The Kama Sutra of Getting Published

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Put yourself in these three publishing positions to maximize your chances.

I wrote my first book-length manuscript at the foolish age of 19 and thought it would set the New York publishing houses ablaze. A few dozen rejection letters and no blaze later, and I came to understand what we all understand as writers: this ain’t gonna be easy. Over 20 years later, I’m releasing my thriller FACE BLIND through Minotaur Books. In those two decades, I learned a lot that I wish my 19-year-old self would have known. I discovered the secret.

And the secret is love.


Column by Lance Hawvermaleauthor of FACE BLIND
(Aug. 2016, Minotaur Books). Lance published the thrillers
under the female pseudonym of Erin O'Rourke. His poetry
and fiction have garnered numerous awards. He is an
alumnus of AmeriCorps, performing his service on the
Otoe-Missouria tribal lands in Red Rock, Oklahoma. 
Follow him on Twitter

Position #1: The Embrace - Hug the Fanboy/Fangirl Inside of You

(Literary agents share helpful advice for new writers.)

Your love of the written word should be ungovernable and borderline embarrassing. As the late Ray Bradbury advises us, “Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

Start by choosing two or three writers you adore. When you read their prose, it’s like being kissed for the first time. Then practice writing like your idols. Mimic their phrasing; make your characters’ dialogue sound like theirs; craft your plots in a similar structure. Do this for long enough, and somewhere along the way, you’ll find your own style, a fusion of what you love and what’s naturally inside of you. You will no longer sound like everyone else in your writers’ workshop. You will sound, incredibly, like you.

Example: I have written exactly one piece of fan mail in my life, a letter to Ray Bradbury, a few years before he died. Knowing the value of a powerful first sentence, I began like this:

“Dear Mr. Bradbury. Thank you for the lizard.”

I went on to explain that finding my own writing style was like trying to capture one of those dart-quick spiny lizards so common here in the Southwest. For years my own style eluded me, and I played around in Bradbury’s garden until one day, I grabbed that lizard by the tail. Weeks after sending my letter, I received one in return from Ray himself, praising me for my diligence. He signed his letter like this:

“Ray Bradbury and lizard.”

Today that letter hangs framed on my office wall, reminding me to write 1000 words a day, no matter the weather, no matter the ache in my trembling fingers.

Position #2: The Stretch – Keep Going Even When it Hurts

Rejection is hardwired into the publishing industry. In William Goldman’s novel THE COLOR OF LIGHT, one his characters—an aspiring writer—clings to this mantra, no matter his current failure or success: “On to the next.” If your manuscript has been rejected by everyone, on to the next. If you’re lucky enough one day to write something beloved by everyone, on to the next. Writing as a love affair is not about victory or defeat; it’s about forward momentum. So it’s on to the next, no matter if your stories are praised or ignored.

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Example: My mom gave me a dictionary one year for Christmas. This was before we had smartphones and dictionary apps, so when I say “dictionary,” I mean a massive Merriam-Webster tome that could be used as a doorstop or burglar repellent. I consulted it for years as an unpublished writer, toiling away on my latest manuscript and always on the lookout for that next great word. One evening I was yet again thumbing through my beloved dictionary when something on one of the pages caught my eye. Here in the “Q” section of the book, someone had pasted a piece of square white paper on the page, completely covering up one of the definitions. Of course, Mom had done this years earlier when she gave me the book, but she never told me about it. On that little pasted note she’d written this: “There is no ‘quit’ in this dictionary.”

As I write this, I’m getting goosebumps—again. No matter how many times I tell this story, it never fails to move me.

Position #3: The Open Arms – Take in Everything and Hold Nothing Back

Finding an agent is no job for laser beams. If your focus is too narrow, you’ll limit your odds of success. Send to as many literary agencies as possible. You may receive rejections from 200 agents, and these will weigh like old stones around your soul, but number 201 might say yes. (In the meantime, though, while you’re waiting to hear back from all of them, on to the next.)

Yet here’s the contradiction: though you want to contact as many agencies as possible, you must personalize every query letter you send. Do not submit your romance novel to agents who represent only travelogues and cookbooks. Likewise, do not address your queries generically. There’s a real person on the receiving end of that query, and their name isn’t “Sir/Madam.”

Example: For my book, FACE BLIND, I queried 43 different agencies with personalized letters after conducting my research and narrowing the field. Most agents replied with kind but impersonal rejections, and some simply didn’t reply at all. About a dozen requested sample chapters, and then eleven of those declined (or as they like to put it, they “took a pass” on the manuscript). Over a year after I started the process, one of them offered to represent the book as a literary agent. That makes me 1 out of 43. But that one is all it takes.

Bradbury reminds us that we can’t resist love—“You get an idea, someone says something, and you’re in love.”

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)

Now go out there and be in love.

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Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, 
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

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