So you want to be a novelist?
Well, there’s no one path to take. Novelists come in all shapes and sizes. They’re men and women, wunderkinds and retirees. Some of them are very attractive. The rest of us resent them horribly. And if there was a single magic bullet, or a list of steps to follow that would guarantee publication, believe me, someone would have published it by now. What follows is just my take on the question – a completely idiosyncratic, opinionated, flawed and somewhat sassy take on some of the steps you can take to get published. Important caveat: I have only written two books, and I’m thirty-two, which, as my mother would hasten to point out, means I am probably not qualified to give advice to anyone about anything. If you’re looking for lessons from the life masters – people who’ve made long careers in the world of fiction – then run, do not walk, to your local bookshop and buy Stephen King’s On Writingand Anne Lamott’s utterly indispensable Bird by Bird, and Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft.
If you want my advice, read on (and if you’ve already written your book and just want to figure out how to get it published, skip ahead to Step 8).
1. The Unhappy Childhood
The big joke in the publishing community is that smart editors shouldn’t waste their time at lunches or conferences, but should instead proceed directly to the local elementary schools. There, they will carefully note the boys picked last in gym class, the girls sitting alone in the cafeteria – all of the outcasts, misfits, geeks, dweebs and weirdos – and give them some kind of small identifying tag (much like wildlife services will tag animals to follow their progress through the years). Twenty years later, the editors should track down the kids they’ve tagged, now hopefully grown to more successful adulthood, and say, "Okay, where’s the book?"
Why do unhappy kids grow up to be writers? I think because being an outsider – a geek, a dweeb, a weirdo, a smart, mouthy girl or boy who just doesn’t fit in – means that you’re naturally equipped for observing life carefully. You’re not on the inside, you’re on the outside – and nobody’s a more careful, dedicated observer of life than a kid or teenager who’s trying to figure out how to finally fit in with the in-crowd.
Also (and this is totally my own take on things, unproven by any kind of study or research), but I think that kids whose parents are divorced, separated, single, or otherwise un-Cleaver-ish might have a slight edge over those who grew up in happily-married homes. For kids, divorce is a mystery, a puzzle that begs to be put back together – what went wrong? Was it my fault? Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again? All of these questions reinforce the powers of observation, the questioning spirit, the impulse to try to make sense of life that can lead to becoming a writer. Or a mass murderer, I guess, but hopefully a writer instead. So if you’re a would-be writer whose parents are divorced, be happy. If you’re married, and a parent, and trying to turn your kid into a writer, please don’t break up just because I said so. Because by the time our theoretical young writer has figured out that fitting in with the in-crowd isn’t a consummation devoutly to be wished, and has given up trying to make sense of Why Daddy Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, it will be time for…..
2. The Miserable Love Life
Again, a crucial ingredient for the formation of a novelist – romantic humiliation and heartbreak. The unhappy childhood gives you the tools of observation. Unrequited crushes, romantic despair, a few memorable break-ups, will give you something to write about, an understanding of grief. No prospect of heartbreak in sight? I can provide phone numbers upon request.
Now that our would-be novelist has survived high school, heartbreak, and perhaps her parents’ divorce, it’s time to talk higher education. My advice?
3. Major in Liberal Arts (but not necessarily creative writing)
This is something I’ve taken straight from my own mother’s book of wisdom. My Mom is a great proponent of the liberal arts education. Why? Because a liberal arts education, whether you’re studying history or anthropology or political science or English, teaches how to read, how to write, and how to reason. Everything else, says Mom, is just commentary. Once you’ve got the foundation of a liberal arts education – once you’ve slogged through the required reading, written the papers, attended the lectures and seminars – you know how to think. And in order to write, you have to be able to make sense of the landscape of the world. In order to be any kind of artistic innovator, you have to understand everything that came before you.
And a liberal arts education gives you a framework in which to place your own experiences, a context you can use to look at everything else, a framework that any writer needs.
