The Outsider's On-Ramp to Publication

Once upon a time, I was a writer like most writers learning my craft in a vacuum. I put in the sweat equity, wrote a ton of pages, even read a lot. But I had no clue how my work fit with the market. When I worked up my nerve to submit things, the form rejection slips came.

Later, I started attending writer's workshops and the occasional small conference. I entered and did well in contests. I began to focus my reading a little more in my chosen genre (fantasy at the time, then young adult), but I still had no idea about such rudimentary things as how long a manuscript should be, who was buying what, etc. At this point, I received more personalized rejections and even hooked up with a reputable agent. But still, I couldn't sell.

Finally, at one local conference, I listened to a couple of romance author speakers, along with a romance editor. They all seemed to know so much about the realities of publishing that I was incredibly impressed, and mind you, I went to the sessions with a built-in bias against romance. But their words lodged in my brain, and when I later had what I thought might be a great idea for a historical romance, I set about learning all I could about the genre from an outsider's standpoint.

This attitude adjustment turned out to be the difference for me. Here's what I did:

1. Asked a couple of romance reading friends to recommend and/or loan me their favorites in the genre. This is where I learned to really respect that good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre. I fell in love with the work of Lavyrle Spencer, Mary Jo Putney, and Julie Garwood, and they became role models, those my historical voice sounded far different than any of theirs.

2. Haunted bookstores with a pad and paper. Took up residence in front of the romance shelves and made many, many notes on new books being published, which publishers were putting them out, and tried to imagine where my in-progress manuscript fit in all this. Online booksellers have made this task a lot easier, but there's something about going to a brick and mortar bookstore and paying attention to how the shelves are stocked and arranged that gives you a more realistic, hype-free view.

3. Zeroed in on newer authors. I paid special attention to the newest books and bought and devoured as many as I could. Certain publishers, I noticed, seemed to buy more new authors, so I researched these publishers in Writer's Marketplace and on the web. Later, I found Romantic Times Magazine, which gave me a quick monthly roundup of what's being published each month. I pored over the brief synopsis of each book in my then-sub-genre and tried to imagine how mine might fit it.

4. Joined the leading genre organization, Romance Writers of America, whose monthly magazine, The Romance Writer's Report, contains a treasure trove of information on who's buying what and which agents are looking to represent romance. This information is now available online to members, and it's well worth the annual cost of dues. There are many other wonderful genre-specific groups out there; I suggest you join one and take advantage of the opportunities.

5. Asked more experienced writers in the field a lot of basic questions. For instance, how long should a novel manuscript be. (This varies dramatically by genre and how you're calculating. It's also gotten shorter since I've started, mainly due to rising production costs.) I also learned that a synopsis is a present-tense (I don't know why, when my books are in past, but that's the way they're written) brief (agent and editor exceptations on length vary) encapsulation of the entire story and that everyone hates writing them but you have to do it anyway.

6. Submitted my work before absorbing too many of the genre regulars' rules and biases. If I'd known or listened to all of the conventional wisdom about what sells, I never would have bothered submitting what became my first novel. It was different, a weird mix of "rule-breaking" leavened with just enough marketing-hook savvy to make it appeal first to an agent and later to an editor, both of whom loved the originality of the story and voice. Coming to the party as an outsider who'd written other-genre novel manuscripts, play scripts, short stories, and poety and who read across the genres (still do) made my work different enough to rise above many aspiring authors who were genre purists.

Whether you're a newcomer to the party or a bigtime fan looking for a fresh perspective, I hope you'll find some of these tips helpful.


Bonnie Vanak said…
Great advice, Colleen, especially number 6. I think many writers are so worried about breaking rules and not writing something that fits the genre they become stifled. I'm all for creative expression, coupled with market savy and exploring your creativity.

These days, I'm adhering to my inner voice that urges me to write something that grabs my interest, just to keep my imagination afire. It may never sell, but I regard it as an exercise in writing a story that I really needed to tell.
Karen Hankins said…
Thanks for your good advice, Colleen. Your insights and experiences are invaluable. I'm grateful that you take the time to offer guidance in the complicated avenues of publishing. Between your blog and our brief chats at the NW Houston chapter, I've gained treasured knowledge.

I've signed on for the Writer U class you recommended. Marketing is not my strong point.

Thanks again. Keep up the good work!
Thanks, Bonnie,
I think it's important for writers to take time to pursue something different. That's how exciting new trends are born. Good luck with your project!

Thanks to you, too, Karen. I hope you'll get something valuable out of the online class. I know that I did. It's been nice chatting with you at NWHRWA too.

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