I met an enterprising young woman at a recent conference who asked me for advice about the publishing industry and “making it” as a writer, specifically of YA (young adult, or books for teens). As I poured out my advice, I realized it could be a blog post. So I filled it in and added resources and I’m using it as today’s post. Here it is:
There is much to say about publishing. The most important thing to know is that there are two separate things to tackle: the writing side (improving your craft) and the business side of things (getting published). .
My advice on the writing front it to get feedback on your work. Join a writing group if you can. (Or maybe start one at your school?). If you haven’t yet joined SCBWI I’d recommend doing that. They’re the professional association for writers of YA and MG books (whether you decide to keep it as a memoir or a novel I think they’d help). Keep going to conferences and keep honing your skills.
If there is one piece of advice I wish I would have heard (and followed) earlier its to not be afraid of rewriting. Being given feedback is not a criticism of you as a writer. All the great writers rewrite and edit a ton – I once read that Ernest Hemingway rewrote the last chapter of A Farewell To Arms 47 times: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9378446/Ernest-Hemingway-wrote-47-endings-to-A-Farewell-To-Arms.html
If you like books on writing techniques I’d recommend On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. They have brilliant insights into what makes good writing good. I re-read them all the time. Also, books that “work” follow a consistent narrative arc. They have character evolution from the beginning to the end, an “adversary,” a “climax,” etc. The best book I’ve found to explain exactly how to do that is The Story Solution by Eric Edson. I have my copy out now because I’m using it as reference in outlining my next novel. I also like Fill-In-The-Blank Plotting by Linda George. (Short and sweet).
And, of course, I’m sure you’ve heard this before but it bears repeating: Read. A lot! Keep up with what’s new in YA books. Read with a critical eye. If you love a character, ask yourself why. What details did the author put in that endear them to you? What actions do they take? Even books you don’t enjoy can be great teachers because by identifying why you didn’t like it you can make sure not to duplicate those things in your own writing.
Sorry if it seems I’m giving you “homework,” but this is the writer’s life, polishing up our words until they shine like pretty diamonds.
I don’t know if you’re local to NYC but if you are and are interested in a good class about all this I recommend a teacher called Charles Salzberg. You can find him at New York Writers Workshop. I worked on THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY in his class back when I still thought it should be a memoir. But even if you’re not local I bet there are a lot of great options where you live. And, if not, you can try online groups as well, like Gotham and I think even Writers Digest. Check out Absolute Write if you haven’t already to connect with other writers about stuff like this.
On the business side, it’s “simple.” (But not always easy!). Books get sold to publishers by agents. So the first thing you need is a literary agent. You hear a lot about self publishing these days but for the most part books that make it big still go the traditional route of agent/publisher. One of the biggest reasons for this is that they act as “gatekeepers.” Because there is SO much being published out there, book reviewers and other influential people need a way to sort through it. The method they use is paying more attention to traditionally published books. For those reasons, it’s harder to get attention if you’re self published. (Hard but not impossible). So, although getting an agent can sometimes be tough, I believe you’ve got what it takes to do it and that for a writer breaking in today it’s still the best way forward.
After you’ve polished and workshopped your book, the way you get an agent is you query. There are books and online articles about how to do this. I found my agent by opening up books that were like mine and seeing who their agent was in the Acknowledgements pages (every writer acknowledges their agent and editor!). Be forewarned that agents get a ton of submissions so you will probably get a lot of rejections. This is nothing personal. Rejection slips are a mark of the working writer. Everyone’s got tons of them. If you ever need a boost of hope, check out all the best sellers that initially got rejections: http://www.literaryrejections.com/
The other thing you can do is to start publishing shorter pieces to start building a name. There are lots of places that take contributors. Some of them are geared to teens. A little Googling will reveal who they are.
I hope this was helpful! I really admire your drive and I’m sure you’re going to go far in your writing career. Please keep me posted on your progress and reach out with any questions you have.