As a publishing industry professional, I’m often asked, “How do I get published?” Here’s my second post on what you can do now to help your chances of getting out of the slush pile and into the bookstores. This is focused on how to be published with traditional publishers, but these tips will help you with self-publishing too.
“How Do I Get Published?” See Your Name in Print #2:
Prove That Your Book Has Sales Potential
One way to convince a publisher to publish your book right now is to have solid data showing that there is an interest in buying it. The way most writers approach this is through tip #1, Establish Yourself As An Expert, but it’s not the only way. The way we’re looking at today is showing how similar books sold well.
Smart publishers will look at how well comps (industry term for competing titles in the same category) have done. A perfect pitch would mention one or two books on the same subject that have sold well. If the publisher can’t find comps that cover the same topic, they try to bring up several books that cover similar themes. In addition to comps with poor sales, a red flag is if there are fifty comps (too much competition) or if the big sellers have some exciting extra characteristic, like they’re written by a celebrity.
Novelling never seems to go as planned. When I started this novel, I told myself I would spend as much time on the later chapters as on the opening ones. Everyone spends forever writing their first chapter, of course because it is the first thing people read. I’ve also discovered that writing the first chapter is one of the hardest things to write. Why? Because what the reader wants is exactly the opposite of what the author wants. The writer wants to introduce you to their world: who these characters are, where they live, what they’re in search of. The reader hasn’t decided yet whether she cares about any of those things. The reader wants to know what happened: what’s the story? What’s the conflict? Where is this going? Complicating things further, the reader really does need some of that background information. Well into the novel, they know what the characters look like, where they live, what kind of world the story inhabits. So the author has this challenge: they must get the reader involved in the story right away while sneaking in little details that give the reader something to picture. When my reading group first looked over my story, I realized they didn’t know diving in whether the world was going to be suburban or fantasy, if it takes place today or fifty years ago. Thus every detail in chapter one matters, because the readers is starting from nothing. Not only do you have to sneak them in, you have to give just the right details in just the right order.
The other challenge of first chapters is that they often a depict the world before the adventure began. Even Indiana Jones, as exciting as his life is, begins his story teaching at his university. Or take The Goonies: that action-packed story begins at home. Why even show the part before the kids discover the treasure map? Why not begin the story in the middle of the action, when they sneak into the cafe? The answer is that we want to know who these kids are, how they are like us, so we feel like this adventure could happen to us too. The problem comes in that many (most?) writers get lost in this set-up, taking too long in the introductions.
Naturally, I’ve been tweaking Chapter 1 all along, but today I finished my first total rewrite. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like rewriting chapters. I already did the work, I’d rather revise than start from scratch. But I finally found the hook I needed. The main problem I had was that I wanted to start the story with the lead character waking up from a dream, which limits the options for the scene. In trying to imagine how to make the scene more exciting, I kept imagining her awakening somewhere strange, like in the back of truck. But I couldn’t make that work. I know that mortal peril is the best hook to interest the readers, but how could I put my character in mortal peril when she’s just awoken in the safety of her room?
I also asked myself what exactly I needed to convey in this scene, for the reasons above. The main thing I wanted to get across was that the protagonist is depressed, but her boyfriend is even more so. I thought I had shown this, but it didn’t seem to me like the readers were getting it, not to the extent that I needed. And the answer to the question: “How can I show that this guy is really unwell?” also gave me the answer to the question “How can I endanger the characters and hook the reader right away?”
Then I went through the old chapter one and I highlighted all the stuff that I thought I wanted to keep in the first chapter. Despite having whittled the chapter down to what I thought were the “essentials,” it was surprising when I did this how little I highlighted. I may keep some of the other content for later chapters. I stuffed most of the keeper-stuff into the beginning, and then rewrote the chapter without so much as a glance at what I had before.
