Thursday, May 21, 2009

FAQs on Writing and Publishing, A.K.A. the Longest Post E.V.E.R.

So, this post answers FAQs about writing and getting published. If those topics don't interest you, I promise that this will be the most boring post ever. Well, okay, even if those topics DO interest you, chances are you'll get bored, because I wrote SO MUCH! I apologize up front for length.

1. When and how did you start writing?
I'm going to give you a sleep-inducing answer, but I have a reason for doing so.

I did critical writing for years, but didn't get serious about creative writing until 2003, when I was nearing the end of my master's degree at Simmons College's Center for the Study of Children's Literature. I took an intro to writing class, then finished my degree with a creative writing independent study, with the marvelous writer and teacher Liza Ketchum as my mentor. With Liza, I began a middle grade contemporary realistic novel. I started working on it in September of 2003 and wrote maybe a third of it during the semester. After graduating, I completed it on my own time. I think I finished it in late spring of 2004 (the whole thing took about 9 months), at which point, I immediately began to write Graceling. I worked on Graceling just about every single day -- it was practically all I did other than my paid work and reading and eating and sleeping -- for about 1.5 years, until finishing the first draft some time around late summer 2005. Then, I immediately began to write a YA contemporary novel that was a sequel to the MG I'd completed before. That took me about 9 months, into late spring 2006, and the minute I finished it, I began to write Fire. By the time I got my deal for Graceling in the fall of 2006, I was already well into Fire. Fire took about 1.5 years, at which point, I immediately began to write Bitterblue. I'm still writing Bitterblue now. Bitterblue is taking longer, partly because I'm doing a lot more things now, but mostly because that's its nature.

I should mention that I also did revisions of the various novels at different points, especially once I got the deals for Graceling and Fire. Graceling alone went through 5 or 6 revisions. I can't remember when the revisions took place, exactly, but they were usually based on feedback from others -- my editor, my agent, and my early readers, who include my sisters and a few friends.

The reason for the detaily, boring answer is that I wanted to get across a few important points. One is that I was a critical writer and student of literature for years before I became a creative writer; I know that years of studying books and pounding out papers helped me once I began writing books of my own. Another is that I took a creative writing class and experienced a mentorship, both of which were enormously helpful. Another is that Graceling was technically my second novel, not my first; my first is on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be resurrected and rewritten. Another is that I gave my manuscripts to trustworthy people for feedback, which was scary, but ultimately helpful. Another is that I wrote for as long as I could every single day, or almost every single day, for years (and still do); I always had hopes of getting published someday, but the actual act of writing was way, way, WAY more important to me.

2. How did you get your "big break" into publishing? Do you have any advice?
This is a weirdly personal question. I find I'm much more comfortable giving details about the things I've failed at than the things I've succeeded at. Is that normal? Well, anyway, I'm going to answer this question in two ways. The first is to tell you some of the specific things I did with an eye to publication. I'm going to list them -- the smart ones, anyway -- just in case they give you some ideas for yourself:
  • I submitted various manuscripts and partial manuscripts to contests. (Examples: a WIP contest with the SCBWI [the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators] and the Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Contest at HarperCollins. [I can't find any current info on the Nordstrom contest. Has it been discontinued?]) I never won any contests, but an editor at a big house did take an interest in one of my manuscripts once (Novel #1, the MG novel I'd started in grad school), sent me an editorial letter, and offered to read my revision. I did a big overhaul based on her suggestions, and can say with confidence that it was much better afterward -- she helped me tons!! In the end, she decided not to acquire it. But it was a confidence builder and it taught me more about the craft... my point here is that entering contests is one way to get the right people reading your work. This is really important, because one of the hardest things when trying to get published is getting your work in front of relevant people. (Plus, who knows, you might win! Did you read Jo Knowles' SBBT interview? She did win a WIP grant from SCBWI, and it helped her land her agent.)
  • I queried a small press that had a list I admired. This gave me querying practice, and I did get some interest in Novel #1, which was encouraging, even if it led to a rejection. The point here is that there are some great small presses out there, and it pays to research them.
  • I joined SCBWI. Their bi-monthly bulletin is full of great info, tips, and news (like, about contests!), and they have local chapters which often organize writing groups and hold conferences. The point here is that joining a relevant writing organization will keep you in the loop.
  • I did things like go to a regional SCBWI conference, where I listened to writers, editors, and agents speak, and where I shelled out a little extra money for professional evaluations of excerpts of my work. The point here is that conferences, especially conferences that provide opportunities for face time with respected professionals in the field, are a way to make connections and, once again, get your work in front of relevant people.
  • When I heard a name, I wrote it down. My big break happened when an agent read Graceling, loved it, and agreed to take me on. She was one of several agents I'd heard people speak well of; in fact, a trustworthy friend of mine knew her and could vouch for her work. It was lucky that my friend recommended her, because I might never have known to look into her otherwise, and I might never have queried her -- and she has turned out to be fabulous! The point of this section is: pay attention, ask trustworthy people for advice and recommendations, and work your connections. What's that? You say you don't have any connections? Well, try getting involved in some of the ways I've mentioned in this post: classes, contests, queries, organizations, conferences. Connections can be made, if you're patient. I know this is true, because I've made them myself (little, introverted me!) and I have watched other people make them.
The other way I'm going to answer this question is to try to stress something I think is really important:

