I am gratified in a hopeless kind of way whenever I get asked questions about books and publishing, because it is very nice that the person asking might believe I could answer such questions. So I wrote this long series of lists as a response, because I am very bad at answering this question, for reasons you will learn shortly.
Question 1: How Do I Get My Book Published?
1) This is an agonizing question, because the next sentence out of the questioner’s mouth might be, “I just need a proofreader and someone to help me organize it.” I wish I had the answer because I SO ABSOLUTELY DO NOT. Someone might, but then again, if they promise to make you happy in that way so quickly, I’d be a little suspicious.
2) I’m trying to figure out and express exactly why the question is so agonizing. I think it boils down to my own inadequacy. Here’s my batting average (for real). About 1 hour a day since I was 23, minus the weekends and sick days. So we’ll say 5 days a week, 18 years… that’s 52 x 5 x 18 (at the bare minimum)=4680 hours. If I add in a few half hours here and there and a bunch of manic proofreading and revisioning, it’s close to 8,000 hours pretty easily (not to mention reading time, which should be added in, I suppose). That is a lot of waking time of life. To show for it, I have 3 books. And I can only tell you that I have no idea how to write a book, much less how to publish one.
3) If I tell you it’s impossible, you might be sad. I don’t want to make you sad. It's not impossible; it's just not something I have a map for.
4) Maybe you did just spit that book out and are on the way to getting published (somehow) and you obviously don’t need my help. Who am I to say? But you’re looking for a trapdoor—a magic escape hatch—that I don’t know about. I really don’t know about that escape hatch. So I can’t even begin to tell you how much you are asking the wrong person.
Question 2: How Do I Write a Book?
1) This is overwhelming to a writing teacher because it implies that the process of writing a book is simple. If it were simple, you could find the person who can give you the simple magic recipe. I’m sure someone’s trying to hawk that, but it’s like weight loss. The simple and drastic formulas are probably really bad for you and produce bad books.
2) This is overwhelming to a writing teacher (me) because it reminds me of how non-simple my writing process is and of how much time I put in (an hour a day, kids) to accumulate sentences that sometimes get thrown away. Okay, they get thrown away a lot. Or sometimes I write whole chapters and then brood on them for the next five years, split them in two, use one paragraph, and throw the rest out.
3) If you saw a welder working and said to the welder, “I want to build a battle ship,” what would his response be? He would sigh and say, “Okay. Maybe you should learn to weld first.” The obvious next thing is to say, Just write your book. Or just find an MFA program. And I hate myself for giving that kind of flippant advice.
4) I get the feeling you’re not asking the right question (see the next chunk). And I don’t want to be all “Mr. Miagi,” but at this stage of the game I have the feeling you haven’t struggled enough. I want to tell you to go away for a year and write every day for an hour and then come back and we’ll talk.
5) I do have some good practical advice: find 20 books that are like the one you envision (but of course not as good). Read them, and then write notes for each to describe how your book is different. This is your process of getting educated in the market that you are writing for.
6) Look for writers’ conferences that are near you and go to one. You can find writers conferences by looking them up at Poets & Writers at http://www.pw.org.
7) Just start looking. Look at websites like Poets & Writers or Writers Digest and subscribe to one of these magazines. You will see just how many people have this same desire and will gradually learn about what kind of book you want to write for what audience.
8) Forgive me for being so inadequate a guide to something you care about so deeply.
9) You can hire me for a standard contractor’s rate if I have time in my schedule, or I might be able to refer you to someone else who does editing and consultation. It’s really hard to know whether or not you should pay someone for these services. If you really care about writing, you should learn yourself. But ultimately I think you will have to pay a teacher. That’s how I learned, so I don’t know another way. It’s disrespectful of another person, however, to ask them to do something huge for you over an extended period of time without compensation.
10) Writing is seen as “easy” in our particular cultural moment. It’s not respected. That’s why it’s not given the support and focus necessarily in schools. We think someone else should teach writing, that it’s as simple and direct as downloading some instructions like on The Matrix. Learning and doing writing takes time and attention and concentration, like anything. Many writers have subsisted for years on sub-standard teaching gigs that don’t offer health insurance, or freelance writing and editing gigs with the same deficiencies. When you ask a writer for free advice, you’re liable to tap into this frustration (understandable, I think) of a person with under-valued skills who is short on time because he or she is busy juggling multiple gigs to pay the health insurance premium.
Question 3: How Do I Write MY Book?
1) What kind of book is it—Fiction or Nonfiction or some other genre?
2) How long have you been writing it? Do you think you have enough gathered material to be interesting to someone?
