Years before I was even offered a contract, new writers started asking me if I would tell them how to get published. Some have asked if I would connect them to an agent or an editor. Others have wanted to know how to write a surefire query letter.
These are the same questions I asked established writers when I was new, and every question is a good one. Every one of them is important if a writer wants to eventually work with a respected, traditional publisher. But—trust me—if I knew a quick-and-easy secret formula, I would’ve used it a long time ago.
If there *were* a step-by-step process, however, it might look a lot like this:
But since we’re talking about the Children’s market, rather than the Stephen King method of getting published, perhaps I should use the ABCs to impart the best advice I have to offer:
A: Attend Conferences and Workshops
You don’t need to attend conferences and workshops, but I’m telling you, I would’ve never been published if I hadn’t made the investment in a good education. And I’m not talking about my college English classes.
Writing and selling a manuscript is tough stuff. The good news is that many brilliant authors have done it before you, and especially in the Children’s/Young Adult market, they are more than willing to share their knowledge and experience. At conferences, you get the opportunity to learn from their presentations, ask them questions, and even benefit from their critiques of your work.
Editors and agents are often in attendance as well. Not only does this give you an opportunity to get a feel for what type of manuscripts they’re looking for, but in most cases, you’re then given the okay to submit to them directly. And this is a big deal. Every major publishing house I know of is closed to open submissions, meaning that you need a reputable agent to submit the manuscript on your behalf. And more and more agencies are closing their doors to open submissions, too . . . which means you need to have an “in” with them as well.
So how do you get that “in?” By attending a conference where that agent or editor is presenting.
As far as conference costs are concerned, it’s important to do some serious research. There are workshops aplenty—many of them very beneficial—that are less than $100. And there are also several that are over $1000. Some are even $2500 and beyond. Personally, I’ve never seen a workshop in this later category that looks worth the price (in fact, I think the majority of these highly-priced workshops are predatory). So definitely look into the details, find some conferences or workshops that meet your needs, and decide if the price seems reasonable.
For the Children’s market, you’ll find an excellent array of upcoming events at www.SCBWI.org. And my personal favorite week-long conference—for cost, improving craft, networking, and its impressive track record for connecting writers with their future agents or editors—is called Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers. You can find more info about it at www.wifyr.com (I’m not paid for recruiting, I swear! I’ve just attended it several times and love it).
B: Be Active in the Writing Community
Form genuine relationships with people who can both formally and informally mentor you. Learn as much as you can about the business from them. BUT keep in mind that it generally makes an author uncomfortable when you ask them to hook you up with their agent/editor. If you are genuine friends with an author, then he or she has likely read some of your work, so if they feel it’s a good fit for their agent/editor, they will likely tell you. Otherwise, do your due diligence, just as they did, and query the editor or agent yourself.
Where do you start if you want to get more involved in the community? Thanks to the internet, the world has become a very small place. Technically, there’s no need to even travel away from your laptop when it comes to making new friends, so get out there and make some. Start following writing blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages, especially those by successful authors. Then just . . . absorb. Listen in, and eventually jump into conversations.
Another critical step for a beginner is to find a critique group. And make sure you connect with writers who write for your same genre, or your experience will likely go sour. For example, if you write picture books, then join a group with PB writers only. Even the best novel writer in the world could steer you wrong with their advice for writing a picture book (which are totally different animals!) And vise versa. It takes some effort, but if you seek out like minds, you will eventually find them. And don’t be afraid to leave a critique group if it’s just bringing you down—killing your confidence. Critiques are usually beneficial, but what’s the point if you’re not being productive? Sometimes a writer just needs to step back and take some time to sort things out on his or her own. But keep in mind that if you continue to hear similar comments that particular issues aren’t quite working in your manuscript, then they aren’t quite working. Editors and agents will see these same problems as well, so figure out how to make the issues work, then revise the manuscript. (Like I said: Blood, Sweat, Tears, Repeat.)
Let’s go back to conferences and workshops because they’re the best way I know to do some critical networking. Some people claim that it’s who you know in this business that can get you a book deal, and guess what? They’re often right. But it might not be what you’re thinking. It’s more like who you know, and what they can teach you. Or . . . who they know, and what they tell others about your manuscript.
I landed my first major book deal last May, and it was the direct result of one Important Person in the industry—who had read my entire manuscript—telling another Important Person (during a typical morning commute in NYC) that she felt my manuscript might be a good fit for Bloomsbury. And it was. So very good things can come from simple networking, which often results in forming genuine friendships.
C: Create a Quality Manuscript
Attending conferences, networking with other writers, and joining a critique group will also teach you a lot about craft. And nothing you do will be as important as writing a quality manuscript.
For new writers, especially, it’s easy to get caught up in the logistics of selling a book (how to write a query letter, how to get connected with agents and editors, etc). But no matter how well you know the publishing business, it won’t mean a thing if you don’t know the craft of writing.
And . . . no pressure . . . but you have to know it well enough to stand out in a sea of millions of others who want a contract just as much as you do.
This will never happen if you’re only doing networking, or seeking opportunities to meet editors and agents, and certainly not if you spend the majority of your time dreaming about how you’ll spend the money from your first book deal. Writing a quality, deliciously-marketable manuscript—that an editor won’t be able to pass up—only happens when you:
1) HAVE YOUR BUTT IN A SEAT
2) YOUR FINGERS ON A KEYBOARD
3) YOUR MIND ON THE STORY
That’s the real Secret Formula, my friends. Now, stop reading this and get to work! You have a book to sell!
Amy Finnegan writes Young Adult novels and is a host at BookshopTalk.com. Her debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, will be published by Bloomsbury, Fall 2014. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ajfinnegan, and Facebook (Amy Finnegan, Author). She is represented by Erin Murphy.