HOW TO GET PUBLISHED: The Short Answer
1) Write your book.
2) Query literary agents about your book.
3) If you succeed with Step 2 and find a literary agent, your literary agent will sell your book to a specific editor who will champion your book on behalf of the publisher.
HOW TO GET PUBLISHED: The Long Answer
The long answer to how do you get published is as follows:
1) Read. There is simply no way anyone will ever be taken seriously as a writer unless they read widely. Book people (meaning editors and agents) have such a nuanced grasp of written language, they will know instantly whether you’re a good writer because they will see shades of your influences in your writing. If you don’t have a deep knowledge of your genre, it will show like cracks in a home with a poor foundation. This is the hard answer because many newbies want a shortcut, but there is simply no way around this one, folks.
2) Know yourself. Many industry professionals would agree that most writers have to live a while in order to have experiences to draw from in their writing. Much like answer #1 above, there is simply no shortcut for this step. Writing, at its best, creates pathos (or sympathy for characters), and there is no way to make this happen without spending years and years reading, writing, failing, living… reading, writing, failing, living… and slowly getting better. We learn from our mistakes in life, and every industry professional in book publishing is looking for the signs of this type of wisdom/emotion within any book they take on.
3) Learn about publishing. Without a doubt, the single best way that you could advance your career as a writer would be to take a job in publishing. If you are young and have not yet attended college, I would encourage you to look into going to a college that offers a degree not in Creative Writing but in Book Publishing. There are not many programs like this, and graduates will be strongly positioned to take an editorial position over other candidates. Maybe the single best entry level position at a publisher for a would-be writer would be as an editorial assistant. If working in publishing directly is not feasible, you can freelance or “think outside the box” as I’ve done to learn about the industry. In my own case, I entered the profession by interviewing writers… first in print and then later on TV. I parlayed that experience into interviewing hundreds of industry professionals, and have built a strong readership in the process.
4) Research. If you’re writing non-fiction, doing research is essential. In fact, developing a research process is your very first step. I teach an entire course on research writing at NC State University. If you’re going to write publishable non-fiction, you’re going to have to invest years of reading and research into your topic. If you’re writing fiction, your “research” is going to come from having read widely in your genre for many years. To achieve a believable setting in your novel, you’ll want to have lived in the place where your story is set or have some credible background from which to draw.
5) Write. It goes without saying that you need to write a lot to get any good at it. Writing professionally is no different than playing a musical instrument professionally inasmuch as both require roughly the same amount of dedicated practice to get it down. In fact, “dedicated practice” is euphemistic. Writing professionally requires much more than that; it requires dedicating your entire life to the craft. Many published novelists write five or more novels before they’re good enough to warrant a publishing contract. Others will write as many as 10-15 novels before they’ve mastered the craft enough to earn a paycheck. You’ll find you either have a passion to do this, or not.
6) Revise. I do not enjoy revising. But there’s (here we go again) simply no way around it. Having been at this almost 20 years now, I’m coming around to the realization that at its heart a great story comes from a writer’s suffering and hard work. And the real hard work comes not in the writing itself, but in the revising. Just so you’ve got a ballpark figure: the average novel requires at least a half dozen full-scale edits after the first draft is completed. IMO, these revisions should be done over the course of about two years. There are some parts of a novel that may be read and edited as many as fifty times or more (for my novel The Colorado Sequence, I actually read the opening chapter aloud until I had it memorized verbatim). I would argue that, at least in my case, it helps to have an “editorial” literary agent. That is, my agent is an editor and writer by training, and he forces me to work through a process of full-scale editing that makes my work better.
7) Query. So finally, we’re up to speed with the “short” answer above. The standard step after your book is completed is to research and then query literary agents. I queried over 500 agents before landing my first. And she was unable to sell my novel. I then sent out more than (hold it, hold it) 3,000 query letters before I landed my 2nd literary agent. She, too, failed to sell my novel. I’m not going to say anything about my 3rd (and current) agent, less I jinx what seems to be working so well. Needless to say, I actually spent the better part of five years honing the craft of writing a query letter.
8 ) Persevere. So the short of it is perseverance. It’s the dreaded advice that every successful novelist gives to the aspiring writer. But the reality is that your ability to hang in there for ten or twenty years is your single biggest ally in the battle to succeed as a writer. If you have the passion and the drive to do this writing thing, then you probably don’t need this advice, because you’ll stick with it no matter what. Maybe the most important step in all of this is “2) Know Yourself.” If you understand what drives you as a writer, and that X-factor is something that will weather relationships, family, kids, growing older, and still draw you to the keyboard, then I’d argue you’re in it for the right reasons. But you’ve got to know what that reason is before you can begin.