I've known for a while that Freelance Switch offers this super-nifty calculator that will help you determine how much money you should charge per hour based on your cost of living and quantity worked. I hadn't really taken advantage of it yet, because when you first get started as a freelancer there's about a million and one things on your to-do list that don't make money directly, and this was nowhere near the top of the list. But last night I made up for it by running the calculator several times, and recording the output. Putting the data I pulled from the calculator, I made three separate charts: the first was based on bare-bones survival (no eating out, no health insurance, etc.), the second was based on a decent living (hiring a bookeeper, budgeting for retirement) and the third was for "making it' (budgeting for concerts, higher rent, decent Christmas gifts). Considering each chart, I plugged in different combinations of potential hours worked per day (my hours are on the low side because I'd like to devote a few hours daily to my blog or novel). This gave me hard numbers for how much I need to work to survive/succeed as a freelancer. Or conversely, how much I need to charge to work the hours I want to work. I think this will help motivate me to either work harder or negotiate harder for more pay. It may also allow me to not stress out and work 24/7 because I know when I'm making a living wage.
I thought I'd share this as it is a way of using the freelance calculator that maybe you haven't thought about.
In last year’s TED Talk speech the author of Eat, Pray, Love explains how she is able to handle the terrible pressure to make something genius after having a huge breakout bestseller. Her solution is to do as the pre-Age of Reason folks did and think of your genius as something outside of yourself (the bonus is a great Tom Waits story).
This has been unbelievably helpful for me lately. If you are a creative person who has been haunted any kind of creative block, I highly recommend you watch it.
Don’t worry, the rest of my post will still be waiting below…
In short, she suggests that artists need a way to “create a safe distance” between ourselves and the anxiety we feel about our work. Thinking of genius as some kind of separate entity frees us from our fears that our brilliance won’t match our expectations.
It also means I get to have a new imaginary friend, a Puckish deity that hops like an invisible monkey around my computer desk, taunting me with unfinished sentences and half-baked ideas.
After I began to think of my own creativity as this impish being it assumed a greater importance in my life. My art and my creative space was no longer a task to be mastered or even a puzzle to be solved. It was demigod as revered as *Dionysus (I suspect they’re cousins). It was also my oldest and dearest friend. In both cases, the measure of time and respect I had to give to the creative process increased dramatically, as it would if the Macy’s window mannequin came to life and offered to be your sweetheart.
So I would like to take a moment to speak to you about your demiurge, the fiery creative beast that lives in your belly, showers you with presents, abandons you for another woman, only to wake you from a dream as if she’d never left.
You know you, you’re muse. Let’s talk about her.
Have you been treating her right? Or have you been resentful? Avoiding her calls? Talking trash about her to you friends? Putting off quality time so you can watch telly, play Spades, or other trivial nonsense where she’s clearly not invited? Do you really think a Godess, no matter how lonely, wants to hang out while you update your Facebook page? And if she did, you’d likely be annoyed that she showed up at such an inopportune moment.
Remember, time devoted to your genius need not be a two-way street: she is a demigod, and under no obligation to hang out with the likes of you in the first place. Know that there are many whose shrines to her greatness far surpass yours, that there are those who have devoted whole temples to her—and so many of these devotees with their trinkets and their affirmations have only seen the brightest glimpse of her visage. She owes you nothing, wretch.
Is your shrine tidy and free of cobwebs? Do you offer her gifts? Do you meditate daily on her awesomeness? If you hesitate (as I do!) to offer anything but a resounding “Yes!” to these queries, consider yourself lucky, chump. Lucky that she comes to you at all. Considering your petulance, she probably has a thing for you.
Don’t make that face, I’m sure you’ve had your suspicions. You wouldn’t have gotten into this whole creation thing in the first place if you hadn’t suspected the Muse pays more attention to you. Admit it, she makes you feel special. All those nights facing off with the keyboard to create something that will likely never put a penny in your pocket or a lover between your sheets were only fun when she was there. And when she didn’t show up you resented her. Who the hell was she, besides a Goddess, besides the very thing that makes humans beautiful and inspirational, who the hell was she besides the reason we have libraries and museums and video games and Cathedrals—so what to all that, you could have gone drinking with your friends, both of them.
No matter that when you’re swilling Cosmos at cocktail parties you slur that her creative spark is your godamned reason for living.
Here’s what I believe: you like her; she likes you. When you are ready to settle down and put her first in your life, she will be there for you. When you are a monk in your devotion and a lover in your ardour, when each day begins with an act of devotion to your creative urge, she will reward you with all the brilliance of your ego’s fantasies. You know, and I know, she will be waiting.
*I love how the spellcheck underlining my words knows the word “Dionysus” but not yet the word “internet.”