How to Publish the First Book You Write...
What, are you crazy?
Against all odds, I know two people who have already published the first book they have ever written, or are on the cusp of doing so, and I don't know that many writers. I may even know more than two--actually, now that I think of it, I know three people who have done this. Three authors, maybe more.
How did they do it (when I'm still struggling...)?
They actually have quite a number of things in common. The problem for the rest of us is that it may not be so easy to imitate this success, but here is what I have identified as the primary traits or actions which have made these authors so amazingly successful in such a short time--generally within two years of first setting pen to paper.
1) Each of them knew exactly what they were going to write and in what genre. They knew the genre, read it, loved it, and understood it.
a) They didn't try to draw outside the lines of their chosen genre--the story fit squarely and completely within the norm for the genre. For example, one writer wrote a Regency Historical and after studying other Historicals, she saw that the majority had a small range of sensuality (sensual to HOT) and at least one love scene. She wrote hers to fit exactly in the middle of the range. She also did enough research to keep it true to the period, but did not include needless details.
b) The authors all had some small twist to make their story unique, such as a woman wanting to be a vet in Regency England, but in every other respect, the story fit the genre. They accomplished the "same but different" task the editors set out for new writers.
2) Each of them decided on a plan up front on how to get it published. In the cases I know about, they all decided to get an agent and let the agent market the book. None of them attempted a "mixed mode" where they tried to market the book themselves while also searching for an agent.
a) I also know some authors who marketed their book, themselves, but these generally went to specific publishers where having an agent is not an advantage initially. These are houses such as Avalon and Harlequin which use a boiler-plate contract and fixed advance, and the e-publishers.
b) If you want to get an agent, do so up front and don't try to market your book, yourself. If you market your book to most of the big publishers, such as Avon, Warners, NAL, etc, and then you do manage to get an agent, you've just compromised their ability to sell this particular manuscript because they now can't submit it to the "best" places. This may also make them less enthusiastic about working with you because you have cut away at their opportunities to make a big sale.
3) They wrote with intent. This is a hard one to explain because "intent" can seem an awful lot like "wishing" or even "planning", but here is what it means: Writing with intent means you are serious about this work and you are seriously writing up to published standards. But even more importantly, it means that you intend to have it published, even if it means going to a vanity publisher. You are not writing to have fun or because it's fun (although I hope it is).
a) Perhaps my own experience with this will help. When I started writing again a few years ago, I wanted to be published, but I had very vague ideas of this. I had no real publisher in mind, and no real specifics as far as identifying the boundaries of a specific and currently published genre. I was reading Barbara Michaels at the time and sort of thought I wanted to write something along the lines of some of her paranormal mysteries. I did no market research and basically, I wrote to please myself. I had fun. I goofed around with the story and with the language because it was fun.
It sort of stopped being fun when I realized no one was even interested in it. But, I chalked it up to experience and went on to the next one. I joined a critique group. I wrote and submitted another manuscript and got a little further with Harlequin, but again, I hadn't really read anything other than their guidelines, so I really hadn't done my research. It also didn't help when the line I wrote for ended.
Again, I stepped up my efforts and seriously wrote a Regency, a la Georgette Heyer, not realizing that the traditional Regency market was dying. This book got the attention of an agent, but did not get published as the traditional Regency market crashed and burned. (Although on a good note, this manuscript has finally found a home with Cerridwen, so all is not lost...)
So I decided to make my own genre of Regency Romance/Suspense. I got an agent. Then I got a different agent. We're still trying to get it published, but as you can see, it's not my first manuscript. The jury is still out on whether it ultimately gets a print contract or I try to place it with Cerridwen, as well.
Finally cognizant of the things I've been trying to relay to you here, I am now writing a contemporary paranormal. I've done the research into the genre. I'm trying to write within the lines. During the conference, I went to paranormal and "heightening the sensuality" sessions. I just hope I get the sensuality level up enough to fit it squarely into the genre, and that I have enough of a different twist to make some editor sit up and take notice. But I am serious about this one. Deadly serious.
b) An important factor in intent is writing seriously for publication. You can't just slip in some silliness because you like the words or it sounds smart. You can't leave that "umm, is this part really okay? Maybe no one will notice" in your manuscript, because everyone will notice and it won't be good. And, the worst fault: you can't get silly or slipshod toward the middle and end when the writing gets rough as you're trying to keep all the plot balls in the air. You've got to buckle down and write it/rewrite it until it is good all the way through. A lot of manuscripts fall apart in the middle and end. That's why so many editors want to see the first three chapters and the last, or take a synopsis so seriously. They want to see if you can carry the story through to a satisfying conclusion or if you're going to get tired and slip along the way. It's so easy after you've been struggling to finish your book to just rush toward the end, just to get the draft done. And then rush your edits towards the end because you're tired of editing. You can't be tired toward the end or it will show. You have to make sure the middle and end are as good or better than the beginning.
If you're already doing all of these things and have written a bunch of manuscripts and still aren't published, then don't despair. I firmly believe that all writing can be improved. It is an art and therefore talent is important, but an artist often has many half-completed drawings and paintings. They have to practice to get those great painting. We, as writers, must also practice until we get it right. When we do, our creations will find homes, and we can only hope this happens before anyone cuts their own ear off in despair.
It isn't hopeless, but writing with intent is most likely the best path to success.