Here’s what I’ve learned about people asking for publishing advice: as soon as you’ve sold a book (doesn’t even have to be OUT yet) everyone who’s writing a book (and as it turns out, EVERYONE is writing a book! Who knew?) wants to ask you for advice. I like to give advice. And I know from long, hard experience how incredibly frustrating the path to publication can be.
And here’s what I’ve learned about actually giving advice. An awful lot of aspiring writers don’t actually want advice. What many of them really want is for an established writer to read what they’ve written and then say that it’s good. Saying that it’s great and hand delivering it – with a glowing endorsement – to their agent or editor would be even better. I can certainly understand that. It’s what I would have wanted too, had I ever asked an established writer for advice when I was trying to break in (I certainly didn’t know any while I was living in Uganda . . . or Uzbekistan for that matter, and it just never occurred to me even as I toiled away in relative isolation once I returned to the States). But the truth of the matter is, getting a book published is a highly competitive undertaking. And if you’re not already famous or have a huge platform of your own, then the best thing you can do is write the absolute best book you can – and then be constantly willing to make it even better.
So the best advice I can give (if anyone really wants it) is to be open – even welcoming – of feedback. I don’t believe that we are born Hemmingways or Angelous (or Brysons or Lamotts or . . . I’ll let you fill in your own ideal writers). Even having a boatload of natural talent will only get you so far. I think what separates the writers who succeed from those who don’t is often a matter of how hard they are willing to work to make it better; what they take away from each and every rejection; and how many times they are willing to hear “no” and still keep going.
Having said that, I also believe that no one needs to take my advice – or any writing advice that’s given for that matter. Let’s face it, you can get some lousy advice. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve received was from my agent, the wonderful Laney Katz Becker, who told me to trust my instincts and only make the changes that feel right to me. (Good advice for writing as well as life.) But I do think it’s important to be willing to hear feedback, consider it with an open mind and then ask yourself if it might improve your work. Usually, you’ll know if it’s good advice for you.
I’ve gotten some other helpful tidbits of advice from agents over the years – agents who were rejecting me at the time. One scribbled in a corner of the rejection form letter, “I loved the first chapter but was not compelled to keep turning the pages after that.” And you better believe, I sat right down, and figured out what it was about my first chapter that was so compelling but was missing in the next and I did my best to remedy that before sending it out again. There was also something even more helpful in her note. “Keep at it!” she wrote. And I certainly did.
And then there was Fifi Oscard – who is no doubt, repping the most talented angels in heaven now. She once called to tell me she loved my “lovely book” and was sure I’d make it big one day. But, no, she would not be the one to help me get there. “Keep writing those wonderful letters to agents and publishers,” she told me. “Eventually, one of them will take you.” Which one??? I was dying to ask.
Maybe what these agents gave me was not so much advice as encouragement. But sometimes, that’s what we really need, isn’t it? And I think, more often than not, it’s probably what those aspiring authors are hoping for when they come to me for advice. (Well, that and my agent’s phone number!) So my advice is be welcoming of feedback but trust your instincts, keep working at it to make it better, and yes, you can do it!