by Tasha Seegmiller
Once upon a time, I thought that publishing was a thing where you learn your craft really well, do the work, and then navigate the query trenches.
Once upon a time, I thought that once someone got an agent, the two of them would work together to make the manuscript better and then have conversations about how to submit manuscripts.
Once upon a time, I thought if an editor liked a book, it was like an agent liking a book, wherein they worked out the details of the contract and then proceeded to make the book better until it was publication-ready.
I have since learned that all this is as likely as Cinderella’s fairy godmother, as likely as Prince Phillip winning a battle with an enchanted sword flung toward a raging dragon, as likely as an ogre ending up with a princess who is also an ogre.
This post is not meant to be a downer. I promise.
It is meant to help people align their expectations of writing a little better. Because though I have a very vivid imagination (writer on purpose people), I don’t think I’m the only person who thinks publishing works that way. I don’t think I’m the only one who has been shocked that people change agents, that publishing houses can sell two books fairly well and then have a gazillion reasons for not resigning.
It wasn’t until I started knocking on the door of the publishing arena that I noticed many – MANY – of my favorite authors had several books by one publishing house, and then others with another.
There are a lot of people who think getting an MFA is the way to cure that. That having someone dedicate their time to helping you become a better writer is the way to skip ahead in the line a bit.
While I am currently in an MFA program, while I have loved being in my MFA program, I will say that I have had more than one advisor let us know that 3% of people in such programs go on to be published. In fact, amid the advisors in my particular program, only the ones old enough to have retired are those not also working another job, generally at a different university.
What’s an aspiring author to do?
The easiest answer is quit. (Wait, wait, hear me out.)
If every time you sit down to write, you dread trying to get words on a page, if the thought of creating stories and revising and editing and promoting and talking about your work gives you a longing to chew on broken glass instead, maybe you should quit. You don’t have to tell anyone. Just quit.
I have quit a few times. I was done with the mucky, murky, miserable middles. I was done thinking about character arcs and their interactions and everything. I was done.
So far, the longest I’ve been able to quit has been about three weeks. And then, when I’m folding the never-ending pile of clothes or making dinner or washing my hair or even just hanging out in the hours between wake and sleep, a way to advance the story I’m working on moves across my mind like a breeze.
I will be sitting somewhere and see someone who makes me wonder, who makes me interested, who makes me want to consider their story. It’s generally nothing brighter than a candle-sized flame at the end of a massive, dark cave, but it’s enough that I want to get closer to it, to see what’s going on there, to play a little in that light.
And then I’m making up names and backstories and other characters, breaking through the struggles characters and I were having about where a story needs to go next, and before I realize it, I’ve thrown 500 or 1000 words on a page for a story, and I want to write again.
If quitting doesn't work, what does?
Since quitting hasn’t really seemed to work for me, and since the odds are really not in a writer’s favor, what’s an aspiring author to do? I recommend the following.
Yes, I know I already told you the reality of MFA programs. And while I do not regret for one single second the work and money and time I have put into my program, I’m not necessarily talking about that kind of education.
I’m talking about taking the time to really look at what has happened to an author’s publishing careers. You can do this via a website like Goodreads, and just scan through. How often have they published books? Who published them?
Pay attention to the acknowledgments pages of books you read, especially by the same author. Most won’t make an announcement that they have left a relationship with an agent publicly, so you want to see who they are thanking for helping bring their work forward.
Read books that really talk about the writing industry. I recommend Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum and The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman. Follow these people on social media, take time to understand the content in their newsletters, really look at what is going on in the world around publishing.
Read lots and lots and lots. Read the kinds of books you want to publish. Read the kinds of books that break what you thought you might consider your genre. Pay attention to what is being published NOW (Harry Potter and Eat, Pray, Love are great books. They are not current. You need to be aware of the current).
Make friends with authors and then engage in conversations.
- How many of them got an agent with their first book?
- How many of them signed with a publisher with their first book?
- If they went the self-publishing route, what did they pay to editors and cover designers?
All authors need to learn what is involved in marketing in a saturated market? What does a publisher/publicity person do and what is the author expected to do?
Recently, there have been conversations on Twitter about how many jobs agents have to work in order to make things work. Did you know that?
There was also a serious conversation about what authors made up front with their books. Go see #publishingpaidme to get insights. It’s not awesome, so keep some comfort food nearby, but know that most authors are working other jobs for a good amount of time into their publishing careers. They often talk about this candidly.
3. Write for You.
Okay, a caveat. If you decide to do a story about aliens and vampires secretly conspiring and it’s all in a dystopian setting, you likely aren’t going to get very far. There are some rules within genres and a smart writer will be aware of those (see Education above).
But you need to write stories that speak to your heart. You need to craft characters that reflect what you want to say about life and the world and society and whatever else is driving you. You are going to put a lot of time into writing that story.
Make sure you start out writing something you love because you will hit a point where it is not as fun as you thought it would be. Don’t go chasing markets, trends, bestseller lists, or try to create a story your mom/ dad/ boss/ cousin/ dog/ neighbor/ cat/ spouse has always wanted you to write because it’s not going to work.
In the quiet of the night, in the solitude when it is you and your story, what rings true?
Keep writing that.
What are lessons about publication you have recently learned? Any resources you think help give a better idea of what aspiring authors can expect?
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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is an MFA candidate in the Writing Program at Pacific University and teaches composition courses at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a soda shack and cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.
Top Graphic by K Maze