Aiming for publication… professionally

I haven’t had much time to work on my novel in the past couple of months, but I make a point of reading industry blogs and reading some writing-related forums. On writing forums it’s becoming more and more common to hear people discussing the impossibility of getting an agent and the wonders of self-publishing. The other day one such person complained about querying “billions of agents” over “several years,” proving that getting an agent is just luck.


Writing a novel is a huge accomplishment… but that doesn’t mean the novel is of publishable quality. Writing well is a craft that is learned, practiced, honed. Putting words on a page — even lots of pages — doesn’t necessarily mean the writer is improving as a writer. Without additional study, *intentional* study, the person may just be repeating the same mistakes over and over.

There are lots of ways to improve craft:

  • Take writing classes. I’ve taken two classes on structure this year. I don’t think either was over $50. Classes can be found on all sorts of topics in a range of prices.
  • Study — active practice the exercises — at least one writing book each year. I have a library of writing books. I find maybe one in six is worth delving into deeply. My favorites are Story, by Robert McKee and The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maas.
  • Attend writing conferences. I attend one local conference each year, minimum. Staying local keeps the cost low.
  • Join and participate in critique groups. I belong to Backspace and Critique Circle online. I have friends “in the real world” who give great feedback. Be cognizant of the skill level of your critiquers, though. Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid.
  • Enter contests. I entered three this year. Won one — The Sandy. Great way to get feedback, often from industry professionals.
  • Read industry blogs. I have about 20 industry blogs in my Google Reader. Yes, it can be a time suck, but it’s a great way to get the inside story on what and how to query.
  • Take advantage of any auctions or contests where agents offer critiques and feedback on your work. This can be expensive, but seriously, it’s worth every penny — and the money often goes to charity. It’s worth saving for. This is feedback from inside the industry — the people who will ultimately be buying or representing your work. Listen to them!
  • Write, rewrite, and test your query. Keep stats. If you don’t get a request for a full or a partial on a minimum of 10% of the queries you send out, revise before sending the next wave. I’m not actively querying yet, but I worked on my pitch for this novel for over a YEAR before I got the “WOW” reaction I wanted.

When I presented this list to the person who had submitted queries to billion of agents, he pooh-poohed it. What he doesn’t realize is that I’m not the only person doing these things. When you submit to agents, you’re competing against lots of people who are doing all of these things. And chances are, if you’re not doing these things — not actively trying to *improve* your craft — they’re getting requests and you’re not.

Of course, that’s probably just luck. Hey, have you considered self publishing?

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5 Responses to Aiming for publication… professionally

  1. Melissa,

    I have been writing up a story I have been thinking about for years; do you have links for some of the email lists and so on? I feel like I was foretunate in finding the email lists that allowed me to hone my craft as a dog trainer and I would like to do the same with writing.


  2. Melissa says:

    Hi Sue!

    You know, I’m not on any writing-related mailing lists. One place you might start (to find a community and get some basic advice) is Good forums there. has excellent forums too. What genre is your story in? Some genres have organizations with really active communities. You can often find great, inexpensive classes that way. Local branches of Romance Writers of America often offer a variety of inexpensive online classes — and you don’t have to be a romance writer to participate or benefit from them.

  3. Monica says:

    Hey Melissa, great post about writing. I started a blog a few months ago just to exercise with my writing skills. At first I didn’t know where to start and I didn’t want to write about something stupid and after that people will laugh about it. I started to write 1 post/day and now I have so many ideas but I don’t have the time to write every single day. Thanks for the info!

  4. Donna says:

    i’ve considered publishing but you need lots of time and money to invest. good luck to you

    • Melissa says:

      Hi Donna,

      Time, yes. Money, no.

      Repeat after me: Money should always flow TO the writer. You do not need to pay to be published. Agents are paid ONLY if they sell your work. Publishers pay you to publish, not the other way around. You should pay no reading fees, no editing fees, no printing, design, or distribution fees. If you do, you are either being scammed OR you have chosen self- or vanity-publishing. Traditional publishing pays YOU.

      That said, once you have a publishing deal, you will be on the hook for marketing, and that is definitely a time eater. It *can* be expensive, but it’s your book and your budget. There are lots of low cost ways to market a book.

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