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Getting Published

Two of the most common questions I get asked are "How do I go about getting published?" or "I have an idea for a book. How do I go about writing it?" At this point, just so we're going to be clear with one another from the beginning, I don't have a magic answer to those questions.

If I did, I would write a book called "Getting Published For Sure!" or "Write Your Way to Fame and Fortune!" In fact, writing one of those books is probably a good way of getting published for sure, and of writing your way to fame and fortune, but most of us have our sights set a little higher. (And, by the way, how come these books are typically written by people of whom none of us have ever heard?) Two of the better ones, or at least the most interesting ones, are both called "On Writing", the first by Stephen King (Hodder, 2001) and the second by the late George V. Higgins (Henry Holt, 1990). Higgins's book is probably the better one on the realities of publishing, although it's a bit brutally honest at times, and includes examples of writing by other authors whom Higgins admired, including a wonderful short story called The Girls in Their Summer Dresses by Irwin Shaw. King's book is good on his background as a writer, and there is a short section on the mechanics of writing.

Really, all that I can do is tell you a little of my own experience and of what I have learned so far. It isn't much, but it's a start.

1. How did you start writing?

To begin with, and like a lot of writers, I have always written. I began writing when I was very young, and kept at it into my teens and my adulthood. I started off writing very (VERY) short stories while in school, flirted with bad poetry, then moved into journalism - local first, then national. I very much believe that writing is a craft: at its best, it should be infused with passion and wit and inspiration, but its basic building blocks are words, and it is practice, trial and error, that teaches you how to use them properly. Through writing at home, then writing for newspapers, I began to learn. I'm still learning.

Anyway, while writing for The Irish Times I began working on what would become Every Dead Thing. I hadn't written anything other than journalism for many years, and hadn't written a short story since my school essays when I was in my teens. Every Dead Thing took a long time to write, mainly because I was working at the same time and, in the beginning, dipped into it when I could find the time. After about two and a half years of dabbling, I decided to commit myself to finishing it. I told nobody I was writing it and the first person to see the finished book was my agent. I didn't know any writers and had no contacts in publishing. I had to start from scratch.

2. I find it hard to discipline myself to write. Any hints?

I find writing hard. It's not as hard as laying tar on the roads, or coal mining, or at least it's a different kind of hard. There are days when I don't want to write, when I feel that I have nothing to say or no inspiration, and I have to force myself to sit down at a computer.

In that sense, journalism was a great teacher for me. There were many occasions on which I had a piece to do for five o'clock that evening, and with no idea how I was going to approach it. But I knew that if I sat down and began working that, eventually, I would produce something, and it would be good enough to print. Getting started was the hard part, and often still is.

Since most writers start out writing in moments snatched from work, families etc., it's best to begin with small steps. Set yourself an easily attainable target, and get used to meeting that target every day. The longer you go without writing, the harder and harder it becomes to get back to it. Start with 100 words a day, move up to 150 or 200 the next week. Pretty soon, you'll find yourself doing more than that, which is great. By all means do more, but at the very least meet the minimum goal that you've set.

Look, I say write every day, but there will be times when that just won't be possible. In an ideal world every day is best, but if you find that instead of 200 words a day you get 1400 words done each Sunday afternoon, then go with that. There are no hard and fast rules, and every writer finds his or her own way to write.

Do writing groups help? I think anything that encourages a writer to write, or helps foster that discipline, is a good thing. Writing groups set goals for their members, and having that target and attempting to meet it with the support of others can be a wonderful bonus.

3. What about planning books out before you begin?

Again, every writer is different. The two most extreme examples I've found are James Lee Burke, who doesn't even know what the book is going to be about when he starts writing, and Jeff Deaver, whose outline is nearly as long as the eventual book, even down to including paragraph breaks. The rest of us fall somewhere inbetween. I don't plan anything on paper, but I have a rough idea of the plot and I'm prepared to watch it change as I go along.

4. First-time writers are often told to "write what you know." What does this mean?

I don't know, frankly. It has always seemed to me to be bad advice on one level, since people interpret it very literally: if you grow up in Washington and work as a secretary in an accountancy office, is this what you "know" and is this then all that you can write about?

Anything can be researched. If you want to write a novel about 18th century France then start reading about 18th century France. You might want to ask yourself if it has to be 18th century France and, if so, why? It might also help if you have a bit of an interest in 18th century France to begin with, or can speak a little French.