So why not major in creative writing? Here’s a line that bears repeating: a writer writes. If you’re going to be a writer, nothing, not even a difficult major, can stop you. You’ll write poems, you’ll write stories, you’ll begin a novel about suicide or bisexuality or a suicidal bisexual that will forever languish in a shoebox beneath your bed, but you will write. You’ll do it in your spare minutes, you’ll snatch time before work or eschew prime-time TV after. You’ll think of stories while you’re walking the dog or driving to work. You’ll do it because it’s your passion and your calling, because doing it makes you happier than almost anything else, because, really, you don’t have any choice.
What college can give you is the luxury of immersing yourself in a subject that you’ll never have the unbroken blocks of time to study again, an unbroken stretch of time to devote to reading great literature, or American history, or politics. I say, take advantage of everything college has to offer. Learn something new, knowing that writing will always be available to you as both hobby and vocation.
Now that you’ve got that shiny liberal arts degree tucked under your arm, it’s time for you to….
4. Get a Job (not an MFA)
This is pretty controversial, and will most likely earn me the enmity of writing professors, students, and MFA graduates everywhere. But I think if you want to be a writer, you’re probably going to be better served by going to work (or by traveling, if you’ve got the financial wherewithal to do so), instead of spending two years and tens of thousands of dollars getting a degree that announces to the world that you are an official, academe-sanctioned, card-carrying practitioner of fiction.
When I was finishing up with college, lo these many years ago, I had an English degree, which meant that I was qualified to do precisely nothing, except compose lovely paragraphs, and speak knowledgably about French feminist literary theory (don’t laugh. I’m going to kick ass on Jeopardy! Someday. Maybe). I was lucky enough to have John McPhee as a professor, and he was generous enough to give me the best piece of advice ever – go into journalism. "You’ll see a different part of the world. You’ll meet all kinds of people. You’ll be writing every day, on deadline" – which, of course, turned out to be invaluable when it came time to write fiction. Best of all, you’ll be getting paid to write, instead of paying someone to tell you that you can.
So off I went to Central Pennsylvania, where I spent two and a half extremely instructive, occasionally frustrating, desperately underpaid years at a small newspaper called The Centre Daily Times, where I covered five local school districts, plus the occasional car crash, fire, zoning board meeting, and wild-bear-on-the-loose story. Looking back, I think I was a fair-to-middling news reporter. It just didn’t interest me, the numbers in the budget stories confounded me, and I always wanted to be way more descriptive than the space, or my editors, would permit. But I was a darn good features writer, because in my years at the paper, I learned how things looked, how people talked, how people interacted with each other, how they looked when they lied (cover politics, even in the micro level, and you’ll get to see plenty of that).
I’m now a convert. I think that journalism is just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers. It’s not especially remunerative, nor, in spite of what you see on TV, is it particularly glamorous. But it’s great training. Like John McPhee said, you write every day, and you write on deadline, and you write to fit the space available, which means you don’t grow up into one of those writers who gets sentimental over her sentences or overly attached to her adverbial clauses. And writer’s block? Heh. Try telling an underpaid, pissed-off assistant city editor that your story on the school board meeting isn’t done yet because your Muse hasn’t spoken, and you will quickly, perhaps painfully, come to the understanding that writer’s block is a luxury no working journalist can afford – which will help you avoid it when you’re a working novelist. Journalism, particularly at the lowest levels, will knock the F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of you…which is something many recent college graduates – myself included – could use. It also means that when you finally write your novel, your New York City editors will adore you, because years of journalism will have taught you the fine art of being edited – of how an impartial reader can suggest changes, cuts, additions and amplifications that will make what you’ve written even stronger. Plus, you will not whine about your deadlines – you’ll meet them. You will not be offended if someone suggests that your second chapter’s dragging and your title’s ill-conceived – you’ll fix them. This willingness to be edited, and ability to meet deadlines, will make you different, and easier to work with, than a great many novelists. Your editor will adore you.
