Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Breaking Into Print

I received an e-letter from an aspiring writer this week asking for tips on how to break into print (she's currently a college English major, focused on creative writing).

As I'm often asked for advice from young writers on how to get your feet wet in the sea of publication, I thought I'd reprint my response to her here. Much of it is my personal story. I hope you find something in my tale helpful for your own writing journey. Here was my reply:

I think you're wise to pursue creative writing in college; I sometimes think if I had, it would have saved me a lot of cramming and learning the hard way later (I majored in occupational therapy at UF). But I had no way of knowing I would turn out to be a writer - it was more Papa God's idea than mine.

I started writing professionally about 10 years ago at age 45 when my youngest chick flew the coop for college and I heard a still, small voice whisper to my heart (in a dentist's office of all places!) that it was time to chase the childhood dream He'd put in my heart to write.

I began with magazine articles and with a mentor's help (mostly to make me NOT look like the amateur I was), was able to get 10 pieces published that first year. Although the industry has changed dramatically during the past decade, I still believe it's the best way to go - take small bites (articles both online and print, blogs, etc) before tackling the whole enchilada (a book). I'm now blessed with over 130 articles published internationally, most of them based on personal anecdotes and life lessons learned. Many of them are laced with humor (I highly recommend this to promote sales - everybody likes to laugh!). 

From magazines, I moved on to a newspaper column (which I still write 8 years later), kind of a Christian Erma Bombeck slice of life perspective.

Both of these experiences were crucial to:
1) Pad my resume and provide clips for catching bigger and better writing gigs (and eventually an agent).
2) Provide experience for writing tight and learning the ropes.
3) Demonstrate to book publishers that I was a serious writer, knew my stuff, and that I was worth taking a chance on (publishing and promoting a book is a hefty and risky endeavor).
4) Begin building my platform for a future book career - growing a readership and establishing my writing voice.
5) Get my name "out there."

My first three books (two YA historical novels and a combo devo/how-to for writers) were published by a small press. This is another thing I advocate at my writing workshops: small presses. They will deal with unagented writers and provide many of the same things larger traditional presses do, except for large scale book distribution. Since the books are usually POD (Print On Demand), bookstores won't carry them because they're nonreturnable, but these days that doesn't matter as much because the bulk of sales are online and electronic anyway. You don't pay a penny with a small press and end up with a nice book to show for it. (As opposed to some self-published books with inferior covers and poor editing.)

It was only after I had three books under my belt that I was able to land an agent - these days you don't choose them, they choose you, but only if they feel your manuscript is completely ready, sell-able and polished (this means professional editing before submitting a manuscript to either an agent or publisher is an absolute must). As I alluded to earlier, the larger publishing houses only deal with agents. My agent, then, was able to open bigger doors to better contracts. My 14th book will be released this fall.

I'm sure you already know that an excellent resource is the Christian Writers Market Guide (for inspirational writers) and I highly recommend combing that highly valuable book for places your work might be a good fit. All the info you'll need is contained therein - follow submission guidelines to the letter.

If your writing is solid and of good quality, it's only a matter of time until you start placing pieces. And periodical publishing brings in a little income while you're learning the ropes (averages 10-20 cents per word, sometimes more). 

Another way to add planks to your platform is to become more visible. Choose something related to your chosen genre that meets a felt need with the public, develop an expertise and become a speaker. My niche is quirky women's humor so I developed presentations related to the topics of my inspirational women's books - stress, self-control, beauty, fear, unconditional love - and have spoken to more than 100 groups in the past three years. Back room book sales are usually quite lucrative and the exposure (mostly word of mouth) really boosts your following.

There's no magic formula that works for everyone - every writer I know broke in a different way. But I think the common thread is determination and perseverance ... and continuing to perfect your craft.

I would also recommend a subscription to Writer's Digest or another trade journal (that's where I learned more about the writing biz than anywhere else), and to also subscribe to writing blogs of those successful within your genre. There's quite a lot of good info in the archives of mine that you would likely find helpful: I'd also like to invite you to subscribe to my personal blog: to get a flavor for the ongoing process of connecting with your readers after the books are out.

Go where the decision makers are. Attend one or two writers conferences each year; do your homework before hand and prepare queries or one-pagers to pitch to at least three editors face to face (conferences are the only place you can do this so it's worth the $500 or so it costs - I've landed many article and/or book deals at conferences). 

Even if they don't think your piece is "ready," they'll give you invaluable input so that you'll see clearly where you need to go from here and next time it will be. These are the actual people who make the decisions what to publish... let them meet you personally and get to know you. Rapport goes a l-o-n-g way in the pub biz.

Realistically, you may not come out of the starting gate making a living off your writing income. Many or perhaps most of us have other jobs and write on the side. Some of the fortunate few do well enough to eventually quit their day jobs and only write, but not most. After a decade writing professionally, I'm only just now starting to receive royalty checks that have more than three digits. I never did quit my day job as an occupational therapist and don't intend to in the near future, although I have been able to cut my hours back to allow for more writing time.

And a HUGE must: learn to write a killer query. So immensely important.

Professional writing is truly great fun, although a lot of work. But when those letters from readers start coming in that thank you for changing their lives and touching their hearts with Papa God's love, you know it's all worth it.