In the end, I think "write what you know" should be interpreted very liberally. If you have an idea for a book, and feel that it would suit a particular setting, then find out as much background material as you can. I know of authors who have written about India and Peru without ever having been there - they just bought some guide books, a couple of bios, and made up the rest. I couldn't do that, but the lesson is: do your research, on some level. What you know isn't finite or unchanging.

5. You mentioned your agent earlier. Did you have an agent before you began writing?

No, not at all. Actually, I made some terrible mistakes along the road to getting published, which at the very least I can help others to avoid. First of all, I sent out parts of the book before it was finished. I had run out of money to do my research, and had a mild fantasy that I could send out the first couple of chapters and get enough of an advance to finish the book. Wrong!

I bought a copy of The Writer's Handbook, which lists agents and publishers in the UK and US and how to go about contacting them, and sent out the first three chapters of the book and a synopsis (standard practice, by the way: three chapters and a synopsis is as much as most agents and publishers want to see initially) to pretty much every UK agent and publisher that might be open to a submission. I was near-universally rejected, and found myself getting rejection slips for a book that I hadn't yet finished. It was very discouraging. In fact, it was soul-destroying. One editor hated the submitted chapters so much that she scribbled a note to that effect on the bottom of the rejection slip. Rejection, unfortunately, is part of the writer's lot, unless he or she is very fortunate. If you have time, take a look at the interview with James Lee Burke in the Author Interview section of the website. Burke's experience is an interesting example both of how rejection can affect an author, and how an author can overcome it.

Only one publisher - Hodder Headline, with whom I eventually signed - and a pair of agents were in any way positive. One, Darley Anderson, was more than positive: he was enthusiastic and encouraging, but he was also honest. Sending the book out to publishers had been a mistake. No publisher wants to read a book that has already been rejected once. I had scuppered myself. But what my agent did say was that, if I wanted to finish the book, and finish it for my own reasons - not necessarily for great wealth or the promise of publication, because he couldn't offer those, but because I wanted to finish it, had to finish it - then he would look at it again when it was done. He stayed in touch with me regularly while I worked on it, offered encouragement, then read the finished book, liked it and agreed to present it once again to publishers.

6. But you said that publishers didn't want to read something that was already rejected by them?

I know, I did, didn't I? I never said that this would be consistent. The question that is sometimes asked is, "Should I seek an agent before a publisher?", and it's an important question. My answer, I think, would be yes.

Publishing has changed a lot. Publishers no longer seem to have readers, people whose sole task it is to search out new authors from the many unsolicited manuscripts that arrive each day (and, believe me, there are a lot of unsolicited manuscripts in publishers' mailboxes). Instead, an editor has to find the time to go through them while at the same time dealing with his or her own authors and the new writers being presented regularly by agents. In other words, there isn't a lot of time to look at unsolicited work, even if you manage to get the right editor to look at your work. You see, that's the other important point: it's not enough to pick a publisher you think might want to publish your work, you need to have it read by an editor who is sympathetic to what you are doing. There is little point in sending a romance novel to an editor who likes reading horror fiction, or hard-boiled crime to an editor who feels a bit queasy when the Famous Five sit too close to a cliff edge. Sending your manuscript blindly into a publisher is gambling with the odds against you.

That's where an agent comes in. First, the agent sidesteps that slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts and, second, he or she will send the book to the editor or editors most likely to appreciate it. Finally, a good agent will act as an editor in the first instance, advising the writer on problems with the manuscript, plot points that need to be clarified etc. You may feel that your work is already perfect, and that nobody is going to tamper with the child of your inspiration. That is a bad idea. Get ready to be edited and take it, not as personal criticism, but as a means of improving your work. You don't have to agree with all that is offered. If you feel strongly enough about it, and can justify your position, then few editors are likely to force the issue unless they believe it fatally damages the book, but remember that editors think both as editors and readers: if they have a problem understanding or liking what you've written, there's a good chance that a lot of other readers will feel the same way.

