As I finally, after thirty years of writing, try to actually get published and paid, it becomes clear to me that the best writing advice I’ve gotten has been incomplete.
Yes, I’ve collected great pieces of advice over the years.
Peter Straub told me that you just need to write. Clive Barker told me not to try to be Clive Barker, or anyone else, for that matter; the most important thing, he said, was to be myself. Stephen King, in “On Writing,” said to write a lot, and read a lot.
So I get it: if I want to get good at this, I need to write, and I need to read. I do that. A lot.
At the same time, though, there is one other word that they leave out, and I’m only now starting to really understand just how important that word is: research.
The life of a writer, as I’m learning, is really about two things: figuring out how to make my writing good, and then figuring out how to get paid for it. The second one scares off a lot of writers and artists, and understandably so. It makes my writing product, something I have to sell.
Unfortunately, if I want to make money off of this, I have to face that. If I want to make money off of this—how stark and businesslike those last nine words seem—I need to accept the fact that I’m asking people to part with hard earned money, and send it my way. With that in mind, I need to navigate the world of people who will only consider publishing my stuff if they deem it capable of getting people to reach into their wallets, and buy what I write.
The number of things I need to consider, when I look at this aspect of writing, is overwhelming. I need to research publishers, and figure out which of them is a good fit for my writing. I need to research agents, and figure out which of them would consider taking me on.
Then I need to research all the ways to promote my book.
There is social media. There are press releases. There is the prospect of visits to various to various places, such as schools, libraries, and bookstores.
There is the whole business of contracts, and what those contracts will give me, and what I must give to the publishing house. Certain contracts have “red flag” words, such as “forever” when they refer to how long a publishing house owns my stuff. That last word is dangerous; if the publisher decides to take my book out of print, it means that they still own it, and that I will never have the ability to try and get it republished somewhere else.
Then there’s the whole world of conferences. I joined The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and am already thinking about how to make the best of my attending next years conference in February of 2019. There I will attend lectures, and maybe speak to people in the business. When I do this, I will need to show them that I’ve researched either their publishing houses or agencies, and that my work is what they’re looking for.
So far, I’ve read, cover to cover, The Book, an annual publication of The SCBWI. Also, guided this work’s lists of other books to check out, I’ve been checking out Harold D. Underdown’s “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books,” which many consider a key guide to the field (the introduction is by Jane Yolen, which is a seriously positive sign). Right now, my strategy involves reading a number of books such as these, and then going back to them and taking notes.
As I said, it is overwhelming, and requires a completely different mindset than writing. It’s caused me to speak with my father, who worked in sales for thirty years, and ask him for advice.
“How do I sell myself,” I asked him.
He paused, and laughed.
“Well,” he said, “besides the obvious stuff, make sure to dress well when meeting with anyone. In my experience, that whole thing about not having a second chance to make a first impression is beyond true.”
He’s a wise man, my dad.
It’s just a whole new world. Fortunately, when I read these books, they all have a key piece of advice, one that I’ve been taking for decades: if I want to sell a piece of writing, I have to create a piece of writing. I’ve been doing that.
It’s a funny thing, but I actually find that getting into this mindset helps my writing. It takes my head out of that right brained writing process, and shifts my thinking toward the business end of things. This gives the creative side of me a chance to rest, and allows my analytical mind to get into the act, taking a break from its usual duties of, say, reminding me to pay my bills and do my taxes.
Yes, I’ll continue to write (a lot), and I’ll continue to read (a lot). At the same time, though, I’ll continue to research. Producing a piece of writing gives me the tools to reach my goal; now it’s time to learn the specifics of moving toward it.