If you’re asking me, then this is my advice for getting published. Write a good book that you’d like to read. Rewrite it until it’s perfect. Find someone else who likes it (preferably an agent or editor) and get it published. Simple, right?
I remember hearing again and again at conferences and from other writers that all I needed to do was to write a good book. Why can’t people just write a good one with no hassle at all? Why did it take me so long to do it? Maybe it’s because writing is hard work. And maybe it takes a long time to get good at it.
Every time I write a book, I tell myself that I can only write it as well as I can at that very moment. But my job each time is to write as well as I can. And when I do it again and again, I get better at it. But this is hard work, and does not come from scribbling down one rough draft and calling yourself done.
I have lots of friends that are struggling to get published and have been for years, and other friends who one day miraculously get an agent or that big deal. And I realized that publication almost never happens before you’re ready. And it usually happens because you are ready. You wrote your bad first book and let it go. Then you had the space in your head and on your hard drive to write that debut novel that makes everyone say “wow.” And you did. And then that one other person fell in love with it…
So publishing is a lot like a love story. Finding the perfect person at the moment when neither lover is committed to another person or living on opposite continents. If anything is off, then the love story or the publishing deal falls through.
My advice? Start by writing a good book that you’d like to read. Don’t hold anything back for another book, because by the time you get to book number two you’ll have more to give. Your path to publication will become clear when you’re ready. And then an editor, an agent and I will eagerly await to read your debut book.
Have a happy new year! And don’t forget to enter our contest. Win a “Damned Scribbling Woman” (or “Scribbling Woman” or “Equal Opportunity Reader”) t-shirt! Find out how well you know the Debs…
Pre-S: Don’t forget to enter our Fabulous Holiday Contest. You could win something cool. And who doesn’t want to win something cool? I’d tell you, but I can’t even think of an example.
Our theme this week is “publishing advice.” Everywhere you look nowadays, you find advice about getting your book written, published, marketed. The internet has brought about a generation of supereducated query writers, folks who know to spell the agent’s name correctly, eschew the term “fiction novel”, and add something personal about the agent’s body of work. Heck, you could go from zero to hero just combing through the archives of the divine retired Miss Snark.
So why, then, are there just as many people as ever agonizing over the idea of being an author? Why aren’t there droves of success stories? There are plenty, to be sure. Every one of us Debs has her own story, the one that begins with the unlikely authoress finding her own toehold in the industry.
But we’ve all also been at that stage where you don’t have any idea whether you have what it takes to be published. You sit at the computer and enjoy every second of it except the part where you wonder if what you’re doing is actually any good—much less good enough.
Look, no book ever pleased everybody. No book that ever made a top-ten list somewhere didn’t make somebody else’s bottom-ten list. Nothing that has fascinated me hasn’t been tossed aside as unimaginably boring by some intelligent person somewhere. And we all, in our hearts, know this. We know that even if we may write a book that our mothers and best friends like, agents and editors may not even give it a second look.
That’s why I’m only offering two pieces of advice:
(1) Write anyway.
But this is only my first book and I’m not sure I have the patience to write three bad books before getting that magical one that will sell. But my fourth-grade teacher said I wasn’t a good writer. But I think what I write is too highbrow for the general public. But nobody cares what I have to say.
You want to be a writer?
(2) If you think selling your book will make you happy, hang up your mouse and do something else.
Let me be clear: Selling a book, and all of the moments that lead up to it, are amazing. Having an agent want to read more. Having an agent want to represent you. Having an encouraging response from an editor. Hearing that your book is going to all of those mysterious meetings, and for heaven’s sake, the sale itself—these are fun moments. They’re all worth celebrating.
But happy moments like this are like the bulbs on a strand of Christmas lights. You still have to navigate the dimmer stretches between the bright spots. And no matter how successful you become, or how many books you end up selling, or how many fan clubs you have, you will still find the dim stretches between the bright spots. Your bright spots may be brighter, but then again your dim stretches may be darker.
If you can’t be happy unpublished, being published won’t make you happy.
Once more, with feeling: If you can’t be happy unpublished, being published won’t make you happy.
I want so much for all of the great people I’ve met online to realize their dreams. I think that even within the shrinking, scary business model of publishing, there’s room for all sorts of people to succeed and have a great time doing it. Off the top of my head, I could name ten people I’d love to see in the Debutante classes of 2010 and 2011.
So maybe you consider the glass half full: Write anyway.
And maybe half empty: If you can’t be happy unpublished, being published won’t make you happy.
What’s a writer to do?