An interesting example of the way in which a writer and an editor can clash can be found in the short career of John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole submitted the book to Simon & Schuster, where it found its way to Robert Gottlieb, generally regarded as a visionary editor (he was the one who encouraged Joseph Heller to finish Catch 22). Gottlieb believed that Confederacy was flawed and tried to get Toole to change it. Toole - partly out of stubborness, perhaps, but also I think because he was either confused as to what Gottlieb wanted, or was unable to see how it could be done - was unable to make the changes needed for S&S to publish. Tragically, Toole committed suicide shortly after, and the book was eventually published posthumously through the efforts of his mother. The matter is dealt with in Ignatius Rising by Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy (Louisiana State University Press, 2001). To be fair, Kennedy's story is probably an extreme example, but relations between editors and writers have foundered on a lot less.

7. Do agents demand money up front?

No, and any agent that does should be viewed with intense suspicion. Agents take a percentage of your earnings - usually 15-20 per cent - once you start receiving advances or royalties. This is standard practice.

8. How do I present what I've written to an agent or publisher?

It's pretty straightforward. Write a synopis or summary of the book, something like what you might read on the dustjacket of a book in a bookstore. You don't have to give the entire plot away ("And the murderer is the butler!") but just give a flavour of the plot, the hero. Keep it short and snappy. Again, the purpose of dust jacket blurbs is to get the casual browser in a bookstore to buy the book. Your purpose should be to get the agent or publisher to read it.

With the synopsis, include three sample chapters (first three are probably the best, but it's not a hard and fast rule). Use double spacing: it's pretty much required in publishing, since it allows editors to make notes on the manuscript. Add a covering letter explaining a little about yourself, your background, your book, and maybe your aspirations as a writer. Finally, it's good manners to include a stamp or an International Reply Coupon for return postage, especially for smaller agencies and publishers.

Some agents and publishers have slightly different requirements on submissions, so it's worth checking the Writer's Handbook or the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook, or some similar reference book. Some agents will charge you for reading your manuscript if you send them the full version. It's entirely up to you to decide if this is a direction in which you want to go.

Finally, CHECK YOUR SPELLING! The days are long gone when editors and publishers will bend over backwards for poor spelling and grammar. We all make mistakes, but try to keep them to a minimum. Use a dictionary. Use Spellcheck. (I'm not a fan, and prefer the dictionary, but that's just me.) Look, ultimately your purpose as a writer is to communicate with others through your words: if you can't spell them and can't arrange them properly, then how are you going to reach out to others?

Apart from dictionaries etc, the other way to improve your wordpower (Readers Digest aside) is to read. We absorb sentence construction and spelling by familiarizing ourselves with them, and the best way to do that is by reading others. Oscar Wilde once said that true writers read more than they will ever write, and I believe that with all my heart. It also makes sense, as a writer, to familiarize yourself with the work of others (if only to avoid sending your publisher a manuscript about a man named Ahab fighting a whale, or a female coroner based in Richmond, Virginia).

9. What about so-called vanity publishing, or even self-publishing?

Vanity publishing refers to those publishers that charge authors a fee for printing, binding and - ostensibly - distributing their books. Avoid them. By and large, most booksellers won't stock them and newspapers won't review them.

Self-publishing is a little different. Someone told me that John Grisham self-published his first book and sold it out of the trunk of his car. Roddy Doyle self-published his first book The Commitments and a self-published book by Jill Paton Walsh was nominated for the Booker a few years ago. The difficulties lie in cost and distribution. Once you've managed to get it published, how do you get booksellers to stock it? Usually, it can be done on a local basis relatively easily, but it's much harder to get booksellers outside your own city or country to stock your self-published book.

10. How do advances work?

If you're lucky enough to be accepted by a publisher, you will often be offered an advance. Basically, advances are paid in three or four parts: one part when you sign the contract, one part when you deliver the finished book, one part upon hardback publication and one part upon paperback publication. Most advances aren't very large and when you divide them by four and subtract an agent's commission, you may have just enough to put new wheels on the car. Advances are then recouped from royalties: the more books you sell, the quicker you pay off your advance and the sooner you begin to receive royalty cheques.

Contracts are usually for two or more books, particularly for fiction authors since the publisher is probably looking at you as a prospect for the future and wants to be sure that, if you are successful, the publishing house can build on your success.

Like I said at the beginning, there are no magic answers. If you are writing, then write something that you would like to read yourself. Don't try to second-guess the market. It sounds corny, but the best books are labors of love. They are books that were written because the writer felt that they were worth writing, that they were worth bringing into existence for reasons that had nothing to do with money or acclaim. In the end, they had to be written. Mind you, there are some books that not only didn't have to be written but maybe shouldn't have been written. Try not to write one of those.

Good luck!