What do you do with a drunken sailor?

Thursday Postcard
July 21, 2022

Or with a completed book manuscript?

Common questions when a book is done: 

*Where can I find a good beta reader to see if the book works?

*Should I get more active on social media so I can sell a few copies to people other than my friends?

*Should I have an email list? If I need one, what can I offer that people will want to read?

* Why would people want to buy this book?

*I want a traditional publishing deal. What do agents and publishers look for in a writer?

*How long will it take to publish my book?

Good questions, all of them.

But there’s no right answer for any of them, because, as with many of life’s bigger questions, they are complicated.

It’s easier with the drunken sailor. There’s only one song about this issue, and its advice is pithy and actionable–you just put him in a longboat til he’s sober.

Advice on publishing a book can be longwinded and full of contradictions. 

Take the last question…how long does it take to publish a book?

A: It depends. With traditional publishing, if everything goes well, you’re looking at 18-24 months from contracting to publication. Longer if you don’t already have an agent.

Even longer (maybe forever) if your publisher’s been acquired by another one, a bunch of staff are let go or leave, and your book is “orphaned,” (as in, the person who bought it is no longer at the company) as described here from the editor’s side

I read about one writer whose novel was orphaned three times in the four years following its acquisition by a publisher. She knew it was on someone’s desk but she didn’t always know whose. Months ticked by. It was depressing.

This writer probably knew the standard advice about what to do while you’re waiting to publish a book.

  • Get shorter pieces published in literary magazines!
  • Build up your email list so you can have, um, a “street team” to help get the word out about your book!

There is nothing wrong with this advice. But the writer in question didn’t do that. While her MS was gathering dust at the publisher’s, she wasn’t writing short pieces and submitting them to magazines, and she wasn’t building up an email list.

She was going to every writing residency* she was accepted for. She was working on more books.

*Writing residencies provide privacy and time to work on a project. Many charge a fee. Many are hard to get into and require a portfolio. Here is a list of fee-free residencies.

Where does this information leave us?

Writer and podcaster Becca Syme’s book Dear Writer, You Need to Quit: What to keep, what to quit, what to question is very helpful when questions arise.

First, a note about the book’s title–Symes is not advocating that you quit writing if you don’t want to.

She is advocating that you question the premise for everything you do.

For example, let’s say you’re at a restaurant and you are given two choices: the fish or the chicken.

Questioning the premise is saying, “what if I don’t want either?”, or “what if I’m not hungry?” or “what if I’d rather have dessert?”

I like Symes’ advice to question the premise because it puts some air back in the room and lets you take back your agency, or ability to act independently. Agency is precious in the publishing world, which has become a giant multinational machine, albeit staffed by people who love books.

You’re not taking anything away from the situation by questioning the premise. You’re just exercising some autonomy.

If you come at your post-draft plans by taking each thought you’re having and questioning the premise, you can start chipping away at understanding its relevance to your life.

Questioning the premise makes it more likely that the thing you’re wondering about will assume its rightful place in your life. It lets you prioritize and be more strategic.

Then you’ll either figure out an entry point or realize it’s not that important.

For example:

* Q: What do agents and publishers look for in a writer?

–Talent, obviously. Lots of books, probably. Connections, for sure. But maybe you can’t know what they look for because they’re not all looking for the same thing. Maybe the real question is, what are you looking for in an agent or publisher? That question might help you research your submission list (the list of people you plan to send your MS to) with more focus and less gnashing of teeth.

*Q: How do I find a good beta reader for feedback on this draft?
–Questioning the premise here might be saying, what if I don’t need one? I love free beta readers, of course, but maybe what you really need is a brilliant editor who offers extremely reasonable paid beta reads.

*Q: Should I get more active on social media?
–Yeah, or maybe the pool in social media is too big and amorphous and will waste your time. What about joining a writing association first, local or genre-based, and looking for help and community there?

*S: What should I write about to my email list?
–Maybe you’re better off focusing on creating more books. The email list can come when you’re ready (or never, if you really don’t see the point).

To return to the writer whose book was orphaned for years, she was not doing what “the internet” recommends writers do.

By writing multiple books she was working on her craft, which is really the best way to get published. Her orphaned novel assumed less relative importance this way.

PLUS, by spending time at writer’s residencies, she was increasing the chances of publication. Every writing residency creates connections with other writers and people in publishing. In this particular industry, connections matter 100%, as publishing veteran Betsy Lerner writes in her refreshing and sometimes weird blog.

It’s natural to have questions when you get to the end of a manuscript. You’re at the start of something new, and it might be a great experience. 

But even if it isn’t great immediately, it can still be great if you stay true to yourself.

And the most direct route to a good experience is to question the premise about what happens next.