Writing on Wednesdays: Nuts and Bolts of Getting Published

August 29th, 2012

Last weekend, I spoke on a writing panel at Arkansas Women Bloggers Unplugged. I did what I usually do when I’m invited to speak about writing, which is to tell my own story and share a few thoughts on authority, voice and attitude. Internal, foundational stuff. I heard from lots of people afterward who said they were encouraged by my remarks, which makes me happy, because too often the thrust of writing and publishing panels seems to be YOU SHALL NOT PASS.

We ran out of time before I could address the questions of a few writers in the audience who were hungry to learn more about “the nuts and bolts” of getting published. I got to speak with one, a recent college graduate, later that evening, and I thought it might be helpful to others to share what I told her, and a few afterthoughts that occurred since.

I’ll try not to get philosophical and stick to practicalities, but just know that’s really, really hard for me. With that caveat, here’s most of what I know.

Understand that publishing is commerce, not art. It’s a labor of love for everyone I’ve ever met in the industry, but it’s still a business, operating in a marketplace that is wildly fickle and unfair. Bad writers sometimes win in this business. Good writers sometimes lose. Some people catch breaks for the wrong reasons — how they look, where they went to school, whom they know socially or biblically. It happens. If you can’t make peace with that reality, save yourself (and the rest of us) from turning into an embittered cynic, and find a more predictable way to earn a living. You can still make art, and never have to deal with the pressure of needing to sell it. The latin root of amateur means love. There’s no shame in being one.

Still in? Excellent. You’re going to need that kind of persistence, because now you’ve got to acquire publishing credits.  You need to be published to get published, unless you are famous for something else. In other words, until you’re Somebody in this business, you’re nobody. Talent alone won’t get you out of the slush pile. Good publishing credits can, and these can be acquired methodically and progressively. Start with what’s obvious and in reach, usually local, regional or niche publications, and work your way out. An editor at a national women’s glossy doesn’t care you wrote three of the most popular articles to ever appear in your church newsletter, but maybe the editor of the regional publication for your denomination does. From there, you might pitch to the national equivalent. Then to a mainstream publication with a regular back page feature that invites spiritual reflections. Which can lead to features work. Which can support a book proposal. And so forth. A very early version of a chapter in my book first appeared in an Episcopalian Jungian dream groups newsletter out of Athens, Georgia. It doesn’t get much more niche than that.

While you’re pursuing these credits, you’re exercising some valuable muscles, getting better at writing, pitching and weathering rejection. You’re learning to be a professional. One absolutely desperate day, I wrote a cover letter to a famous agent that said, “If you are even reading this, you should probably fire your assistant.” I don’t think I even got a form letter rejection. Here’s the thing: agents and editors are good people, truly. But they are busy hustling their asses off. Err on the side of formality. You can be eccentric and cute when you’re famous and making everyone buckets of money.

You can complain in public then, too. Listen, we all have our days. But don’t burn bridges. Just don’t. Maybe you’re a once-in-a-generation genius who can get away with being “difficult.” More likely, you’re not. Why take a chance? My friends Mitch and Bettie tell me that you better have at least two of three things going for you to succeed in the comic book industry: “damn good, damn fast, damn nice.” I think it applies across disciplines. Go for three, but definitely cultivate two:  really talented, really reliable, really easy to work with.

There’s this persistent idea that writing is the ideal career choice for misanthropic introverts. If you’re not interested in publishing, I suppose that could be true. But if you want your words to reach readers, you really need to be a “people person,” as my son calls our Australian shepherd. Published writers build relationships with readers, agents, editors, reviewers, booksellers, colleagues. It’s a big pond, with a lot of fish in it. You need champions. You need people to go to bat for you. You need connections. Publishing is a very mobile industry. The editorial assistant you deal with today is apt to be a features editor tomorrow. Don’t over think it. Just be kind and sincere.

Okay, that’s about as brass tacks as I can keep up for any sustained length of time. If you have more questions, I’m happy to attempt to answer them in the comments below, or on a future Writings on Wednesday feature.

In the meantime, enjoy this photo (taken by Sarabeth) of me, enchanted by an ass. What else is new?





7 Responses to “Writing on Wednesdays: Nuts and Bolts of Getting Published”

  1. Great post, Kyran, but I thought the picture was going to be captioned with something like, “you even have to be nice to the asses.” Anyhow, great to see you this past weekend. Let me know if you ever wander to the Show Me State.

  2. Alexandra says:

    I remember being so impressed with your presentation at Erma Bombeck. How it felt like you were giving us the keys to the castle.
    Your generous spirit feels so rare to me.

    How wonderful that you want for us, what you’ve been blessed with: your name on a shelf, in a bookstore.

    THis will only stay a dream for me if I don’t get active in the brass tacks of it.


  3. Laura says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I find this helpful, inspirational, motivational, and insightful. After reading this, I emailed the secretary of my neighborhood’s newsletter and volunteered to write anything they might need. I read that writers always write, no matter if it’s a letter, blog, or what.

  4. Ashten says:

    Thank you for talking with me this weekend. You are an inspiration to me, and I’ve been working on making contact with editors in the Little Rock market. I’m realistically hopeful that something great will happen soon.

  5. Lela says:

    Great advice. All writing counts. One of my first clips was about healthcare savings accounts– wrote it for the CPA society when I was still working at an accounting firm.

  6. Kyran, I’m a relatively new reader/follower of yours and I love this post. I’m in the baby stages of a freelance career myself and this resonates with what I’ve gathered already. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts – looking forward to more!

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