Insider Secrets to Publishing Your First Novel
Insider Secrets to Publishing Your First Novel
Hi Friends! I’m often asked details about my publication journey, and thought it might be helpful to share, for those of you curious or who may benefit from my mistakes—ahem—experiences. They might help you! Maybe?
American Betiyatook many years to write, amid teaching and family and just…life. Its early draft clocked in at 165,000 words—approximately twice the appropriate length for a young adult novel. (My long-suffering writing group and beta reader read and critiqued every page of that lengthy draft, so an ode to them is long overdue).
If there’s one thing I’d stress regarding publishing the traditional route, it’s this: Once you’ve done all the things to get your manuscript ready for others, it’s not cocky or audacious or delusional to apply for awards or query top literary agents when seeking representation —it is, in fact, the logical next step!
So let me give you a sneak peek into the torturous—I mean, exhilarating world of publishing. For starters, what exactly do I mean by all the things…?
Read widely, including outside of your genre, and write daily I know this isn’t earth-shattering news, but it’s amazing how much you learn by reading great works while settling into a writing practice that works for you (that includes consistency). Read and study strategies used by the author, including voice, characterization, narrative arc, etc. Create reading and writing goals for yourself—and hold yourself accountable to them.
Join national writing organizations. Organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) are amazing resources for writers. Research which organization fits your needs/genre, become a member, attend conferences to learn from and connect with publishing professionals, and meet other writers. Everything began for me once I joined SCBWI. So change out of your pj’s, leave your house, and talk to other humans about writing. It’ll make you stronger.
Join/organize a writing group…and meet regularly. I happened upon a fantastic local writing group by serendipity: At a Coffee & Kids gathering at the local church, I befriended a wonderful woman, Lauren Fox, who unbeknownst to me, was secretly working on a novel. When she learned that I, too, was secretly working on a novel, she invited me to join her writing group, and the rest was history. (See what can happen when you leave your house?) My writing group has been meeting for over a dozen years now, once monthly at a coffee shop, where we give constructive feedback on each other’s pages (no more than 15 per person, sent ahead of time through email). The group is wonderful—supportive, thoughtful, brilliant—and one of my favorite things about being a writer.
Before sending it out to agents/awards, ensure that your manuscript reflects your best work. That means not just copyediting, but having many others read and critique it for characterization, structure, and pacing. Here’s the painful part—be sure to revise it based on that feedback. Your manuscript is representing you, so top quality is key—and you need others to tell you how to improve it. Following the advice of my critique partner, I whittled American Betiyadown to 84,000 words (oof), revised the story from past tense to present tense (ugh), and finally submitted it to the national Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Emerging Voices Award (ahhhh!), a recognition created to support writers from diverse backgrounds. Which brings me to my next point…
Apply for writing awards/grants Look up regional and national ones. I’d never applied for awards before—I was too busy writing a double-sized book, apparently—but I needed a deadline, and felt that American Betiyamight just fit what the SCBWI award committee was looking for. I knew it was a long shot, but I figured…why not me? If, in the slim chance I win, what better way to stand out in the query slush pile? Getting the call that my manuscript did indeed win was one of the most shocking, memorable, and game-changing moments of my life. Do your research, and if your piece fits what they are looking for, then what the freakin’ freaks are you waiting for? Apply already!
Register for a Publisher’s Marketplace Membership For $25 a month, you have access to the updated list of the top agents in each literary category, their recent book deals, and hard numbers related to these deals. You can easily discontinue the membership once you land with an amazing agent, but until then: This access helps you determine which specific agents to research, ensuring that they would be a good fit to represent you and your work.
Create a list of agents to query. Scan the acknowledgments page of the novels you love/feel are similar to yours in order to discover the agents behind those titles. Check out Twitter’s #MSWL, and learn about the kinds of stories specific agents are looking for will help you finetune your list of whom to query. Include a mix of agents—those that are top agents, but also those newer agents looking to build their lists. These “young-and-hungry” agents can be wonderful in that they have more time to devote to you and your manuscript, and some of the most insightful feedback came from these newer agents—agents who rejected me but whose spot-on feedback I utilized to tweak both my query letter and my first 10 pages before querying others. Aim for a list of 10-12 agents to start.
Get that query letter in top form. A query letter is designed to grab the attention of an agent, so pitch the premise of your book with the aim of highlighting what makes your book stand out. You also want to be sure to tailor each query letter to the agent, mentioning why you chose them: an online interview you’d read, what ways the stories they’re seeking align with yours, etc. Also, be sure to include word count, plus some comparative titles to give the agent an immediate sense of your story.
Join Query Tracker. This is a wonderful, free online resource that allows you to track where your query is located in the agents’ queue of bazillion other queries. This means that after sending your query to an agent, you can stalk them quietly as you wait without feeling like a freak—hell, it’s literally designed for stalking where the agents are in their reading/responding process, so no guilt whatsoever!
Anyway. Above are the steps I followed before I ended up receiving three offers of representation from top agents! It was amazing (and also, um, super stressful to choose one, but that’s a post for another day).
The most important thing, I believe, is to write your story, the one you wish you had had to help you navigate this beautiful, heartbreaking world. Write the stories that scare you, the ones from the darkest corners of your heart, or the ones that enlighten us amid their levity. The world is waiting, and we need you, so get flying. (Speaking of flying...the above image is a painting by the amazing Saqiba Suleman.)
I’d love to hear from you! Post below any questions, or suggestions on anything you’d like to read about in future posts.
All my best,