My road to publication involved research, rejections, near misses, and a lot of luck. But the other thing it involved was a LOT of writing. I spent some time working toward getting published, but I spent the vast majority of my time writing. Two of the best ways to get published are to become a better writer and to expand your portfolio, both of which are accomplished by writing. :o)

Maybe my truest point is this: the whole process needs to be about the writing more than it's about the getting published. You need to love to write; you need to want to write whether or not you get published. The fulfillment comes more from the act of writing than from the state of being published. TRUST ME. Don't give writing short shrift in your goal to get published! The writing is what it's all about.

Just my opinion, based on my experience. Other writers who've had different experiences might give vastly different advice (and should feel free to do so in the comments).

I cannot advise you on the publication process beyond what I've done here. However, there's loads of information out there about how to find an agent and/or publisher. Members of the SCBWI and other writing organizations often have resources available to them, and there are free forums online, too. As far as marketplace dictionaries, The Writer's Market is one of the classic tomes, and I've also heard good things about Jeff Herman's Guide. Do your homework and you'll find the info you need to get started.

3. Do you have any writing advice?
Yes, sort of, though I don't think it's going to bowl you over.

IMO, learning to write is something every writer must do on his or her own. You learn to write by writing. You learn your own habits and tendencies by writing. You learn to ignore the voices of self-doubt by writing. To become a better writer, read, read, read, and WRITE WRITE WRITE.

Joining a writing circle or taking a class helps, because you can learn more about yourself by rubbing up against other people, and because feedback -- from the right person or people -- is a necessary part of becoming a better writer. Reading and studying books you love is also critical. But the real work happens by yourself, writing.

One more thing: don't let anyone tell you there's only one way to write. It's okay to write fast and it's okay to write slow. It's okay to write in one big chunk in the middle of the night and it's okay to write in patches throughout the day. It's okay to type on a computer and it's okay to write on waterproof paper upside down in the bath with a space pen. If the way you're doing it isn't working for you, well then, try something different. But no one can tell you how it should be done. Every writer must find his or her own way.

If you find this to be pathetic advice, I recommend three books that helped me a lot early on. They are: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King; and Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels by Phyllis A. Whitney. More recently, I've also read and loved Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and On Writing by Stephen King.

Have any advice of your own? Feel free to leave it in the comments.

Coming on Monday: A SHORT POST.

15 comments:

J.L. Hart said...

Kristin,

Thank you for this fantastic post! It was perfect and definitely not sleep-inducing! Maybe what I like best about it was that nothing you wrote seemed insurmountable to me, and you reminded us what it's really all about, loving to write, no matter what happens.

~Jen

A. Grey said...

*Deep Breath* Kristin, you have made my life better. I will write until the pen falls from my cold lifeless fingers. The end. :) I write because I'm not happy if I'm not writing. When I was younger, I'd tell my mom "I can't go (wherever) because I need to write." She'd get confused and tell me that I didn't "need" to write. I'd say, "You don't understand. I HAVE to write." She understands now, of course.

I've been told several times to try and write for the market, or more comercially, or focus on a niche - even if it's not my passion. I won't, which I've always felt was a fine line between staying true to myself and oppositional defiance disorder. In the end, it doesn't matter which it is, because I don't, on a primal level care if I'm ever published. I will write until I die. Do I want to get published? ABSOLUTELY!

Which leads me to say that your post wasn't boring in the least, I was riveted. Perhaps I'm just a book geek who hangs on the words of my literary heroes... :D Anyhow, I'm glad to find that I'm doing the right things, and that it doesn't matter that the first book I wrote will never see the light of day (and doesn't need to) and that it's alright to walk around with a pen and paper to catch names.
So in concluding the longest comment of the day, I'll just say "THANK YOU" for taking the time to write a long (not boring) and detailed post. For talking about things that are personal and not that easy to talk about. Thank you!

Sara said...

Great post. My favorite line is: "Two of the best ways to get published are to become a better writer and to expand your portfolio, both of which are accomplished by writing." Yes! Writing. Writing. Writing. It all comes down to that. Amen.

Re: the Nordstrom contest---sadly, it no longer exists. There were two years with winners, and then it faded away. I would've loved to have seen it become a tradition, because it was MY break into publishing and I wanted to be part of a long line of happy winners. Sigh. Ursula was so amazing. Her name and legacy deserve to be honored.

Con said...

So extremely helpful to hear about your process. I second your comments about SCBWI; I'm a member and have been to one regional conference and the NY conference (this year) It is so great just to be in a huge room full of writers, listening to writers talk about writing (one of this year's speakers was Jack Gantos, who was awesome) And of course I adore Lin Oliver.

I agree you should write because you want to write, but I have to say that after several years of rejection letters, it's easy to get discouraged. What boosts my spirits is reading great books, SCBWI and my amazing writers group.

