1. FINISH THE BOOK! ~ Back in the 1980's it might have been possible for a newbie to sell on speculation, but those days are gone forever. You MUST type "the end" before you send a query or give a pitch at a conference. Until you finish the manuscript, you have nothing to sell but a handful of fingers.
2. POLISH YOUR PROSE! ~ Good enough just won't do. You're competing for publishing slots with NY Times BestSellers. Tighten your story till it pings. By the time I'm ready to turn in a manscript, I'm sick to death of it. Of course, once the galley comes back I love it again, but you need to belabor your work so it's clean and fresh and as ready for publication as you can possibly make it.
3. ENTER WRITING CONTESTS! ~ Send your darling off to as many contests as you can afford. Not only will you receive valuable feeback from your target audience, you might win or place. Most RWA Chapter contests will post the finalists in the Romance Writers Report. Win a few contests and you build valuable name recognition. Name recognition increases the chances that an agent or editor will take on a newbie. If someone else likes your work, they are more disposed to like it as well.
4. GO TO WRITERS CONFERENCES! ~ Nationals might be daunting to a newbie, but it is where I first met my agent. You'll meet industry professionals and network with people who want to find you and your fabulous new story. If the National conference is too far or too spendy for you, take in a regional conference. The NY editors and agents come to smaller conferences, too. And as an added bonus, you'll make some writing friends!
5. LEARN TO PITCH! ~ I know, I know. You're a writer because you don't like to talk. Me, too. But we need to be passionate about our work and we need to be able to communicate clearly about what it is we've created. So write out a one paragraph pitch. This can be the same mini-synopsis you'll use for your query letter. Recite it to yourself in the shower, in the car, until you feel confident enough to divert from it so your pitch doesn't sound like it's being delivered by a robot-a sweating, trembling robot. Remember that editors and agents are people, too. They want to hear about your story. Tell them about it as if they were your best friend over a cup of coffee.
6. LEARN TO CRAFT AN APPEALING QUERY LETTER! ~ The query is your chance to pique an editor's interest. Start with how you met this particular editor at conference. Haven't met them? Do your research and find out who their authors are. If there's one you enjoy, say so. Otherwise, leap into the purpose for your letter. Tell her/him what you've got. Be specific about genre and word count. Please don't send them something that's such a genre bender, the booksellers won't know where to stock it. That's a slam-dunk rejection. Tease your story with a short (read 2 paragraphs max) synopsis. Tell them about your past publishing credits (here's where your contest wins go!) Do NOT exceed one typed page and do NOT use smaller than 12 pt. font. Proofread it till you think you'll stare the words off the page. If your letter is free of typos, it bodes well for your manuscript too.
7. ASSEMBLE A WINNING PARTIAL! ~ Often, editors will request a partial. This means the first 3 chapters and synopsis. Spend some time on your first sentence. It sets the tone for the rest of the story. Make it fresh and surprising and a true promise of what's to come. Whatever else you do, make sure you set a strong hook at the end of the third chapter. Leave your reader dying to turn the page at this point.
8. LEARN TO WRITE A KILLER DREADED SYNOPSIS! ~ A synopsis is your novel condensed to a few pages. Check the submission guidelines for specific requirements of the publishing house you're targeting. You may need to actually write several of them--a one page, a five and a ten or more. What an editor is looking for is whether or not you've handled the major plot points, arranged for a few twists and turns and finished with a satisfying ending. (NO, absolutely do NOT say, "if you want to know how it all turns out, you have to ask for the manuscript.) Editors have no time for coy writers. They want to know you have a good handle on your craft. The synopsis is where you show them you understand what makes an appealing story.
9. DON'T LET REJECTION PARALYZE YOU! Stephen King was rejected. J.K. Rowling was rejected. Clive Cussler had to forge a bogus letter from a "retiring agent" to get someone to even look at his first Dirk Pitt novel. (Not recommended. The publishing world appreciates honesty.) The point is a rejection doesn't necessarily say anything about the quality of your writing. Publishing houses are like stores. They need certain things on their shelves. If they already have enough of what you're offering, they'll pass. Send it on to the next house. Rejection is a fact of life in publishing. Better develop the hide of a rhinocerus or your stay in writerland will be short and painful. Here's where an agent earns his/her salt. (And if you're serious about a career, you want an agent.) They can soften a rejection or even sometimes turn it into a request for revisions. Be willing to revise. You didn't come down the mountain with your manuscript carved in stone.
10. KEEP WRITING! No one can build a career on one book. In this publishing climate, an author must be original and exciting and PROLIFIC! When you sell, the first thing an editor will ask is "What else have you got?" Build your backlist now. How do you think new authors pop up with multi-book deals? Besides, every new story is a chance to improve your craft. The first one may never sell and maybe it shouldn't. (I have a sad little western in my bottom drawer calling out "Amen!") The only way to grow as a writer is to write. So stick with it!
Emily Bryan writes sexy, light-hearted historicals for Leisure Books. Look for DISTRACTING THE DUCHESS, a Victorian romp, in stores now!
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