And if you can’t be a journalist, or aren’t inclined, or can’t get hired? Go do something that’s going to take you out of your comfort zone, putting you in contact with different kinds of people, perhaps in a different part of the world. Be a waitress at the snootiest boite in town, and pay attention to how your customers look, how they talk, how they tip. Lead bike trips through Italy, making careful note of the countryside. Be a camp counselor, be a cook, be a nanny. Just do something that takes you out into the world. If at all possible, avoid working in a bookstore, or in publishing. Remember, the point of this exercise is to take you out of your comfort zone, out of the comfortable life you’ve made inside your own head, out of a workplace full of people Just Like You. You’re looking for challenges, for adventure, for new faces and new places. Plus, if you’ve followed Part Two of this plan, you’re most likely single, and will want to get out of town anyhow.
"But if I got an MFA, I’d get to spend two years just concentrating on my writing!" True. But remember: a writer writes, whether or not she’s in school for writing.
And I think that in the end, staying out of writing school gives you more to write about. Saves you money, too.
5. Write to Please Yourself
So now you’re in your twenties. You’ve got your liberal arts degree. You’ve got a job that’s put you smack in the center of the wild, bustling world. You’re writing – of course you’re writing – because a writer writes. And perhaps you’ve started to think that it’s time to attempt a novel. Perhaps you’re looking around with awed and slightly covetous eyes at the stacks of books about Young Women with Romantic Woes and Weight Problems. Or the neighboring piles of accounts of Young Men with Family Tragedies. Or how Harlequin has launched a line of Sassy Single Girl in the City books. There’s a market for this stuff, you think, and you set down at night and try. Don’t do it.
Tell the story that’s been growing in your heart, the characters you can’t keep out of your head, the tale that speaks to you, that pops into your head during your daily commute, that wakes you up in the morning. Don’t write something just because you think it will sell, or fit into the pigeonhole du jour. Tell the story you want to tell, and worry about how to sell it later (more advice on that to come). And also….
6. Get a Dog
Okay, you’re thinking, what does getting a dog have to do with becoming a writer? More than you’d think. Writing is about talent and creativity, but it’s also about discipline – about the ability to sit yourself down in that seat, day after day, often after eight hours of work, and make yourself do it, day after day, even if you’re not getting published yet, even if you’re not getting paid, even if ABC is hosting an all-star reunion of your favorite cast members from The Bachelor and The Amazing Race. It’s a form of training that’s as much physical as mental in nature – you sit down, you do the writing, no matter what distractions are out there, no matter that you’re tired or bored or uninspired.
Being a dog owner requires a similar form of discipline. You wake up every morning. You walk the dog. You do this whether you’re tired, depressed, broke, hung over, or have been recently dumped. You do it. And while you’re walking, you’re thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that’s had you stumped for days. You’re out in the fresh air. Your legs are moving. Your dog is sniffing the butts of other dogs. It gives you a routine, a physical rhythm, a loyal companion, and a way to meet new people when you’re in a new place. It gets your body used to doing the same thing at the same time – and if you’re walking the dog for half an hour at the same time of every day, it’s an easy step to go sit in front of the computer and create for half an hour at the same time every day. So go to your local pound or rescue organization, and get a dog. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did.
7. Get Published
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, has it really fallen? If a writer writes poems and short stories and novels, but nobody ever reads them, is she really a writer? Nope. If you want to be a writer, you’ve got to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (not to mention evil reader reviews on amazon.com). You’ve got to put your stuff out there for the world to see, and fall in love with, or revile. In short, you’ve got to get published.
"But I don’t have an agent!" you complain. Here’s the exciting news: when you’re just starting out, you don’t need one. If you’re trying to sell a novel, yes, you need an agent, and if you bear with me, I’ll tell you how to get one. But if you’re trying to sell a short story – and this is where I’d recommend you start – you can just be Joe or Jane Schmoe, with a great short story and a killer cover letter, and you can get published.
