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The One Key to Getting Published

by Mawi on June 24, 2010

Over the last decade, I’ve had hundreds of people tell me they want to write a book. I’ve also personally advised over 50 people in hour-long consultation sessions about their book ideas.

Having seen who gets published and who doesn’t, I believe it comes down to one thing. It’s not having a great agent. It’s not having publishing connections. It’s not having the best manuscript in the world. All the above help, but none are as helpful as having: A completed rough draft.

You’re probably surprised, but here’s the reason: Most people will spend years talking about the book they want to write, seeking advice on it, and trying to meet an agent. But once people actually have a completed rough draft, a psychological barrier is crossed – they can imagine the finished product in their hand; they know all they have to do is edit the draft until it is a good product, and from there, pursue the next step in the publishing process. A rough draft is particularly critical for fiction, where unless you’re a John Grisham, you have to have a completed manuscript before a publisher will talk to you.

A rough draft also separates the people who like the idea of writing a book from the people who have the discipline to write a book. If you ever have a friend or you yourself are interesting in writing a book, you know what to tell them: Let’s see a completed draft.

Twilight author Stephanie Meyer was signed by the same editor at Little Brown that signed me, Megan Tingley. Before Stephanie had an agent, you know what she had: a rough draft. She cold-mailed the draft to an agent, was signed by that agent, and then connected to Little, Brown. Although Twilight has now sold more than 70,000,000 copies, the series started like every other book: As a draft.

Caveat: If you are writing a non-fiction book, you can sometimes get published with an outline, three strong chapters, and a marketing plan that shows a clear market for the book. So for non-fiction, you can tell your friends, “Let’s see an outline, 3 chapters, and your marketing plan.”

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Glen R Krisch June 25, 2010 at 11:28 am

Mawi,
After reading your blog entry, I’m wondering about the practicality of your advice. I’m a writer and have sold short stories around the world for going on ten years. I have two completed, polished drafts of novels. I’ve had excellent feedback, but no contract. Sometimes you can do everything the right way and still not break through. Ultimately, traditional publishing is out of your hands. Your thoughts?
Hope all is well,
Glen

2 Mawi June 30, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Glen,
Thanks for your post. Couple of thoughts:
1) You are right. There are no guarantees.
2) In particular, it’s harder to get published if you are writing a straight up literary work, as opposed to writing a book for middle school girls, where there is a very clear and defined market. Also, it is often easier to get published in non-fiction where again, there is a very clear market segment. For example, a book on how to start a pet franchise might get published depending on a publisher’s confidence in the # of folks who want to start pet franchises, irregardless of how good the writer is.
3) The above challenges notwithstanding, I still believe that for anyone who is serious about getting published, the turning point is the rough draft. Most people can polish a rough draft until it’s good, but very few people will actually write a draft and give themselves a chance to eventually get published.
4) For your situation in particular, my recommendation would be: a. don’t give up! b. try to select a topic and style that has sold in the past – for example, right now, even John Grisham and James Patterson are writing for young adults because that genre is so hot. For your initial break, you might have to move away from your preferred style and do something with a clear market.

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