This post is a revision and/or a reiteration of a previous blog post — actually a reiteration of many different blog posts I’ve got on the subject of becoming an author. It comes from a place we call “the gift economy,” which is related to the uncompensated labor we are expected to do as writers. It comes from the numerous responses I give to everyone who asks me how they might become an author.
Thing is, I am loath to give this kind of blanket advice, because there is no single, correct path to authordom, but people come out of the woodwork and ask me all the time. A lot of people are looking for some quick tips, little hacks to hasten the task, and they bristle when I tell them about the work involved. I don’t have any life hacks for you. I just have a list of recommendations, things to think about if you think you are serious about becoming an author.
NB: these steps privilege the small presses and independent publishers. I have never gone the agent and the corporate route, and so if you want that advice, it’s not here. Also, if you are looking to go the book contest route, that’s not something I cover here either.
- Take writing classes. Some of the advice seekers who approach me have never taken a writing class and have never shown their writing to another human being. In the very least, writing classes bring your work to the eyes of other human beings. There are community workshops, local community college classes, university extension classes. Something here will fit your budget. Poetry Flash has a list of local workshops and writing conferences. There are probably publications like this in your area. Why take writing classes? Well, even if you think you have natural talent as a writer, we take classes to seek guidance, to find mentors, to improve and expand our skill sets. Classes are structured learning. Classes can build your discipline. Classes will enlarge your knowledge bases. Think about it. When you are learning ballet, your teacher is a trained dancer who teaches you the five positions at the barre. These positions are the foundations of your art. Mikhail Baryshnikov did not spring from his mother’s womb a master.
- Read. I don’t know how many times I have heard aspiring writers publicly and proudly proclaim that they do not read because they do not want their unique voice influenced by others. Don’t be one of those people. Read. What is out there in the world of books? Who are folks who exhibit mastery in their craft? Think about this. When you are learning how to play the piano, your teacher, the trained pianist, teaches you to play works by Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Gershwin, et al until you are proficient. And then you keep playing the works of those who came before you. You do this before you ever compose your own work. And so, as an aspiring writer, what you read is work that is showing you what is out there, what’s been out there, who has written what, how, and why. What can you learn from them.
- Find your writing community. Perhaps these are your writing class classmates. They are learning just like you are. Perhaps in your circle of friends, there are a couple of aspiring writers. Strength in numbers here. You can hold one another accountable. X number of poems or pages per week. Ground rules for providing feedback to one another. This means, yes, you too are providing feedback to others; they are not there solely in the service of you. This is community. You are learning how to read critically, and you are learning the language of critique. you are learning sensitivity to other writers’ strengths, weaknesses, and needs. They are learning yours. You are learning how to be articulate and constructive. Be open about this.
- Cut your teeth in public events, readings, open mics. Here, you learn to read your work aloud. You get to hear how your work sounds. This can be a great editing tool. You can hear the clunkers and transitions that need work. You can hear words, phrasings, order, redundancies, leaps in logic that need to be rethought. Perhaps you will also expand your community here. Whose works do you like hearing? Why? This is you, listening and thinking critically about your preferences.
- DIY. If in your classes and with your community, you’ve been working on a body of work, then you’ve probably got all of this writing saved either in individual doc files, or altogether in a large doc. if the former, I encourage you to try the latter, because in doing so, you are now thinking about how your individual pieces work together — thematically, aesthetically. You are now envisioning your work as/in a collection. Maybe you have eight, ten, fifteen pages. Make a cool cover. The internet is full of public domain images and creative commons images which may be reused. Lay it all out in a booklet form, print, copy, staple and take them with you to your next public event, reading, or open mic. Perhaps you would like to DIY as a writers’ collective; this is also a totally great option.
- Work in publication. In your classes and community building, perhaps you are presented with the opportunity to work with publications. Perhaps your teachers/mentors need interns. Perhaps a class or community org has publication as one of its activities. Participate. This way, you can learn how the process works. Submissions come in from aspiring writers such as yourselves. There’s a selection process. Participate in this. See what gets in and what doesn’t. Think about, discuss why this is — you learn so much in these conversations among your community about what you all like and don’t like. You learn there are numerous answers to why a piece is ultimately rejected. You also learn what constitutes a literary submission, what submissions guidelines are, and what happens when one does not abide by submissions guidelines.
- Submit your work. In your classes and community building, perhaps you’ve met someone who produces a zine, or a publication either online or print. Perhaps you are working as a publication intern (see above). Perhaps your teachers/mentors know venues that focus on students’ and/or emerging writers’ works. Perhaps your teacher/mentor thinks your work might be a “good fit” in a particular publication — here, you get to learn what “good fit” means and why it is so important. These are places you learn how to submit your work. Or you could take a class or workshop specifically geared towards the submissions process, if you’ve got the resources to do this. Once you submit your work to enough publications, you will slowly but surely build your publications cache.
- Receive a rejection letter or two. Or more. Not every publication you send your work to will accept your work. This is OK. As you would know from your own experience and participation in publication work, there are numerous reasons why a work is not selected (see steps 6 and 7 above). Take the time to acknowledge the rejection, and then move on. Find other places to submit your work; ask your writing community, ask your teachers/mentors where they recommend.
- Revel in your acceptances! Not every publication will reject you! If they say yes, celebrate this. If these publications do release parties, participate in these. In addition to celebrating, you may be invited to share your work on the mic.
- Once you’ve done steps 7, 8, and 9 ad infinitum, perhaps you will have the confidence to compile chapbook length bodies of your work, or straight up, your full length manuscript, and perhaps you will revisit the possibility of classes and workshops to focus yourself and to level up, and perhaps this leveling up maybe include exploring graduate writing programs.
- Submitting full length manuscripts to prospective publishers is kind of like submitting to publications (journals, magazines, anthologies). In other words, you’ve already had dress rehearsals, though if you still feel like you’re apprehensive, try submitting chapbook length projects. Discuss with your mentors and community, do your research thoroughly for what “good fits” there may be for a body of your work. The New Pages website has the best compilation of independent publishers and small presses; there are also publishing/author cooperatives — do learn about this industry. At the very least, find out when certain publishers accept work, what kind of work they are looking for. Read the submission guidelines and follow those to last letter. Write your cover letter and keep it professional. Send your properly formatted submission — query letter, manuscript excerpt, or complete manuscript via letter or email if that is what the publisher asks — via US mail or Submittable, as per their guidelines, and then take a breath. Repeat this step for as long as you’ve got the stamina for it; take a break when you have to. If editors give you feedback on your manuscript, do listen. Also: My recommendation is to not break the bank about this, i.e. do not put yourself in economic hardship over submissions.
- Remember step 8. Rejection happens for various reasons. If editors give you feedback on your manuscript, do listen.
- Acceptance will eventually happen. In this case, ask yourself: Can you work with these editors? Will they hear/listen to you? Prioritize. What are the absolute most important things to you at this point, in getting your book into the world? And can this publisher give you that? And what can you let go? And what will you do to help them get this book as far into the world as you can?
- If acceptance is not happening, then perhaps it’s time to reexamine the manuscript and also where you are sending it. Go back to your community and talk about the work. Think about alternatives to going this route. Maybe this isn’t the route for you. There are so many others.