I sold my first story to Seventeen magazine – one of the shrinking number of mass-market magazines that still publishes fiction. No agent. I just printed up my story, wrote a cover letter saying who I was and what I’d done, and mailed it off, and was thrilled and delighted a few months later when I got a phone call….and, eventually, a check.
Now, granted, I went to Fancypants U., and I was able to do some name-dropping on my cover letter. Did that help? Sure, probably it did. Is it necessary? I don’t think so. I think if I’d submitted the same short story (it was called "Tour of Duty," and published in the spring of 1992), with a letter that left out all the stuff about Princeton, and just said I was a recent college graduate working as a reporter, the story would have met with the same happy response. No matter where, or whether, you went to college, good writing finds a home.
And once you’ve gotten that first story published – whether in a magazine, an alternative newsweekly, a literary quarterly that will pay you in free copies, or your campus literary magazine – then you’ve got a foot in the door. You’ve got a calling card. Your next cover letter can boast that you’re the author of "Your Short Story Here," published in the Anonymous Quarterly. And then you’re on your way, and you’re getting your stuff out there, which is one of the most important things
any writer can do.
So you write short stories. You publish short stories. You get rejected a lot, eventually moving from pre-printed rejection postcards to typed or handwritten personal notes of rejection (I myself have a shoebox full of thanks-but-no-thanks missives from Harper’s, The Atlantic, and yes, of course, the New York Times). Eventually, you get started on the story you want to tell – your novel. You finish said novel. Finally, it’s time to….
8. Find an Agent
This is, by far, the question I’m most often asked at readings and seminars – how did you find your agent? Judging from the way people ask, it seems that there’s a certain level of mystery that’s grown up around the process. You have to live in New York City, the logic goes. You have to have blood relatives who work for William Morris. You have to know someone who knows someone who knows the secret handshake, and the code word to get you into the after-hours club where all the agents hang out, and once you’re in you have to order just the right brand of vodka for your martini, else the assembled agents will know you are a fake and a poseur, and will all pretend that they’ve forgotten how to speak English.
I’m here to tell you that it’s just not so.
I’m also here to tell you that agents want to find you just as badly as you want to find them.
Think about it it. How do agents get paid? By selling stuff to publishers. How to they find the things to sell that are going to make them money? By referrals, by word of mouth, and, in many cases, including the case of my agent, from people they’ve never heard of before who basically just wandered in off the street. They’re looking for the next Grisham, the next Susan Isaacs, the next Tony Hillerman, because if they find that person, they’re going to get paid. It’s as simple as that.
So this is the true story of how I found my agent. I began my search in the winter of 1999/2000, after I’d finished GOOD IN BED (and that stops about 95 percent of my questioners in their tracks. You have to finish the book first? they ask, in tones of mingled dismay and disbelief. Yes, you have to finish the book first. I’m not saying it’s not possible to obtain an agent on the basis of 100 pages and an outline, or even just a really good idea. I am saying that if you want to maximize your chances, finish your book before you even think about obtaining representation. If you’re coming to agents with a complete manuscript, you’ve got a much better shot.)
Step one: I spent a day in the bookstore, and in my own shelves, going through the books that in some way resembled GOOD IN BED, making careful note of the names of agents (and agents are almost always thanked in the acknowledgements, so it’s not like it’s some big secret).
Step two: I availed myself of one of the many fine guides to literary agencies available, that lists contact names, addresses, websites and phone numbers and whether the agencies will even consider unsolicited material (most will, some won’t). The Literary Marketplace publishes a yearly guide to agents. This can be your guide.
Step three: I put together a list of about thirty agencies, places that represented writers sort of like me who were willing to consider unsolicited manuscripts.
