3 Things to Set You on the Path to Publishing Success

There are a lot of items that mark a successful entry into the publishing world. As a long-time book editor, and now a writer, I’ve encountered most of them. Here are two must-do’s, as well as one should-do to keep momentum going.

1. WRITE WHAT YOU WANT, NOT WHAT YOU KNOW. Unless they are one and the same. If you’ve got the itch to write, you’re going to have at least a vague subject in mind. If not initially, then eventually. It may be what you know or not. But whatever the case, focus on what you’re passionate about. That takes priority. If it’s a topic with which you are already conversant, then dive right in. If not, learn what you need to know, then take the plunge. Better yet, jump in first and learn as you go.

GIVEAWAY: Barry is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: sharonminer won.)



barry-lancet-writer-author        japantown-novel-cover

Column by award-winning author Barry Lancet. His first mystery/thriller
JAPANTOWN (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 2013) was selected as a Best Debut
of the Year (2013) by Suspense Magazine and mystery critic Oline Cogdill,
and has been optioned by J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, in association
with Warner Bros. The book opens with the perfect murder in San Francisco’s
Japantown, with one unreadable clue and no trace of the killer, taking the
protagonist from the Bay Area to the darkest corners of Japan. Lancet is
based in Tokyo, but spends much of his time stateside in California.
Find Lancet on Twitter or Facebook.



Slavishly following the “what you know” edict without enthusiasm will yield an uninspired manuscript. You’ll bore yourself and your readers no matter how polished your prose. The unknown factor at work here is this: passion ignites an invisible spark other people can sense. Remember that.


Maybe you’ve written a masterpiece, and agents and editors are too blind to see it. Or your agent loves your work but editors don’t. These things have happened to famous authors countless times and continue to plague aspiring authors on a regular basis. If you’re confident your work deserves to be published, then stick to your guns—but with one caveat. Be flexible.

In my twenty-plus years of editing other authors’ books, I’ve only once run across a manuscript that couldn’t be improved. The likelihood that yours is perfection itself is as slim as the possibility that you’ll be on a flight to the moon next week. Not utterly impossible, but close to it. So jettison the idea that your manuscript is untouchable. Rather, entertain the idea that you may have written a flawed masterpiece.

(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)

If your writing has been rejected two or three times, then stop. Take a deep breath. And before you send it out yet again, reign in your frustration (plus your ego) and review your text with an objective eye.

Muster all your self-editing skills, then redouble them. Be ruthless. Try to look at your returned story as an outsider—one who must make a career-related decision about it. In taking on your work an agent or editor must commit a good deal of time and/or money to the project. Is there anything you can find that might cause him or her to hesitate on either count?

Reread the rejection letters. Or not. Always take such commentary with a grain of salt, unless the writer has specifically offered the advice as guidance. While some such missives are the result of careful consideration, just as many are tossed off in haste or bulked out with filler, and may not be a true reflection of the writer’s opinion of your work. But regardless, since you’ve racked up a small collection of rejection letters, it’s time to rework your text, kicking the level of your manuscript up a notch in the process.

For the busy editor, minor flaws can be dealt with but major flaws are off-putting. If a manuscript is eighty percent there and the amount of time needed to tease out your work’s full potential is prohibitive, editors from larger houses will usually pass, while those from medium and smaller houses will or will not pass, depending on their tolerance and the demands on their time.

Agents can be just as strict, or a bit more forgiving. If they see potential, many will work with you. But not all of them, particularly the busiest ones. Highly successful agents are less likely to take on a new writer if the work requires too much of a facelift. This is less true for nonfiction if the subject matter is topical or popular. Should you find an agent or editor willing to undertake a major rewrite on your behalf, count yourself fortunate and work with him or her.

That said, taking a proactive stance is the best solution. Tackle flaws yourself beforehand, eliminating as many potential factors for rejection as you can identify. If you did not attract a publisher or agent initially, then your work—as good as it might be on some levels—is flawed on others. Be smart enough to realize that not “everyone is dumb.” The whole world is not blind to your talent.* They just have a lower limit beyond which they won’t stoop. You need to raise your game.

*The exceptions to this are, one, when the subject matter is too new or unfamiliar and, two, you are ahead of your time.

(How to create an effective synopsis for your novel or memoir.)


If your first book (or second or third) is sitting on an agent’s or editor’s desk waiting for approval, don’t you wait too. Agents and editors are famously overworked. It’s the nature of publishing. There are dozens of possible explanations as to why they haven’t gotten to your manuscript. I could easily fill a page with a list of reasons, and most would have nothing to do with you or your effort but with the demands on their time. You might hear from the agent or editor in three days or three weeks or three months. But regardless of the timeframe, do not put your writing life on hold because of someone else’s work schedule.