Easy: You write. Write a story about the day the half-full/half-empty glass was knocked off the table by the stranger who came to the door with a bouquet of flowers and a letter written fifty years ago.
Or about whatever. But you write. You may be insecure, but you write anyway.
And when you’re not writing, you remember to live your life, love your family, care for your neighbors, and give thanks for what you have.
Happy New Year to all of you, and a special shout-out to my dear blog friend Tom, who is dealing with a very tough blow right now as the holidays come to a close.
God bless you all. May your bright spots be brilliant and your dim stretches brief and not without hope.
PS – I won’t be responding to comments today because I’ll be on airplanes all day. Airplanes that I paid way too much to be on, and yet still had to pay $30 extra to sit in a middle seat next to my husband, even though I booked my tickets two weeks ago. And $17 to get my suitcase on the plane. And $2 for water. Grr! …But that’s another post, isn’t it?
I have no one to blame but myself for this topic, since I’m the Deb in charge of topic coordination. It sounded like a great idea, and one that our writer-readers would appreciate, especially as the New Year approaches and we turn our thoughts to goals and hopes for the next four seasons.
I found myself a bit flummoxed, though, as to what advice to impart. To be in the role of advice-giver implies some wisdom, and I don’t feel wise, least of all about publishing, which is why I have an agent.
Disclaimers aside, I’ll give you the best tips I can think of, the first being to treat your writing as a job before it ever is one. I don’t mean that you must devote eight hours a day, because few people can do that. Even successful writers with a few books under their belts still have other jobs, and/or small creatures reliant upon them for food and nurturing.
By acting professional about your writing, I mean you should be your own Big Mean Boss. I cracked up my husband once by saying, “I work for myself, but that doesn’t mean my boss isn’t a bitch.” Set a goal for yourself that seems reasonable – say, writing five hundred words, editing one page, or drafting your query letter – and hold yourself to it. It’s harder than it sounds, though. Nothing immediately bad happens if you don’t follow through. No one writes up a report to go in your personnel file. You don’t get passed over for a raise. Your co-workers don’t gossip about your laziness in the break room.
No one knows but you, and you have to care enough about the work — about your career – to make yourself do it, even when you don’t feel like it, and when the reward is distant and uncertain. You can’t call in “bored” to work, much as we would like to. Don’t call in “bored” to your writing, either. That’s a fast way to lose momentum, because if a few boring days collect in a row, soon the rest of your life gathers steam and before you know it, a month has gone by and you don’t remember your protagonist’s first name.
Speaking of gossipy co-workers, one way you can ratchet up the accountability if you find it impossible to be your own Big Mean Boss is to gather a tribe of like-minded souls to kick your virtual butt if you’re playing on Facebook instead of working on your week’s goal. (A pox upon you, Wordscraper!)
One last thing. Don’t be afraid to move on from a project that’s not working, or a project that turned out achingly beautiful but is not selling. You are not being disloyal to your characters, nor being a quitter. On the contrary, there’s only so much that can be done for a manuscript that’s not finding a home for whatever reason. When you put it in the drawer (or trunk, choose your metaphor) you’re just giving it a well-deserved rest. Maybe you’ll come back to it later and determine how to make it truly sing. Maybe the market will shift, or your career will put you in a better position to sell that work later on. Perhaps you’ll cannibalize the project for use in later, better works to be written when you’re more experienced.
My first serious novel attempt went through several painful revisions before I sadly put it aside, eventually to be hacked into bits, stitched back up, and turned into the short story “Connection Lost,” published in the summer 2007 issue of the Cimarron Review. Three unpublished manuscripts later, I produced Real Life & Liars.
Unpublished writing never dies. Those words just bide their time, waiting until we call on them again.
Mystery writer Edna Buchanan once signed off a fax to me (long story) like so: Write on. I did. And I hope you do, too.
p.s. Don’t forget about our contest! Win a “Damned Scribbling Woman” (or “Scribbling Woman” or “Equal Opportunity Reader”) t-shirt! How well do you know the Debs?
There’s still time to enter our Fabulous Holiday Contest for a chance to win a fabulous prize. We are giving away a Damn Scribbling Woman t-shirt to one lucky reader who can correctly match the 2009 Debutantes to these little-known facts about them (or at least make an honest effort to match them). If no one gets them all right, we’ll just pick one contestant at random, ’cause we want someone to win our fabulous prize . . . and that’s the kind of gals we are!
Which 2009 Debutante . . .
. . . Thinks Lays Potato Chips and champagne are a perfect food pairing?
. . . Is known for her ability to walk AND read at the same time?