Now, I don’t live in New York, but truth be told, I had some connections. There were other people at the Philadelphia Inquirer who’d written novels, or were in the process of writing them. There were professors I could have talked to for referrals. But I really wanted the process to be – for lack of a better word – pure. I didn’t want an agent asking to see my manuscript because So-and-So is my uncle, or my colleague, or went to the same college. I wanted agents asking to see my manuscript because they were impressed with the letter I’d written, the resume I’d assembled, and the places I’d already been published. Calling in favors might have simplified the agent-finding process, but as you’ll see, I wound up with the absolute perfect agent for me, so I think my method worked just fine.
Step four: I wrote a kick-ass cover letter. It began with a paragraph from the opening pages from GOOD IN BED, ending with the line where Cannie reads the phrase "Loving a Larger Woman" and realizes, with a sinking heart and M&Ms stuck to her teeth, that the larger woman is her. It went on to say who I was, and what I’d done – that I’d published short stories in Seventeen and Redbook and written non-fiction pieces for Mademoiselle and Salon.com. It said that I was currently a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, that I’d finished my novel, and was seeking representation. I sent off about two dozen of these cover letters, sat back, and waited.
Step five: I got rejected. I got postcards from agents saying they weren’t taking new clients, or weren’t taking on more fiction, or generally weren’t interested in buying what I was selling. Out of the original field of twenty-four letters, I got a grand total of three requests to see the manuscript. Agent One, the woman I’d long since picked as my dream agent, the woman who represented half a dozen of my favorite authors and who would, I was certain, become my soul mate, best friend and surrogate mother, wrote back in three weeks to say that while I was "definitely a writer" she was "failing to connect with the characters in (my) book." "Perhaps," she added thoughtfully, "this is simply a factor of where I find myself in my life at the present." Which I took to mean menopause. Which resulted in many bitter jokes about Agent One’s journey through the unwelcoming terrain of hot flashes and hormone replacement therapy (not very nice, but I was heartbroken).
Agent Two, a total high-powered, big-shot, you’d-know-her-name-if-I-told-it-to-you woman who’s been sitting on top of the publishing world since my own college days, eventually got back to me with a thanks-but-no-thanks form letter. Unfortunately, the letter arrived six months after the book had been sold. Yikes! Attention, Agent Two! Do you even read Publishers Weekly! Helllooooo!
And Agent Three said yes. Unfortunately, Agent Three said a lot of other things, including "nobody wants to see a movie about a lonely fat girl" (this comment came in the midst of a misguided attempt to have a simultaneous book and film deal), and "why don’t you change the title to BIG GIRL?" (No, I still can’t explain where that one came from. I figured that if we were going to call it BIG GIRL we should just go all the way and call it DON’T BUY THIS BOOK, YOU BIG FAT FREAK).
I was very upset, and in much despair. After all, I was nobody. I didn’t live in New York. I didn’t know any secret handshakes. And here was this big, powerful agent telling me that nobody wanted to hear about a lonely fat girl, telling me to change the title. Didn’t she know better than I did? Shouldn’t I trust her?
I wasn’t sure. I’m not one to get on my high horse about artistic integrity or the absolute rightness of my vision, but I believed in the character I’d created, and I believed in the book I’d written, and I was sensing quite strongly that Agent 3 did not share my belief.
I agonized for a weekend, wrung my hands and ran the pros and cons past a series of vodka martinis, then Fed-ex’d the manuscript out to a few other agencies who’d asked to see the book. On Monday morning, I picked up my phone and heard a by-now-familiar tiny little voice. “I loved your book!” the voice was saying. “It spoke to me!” In all honesty, I was thinking, “how?” But I knew I’d found what I was looking for – an agent who was in love with what I’d written, who got it on every level, who was going to do her damndest to find my book a happy home. And that, bless her adorable little size-two heart, is exactly what Joanna Pulcini did.
Important note (and please read this before you email me asking for my agent’s contact info) — Joanna is, unfortunately, not taking new clients right now. She left her big agency, went out on her own, and is committed to keeping her list of authors very small. And I’m sorry, but I’m not in a position to suggest who another good agent might be — there are guidebooks aplenty that will do so. Believe that the good agents are out there, and with enough hard work and self-addressed stamped envelopes, you will find the one who’s right for you.
