“Congratulations on getting your piece into EBE. So good! Apparently you got the golden ticket — keep running with it!” I just got this email from a friend in my writers’ group, remarking on my recent op-ed that our free weekly newspaper just published.
For the first couple of years I was writing, getting published was a complete mystery to me, even though I have worked as an editor and writer several times in my life. My writing was always self-published. I had a zine in college and have blogged pretty regularly since 2004. I edited my high school and law school newspapers, and worked as an occasional editor and fact-checker for The Baffler and Tom Geoghegan back in the 90s. But DIY was all I knew. How do you get some else to do it (publish) for you?
I know a lot of other people have the same question I have, and spend a lot of money trying to figure this out. A recent article about Anna March in the LA Times got me thinking about the cost of asking these questions. My friend posted that article on Facebook a few days ago.
Anna March is a woman whose grift is to place herself in writing communities and then con people out of large sums out of money. After she’s bankrupted their writing organizations or stolen their money, she leaves town and changes her name.
Then the article popped up again and again on my social media feed, posted by writers and writing groups. Clearly, the story had hit a nerve with other people too.
Writers are mostly nice people. There are some cranks out there, and some jerks, but by and large, writers are nice, creative people who work alone and struggle to understand how they can be successful as writers. Anna Marsh specifically preyed on the good nature and desire to succeed that so many writers have by telling them that she could give them answers and access.
But the most interesting thing to me about Anna March was how many people are very similar to her. Lots of people take large sums of money to tell people how to write and get published. I’m not claiming that every $3000 writing retreat in Sicily is a scam, but it comes awfully close. As is paying $5900 to have your book published by a “hybrid” press, particularly when you can self-publish on Amazon for close to free. The thing that distinguishes these organizations from Anna March is that they deliver something, even if it doesn’t have the value that the writers might hope it will give (fame, glory, and a spot on the NY Times bestseller list).
I have personally benefited from writing classes (approximately $295) and attended the San Francisco Writers Conference (approximately $700), which I found to be very useful, both from a craft perspective and a business perspective. But at the end of the day, only two things have helped me succeed. And I will tell you those two things for FREE.
You have to WRITE, and you have to SUBMIT. Actually, you don’t have to submit if you don’t care about publication, but I’ll assume for this post that you do.
Friends and acquaintances marvel at the fact that I’ve written a book. Two books, actually. Plus drafted another book, blog constantly and write in several different genres. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t published a book yet. They just can’t believe that I had the discipline to sit my butt in a chair and write that many words.
WRITE. The first axiom of being a writer is that you must write in order to be one. How do you write? You do it with a pen and paper, or with an electronic device of some sort. Then you start writing down words. I’ve said this before: You can start with the sentence, “I don’t know what to write,” and then write down whatever comes into your head next. It doesn’t matter; at this point, you’ve started writing.
Once you finish writing, you should to REVISE. For some people, this is easier than writing. For others, it’s harder. Revision isn’t mandatory, but it should be. You can publish something you haven’t revised (self-publish, or blog) and chances are, you’ll later wish you had. But until I am Queen Mother of the Universe, you are free to publish without revising.
Even though I think revising is mandatory, I have two caveats about it.
1. Don’t start revising until you are done writing. Don’t even look at the words you wrote until you get to the end of your story, because you’ll get stuck.
2. Don’t revise too much. Once you’ve been through it a couple of times, share the whole thing with a willing reader, and think hard about their feedback.
I see people workshopping individual sentences in online writing groups. A 90,000 word book with 17 word sentences will have about 5,294 sentences. You work over one sentence per day and you’ll have a finished product in about 14.5 years.
Just write the damn book.
Once you’ve written something — a story, a poem, a book — you must SUBMIT. There are hundreds of ways to submit. Getting published doesn’t require a golden ticket. The only way to get someone to publish your work is to ask them to. Asking someone to publish your work can take a lot of different forms: querying agents, submitting to contests and calls for submissions, joining publications or just sending a piece to an editor and asking if they are interested. Submittable, New Pages, Writers Digest and many other websites are constantly updating their calls for submission.
I had a goal this year to get published. I started querying agents for my memoir, assuming that was the only piece I had ready for prime time. Then I saw a few calls for submission that sections of my memoir fit nicely into the criteria for publication. One of the first places I sent an entry to is publishing my story next month. The other day, I read a series of tweets about our city council meeting and cranked out an op-ed in under an hour. I sent it to the editor of our local free weekly and they published it the next day. My efforts to blog every day have yielded income of almost ten whole dollars on Medium! It’s not much, but it’s a start.
I’ve written before about overcoming barriers to writing HERE and HERE. Whatever your barriers are, whatever your fears and insecurities may be, the only way to get where you want to go is to WRITE and SUBMIT.