How To Get A Book Deal When You're Fifteen

Friday, January 27, 2012

There is this overwhelming focus amongst a lot of writers of children's and young adult fiction (and definitely writers across other genres, too, but this is what I'm familiar with) on publication, and on producing large volumes of work quickly. I don't know whether this phenomenon can be blamed upon NaNoWriMo, or the demands of young readers (a book a year, a massive series), or the nature of society today.

There is a sort of rabid desperation that some unpublished writers have to become an author, to 'make it', to get a book deal. And when I say 'some', I mean the vast majority of unpublished writers I've known. The elaborate fantasy of 'when I am published'. The resentment of already successful writers, and the idolisation of agents and editors.

I remember being like this myself. I remember the unfailing belief that something would shift within me upon receiving external validation. I remember the belief that publication would be this all powerful thing, that published writers were somehow different from unpublished writers.

And this is what drove me to devour every single little detail about the publishing world I could get my hands on. This is what drove me to write like a crazy person. I'm not sure I would've worked has hard as I did, would've blogged on a daily basis, would've read and read and read about the publishing industry if I knew how it would feel to be an author.

This is what publication day feels like: not much, really.

There are plenty of wonderful experiences someone with a newly released book can have: speaking at festivals, speaking at schools, signing books, going into a shop and seeing their book on the shelf, hearing that a reader loves your book.

There are also a lot of less-than-wonderful experiences you make yourself vulnerable to: bad reviews and criticism, a great deal of stress over the first book not doing well enough or the second book not finding a publisher or not measuring up to others expectations, a possibly painful editorial process.

And this is the part where unpublished writers desperate to publication want to hear: but it's all worth it! Writing is painful but publication is brilliant!

The truth is, the real joy of being a writer is in the writing. Maybe for some people it is in promoting the book but I think those people are just in the wrong industry. The idea that traditional publication should be the goal of all writers is an incorrect one. Writing has value (to both the writer and their readers) irrespective of whether it is traditionally published.

Here's how I think it works:

If your only goal is publication, you may very well become published, but you probably won't be a particularly good writer. You will perhaps just be a commercially viable writer. And maybe that's what you want, and that's an okay thing to want. The odds of you making decent money out of this writing business are not great, but go for it.

If your goal, instead, is based around the actual writing - trying to create a story other people will enjoy, or you will enjoy, or just writing for self-expression or because you were inspired or because, pretty much, you live to write - then you may or may not get published. Maybe there is enough value in writing because it helps you to deal with the world without having to share it with other people commercially. Maybe you will write a lot of novels before you create something that deserves to be shared with others. Maybe through writing a story that is real and true and genuine for yourself, you'll create something other people will love.

Yes, publication has its upsides: finding out an agent or publisher loves your book enough to publish it is a wonderful feeling; hearing someone loved your book is brilliant; someone being inspired by you is great. Money is also nice. But these pleasures are very fleeting compared to the joy and growth and knowledge you will find in actually writing a novel. Publication will complicate your relationship with your writing a lot. You don't have to rush into it. It's not the best field if you need money immediately, either.

I don't understand why some people continue to look down upon those who self-publish, because really, everyone has different ambitions with their writing. For some people, having control over their work and sharing it online is a viable option, and one that can bring them joy and financial gain.

There is no magical key to becoming traditionally published, and even if there was, you wouldn't want it. This is not to stop you from pursuing publication. This is to remind you not to put the cart before the horse. This is to remind you to enjoy every stage of the writing process if your goal is publication, and that writing is wonderful irrespective of whether you get published.

My goal as a writer is to become the best writer I can and make sense of my world. And I hope that as long as I am writing, I'll have the opportunity to share that with other people, and entertain them. Publication and money are wonderful, but I don't mind getting a day job. If I only get one life, I don't want to spend the entire time writing in my room, after all.

I think publishers choosing books that are 'commercially viable' is a load of rubbish, since those books often tend to be generic and lame Twilight-derivatives, but that's another thing altogether. I suppose people need to make money. I'd rather try and write amazing stories. I certainly prefer to read them.

Give up on the 'when I am published' fantasy, if you have one (It's really quite a lot like the 'when I am thin' fantasy - you will not transform into someone else). Probably focusing on publication at the expense of writing is a bad idea. Reading every piece of advice everyone has ever doled out about anything related to the publishing industry is really not the key (beyond the basics of what to put in a query and how to be respectful to agents and publishers, of course).

Even once you are published, you will still be a work-in-progress as a writer. You always will be. And that is a wonderful thing. Getting published when you are still a kid doesn't really count for a lot (people will just be ferociously resentful or vaguely impressed), but it's a perfectly fine thing to aspire to. Being a great writer does not have to be your central goal at the expense of all others, but I think it's a good one. I want to write books people will love and cry and laugh over. Publication and cash money will always be secondary to that.

Feel free to burn me alive if I sell out and start writing misogynistic vampire romances.

And if you remain curious, here are the things that I think are vital if you really, really want to be a traditionally published writer:

  • A bit of inspiration
  • A lot of motivation and hard work
  • The encouragement and feedback of other writers
  • Knowledge of your genre and the industry
  • Enough bravery to send your work out and risk rejection, as well as patience and a thick skin
  • A very significant portion of right-person, right-place, right-time luck.
  • The slightest bit of insanity
I think that's about it.

Thoughts on writing for publication, what motivates you as a writer, and commercial viability are very much appreciated.
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