3) What kind of reader do you think it would appeal to? If you think the whole world should and will read it, you need to think a bit more and be realistic. I hope the whole world will read it, but… take the Bible. It’s very big in these parts, and yet not everyone has read it. I’m sure everyone would get something out of your book if they found it and read it, but who is the core group of readers who will be immediately moved on hearing about this book to rush out and grab it?
4) I don’t know. It’s your book. Really. There’s no recipe. If you have an even more specific question, like “How Do I Order These Essays Into an Essay Collection,” I could maybe help with that. But I don’t know what kind of book you want to write—it’s a deeply personal question, and you should be suspicious and wary of handing your writing autonomy over to anyone else.
5) Have you let someone else read it? You should. Find someone who will ask good questions and not just say, “Oh honey, it’s greeeaaatt!” You would be surprised—or maybe not—that most books are written for a general readership, and therefore that anyone who likes to read can give you really great advice. My mom is a master at this; she's a great reader.
6) Have you attended one measly writing class? I’m not saying you need one. I’m just saying that there’s always a take-away that can help you, and writing classes are always good places to find writer friends. I don't even mean jumping into an MFA. Try a community education center, a YMCA class, something you find in the classifieds ads, a retreat, an online course–anything.
7) Have you thought about forming a writing group?
8) If you can answer these questions, make a friend with a writer who works in the same genre you are writing in. I would bet they are not rich. Be respectful and know that, just as you pay a plumber for his services, you should offer to pay a writer on an hourly basis for his time. If you’re a student, you’re entitled to this advice as a result of your tuition, but you will need to set up an independent study. Be very specific when you ask the question so they know what you’re talking about and they can tell you’re beyond the stage of over-simplifying this complicated question.
Question 4: Are you asking me how I became a writer?
1) I wrote every day for an hour on the subway to and from work in Boston, and then I kept writing and I wrote a bad novel. Then I was hooked into it, and I subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine, read it diligently, learned about writing and the writing and publishing industry, and sent my work out to many small and large magazines and anthologies. I gradually got published in small magazines and anthologies and got rejected a lot. It took a loooooonnnnnggggg time. it took an astounding amount of patience and still does.
2) I took community education courses on every writing subject: how to write a book proposal, how to write poetry, etc. These were just what was offered that I could find listed in the newspaper next to the bird-watching group and the classified ads for casual sex. Don’t be proud. Your teachers are everywhere. You don’t need to find Michael Creighton or Oprah and hold a gun to their necks. You need to listen to everyone.
3) I worked at a bookstore that sold books, and I diligently used my employee discount to buy the entire “how to write” section in the basement used-book section. I read them all. I’m serious. It’s very good for you. Do it. This was so good for me. Annie Dillard’s Bird by Bird, John Gardner’s How to Write Fiction. They were my best friends.
4) Then I worked in journalism. Excellent training and excellent way to become a writer. I was paid badly and freelanced, but you get to keep the skills when you’re done. Then I got an MFA. Now I teach at an MFA program. I'm a fan of them.
5) I wrote so much bad, bad stuff. I still do, and then I sit and revise. That’s the only difference: the amount of time you are willing to put in to revision. If you are brilliant on a first draft, you should not be asking me for advice, because I don’t know what it’s like to live the life of a savant and I would not be the one to guide you. I am what they call a “grind.”
Question 5: How do I get an agent?
1) I have no idea. I have published three books and I’ve never been able to get an agent. I’ve never been able to say the seventh favorite sentence of writers: “I fired my agent,” which gives writers a feeling that they are in control of something financial. Writers also like to say “My agent” because it gives them the feeling of being the boss of someone, or at least on someone’s t-ball team. I like agents. Agents I have emailed have been really nice to me and really interested in my work, but I feel about them the way I felt about boys at age 14: This is never going to happen to me and I’m going to be a virgin forever. Except there’s no urgency there at all. It’s sort of the way I feel about the band Guided by Voices. People have been telling me forever that I should love them, and at this point another version of me in another universe probably does. But I’m sort of too lazy to listen to them now.
2) Move to New York and get a job at a Starbucks in the neighborhood where several literary agencies are located. Work at a magazine like Glamour or More and wear cool boots and carry a quirky handbag. Someone at a bar will tell you how much she likes them, you will start chatting a reveal that you are a writer, and then you will have a business card. You will set up a face-to-face meeting with the agent, who will like your writing sample as well as your quirky handbag, and ouila, agent. (This is my agent-porn fantasy. I know it’s not real…. not all the time.)
3) Start a blog. I’ve heard agents like these. Read a bunch of Poets & Writers articles about getting an agent. Seriously, I am the worst person to ask for this kind of advice.