It is tempting to wait for a judgment on your current work before proceeding with the next one, but don’t. If you ‘re determined to write then do so. Period. Plow on. Start in on the next book, short story, or assignment. Move forward.

GIVEAWAY: Barry is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: sharonminer won.)


What could be better than one guide on crafting
fiction from wise agent Donald Maass? Two books!
We bundle them together at a discount in our shop.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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20 thoughts on “3 Things to Set You on the Path to Publishing Success

  1. Marie Rogers

    Thank you for this article. I’m working on #2. My writer’s group keeps finding fault with my “masterpiece”. Once I dry my tears and pick my ego up off the floor, I realize how right they are. Then it’s back to the keyboard. I don’t know where I’d be without the heartless criticism.

  2. sharonminer

    Excellent tips, especially about revising. I just hired a professional editor for my kid lit & love how the comments will clarify and condense my writing. Sharing this to my facebook page!

  3. rncarst

    Solid advice. I found the key is: keep writing. There are so many ways to get your work out to the readers. So, if you get some rejections, not only should you keep submitting but look at the many alternatives ways to publish.

  4. MarieJason

    I resonated with the precepts of “Write What You Want, Not What You Know” and with that of “Do not put your writing life on hold because of someone else’s work schedule.” Thank you so much for this article 🙂

  5. bdaniels119

    I love the advice don’t wait. The publishing world is very slow and it’s easy to go into panic/pause mode while wondering if anyone has read your work yet. So it’s nice to hear someone telling you that’s the time to work on something else. Thanks for the great article!

  6. AJWalkley

    This is great advice. I may be having trouble with the “write what you want, not what you know” aspect right now as I tweak my novel that is based on the true life of a woman I’ve been writing to in a Texas prison. Maybe I need to fictionalize this more…

  7. Annabelle

    1) I wrote what I knew – did my research. I’m sure you heard that old line, you’ve all been put on this earth for a reason. I finally found what I had been put on this earth for; it wasn’t to write this book but it was to inform as many people as I could about my subject matter. 2) I’m so sick of young adult books about vampires, witches, wizards and werewolves. If I was a parent I would worry about what my kids were reading. My YA book doesn’t even have physical descriptions of the characters, so anyone reading it can aspire to be the hero, the heroine. 3) The minute I sent my manuscript out (at the request of two editors), I started making notes of how to make it better, plus plots for additional books. It’s definitely a series, I think anyway. Thank you for your wise words. Your book JAPANTOWN sounds awesome.

  8. DanielJayBerg

    Thanks for sharing!

    “The unknown factor at work here is this: passion ignites an invisible spark other people can sense. Remember that.”

    This is also true for teachers and teaching.

  9. mryoung79

    Thanks for this great article. I’m working on my first book and it’s been an exciting learning process. I’ve been learning pretty much everything along the way, from crafting a great story to the subject matter itself. I’m happy to be working out so much already and am looking forward to the next phase (publishing); I’m sure I’ll learn as much from the publishing process as from the writing process itself. On the road to becoming a successful writer and am enjoying the journey.

  10. Trinity Apostol

    I think everyone has that dream and after seeing rejection or taking critiques very hard, this motivation is really needed especially for beginning novelists.

  11. sjstone

    The first one really struck a chord with me since I have always heard the advice to write what you know, but that isn’t always where your passion lies. This is taking a personal mind shift for me and I am going to head down the path of writing what I want to write, not what I know.

  12. Troutbum43

    Hopefully one day I too will have publishing success! This advice is of great help getting to that point! I am in the process of writing my first book, all advice is very helpful!

  13. WriteOut

    “Write what you want” is too true. You can always research later, to cover what you don’t know. You can’t drum up interest in a subject you don’t care about. Writing in an attempt to please the unknown reader will leave you with a dry, uninspired piece that no one else wants to read either. Even the writers of Star Trek fudge their writing where it comes to the scientific side of things. They would write a scene and if they hit a point where they needed to write about something they didn’t understand (such as the techno-babble the engineer needed to say) they would put it in parentheses and come back to it later when they’d looked up what they needed.

    Writing about what you’re passionate about is the only way to go. Even if you’re writing instruction manuals.

  14. thenotsoblondebrain

    Great advice. I just decided to delete an entire chapter on my third rewrite and it hurt. It was not an easy decision, but after reading it with a new eye and more honesty,I just felt that it did not belong.
    I am currently writing about a subject I know very well, the mishaps of traveling, and of course I think my book is brilliant, but I am scared to death about the looming rejection. Thanks for reminding all of us that rejection is completely normal.

  15. theduke192

    That is exactly what people keep telling me. I finished my first book, it was very rough, in high school. Trying to get an agent or publisher was not easy for someone in my shoes. I’m still unpublished, but that has not stopped me from writing. I keep going and hopefully one day I will have my name in print.


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