Thank you for sharing, Kristin!

Nikki said...

And get a pal! That's my advice. The best thing I got from grad school was a writing buddy. Three years later we live in different states but still send each other our manuscripts, and she is my best reader because we've spent these years helping each other be great reviewers. Her comments are now WAY more helpful than when I've paid money to spend 15 minutes with an agent at a conference, mostly because I can tell her what draft I'm on and what I need to know at that point. I firmly believe one trustworthy, objective, editor-like, writer person who can tell you the good and the bad is crucial.

tinkandalissa said...

Thank you Thank you Thank you! A million times, Thank You!
This post is fabulous! Not at all long and boring! As an aspiring writer this is exactly the kind of thing I like to read about. And thank you for the book referrals to help w/the writing process.
This post has greatly encouraged me because I am a "slow" writer. I've been working on my YA urban fantasy novel (which I hope to make a trilogy) for just over a year now, but it just feels like FOREVER. I work a lot, so I blame having little time as the reason I am slow in completing this book. I've also recently started a 2nd unrelated YA novel and have been collaborating on a "dark" kids series w/illustrations. (Think Gris Grimly or Edward Gorey)
The only discouraging thing from this post is that I am not a college grad. :( I've been worried that this is going to work against me in the long run.
I am quite full of self doubt and periodically find myself thinking my writing is crap. Encouraging words from my very few trusted first readers keeps me going (and my absolute LOVE of writing). Am I weird to be paranoid that joining a writing/critque group would lead to someone snatching my ideas?
Anyway...I love this post and am very appreciative that you decided to share your experience!

ICQB said...

My advice is never stop observing.

I'm going on a trip soon. That's exciting, but just a teensy bit frustrating because I'm in the beginning stages of a new novel idea. Now it all has to be put on hold.

This actually happened when I began my last big novel idea. It was hard to put the writing away until I got back, but I actually made some observations on the trip which I ended up including in my novel.

So you never know.

I'm not looking forward to putting the project away while I'm gone, but I am looking forward to all of the wonderful things that I'll encounter which will become inspiration for this, or future ideas.

Natasha M. Heck said...

I agree with the others that this is a great post. I have been struggling with my writing over the past year (mostly one novel) and my husband encouraged me to start one of my other projects. Now I am almost complete with it, and have the idea I needed for the other novel to work. So, yes, keep writing is very useful advice. If one thing doesn't work, then move onto another piece that wants to talk is what I am now practicing.

The publishing part does seem tricky, and it is interesting about how you write about your original first novel and how you have it on a shelf for later. I have noticed that sometimes the first thing you write isn't always the first thing you publish. However, I hope that someday we will see that jewel in print.

Thanks for suggestions on the books on writing. I have been going to my local library and picking upon books on writing. After being out of college for four years, I think it is time that I do some new reading on writing.

A lot of these questions have been on my brain for a while, and it was a little strange seeing those ideas that have been floating around in my head in this blog post. It really helps ease my heart, for someday, I hope I can pass such good advice and information.

Write on!
Natasha

Horselover said...

Kristin,

Firstly, that was NOT BORING at all!! Quite the opposite. I mean, in the end, this all comes down to writing and books. Oh and btw, I also read the book Writing Down the Bones, and it was really helpful and full of good advice for writers. I really recommend it! And I totally agree with you about how you write: you have to find what works for you! I just have one question, it might be personal and you don't have to answer, but is there a specific person who inspired you to write or did you just know from the start that you enjoyed it? Just wondering :)

Sara Kankowski said...

Do you find when you are writing fantasy, that reading within your genre makes it easier or harder (or neither) in your writing process? I LOVE fantasy (reading and writing) but recently have been reading a lot of YA contemporary (somehow I've only just discovered Sarah Dessen!) but it's making it near-impossible for me to write!

On an unrelated note, SCBWI is awesome :)

Anonymous said...

Hopefully ubiera a film of the book, the actor who stops the my serious indicated one to represent “Po” serious Ben Barnes. Serious a wonderful film…: D

artgyrl said...
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artgyrl said...
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artgyrl said...

Hi Kristin,

I came to your site after reading the pep talk letter you wrote for NaNoWriMo. I'm unfamiliar with your work (I'm actually unfamiliar with a lot of writers that aren't "big names"; I'm just out of the loop like that). But I really enjoyed reading through your entries and the advice you gave about writing and the story on how you came to be published were both very encouraging to me.

I've been writing on an off again since middle school. Two years ago, I decided to try my hand at writing fanfiction. It turned out to be great writing practice, though I did not see it that way at the time. It was just something I did for fun, but I also felt a driving urge to do it. So it turns out that's what it means to be a writer.

I do hope to be published one day, but in the meantime, I shall continue to write. :)

Thank you. :)

—Sharon

Anonymous said...

I've just finished Graceling and loved it. In the acknowledgments (yes, people do read those) you thanked Liza Ketchum "who taught me to think like a novelist". What did you mean? Like many of your fans, I am writing and striving for that THING that will make my writing work better. Your blogs are informative and helpful, and I appreciate your willingness to "share". Suzy