. It was so much worse for me personally than getting rejected by agents – now I felt like I was on the cusp of being published and continually let down (I’m purposefully not using an analogy that involves cerulean spherical objects because I am a decent, good man and I know my mother reads this blog).
While that was happening, though, I was still writing books. And editors were learning my name (see #3). And one editor, who liked my style, asked me if I had anything that, given my background, was military sci-fi with a humorous bent.
“Sure!” I said, typing furiously. “I have like, a thousand of those, but my email is down, and uh, you’re breaking up *static noise*”
That was MECHANICAL FAILURE. I wrote it very quickly. He bought it.
5. Operation GET RICH AND DIE FAT AND HAPPY
Hahaha I’m just kidding. If you want to see some real statistics of real authors publishing real books, check out Jim Hines’ blog post about his writing income and Bradley Beaulieu’s post about the same.
While I’m waiting for the gold bullion to come pouring in, I’m busy marketing the hell out of my book. Selling a novel isn’t the last step in the process – there’s edits, copy edits, marketing, events, getting established on social media like Twitter and Facebook , and generating hype about the book. There’s still a lot to be done before I can even start thinking about the next book in the series.
That brings us to today. That’s my path! I hope you learned something. Feel free to reblog or ask questions in the comments section below.
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