You have an author’s page. You regularly update your blog, and you have a list of agents you’d like to represent you. You’ve studied demographics and tailored your story to reflect the readership you hope to gain. You’ve even written a synopsis of your novel. You’ve done all the homework about how to get published. The only problem is you haven’t finished your draft yet.
If it does, then, I’ve got news for you. Sure, this might work for some enlightened people with a strong support system and a publishing contract already secured, but for most of us, this is the wrong approach.
What is the right method, then? Here are some guidelines that will make it easier, in the long run, for you to get published.
You have an idea for a story. You’ve developed it, fallen in love with your characters. It’s your baby. And, yet, your research shows that, with just some slight tweaks, you might get more readers. So you change the ending. Add a twist. Maybe you go supernatural, since that’s what’s selling right now. You tell yourself that sacrificing your original idea is not important, not if it sells.
And, in the end, you end up writing a story without soul. You’re not connected to it, and it shows. Your vision isn’t even recognizable anymore. You have a hard time writing these new characters, since you don’t understand them any longer. You can’t relate. And if you can’t relate, the reader won’t be able to. This doesn’t mean that once you finish your draft it’ll all be perfect, and you won’t need to make any changes. Perhaps you will. But, don’t do it while you’re writing. It’ll just compromise your vision.
Sounds cliché, I know. You might not have lived that much. It sounds like a good advice on paper, but what can you write about if you’re only supposed to write what you know? It severely limits your options.
Maybe this is why this piece of advice gets such a bad rep. No one really understands it. Write what you know doesn’t mean that if you’ve lived in Maine all your life, you can only write about people who also live there. Sure, if your character also lives in Maine, you might have an easier time of describing the setting, but you don’t need to set your story in your hometown to make it believable. Google is your friend, after all. You can find information about anything, and you’ve got your imagination to fill in the blanks.
No, write what you know means that you use your own experiences, your feelings: heartbreak, loss, loneliness, joy, to give depth to your characters. Make them real. They are, in a way, part of who you are, because your own experiences are what drive them. Maybe your characters will react like you do when faced with certain situations. Maybe the reaction will be the opposite of what yours would be. But use your own reaction as a measuring point. It’ll make it easier to write.
Are the titles open to unsolicited submissions? Do they have a reading period? Do they charge for submissions? (If you’re new to the process, I’d advise you avoid these until you have a few publishing credits to your name) Do they have a word limit? If they do, then stick to it. If they don’t want anything over 2000 words, then they’re not going to accept a 15,000-word piece. Check if they accept multiple submissions – i.e. can you send more than one piece at once? Also check if they accept simultaneous submissions – if they don’t, then if you submit your story to them, you won’t be able to submit it anywhere else until you get a reply. Some titles will send you a note whether you’re accepted or rejected, but some won’t – see if they give you a timeframe within which to expect a reply. Also, double check their guidelines in case they run “themed” issues. You can use the theme as a prompt for a piece (as long as you submit before their deadline) or you may already have a piece that fits the theme, but don’t send something that doesn’t fit.
The story that you’re excited about, the one you’ve had in your head for years and you can’t stop thinking about. That’s the one you should write. Forget about selling points, agents and demographics. Forget about the New York Times best-seller list, and what you think you should write. You won’t gain anything by writing someone else’s story. You have to write yours.
When you’re finished, you can go back to worrying about how to sell your book. For now, you have to write it!