. . . Wrote an infomercial for The Kegelmaster?
. . . Believes she makes the world’s best ruggelach?
. . . Grew up on a commune?
Give us your best guess in an email to email@example.com. All emails received by midnight, December 31 (because, really, Eve has nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve!) will be eligible to win. We’ll announce the winner in our first News Flash of 2009.
Good luck and let us hear from you!
Debs are Reading
Deb Eve is reading John Elder Robison’s LOOK ME IN THE EYE.
A few years back, just before Christmas, I was sitting in a hair salon and the woman cutting my hair asked me the quintessential seasonal question: “So, are you ready for Christmas?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” I answered, because for the first time, I felt I really was. I was in Divinity School then and doing a lot of thinking about what the meaning of Christmas might be for a Jew-hu-UU (that’s a Jewish, humanist, Unitarian Universalist) with Pagan tendancies. “I’ve tried to be a beacon of Light in this dark season; I’ve sent messages of Love and Light to family and friends; I’ve made donations to charities in lieu of gifts for everyone on my list; I’ve arranged to have Christmas dinner and a big sack of presents anonymously delivered to a family in need on Christmas morning; and I’ve preached a sermon on why non-Christians might also celebrate Christmas. Yes, I am ready for Christmas this year.”
“No,” my hairdresser said. “I mean, did you finish all your Christmas shopping?”
Unfortunately, my hairdresser wasn’t the only one thinking the holiday season is about shopping. I think an awful lot of us (including myself on most years) get caught up in that. After all, if you live in America, it’s kind of hard not to. But now that we’re in that slight lull between Christmas, Hannukah and New Years, give yourself a gift of reflecting on the real meaning of the holiday season. This might be different for different people. But I’m guessing that for most of us, it ain’t about shopping!
For me, it’s about being thankful for, and making a better effort to share, all the riches that I have. I try to remember that simply because I have food in my refrigerator, clothes on my back and a roof over my head, I am richer than 75% of the world’s population. And if I have money in the bank (even just a little), a few dollars in my wallet and some spare change in a jar by the door, than I am among the top 8% of the world’s wealthiest people. And because I woke up this morning with more health than illness, I am more blessed than the one million people who will not survive the week.
It can be hard to remember how well-off we are in America. Especially now. But no matter what your situation might be, it can be helpful to focus on what you do have, rather than what you wish you had. No matter what you got or didn’t get this holiday season, and even more important, what you were or were not able to give – if you are reading this, then you no doubt have been given great gifts and great wealth. Cherish it. Enjoy it. Be ever-grateful for it. And by all means, share it.
And speaking of giving – we are giving away a fabulous prize to one lucky entrant in our Fabulous Holiday Contest. C’mon . . . don’t make me give the prize to my mother! Click here to enter! And feel free to leave a comment and tell me, what does the Holiday Season mean to you?
THE GIFT OF THE MAGI
by O. Henry
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”
“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.
“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”
Down rippled the brown cascade.
“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
“Give it to me quick,” said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?”
At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”
Jim looked about the room curiously.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
In my family, expensive gifts were always frowned upon. The holidays were not about how much you spent but how much you cared. So a gift made with your hands was highly prized. It showed not only talent and time spent on someone else, but also thrift.
My family is very fond of lists. Every birthday or Christmas you were encouraged to write a wish list of things you needed or wanted so gift givers could at least have a few clues. My husband considered this crass when he first married into my family. But he quickly saw the kind of things you could get without a list, and got over his squeamishness.
We were never too outlandish or greedy with our lists. We would write “nice knee socks” and “mixed nuts” and other things that could fit any budget. We would also write down what books we would like. I remember asking for “books I could read to my dolls” and getting adorable miniature Beatrix Potter books from my mother. But I think for years we always put “a pony” as our number one choice, just in case.
I was always shocked to see what Christmas was like in other people’s homes: boxes of electronics, leather jackets, guitars, multiple matching outfits… So much stuff that everyone seemed to go numb. It didn’t matter anymore. It didn’t seem to mean anything anymore. And then everyone was left with the bills to deal with in January.
I love that moment in How the Grinch Stole Christmas when the Grinch, having stolen everyone’s presents, discovers that all the townspeople have come out to sing and greet Christmas with great joy. I don’t remember the gifts of bathrobes and knee socks and stationary as much as I remember all our Christmas traditions. Telling stories of Christmas past: the time my grandmother made all of us flannel nightgowns, or the one time it snowed, or even the time it was seventy degrees.
May everyone have a joyous holiday, and create the most lovely of memories with their families! And may you give (or receive) that perfect gift.