Publishing-Part I: The Manuscript

Today is November 1, known to some as the first day of NaNoWriMo, making today a fitting day to begin this series. At the request of several friends, I’m going to be doing a series on writing and publishing. I get at least one message a week from a friend or acquaintance with questions about the inner workings of publishing. I generally refer people to the AbsoluteWrite forums or Nathan Bransford’s excellent website. Many authors include FAQ or tips for writers on their websites, though this is not always the fount of knowledge people expect.

So here is goes, the tough love, snarky version.

So you want to write a book? Great!

Let me ask again; are you sure you really want to write a book?

There’s a vast ocean between deciding to write a book and actually finishing the writing of said book.

If you are writing fiction, you will need a strong hook and preferably a dynamic plot, because unless your name is Marilynne Robinson or Paul Harding, quiet literary fiction does not sell. Somewhere down the line, “literary” and “commercial” became irreconcilable terms; however, some of the most heralded literary works of the past fifteen years contain a strong commercial hook. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and A Visit from the Goon Squad, all of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, also have some of the most compelling plots. No one doubts their literary value, but their popularity (even following the Pulitzer announcement) owes a debt to their commercial elements as well.

I’m not going to debate the merits of literary versus commercial fiction, because compiling that post could take weeks, but I will say this: publishing is competitive; there are too many books and too little time, so find a way to make your book stand out.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on how to write a book. Every single author’s website you visit will have advice. Some of it is good, but take it with a grain of salt. The best way to write a book is to sit down and do it. If you want to outline, great. If you want to see where the book goes, also great. You can buy books or read articles about craft; knowing how to write before sitting down to write is recommended. I find that the best way to learn to write is to read. I cannot overstate that. Writers read. If you don’t read, you probably shouldn’t write.

Most of this “advice” so far applies to fiction, but non-fiction is a whole different beast. Let’s assume that your goal is traditional publication, for which you will need an agent. In order to obtain an agent for a novel, you will need a complete manuscript. A complete manuscript is also welcome (but not absolutely necessary) for a memoir. Personally, I like to see at least a substantial proposal or partial draft for a memoir because voice proves so important. If you are writing a memoir, please note that “memoir” and “autobiography” are not synonymous; a memoir chronicles a specific period, event, or theme. It should not summarize or explain your entire life.

Non-fiction generally sells on proposal. You can google “how to write a non-fiction proposal” or read this one from Writer’s Digest. A proposal consists of an overview, marketing and audience, author bio, full chapter outline, and sample chapters. Most importantly, non-fiction requires a platform. What are your credentials? Do you write for publications? Have important connections? Do you have a lot of followers on social media? In short, you must be an expert on whatever topic you’re writing about. You need to prove to an agent, then editor, why you are the person to write the book you propose. If you don’t have a platform yet, build one. Your book will not exist without a platform. Some examples of people with great platforms who have published books or have books under contract: Hannah Hart or Grace Helbig, both YouTube stars with huge online followings; Deb Perelman, who runs the blog Smitten Kitchen; Pamela Druckerman, an established journalist who wrote about a memoir about parenting. You don’t need to have a huge platform, but you do need to establish yourself as an authority.

A platform for fiction writers helps; however, fiction writers do not require the same authoritative voice as non-fiction writers. It may not seem fair, but background matters less in fiction; it doesn’t, though, make selling a book any easier.

Next up: how to find an agent.

2 Responses to “Publishing-Part I: The Manuscript”
  1. Robert A. Olson says:

    This is GREAT stuff. You should forward it to your professors (and the creative writing dept. — and the career center and the alumni assn [or pst on alumni assn site] ) at Stanford with a quick note, thought you might be interested.



  2. ceohunty says:

    Awesome post! Frank, to the point and a little snarky. Love it

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