Which leads to an important point….
9. Be a Smart Consumer
I know how it feels. You’ve slaved for years, you’ve prayed for months, you’ve sent out dozens of query letters and manuscripts, and gotten nothing, nothing, nothing. Your inclination is to fling yourself bodily toward the first person who so much as hints that she might just possibly be willing to consider representing you, and cling to her with a lover’s helpless ardor even if you have the nagging suspicion that beneath her sharp suits and fast talk she might be, oh, I don’t know, SATAN. (If her every movement is accompanied by the faint but recognizable reek of brimstone, that’s a bad sign).
It’s hard, but try to hold off, keep a cool head, and ask the right questions – questions like, "Can I see your list?" and "What publishing houses have you made deals with lately? Which editors?" and "Can I see your contract?" and, "If you were to represent me, how would you pitch this book? Who would you send it to? What’s your plan?"
A good agent should be willing to share her list, to tell you the names of her other authors, to give you some phone numbers so you can check her references. A good agent will readily discuss who she’s worked with, at which houses, and what percentage of your earnings you can expect to share with her. Most importantly, a good agent should have a plan- a vision not just for your book, but for your career — that sounds and feels right to you, the author.
And don’t worry if the agent who winds up meeting these criteria isn’tat the top of her company’s masthead. A bigger name isn’t always better, provided your agent has connections, and a plan (and young agents have often been networking with young editors since they were all underpaid assistants and associates, which means she’s now got valuable connections, in spite of her relative pip-squeakiness). If I’d stayed with Agent Three, I’d be one in a stable of hundred-plus writers. Would I be hertop priority? Probably not. I wound up going with a young agent in a big agency who was just putting together her roster of clients. And yes, it felt like a big leap of faith, to put my trust in her rather than in one of the gigantic, important, bold-faced ladies who’ve been making the big money deals since Joyce Carol Oates’ output was still in the single digits. But I heard the passion in her voice, and the excitement as she talked about parts of the book she loved, and the editors she knew who’d love it, too, and how excited she was about a chance to bring my book into the world, and I just knew that she was The One. You’ll know, too. Plus, I got in at the ground floor, at the moment when my agent was preparing to set up shop on her own, and assembling the very small list of clients whose careers she wanted to build. Now I’m lucky enough to be one of them. It all worked out really, really,
Joanna, and I spent a few months revising GOOD IN BED. Lots of trimming, lots of shading, refining the characters, sharpening the dialogue. All the while, she was having a series of lunch meetings with editors in New York. It was a running joke – every time I’d call her office, her assistant would say that she was at lunch. Even if it was, like, 10 in the morning, or 4 in the afternoon. I knew that no one person could possibly be eating that much lunch. What it turned out Joanna was doing was taking editors out to lunch. She’d sit them down, lean across the table, and say, "I have three words for you: Good! In! Bed!" And that would be all she’d say. By the time we were ready to actually sell the book, there was a tremendous amount of carefully orchestrated buzz. Who is GOOD IN BED? the editors wondered. What is GOOD IN BED? Can I get GOOD IN BED? The book sold very quickly. Life was good. Life continues to be that way. So here is my final piece of advice for anyone embarking on the writing life….
Read everything. Read fiction and non-fiction, read hot best sellers and the classics you never got around to in college. Read men, read women, read travel guides and Harlequins and epic poetry and cookbooks and cereal boxes, if you’re desperate. Get the rhythm of good writing in your ears. Cram your head with characters and stories. Abuse your library privileges. Never stop looking at the world, and never stop reading to find out what sense other people have made of it. If people give you a hard time and tell you to get your nose out of a book, tell them you’re working. Tell them it’s research. Tell them to pipe down and leave you alone.
So that’s all I’ve got in the way of advice. As always, feel free to email me with follow-up questions.
Take care, and happy writing!
Updated April, 2012