Here's a question published & produced writers get fairly often:
"Can you give me advice on how to get published?"
This is a tough question. There’s no satisfactory answer of which I’m aware. The easy answer is "yes, I can give you some advice," but there's a second question underneath there, which is "can you help me get published?" the answer to which is "no."
Nobody wants to be the “no” guy. But you’ve already seen all the advice in the world on how to get published -- and it’s going to be a hell of a lot more useful coming from an agent, editor, or publisher. I can only advise you on how I got to this point. Otherwise, I’m repeating the same advice from agents, editors, and publishers that you’ve already seen.
The fact is, I don't know how one breaks into the author business. My experience is exceedingly limited; there was far more serendipity involved in what little success I’ve had than anything else. But for the record, here’s what I know.
- Write. It’s a big deal to write your first novel or screenplay. Sadly, it’s not a big deal for the folks who get paid to read them, because they read ten a week. So if you get all the way through the gauntlet of obstacles to that crucial person’s desk, there’s no guarantee it will capture their interest. Don’t be discouraged. This isn’t a one-shot game: you may have to write a dozen manuscripts before one of them catches on. As long as you keep working, you can still succeed.
- Hustle. It’s not enough to keep writing. Go out there and get exposure. A friend of mine has gotten her short stories into anthologies; others have self-published, entered competitions, or kept a well-crafted blog. Everything helps. I wrote hundreds of essays on politics and culture during the reign of Bush the Lesser. Never made a dime, but the experience improved my writing and helped me figure out how to handle criticism, controversy, death threats, and so on. Had I not written those pieces, I could never have completed my first novel -- nor would I have had the confidence to champion it.
- Get representation. Writers are generally terrible advocates for themselves. You need somebody to keep your work out of the dreaded slush pile. A good agent, entertainment lawyer, or similar intermediary will do far more for your reputation than you ever will. When I started writing movie scripts as a youth, I got my first agent with a query letter that took me longer to write than the screenplay to which it was attached. Sent it to sixty agencies, got one positive response. That was probably the biggest hurdle I ever faced. Having representation in the movie business raised my stock: I was officially a writer.
That’s all I know about getting published. It’s not much.
The hardest part, as I said up top, is that I can’t help anybody get published. This isn’t just a matter of disinclination. I would love to see all my writer friends published. I’d make everybody gin and tonics and we could sit around talking about writer stuff. But you know who nobody in publishing, movies, or any other writing-dependent medium wants a recommendation from? A writer.
I used to think my more successful writer acquaintances were pricks for not throwing me a recommendation, a phone number, a name, anything to help a pal out. They wouldn’t even read my material. But I get it now. Even if somebody handed me the greatest unpublished manuscript in the entire world, all I could do is say to my agent, “hey, this is really good. Please read it.” And he would say “awesome, I’ll get to it as soon as I can.” And it would go on the dreaded slush pile.
There is also a liability issue. Everybody thinks they’re the first person to have had an idea, when in fact there are only about six unique stories out there. It’s all in the retelling. Every time I read something unpublished, my lawyer has a stroke, because thereafter if I write anything within spitting distance of it, I can get sued for stealing the other party’s idea. This happens to writers a lot, sadly. We are strongly cautioned not to read things that haven’t been circulated already. I do read things from folks I’ve known a long time, by which I mean 20 years or more; they know who they are, and I apologize for not getting back to them. It’s at the top of my to-do list, swear to god.
Finally, there’s the matter of taste. If you write the bestest urban fantasy romance in the world, I’m probably still going to think it’s awful, because I don’t like the genre. If your prose style isn’t my bag, same deal. And Ganesh help us all if it’s simply bad writing, because now what the hell am I supposed to say? “You suck?” or “Try setting it to music?” So as bad as it is for a friendship not to read someone’s lovingly crafted manuscript, it can often be worse to read it.
Advice is easy. Help, not so much. If I can offer some helpful advice, please consider it the best a writer can do.