At a writers' conference, while waiting for a panel on memoir writing to start, I chatted with the woman sitting next to me. What she really wanted to know, she said, was, "How do you get published?"
question is so general, and its answer so long and complicated, that I
assumed she was in the same place as most of the people who ask it:
they've just finished writing a book and are wondering what's next. They
know books get published, but they don't know how the process works,
nor where to start. Usually, they need the name of a good basic text or a
writer's organization that can help them start their education.
Since the woman said she wrote children's books, I gave her the name of SCBWI,
which is an excellent place for new children's writers to learn about
publishing (since the organization provides new members with a bundle of
resource material including how to query agents and editors, sends out a
regular news magazine in the field, and hosts conferences that are also
an excellent place to learn). But when I gave her the name, her face
fell. I could tell she'd been expecting something more, or something
else, but I couldn't follow up with her just then as the panel was
During the Q&A she asked the panelists the same
question she'd asked me. Upon hearing that she writes for children, they
also recommended SCBWI. And then she said that she knew about querying,
that she had been doing it for five years and getting nowhere.
received several suggestions then. One of them--the one I would
recommend in this situation--was to get a professional critique. At
SCBWI and many other writers' conferences, you can pay a little extra to
get a one-on-one session with an agent, editor or published author who
goes over your work and gives you personalized feedback. I believe she
said she had not had such a critique before, that only friends and
family had seen her work. And it's possible that her work is marvelous
and it's just a matter of time; a good writer can easily spend five
years or more trying to break into this extremely competitive field. On
the other hand, after querying for five years without a nibble, I think
it's worth consulting with someone in the field just to see if one is on
the right track. Is the work of professional caliber? If not, what does
the writer need to work on to bring it to that level? Is the work of
good caliber but just in a genre or topic that is tough to sell?
single critique is not necessarily definitive, but it can provide
clues, and after two or three a writer will usually see a pattern
emerge. If certain suggestions are offered over and over, they're worth
paying attention to.
It's very difficult to navigate this field
without feedback. The rejection rate is so high, even for high-quality
work, that one can rarely tell if rejected work missed by an inch, a
foot, or a mile. (Well, if it missed by an inch, the agent or editor
will often provide some complimentary feedback; but if it missed by only
a foot, the resulting form rejection makes it indistinguishable from a
no-way-nohow-go-back-to-school rejection.) I took night classes,
workshops, went to writing conferences. I entered contests, attended
pitch sessions, joined critique groups, paid for professional critiques.
Occasionally I got feedback that was wildly off. But most of what I got
was useful in some way. And overall, I could gauge, in a general way,
the progress of my work. It was when I started attending SCBWI
conferences and hearing working editors talk about what they needed in a
manuscript and how deep a revision should go that I finally produced a
A one-on-one critique isn't magic. But it
provides an opportunity that so many writers wish for: the chance to
read beyond the lines of a polite rejection letter, the chance to find
out specifically what needs work and what's already working. The chance
to ask questions and get personalized answers.