Musings of a Dinosaur

A Family Doctor in solo private practice; I may be going the way of the dinosaur, but I'm not dead yet.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Attention NaNoWriMo Winners: Everything You Need to Know About Publishing

I've noticed quite a few other National Novel Writing Month participants here in the medical blogosphere, of whom several (like myself) managed to become winners. At least one (cough -- Kim -- cough) made mention of getting their manuscripts off to publishers in the near future, which prompted me to offer the following unasked-for advice. (Occupational hazard for Family Physicians: "You're here for poison ivy? Ok, but you should still stop smoking.")

I have actually been writing novels -- not just during NaNoWriMo -- for several years now, and it turns out the path to publication isn't quite as straightforward as it seems. Here is what is usually suggested (and which I haven't always done, which is how I learned the hard way what a good idea it is) upon finishing a novel:

Put the manuscript away and don't look at it for at least a month. (Start a new novel while you wait.) Then -- and only then -- go back to start your editing and polishing and stuff. This is a process that, unlike NaNo-style writing, should NOT be rushed. I know you want to get to it right away, but this "sit time" makes more of a difference than you can possibly imagine.

After it's been revised, rewritten, polished and proofread to within an inch of its life, let a few people read it. Preferably people who are not related to you, these "beta" readers' job is to provide feedback. Much has been written about the role of beta readers; it turns out it's better if they are writers rather than readers, as writers are going to be more able to tell you why things work or not (vs. a reader saying, "This doesn't work for me, but I don't know why.")

Finally, when it's truly perfect, you're ready to go. Here's where to go:

Agent Query

Actually, go there now and read everything they have under "Writers" and "Publishing" on the top of the site. Every word is gold. To see the same information, but more spread out and much funnier, check out one of my all time favorite blogs:

Miss Snark

In a nutshell, you can't send your book straight to a publisher, because by and large they won't look at it. You need to find a literary agent (Miss Snark or one of her ilk) who is willing to represent you, submit your stuff to editors they know, negotiate the sale, and take care of a thousand other esoteric details that can royally screw you if not attended to properly. Finding an agent is also a very difficult task, because they are swamped with submissions, (the "slush pile") most of which are not only unpublishable but often unreadable.

The process is as follows:
  1. Send out queries to agents. Usually consists of a cover letter, a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE; never to be omitted) and a SHORT writing sample (5-10 pages max) but VARIES INCREDIBLY. Need to research agents and their preferences. The whole "Query" thing is an art form in and of itself.
  2. Agents who like your query and writing will ask you to send a bigger chunk of your book; anywhere from 50-100 pages, first three chapters; again, very individual. This is called a "partial" and having one requested is a good thing.
  3. If they like the first part, they'll ask for the full manuscript (called a "full", of all things.) This is very good.
  4. If you've gotten to this point, you're much farther along than me. Go and study the Snarkives.
  5. (Actually #1.5 on the list) Regarding rejections: Most of your queries will result in rejections. These can range from generic form letters, to small slips of paper, to lovely personalized letters, to "No thanks" scrawled on your own query and mailed back to you. Do not take it personally. Do not try to find out why. Do not try to read between the lines for hidden meanings about your chances; you don't have any. No means no. Most of the time if you're not getting any requests for partials or fulls it means the writing needs work. But it can also mean the agents you're querying don't represent the genre you're writing, (your fault: researching agents to query includes making sure they rep your genre) their list of authors is full, they like your stuff but don't think they can sell it, or they're just pissed because they didn't get lucky the night before. Rejection rules #1, #2, #3 and #4: It's not personal.
A word about publishing scams; the cardinal rule of the legitimate publishing industry is this:
Money flows to the author.
There is an amazing and dismaying array of folks out there eager to part unwary authors from their money using a variety of scams. Here is the anti-scam Mecca:

Writer Beware (Ann Crispin & Victoria Strauss)
Ann & Victoria (their blog)
Preditors and Editors (Dave Kuzminski)

Ann, Victoria and Dave are the Holy Trinity of anti-scammers. They're also excellent writers and really cool people. Each of the sites mentioned above goes into far greater detail about the nuts and bolts of publishing -- both the legit and the scams. If you have any questions left after devouring all of the above material, they are available for answers.

"Self-publishing" is frowned on by all of the above sources for a variety of very good reasons. It's much more applicable to non-fiction than to fiction, although I confess I have gotten into it myself. Which is how I found the bible of self-publishing:

Dan Poynter's Self-Publishing Manual, 15th Edition

Dan Poynter considers himself the world's foremost expert on the subject, and if he isn't, he's pretty close. You have to take what he says in the right spirit, and in the context of the rest of the wild and crazy world of "conventional publishing", but it's a more substantive debate than, say, a discussion of CAM.

Please understand that for me to say, "This is everything you need to know about publishing" is like a college kid who's taken an intro bio course telling you everything you need to know about the human body, but I'd like to think it's enough to at least point out that it's not nearly as easy as it seems.

But congratulations on winning NaNo!


At Sat Dec 02, 06:57:00 PM, Blogger Sid Schwab said...

Really excellent, helpful post. Wish I'd seen it a year ago. Much of what you said I learned the hard way. I got to my publisher through the back door, without an agent. In retrospect, I wish I'd made the effort to find one. Your advice about letting the MS sit for a while before re-editing is excellent. I never did: I went over and over and over till my eyes moved down the page without seeing. I may have memorized the whole thing. Too late, I now see things I wish I'd done differently; on the other hand, I assume every author finds that, no matter how the editing evolved... A very worthy post. If I ever write another book (this blogging thing seems to sap what little creative energy I have) I'll definitely try to find an agent. And a different publisher.

At Sun Dec 03, 04:15:00 PM, Blogger Cathy said...

What a great post Dr. Dino. Thank you for writing it!

At Sun Dec 03, 07:57:00 PM, Blogger Dreaming again said...

As someone who's book went to the printer on Friday I would add one note ...

When someone who is in the publishing field tells you to do it the hard way and do not go the self publication route because you have something publishable ...


Agent or no agent...

it may take time ...

but my book went to print yesterday a royalty publisher ... it took time ...but it's going ... and they are paying me not me them ...

it's been a long route ...

At Mon Dec 04, 12:49:00 AM, Blogger DrWes said...


Join the fun. You've been t a g g e d !

Merry Christmas a bit early.

At Tue Dec 05, 10:37:00 PM, Blogger Emily DeVoto, Ph.D., said...

Congratulations on finishing NaNo! (and thanks for linking to Grand Rounds...). I got almost to 30,000 words and ran out of gas - couldn't silence the inner editor, still didn't really have a plot or a direction, and just couldn't get my characters to DO anything.

Should I, though, manage to resuscitate any of what I have written, I imagine your practical advice here will be very, very helpful.


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